In a cave in the woods, in his deep, dark lair, through the long, cold winter sleeps a great brown bear. Cuddled in a heap with his eyes shut tight. He sleeps through the day, he sleeps through the night. The cold winds howl and the night sounds growl, but the bear snores on. An itty-bitty mouse, pitter-pat, tiptoe, creep crawls in the cave from the fluff, cold snow. Mouse squeaks, “Too damp, too dank, too dark.” So he lights wee twigs with a small hot spark. The coals pip-pop and the wind doesn’t stop, but the bear snores on.
So begins Bear Snores On, the picture book sensation turned childhood classic. Chances are good that you are already familiar with this book, but do you know the woman who wrote it? Well, she’s come up with some of her best ideas while eating ice cream or visiting the zoo. She was saved as a child, in a way, by C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. She homeschooled her own kids for many years as a way to ensure that they would love reading as much as she felt they deserved to. She is Karma Wilson and today I want you to meet her. I’m Sarah Mackenzie, and this is the Read-Aloud Revival. The show that helps your kids fall in love with books and helps you fall in love with homeschooling. Welcome.
When Bear Snores On was published in 2002, it actually broke a lot of picture book publishing so called rules. Now we have a lot of picture book authors who listen to this podcast, and if you are one of them, you probably already know the rules I’m talking about. For years and years, children’s book authors have been told not to use anthropomorphic characters. So animal characters with human qualities, and also they’ve been told not to write in rhyme. I know, I know. You’re now all thinking of your favorite children’s books that probably do one or maybe both of these things. And it’s true, many of our favorites do. Now, on the one hand, I do understand why agents and publishers have told authors for years not to write anthropomorphic characters and not to write in rhyme. A book with poorly done anthropomorphic characters is cringe worthy. And a book written in bad rhyme or rhyme that doesn’t work, do not get me started. But when they’re done well, we get a bit of magic. Magic like Bear Snores On.
I loved rhyming books and I loved books with talking animals, but all of the author guidelines said, “No, don’t write those things.”
That’s Karma Wilson, the author of Bear Snores On.
And so for the first three years that I was writing, I was avoiding those things that actually drew me as a child and drew my children in to the world of books. And not saying I don’t enjoy other kinds of books, but that was really my first love. And for three years I avoided it and I was not selling much. And in fact, the only things I were selling were poems that were anthropomorphic, rhymed poems to children’s magazines, highlights and things like that. I was about to give up and I decided that I was going to do one last ditch effort and I was going to write a book that was the type of book I wanted to write, and I would see if it worked out and I would see what the editors or the agents or whoever may be thought about it. And so I did that. I had a wonderful critique group. I sent it to the critique group.
They were like, “This is so good. This is so good. Even though it breaks the rules, we really like it.” And they really thoroughly critiqued me. And when I was done with it, I just had a good feeling about it.
What gave me the idea itself was I lived in the middle of North Idaho and so what was natural to my environment was bears and woodland creatures. I was raising my kids in the wilds of North Idaho and I was desperate for an idea and I just started brainstorming and a bear sounded really fun to write about. When I tell kids about how they can come up with story ideas, I say the what if game. Play the what if game. I want to write a book about a bear hibernating. What if there’s a bear hibernating in the woods? What could happen? And I just started answering that what if question, asking more what if questions. And then it happened and I felt really good about it and I sent it to an agent and he took it and then it sold to the second editor that it was showed to.
I love this story and you can probably guess why. Here we’ve got a mother, a busy mother of young children, no less, who decides to just break the rules and write stories she knows kids will love because she’s reading to her kids. So she has a lot of firsthand experience about what they love. And the book is instantly a sensation.
I was actually sitting in the wilds of North Idaho, but connecting on the old internet. I didn’t happen to be on the internet so I could get a phone call. And my editor, Emma Dryden, called me and she said, “Are you sitting down?” And I lied and I said I was cause I had toddlers and kids, so I was really busy. I was like, “Yeah, sure.” And she said, “Bear Snores On is number nine on the Children’s New York Times Best Sellers list.” And so then I found a chair really quickly.
The success of Bear Snores On launched a whole series of picture books. How many books are there in it? I’m not sure. I think 10, 12, possibly more. Because what Karma knew when she was reading to her own kids and as she was writing this book is that it’s exactly the kind of story kids want, that kids love. The kind of story that forms a childhood. I asked Karma, “Which books formed your childhood?”
