Halloweensie 2022

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Halloweensie is a fun contest hosted by Susanna Hill. The challenge is to write a short story–no more than 100 words–with a Halloween theme aimed at children 12 and under that includes three special words (these change every year). Lydia loves Halloween, so I figured I owed it to her to enter. Fortunately, I had an idea as soon as the contest was announced. Head to the link to read all the other fun entries.

SISTERS

by Sara Kruger

wc 100

“Today’s the day!” Mom says. 

I twirl like a tornado in my sparkly dress. 

“Watch out, there, Glinda!” Dad cries.

He’s pouring batter as I crash into him.

A pancake snake hisses in the pan and slithers onto my plate.

But that doesn’t scare me.

Becoming a big sister does.

At the adoption agency, a bucket brims with treats.

Mom nods permission, so I grab a handful and nibble.

Finally the social worker nestles a bundle in dad’s arms.

My gift, ruby red booties, fit perfectly.

My fear fades. I whisper to my baby sister,

“There’s no place like home.”

#FallWritingFrenzy22

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This is my second year participating in Fall Writing Frenzy, a 200-word (or less) writing contest hosted by Lydia Lukidis and Kaitlyn Sanchez with guest judge Alyssa Reynoso-Morris. I love these microfiction contests, although I’m always a little surprised when I start writing and a middle-grade voice comes out. Outside these contests, I spend all my writing time drafting and revising stories for the 3-8 set, but maybe there’s a story in me for the tween/pre-teen set? I certainly love reading them!

Below is my entry. Enjoy! And then visit Lydia’s site for more awesome stories. Or enter your own! (You have through Monday.)


photo credit: Selina Wing for Bing

 THE PORTAL OF NO RETURN
By Sara Kruger/193

Anaya shivered in front of courtyard doors featureless as pumpkins on a vine. The town legend echoed in her mind.

A jack brought at midnight on Halloween will open a portal if it faces its carved twin.

Anaya had always dismissed the stories and thought her twin brother shared her disdain—they mocked those who tried. 

Then last year, Sebastian disappeared.

Setting aside her pride, Anaya sought out the town elders—and listened this time.

Now she traced her jack’s brows as the clock tower tolled, and prayed the elders were right.

DONG…DONG…DONG

The doors creaked open. Hundreds of glowing gourds commanded her forward with a sinister warning.

“Seek”

“Your”

“Jack’s”

“Match”

“But”

“As” 

“Sure”

“As”

“We”

“Burn”

“A”

“Portal”

“Once”

“Entered”

“Allows”

“No”

“Return.”

Anaya scanned the flaming orange faces. 

One fiery orb burned brighter. Its menacing sneer mirrored her own handiwork.

As the two jacks faced, smoke exploded, and the courtyard pulsed with orange light.

A sweeping staircase shrouded in mist appeared; flickering flames pierced the fog, lighting the way up.

She heard a familiar cry.

Grasping the handrail, she climbed the steps two at a time.

She had a brother to find.

#SunWriteFun22 Contest

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If you’ve ever talked to me for any length of time, I’ve probably mentioned my love of sunflowers. I’ve been obsessed since I was a kid and even had them as the primary flower for my wedding (to the perplexing horror of a bridesmaid). Last weekend, my in-laws visited and my loving husband suggested a sunflower festival he’d read about for a family activity. I’ve never registered for a time slot so fast. This was a no-brainer activity for me, although I assumed I was dragging everyone else along. Not so. My in-laws loved it, and my kids THANKED me for bringing everyone [cue head swivel–whaaa?].

What does this have to do with the #sunwritefun writing contest? I heard about the contest a few days before our family outing but had decided not to enter. It’s a nonfiction or info fiction contest and I’m a fiction writer. But after the outing, I had an idea. What if I could somehow write about sunflowers? I considered–and discarded–a couple ideas and then googled “sunflower world records”. And there it was, the perfect story for a 200-word NF writing contest: Fort Wayne Sunflower Passes U.S. Record. So, without further ado, please enjoy this little story about a man from Ukraine who is using his record-breaking sunflower to bring hope to his homeland this summer.

A BEACON OF HOPE by Sara Kruger

It’s summer 2022, and one sunflower soars above the rest in the Babich garden.

