Cliffhangers, Adrenaline and Empathy


Baby Bird’s First Nest–does the title run shivers up your spine? Is the author/illustrator the next Tom Clancy or James Patterson perhaps?

And therein lies the beauty of reading to a live audience. I chose Baby Bird’s First Nest because it was a sweet story with bright pictures, little realizing that it was so suspenseful.

After Baby Bird’s fall from the nest, “Darkness loomed all around her. Even the moon looked cold and scary.” Frank Asch’s text is just right for little listeners.

Baby Bird’s new friend, Frog, helps her build her very first nest. All is well until he hears . . . paws!

Many writers have their characters hear footsteps, but “paws” is particularly effective here, as is the close-up of the hungry predator’s face. And– Baby Bird can’t fly yet!

So why do we like to be scared, but not too scared? Psychologists say we like the adrenaline rush.

wolf's coming big

But there’s more than suspense in this tale of Baby Bird–there’s a powerful story of friendship as Frog lends a hand.

Baby Bird book

There’s a lesson here: see a need, give help.

In her excellent article, Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D. notes:

Stories—from books or television—are opportunities for kids to practice perspective-taking skills. What do the characters think, believe, want, or feel? And how do we know it?

When families discuss these questions, kids may learn a lot about the way other people’s minds work (Dunn et al 2001). In one experimental study, 110 school kids (aged 7 years) were enrolled in a program of reading. Some students were randomly assigned to engage in conversations about the emotional content of the stories they read. Others were asked only to produce drawings about the stories. After two months, the kids in the conversation group showed greater advances in emotion comprehension, theory of mind, and empathy, and the positive outcomes “remained stable for 6 months” (Ornaghi et al 2014).

According to Dr. Dewar, experiments suggest that kids are more likely to feel empathy for individuals who are familiar and/or similar to them. Baby Bird and Frog are clearly very different, but that does not seem to matter. They are drawn together by the one’s need and the other’s kindness. Is there another lesson for us here?

Enjoy the adrenaline rush, take advantage of the mounting excitement to help children predict outcomes, immerse yourself and your young listeners in Baby Bird’s predicaments, admire Frog’s kindness and initiative–and enjoy the story!

And perhaps join me in a challenge. Can we, too, write stories that are so full of life lessons and so engaging to our listeners?

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I’d Have Loved This! (Second Edition)

snowman drawing

When I was in grade two, our teacher used to post our best pictures on the wall. My pink and blue snowman made the cut, and, if memory serves, that was the last of my art posted that year.

Thinking I had the formula, I made pink and blue snowmen summer and winter, but to no avail. Perhaps that was the year I discovered I couldn’t do art.

And perhaps a similar discovery (which can be made despite the best efforts of teachers) explains nine-year-old Marie.

While creating our very first entry for the Stories by Children website page, Marie was right into the storytelling–composing, pondering and editing, as all good storytellers do.

However, when she was faced with the prospect of creating a picture for her Zero to Hero dino story, the project almost collapsed. Almost, that is, until Marie and her scribe Googled “draw T-Rex step by step.”


So here we have the amended version of the call, now extended to writers and illustrators.

No doubt there are many who, like Marie and me, find that working with a differently talented partner is the way to go. Page--stories_by_children3_blog (1)

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I’d Have Loved This When I Was a Kid!

Next week the after school care staff is to give this flyer out to the grade two to fours. We’ve acted out two stories together, in the hopes of getting their creative juices flowing. I’m excited to see the results!

Please note that this is not a competition. I will publish all the stories–fiction and non-fiction–that meet the criteria as long as space permits.



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The King of Little Things

King Little Things    “What a cute story! I actually thought the ending was very funny.” (Tommy, 8)

Ah, those best laid plans again. My website’s not quite ready (the designer is in the midst of a move), so I can’t ask the children to send me their stories yet. I decide to present, with help from the grade two to fours, Bill Lepp’s The King of Little Things.

