12 x 12 new bannerOh how exciting to have our FIRST 12 x 12 winner of 2013!! And even more exciting that this time, instead of spending an hour tallying and cross-checking, I just clicked a button on Rafflecopter and … voila! A winner.

This month’s lucky winner gets a critique from the ever-fabulous Tara Lazar, who once again kicked off 12 x 12 as our January featured author.

So congratulations to …

Liz Miller!!!

I will put you two ladies in touch so you can arrange the exchange of a manuscript for critique.

Congratulations Liz and KEEP WRITING everyone!

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Emma Walton Hamilton

Emma Walton Hamilton

Today is the day for Little GOLDen Book and Shel SILVERstein members of the 12 x 12 picture book writing challenge to post queries for critique by NYT bestselling author Emma Walton Hamilton. Queries must be posted by noon Mountain Standard Time tomorrow, January 22nd. Emma’s will critique the queries from January 23-25, with GOLD member queries taking priority if there is not enough time to get through all of them.

But you have to be a 12 x 12 member, so sign up today and don’t miss the chance to get your query in shipshape for submissions in 2013.

Emma is also offering a special deal for 12 x 12 members interested in joining the Children’s Book Hub. Details will be provided this week on the Membership Forum.

Good luck, and query on!

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Better late than never, as the old cliche’ goes. I am especially excited for this month’s winner because I had a critique from our July author – Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, so I know firsthand how great they are.

So, congratulations to…

Patricia Nozell!!!

Having just met Patricia at the June SCBWI-NJ conference, I was tickled to see her win. She probably met Sudipta too for that matter!

Write on people!

Categories: 12 x 12 in 2012, Authors, Giveaway, Goals, Picture Books, SCBWI, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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It is such an honor to welcome our featured 12 x 12 in 2012 author for August – Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Not only has Rebecca authored more than half a dozen books of poetry for children (including one coming next March co-authored with Jane Yolen), but I discovered she is a passionate and nurturing teacher as well. I was fortunate enough to attend the Highlights Poetry Workshop earlier this year, and Rebecca’s smiling face was the first thing that greeted me when I walked into the dining room, tired and frazzled from the trip. She made me feel instantly welcome, and more importantly, by the end of the workshop, she made me feel like a writer. Like a poet. Like I had a voice. So I asked her to write about using poetic form and devices in picture book writing, and I was not surprised that it read as if I were sitting in the room with her. And one lucky winner will receive a PB critique from Rebecca (up to 500 words) this month!!

FAR FROM THE SEA AND THE SALT IN THE AIR

Or Using Poetic Devices to Create Picture Books

The title of this post is a line from Barbara Cooney’s MISS RUMPHIUS. It is also a perfect line to demonstrate lyricism and the use of poetic devices found in picture books.

These few words strung together make music; “. . . far from the sea and the salt in the air.” They also spark our imagination, and give an aura of wonder and mystery. This line could have been much less poetic. It could have been written like this: “She left home and went to live in another city that was miles away from the ocean.” That would have been a well-written line. But it just doesn’t evoke the same feeling.

Often, writers mistakenly think alliteration is simply a succession of the same first letters of two or more words placed side by side on the page. And in an honest attempt to try and nail this poetic device, will mistakenly go for the neon-lighted-here-I-am-am kind of alliteration.  (Robo the raccoon cooked creamy carrot soup.)

In the example above, the f in far and from are indeed side by side on the page, but they fit there seamlessly. There are many ways this line could have been written. (A long way from, Out from, Away from, etc.) But joining the word far with from makes this line sing.   It seems like such a simple thing. And often it is. And it’s what works.

Same with the s in sea and salt. Still using the s but replacing shore for sea, you notice it doesn’t have that same poetic ring, that lyrical quality. Far from the shore and the salt in the air. Just isn’t the same, is it? Proving that all alliteration is not created equally. Sea and salt.  Shore and salt.  Listening to your word choices and lines aloud, over and over and over again, is the best way to determine if you have made the right choices. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.