Alex Babich of Fort Wayne, Ind, has been an avid gardener since he was a kid facing food shortages in Ukraine. 

He has never thought to grow anything to break records.

But this golden-headed giant sparks an idea. He knows the tallest sunflower in the U.S. stretches 24 feet 9 inches.

He dares to imagine his mirasol surpassing that height.

Alex supports the stem with a wooden structure. Victory is so close—eleven inches away. 

On a Sunday morning, Alex clambers up his ladder to measure…success! At 24 feet ten inches, the blazing beauty is the tallest in America.

Alex names it Ukrainian Spirit because it has stayed strong against all odds, like the people of Ukraine.

With the flower at record height, Alex focuses on growing the head to produce the largest seeds. After they’re officially measured, he will send them to cousins in Ukraine to plant all over the country, whose national flower is the sunflower.

It’s summer 2022, and one sunflower soars above the rest in the Babich garden, a beacon of hope for people on the other side of the world.

PB Resources I Loved in 2021

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Happy New Year!

Last year I accomplished quite a bit in my picture book writing journey: I wrote 16 new drafts, sent 152 queries, received 73 rejections, and celebrated 1 full request.

Below is a list of resources I found helpful in 2021.


PB First Lines

For the last six months, I’ve been analyzing the first lines of picture books published within the last three years. You can find them here . Just click on a month in the drop-down menu. I hope it provides inspiration for your own first lines. I plan to continue this practice–it’s been so helpful to me for knowing the market–and coming up with comps!


StoryStorm

Every year in January Tara Lazar hosts a challenge on her blog called StoryStorm. Every day, a guest writes a post to inspire writers to come up with a new idea for a picture book. The goal is to generate 30 ideas over the course of the month. Comment on her original post for the challenge by January 7 as well as each guest post to be eligible for prizes. 


12 Days of Christmas for Writers

Julie Hedlund hosts this challenge. The goal is to reflect on your writing success for the past year and plan for the next. The community aspect (there’s a FB group you can join) started Dec 26 but the series of videos is always available. Here’s the email and links to videos for Day 1.


First Draft Friday

This isn’t a resource, exactly, but it was one of my favorite activities of 2021 so I’m including it anyway. Hollie Wolverton hosts this challenge the first Friday of every month. The goal is to draft a story in a day. Then you comment on the blog post to be eligible for a prize. The first one for 2022 is this Friday


12×12 Picture Book Challenge

Julie Hedlund hosts this challenge every year. The goal is to draft 12 new picture book stories over the course of the year. It’s membership based, and registration for 2022 opens January 14. Tons of resources are available to members only through the “forum”. I did this for 2021 and found it so helpful. I’ll be signing up again this year.


Mindy Alyse Weiss

Mindy offers several resources for writers: her PB Party Buzz is a monthly collection of her favorite recently published picture books; PBCritiqueTrain is a monthly draft-in-day challenge, giving you the opportunity to have your ms critiqued by someone else who completes the challenge (the next one is January 20); and PBParty is an annual contest in March where writers submit the first 70 words of their story for consideration–30 are selected for a showcase for editor and agent review.

For the next three sections, not everything is picture book specific, but everything covers picture books enough to warrant checking them out.


YouTube
Pam Calvert’s Picture Book University (she isn’t posting new videos anymore, but what’s there is super helpful)
BookEnds Literary
Good Story Academy

Podcasts
The Sh*t No One Tells You About Writing
First Draft
Write Now with Sarah Werner
Writing Coach with Ann Kroeker
Picturebooking
Picture Book Look

Books
Writing Children’s Books for Dummies
On Writing by Stephen King
Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I hope you find something in this list to help you in your picture book writing journey.

A Halloween Time Machine

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I love micro-fiction contests. And this post is for another one. Susanna Hill runs several fun writing contests during the year, including the Halloweensie contest. To enter, you write a story for children no more than 100 words that uses the words goosebumps, goodies, and, glow-in-the-dark. Below is my entry. Read the other awesome entries here.

A Halloween Time Machine

by Sara Kruger

word count: 99

Friend, why the frown?

Too few goodies this year? 