Where the Wild Things Are, I seriously read that book over and over again and the magic just didn’t go away. I knew the ending. I knew what was coming. I knew [inaudible 00:07:13] would still be hot. It was the words that were comforting. It was the art. It was everything and it was just like visiting an old friend to go through that and read it. Another one, The Monster at the End of This Book. When I got older for a very brief period of time, I was into middle grade novels and it wasn’t very long. But Wrinkle in Time, loved Narnia, loved Little House on the Prairie. Still, to this day, Narnia is a comfort read for me. I will listen to it on my audiobook to go to sleep. I loved it. My favorite book that I’ve ever read, bar none. Love it to this day, is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s incredible. It’s incredible writing, and I’ve probably read it 13, 14, 15, I don’t know how many times.
It wasn’t just Karma’s writing that made Bear Snores On such a success.
… Karma’s writing that made Bear Snores On such a success. For a picture book to be a winner, it needs excellent text, obviously, but it also needs fabulous illustrations. And Bear Snores On has got them. In fact, the Bear books have won a multitude of awards.
I do think that a lot of the award potential does come from Jane Chapman because she is such an amazing illustrator. So, I envisioned it very much more Disney-ish, more cartoonish. She brought this realism and this Beatrix Potter type of feel to it that I believe just really injected it with the classic. I was very lucky to get her.
So, where does one get an idea for a book like Bear Snores On? Well, Karma told me when she tries to sit down and come up with ideas, or she sits down and tells herself, “Write a certain number of words,” that’s not enjoyable for her and it’s also not how she does her best writing or where she gets her best ideas. Of course, where do you get your ideas is a question all authors love to hate. But the reason we ask it as readers is because it does seem like a mysterious thing that happens. Right? How do you come up with an idea like Bear Snores On? Or Karma’s other books, Moose Tracks, for instance, a picture book that puzzles over the animal tracks covering the house. Who left them? Where did they come from?
When I was writing Moose Tracks, I was actually eating Moose Tracks ice cream. I was like, “Oh, Moose Tracks would make a good children’s book title.” And then I was like, “How could I write this children’s book?” When I wrote, Never Ever Shout in the Zoo, I was at a bear exhibit and it said, “Please whisper around the bears.” And so, I turned that into that book. One of my favorite memories, and this is kind of funny because it’s one of my first books that I wrote, was when I wrote Frog in the Bog, I had no idea the twist ending. I had no idea that the gator was the log that the frog was sitting on. That did not occur to me until I was almost to that part of the book. I was just trying to like, “What could be the twist ending? What could be the twist ending?” And that came to me. I surprised myself. And I was so happy that I found the word crater to rhyme with gator, but that’s an aside.
The way Karma talks about her process really exudes the kind of joy that I feel when I’m reading her books. Also, she’s not a write every day kind of writer. For Karma, it’s more about harnessing the whim.
For me it’s on whims. There are certain times that I feel more creative. I’ve written a lot of my books while out camping and I’m bored. Sometimes I have to limit myself from social media, internet, TV. I tend to write in waves, so a lot of times I will have three or four books come to me at once and I will be flipping back and forth between them. My creativity just kind of washes over me. And when the desert’s dry, it is dry. There’s nothing there. And then when it comes, it just comes all at once. And I have really tried to like, “I’m going to sit down and come up with ideas,” and a lot of times it doesn’t work. And then when I’m thinking… I don’t even worry about it, then they’re flooding in. Sometimes an idea will just come over me and it just washes over me and I am done in an afternoon. So, The Cow Loves Cookies, it was an afternoon.
Bear Snores On was I think a two week process, but I was thinking about it every day and it was new to me actually letting myself write in rhyme, I’m letting myself write with talking animals, figuring out the perspective, what I wanted. I was figuring out the formula for Bear Snores On, too. I knew I wanted a repeating line. So, the way that I set it up, it’s like verse, verse, smaller one liner verse, and then the repeating line, that’s not rhymed. So, that was my formula, but I didn’t know it at that time, so it took me a little longer.
Some things come very, very quickly. There’s some books that I have started and the well ran dry and so I just put it away and then came back to it later and finished it, when I finally the spark came and I got that twist ending. A lot of times I’ll get stuck on a twist where I need that something at the end that’s special because I feel like… There are some books, like concept books, that you can just rhyme it all the way through and it’s not really a story. If it has an arc, I feel like it needs that special twist at the end.
