I didn’t plan to write about bears two weeks in a row, but then this past Saturday happened. It was completely unexpected, but I had the most extraordinary encounter with two bears, Gus and Ida. These aren’t just any bears, they happen to be polar bears which is my favorite animal of all time. Gus and Ida also happen to be figments of Caron Levis’ and Charles Santoso’s imagination, but that does not make them any less real to me.
This past weekend I was home in Harrisburg for a day before I headed to Fall Philly, a Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators event sponsored by the Eastern PA chapter. While there, I went to the East Shore Branch of the Dauphin County Public Library to check out some of the latest children’s picture books (FYI – if you want to be a better writer, read as much as you can in the genre you’re interested in) and there they were, displayed on a wall.
Ida, Always, was the first book I came across that day and so naturally I immediately picked it up and started reading – how could I resist a picture book about polar bears?! At about the halfway point, my eyes started tearing up. By the end of the book, tears flowed down my cheeks and I looked around to see if anyone had noticed my emotional unraveling at a simple children’s book about friendship, love, and loss.
As usual, no one was paying the slightest bit of attention to anyone other than themselves or their children,
so I wiped my eyes and tried to get my act together.
I can’t remember ever being so moved by a picture book. When I was finished with it, all I wanted to do was call my husband and tell him I loved him. Being still in the library, I didn’t think it an appropriate venue for an emotionally-charged phone call declaring gratitude and affection for our relationship, so I waited until I got home. But even after I affirmed my love for him, I was still thinking about Ida, Always.
Reading this book was a gift; not only did it inspire me to connect with someone I love and feel appreciation for our life together, but it also inspired me as a writer. These feelings are especially apt as I start pitching my own picture book stories to agents.
One of the things I struggle most with my own work is how to know when it’s my very best. Last May I attended the SCBWI’s Wild, Wild, Midwest conference in Naperville, IL, where one of the recurring lessons presented throughout the conference was only submit your best writing. Apparently, a lot of people don’t and it makes for very large slush piles and tired and frustrated agents and publishers.
At that conference, authors, agents, and publishers all made recommendations on how to revise your own work (which I do) and stressed the importance of critique groups (which I attend on a regular basis).
But it’s hard to have an unbiased and blind eye towards your own writing in determining the quality of it.
That’s why I’m so excited and grateful for my most recent bear encounter. I now have a new benchmark for my manuscripts. In addition to following the typical rules of story arc, character development, and pacing, I will ask myself the following: what sort of emotional response does the story evoke? If I cannot identify what I want my readers to feel because of my story and if I do not see evidence of that response in their feedback either through direct comments or personal observation, then I will know that my story still needs some more work. I feel grateful to have this guidance and I am optimistic my writing will continue to improve.
In the meantime, I will continue to reflect upon Ida, Always, a story that is perfect in many ways. Thank you for coming into my life. If you end up being my only bear sighting for the time being, I’m okay with that.