No fear! I’m Jack:

Your Halloween time machine. 

Light my candle; hold on tight

(my grin is a great place to grasp). 

We’ll hit up the house with unsupervised bowls

And the one with large chocolate bars.

We’ll fly past the one that just hands out stickers

Wait–

You actually want those glow-in-the-dark stars?

Ah. Your sis can’t have sweets.

You’re filling her bag this time.

That gives my pumpkin skin goosebumps all over!

All right, we’ll show her

What we know is true:

Halloween is awesome without candy, too.

My favorite writing advice

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I’ve received a lot of great writing advice over the years:

Write regularly
Set up a spot that will inspire you
Read widely
Read great writing
Don’t be afraid of taking a writing break
Read poetry
Go for walks
Keep your eyes open
Keep a notebook with you
Think about your ending and work backward from there
Give yourself a deadline
Reward yourself for small successes
Get yourself a critique group
Read your words out loud
Don’t tell a story that’s not yours to tell

The list goes on.

But two pieces of advice stand out.

Always be prepared for your lucky break.

and

Write a sh*tty first draft (SFD)

ALWAYS BE PREPARED FOR YOUR LUCKY BREAK

The writing/querying/publishing journey is challenging. It’s easy to get discouraged and think success is never going to happen. The writing community is super encouraging and offers a bazillion opportunities to work on your craft and win prizes, but it’s tempting to think, what’s the point? Why bother? The odds of winning are so slim.

I’ve thought this several times. But then I remember this advice (I don’t remember now who said it): always be prepared for your lucky break.

Success comes from showing up. You never fail unless you quit. If you don’t participate, you definitely won’t win, but if you do…you just might.

Every writer’s success story is different. I don’t know who my agent is or how I’ll find them. All I know is I better take advantage of every opportunity I can.

For me, putting this into practice today means entering the #PBCritiqueFest, a picture book critique giveaway hosted by Brian Gehrlein over at PBSpotlight.com. To enter, you fill out a form with information about your story, and by raffle, 31 winners are paired with 31 authors, illustrators, and agents offering critiques. You can increase your number of entries (and therefore odds of winning) through various methods of promoting the contest and its donors.

I’ve entered my story, and over the next two weeks, I’ll work on promoting the contest. And maybe I’ll win, maybe I won’t, but I’ll know I tried. And that will be one more step on my journey to success.

WRITE A SFD

I’m an editor by trade, and before learning about the SFD, I would get stuck on the first line or first paragraph. They were never perfect (obviously), and I couldn’t move on when they were so dismal.

But once I learned about the SFD (thank you, Ann Lamott), my whole mindset shifted. I suddenly understood that the only expectation for the first draft is to exist. Get words on a page. You can’t revise a blank page, but once words — ANY words — are there, you can work with them. Change them a million times. Delete them and type them again. (Or cross them out and rewrite them, for those of you who work best with paper.) Whatever words are in your head, make them black and white and go from there. They won’t match the vision in your head at first. In fact, they might not resemble that image at all. But that’s ok. They’re not supposed to. Slap that paint on the wall. See what sticks. Some splashes might even be Jackson Pollock-worthy. But they don’t have to be.

For me, putting this into practice means being part of Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 Picture Book Challenge, a membership-based writing community that provides resources, motivation, and support to write a SFD every month. And then revise it. And maybe even polish it. Writing that many new stories means I don’t have time to labor over that first draft. I just need to get it on paper.

I’m 10 for 10 so far this year, and grateful for that push. Membership opens again in January.

What’s your favorite writing advice?

Fall Writing Frenzy 2021 Entry: First Day

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I am so excited to be participating in the #FallWritingFrenzy for the first time this year! Thanks to Lydia Lukidis and Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez for hosting. Read on for my short (no more than 200 words) story inspired by the picture below. Check out the contest and all the other wonderful stories here.


Photo: Fall- Credit: Julia Solonina / Unsplash

First Day
By Sara Kruger
Word Count: 190

Jenna whistled as she walked up the winding road to the church, leaves crunching underfoot.

She glanced at her watch–she was a few minutes late. That’s odd, she thought. I left early. 

Pushing open the door, she called, “Raven? It’s Jenna! I’m ready to start.”