There are thousands of examples similar to this, of course. As you read through stacks of picture books you will discover them. You can’t ask for better teachers than the books themselves. There are brilliant articles and educators that will dive in and come out with a much better roadmap for a post like this than I can. But this is my roadmap, and I am, no doubt, trying to simplify a complex subject. But here are a few thoughts:

As you craft your picture book, keep in mind all the tools and poetic devices at the ready; imagery, personification, metaphor, repetition.  Rhyme and rhythm are two very important poetic tools, but by far not the only ones. As you are writing your picture book, listen to the sounds of the words. Remember that something lovely and lyrical (like the Cooney example, above) is only one way of adding a poetic feel to your picture book. Be aware of these poetic tools as you write, but not focused on them. And whatever you do, don’t demand your muse to use them all.

Write sentences that flow organically, or seem to. They won’t really flow organically of course, but the goal is to make it look that way.  The reader wants to feel like he isn’t stumbling or tripping over rhythm that is off, rhyme that is forced into a corner, or language that is so lovely-contrived, it ends up being jarring to both tongue and ear.

Children love wordplay (palindromes, anagrams, spoonerisms, etc.,) but they also love to play with words (fascinating words, difficult words, clever, whimsical and silly words.) Dabble in the playground of fanciful and unexpected. Noodle in imagery; pull words from the magical pot called imagination. (Some people call it Thesaurus.) In truth, it’s both. And remember that every word counts. Every. Word.

My latest rhyming picture book WHAT CAN A CRANE PICK UP? (Illustrated by Mike Lowery, Knopf, September 2012) began with one poetic device; repetition. I didn’t consciously do it, it just happened like most ideas: driving in the car, my grandson (then about 6 or 7) and I were talking as he pointed out construction sites, highway work, a crane lifting a concrete barrier:

Ian:  Can a crane pick up a crane?

Me:  It sure can.

Ian:  Can it pick up a truck?

Me:  Yep, a truck too.  (And then, being silly). . . and a truck, and a truck, and a . . .

And he laughed. (You had to be there.) And we proceeded to name all the things cranes might pick up. And we were making a book. We kept repeating it as we went, so we wouldn’t forget our collection of ideas. A part of the text reads like this: “. . . Watch as cranes with chains and hooks lift cartons and cages and library books! See the cranes with slings and straps lift cuckoo clocks and baseball caps.”

I point this out to make a few points.  The alliteration of cranes, cartons, cages, cuckoo clocks and caps would have been too much without the other words popped in to cushion them. This is only decided after many drafts and many readings aloud. The word cuckoo? I had a long list of clocks. Tower clocks and alarm clocks and mantel clocks and many more. I actually didn’t choose cuckoo for its alliteration. I chose it because it is fun to say. The addition of rhyme for this book came after the idea, after the loose use of repetition, and after the list of things a crane can pick up. I decided to layer it with rhyme after a straight prose approach didn’t seem playful enough to me.

Rhyme can engage the young child like nothing else. But the rhyme must be good, natural, easy. Never forced. What is forced rhyme?  Many writers ask that. The answer is simple. An end rhyme must complete the thought the way you want it to, must express the idea you are truly trying to get across to the reader, not in a convoluted, these-two-words-rhyme, kind of way.

The two picture books I highlighted here are as different as night and day. One is a lyrical, wondrous beauty of a picture story book. The other is a whimsical rhyming romp about a construction machine. Both are picture books, and both use poetic devices. One to tell a story, and the other to engage and entertain the child in a playful way.

Children, and especially very young children, are enchanted by rhythm, rhyme and repetition. They almost feed off of predictable language patterns, being entranced by the sound of the words, the cadence of the line, and the delicious knowledge that they are exactly sure what’s coming next. Being able to chime in to jump rope and nursery rhymes, song lyrics, prayers and cheers has always been, and will always be, one of life’s purest joys.  Lines from picture books do this too, and can they ever. From the youngest babe to the elderly grandfather, who doesn’t love to repeat the words to a poem or song they know, or once knew, or will forever know in the vault of their heart.

