Another Column at MyShelf.Com

Babe To Teens, Past
A Youth Column
By Jan Fields

An Interview with Dori Chaconas, reviews of On A Wintry Morning and One Little Mouse.

       Have you been enjoying your summer break? Read any good books lately? One of the great things to do during the long days of summer is to read aloud. Studies show that children who are read to and who see their parents love books are more likely to become readers themselves. And avid readers have are a step ahead when it comes to academics. After all, nearly everything about school involves reading.

       So, if you’re a parent -- considering scheduling some read-aloud time into your day. Even older children can benefit from being read to and it’ll help build family closeness. If you’re a teen, consider some volunteer time at your local library, reading to younger kids. It’ll increase your confidence in public speaking and let you be the hero for a while. If you’re younger still, ask your parents about doing some reading together. Or think about turning your favorite book into a play to do with some of your friends -- many a star began their careers in neighborhood plays they created themselves.

      Whatever summer fun you’re involved in -- bring in a little reading. You’ll be glad you did.

       Dori Chaconas is the author of a variety of rhyming picture books. She began her writing career in the 1960s and had success in both children’s magazines and books. Then she put it on hold to focus on raising her children. Now, with her children grown -- and one a successful children’s writer herself -- Dori’s back. Her musical writing and cosy stories are making parent-child connections for a new generation.


Jan: Your books are all so cuddly. What kinds of themes do you enjoy exploring in your work?

Dori: [Editor] Melanie Cecka once referred to my stories as "Rockwellian." I don't know if she meant it as a compliment, or rather that I seemed to be stuck in the same-theme rut. I like to think it was a compliment. In my books, as well as in my life, I place great importance on family, and all things related. The parent/child relationship is especially appealing to me as it evokes so much emotion and every reader can relate to it, either as a parent, or as a child, or a used-to-be child.

Second to that would be animals, because children love them. If you combine those two things, you have a good start for a story.


Jan: Most of your fans are a bit young for letter writing, but could you tell us about some of the feedback you've gotten from your "readers?"

Dori: I'd love to, Jan! Your Rachel is a good example. Wasn't it Rachel that wouldn't let you read On A Wintry Morning to her because it was the 'Daddy' book?' Those lovely little reports and stories come from parents on occasion. Most rewarding is when I hear about a very young child who latches onto your book and wants it read again and again. That's my prime purpose for writing - to entertain and to give that child pleasure. I've even had a 3 yr old recite On A Wintry Morning to me in a bookstore. My regret was that I didn't have tape recorder with me, as it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard.


Jan: What kinds of things do you do when you're asked to do a school visit or other public presentation? What could folks expect from a visit from Dori?

Dori: I decided to put a lot of time and thought into a presentation that would appeal to schools, and I wanted it to be meaningful for those as young as Kindergarten, as well as interesting enough for 8th graders. It was an involved project, but I knew that once I had everything in place, I could use that material over and over again. I put together an overhead transparency presentation of about 40 films. I start with a picture of myself in 1st grade, then some of my family now. Remember all those weird snapshots you were tempted to throw away? The kids love to see them, and while they're enjoying the visual overhead show, I talk about where ideas come from, offer some story-starters like 'What if...?', use big words like 'anthropomorphic' and so on. I show the different stages of publishing a picture book, from text, through early illustration sketches, etc., to finished book. I talk about the importance of revision - of doing your best. And it doesn't hurt to throw in a few good jokes! The overhead presentation lasts 40-45 minutes, which leaves 15 minutes for Q&As.


Jan: I know one of your daughters writes, also. How much do you think she was influenced by your early success with picture books? I know my four year
old simply thinks all women write so she expects to also -- did you have any feelings like that in your house?

Dori: My daughter, Stacy DeKeyser, was always an avid reader so it didn't surprise me when she started to write. I think her love of books was more instrumental to her wanting to create them than any influence I might have had on her. It's just plain fun to have another writer so close to me, as well as a good critique partner when I need one.


Jan: I’d like to ask a couple questions for the aspiring writers among our readers -- I've heard poets and rhyming picture book authors say they have always read a lot of poetry/rhymes and memorized many of them. Would you recommend that for folks attempting to improve their ear for meter? How did you "train" your ear?

Dori: I'm glad you focused on meter, Jan, because writing a good rhyming picture book is more about perfecting the meter/rhythm than getting the rhyme right. Rhyme is the easier of the two to learn. When I critique new writers' stories, it's mostly the rhythm that's off, or the story line that's weak. Instead of 'rhyming picture books' they should be called 'stories in rhythm and rhyme,' with the importance of each in that same order: story - rhythm - rhyme.

