Thursday, January 17, 2008

3-D Thursdays: Mimi Proofs!

All images copyright Carol Baicker-McKee, 2008

Next to the moment when you hold the first published copy of your book in your hand, there's nothing quite like the moment when the proofs arrive. Seeing the words and the completed art together, getting to turn the pages and have the experience of "book" is magical every time. It really is like the cliche - akin to examining your newborn's tiny fingernails and smelling its delicious newness.

Anyhow, here are a few images from Mimi, the first book I wrote and illustrated. It's due out June 24th from Bloomsbury. I feel jumping up and down proud of it, so much so that I had to stick some of the pictures up now even though my scanner still won't work, and I have to settle for posting crappy photos of un-color-corrected proofs.

Mimi is her own "person," but there's no denying her character sprouted from my memories of my daughter Sara when she was that age. Sara's now 16 - so grown up these days that she even assisted with the artwork! For instance, she made the little flowers that dot the "i's" on the cover, helped me paint backgrounds (she's a much better painter than I am - any place you see brushstrokes: my fault), strung the beads for Mom's necklaces, made the spider plant on Mimi's dresser, and did other odds and ends for me. It was lots of fun to work together - and good for our relationship during the sometimes (okay, often) squabbly menopausal mom/hormonal teen daughter years.

The story and illustrations are peppered with details from Sara's toddler days, from her fashion sense to the arched window in her bedroom. Other details are from my other kids (my son Kyle had a pet roly poly, and Eric was glued to his stuffed Ted-Ted), and even from chance kid encounters (Mimi's jammies-and-tutu outfit was prompted by a little girl I saw similarly attired at the grocery store). At conferences, it seems like editors and agents are always saying they don't want to hear how your story or art is based on your own kids, etc., etc. - but don't let that fool you into thinking you should ignore the material from your own relationships and experiences while you're creating your work. Those personal bits and pieces are what let writers and illustrators create characters and a story world that are simultaneously quirky and universal - that feel authentic, because they are. It's just that it's important to stay flexible and not get too attached to any one "real" thing - often the story will need you to change or leave out something that feels so special to you, and you just have to be tough and do it. "Kill your darlings" as some author, I forget who, said.

I can't look at the proofs without being reminded of all the things I struggled with in making the illustrations. Some things I figured out more-or-less successfully - like how to get the perspective right for the wagon - and others the designer, Daniel Roode, has painstakingly corrected for me. For example: the bubbles. (Sorry Daniel!) I had a terrible time deciding how to make them. Having learned the hard way from the illustrations for Merry Christmas, Cheeps by Julie Stiegemeyer that it's a bad idea to incorporate shiny things in my 3-D artwork - the reflections are a huge headache for the photographer and the designer too - I knew to avoid all the things like marbles, hollow glass balls, iridescent beads, etc. that sorely tempted me, but I didn't think through the implications of using solid balls made from Sculpey Ultralight clay and positioning them at different heights off the background with bits of foam core. I thought they'd have depth and the sense of floating in the air, but instead all they had was really dark, bizarre-looking shadows! I can't imagine what a headache it must have been to photoshop all those shadows away - especially since the page after the one shown above is almost all bubbles. But they look fantastic now - just like they're floating. Next time I'll glue something like that down.

I'm also incredibly grateful to my editor, Melanie Cecka, who truly deserves the adjective "brilliant." She can edit an already spare text down to the nub - leaving only the best bits to shine in their simplicity. The other day I looked over my first draft of this story (well, the one I submitted), and I couldn't believe how rambly and unfocused it felt. I'm so glad that Melanie was able to see the core of it, and to gently coax me to pare away until I found it too.

I'd love to hear reactions to Mimi - I feel like a first time mama wanting everyone to admire her beautiful baby (that probably really looks like an extra-wrinkly Yoda). And if you have any great ideas for making 3-D bubbles that photograph well, I'd love to hear about it, in case I'm struck by temporary insanity and decide to put them in another book.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tuesday Tip Day: Reading to Babies

Rats. I wanted to use an incredibly cute picture of my oldest "reading" a book when he was about 5 months old to illustrate this post, but ever since I upgraded my Mac operating system to Leopard I haven't been able to get my scanner to work. (I have a Kodak EasyShare 5300 all-in-one printer/scanner/copier if anyone has any suggestions - tech support is stumped, though it's clear from message boards that I'm hardly the only one having scanner problems with Leopard.) So no sketches either until I get this worked out.