The only response was the creaking floorboards.

Setting her bag down, she saw a to-do list by the keyboard.

  • Take old items off cork board
  • Change calendar 
  • Call guest speaker to confirm schedule

Jenna sighed. Might as well get started. 

She pulled a notice off the cork board. 

It was for a fall festival — two years ago. 

Everything was from fall 2019.

She saw the calendar across the room. 

October 2019

She picked up the phone.

No dial tone.

Jenna shivered.

Then she noticed the bars on the window.

She dashed back down the stairs to the street and saw the plaque on the brick wall:

Church of the Holy Sacrament
Abandoned October 2019

She stumbled backward in fright just as a cry pierced the sky.

Someone was staring at her from the tower.

“Raven?!” Jenna gasped.

Words streaked across the glass: 

You’re too late.

Spring Fling 2021

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I’m excited to participate in the Spring Fling Kidlit Writing Contest this year, hosted by @KaitlynLeann17 and @CiaraOneal2. Here’s my spring-themed story!

Daffodils for Daisy

By Sara Kruger

150 words

Baby Daisy squeals.

Serenaded by a sweet song, 

She grasps at plush sea creatures as they circle overhead.

Big brother Aster pulls a soft fish closer.

Daisy grins and blows raspberries.

Mama hugs him. “She smiled at you!”

He strides outside, searching for something special.

A slug slimes his path.

He scoops it up, stands at the door. 

Mama tsks, “No, sir.”

He drops it, wipes his hands on the grass, then spies a small snake.

It slithers away before he can seize it.

He steers his scooter to the door.

“That stays outside,” Mama says.

Then he sees daffodils.

He gathers a handful, dashes back inside.

Mama shakes her head and sighs,

but Daisy grabs a stem.

Aster sits on his heels and

Tickles her face with the sunshiny petals. 

She shrieks in delight, and he giggles,

Then skips back outside

To assemble another bouquet of

daffodils for Daisy.

Cooking thru my kids’ cultures

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A few years ago, I read a book called In Their Voices: Black Americans on Transracial Adoption. It had many fascinating observations, but one that has stuck with me was the advice to make sure my home has objects representing my kids’ cultures. I’ve made efforts since then to ensure my Black kids see their African American and Kenyan cultures reflected in our white-centric home, but it’s proven trickier than I expected, partly because of budgetary constraints and partly for lack of ideas. What exactly makes a house scream “East African” or “Black American culture”? Art, of course, but art is not cheap. Is the wooden “karibu” on my daughter’s wall sufficient? What about the Jackie Robinson books on my son’s shelves? My mother-in-law made Lydia a comforter with African print fabric, a friend handed down several African print dresses her daughter had worn, and I love my Kenyan tablecloth purchased from an online fair trade store, but I’m always on the lookout for more ideas of Black or African items to add to my decor. I want my kids to see themselves reflected in their home environment.

Recently, the Denver Post published an article about the best cookbooks coming out in the fall. Two caught my eye. In Bibi’s Kitchen has recipes from East African grandmothers as well as interviews with those grandmother cooks and a brief history of her country of origin. The cookbook covers the eight countries that touch the Indian Ocean, including Kenya. The Rise tells the story of Black cooking in America and showcases the diversity of black recipes. It claims so much of what we love about American cooking can trace its history to black cooks.

I love to cook, and my kids love to help me in the kitchen (although I don’t always enjoy having them *both* help me at the same time), and I wondered if cooking with them through these cookbooks would count as exposing them to their cultures. My kids are not adventurous eaters, so my premise is probably shaky — hey kids, let’s try this recipe full of ingredients you’ve never heard of! — but I want to give it a try. I learned a lot from my previous attempt at cooking with them; for starters we won’t try to cook something new every day, and I’ll probably take turns with each of them.

We’re unlikely to get to Kenya in the near future, so this is a great way to explore Kenyan traditions at home. In normal times, there are plenty of opportunities to expose my kids to Black American culture, but COVID-19 has made it a bit more of a challenge to take advantage of them in a way that is engaging for kids.

