Monday, August 31, 2009

"This close"

I was at the bookstore this weekend and noticed the huge line of Fancy Nancy books and gear. And once again I felt jealous. I love the original Fancy Nancy story, which strikes close to home. Like Nancy, Abbie went through a long period when she was fancy. She wore only dresses and particularly liked colorful prints. Howard and I laughed because she called us "the plain people." Abbie never asked us to try being fancy, like Nancy does with her family, but she regularly adorned anyone willing to sit still long enough with scarves or tiaras. Or both.

Fancy Nancy clearly struck a chord with other families too. It has that universal element all good stories require -- a basic premise everyone can relate to. If you don't know anyone who loves being fancy, you certainly know someone who is a nonconformist in some other way.

Which brings me back to the jealous part. I'm always jealous when an author writes a good story based on an idea I feel like I should have had. But in this case it's an idea I did have. Or very close to it, anyway.

I have a picture book manuscript tucked away in the proverbial drawer that tells the story of a girl whose fashion sense isn't conventional. Charlie chooses her clothes based on her ideas of what makes the day fun: "She wanted to wear skirts that twirled and dresses that felt soft against her skin and socks that made her smile." She does her best to follow her mother's instructions to choose clothes that match, but nothing seems to work. Not choosing socks with stripes because they'll match anything, not wearing only clothes with flowers, not dressing entirely in purple. Finally, she decides to study grown-ups and concludes that wearing clothes that match means choosing things that are boring -- like khaki and navy blue. When picture day comes at preschool, her mom realizes how sad Charlie is and relents, saying the rainbow of colors does match -- it matches Charlie.

I admit my story isn't as good as Fancy Nancy. The change-of-heart on the mother's part isn't something that Charlie actively engineers. I think I could find a better resolution that lets Charlie take charge more, but it seems pointless. Because Nancy already filled that spot in the publishing world.

It's one of the curses of being a writer. Occasionally, it seems possible you came "this close" to writing a blockbuster. You didn't, because your book isn't Fancy Nancy or Harry Potter, and letting a turkey drive the bus just isn't as funny. But you can't help thinking if only your timing had been a little better or if only HarperCollins accepted non-agented submissions...

On a side note (as if everything I write here isn't a side note), the Charlie story earned one of the most astounding rejections I ever got. One publisher liked the story but worried about Charlie's belief that matching clothes were boring. She thought it would offend people who wore matching clothes.

I am not making this up. I'm all for being sensitive to different points of view and not being disrespectful of anyone's style. But the idea that some well-put-together preschooler would be offended by Charlie's sartorial exuberance is beyond me.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Finding lost books

If you spend a lot of time with children's books, you tend to get the question fairly often: Can you help me remember this book I loved? As I wrote about in Why I write for children, it's wonderful to be able to help someone find a lost friend.

Recently I stumbled on the Stump the Booksellers service from Harriett at Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights, Ohio. People post their queries and then she tries to figure out which books they're looking for and if possible find them a copy (booksellers do this in person a lot). Customers also help identify the books.

The site is full of things like this:
Hi, I'm looking for a child's book that I read when I was about 10 years old, which would have been around 1964. Unfortunately I don't remember the author or title. It was the first book I ever read that featured a computer. (Which turned out to be Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin.)

And this..

For years I have been searching for a Christmas book that was gifted to me when I was very young (in the early -'50s). I love this book but it was given away by mistake.... Over the years friends and family have sent me numerous books, hoping it would be the one I was missing. I was only about 6 when the book was given to me but I can remember the cover had Santa with a huge bag on his back and the toys were falling out of it. Anyway, I miss it terribly and have long lamented that it got away from me. (The Santa Claus Book: A Big Golden Book by Kathryn Jackson)
There's also a section called Named for the book where people tell why they named their children after a literary character. We didn't name Abbie after a literary character, though we considered Anna because Anna Karenina played a role in bringing us together. But I was 10 when my sister was born and I loved that her name was two of my favorites from Little Women: Laurie Beth. (Little Women being another of the books with tragic deaths and unlikely romances I read when I was about that age.)

If I ever get to Shaker Heights, I'm going to check out Loganberry.

Orphans and Warriors

I don't re-read books very often (it's the "so many books, so little time" issue), but as an adolescent I read one book several times. It was They Loved to Laugh by Kathryn Worth. I'm not sure now quite what I liked about it so much, except that the main character is a sad little misfit who finds a family where she belongs and is treasured. Yeah, that's a theme that'll get me every time.

The book was reissued a few years ago, so I guess it has some loyal readership. I love the synopsis I found:
This novel for young readers is set in 19th century North Carolina and follows the life of a young orphan, Martitia, whose sorrowful solemnity made people wonder if she would ever learn to laugh.
Sorrowful solemnity! I must have been a real riot as a kid.

