Friday, December 07, 2007

More Signings for Merry Christmas, Cheeps!

I have two more signings coming up for Merry Christmas, Cheeps. The first is tomorrow, Saturday, December 8th at the Barnes & Noble at the Waterfront in Pittsburgh, PA from 11 to noon. I'll be doing a story time with Judy Press, a good buddy and fellow local children's book author. She's promoting

Big Fun Christmas Crafts and Activities (Williamson) which features literally hundreds of easy, attractive holiday projects to do with your kids. We'll read the Cheeps book (with props and maybe a little singing) and Judy has a paper bag snowman project for kids to do. There will also be treats in the children's area. I think the store also has copies of other titles by me and Judy, and we'd be happy to sign those too.

Then next weekend (December 15th), I'll be joining Judy and lots of other Pittsburgh authors and illustrators at Joseph-Beth, Southside, for a benefit for one of my favorite nonprofits, Beginning with Books, whose mission is to help all children become capable and enthusiastic lifelong readers. There will be authors there signing, reading, and even wrapping the gifts you choose from noon to six. My shift is from 2 to 4, but I'm going to try to hang around later as a wrapper. A portion of the sales will go to Beginning with Books, and I think you can also purchase books for them to donate to needy kids.

Thanks to my Cheeps author, Julie Stiegemeyer, and her experience at a signing in Fort Wayne, IN last night, I now know one more thing to be prepared for at the upcoming signings: gorillas in Santa hats who scare little tykes. You can read about her author adventure on her blog.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Reading for Pleasure, Part I

Sara Reading; cut paper; Copyright, 2007

According to a recent NEA report, (read about it in the Boston Globe) almost 20% of teens never read for pleasure, and, even worse, almost half of Americans aged 18 to 24 never read a book for pleasure. While many smart people have since debated both the report's accuracy and the significance of the results, I am nonetheless convinced that pleasure reading at any age has many benefits, not the least of which is pleasure, and I know there are too many people who haven't discovered how wonderful books (and other reading materials) can be. This is important to me because people who read for pleasure tend to be better educated, more successful, happier, thinner, etc. than people who don't. Also, most importantly, they are more likely to buy the books I write and illustrate.

I'm lucky enough to have three teen/young adult kids (daughter age 15, sons 17 and 19) who love to read. I'm also wise and humble enough to realize that genes, the influences of other people, and of course, luck have probably played as big a role in making them readers as I have. Nonetheless, from watching the development of pleasure readers and nonreaders among my kids and their friends, and from encouraging readers during my past life as a child therapist and teacher, I have gleaned some tips that might increase the odds of making your older child a reader. I'm mostly skipping the standard, well-supported ideas and going with my family's quirky strategies. Here are my first five tips -- I'll try to follow up with more soon.

1. Lower your standards By all means, stock your kids' bookshelves with some award-winners and great literature -- but also provide plenty of series books, collections of favorite comic strips, books that are too young for your kids, books featuring fart/gross humor, action-adventure stories, romance novels -- whatever floats your kids' boats. There's actually research supporting the unique ability of "formula fiction" (code expression for junky series books, whether Nancy Drew or Janet Evanovich) to build kids' reading fluency and comprehension skills. And my own experience is that junk books are the literary equivalent of marijuana; they're a gateway substance to trying and getting hooked on more serious stuff.

2. Cherish books with cracked spines and dog ears It means they've been read rather than preserved on the shelf, and it means your kids aren't growing up so afraid of damaging a book that they're afraid to touch one. There's nothing wrong, of course, with encouraging your kids to use book marks and to refrain from leaving their books in the puddle of milk next to the cereal bowl, but don't go so overboard that you make books the equivalent of fragile heirlooms (and if you have books in that category, lock them up until your kids are older. Well, grown.) Contrary to what the school librarian may have led you to believe, treating a book with less than perfect respect will not turn you into a pervert or worse. Heck, I used to color in my favorite books, and I'm not yet a mass murderer.

3. Keep books in the bathroom The tub in our first floor bathroom is so small that no one uses it for bathing anymore -- and over the last few years, it has slowly but surely filled up with books that people enjoy reading while on the john. (It's probably a good idea to grab the Purell after handling one of them...) This tip is not a good idea if you have too few bathrooms -- since one of the main side effects of keeping books in the bathroom is that people spend way more time in there.