Anyhow, I've been thinking about reading to babies ever since a recent chat with a neighbor who was complaining about how it was impossible to read to her 9-month old. It was clear to me that she was having a completely typical experience with a baby that age - he was squirmy, insisted on turning the pages himself every which direction, had no interest in the story, and only occasionally paused to check out a picture. She felt like he was getting nothing out of their storytimes - and all she was getting was frustrated. But believe it or not, that crazy kind of reading session is enormously valuable for a child that age - her baby's developing his fine motor skills, visual tracking ability, and sense of self and initiative while learning about the physical characteristics of books, and even absorbing some language - all good things. The only problem, really, is that the mom needed to be reassured that their experience was normal and worthwhile.

And then today I saw a great article by librarian and children's literature reviewer Karen MacPherson in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Beginning with Books' annual Best Books for Babies list. You can read the article, with its excellent tips for choosing and sharing books with babies and toddlers here. (Okay, it caught my eye because my book Cheep! Cheep! - pictured above - made the list.) But it reminded me of several difficulties parents face when trying to find and read books to the littlest guys: one, it's hard to find quality books pitched just right for babies; two, parenting books rarely inform parents what's normal about reading with different age babies; and three, that's important information, because babies of different ages have very different interests, skills, and needs - just imagine the vast differences in motor skills, language, and passions between a newborn and a two year old!

The following list of what kinds of books and how to read to babies of different ages is my own, unscientific one, based on my experiences as a parent and former infant and toddler daycare teacher, seasoned with my knowledge of child development. If anyone out there has different or additional info, please share it! And please, please, please, share your favorite book choices for different ages!

I'll start this week with tips for the first year of life:

Prenatal to 3 months Yes! You can start reading to your baby even before she's born, though people like my husband might laugh at you. Babies can hear well before birth, and there are clever studies showing fetuses not only recognize the voices they heard in utero, but the actual stories they listened to in the weeks before birth. Naturally, the illustrations don't matter - nor do they matter much for the first few months after birth, when babies' vision is fuzzy and they'd prefer to watch you making those funny faces as you talk anyhow. Your best bets are books with rhyme, rhythm, and repetition - Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Shakespeare, song lyrics - whatever you enjoy.

3 to 6 months Lap babies who aren't yet total wiggleworms are the perfect age for cuddle-reading. Especially if you've been reading all along, expect baby to sit on your lap and study the pictures while you read to her. Babies this age like to finger the edges of the covers and pages and to pat or "rake" the pictures. What's best? Very brief texts to accommodate baby's short attention span, lines with rhyme and rhythm, and illustrations that are simple and bold, with lots of contrast (bright colors, heavy black outlines, etc.). Babies this age LOVE to look at faces, and will smile themselves at a smiling face or stare soberly at a sad one.

6 to 12 months During the second half of this year, baby's emerging fine motor skills - and his drive to scoot, crawl, cruise and go, go, go make reading to him a real challenge. But his growing language awareness, his need to explore the concept of symbols (the idea that something -like a picture of a dog - can stand for a real thing, like an actual dog), his emerging ability to self-calm, and his rapidly developing visual and fine motor skills make reading practically an essential activity. This is the age for board books, cloth books, and those plastic books for the bath or high chair. When babies stick their books in their mouths, they're not just tasting them or trying to eat them, but learning about their tactile qualties using their enormously sensitive lips and tongues. Huh! How weird is it that that picture that looks like a fuzzy duckling feels cool and smooth and tastes like cardboard? The ability to grasp a page or group of pages helps refine baby's grasp, and he can play peek-a-boo to learn about object constancy (the idea that things still exist when out of sight) as he turns the pages back and forth, back and forth. Toward the end of the first year, some babies will have clear favorites they want you to "read." But forget about a storyline, or even trying to read one-word pages in order. Naming, pointing, and just playing "surprise!" or "Huh! Look at that again!" will make for a more satisfying storytime than trying to plow through a book front to back. Best bets: books with familiar objects, animals, and other babies, limited or even no text, and, toward baby's first birthday, ones with a bit of detail and perhaps an object or two to hunt for on each page.