I was going to start with the first recipe and work my way through, but In Bibi’s Kitchen has several flatbread recipes, so I decided bread might be an easier onramp for this project. Soon after the cookbook arrived, on a recent snowy weekday, when bread of any kind is extra comforting, I made Somali flatbread, called sabaayad. I intended to use it as a replacement for pita to go along with hummus and cut veggies for our dinner that evening, but I made it in the morning, and of course everyone wanted to sample it at lunch. It was delicious. Good thing the recipe made 8 pieces! We could each have one for lunch and there was enough left for dinner. Lydia was so enamored she declared she wanted only the flatbread for dinner. Ordinarily I’d be frustrated by her rejection of proteins and veggies, but this day I was just happy the first recipe was a success.

I made sure everyone knew we were eating Somali flatbread, but I didn’t share anything else about East African culture this time. We have a whole cookbook to work through, so I figure I have plenty of time to educate my family about what they’re eating and the cultures from which the foods come.

I’m excited about this project. Looking through the book, I think The Rise recipes will be weekend ones; they appear to need a bit more time to prep (six hours to cure eggs, for example). But I’m particularly excited about this book because the author, Marcus Samuelsson, is adopted. He dedicates the book to his birth mom.

And even if Lydia pushes the plate away in disgust (as she’s taken to doing with any new recipe I try), at least I’ve made one more effort to expose her and Teddy to their cultures.

Twitter and children’s books: #pbcritiquefest

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Early this fall, I got stuck. After spending the first half of 2020 writing a picture book manuscript while my kids were in school, I proceeded to aggressively query agents during July and August. At first I pitched only those whose agency bio or manuscript wish list contained a nugget I connected with, a sentence that led me to believe that particular agent would be a good fit for my book or was simply a fact about them that I resonated with. But I exhausted that list pretty quickly and had to broaden my queries to every agent I could find who accepted unagented picture book author (not author-illustrator) manuscripts.

That list was also despairingly short. I’d queried only 28 agents and I was at a loss for next steps.

And then one evening, while walking around my neighborhood, I was listening to a writing webinar (not picture book specific) featuring advice from published authors , and one of the quotes reminded me to check Twitter for resources. I’d read before about the children’s book community on Twitter but, having uninstalled all social media from my phone early in the summer, I hadn’t explored it.

However, now I needed new resources, so I logged on (via my laptop — I wasn’t willing to commit yet and reinstall the app on my phone) and pulled up the #pbchat and #kidlit hashtags. And I was shocked. Within minutes, my clicking led me to Julie Hedland and her picture book summit and 12×12 picture book challenge (I immediately signed up to be notified when registration opens for the 2021 iteration), Brian Gehrlain and pbspotlight.com and the picture book critique fest, and #pbpitch, the Twitter picture book pitch party. A few more minutes of rabbit trail clicking and I’d discovered blogs that highlighted picture book authors and agents. I was thrilled to realize Twitter is a veritable gold mine for picture book authors!

I added #pbpitch to my calendar and registered for the picture book critique fest and Julie’s How to Win with Twitter Pitch Parties webinar about crafting a great Twitter pitch. That presentation included so many great tips, I signed up for Julie and Emma Walton Hamilton’s webinar package about writing a great pitch. And then I went back to my own pitches…and realized they needed work. But I had new tools for revision, so I attacked my sentences with gusto.

I also read through numerous blog posts with agent interviews and first page critiques. And of course, any agent I came across in this Twitter journey, I added to my list to query.

Since entering the #kidlit and #pbchat worlds on Twitter, my “following” list has grown considerably, giving me more insight into what agents are looking for and encouraging me when I’m facing another rejection.

And finding #pbcritiquefest has renewed my enthusiasm for this work when it’s all too easy to get stuck in a rejection rut. The last few weeks have been so fun following this hashtag. Not only have I found wonderful books to buy during a time when I can’t browse shelves at my local library or bookstore, I’ve been encouraged to see authors support each other in success–and not-yet-success.

I’m thankful to have found this little community. Participating in #pbcritiquefest has shown me that I’m not alone in my writing journey. It’s similar to a running group: we’re not in competition with each other; there’s room for all of us. We’re there to cheer each other on and celebrate our wins. This is a long road — I should expect to query at least 100 agents?! — and I look forward to sharing my own successes as we all pound the pavement together.