Rebecca Kai Dotlich grew up in the Midwest exploring trails by the creek, reading comic books, making paper dolls and building snowmen. She is a children’s poet and picture book author of titles such as Bella and Bean (an SCBWI Golden Kite Honor) and What Is Science? (Subaru SB&F finalist and Bank Street’s Best Book of the year.) She gives poetry workshops, visits classrooms across the country, and speaks at conferences, retreats, libraries and schools to teachers, aspiring writers and students of all ages. Her books have received the Gold Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Award as well as an IRA Children’s Choice and her work has been featured on Reading Rainbow and the PBS children’s show Between the Lions. She is the mother of two and grandmother of four. Rebecca still reads comic books and builds snowmen. Her newest picture book, WHAT CAN A CRANE PICK UP?  (Illustrated by Mike Lowery) is soon to be released by Knopf (September 2012) and just received a *starred* review from Publisher’s Weekly. 

Participants – to enter to win a critique from Rebecca, you must be an official challenger and leave a comment on this post (INCLUDING YOUR FIRST AND LAST NAME) any time during the month of August for one point. On August 31st, l’ll put a check-in post on the blog.  If you completed a picture book draft in August, you can let us know in the comments of that post for another point. I will draw a winner using Random.org and announce on September 2nd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: 12 x 12 Featured Author, 12 x 12 in 2012, Authors, Children's Books, Giveaway, Goals, Guest Blogging, Picture Books, Poetry, Rhyming, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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I had the very good fortune of not only meeting our July 12 x 12 featured author, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen at the NJ-SCBWI conference, but also receiving an amazing critique from her on my March draft. That is why I am so excited for the one lucky 12 x 12 participant who is going to win a critique from her this month. You are in for a treat!

Sudipta gave several presentations at the conference that were (almost) as packed with information as this post is. :-) She sold out of her books so quickly at the conference that I was only able to get my hands on Pirate Princess and Hampire, both of which my kids ADORE! I can say for certain that Sudipta knows her way around a picture book, and we’re lucky to be able to learn from her. Please welcome Sudipta!

Problems, Truths, and the Quotable Yoda

When Julie asked me to be the July author for 12×12, I was so flattered that I accepted on the spot. But I didn’t think it through. (This is a typical practice for me.) See, Julie said I could just write about the craft of picture book writing and that it should be easy-peasy, lemon-squeezey. But then…I started reading all the great posts by the authors who’ve already had their say, and I wondered what I could say about picture books that hasn’t been said already? This is a real problem. A panic-worthy problem. A potentially-professionally-and-personally-embarrassing kind of problem. Luckily, my college experience beat something into my brain that has served me well, even now when I do nothing at all with my college (or graduate) degree. It’s a simple rule of life, applicable to anything, apropos to everything.

All problems have solutions.

I remember taking final exams in physics classes where the jargon was so complex that I was never really sure it was English and not Swahili, realizing that I couldn’t solve any of the problems because they were unsolvable, going into full panic mode…and then realizing that it couldn’t be as bad as I was making it out to be. These were only problems, and all problems have solutions. You just have to find the right protocol, utilize a strong framework, and rely only on things that are true. Only when I realized this was I able to take a breath and take my exam. (And since I got a degree, I couldn’t have failed all of them.) You might be wondering why this is relevant now – after all, could there be two more disparate things than theoretical astrophysics and children’s picture books? (The answer there is ‘no.’) But it is relevant – because writing can be just as hard astrophysics. Knowing the right way to craft a story can be just as mysterious as the way electrons tunnel through barriers (or something. My recollection of college physics is fuzzy at best) – and it can be just as much of a problem. And what was that that we just learned?

All problems have solutions.

So, here’s what we are going to talk about today in this post:

  1. Finding the right protocol.
  2. Utilizing a strong framework.
  3. Relying only on things that are true.

Let’s begin. Finding the right protocol. Long ago, in another life, I was trained as a scientist, and as scientists, we dealt with proven techniques and tested procedures. When I became a writer, I quickly realized that I was most effective – and most efficient – when I used proven techniques and tested procedures. So I learned how to tell a story, what steps were required, what elements needed to be present, and I put that knowledge to use. Now, before I go any further, I just want to say that I am not trying to imply that writing a picture book is like following a recipe. The magic that happens when you write a story that is publishable is not something anyone can tell you about. (In fact, if I knew the secret to making that magic happen, I wouldn’t have a pile of unpublished manuscripts gathering dust.) What you can learn is how to write a technically correct narrative. The rest is fairy dust and rainbows. But back to the protocol. I can certainly tell you that secret. Here you go:

  • Limit yourself to 500 words. I’m finding in today’s market, even 500 is considered long (the last picture book I sold had 32 words in it).
  • Write stories with a beginning, middle, and end. Young children need to be grounded in the reality of the world of your story before they can understand or appreciate it. Therefore, avoid the common pitfall of jumping too quickly into the story. Remember, your story doesn’t take place on any old day – it happens on that day that the world became different. If you don’t tell the reader how things normally are (in that good story beginning), how will they understand the significance of the change? Similarly, young readers need to be satisfied at the conclusion of the story – the “happily ever after” moment, if you will – so you have to leave room for that.
  • Use no more than 10% of your word count for the beginning, 10% for the end, and 80% for the middle. As much as your readers need grounding and resolution, you don’t want to bog the story down with these things. Get to it, get it done, move on.
  • Make use of the rule of three. Remember the Three Little Pigs and The Three Billy Goats Gruff? Those are the classic examples but most literature utilizes the rule of three in determining “how much plot” is necessary to be satisfying. So put your main character through at least three hurdles (more often, three failures and then a final success) over the course of your story.

Obviously, there is much, much more we could discuss, but this is a good start. And I want to talk about some other things, too. So, moving on… Utilizing a strong framework. The number of places where the need for good structure is compared to architecture/construction/etc is many, so I will spare you of that here. But, to me, framing the story structurally is essential for creating a good narrative. Part of that is the beginning/middle/end structure we’ve discussed, but there are other tricks to use that can heighten and enhance the tension of your story. One of my favorite tricks is the refrain.

The refrain is a wonderful way to give your book narrative structure. It should be catchy and easy to remember/read/say, and, because of that, the reader should look forward to the next time he will run into it. But, structurally, the refrain serves a dual purpose. First, it marks every high point of the story. When the reader hears the refrain, he knows that the main character is feeling confident about his chances of solving the story problem. This enhances the anticipation for the reader, since he is rooting for the main character to win. But the second purpose of the refrain is the one that makes the story stronger from a narrative sense – it does not just emphasize the high point, it also foreshadows the low point to come. After all, since we are following the rule of three, the main character will fail several times before he solves his problem. The main character won’t know that, so he’ll launch into his refrain with gusto – and then will be met with disappointment. Tension rises, tension falls. You can use the refrain only in the “middle” of the picture book, or you can actually use it to structure the entire thing.

In my book CHICKS RUN WILD, we open with Mama seemingly putting her chicks to bed. She gives “one more kiss for each dear child, but when she leaves… those chicks run wild!” The first time we hear the refrain, it is launching us from the book beginning into how the world is changing that night. Throughout the story, then, Mama goes in and out of the bedroom, exhorting her chicks to go to sleep each time. And each time she leaves, “those chicks run wild!” Each time, then, the reader knows when he sees those words that there will be a funny scene followed immediately by the chicks getting into trouble again. Until, of course, we reach the book’s climax: Mama catches her chicks again, and asks why she had not been invited, and after consulting with each other, the chicks as Mama to join them and “they all run wild!” There’s the refrain again, but because this time it is signaling the climax and not just another stop of the journey, it gets a bit of a tweak – similar enough to feel the same but different enough to mark the change. By the way, the refrain in this case is used in the resolution of the story as well – again, with a tweak. After going wild as a family, the chicks are tired out and beg for sleep. So Mama puts them back in bed and gives “one last kiss for each dear child, she leaves the room, and Mama runs WILD!”

Relying only on things that are true. So far, we’ve covered some structural rules for writing picture books. Now I’d like to shift gears and talk about truth. The purpose of science is to expose the truth about the universe, to take something mysterious and make it less so. The purpose of literature is basically the same. So in all these scientific steps to writing that I take, my goal is to expose and convey a universal truth. I do this through character and through theme.