Okay - comment with your suggestions please!

P.S. Those of you who love 3-D art, like I do, check out Salley Mavor's Wee Willie Winkie title on the Best Books list - it's breathtaking, as all of Salley's work is.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Make-It Mondays

My sons are both wrestlers, and after sitting through the first couple seasons clenching my teeth and knotting every muscle in my body, I learned it was wise to bring a handwork project to distract me and keep my blood pressure down. I've mostly stuck to knitting, making things like scarves or afghans for Project Linus. This year I'm working on tiny hats for premature babies to donate to Magee, the Pittsburgh women's hospital. They're a great project -- quick to knit, don't take much yarn, and they're, well, so cute.

My beloved Tiny Tears doll is modeling the first one I made, using this super-easy free pattern from an organization called Touching Little Lives. The turquoise one, on the navel orange, is the same pattern, just using a slightly heavier weight cotton yarn. And the striped one (on the grapefruit) is from one of the incredibly sweet free patterns on the blog Carissa Knits. I've been knitting for years and years - my mom taught me when I was six - but this was the first thing I ever knitted in the round, and I can't believe I avoided doing it all these years. The first couple rows are a bit tricky, but after that it's as easy as working on two needles.

My daughter says I need to get some girl colors too, but I think the bright colors are unisex, don't you? Anyway, the green and periwinkle one is the same color combo I used for Mimi's room in my book coming out in June, so that makes it clearly feminine.

By the way, I was blanking on the word "periwinkle" so I googled "bluish purple" and found this great website that defines color names. Can't decide whether to make the next hat eau-de-nil (pale green) or gamboge (reddish yellow).

Okay, one last thing. I should have saved that last bit for Wednesday. I've decided to add a little structure to my blogging, partly I need a little shove to keep it up regularly, and partly because I like to blog about a number of things, and I realize not everyone will be interested in all my topics. So here's my plan:

Make-It Mondays: Crafts, recipes, maybe some gardening projects (basically, all the stuff I've been working on over the weekends)

Wednesday Word Days Stuff related to writing, book reviews (especially children's books), cool words.

3-D Thursdays Peeks at my in-progress art work, tips for anything tricky I've figured out, begging for help with a project, maybe a little history about how I got into 3-D art, etc.

That still leaves 5 Things Fridays for me, and Tuesdays to think up something cool to blog about. Plus the weekend.
NOTE: This does not mean I promise to blog every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday. It just gives you an idea about when to look for topics that interest you. (But I do hope having a little structure will push me to sit and type...)

Friday, January 04, 2008

More Cabin Fever Cures

I'm a little late with this - sorry to anyone who's been checking for it. Had to help my daughter and her friends run the snack bar for the high school wrestling match last night, and I was just too whupped when I got home to get this up.
BUT, as promised, here is the "LE" of my SMILE strategies for no-fuss parenting. My six-year-old nephew Geoff, above, is demonstrating the "E" - Empowerment - as he tackles washing up all by himself after cooking his own scrambled eggs for breakfast (with only a little help with the hot stove). During my time as a toddler day care teacher and a preschool teacher I learned how much kids can do themselves with a little support and supervision - lessons that my own kids have re-taught me many times over the years.

LOOK! OVER THERE! Hah! Distracted you, didn't I? Refocus your child’s attention (or your own) to end battles. Distraction remains one of my favorite parenting strategies, even with teens.
  • Kids melting down? Instead of getting caught up in a squabble, circumvent it with an activity. To get small fry involved, try the teacher tested-technique of "Plop and Do." Just gather the supplies to build a block tower, or set up a blanket and pillow fort, or whatever, and start doing it. Little guys will be attracted to it like fruit flies to those aging bananas on the counter. Bonus: as soon as the kiddies are engaged, you can slip away to do something else (as long as it's not something even more appealing to your kids, like mushing up the gross bananas to make muffins).