Oddly, I would have bet on the fact that her name was almost anything other than Martitia. But I can remember the name of my favorite among her six adopted brothers -- the one who falls in love with Martitia but dies tragically.

So many books available for young girls when I was that age -- the age where many girls love tragedy and happy endings -- were full of death and disappointment. There was a lot of fever and industriousness and lost fortunes and unlikely romantic matches and good manners.

All of which have their place in literature, of course. But I'm kind of glad Abbie prefers Tamora Pierce's fierce and fiesty warrior heroines.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Brushing Mom's Hair

Readergirlz just gave a lovely review to my friend Andrea's about-to-be-published book, Brushing Mom's Hair. I can't wait for this book to reach readers, as it is such a candid and moving story based on Andrea's own experience with breast cancer and her daughter Ann's journey through the illness. While the official publication date is September, it's available now in some places.

The Goddess of YA Literature also liked the way "the short poems reveal the tiny stings and surprises that make you catch your breath and remember what it is like to live with the fear of losing someone you love, to live holding your breath sometimes."

Few of us haven't been touched by breast cancer, but whether or not someone you love has been affected, Andrea's book is a must-read. She doesn't blink when it comes to talking about the hardest moments -- her straightforward yet poetic voice is perfect for this topic. Here's the quote Kirkus Reviews chose to highlight, when Ann is unable to talk about her mother's illness with her friends:

I don't say,
My mom
had both her breasts cut off
and now she has stitches
covered by bandages
where they were.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The rest of the story

A few weeks ago, Corey at Thing One and Thing Two asked me to share the behind-the-scenes story of my journey to publishing Maggie's Monkeys, which was a fun thing to write about. It seems like many aspiring writers are heartened by hearing of a book succeeding after years of rejections.

I'm not one of those writers. I wish I was, but I have to admit that the realities of trying to get published flatten me and leave me feeling little hope. I respect writers who can keep submitting and keep believing in the possibilities of getting published even in the face of such overwhelming odds. I'm just not one of them.

Yes, Maggie's Monkeys got published -- and that experience has been wonderful. But while I'm delighted to have my picture book out there in the world and thankful for all the forces that came together to make it happen, I am not convinced it means anything for future submissions.

As I wrote in my guest post, it took about nine years from when I wrote the first version of the story until I had the book in my hands. It was rejected 18 times in the six years between first submission and acceptance by Candlewick. Those were hardly my only rejections in the 12 years or so I've been submitting. In total, I've received nearly 250 rejections on 15 or 20 different stories, ranging from picture books to YA novels.

In the three years from MM's acceptance to publication (everything moves so slowly in this business!), I detected no difference in how my submissions were received by editors. A couple other pieces got close -- once a picture book went to an acquisitions meeting, another time an editor responded to a manuscript by suggesting a particular genre and sending an example of a book whose style she thought I could succeed at. But I got no other offers. Not even on the book I wrote at the editor's suggestion. No nibbles.

I despaired of ever getting another book published and began to see Maggie's Monkeys as the end of my children's writing career. I pulled back from the whole business, tired of the awfulness of it all. There is awfulness, no doubt about it. Some of the hardest parts for me are the rejections that say an editor loves the book and would love to publish it but doesn't think it would stand out in the marketplace. In a world where librarians and independent booksellers are drowned out by chain stores and online outlets, the mix of books being published has changed. In the last couple of years, the economy has made the business even tougher.

If this were fiction, I'd write in a happier ending here. But the truth is that getting published is harder than ever, and I don't know if I have a future in it or not. I'm trying to write for myself and not focus on getting published -- trying to recapture the love of writing that started me down this path so long ago.

Meanwhile, I have the joy of a book for children with my name on it and the chance to hear readers' reactions to it. I'm delighted with how Maggie's Monkeys has been received and I've made lots of connections with people because of it. People like Corey have found their way to the story and reached out to me, and it's been one of the best experiences of my life. I try not to think of it in terms of getting a foot in the door, but simply to be happy for it as it is. As Farmer Hoggett would say, "That'll do, Pig."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Do mother and father know best?

I read something recently that mentioned parents disagreeing about what they should let their daughter read. It got me to thinking about the whole idea of deciding what our children read. When they're infants, of course the adults get to pick. But after that, I'm not so sure we should exercise much control over which books our kids choose. Maybe it's just me, but I have never been smart enough to make the right decisions about what Abbie reads.

Take In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, for instance. I didn't object to Mickey's nudity or the other aspects of the book that have caused so much controversy. But I did find it a little unsettling -- there's definitely something a bit strange about a little boy encountering a group of Oliver Hardy figures in his home at night and narrowly escaping being baked inside a cake.