Truth in character is harder than you’d think. That’s because the picture book main character has to be true to the reader’s experience and to the author’s experience. Since it’s been a very long time since I’ve been in the age 3 to 8 demographic, I have to constantly remind myself to focus on both. The temptation when creating a main character is to focus on the charismatic, the character’s talents, skills, and gifts. But a trick to keeping your character true is to balance the flair by imbuing him with flaws. Remember who your reader is: a child who probably feels on the wrong side of right most of the time. That child wants to be able to identify with the main character – and it is the flaws that make that possible.

Truth in theme is often what separates a good, publishable picture book manuscript from a fun romp. A lot of writers – even experienced ones – focus so much on creating compelling characters and crafting a gripping plot that they forget that the primary role of literature is to expose universal truths. Now, the scope of a picture book is obviously not the same as WAR AND PEACE, but we still need to deal with universal themes. Is your book about friendship? Family? Is it about finding your place in the world? About learning patience and perseverance? Whatever it is, make sure there is something more to the story than a bunch of punch lines. Experiencing the theme, seeing the truth – that’s what makes a book re-readable.

Putting it all together Writing a good book can be a problem. But all problems have solutions. For me, the solution involves the steps I’ve outlined above. Except…I left off a step. And it’s kind of an important one. Yes, to craft a good picture book you should find the right protocol, utilize a strong framework, and rely only on things that are true. But you have to find a way to put all of these things together in a logical way. And that’s where some of the art of what we do as authors comes into play. There is so much wonderful information in this year’s 12×12 posts so far, and I’m sure there are many more wonderful posts to come before the end of the year. And as much as I am a believer in following tried and true protocols, each of us has to find the formula that works for our story – one that allows the character to go on meaningful quest in a way that makes sense. To make it even more complex, it will likely be a different set of steps for each story. In essence, we reinvent the wheel every time.

So what do I hope you take from this post, and from this blog? Please know I’m not saying that a story can’t work with four failures before the main character solves the problem, or can’t be published at 600 words or 700 words. Obviously, everything I’ve discussed here is optional – you find what works for you, just as I’ve found what works for me. While all problems have solutions, your solution to your story may be different from mine. But at least you know now that there is a solution. And that’s what I hope you take away. Every day you sit down to write, no matter how problematic it is, there is a solution. Which means it is not impossible. And if it’s possible, it can be doable.

And if it is doable, well – remember the immortal words of Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” I hope you all choose “do.”

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen never thought she’d grow up to be a writer. In fact, in 2001, Sudipta was well on her way to NOT being a writer. She had graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 1998 with a BS in Biology, spent a year in Boston, and then had returned to Caltech as a PhD candidate in developmental biology. Even the birth of her first child, Isabella, didn’t change Sudipta’s plans — she thought she’d take a long maternity leave then return to graduate school. Then, her daughter Brooklyn came along.

With two small children, Sudipta found herself less interested in biology as she was in parenting. And for the first time, she found that she had stories to tell, stories she wanted to share with her daughters, and she decided to try to get published.

She loved picture books, so using a facility with word play and a love for animals (especially pigs), Sudipta worked on a number of manuscripts. Her first picture book, Tightrope Poppy, the High-Wire Pig, illustrated by Sarah Dillard, about a proud pig who perseveres was published in 2006. Since then, Sudipta has written many picture books including her latest, Pirate Princess. Other books by Sudipta include Hampire, Chicks Run WildHalf-Pint Pete the PirateThe Hog Prince and more.

Participants – to enter to win a critique from Sudipta, you must be an official challenger and leave a comment on this post (INCLUDING YOUR FIRST AND LAST NAME) any time during the month of July for one point.  On May 31st, l’ll put a check-in post on the blog.  If you completed a picture book draft in May, you can let us know in the comments of that post for another point.  I will draw a winner using Random.org and announce on August 2nd.

Categories: 12 x 12 Featured Author, 12 x 12 in 2012, Authors, Children's Books, Giveaway, Goals, Guest Blogging, Picture Books, Publishing, Rhyming, SCBWI, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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Today I have the pleasure of announcing the lucky winner of May 12 x 12 author Debbie Diesen’s critique.

With no further adieu, the winner is…..

CATHY HALL!!!