  • You'll get more mileage out of your kids' toys during the long winter if you follow the strategies used in schools and childcare centers: stick to toys with many, many uses, like dolls, plastic animals and action figures, a dress up box, classic building toys, art supplies; avoid like the plague any toys that make electronic noises (these should be "accidentally" broken as quickly as possible and put out in the trash, or else you can just forget over and over to buy new batteries); keep most toys stashed out of kid reach and rotate what's available for play on a regular basis - this keeps the mess to a minimum, interest high, and prevents kids from getting overwhelmed by too many choices; and shift activities often, alternating a quiet activity with a rowdier one, a do-alone activity with a do-together one.

  • You can check out some specific activity ideas on the list I provided to KDKA before my appearance at this link to their website.

EMPOWER YOUR CHILD Give him the tools to grow and to be an important member of the family - life will be easier and more satisfying for everyone.

  • Set the stage by doing your job as parent. I know, it can be hard to act mature when you've spent the last 12 hours scraping playdough out of the carpet, playing 75 straight games of Candyland (and losing every one), and cutting the crusts off PB&J, but if you don't meet your kid's basic needs for good nutrition, adequate sleep, and plenty of exercise, nothing else will work.

  • Set up a “Yes, I can” environment with child-sized equipment. Stock up on step stools and sturdy chairs, buy unbreakable dishes, choose safe cleaning supplies (it's amazing how well baby wipes clean things), and invest in real but small-sized tools (like a tiny snow shovel, kid-sized kitchen utensils, a little broom and dustpan).

  • Assign chores (like making the bed – yes, it will look like crap, but that's okay; setting the table - make placemats showing the positions of utensils; and emptying waste baskets - provide a box with a wide "mouth" that your child can push room to room). Also invite kids to participate in family decisions whenever possible (like what to do for fun on the weekend, menu-planning, which choice for the summer vacation is best).

  • Teach emotional control strategies like "spitting out grumpies" (take a cup of water in the bathroom, swish water and grumpies around, spit out in sink) or "holding in hitting" (with a tight self-inflicted bear hug if necessary) to manage strong feelings.

  • Let your kid experience frustration – and learn he can try again; let her be bored and discover how to be resourceful. Teach problem-solving approaches, like asking, “What if..?” and “What else could I do?”

  • Finally, get each kid a Power Rangers outfit (or Spiderman suit, Incredibles costume, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle get-up, etc.) and whenever your kids whine that they can't do something, say, "But a Power Ranger can! And you're a Power Ranger, right?" (When they get older, this strategy can switch to: "But someone mature enough to drive a car can do that! And you're mature enough to drive, right?")

    Here are links to my FussBuster books on amazon, if you're searching for more detailed, specific ideas: FussBusters at Home and FussBusters on the Go.

Oh! One last thing. I'm planning to make Tuesdays my day for posting general parenting tips, and as well as tips for reading with your kids and/or reviews of kids' books - I'll use the title "Tuesday Tip Day" when I do. I'm not promising every week or anything, but I'll try to make it fairly regular!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Cabin Fever Cures

Tomorrow morning I'm putting on my parenting expert hat and doing a spot on Pittsburgh Today Live (KDKA - the CBS affiliate) with Kristine Sorensen on helping parents survive the short winter days when trapped indoors with a mess of little kids. I remember those days well, even though the White Power Ranger in the above photo of my kids just celebrated his 2oth birthday, a fact which kind of freaks me out.

Anyway, here is "SMI," or the first three parts of my SMILE system - five easy parenting strategies that work in almost any tough situation, even snow days! (For that matter, they work pretty well for people of any age, with or without kids.) I've included some practical examples of how to implement them, with a focus on ideas that work well this time of year. I promise to add the last two strategies - the "LE" - tomorrow. (I'd put everything up today, but I need some time tonight to do something about my hair and figure out what I'm going to wear, especially since I have to sit next to the skinny and lovely Ms. Sorensen tomorrow morning. And I know for a fact she has two kids, so I can't just blame the difference in our looks on my motherhood status. Drat. Well, I am a lot older than she is.)

STICK TO SAME AND SIMPLE Routines, rituals and clear rules keep your child secure and happy.

  • Develop a schedule and easy routines for each day's Big Events like meals and bedtime. (Visit if you need help with family life routines, or if you're like me and are prone to a certain, well, slobbiness.)

