Monday, September 27, 2010

Welcome!

Thanks for stopping by. I started this website as a way to connect with people who love children's books and to share my experiences around the publication of my first book for children, Maggie's Monkeys. I'm happy you found your way here.

What do you want to know more about?

How I came to write the story of Jack and his struggle to accept his sister's invisible friends...

What I do when I'm not writing for children...

How to get in touch with me...
  • I love to hear from parents, teachers and kids. Email me with your comments or questions!

Who drew all those cool pictures in the book?

Has the book won any awards?

What happened to your blog?
  • I've taken a break from blogging, but you can still find my posts in the archive or by using the search box at the bottom of the page.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

We interrupt this hiatus to...

Forgive me for being self-congratulatory, but I can't resist sharing a bit of good news. I just found out (belatedly) that Maggie's Monkeys is included in The Best Children's Books of the Year 2010 from the Children's Book Committee at Bank Street College.

I'm honored and excited for it to be among some truly great books for children in the Under 5 age category.

Parents, if you're looking for book recommendations, this is a good place to find some wonderful books. If I do say so myself. The lists are available online.

(Okay, so I admit it: I'm a bit bummed that they got my name wrong.)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Story behind the story: The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton

My friend and writers' group colleague Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge is the author of the just released biography The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton, which received a wonderful feature review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review a few days ago. I was there as she began the long process of research and writing that led to this achievement -- and to be honest, I doubted that Connie's passion and painstaking attention to detail would be enough to convince publishers that young readers would welcome a Wharton biography. I'm delighted that I was wrong. Connie agreed to share a bit of the story behind the story of Edith Wharton in this guest post.

If it’s possible to boil the writing of a young adult biography down to three key elements, the three, for me, would be these: extravagance, simplicity, and passion.

Extravagance has more to do with time than with money. It took me over six years to write the first draft of The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton. The book is not even 200 pages in length. What took me so long?

Early in the game I realized the information-filing process that worked so well for the shorter pieces of nonfiction I’d always written was threatening to crumble under the weight of the information I needed to write a full-length book. I took a six-month break, purchased accordion files, three-ring binders, and file boxes and developed a system for cataloging photo-copies, notes, and quotes that put every last bit of information within easy reach.

I spent another few months trying to figure out World War I when I realized I had no idea what all the fighting about All of that information was filed according to my handy, dandy new system.

I read all of Wharton’s books (about 40 of them) and short stories (about 80). That extravagant investment of time paid off in spades. Wharton was very guarded in her letters and journals but almost nakedly transparent in her stories. What she was living and thinking poured onto every page of her fiction.

Another time extravagance: Three trips to the Beinecke Library at Yale and another three to the Lilly Library at Indiana University where the bulk of Wharton’s papers are housed. Touching the actual paper Edith wrote on and seeing her handwriting brought me so much closer to her.

All that extravagant information-gathering had to be funneled down into a short, clear, gripping narrative. That’s the second element, simplicity. At this stage in the biography-writing process, extravagance is the enemy. I had to sift through all that was merely interesting to find the truly significant. It was painful! I wanted my readers to have access to every bit of the information I had so carefully gathered and filed. In the simplifying process, the story takes center stage and everything that doesn’t move the life story forward has to go.

People ask me if I’m working on another biography, now that I’ve finished The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton. That brings me to the passion part. What those people are asking is this: Now that you’ve finished your book on Edith Wharton, have you found another person that you care so passionately about you are willing to spend hours, days, and years getting to know her? Have you found a person who is so intriguing you don’t mind being awakened in the middle of the night as you try to figure out why she said what she said or did what she did? What those people are asking is: Have you found a new best friend?

The answer is not yet. But I’m on the lookout!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

On hiatus

Temporarily. But I hope to share a new "Story behind the story" guest post soon.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Being Neil Gaiman

Sometimes I read books that have won stars, awards and widespread praise and think, "Why can't I write like that?" But I've just read two books that fall into that category which left me with a completely different reaction: "I could never write like that!"


The books in question are The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. You'll notice the Newbery seals on both covers. They're both extremely well-written and original books that have won over readers across a broad spectrum.

But I don't aspire to write books like either one. 

The Graveyard Book (which had to overcome my resistance to having received so very much attention) is a perfect example of a book that breaks rules and still succeeds. If you'd told me a book that begins with a multiple murder would win the Newbery, I'd have laughed at you. (In the category of great first sentences you'd have to include this one: "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.") Nobody does eerie better than Neil Gaiman, and his mastery works here. I admit to having to push through a slow patch in the middle, but I cared about all these characters, most of them dead. I also have to admit -- though I hate to, because I'm usually good at spotting a twist on the way -- I fell for one involving the main villain.

 The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is an entirely different book. In the tradition of the Little House books or Caddie Woodlawn, it's the story of a spunky girl struggling against the restrictions of her particular historic era (in this case, the turn of the 20th century). It gives insight into its time as well as tells the story of an interesting girl and her large family. Using Origin of the Species as a linchpin was a brilliant strategy for illuminating the thinking and conflicts of the time.