“Everyone knows Continue reading

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Princess to the Rescue


The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry (Robbie Burns)

Driving into town, I consider my plan. I’m going to read the grade two to fours a funny story, then complain that there’s something missing from my new website–their stories. I’ll tell them I’ll be back next week with another story, and will give them flyers telling them how to submit their stories for my site.

Hmm. The book isn’t where I thought it was. Oh yes, now I know. It’s at home waiting by my office door.

With no time to go back, I decide to present The Lady or the Tiger?, with abject apologies to Frank Stockton.

“A long time ago in a land far, far away, there lived a king and queen [I choose two royal volunteers to stand sedately] and their beautiful daughter, Continue reading

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A Beautiful Idea for Children’s Book Writers

swim duck

On the surface it’s a cute story about a duckling who doesn’t want to get wet–until he tries swimming and finds out that he likes it.

The kindergartners enjoyed helping me complete the rhyming couplets, and both they and nine-year-old Tina lit up when they saw the photos.

But I think that for those of us who write books for children, it’s much more than a cute, beautifully illustrated story. Author Susan Lurie says, “I fell in love with this little duck the moment I saw him in Murray Head’s photograph. He looked determined and defiant, and I recognized that look. . . . And that is where the story starts.”

From the photographer: “Take the time to know the subjects, focus only on them, be patient, and don’t intrude.”

The ducks are not forced to do anything uncomfortable or unusual; I see little sign of stress or human interference in the photos. Rather, the story is superimposed on pictures of ducks doing their thing in their natural habitat. This gives us not only an interesting writing challenge, but a lesson on using nature for our own creations without causing discomfort.

I plan to build May’s alphabet book around the pictures, but had not thought of using nature photos this way.

Do you see elements of nature you could use to produce a picture book?

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All 737 Are Hers


In light of Tina’s sometime aversion to putting pencil to paper (unless she’s drawing), I choose my words carefully. Would she like to enter a story contest? The librarian says I can type it if all the ideas are hers.

Absolutely! She shows me two that are already underway. The one about a dog has some writing, courtesy of the neighbour girl who served as a scribe, and the one about a cat has some exciting illustrations. Tina’s proud of her surprise picture, and I think I see the influence of some of the excellent picture books she’s enjoyed.

Armed with supper and fuelled with enthusiasm, she talks while I type. Only infrequently does she ask me what I think happens next, to which I answer, “I don’t know.”

Not a problem. The story starts out as an archetypal “Animal Finds a Home” story, with strong elements of “The Ugly Duckling.” Add an ocean cruise, intense dialogue and splashes of humour–and Tina has her very own 737-word story.

Which brings me to remember once again that we’re all individuals. There’s a place, and it’s a prominent one, for doing what we’re told in school and completing assigned homework. But there’s also a place to put creativity on cruise sans control and let imagination run free.

I’m glad I get to be there for that part.

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A Winning Old Door, and an Open Door for a Little Girl

stories door 2

Bright Day 1

warm and bright cold night

Thank you, everyone!

You chose “What stories lie beyond the door?” as my #1 entry to the photo contest. It was followed by “Winter sunshine and shadow” and “Warm and bright on a cold winter night.”

Here are your votes, by category of voter. Some voted for more than one pic, more than one person in a category voted for the same pic–it’s all good.

G+ friends: 3, 4, 1

Other friends: 4, 3

Artists: 1, 3

Family: 2, 3, 1

#3 also had the most interaction–even people who didn’t vote tried to answer the question! I find it interesting to speculate how much effect the caption had on the votes. Two kind friends suggested I edit out the pointy-headed photographer’s shadow (no, they they didn’t actually say that :) but you can see the difference here:

No one chose #5, “Protected and cared for in the cold.”

Protected and cared for in the cold

This did not surprise me as I do not really think it has much artistry, and it’s missing the lovely light of the top three. But it did garner the most +1s (equivalent to Facebook Likes). I actually put this one in as a tribute to farmers who care for their animals, and the approvals and kind comment indicate I may have succeeded there.