But my perspective was an adult one. Abbie loved the book. She picked it out at the library and we read it over and over for a time. I don't know why she loved it, but I suspect it had something to do with Mickey flying around and taking charge of what scared him at night and all the fantastic scenery he moves through.

As in so many other instances, I realized I didn't have to understand what the appeal was -- I just had to trust Abbie to know what she needed. (Which was easier to do after I talked to a friend who assured me that her two perfectly well adjusted children had loved it when they were little, too.)

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when a couple of years later Abbie developed a huge fondness for Jack the Giant Killer stories. If you don't know these stories, they're related to Jack and the Beanstalk but much more gruesome. The plot is the same in all of them: the unlikely hero Jack uses his wit to slay the mighty giant.

Abbie encountered the old stories in a vintage children's book when she was about four, and was entranced. Not only did we read and re-read the Jack stories, but we invented new ones. Dozens of them. When we were traveling or had quiet time, Abbie would beg for a Jack story. She'd help set up the scene -- this time, the giant has fire for hair! -- and I'd spin out yet another variation. My Jack sometimes trapped giants and tamed them, but lots of times he invented new and better ways to outwit and kill them. After all, who was I to tamper with the Jack formula?

Bruno Bettelheim says in The Uses of Enchantment that fairy tales help children through important developmental stages. It's easy to see how Night Kitchen and the Jack stories could help a child cope with being the youngest and smallest in a world full of mysterious and large people and things. If Howard and I had censored Abbie's reading, maybe she would have missed out on something she needed. Maybe she wouldn't be as confident when she moves out into the world to confront her own giants and ... chubby mustachioed bakers.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Collaboration (also known as borrowing)

A good writer knows when to borrow ideas, and I can't resist borrowing one from Elizabeth Bluemle at ShelfTalker. She posted this video of Eric Carle and a moving story of her experience with him.

The video captures Carle's joy at doing what he does and his love for our friend Brown Bear, Brown Bear and author Bill Martin. It's a treat.

Monday, August 10, 2009

So many books, so little time

The Booklist blog Bookends recently posed the question, "What's on your shelf of shame?" At first, I thought they were going to confess guilty pleasures, books that aren't critically respected but they love anyway. But the shelf of shame holds the opposite -- classic or highly esteemed books they haven't read yet.

My list of great books I've always meant to read but haven't managed to get to is embarrassingly long. Just last week, I had to sit out a discussion of Willa Cather's My Ántonia at my writing group. I intend to correct that oversight asap.

The Booklist post gives me a perfect excuse to plug a great book by a great friend. Critic Cindy Dobrez confessed that she had to go looking for The Outsiders to review Feels Like Home, which is the second novel from my pal e.E. Charlton-Trujillo. Her first novel, Prizefighter En Mi Casa, won the Delacorte Dell Yearling Award, so you know I'm talking talent here.

If you haven't read them, I very much recommend both books. They have wonderful characters, spot-on dialogue, a undeniable sense of place and -- most important -- heart.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

True confessions

As of today, I've been blogging here for a month. So after that long tenure it's time to come clean on some deep, dark secrets I've been keeping from my reading public.
  1. My profile picture is about five years old. Yes, I wear glasses and look a little older now. (The photo of me reading at a signing is from this spring.) But I didn't pick that photo to erase the extra five years. I chose it because it was taken on the North Carolina beach where we've vacationed for years. I think how much I love being there with Howard and Abbie shows on my face.
  2. I edit posts. I know that it's not generally accepted protocol to go back and edit something you've posted, but I can't stand letting typos or other mistakes stand. So I've drawn a line in the sand (hmm, perhaps I'm still on the beach...) to keep me mostly honest. I only allow myself changes in the first couple of hours after I've posted. There's at least one error I've seen in an older post and haven't changed. Bloggers, is that acceptable?
  3. I am not as upbeat as this blog. For some reason, the cynical or pessimistic side of me hasn't come out too much yet -- maybe it's that happy profile picture, maybe it's the cheery palette. Maybe it's that I started this blog partly as a distraction from being newly unemployed. Whatever the reason, be forewarned. Things may get ugly around here. Or at least sarcastic.
  4. I'm pretending to have readers. Note the universal tone, the questions posed to my audience. I sound like a vast number of strangers is showing up every day to take in my stunning observations. But Google Analytics tells me that's not true. (Hi, Mom!) I guess I'm using the Field of Dreams approach. If you write it, they will come.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Trash and treasure

And on the other side of the discussion, The American Scene hosted a debate about the worst children's books ever. It got pretty heated at times, and I wouldn't recommend following the comments if you're a fan of The Giving Tree.