So why don't I aspire to write books like these? Because these aren't my styles or subject matters. I couldn't write these books, even working at the top of my game. I don't know ghoul gates or wind machines; I don't do creepy and I don't do period.

It's important to know that about yourself as a writer. To know what genres, styles and subject matter work for you. I've ventured outside my comfort zone occasionally -- I even have a science fiction novel tucked away in the proverbial drawer of unsold manuscripts -- and those expeditions have been valuable. But my most successful writing happens when I explore territory closer to home.

I admire writers who are able to cross genres and styles easily (who would think that The Giver and Gooney Bird came from the same pen, for instance). But I think I'll concentrate on mastering one area before trying my hand at becoming the next Neil Gaiman.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Parting ways with your writing group

Can there come a time when even a good writing group isn't good for your writing life?

I've been wondering if any other writers ask themselves that. Whether and how others decide to part ways with their writing groups.

But first I need to say I love my writing group. Both the group as a whole and the individuals in it. Without them, I would never have made it to publication. They took me in as a newbie, taught me about writing for children and about the children's publishing world. Believed in me, supported me. And, more important, became my friends. They've been there through hundreds of rejections and were there at my first signing.

Ours is a particularly special group -- I wrote about the seriousness and professionalism of the group in this post last fall -- and one that functions well. It's not by chance that we call ourselves a writing group, not a crit group, because while we offer each other very helpful insights, we go well beyond that to share our writing and personal lives.

So why have I been only an occasional participant over the last few years? Why do I struggle every month with a decision about whether to attend or not?

The answer is complicated. Or, more accurately, there are many answers.

Tick, tock
One is the simple issue of time. The time I have available for reading, writing, revising and managing the business of submitting is limited. And being a responsible member of a writing group takes a substantial investment of time. To critique other people's writing and do it justice, I have to read a manuscript carefully and repeatedly. I have to be thoughtful about what to say and how to say it. While I learn from other people's writing and my reaction to it, I came to the point where I wondered if that was the best way to spend the little bit of time I had available.

Contagion
Another issue is attitude. My attitude. I've been through several bouts of serious doubt and discouragement -- about my writing in particular, but about the publishing industry overall. So often, all the good effort and craft that goes into our writing seems in vain. That feeling taints my response to manuscripts and isn't one I want to affect others in the group. While they're realistic about the state of children's literature and their odds, my writing friends mostly manage to be hopeful in the face of long odds. So I don't want to be a kind of Typhoid Mary, infecting others with my publishing cynicism.

Multiplication factor
A third difficulty for me, an offshoot of my attitude issue, is that I find my friends' stories of being underappreciated or even mistreated by editors and agents very discouraging. Yes, I love and am buoyed by the successes of my friends -- and there have been many. But reading so many manuscripts that deserve to reach readers' hands and never will is disheartening. It's like having your own rejections multiplied tenfold.

Familiarity breeds... ineffectiveness
Then there's the question of how well writing friends can help each other. After a while -- and I've known most of these writers 10 years or so -- you come to know each other's stories and styles so thoroughly that you can't always see them clearly.  For example, one friend in the group pulls from the personalities and experiences of her extended family for many of her stories. By now, I've met almost all of them and know some of their history. So when a manuscript makes an assumption about what a reader understands, I might not catch it. Because I share those assumptions now. Sadly, knowing each other so well makes us less useful to each other.

Playing solitaire
There's one other thing. Lately, I've felt the need to not share my writing with many people. I've been trying to focus on writing for myself, enjoying the process and not thinking about publication. It's the only way I've been able to survive the doubts and cynicism. To keep writing in the face of all that's ugly about the publishing business. Once, knowing I would have the chance to share my writing with the group motivated me. That's not the case now.

But how do you break up with your writing group? Should you even try?

I offered to leave the group to make room for someone else (our group is large enough that we've agreed  expanding it would make it unwieldy), but my friends declined my resignation. They hold a spot for me to participate at whatever level and frequency works for me. (See? I told you they're wonderful people.) So I attend when my schedule and level of hopefulness allow, responding to manuscripts on the fly and sharing in news of triumph, failure and everything in between.

I'm grateful my writing friends take me as I am, but I also feel guilty for not contributing equally. It leaves me feeling uncomfortable even when I do take part.

Does anyone else have experiences with writing groups to share? I've seen a good bit of information about how to form and organize writing groups, but not much on being part of one over the long term. It seems a topic worth discussing.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I write like... him?

The website I Write Like measures your prose against famous writers. You paste in a sample of your writing and it tells you which writer you write like. It's been distracting all kinds of writers this week, so I thought I'd play along too.

My fiction apparently reads like Stephen King.

My blog registers as HP Lovecraft.

Professional writing I did for a client's website came up as Dan Brown.

And my personal journaling was judged to be like Isaac Asimov.











Interesting. Also, completely invalid.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I changed the look

What do you think? I'm having trouble with elements fitting into the column widths in this template but it's kind of fun to change things around.

