The Power of Picture Books

children reading under a treeChildren’s reader books, or “picture books” tend to be somewhat overlooked in the busy Realm of Literature. I was guilty of such oversight myself… until I began to have children. But, even then, I simply read through “readers” like most parents would, patiently enduring the infantile prose until the children moved on to more interesting material.

Several years ago, however, one of my middle children began kindergarten and my husband and I discovered–to our utter consternation–that she strongly disliked reading. Now, she loved stories and hearing them read aloud; she’d follow along with me as I read to her; she’d trace and draw letters on paper just fine and she likewise understood the correlation between the letter’s shape and the sounds each made. The action of sounding out letters out loud, however, made her balk–every time–to the point that she began to resent the action of reading altogether. Her father and I were baffled, to say the least; our two older siblings hadn’t any trouble with phonics reader books at her age.

Our daughter’s teacher was not as concerned. Test results showed that she had no ‘learning disabilities’ whatsoever.

“Every child learns differently,” the teacher told us. “Just spend extra time reading with her, until she gets comfortable with it.” And so I did. We read together in the backyard garden, away from the hearing of others. I watched as she would gulp, swallow and fight her way through the sentences, until I finally had an epiphany. My daughter had no problem understanding the words, nor recognizing them, nor seeing them. Her problem was she didn’t like reading for herself. The rather infantile phonics books that her older siblings had used held absolutely no appeal for her… not on little bit. I spent the next day trying to come up with a solution, looking for phonics games or flash cards, but my searches yielded little results for help with “normal” children who just don’t like to read out loud.

Early the next morning however, I realized that an obvious solution already lay within reach.

“I could write her a story,” I thought, as I poured out my first cup of coffee. The idea seemed almost too easy. Children’s picture books were not something I’d ever considered writing, due to their assumed simplicity. However, as I sipped my coffee that morning, a plot began to form in my mind. I squinted out the kitchen window, catching sight of far-off rolling hills, just visible over the industrial buildings on the outskirts of our city neighborhood. A story might work, I thought, if it focused on a little girl  going on a journey, using as many colorful descriptions as possible, and also if I mentioned  some the things she most liked. If I could capture my daughter’s imagination and tap into that inherent Narcissistic strain–a thing all humans possess–then she might just want to read for herself. If the story could somehow hint that avoiding one’s problems was not the solution, that would be icing on the proverbial cake. My husband liked the idea immediately.

I began crafting a story for Sara that day, using the recommended spelling lists provided by her teacher, as well as consulting numerous online articles by children’s book professionals. Late the next night, I carefully copied out my scribbled story and stapled the pages together. My oldest daughter was charmed by the story; she inked a little drawing on the front of it, one picturing her little sister in her favorite dress and backpack, walking along a road with flowers growing along it.

The next day, as my middle daughter sat down with a phonics book–with that same, pained expression–I sat down with her and held up the stapled papers.

“What’s that, Mommy?” she asked.

“It’s a new book,” I told her. “I’m going to read it to you.” My daughter gave me a wide smile. She snuggled up to me and looked at the words on the ‘cover’.

“That’s my name!” she said, sitting up again; her eyes grew wide. “And, that’s my backpack… and that’s my red dress!”

I smiled.

“I wrote this story, just for you. It’s called Sara and the Land of No Letters.

My little girl gave me the biggest smile I had ever seen, and I mentally kicked myself for not thinking of this book sooner. We settled in to read. When we were finished, I gave her the story and told her we could read it again, if she took care of it. She carried it to her room and put it on the special shelf where she kept her precious paper dolls and jewelry box. The next day we read it again, but this time, she wanted to try to read her story by herself. With some whispered hints from Mommy she managed to finish the whole thing, without a grimace, a swallow and nary a gulp. In school, she drew pictures of the scenes of her book from memory and brought them home. She read her story twice a day for a week and gave the family an unprecedented performance, with hardly a mistake in pronunciation, showing confidence in reading for the first time. Mommy hugged her and gave compliments, blinking back tears of real relief.