Let’s go back to this idea of a picture book written in rhyme. I mentioned earlier that writing and rhyme is sort of a rule breaker, or at least it can be, and that’s for good reason, honestly. A rhyming book that isn’t written well, that doesn’t rhyme, or maybe it doesn’t scan, which means that the words… To make a rhyme work, the words all need to have the right number of syllables and the emphasis of those syllables needs to happen in the right place within each line. A book that doesn’t do that is actually sort of painful to read aloud. Now, when I talk about Karma’s books, I always say they are masterful rhymes. They scan to perfection. The syllables and the stresses on those syllables, yep, they are perfect.
“A badger scuttles by, sniff snuffs at the air, ‘I smelly yummy yums. Perhaps we can share?’ ‘I’ve brought honey nuts,’ Badger says, with a grin, ‘Let’s divvy them up, cozy down, and dig in.’ And they nibble and they munch with a chew, chump, crunch, but the bear snores on.”
Oh my goodness, the alliteration, the diction, I could geek out about the perfection of these lines all day long. I think most of the time, though, we know instinctually as parents reading aloud to our kids that some books are just more delightful to read aloud, and these are the books we don’t mind reading aloud again and again. But what makes a picture book do that? Why are some so much more inviting than others? That is one of my favorite questions to dig into. And Bear Snores On has all the elements of a great read aloud, so even if you don’t know that there is a alliteration, scansion, diction happening under the surface in this book, even if you don’t know that they’re all there, you benefit from them, and you can feel the effectiveness of them as you read aloud.
Now, I love to write in rhyme. In fact, the second picture book we’re releasing at Waxman Books, our new boutique publishing house here at Read-Aloud Revival, is called While Everyone Is Sleeping. It’s releasing in 2023. And it’s in rhyme. Now, I took a class by Renée LaTulippe called Lyrical Language Lab, and this class teaches how to write really good rhyme. Here’s a little plug for the course because it’s so good. So, if you’re a picture book writer who wants to write in rhyme, I cannot recommend this course highly enough. I’m not affiliated with the program or compensated in any way to plug it. I just loved it. I learned so much when I took it. I took the self-study option. So, go look it up if you’re a picture book writer who wants to write in rhyme. It’s called Lyrical Language Lab, and it will teach you how to scan, how to make sure you’re using the right rhythm and meter and cadence and how to apply scansion to-
… using the right rhythm and meter and cadence and how to apply scansion to check your work, and you can do it all online from home. Okay, so I sometimes write in rhyme and I love writing in rhyme, in fact. And I was on the phone with Karma Wilson, a master of the craft. So you know I asked her to tell me more about how she executes the art of perfect rhyming picture books.
Almost every rhyming picture book author that I’ve ever talked to, you’re constantly rereading your work out loud, constantly. So I write two lines, I read it out loud, scan it, and then I will get a couple more and I will go back and I will start reading out loud again and reading out loud again. And a lot of times that’s when you catch, when you’re reading it out loud. It sounds good in your head and you read it out loud and you’re like, “Oh no, that’s going to trip people up.” You can say it in your head and then you say it and you actually realize you got two of the wrong types of sounds together and it’s going to make people stumble or whatever. So that’s a big part of my process.
A lot of learning how to write in rhyme happened from reading good rhyming picture books out loud, I feel like. So I ran a daycare and I always read out loud to my kids. And as a kid I loved rhyme so I read a lot of rhyme. I read a lot of Shel Silverstein. I have a book dedicated to him. And I read a lot of poetry growing up. I read a lot of classic poetry too. I have this whole set of books called My Book House, and there’s I think 12 in the series. I read these all the time and I could read them over and over and over and over again. So I think I owe lots of these books. We used to take them camping and I would read them to my kids camping.
I have those books, and they sort of live untouched on a dresser in my twins’ bedroom so maybe I need to get them down and read them aloud.
So I mentioned at the top of this episode that Karma Wilson homeschooled her kids for a time, mostly out of a desire to help them love reading, which might remind you of something Jonathan Auxier told us. Jonathan Auxier is one of our favorite authors around here, and he shared on the show about his mom pulling him out of public school for a year for the singular reason that he didn’t love reading yet and that was unacceptable to her. I love this so much. Anyway, I asked Karma about that experience of choosing to homeschool her kids for a time. Of course I did.