Especially since I'm not allowed to rearrange furniture or paint rooms at home. The rest of the family likes things the way they are.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Stay with me

First, an indulgence: Today is the one-year anniversary of this blog. I've had fun doing it and learned a lot, but it's been lots of work too. I don't know how long I'll keep it up, but it seems like a good time to remember Why I did this.

Thank you to everyone who's read my rambles, and an extra thanks to those who have commented on them. The conversations my posts have sparked are my favorite part of blogging.

Now, back to business. I just finished reading Stay with Me by Garret Freymann-Weyr. Freymann-Weyr is the author of My Heartbeat, a Printz Honor book that beautifully portrays the intricacies of first love, a book I've admired for quite some time.

Stay with Me also delves into emotional complexities. The synopsis:
Sixteen-year-old Leila Abranel loves her older half-sisters--from her father's first marriage--but does not know them well. When her sister Rebecca commits suicide, Leila wants to know why and begins navigating her family's breakdown.
The result is a complex story that slowly and carefully moves through difficult emotional terrain. Leila is an acute observer, and her struggles to overcome dyslexia have given her the right tools for dissecting complicated family relationships. As she says, "Dyslexia has taught me that clarity comes only through effort, patience, and help from those who know how to give it."

I'm tempted to say this feels more like an adult novel than YA. Which makes me feel awful -- like I'm shortchanging young adult readers. It also says something about our expectations of YA literature, which Freymann-Weyr successfully avoids succumbing to. Clearly, some teenagers are intrigued by the same psychological mysteries that captivate some adult readers. So I'll restrain myself from classifying it and just note that very little "happens" in the plotting of this book, and even the suicide that propels it doesn't feel immediate in some ways. Instead of action, the book mines the intricate interior lives of a modern family.

Both Stay with Me and My Heartbeat approach young people's sexuality with the same directness as any other part of their lives, so perhaps that also contributes to the adult feeling.

While Leila learns a lot about the adult world over the course of the novel, she doesn't find a simple answer as to why her sister killed herself. It's to the author's credit that she make this realistic resolution satisfying. It's also to her credit that the book sometimes made me feel awkward and uncomfortable -- just the way Leila felt in situations a bit beyond her experience.

Freymann-Weyr's books might not find a home on many school library shelves. So it's up to adults who aren't squeamish about strong emotions and unorthodox situations to put them in the hands of the right readers. If you're one of those adults, I recommend checking her out. She also has two other YA titles I haven't yet read.

(By the way, you might note the similarity in the covers of it and Once Was Lost, which I discussed a couple of posts ago.)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The freedom of restrictions

I find the question of how the discipline of a tight structure can be freeing for your writing an interesting one. Nothing I've read lately brings that issue into focus better than Crossing Stones by Helen Frost.

The story of two families navigating change during World War I, Crossing Stones is written in both free verse and what the author describes as cupped-hand sonnets, a carefully structured form with distinct rhyming patterns. The poems are shaped, some as the free-flowing stream and others as the stepping stones across it, and they reflect the characters of the three narrators as well as the overall theme of the book. The book has received lots of major awards and is even an Oprah pick.

What fascinates me is how Frost manages to succeed so well at the basic elements of storytelling -- her plotting and characterization are both very strong -- while working within such a confining framework. Nowhere did I feel the language strain to make the form work, or the movement of the story contort to fit its needs.

While it is far, far beyond me to imagine writing in such a tight structure, I have found that restrictions can sometimes be freeing. They can force creativity by eliminating easy solutions and can enhance your focus by narrowing the range of possibilities.

For my current novel, I began with a concept that each section would fit on a single book page to emphasize the narrator's disjointed and fragmentary perceptions. I abandoned the page limit halfway through the first draft, allowing some scenes to expand beyond that length, but kept the underlying idea. I found it useful for helping me be more disciplined in trimming my writing to only the bare essentials. In the end, I created a novel without chapters but rather short (sometimes very short) vignettes. Almost every one of them has its own arc or pace.

Is it successful? I think so, but I'm just finishing revisions in preparation for sending it out into the world, so I don't know yet what others will think.

In a Montessori preschool, children often are given meaningful restrictions like this. At the art easel, for instance, they may have a huge pad of paper but only two colors of paint. Limiting them to two colors allows them to explore how those two colors mix and contrast or complement each other. The results are often truly beautiful studies of color. They're very different from the brownish gray that usually comes from children with a lot of paint colors to mix.

Anyone else experiment with self-imposed limitations as a way to push creativity?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I make stuff up

I have this great t-shirt given to me by a friend who's also a writer. It says, "I MAKE STUFF UP" right across the chest. Nothing else on the shirt but that.

It's fun to wear, because it starts conversations with people. I almost never go out in it without at least one person commenting. Sometimes I tell them I write, sometimes I let them decide what it means.

The thing that always surprises me, though, is that people sometimes ask me questions about other things. Like directions or which aisle the ketchup is on. I always answer as best I can, but I can't help but think, "What makes you think you can trust me? Because, clearly, I MAKE STUFF UP."

Maybe people who ask for help haven't looked at the shirt, or maybe they feel someone with a sense of humor is more approachable. Perhaps they just like that I'm being honest about not being honest.