The teacher was highly impressed; she listened to my daughter read through her story and gave her high praise. Later, she told me that the story was engineered perfectly–as it encouraged parents to read it with a child first; she also liked that it included the right blend sounds and ‘everyday’ words children would need in order to “springboard” them on to other books.

“You should publish this.” the teacher told me. “And, you should more of them.” At the time my husband and I were in the middle of writing our Epic Fantasy fiction series, so I put that idea on the shelf and let my daughter keep her story for herself. True to prediction, she branched out to other books with ease, borrowing her older sister’s C. S. Lewis books (sometimes without permission), pouring through The Hobbit and asking for me to find her some more reading material online.

Today, my little girl’s Reading Comprehension scores on annual tests place her three grades ahead of her peers in aptitude and vocabulary. Likewise, her scores in math, science and social studies began climbing the moment she lost her ‘fear’ of letters, and her teachers couldn’t be happier. As I watch her now, sitting in the corner happily reading from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I know that my respect for the ‘simplistic’ picture book has grown exponentially.

Sara and the Land of No Letters was just published this week, and is available on Amazon. My oldest daughter did the colored illustrations for her sister’s book, a thoughtful gesture we appreciate very much. We have two more Sara books planned for publishing: Sara and the Land of No Numbers, and Sara and the Land of No Rules.

~ ~ ~

L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

It Pays To Be Swayed

An indie writer is a strange creature, even by the standards of today’s market with the ingrained expectation of ‘multitasking’ members.

Ten years ago, when my husband and I began to devote the majority of our free time to writing novels I did not think I would need to learn marketing, social media, make connections, maintain an online presence or delve into writing genres that I otherwise would have even looked at in a bookstore. But, I have been swayed to think otherwise and–more importantly–to do all of the above.

Marketing on the cheap is a hard sell, but to the average indie writer/publisher it is often the only option until they get more sales with which to pay for better services. It is a huge amount of work, and getting data with which to formulate your marketing strategies takes up even more time and effort. Books sales statistics are hideously expensive but a here and there kind organizations reveal little hints of said information to sort through and glean from. These gems among the rough swayed us to keep looking, gathering and polishing until the beauty of applicable data revealed itself.

To traditional business folk, this sounds all backwards.”They told me to get a business loan”might be found written on the tombstone of many a failed entrepreneur. Perhaps that worked for some businesses, maybe most, but not everyone is in a position–nor harbors the inclination–to shoulder a large amount of debt before their product has been proven profitable.We were swayed to launch our books ourselves, without a loan and without expensive PR services, paying for prepossession editing out of the profits.

A flooded eBook market has its benefits, such as a glut of data. To us, the trends are little more defined as more indie writers enter the market, showing up as trampled digital pathways pointing to what consumers really want. Studying our slowly-garnered free stats, we noticed the alarming dive of literary fiction, the pop-trends of supernatural-type fiction and the rather stagnant line historical fiction wound itself into over the recent years. Epic Fantasy showed promise however, so we were swayed to drop our other novel projects and dust off my husband’s EF series. We sank our time and effort into making those books as good as we were able.

The results surprised us… greatly. After launching in the last week of this February, we’ve made more in royalties int he months since than we thought possible–a little over $14K–utilizing free self-marketing, social media, blog posts and non-obtrusive (no spam) ads.

We’ve been swayed to branch out into other genres as well, to help our brand gain more recognition. Romance Fiction has captured our attention as the rising genre; we’ve released just such a novel for that vast audience in the same month as our 18th wedding anniversary. This winter we’re planning to release the third book in our Epic Fantasy series and have a sci-fi time-travel novel ‘in the works’ for release next year.