  • Ease post-holiday blues with a few fun traditions as you transition back into normal routines, like letting everyone eat a little of the now-stale gingerbread house on the day you put the holiday decorations away.

  • Teach the Golden Rule (over and over and over), and use catchphrases (like “Use your words not your body” or “Inside voices please”) to remind your child that punching and screeching are more than you can bear at the moment.

MAKE THE MOST OF MUSIC AND ART These soothe the savage beast – and help civilize her too.

  • For some reason, kids are more likely to comply with demands if you sing them. Singing in an opera voice will even make my husband do what I want, as long as I agree to stop the minute he cooperates. Adapt the lyrics to familiar all-purpose tunes like “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush” or just make up a chant that kind of has rhythm.

  • Know why movies always seem better than real life? Soundtracks. (And professional make-up artists help too.) Put on music to create or change the mood in your home. It doesn't have to be kid music. In fact, on a blizzardy, cranky day - it's probably best to avoid anything sung by purple dinosaurs or by adults acting like freakishly cheerful little kids.

  • Use arts and crafts to bust stress and teach kids to follow directions. I highly recommend my friend Judy Press's arts and crafts books if you need ideas. Try The Little Hands Big Fun Craft Book (Williamson).

  • Here's a quick and easy "craft" or "science project" (depending on which your kid prefers). Pour about an inch of milk into a shallow plastic container. Drop dots of food coloring over the surface (they should kind of sit tight where you drip them). Pour a small amount of dishwashing liquid into another small container and give your child a toothpick. Show him how to dip the tip into the soap and then lightly into the center of one of the food coloring drops. WOW! If you go easy on the soap, you can repeat this for quite a long time before there's just too much soap in the milk. Just be nice and don't hog this activity just because it's so much fun.

INVOKE IMAGINATION AND HUMOR They’re great tools to prevent rebellion and create warmth.

  • To make your child stop pinching her little brother, ask her to fly like a dragon or trot like a pony to the other room and fetch something for you.

  • To encourage hat-wearing, put a mirror at kid-height by the winter clothes hooks - and allow considerable vamping and silliness. Get boots on reluctant tootsies by pretending to be Prince Charming outfitting Cinderella with her glass galoshes.

  • Stock up on funny books, silly CDs, outlandish dress-up clothes, and anything else that gets your gang giggling.

Need more ideas than this and can't wait for me to post more of them? Check out my award-winning parenting books, FussBusters at Home and FussBusters on the Go (Peachtree).

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year!

Ah! Having done my part of my middle son's finish-the-last-few-college-applications frenzy (i.e., cracking the whip, editing, and forking over the credit card), I'm free to enjoy this new year... at least for a few minutes before I crash and fall asleep, anyway. A new year always feels to me like a fresh snow (which we're getting as I type) - pristine and clean and full of promise. I know my cheer will fade in a few days, as the slush turns gray and I break my resolutions, but I'm relishing this peaceful, hopeful moment for now.

Anyhow, this year my main resolution is to make resolutions I can actually keep. The challenge is thus to come up with some keepable ones that don't involve eating more chocolate and reading more books. Hmm.

Okay, this year I resolve to:

  • Draw every morning for 10 minutes.
  • Post on my blog at least once a week.
  • Finally get around to adding the list of blogs I read and update the list of 3-D artists I admire.
  • Finish my website and get it online. I HAVE to do this. SOON.
  • Learn something new every day (actually an easy one to keep - between kids, NPR, and my internet addiction, I can hardly fail to get my brain stirred daily).
  • Walk the dog at least twice a day, even when the weather stinks and we'd both rather hunker down by the fire.
  • Do jumping jacks and have a drink of water instead of (or at least before) I dig into my chocolate stash when stress-cravings hit.
  • Procrastinate less.
  • Send my holiday cards. Soon. Really, really soon.
  • Write thank you notes. Real ones. On paper. And affix stamps to the envelopes and mail them. At least some of the time.
  • Spend 15 minutes tidying my studio and/or the kitchen table before bed.
  • Eat more chocolate.

Doh! Well, I had to put that last one in because my list was getting less and less keepable as I went on. I guess I'll have to think about these some more.

So what resolutions are the rest of you planning? Any I have a prayer of keeping too?