Lots of boutique websites sell the shirts. (As well as almost anything else you want to put the slogan on.) If you're a writer or want to give a writer a gift, I can tell you it's a lot of fun. How often do we get to proclaim ourselves in public? I mean, other than when we go around handing out bookmarks with our latest title.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Time for reading and the state of YA publishing

I've had the tremendous luxury over the past few weeks of having had time to read. (Part very welcome, from being on vacation, and part enforced by having thrown out my back. Not so welcome.) I dedicated the time to catching up with some current YA authors, mostly those writing in the area of realistic contemporary fiction. A subgenre which Abbie -- whose reading trajectory as been along the Redwall to Lord of the Rings high fantasy path -- describes as "too much character development, not enough killing enemies."

I'm happy to report I've found a lot of good stuff being published out there. Here are a few observations from what I've read recently:

Sara Zarr (Story of a Girl, Once Was Lost) does a terrific job of writing about serious internal conflicts without getting heavy-handed or preachy or trite. That's a lot harder than it sounds. I always struggle with epiphany moments -- the realizations that create a climax in your character's emotional arc. In real life, we don't get many such lightning bolts, but rather a series of small insights that lead to change. So I'm impressed when an author makes emotional growth both realistic and dramatic. Zarr -- whose newest book, Once Was Lost, is one of the few to deal with a crisis of faith in a teenager -- handles emotional arcs expertly. (Oh, and I saw her at a local signing. She's very approachable and funny.)

John Green (Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns) creates what feels to me like very true teenage boys. His books have the right mix of humor, obsession with sex, geekiness and grit to make the characters real. His books seem to be about finding one's identity, which is perhaps the biggest question of young adulthood. The latest, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which he wrote with the equally talented David Levithan, is utterly absorbing (though the final scene stretches plausibility a bit) and has one of the most endearing characters I've met in a while. It makes me very sad that many school libraries won't carry this because of the gay characters. [Aside: Actually, I worry about whether all of these books will reach the readers they should, or whether their realism will result in them being rejected by those who believe they can and should control the way teenagers think. But that's a question for another day.]

Francisco X Stork (Marcelo in the Real World, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors) also delivers complex characters dealing with difficult emotional turmoil. He is a bit more likely than Zarr to slide into being didactic, but only occasionally. He gives us people who are quirky and individual without taking it to the point where he turns them into caricatures. He also writes about Hispanic families without that being the point of the story, which is nice. Like Zarr and Green, he also successfully deals with big themes -- what it means to love, to have faith, to be alive. The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, which followed the immensely successful Marcelo so quickly that I hesitated to read it out of fear that Stork had churned out something to capitalize on that success, is actually the better book, I think. Stork also has a really nice journal about writing, with observations like this one:
Faith is this two-chambered heart of giving up and going on. And as the book gets written sentence by sentence yet another kind of faith is needed. Let’s call it faith in the reality of your creation. The world that you are creating is made real and kept alive by your faith. You must not doubt your creation’s power or its purpose or its goodness. The world you have created has been made real by your faith and now you begin to love. You love your characters, the things that happen to them, the world they live in. Faith has become love. And that’s what it always wanted to be.
Isn't that wonderful?

Faith in some of its many forms seems central to these books and my experience of reading them somehow. That's something I will have to think about for a while to be able to discern the connections and echoes for my life. But I feel hopeful for having read these books -- hopeful about publishing and the current generation of writers, but also about young people themselves.

I wish I could say I learned a lot from these talented authors and others I've read in this spell that I can apply to my own work-in-progress, but they're too good for that. They write such compelling stories that I couldn't study any of their technique. I just got drawn in and read these books the way you're supposed to -- like a reader, not a writer.

That's just how it should be.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The awful truth about signings

For a little comic relief, authors and book fans, check out this way-too-true video about author signings. I haven't done many but know this is how it is even for pretty successful authors.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The dangers of writing by default

I don't recall what got me thinking about this recently, but the subject of challenging your assumptions in writing for children has been on my mind. Challenging your assumptions is an important consideration in all of life, but those of us who hope to have some influence on a child have a particular obligation to be careful.

Bias can be so subtle. I was forced up against my own failure in this regard a couple of years ago. I was volunteering at my neighborhood elementary school, which has a lot of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Every week, I spent an hour or two with first graders, listening to them read aloud. The children were allowed to choose a book to read to me.

Many times, these kids were baffled by things in the books aimed at new readers. A giraffe? One girl had never been to the zoo, so giraffes were no more real to her than unicorns or dragons. Traveling on an airplane? A boy asked, Is that like a bus? (Well, yes, these days it is...)

These books made assumptions about what the children had experienced that just didn't apply. Seeing the kids' bewilderment compounding their struggles to read reaffirmed my gratitude for the publishers and authors who are ensuring a diversity of voices in children's books.

Then, toward the end of the first semester, I asked the teacher if I might read one of my picture book manuscripts to the class. It was a Christmas story aimed at their age group and I had an idea for an inexpensive gift I could give each child that was related to the story. I wanted to connect with the children around my love for writing and stories. Generously, the teacher said yes.