One of my own favorite rituals as a teenager was soaking for hours in the clawfoot tub on our third floor while reading one of the "bathtub" books stored in the bookcase across from it (that was a wonderfully big bathroom). Our bathtub books were mostly tear jerkers like Love Story by Erich Segal, "outgrown" favorite middle grade novels like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken , and humorous memoirs like My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell and Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson -- but depending on your kids' reading tastes and gender, you might need a very different selection. Such was the power of those books and that experience that I can quote long passages from most of them, and my sisters and I still squabble over custody of the original water-stained copies.

4. Teach this equation: Waiting = Reading Before heading off to the dentist's office at my house, the scramble isn't so much to floss for the first time in months (though it should be), but to find where the heck you left your book. I'm actually disappointed if there's not much of a wait.

Last night, when I took my oldest to the airport for his flight back to school, we had to turn around and come home, not because he forgot his ticket or his cell phone, but for something equally essential -- his book. And one of my kids even brings a paperback to Kennywood, the local amusement park, so he can read while he stands in line. As a bonus, my kids are much less impatient about long waits than most kids are.

5. Get audio books rather than DVDs when you head off on a long trip It's much more fair to the driver, who can't (or at least shouldn't) watch the DVD along with everyone else, and it builds listening muscles amazingly well. Choose books wisely - suspense, action, humor, etc. are especially important if you're stuck in a traffic jam or wedged between your annoying little brother and the laundry basket of smelly beach towels. We get most of our selections from the library and always grab more books than it seems like we need, in case one (or more) turns out to be a dud.

    Okay, more tips in a few days. Now get busy hanging shelves in the john.

    Thursday, November 22, 2007

    I'm Thankful

    copyright, Carol Baicker-McKee, 2007
    Hm. Don't really have a great image for this post (though who could fail to be thankful for tasty treats like gingerbread men). But anyway, here's a Top Ten List of things I'm thankful for:

    1. Family All of it - my immediate family of husband, three kids, and a dog; my extended family I grew up in, and my husband's extended family who have made me one of their own. It's hard to say something about all of them that's not trite or too general, but here are some of the specific things about them I'm thankful for. I love how my immediate family routinely laughs so hard at the dinner table that we not only have to worry about milk coming out of someone's nose but the occasional spaghetti noodle - which the dog will be happy to eat if it ends up on the floor; I am grateful that my growing-up family never tires of huge annual gatherings at the beach (and grateful that my parents continue to fund these vacations), complete with ritual toad-catching and crab-chasing; and I'm thankful that my husband's family always makes up songs with hilarious lyrics to celebrate special occasions, and especially grateful that they let me sing along with everyone despite my severe tone deafness and complete ignorance of tempo.

    2. Friends Having moved a bazillion times over the years and also having lots of friends who have moved (and now having internet-found friends), I'm lucky to have friends wherever I go, and less fortunately, some places I don't go but wish I could. Like my family, I know my friends will do kind things like ooh and ahh kindly over my latest book project (and even buy copies for gifts, even if they have to kind of stretch to pinpoint an appropriate recipient). And when I get a bad haircut, my friends don't say things like, "Oh well, it'll grow out again someday," but more tactful things like, "Doesn't the part look nice!"

    3. Child #2 has almost finished his college applications And I'll be really, really grateful when they're well and truly done.

    4. Affording college tuition So far at least. Child #3 should probably lie awake worrying a little...

    5. Living the creative life How lucky to be working as a writer, illustrator, and kid-advice person! It doesn't get any better than this! (Well, the money part could get better, especially from the points of view of my husband, who would dearly love to be a house husband/amateur athlete and child #3 who doesn't want to lie awake worrying about her college fund.) And some people think it would be better if I didn't live the creative life all over the kitchen table and in big piles in their bedroom that they'd like to use when they come home from college for vacations.

    6. That this past year I had one book published, finished one that will be out next year, and got a contract for another And that one's nearing completion. I hope.

    7. The disgusting growth on the dog's leg that I've been ignoring for months isn't cancer Phew. The guilt was going to be pretty unbearable.