*confetti toss*

Congratulations Cathy! Contact me in the comments to claim your prize. :-)

 

 

 

Categories: 12 x 12 Featured Author, 12 x 12 in 2012, Giveaway, Picture Books, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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Today’s Tuesday 12 x 12 author is Dana Carey. When I was in Bologna, I met one of her critique partners, which made me feel one step closer to knowing her in person. Dana is the Associate Regional Advisor of SCBWI France, and as such, she has kindly made me an honorary member. I hope to one day make that more than honorary and visit them all there! Please welcome Dana!

Balancing Acts

One of the things I love about the 12 x 12 challenge is getting to know people who share an interest in picture books. Something you may not know about me is I’m an American living in France with a daughter I’ve been raising as a bilingual. I wanted her to know both families, French and American, to keep things balanced. Or at least as balanced as possible.

To do this, I speak to her exclusively in English and her father speaks to her in French. I swing back and forth between the two languages on a daily basis, sometimes within one conversation. It probably seems weird to others looking in but as a family, we’ve gotten used to it. I don’t live immersed in one foreign language and my French is fine but keeping both languages up to snuff is a concern.

We all strive for balance in our lives between family, job, friends and more with writing. Or illustrating. Or both. Some of you 12x12ers may be like me an author/illustrator. The dream is to have lots of great dummy books of our stories. And the hard part is doing both things at the same time and getting better at both.

What can we do to keep to everything balanced and progressing at more or less the same speed?

The 12 x 12 has been great in providing some balance for me. Instead of thinking about writing, I write. Every month! Especially when the 12X12 deadline looms: I have to get something down on paper. It swings the balance back.

A monthly critique group complements the 12 x 12. Through my SCBWI France chapter, I found a group that meets in Paris. One problem I live about 6 hours from there. But thanks to my Virtual Identity (I skype in), I’m part of the group. They put me on a sideboard while they gather round the dining room table of our host. Again, it may seem weird to others looking in but it works for us. And each month I have a rendez-vous with writing.

What about swinging back to illustration?

While I find time and distance a great help to revising texts, I find this to be less true with illustration. Breaking the chain of sketching page layouts or painting spreads slows progress. The more time I spend illustrating, the better it is. If I get sidetracked for awhile, diving back in is slower than diving back into writing. Much like if I were to stop writing a first draft of a picture book halfway in and let it go for a week or two. Doesn’t work for me but if I finish and come back to revise 2 weeks later, that’s perfect.

A skype meeting on Monday mornings with an illustration partner helps swing the balance back to illustration. To prepare, I scan in sketches or finished work from the week and email it. This makes me conscious of what I’m doing each week. Come Sunday night, I assess how I’ve spent my time. Sometimes all I have to send are rough sketches but this helps. For one thing, I realize I did do something. And I won’t forget those sketches by showing them to my partner I’ve legitimized the effort and can continue to push that work forward. All those sketches eventually add up to layouts, character studies, ideas for a portfolio piece.

We are all familiar with the “To Do” list (that daunting document that mocks us all week long). I’ve taken the Sunday night prep scanning a step further: writing the “Done” list everything I’ve actually accomplished during the week. I’m learning that a big part of balance is mental. I feel like I haven’t done enough but I did push things forward. Acknowledging my weekly accomplishments, however humble they may be, helps create
continuity and keeps me on track.

Swinging back and forth between French and English got easier over time. Happily, it has provided balance to my family my daughter loves talking to her American family and they are so happy that she can.

And I’m so happy Julie came up with this great challenge because it helps me even the scales between writing and illustrating. Imagine the “Done” list we’ll have at the end of the year! In the meantime, what do you do to maintain balance in your lives? Writing and illustrating? Or writing picture books/middle grade/young adult? Verse and prose? Any and all suggestions are welcome!

Dana Carey was a graphic designer and art director in New York and then Paris, and later taught English in Versailles (Architecture School) and Paris (Art School). Now living in Brittany, she’s a pre-pubbed author/illustrator of picture books. She reads MG/YA books in English and writes reports in French for a French publisher as well as doing some translation and painting. Find her on twitter: @danaFR; facebook and at her blog: http://danacarey.blogspot.fr/.

Categories: 12 x 12 in 2012, Authors, Guest Blogging, Picture Books, Works in Progress, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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