The lesson came when I prepared to read aloud. As I revised my story with these listeners in mind, I realized it, too, had a middle-class bias. On Christmas morning, my character went downstairs to the living room to see if Santa had come.

Do you see it? Downstairs. Many of these children didn't have a downstairs. They lived in apartments. Somebody else lived downstairs. Those who had more than one floor to their homes didn't have the kind of living room in my story, the kind that's mostly off-limits to the kids and saved for special occasions. Every inch of space in their homes was used daily.On top of that, my living room had a piano. I couldn't be sure, but I very much doubted that many of their homes had a piano.

Thinking of the story in terms of these particular children showed me that the living room I had created was a remnant from my own childhood -- not a room from today. I don't have a living room that sits waiting for company, or a piano. Lots of people don't live that way today. While plenty do, and it's fine to write a scene that fits their lives, I hadn't made a conscious choice. I'd written that scene by default. Unfortunately, my default setting was 1960s middle-class white America.

I wanted a story that these children could relate to. I made some revisions that didn't exclude them, and we had a wonderful experience together.

What's more, I learned to be more careful to watch for assumptions in my writing. I'm sure I don't always succeed, but I know I catch some things now that I didn't before I came to know these children.

Our job as writers is to interpret and reflect the world. For me, one of our most sacred obligations is to build bridges -- to help people understand and connect with each other. That's why we all must be vigilant against the dangers of writing by default.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Story behind the story: Preschool Day Hooray!

Linda Leopold Strauss is the author of numerous books for children, including A Fairy Called Hilary and The Princess Gown. She is also a good friend and writing critic who has taught me a lot about writing for children. As I promised in my previous post, she has generously agreed to share the story behind her new picture book, Preschool Day Hooray.

Can we read that book again?

So there I was, in the barbecue sauce aisle. And Sticky Fingers Barbecue Sauce caught my eye. Little kids get sticky. Little kids like sticky. Maybe an early picture book about getting sticky?

I started playing with the Sticky Fingers idea when I took my morning walks. At first I stuck (pardon the pun) to the sticky theme. Sticky arms (a hug). Sticky toes (mud). Sticky nose (a star sticker). Taffy apples. Etc. And then I started getting high on word combinations. Licky lolly. Smacky kiss. Wrecky trucks. Clicky seatbelts.

I’d moved far beyond sticky. Where would it end?

Some mornings I remembered to bring my dictaphone with me on my walks; other mornings I had to keep saying word combinations over and over till I got home. Some were clever; some were probably just stupid. But the point here wasn’t to judge, just to think. And to collect.

I honestly can’t remember how or why I decided to put the word combinations together into a long poem. I only know that it happened. It turned out that they could be fashioned into a poem about a toddler’s day, breakfast to bedtime. A poem that rhymed! Don’t write rhyming picture books, say the experts. They don’t sell. But this one rhymed. It just worked out that way.

When reading certain picture books to my toddler granddaughter, Leila, I’d noticed that she would flip pages WAY ahead of the page turns. Hurry, hurry! These books (for Leila‘s purposes) had far too many words. So I knew that for toddlers, word count was important. My new manuscript came in at 85 words.

I tried very hard to keep those words clever, not too sweet, toddler-friendly, and not so far off from standard usage that I would be teaching young children totally incorrect (as opposed to playful) English. I also worked hard to keep the rhythm from being sing-song, interrupting the basic pattern with two stanzas of a different rhythm. I polished and polished.

And then I sent it out. At that point it was called Sticky Fingers, Drippy Milk.

Some weeks later, I returned from a trip to find an e-mail from an editor at Scholastic expressing interest in the manuscript. But she wanted me to change it to focus more on the preschool part of the day. Then she asked me to make it all about preschool. I had to give up some of my favorite stanzas, but I got to add others.

I sent her new ideas and “outtakes.” I talked and she listened; she talked and I listened. I think we worked really well together. I tried to pack as many preschool activities as I could into a given stanza. “Painty hands and/Gooey glue./Green on paper/Blue on…shoe!” covered only art activities. Instead we went with “Painty hands and/Gooey glue./Tricky puzzles/ I can do!”

I also consulted friends and family. My older daughter urged me to add something not totally positive to the text, so I had one of the children fall down on the playground, requiring a…bandaid! Toddlers love bandaids! That’s currently Leila’s favorite page.

And I polished and polished again. Which one to choose?

“Clappy hands  
And tappy feet,

Sing the songs

And feel the beat.”
Or
“Clap your hands

And stamp your feet,

Sing the songs

And tap the beat.”
Or
“Clap our hands

And stamp our feet,

Sing the songs

And feel the beat.”

Or
“Clappy hands

And tappy feet,

Sing the songs

And snap the beat.”

When you’ve got only 85 words to work with, you drive yourself crazy trying to get each word right.