The first school we were at was great. They were thriving, they were doing really good. We moved to a different town and my daughter was in kindergarten at that time and we moved in the middle of the school year. And the teacher that took her had different expectations than the level that she was at and she was sending her home with these mandatory reading lists and worksheets in kindergarten. And my daughter was getting a really strong dislike for reading. It broke my heart because I really, really wanted my kids to have that joy in books and she was beginning to hate reading. So I was really concerned and I felt like she was being overloaded and that these expectations of her to read a certain amount and answer certain questions every single night and catch up, catch up, catch up.
So I went into the parent teacher meeting and I was telling her I have these concerns and she said My daughter’s just lazy. She was a kindergartner at the time. I left that meeting so angry and I was driving with my husband. I was like, “I can’t believe this. This is ridiculous. She’s in kindergarten, I’m so upset. I’m so mad.” And he said, “Well, I mean we could homeschool her.” I said, “We should homeschool her.” And the more I thought about it, I was like, “I want to homeschool her. I want to homeschool her.” And I actually had her loving reading and up to level within three weeks, three weeks of just letting reading be a joy and something she approached and the books she wanted to read.
She also told me about her son, whom she pulled out the next year, because while he loved reading at home and he was good at it and he read stacks and stacks of books for pleasure, he was getting poor grades in reading at school because they were using one of those “read the book and take a test to prove you actually read it” programs. We all know those don’t work. They don’t turn kids into readers. They also don’t look anything like an actual reader’s reading life. Okay, I won’t get on my soapbox just now.
I asked Karma about her own reading life as a child. She told me a story about one of the pivotal moments in her reading childhood and how a fabulous teacher helped her along the way. Listen in.
I was not a good student, actually. I just didn’t have the childhood for it. So anyway, I was in class. I think I was supposed to be doing math or something and I was reading ahead in the English books and then they had the little sections of famous books, kind of like My Book House. So it had The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in there, but it didn’t give you the ending of the book. I didn’t realize at that time that it was an excerpt from a book. So I got to this cut off and I was like, “Does she go back? What’s going on? What happened?” And I was really, really, really upset.
I took my book and I went up and I slammed it down on my teacher’s desk and opened it. I was like, “What happens? I need to know what happens.” And she was really empathetic. Good teachers are amazing. So I think she kind of had a sense that my home life was a little bit … she said, “Karma, it’s okay. They’re in the library.” I said, “Is it in the library right now?” She said, “I don’t know.” “I want to go to the library.” And she’s all like, “You’re supposed to be doing math.” I said, “I really need to get this book.” So she gave me a slip to go to the library. I went to the library, they had it, so then I started reading that.
Don’t you love everything about this? Karma had a rough childhood, and this particular teacher saw her and knew that at this moment she didn’t need to practice multiplication tables. She didn’t need to do what the rest of the class was doing. She needed a book. And The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, what a book to need, right? Karma dedicated one of her picture books to the author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S.q Lewis, and also to his wife, Joy Davidman. Have you seen it? It’s called Who Goes There, and it features two mice, one named Lewis and the other Joy. And it’s an absolutely perfect book to read aloud in the fall, just saying.
I always knew I wanted to, in some way, pay homage to C.S. Lewis because those were just magical books and I just fell into them and that magical world and loved it. So that was my way of doing it.
A gopher and a mole tunnel up through the floor. Then a ren and a raven flutter in through the door. Mole mutters, “What a night.” “What a storm,” twitters ren, and everybody clutters in the great bear’s den. They tweet and they titer, they chat and they chitter, but the bear snores on.
I’ve read snippets of Bear Snores On throughout this episode, but you’ll have to get your hands on the book yourself –
… throughout this episode, but you’ll have to get your hands on the book yourself to find out the twisty ending Karma used for this one. Do yourself a favor and anytime you see a Bear book by Karma Wilson at your bookshop, thrift store, garage sale, or library, snatch it up. These are classics you’ll want to share with your children and your children’s children. They are worth owning.
In fact, Bear Snores On is our Family Book Club choice for this month in RAR Premium. And like we do with every Family book Club, we’ve made a fabulous guide for RAR Premium members to dig into the book with their kids. In this guide, we’ll teach your kids about foreshadowing, about Jane Chapman’s use of warm and cool colors in her illustrations to do some of the heavy lifting of the storytelling, and also about how the book designer used typography to help shape the read aloud experience. The way the words appear on the page actually tell the reader how to read them aloud. It’s fascinating.