    8. Gas prices that have risen enough that it's cheaper to fly child #1 home from college for breaks like this than to drive 9 hours each direction to fetch him.

    9. Dark chocolate is good for you. And so is red wine. Now we just have to work on Fritos.

    10. That the world is so full of good books, good people, and the internet, which I'm addicted to.

    11. That ending a sentence with a preposition isn't as sinful as it used to be.

    12. That this list could be in the 100s or more before I ran out of things to be grateful for, and I had to cheat by 2 even to wrap this up.

    Thank you to all the people who have given me so much to be grateful for this past year. I hope I can repay you - and find a way to pay things forward too, in the years to come.

    Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

    Tuesday, November 13, 2007

    You're invited!

    Grab some buddies and shuffle on over!

    Who: You, of course, and Julie Stiegemeyer, author, and me, Carol Baicker-McKee, illustrator
    What: A book signing/holiday book fair for Merry Christmas, Cheeps!
    When: From 11 to noon on Saturday, November 17, 2007. (I'll actually be there a bit earlier, around 10:30).
    Where: The Barnes & Noble at South Hills Village Mall, Pittsburgh PA
    Why: Because it will be fun! Plus it's a good chance to acquire a special book for a gift or for your own holiday collection.

    Please join us!

    Monday, October 15, 2007

    Check out Robert's Snow!

    Two years ago I was honored to be invited to submit a snowflake (that's mine above) for Robert's Snow, a fundraiser for cancer research that was started by writer-illustrator Grace Lin in honor of her husband Robert who was battling a rare cancer. Sadly, Robert lost his fight this summer, but Grace Lin's unique fundraiser continues, providing hope for others with cancer. Each year, Robert's Snow invites 200 children's book illustrators to create original art on wooden snowflakes, which are then sold in a series of three auctions. This year's auctions begin Nov. 19th and run through Dec. 3rd; all proceeds benefit the Jimmy Fund at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

    You can view all the snowflakes here, auction by auction, as well as peek at the ones from previous years. The quality, variety, and all around creativity are astounding, and they're worth checking out even if you have no intention of buying one. But it's also worth bidding at the auctions, because it's a chance to obtain a piece of original art by an established artist who might not normally sell his or her work, or by up-and-coming illustrator, often at a bargain price and you get the satisfaction of helping to cure cancer at the same time! What could be better than that?

    This week, starting today, bloggers are helping to showcase some of the snowflakes before the auctions begin. You can view the featured snowflakes and artists by clicking on the following links:

    Monday, October 15
    Randy Cecil at ChatRabbit
    Michelle Chang at The Longstockings
    Kevin Hawkes at Cynthia Lord's Journal
    Barbara Lehman at The Excelsior File
    Grace Lin at In the Pages

    Tuesday, October 16
    Selina Alko at Brooklyn Arden
    Scott Bakal at Wild Rose Reader
    Alexandra Boiger at Paradise Found
    Paige Keiser at Your Neighborhood Librarian
    Janet Stevens at The Miss Rumphius Effect

    Wednesday, October 17
    Rick Chrustowski at laurasalas
    Diane DeGroat at Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup
    Ilene Richard at Something Different Every Day
    Brie Spangler at Lectitans
    Don Tate at The Silver Lining

    Thursday, October 18
    Brooke Dyer at Bookshelves of Doom
    D.B. Johnson at Lessons from the Tortoise
    Erin Eitter Kono at Sam Riddleburger
    Sherry Rogers at A Life in Books
    Jennifer Thermes at Through the Studio Door

    Friday, October 19
    Graeme Base at Just One More Book
    Denise Fleming at MotherReader
    Jeff Mack at AmoXcalli
    Jeff Newman at A Year of Reading
    Ruth Sanderson at Book Moot

    Saturday, October 20
    Linas Alsenas at A Wrung Sponge
    Theresa Brandon at The Shady Glade
    Karen Katz at Whimsy Books
    Judy Schachner at Kate's Book Blog
    Sally Vitsky at Shelf Elf: read, write, rave

    Sunday, October 21
    Matthew Cordell at Just Like the Nut
    Maxwell Eaton III at Books and Other Thoughts
    Roz Fulcher at Goading the Pen
    Susie Jin at sruble's world
    Susan Mitchell at Check It Out

    Want to see some pictures of a really, really cute snowflake in progress? Visit illustrator Roz Fulcher's blog (posting for July 9th, 2007).