Of course a book like Preschool Day Hooray! (the title changed partly because Scholastic wanted the word “preschool” in the title) depends enormously on the artwork. Writers often lose control at this point -- all I had to offer the illustrator, to shape her vision, to make it match up with mine, were my 85 words. Happily, Hiroe Nakata got it right. I am in awe of her ability to create movement and expression with her paintbrush. Just look at the little person on the dedication page! And the care she took with every tiny detail. The identifying picture over each child’s coat hook in the preschool classroom. The line of ants on the playground. The bird popping out of the cuckoo clock. Wonderful!

And then came June 1. Publication! I got to hold the book in my hands. And the other day, when I had a bunch of young children at my house, I saw them identifying the teacher in Preschool Day Hooray! as “their” teacher. I watched them looking carefully at Hiroe’s illustrations, one by one. I heard them say proudly, “I go to preschool!”

And best of all for this writer, I heard them saying, “Can we read that book again?”

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Book release, Hooray!

Congratulations to my friend Linda Leopold Strauss on her new book, Preschool Day Hooray! Here's a quick sample:
"Hi to teacher,
Coat on hook.
Run to shelf
And find a book.
Painty hands and
Gooey glue.
Tricky puzzles
I can do!"
It comes out today and is perfect for the three- and four-year-olds in your life. Both the bouncy rhymes and the cheery illustrations by Hiroe Nakata are so much fun you won't mind reading it over and over.

And stay tuned. Nina, as she's known to friends and family, will be a guest blogger here soon and will tell us some of the behind-the-scenes story. Until then, happy book birthday to her.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Marcelo and me, in the real world

One thing about relying on the library for most of my reading material is that I hardly ever read books close to their release date. (Another thing is that I don't contribute to authors' royalties, but unfortunately it's not within my budget to buy as many books as I want. That's my real world.)

All that to say: Here's another belated response to a book that's gotten lots of attention elsewhere.

Marcelo in the Real World by Franciso X. Stork was on many reviewers' Best of 2009 lists and won the Schneider Family Book Award for 2010. Lots of people were disappointed it didn't win a Printz honor. Here's the publisher's description:
Marcelo Sandoval hears music that nobody else can hear — part of an autism-like condition that no doctor has been able to identify. But his father has never fully believed in the music or Marcelo's differences, and he challenges Marcelo to work in the mailroom of his law firm for the summer . . . to join "the real world."
Reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in the intensity and purity of its voice, this extraordinary novel challenges the boundaries of autism. It is a love story, a legal drama, and a celebration of the music each of us hears inside.
Like so many others who have already written about this book, I liked it. I read most of it in one night -- that's a good sign right there. And I really liked Marcelo. One of the best characters I've encountered in a while. I felt protective enough of him quickly enough that when his father issues his ultimatum around page 20, I had trouble continuing. I didn't want Marcelo to be in any kind of peril. The other sympathetic characters worked for me, too. The minor characters in Vermont were especially strong.

Other things I liked:
  • the pacing of the book, which is slow and studied, like Marcelo's thought processes.
  • the fact that it deals with big issues, real moral dilemmas.
  • its insights into how having a very different kind of brain -- a different way of being in the world -- might feel.
  • observations that a naive narrator brings to the everyday world (Marcelo's use of the phrase "large talk" as the opposite of "small talk," for instance)
A couple of things bothered me. As usual for me, I was resistant when the tone got a bit didactic. Marcelo's visits with a rabbi to discuss religious issues fell into that category for me. And I worried a little about how Marcelo's (and his father's) repeated attempts to distinguish his condition from others on the autism spectrum might affect people's understanding of or empathy with people who function at a lower level. That concern was allayed somewhat by Marcelo worrying about the same thing, saying he didn't want to minimize their pain.

On balance, I found it a terrific book and recommend it. If there's anyone else out there who hasn't read it yet.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

There's always room


These two books came out within a few months of each other. I don't know if the publishers knew of the other book or were surprised by the coincidence, but they do go to the point that there is always room for more than one take on a subject.

How to Clean Your Room by Eileen Spinelli and illustrated by David Leonard is, as you would expect, a poet's take on the child's chore.
First, wade through the clutter of color like an artist. . . what a lovely mess. Next stop at the books teetering by the bed, tottering with words, worlds you have read about, pages you have danced in. . .
Spinelli's version (complete with flaps and other surprises) focuses on the dreams and memories a bedroom holds. Her room cleaning is more about stopping to live in the moment than about orderliness. The point, she says, is  "to feather-dust the corners of yourself slowly."

How to Clean Your Room in 10 Easy Steps by Jennifer Larue Huget and Edward Koren is far less reverential. Its humor comes from the practical advice of one non-neatnik to another. The first rule of room cleaning is "Always wait until your mother hollers, 'GET UP THERE AND CLEAN YOUR ROOM—NOW!' using all three of your names." And tips include things like, “Pizza crusts may be munched on if they're less than a month old.”

For the orderly parent, perhaps neither book encourages the level of clean that would satisfy the organization experts on Clean House. But both are good books with valid perspectives. I loved Spinelli's, with its more flattering take on the creative mess we live in around here, but know children who would love each one.

I'm glad the publishing world, and our bookshelves, have room for both.

At least until the next big round of cleaning.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Taking on hard topics

I stumbled on an interesting juxtaposition of books while browsing at the library a few days ago. I happened to pick up Sparrow Girl by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Yoko Tanaka.