As a kid, I loved reading poetry, and still do, but the only things I ever memorized were nursery rhymes. I still remember most of them. I also have to give credit to piano lessons, music lessons, and dance lessons... all involving counting rhythms in measured beats. And jump rope rhymes, too! I think all this early exposure to rhythm trained my ear and put me in a good place to write rhyming pieces. So definitely, reading poetry or rhyming works, or any exposure to rhythm, will help train the ear.


Jan: I know you've done some magazine work, how did the pieces you sold magazines differ from your picture books? How did you know when you had a magazine story and when you had a picture book?

Dori: It's been more than 30 years since I've done any magazine writing, and I'm still trying to figure out a sure-fire way of how to describe the difference between magazine stories and picture book stories. Most definitely a picture book text needs to offer enough illustration opportunity to cover 14-16 book pages. Also, a picture book text needs to be tight and trim, with each word/line moving the action forward, leaving the visual details for the illustrator.

When I wrote magazine stories, I 'primed the pump' by reading many, many magazine stories. By doing this, I picked up the cadence and pacing of the stories, and after I read enough of them, I just sort of fell into that rhythm and it came out in my own writing. Same with picture books. When I need to be inspired, or break through a block, I read picture books and absorb the rhythms and word choices - how the words feel when they fall off my tongue, and how they sound when they enter my ear. You could call it Writer Osmosis, or Learning by Absorption.

So, my theory is, if you read enough of each - magazines and picture books - your instincts will sharpen, and you'll simply get a 'feeling' when reading a new story, "This is a magazine story," or "This is a picture book story," but you won't be able to explain how you came to that conclusion.


Jan: Can you tell us a bit about what inspired your soon to be released books, That Blessed Christmas Night and Goodnight Dewberry Bear? Do you see yourself doing more books with a spiritual side?

Dori: Coming from a solid Catholic family background, the presence of God in my life is an important part of who I am.

As a writer, I'd had a desire to have three kinds of publishing houses - a large one, a small one, and a Christian one because each offered a different experience. Goodnight, Dewberry Bear didn't start out as a book about prayer, but when I couldn't sell it as a trade book, I decided to revise it for a Christian publisher. Dewberry was a natural for the change in plot, and the change made it a much stronger story.

Once Abingdon Press put out Dewberry, the editor asked me if I had a Christmas story available. I didn't, but told her I'd be willing to try writing one for her. I wrote That Blessed Christmas Night in a style reminiscent of a Christmas carol because I love the traditional Christmas music. Deborah Perez-Stable added a wonderful dimension by illustrating the book with children in costume reenacting the first Christmas.

I would love to do more books of a spiritual nature. The books are enjoyable to do, and I also think of them as works of appreciation for all God has given me.


Jan: Dori, thank you for sharing the process with our readers. I’m looking forward to adding Dewberry and That Blessed Christmas Night to my daughter’s Dori Chaconas collection.

Dori: Thanks, Jan!

For next time, we’ll talk to some authors of the fantastic… just in time for Halloween.


On A Wintry Morning

By Dori Chaconnas
Illustrated by Stephen Johnson
Viking Books - September 2000
ISBN: 0670892459 - Hardcover
Full-color Picture Book (Ages 2 - 5)

Buy a Copy

Review by Jan Fields,

      Some books are destined to be classics because everything about them is timeless -- On a Wintry Morning is such a book. Like such classics as Good Night Moon, the charm of the book isn’t in a compelling plot but in the comfort and warmth of the story images and mood. The text is perfect for a bedtime read aloud, smooth, short, and full of love. It offers an unusually touching look at a loving father-baby relationship.

      The illustrations deepen the family theme of the text, reflecting the artist’s own relationship with his daughter since he used himself and her as models. As the book takes us on a morning outing, we see something new and lovely on every page. My own daughter would eagerly wait for the illustration of the baby hugging her new floppy long-eared pup. It has never failed to bring a smile -- even today when she’s a mature preschooler.


One Little Mouse
By Dori Chaconnas
Illustrated by Leuyen Pham
Viking Books - May 2002
ISBN: 0670889474 - Hardbound
Full-color Picture Book (Ages 3 - 8)

Buy a Copy

Review by Jan Fields,

   Just as On a Wintry Morning by Dori Chaconas is full of hugs, so also One Little Mouse if full of giggles. In this unusual rhyming counting book, a little mouse decides his little home simply doesn’t suit him anymore and he goes in search of new one. He meets a variety of friendly neighbors who offer them space with them -- but frog homes are too wet, porcupines are too prickly, and snakes just don’t bear thinking about at all. The little mouse learns to look at his own home with new eyes.

      The illustrations for One Little Mouse are simply lovely -- they make the mouse look soft, cuddly, and totally childlike. Even the snakes cannot be too scary under Leuyen Pham’s brush. In all, they mesh perfectly with the words to build a warm, safe woodland neighborhood for the mouse to explore and a cozy place to come home to.

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