Joyce Sidman on Writing Children’s Books

Tree frogs are different from other frogs. They spend most of their adult life outside of the water. They have special mucus on their toepads so that they can climb. They are the only climbing frog. Tree frogs are very quiet during the day. When you get close to them, they freeze, rather than jumping away. I learned these and other fun facts at the BYU Books for Young Readers Conference.

One of my favorite authors who presented was Joyce Sidman. She has published many award-winning children’s poetry books, including the Newbery Honor-winning Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, and two Caldecott Honor books. Her recent prose biography book, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science, won the 2019 Robert F. Sibert Medal. She also received the NCTE Award for Excellence in Children’s Poetry in recognition of her body of work. In her home state of Minnesota, Sidman teaches poetry writing to schoolchildren.

“I love sharing poetry with children,” she said. “They are natural poets. They love to compare things. So they come up with wonderful metaphors.”

Speaking to the whole group of teachers, librarians, and students to open day two of the conference, she discussed her latest two books, Dear Tree Frog and Hello Earth. Both books were published this spring.

“What ties them together in my mind is that they are both written in the same kind of poetry, poetry that I call letter poems, that is written from the narrator to someone else,” she said. “And both of these books followed a different path to illustration than any of my other books.”

Dear Tree Frog was illustrated by Diana Sudyka. “I just love her rich gouache illustrations that bring the natural world alive,” Sidman said.

“Every book in the world starts in someone’s head,” she said. “And I tell children that because I think they believe that there’s some place in the world that manufactures books … that they just come out and they appear on bookshelves. And usually it starts with some idea that the writer needs to work out in their mind.”

She told the story of how Dear Tree Frog began one day when she was out gardening. She reached for the hose and noticed a little grey blob on it, right where she was about to put her hand. Sidman had seen frogs in her yard, but she had never seen one quite like this. He was small, abut an inch and a half long, and he was all curled up. “Almost like, I’m a yoga person,” She said. “And he looked like he was in child’s pose to me.” She studied him for a while, ran to get her camera, and came back. “And he was just hanging out there, very calm. So she took a picture, which she showed to the audience. Being very interested in this frog, she started reading up on him and found out that he was a very common, gray tree frog that lives in her area. So she wrote a book.

During the afternoon she had a breakout session for questions and answers. I inquired about an issue I encounter during my writing for children.

Me: When you write for children, what measure or tool do you use to make sure that your words and concepts you put in a manuscript are accessible to the age group?

JS: I don’t. I read aloud and go to a writers group. Sometimes an editor comes back and says that a word won’t work.

Me: As adults, we think like adults and mostly talk to each other. I find that in my writing for children I often slip into writing for adults. How do you avoid the trap?

JS: I don’t think about age level when I draft for children. I just start drafting and revising.

I found that response fascinating. It underscored the wide diversity in the minds, approaches, and outputs among writers for children.

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