It's a beautifully illustrated and poignant story that starts, "One day, not too long ago, war was declared in China." The war is against the sparrow population, which has been eating the wheat crops. People use firecrackers and gongs to scare the birds and keep them flying. Told from the perspective of Ming-Li, a girl who vows to save some of the birds, the plight of the exhausted sparrows is heart-rending. Neither the text nor the illustrations pull their punches: "By afternoon, the birds were falling at a terrible rate." When Ming-Li's brother says the birds are like raindrops, she says, "No, they are like teardrops. The sky is crying birds."

The story is based on events from 1958, when Mao Tse-Tung ordered a campaign on sparrows that had the unintended consequence of ruining the wheat crop because there were no birds to keep the locusts in check, causing a terrible famine.

By coincidence, I also read Always With You by Ruth Vander Zee and Ronald Himler.



Always With You  is the story of a young girl orphaned by the Vietnamese War. It shows four-year-old Kim struggling to adjust to life in the orphanage, clinging to her mother's last words for solace. It also tells an honest story, showing Kim hiding and frightened in the aftermath of the bombing that killed her mother, then weeping in bed while a foster mother tries to offer comfort.

In both of these books, difficult subjects are handled without flinching. They work because they stay close to a child's perspective and offer hope for survival. While they might be difficult for younger picture book readers, both are well suited for helping older children begin to come to grips with some of the world's stupidity. Because both of the events portrayed are safely in the past (though both within my lifetime), they may be more approachable for kids than stories of current events.

I congratulate the publishers (Hyperion and Eerdmans) for having the courage to bring us books that aren't easy to read.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Children's books and life lessons

One of my friends shared her copy of Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book with our writing group this week. I'd heard about the book, but hadn't seen it. Anita Silvey, a former editor who has written and spoken widely about children's literature, asked more than 100 famous or accomplished people to write about a children's book that taught them something.

It was great fun to see which books people chose and why. There were some selections that made perfect sense to me and some that surprised me. And there were a few books I'd never heard of.

Katherine Paterson said that she learned a sense of wonder from The Secret Garden. Actress Julianne Moore said Little Women taught her that a woman can choose. Maurice Sendak and Chris van Allsburg both picked Harold and the Purple Crayon (perfect, right?).

I could go on and on about the delicious connections. Mordicai  Gerstein, of the Caldecott-winning The Man Who Walked Between The Towers, learned to change the world by making fun of it from The Bad Child's Book of Beasts. Steve Wozniak read Tom Swift and went on to help found Apple. Pediatrician and author Perri Klass learned about the power of observation from Harriet the Spy.

The book has descriptions and excerpts from each of the favorite books, so it's also a trip down memory lane for anyone who loves children's literature, and a reminder to read or re-read many great books.

What I like most, though, is that it captures what a huge impact a beloved book can have on a child -- no matter how powerful or creative or well-read the person goes on to become.

What book would you name as one that influenced you? I would never be able to pick just one.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Dream of Night

Congratulations to Heather Henson on the publication of Dream of Night, which releases today from Atheneum.
Once full of promise and life, now lost in the shadows of abuse. This is Dream of Night’s story—and it is also Shiloh’s. One is a Thoroughbred racehorse, the other a twelve-year-old foster child. By chance they both find themselves under the care of Jessalyn DiLima—a final stop for each before the state takes more drastic measures. If this doesn’t work out, the girl will be sent to a “residential facility” and the horse to a vet . . . for euthanizing.This is their last chance, so why are they both so resistant? And why can’t they see that Jessie’s life is not as easy as it seems? She fosters animals and children like them for a reason—she’s a little broken too. And, like Shiloh and Dream of Night, Jessie knows what it means to have lost nearly everything you love. A story of hope and healing, Dream of Night reminds us all that the most important bonds in life are never forged by force, and that the darkness of night will eventually give way to dawn.
I had the chance to read an advance copy and it's a wonderful story, told masterfully. It uses alternating points of view -- including that of the horse -- and all three voices are convincing. I wouldn't have thought anyone could pull off writing in the voice of an abused racehorse, but Heather manages it. As impressive as that is, though, the poignancy of Shiloh and Jess, each with their own pain and need, are the heart of this moving story.

For those of you in Cincinnati, she'll be signing books at The Blue Marble on Thursday.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Social studies


I guess it should come as no surprise, but I find that I'm not typical in my social media habits. I've known that for a while --I first got clued in when I realized no one else follows my rule that I don't friend anyone on Facebook who I haven't friended, or at least met, in real life.

But now that I've been blogging and playing around with Twitter for a bit, I see that my ideas for how to make social media tools useful to me aren't the popularly accepted ones. It's kind of heretical to admit, but I don't want as many friends/followers/fans or whatever as I can get. And I don't want to follow every interesting person or blog I run across. Because it's just TOO MUCH. I can't pay attention to hundreds of people, no matter how fascinating they are.