You’ll also find several open-ended questions for dinnertime conversations, ideas for simple and enjoyable shared experiences, popcorn, tea, honey nuts. Yes, please. There are art lessons for drawing and painting bears. There’s a nature study to learn how popcorn actually pops and to watch real bears in Alaska on a webcam. Everything is in the Family Book Club Guide.
Actually, you know what? These Family Book Club Guides are usually only for RAR Premium members, but I want everyone to have this one. So you’re going to find it in the show notes. You can grab it. Text Bear to the number 33777 to grab the 13-page guide for free, or you can just go to the show notes to grab it. That way, you can enjoy all these warm, delicious, toasty memories of Bear Snores On with your kids.
And if you and your kids would like to meet Karma yourselves and ask her some of your own questions, then join us in RAR Premium, because Karma will be on a Zoom with us on October 25th and she’s going to be answering your kids’ questions.
Everything we do in RAR Premium, by the way, is recorded, because we know your family’s busy and your schedule does not always mesh with our schedule. So you’ll have access to the replay within RAR Premium as well. Here are those links for you. For the Free Family Book Club Guide, you can either text the word Bear, B-E-A-R, text the word Bear to the number 33777, or go to the show notes. The show notes are at ReadAloudRevival.com/215.
And then to Meet Karma and join us in RAR Premium, go to RARPremium.com. Ooh, and that reminds me. You know what’s right around the corner? Christmas School. Christmas School is cream of the crop homeschooling, and we do it every December in RAR Premium. It’s four weeks of book clubs that can be your Christmas curriculum in your homeschool. Our members love Christmas School. They table their curriculum for the whole month to do Christmas School instead, because it’s that good. It’s such a delightful way to homeschool in December. We’re announcing all of the details about which books we’re reading in Christmas School this year and what Christmas School’s going to look like in our Premium Preview, and that’s actually happening tomorrow, October 14th.
So do absolutely join us for that preview. We announce everything that’s coming. We give away books all evening long as we’re announcing which books we’re going to be reading through the season. And actually, this time, we’re giving away even more books than usual, because we love to celebrate Christmas School as much as we can. So head to the show notes to find out more about that Premium Preview. I’d love to see you there.
And yeah, you know what I want to do next? I want to hear from some podcast listeners who love Karma Wilson’s books. You, too?
Hi. My name is Felicia. I am in Brentwood, California, and we love the Karma Wilson books, particularly Bear Feels Scared and Bear Feels Sick, because more often than not, it seems like my kids are one or the other, sometimes at the same time. It’s very relatable. It’s told in a cute way. It’s got a happy ending. It’s just a comforting book to read. And we enjoy all of her books, so we can’t wait to have more.
My name’s Logan and I like Karma Wilson’s book, and I’m six and I’m from Kentucky. And I like her books because they’re funny.
My name is Beatrice, and I’m from near Denver, Colorado. I love bears, and I like that your books are about a bear and his forest friends.
My name’s Cole, and I’m eight years old. And I like the Bear books because they’re so colorful and so lively. And bear’s den reminds me of my cozy hometown Atlanta.
Ah, so good. Okay. Here is what’s next. Tomorrow, like I mentioned earlier, we are doing our Premium Preview and you’ll find out what’s on deck in RAR Premium, what’s on deck for Christmas School. You’ll get a chance to win books and have just a fabulous time. I can pretty much guarantee that.
So you can head to the show notes, ReadAloudRevival.com/215 for more on that. Then, in two weeks, I’ll be back here on the show with a new episode for you. That’s something special from inside RAR Premium. It’s a replay from one of our most recent Circle with Sarah Sessions. So Circle with Sarah is the homeschool coaching program for mamas that’s inside RAR Premium. Right now, in Circle with Sarah, we’re digging into what it looks like to teach from rest at various ages and stages. So I’m going to share with you one of the replays right here on the podcast.
Many thanks to Karma Wilson and to all of our RAR Premium members who left messages about what they love about Karma’s books. This episode was written and narrated by me, Sarah Mackenzie, and produced by the team at Yellow House Media. Until next time, you know what to do. Go make meaningful and lasting connections with your kids through books.