We’re allowed to enter three photos, and I’m eager to send off your choices.

Little May should be here by next month, and I’m eager to start snapping pix for her very own alphabet book.

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A One-of-a-Kind Book for Tommy’s New Sister

The Reason: Little May has been in foster care since she was a baby. She’s almost two years old now, and our daughter, Lisa, and her husband, George, are waiting expectantly for the adoption to be finalized.

The Vision: I want to make a book that will help to anchor May to her new home and family, as well as help her big brother, Tommy, with his project. A book lover himself, eight-year-old Tommy wants to teach May to read!

I see an alphabet book, loosely structured, and using phrases and sentences. For example:

A a
May has an alligator book.

C c
The cat lives downstairs with Emma.
The new baby has a cradle.

R r
Tommy is reading May a story.

I would use a plain font, and there would be photos to go with each sentence.

Here’s where I’m asking for your help. There’s a County photo contest which I plan to enter. All contestants get some free prints at a local photo shop. Having entered what I feel is a fair effort, I want to take the free print voucher to the photo shop and get the pictures for May’s book printed there.

My themes for the contest are winter, beauty and gratitude.

Could you let me know if you think any of #1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 might be of interest to the judges?

Please vote for one or more photos, or if none appeal, #6 (keep trying!).

Bright Day 1

#1 Winter sunshine and shadow

footprints past

#2 Footprints from the past?

stories door 2

#3 What stories lie beyond the door?

warm and bright cold night

#4 Warm and bright on a cold dark night

Protected and cared for in the cold

#5 Protected and cared for in the cold

Thank you for your help!

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Was Sun Tzu a Literary Strategist?

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. (from The Art of War by Sun Tzu, c. 500 BC)

After acknowledging that we don’t really like to think of other authors as competitors, my g+ friend and Literary Strategist Tom Blubaugh asked me to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of my three biggest competitors.

It’s an interesting assignment. “Competitor” almost sounds like “enemy”; that’s certainly how Sun Tzu would have seen it. So, apparently, do some hockey players–and some young hockey players’ parents. But I think of Heather, a sales rep for a large publisher, who asked her company’s permission to allow me to share her table at a trade show. They refused, but I was touched by Heather’s kindness. My one book was clearly not going to crowd out the hundreds of titles she can order, nor would it have detracted from her lovely display, but the point is–she saw me as an ally.

But we’re competitors, too. A customer with only $10.00 to spend on a paperback will buy either mine or one of Heather’s, not both. So Tom’s suggestion is an invitation to think about why someone might choose Scissortown over one of Heather’s books, and to build on that.

I started with the Berenstain Bears. Coralie and I had poured through some BB books when she was illustrating Scissortown; here’s what my research turned up now:


*A beautiful and interesting website that includes activities for children

*Many, many titles

*Choice of Christian or secular stories

*Choice of formats—p-books, e-books, apps, a recordable book and DVDs

*Choice of levels—stories written at a “regular” level, and those written for emerging readers

*Wide choice of retailers

*Charitable giving

*Related products

*All titles on the first BB page of Amazon have 4-5 stars

*High Best Sellers Rank relative to comparable books

*Over fifty years of success

On a personal note, my nine-year-old granddaughter enjoyed these stories years ago–and she still does.


That’s a tough one. I was on page 3 of google before I got to anything negative. Only one of the (fairly sparse) negative comments resonated with me: the older books often portrayed Papa Bear (and by extension other papas) as a buffoon. That had troubled me too, and I believe the newer books are an improvement.

Although the adults in Scissortown clearly need the children’s help, my intention was not to portray them as fools–and hopefully I haven’t.

An additional note: Scissortown does not appeal to people like the woman I met who does not want her children to read fantasy. I suspect that she would not like talking bears, either.

So does that put Tommy and Tina on a level playing field with the bruins?  :)

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