I bet almost everyone will find a book or two they enjoyed that got nominated as the worst. Even such "perennial favorites" as Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are make appearances. (Fox in Socks, which I used to illustrate my previous post, was a favorite at my house when I was a kid for its tongue-twisterly fun. But someone nominated it for the worst ever list because of its "sheer headachy nonsense and strained rhymes.")

I like how different we all are. At least, I do on my good days. When I'm feeling less optimistic, I find it amazing that so many people are just flat-out wrong.

Ah, the humanity.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Our favorite things

I've been thinking about the nature of our favorite children's books since Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote about the books he considered the best ever. I couldn't help noticing how few current titles were on his list. I realized that when I make my list of favorites, it's heavily weighted toward things that have been around for a while, too.

It seems that most of us like books that:
  1. We read as kids.
  2. We read to our kids.
That makes sense. Our connections to those books run deep. That's why so many parents go into bookstores looking for classic titles -- they want to share the things they loved with their children. It's sad in some ways, because they often pass up great new books in favor of the familiar, but it also speaks to the power of the books we read as children.

I also enjoyed Kristof's follow-up to his original post, in which he noted the overwhelming response to his list. Most of the books people wanted to add to the list also are classics -- one of the few recent titles was Holes.
'What struck me is how passionate so many readers were about their choices. Clearly, they were profoundly shaped by these books, just as I was by my favorites. Some people in their 80’s talked about books they had read as children, speaking of them as their dearest friends. That’s the relationship that I had with books as a child, and yet I’m not sure that many kids these days have the same glorious relationship with books that we did. I hope I’m wrong, for great children’s books are truly magical."
That's what I'm talking about.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The kindness of strangers

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about why I write for children. But that post didn't explore one of the great fringe benefits of being part of the children's literature world -- the many wonderful people you meet along the way.

I started this blog less than a month ago, partly because a total stranger gave me a little push. Corey Schwartz, author of the Eric Carle Museum Book of Distinction Hop! Plop!, read some nice comments about Maggie's Monkeys at PB Planet, where Ame Dyckman dishes up fun servings of picture book reviews and peanut butter recipes.

After Corey tracked me down on FaceBook, I decided to establish a blog as a way to have a public presence. Corey, whose funny and forthright blog is Thing 1 and Thing 2, and Ame were both supportive and encouraging, even though they didn't know me from Eve. Since then, a few others have found their way to this little corner of the blogosphere through them.

Now Corey has featured me as a guest blogger in her new series of posts about authors overcoming rejection. I hope the story of Maggie and Jack's long road to publication inspires other authors the same way the welcoming reception from fellow bloggers has inspired me.

While I haven't spent a lot of time connecting with other lovers of children's books online, I have met plenty in real life. And almost without exception they are warm and generous. I don't know whether reading lots of children's books creates wonderful people or whether wonderful people tend to read lots of children's books, but either way I'm happy and grateful to be part of such an open, supportive community.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

When authors are as wonderful as their books

One of my favorite children’s author stories:

A few years ago, Abbie and her dad and grandmother were at our local bookstore café. Abbie, then about 9, had just purchased a new children’s almanac, one of her favorite things to read at the time. As they waited to be served, Abbie read aloud some of the facts that caught her interest – things involving insects and other topics that might not be best savored at the table. Because her grandmother is hearing impaired, she spoke more loudly than usual.

A woman came over from another table and said how much she enjoyed seeing a kid who loved books. She talked to them about reading and wished them a nice day. They gathered that she was there for a signing and sort of picked up that she wrote books about animals, but didn’t they didn’t ask details and she didn’t offer any.

When they came home and told me the incident, I immediately went to the store’s website to see who they’d encountered. And it was Sandra Boynton!

I was both delighted and frustrated. Delighted, because we love Boynton’s books. The charm and humor and music made them some of our favorites, and I never got the “Not this again!” feeling that re-reading to a kid can sometimes create. I like them so much I routinely give them to new parents.

I was delighted to know that she is so charming and humble and personable. Thrilled that Abbie got to meet an author whose books had been a large part of her childhood (even if she didn’t know that’s who she was meeting at the time).

And I was frustrated that Sandra didn’t get the chance to know that the love of books she noticed in Abbie was partly nourished by her own talents! I’m sure she hears lots of stories of how she touches families, but you can never get too many of those. I wrote her in care of her publisher, but you can imagine the volume of mail she gets... Maybe someday I'll end up at a conference where she's speaking and can tell her in person.

By the way, her website is also as cool and fun as you'd imagine. And, I just found when I poked around there, the page that introduces her books is titled -- and you ready for this? -- Swell Books.