In this crowded market, struggling indie writers need to sway themselves to become super business folks: capable of altering their business model in a single season, able to recognize and adapt to the ever-shifting book market, write both relevant and opinion-laden blogs on the industry, search out more free corners of the Web to post unobtrusive ads and, finally, entice (not drive) new customers towards their desired platform profile.

slender floral divider

L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

A Surreal Evening at the ‘Swedish’ Big Box Store…

A few nights ago, upon embarking on our quarterly trip to the local Swedish-themed big-box store–to purchase cheap napkins and European-designed coffee mugs (made in China)–we stopped at the cafeteria as we normally do to purchase some inexpensive-yet-mildly-tasty meatballs, unaware that that night the store was playing host to a “Swedish Crayfish Party”… featuring aOur Surreal Dinnern all-you-can-eat crayfish buffet bonanza.


We made our way to the line between tables full of crayfish munched, crunched and slurped upon by a throng of folks. Tweets must have abounded ’round the Asian community as they made up 95% of the diners present. Having never even seen crayfish before, our kids stared wide-eyed at the ruby-red creatures; their limp claws hung over the sides of galvanized serving buckets in the center of each table. We watched, fascinated, as kids the same age as ours happily twisted and tore at the creatures, expertly drawing out the tender tail meat. Piles of broken red shells sat on each table looking like so many spent cartridges littering the ground–around a machine gun nest–after a 3-day battle.

We meandered our way through the line out of sheer morbid curiosity. The frenzied employees behind the counter shoveled cooked crayfish onto paper plates (they’d run out of the ceramic kind) doling them out to waiting hands as fast as humanly possible, arguing over who’s turn it was to go out and refresh the buffet troughs. We picked up a plate of crayfish to let the kids try and managed to wrangle some real plates for the other food items present. Just getting to the buffet tables took some creative jostling, for competition among the serving plates proved fierce.

Apart from the ubiquitous “Swedish” meatballs, mashed potatoes and gravy, odd, new items met our gaze, ones not normally present in the Swedish-themed cafe: a yellow soup with baby octopus floating in it, whole slightly-gray shrimp in the fetal position, still steadfastly in their peels, cooked fish-heads, whole red potatoes coated in bits of greenery, a sort of salmon seviche (that gave off a powerful odor), plates of cold ham, plates of crackers–of all make and grain–and above all, a giant bowl of cheese cubes. The moment food was replaced in the serving dishes, a feeding frenzy of sorts occurred whereupon tables emptied and folks came running back for more. The shrimp and octopus soup appeared the most popular items–apart from the crayfish–but  most left the cracker and cheese plates untouched. Finding the cheese cubes muenster of good quality, we gladly partook.

After finding an empty table we sat amid a cacophony of slurps, cracking, gurgles, crunches and smacks. The image of one entire table of people with red legs protruding from their mouths, sucking in unison will forever be burned into my memory. The crayfish intrigued us, and taking a cue from our enthusiastic fellow diners, we attempted to twist one open. It exploded, sending mustard-yellow matter of unknown origin over the table. As we ate I noted the large canvas pictures on the adjacent cafeteria wall; the images depicted a peaceful Swedish village populated by accordion-playing folks in lederhosen, standing in fine contrast to the strangeness present in the dining room.

We did not find the cold crayfish pleasing to eat, but slathered in lingonberry sauce (or as Daddy calls it ‘dingleberry’ sauce) they weren’t so bad. After our rather surreal dinner we strolled the marked aisles of the warehouse-like store, trying to work off the ribald mixture of food in our stomachs. We grinned widely while encouraging each other not to vomit, yet eyeballing which vase might accommodate such an action, if necessary. We found ample distraction in listening to Daddy’s critique of the drinking vessel handle designs, debating whether or not one could indeed lift a full cup of coffee with one finger as well as listening to his remarks on the fluff-challenged pillows proffered by the bedroom section.

Finally free of the maze, we left the store and headed home–still reeking of crayfish–wondering when that little voice in the very back would say: “Mommy… I don’t feel good…”

 
slender floral divider
L. R. Styles is an author of Belator Books