    Thursday, October 11, 2007


    When Cheep! Cheep! came out, a number of reviewers thought the illustrations were digitally assembled, and even some friends and relatives thought I made a handful of little chicks and then "reused" them for the different spreads -- but every chick (and egg, etc.) is handmade in a ridiculously time-consuming method. These photos (which aren't great quality -- sorry) are from the first book (somehow I didn't photograph the Christmas Cheeps in progress), but it gives you a sense of all the little pieces and my factory-assembly-line approach.

    I recently finished up the first book that I wrote and illustrated, called Mimi. It's about a little pig, who has a stuffed bunny named Bunny, and a pet roly-poly bug named Frank -- who's missing! It will be out from Bloomsbury in Fall, 2008, and took me a good nine months (well, more really) to illustrate. That equalled many, many months that my family couldn't use the kitchen table because it was buried deep in pig, bunny, and bug parts. I do have a small studio upstairs in my house, but somehow I always gravitate to the kitchen. Well, partly that's because the kitchen is usually brighter and a more comfortable temperature, partly because it's nearer the stove which I use for baking my polymer clay parts (and the refrigerator which I use for motivation/consolation), partly just because I have liked to work at the kitchen table since I was a small child. When I redo my studio next year, I'm going to advocate buying a new table for the kitchen, and letting me have our old one (it's already covered with paint accidents and xacto blade boo-boos) for my workspace. But then I'll probably just end up messing up the new table too. Sigh.
    I'm scrambling now to finish the art for a book called An Apple Pie for Granny by Susan vanHecke. I think it's supposed to be out next year too. I'm trying mightily to resist the temptation to work in the kitchen, but it's just very, very hard.

    Friday, October 05, 2007

    Merry Christmas Cheeps!

    The cheeps are back! And ready to celebrate the season, from catching snowflakes in their little beaks to trimming the tree and hanging stockings. Julie Stiegemeyer has written another charming text about this family of flightless poultry that's perfect for the littlest guys. This time she used more than seven words, but Julie's style is nonetheless clearly the Prius of children's writing -- she gets an amazing amount of mileage out of very few words. The rhyming couplets not only give babies and toddlers a sneak preview of the joys they'll encounter at the holidays, they're full of the rhythm, repetition and fun-to-say words that compel toddlers to join in. And here's a cool thing I just noticed -- you can even sing the lines to the tune of "Old MacDonald." (Well, if you're completely tone deaf like me, it might not sound exactly like "Old MacDonald...).

    I'm proud of my artwork for the book too, and learned a ton in the process of making it, as the backgrounds and props were more complicated than in Cheep! Cheep! I'm also very, very pleased with the outstanding job the folks at Bloomsbury did with the photography and design of the book -- everything really pops off the page and it seems like you should be able to feel the textures. And I'm grateful all over again to my family who let me take over every flat surface in our house while I finished it up, and to my sister-in-law and fellow children's book author Karen Baicker, who kindly put up with me and my mess while I put the, uh, "finishing touches" on everything at her house when I drove East to deliver the art. (Oh yeah, and then Karen was also nice enough to drive me into the city from her house, as I am terrified of driving in Manhattan and even more frightened at the thought of parallel parking there.) Making books, like raising kids, works best as a group project.
    The book was officially released this week, and I've heard from people who've spotted it in Borders. I'm buried too deep in a couple work projects to make it over to any of the bookstores (man, do I miss the children's bookstore that used to be at the top of the hill), but it's exciting to know it's out there! And it already has a ranking on amazon. I'm amazed at all those people who are obviously out shopping for the holidays already. I bet December's a lot more fun when you don't have a to-do list that's longer than Santa's good kid list....

    I'm sorry that it's once again been ages since I posted anything. I actually like blogging, but it does feel like a guilty pleasure when I'm swamped with work, family, laundry, etc. And for some reason, when I'm thinking about giving into a vice, chocolate nearly always wins.

    And naturally, since it's been so long I have scads I'd like to say, but I'm going to take a deep breath and say ta-ta for now.