See those ten happy faces in today's pic? That's me with nine of the eleven participants in the Quebec Writers' Federation (QWF) workshop "Solving the Picture Book Puzzle" I led yesterday. (We were just leaving the QWF office where the workshop was held -- we'd already said good-bye to the other two participants who'd been with us all day on Zoom.)
Yesterday made me realize that I do, in fact, miss teaching. (I retired 18 months ago after a happy 35-year career at Marianopolis College here in Montreal.) And though I do many school visits (popping in to classes throughout Quebec) to share writing tips and hopefully inspire young people, it isn't quite the same, I realize, as having MY OWN CLASS. Which could be why I enjoyed yesterday so much -- those eleven students were MINE (at least from 10 AM to 4 PM!!). I was telling my partner Guy that one of the reasons I think I liked teaching so much was that I got to be bossy (haha) -- and yesterday I got to direct how we spent our time (we read and analyzed several picture books; I shared writing tips; we reviewed handouts; we did several writing exercises and we critiqued four of the participants' picture books-in-progress). But the other reason I explained to Guy was the magic part -- that as a teacher, you never know what's going to happen in your class -- because a class takes on a life of its own.
Which brings me back to yesterday. I had the perfect class. My students were smart and kind and did they ever work hard! In fact, I had to tell them to stop writing during the writing exercises!!
I had seen the names of the workshop participants in advance. So I knew kids' book author Lea Beddia and author and poet Tanya Bellehumeur-Allatt would both be attending on Zoom. I also recognized the names of short story authors Susi Lovell and Mark Paterson. But then came some lovely surprises. Maya had been my students more than a decade ago at Marianopolis! Tina, who teaches at an adult centre, and I had met many years ago -- and her son Eric Deguire is also a teacher and writer. Mary (I met her first because we both arrived about twenty minutes before the doors opened) was a longtime teacher and now teaches student teachers; Tania (with an i) has a background in marketing; Emily is working on her doctorate in history and is a sci-fi fan; and Antonia is a psychiatric social worker -- so you can imagine how those four, and every other one of the participants, have interesting work and life experiences they can bring to their picture book projects.
Another thing people had in common was that many had started working on picture book projects long ago -- and were all feeling it was time to come back to them.
Oh, before I tell you a little of what we covered, I have to tell you that one participant had to cancel -- but apparently there was a waiting list! Which meant my friend illustrator Diego Herrera was able to attend too. You may know him better by his artist's name Yayo. And he brought not only his gorgeous work-in-progress to show us, but also brownies. (That may also account for some of the smiles in today's pic!)
So -- you may be wondering what we had to say about solving the pic book puzzle. Here's some of what we figured out. Pic books have to be short (they are rarely more than 900 words). It helps if they are funny. They tend to use repetition. They have to appeal to both kids and parents (since parents will be reading them over and over -- as Tania pointed out, when she read pic books to her sons she sometimes found the books boring). The characters have to feel real. There has to be trouble -- and growth.
Somebody -- I forget who it was -- asked Diego why he'd bother coming to a workshop on "Solving the Picture Book Puzzle" since he's already so accomplished. I loved his answer: "It's so important to learn all the time."
The four stories we heard were excellent -- and I loved how everyone pitched in with praise and suggestions. We decided Tina's story contained at least three separate stories (a nice problem for a writer to have!); that Mark's story was super funny and well-constructed, but that maybe it could be longer and even more profound; that Tanya (with a y)'s story was wonderful and poetic, but could perhaps be told in fewer words; and that Diego's story (it's actually written by his wife Talleen Hacikyan with Diego's illustrations)... well, we thought that project was ready to go!
For me, our six hours together flew by. I was allowed to give participants up to an hour for lunch, but I was dee-lighted when they agreed to only take a half-hour.
I'm pretty sure the participants had fun and learned quite a bit. But I can tell you for sure that one person was flying by the end of the day. Me!
Thanks to Lori Schubert and Riley Palanca at the QWF for helping make the workshop happen; to the QWF, but especially to my eleven "kids." Looking forward to the picture books that will follow!
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