The usefulness to me of Twitter, in particular, seems tied to being discriminating. I love how I can get glimpses into the lives of authors, editors, librarians and others I admire on Twitter. I like getting tips about a publisher opening to submissions or an editor changing jobs or books getting awards. I especially like getting a feel for editors' personalities and tastes.

I can do all that only because I limit how many people I'm listening to. I don't understand how people with hundreds or even thousands of connections keep up with any of them, even with the help of organizational tools and filters. My real-life friends who are busiest on Facebook hardly ever see my posts because they're lost among the hundreds of posts by their virtual friends. So why should I bother trying to communicate with them that way?

A social media professional I spoke with compared the social media world to being at a big party where there are lots of interesting conversations going on at once. She said you can decide which ones to join. But to me, the din of all those people talking and the effort of trying to figure out which conversations might be worthwile keep me from paying attention to any of them. (This imagery is getting away from me. I now have a picture in my head of me at a lively party, except I'm the old lady in the corner with a hearing trumpet, saying, "Eh? What's that?")

Call me old-fashioned if you will. But for now, I think I'll keep my social media involvement rather narrowly focused. That way, it's useful but isn't a major suck on my time.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Boone for kids' books


I don't read much John Grisham. So I'm not an expert in his usual style. But I just read the first chapter of the first book in his new series for kids, Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer. (The chapter is available on the book's website.) The premise is great, and the adventure sounds like it's straight out of Nancy Drew.
With two attorneys for parents, thirteen-year-old Theodore Boone knows more about the law than most lawyers do. But when a high profile murder trial comes to his small town and Theo gets pulled into it, it’s up to this amateur attorney to save the day.
I'm sure it will sell all of the 1 million copies in its first print run.The first chapter, though -- not so impressive. There's nothing terribly wrong with it, but nothing special either. The voice seems a little old-fashioned for today's kids, and the overall effect is a bit of a time warp (enough so that it seemed weird when someone mentioned email) but I'm sure the mystery and action will be more than enough to make up for that.

Mysteries are about to get hot in the children's literature field, some experts say. In case any of you writers are casting about for your next project.

I feel like I should have more to say about this, but I'm tired of complaining about big names getting big contracts, which just feels like sour grapes. And Grisham isn't swooping into children's literature from show biz or some other left field. So why not? I keep trying to hang onto the idea that anything that generates money for publishing helps all of us.

So welcome to the world of kid lit, John Grisham.

(By the way, it's very possible we're distantly related. My maternal grandmother was a Grisham from almost the same area as his family. How about giving a helping hand to a Mississippi cousin here, John? Put in a word with your publisher? I'd be okay with a somewhat smaller print run. Say, a tenth of yours?)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Impossible dreams

Last week Elana Roth at Caren Johnson Literary Agency wrote a blog post she called The Picture Book Problem. Kudos to her for taking on a tough subject. She outlined just how tight the picture book market is and why most agents don't want to take on picture books. Having been to yet another writing conference loaded with people who want to write picture books, she said she wished more people understood that the chances for success in picture books is "severely limited right now."

Roth wrote, "I'm all for congratulating successes and perseverance, but I also want to ask this question: How are we measuring success and what are we telling picture book writers at the conferences to do? Just keep trying no matter what?"

Her post got some thoughtful responses from serious writers about why they stick with picture books. Lots of us just love them. Most commenters tactfully avoided bringing up the fact that a sizable portion of the people submitting picture book manuscripts aren't serious writers -- they're people who suffer under the misconception that writing picture books is easy. (And possibly profitable.)

Having just gotten a particularly disappointing picture book rejection, perhaps I'm feeling unduly pessimistic. But I think it's healthy to face up to the truth about the extremely long odds of getting a picture book published, and even to ask the question about whether it's a reasonable thing to keep pursuing.

I know it's delicate to raise the issue of giving up on one's dreams. We live in a culture that likes to believe you can live your dream if you work hard and stay true to it. There's a lot of stigma attaching to "quitting," as it's usually called. But isn't is possible that sometimes it's the right thing to do? That being realistic isn't necessarily a failure of will, but a reasonable decision that allows someone to direct their energies toward something that's more likely to be satisfying?

When is it the right thing to give up on a dream that's probably impossible?

No one can answer that for someone else. That makes it hard for agents and editors to speak the truth. But it might be best for all of us if we realize that not everyone is a Don Quixote.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My year as a children's author

Maggie's Monkeys was released a year ago today, so this seems like a good time to look back on my experience as the author of a children's book. It's been one of the best things that has ever happened to me -- from the great launch party at Blue Marble Books to discovering last week that a reviewer on Amazon wrote that her 3-year-old loved the book and understood it was about 'mag-nation.

Through the opportunities the book has opened, I've had the chance to meet lots of interesting authors and to play with lots of little kids. The letters and drawings from classes, the parents who tell me their child asked to read it again, the brother and sister named Jack and Margie whose mom choked up when she talked about the relationship of their (almost) namesakes... it's all been unbelievable fun.

This weekend, I'll be at a book fair and will have the chance to meet even more readers and authors. It's the last of my scheduled events and a perfect capstone to the year. I'm honored and proud to have been allowed into young readers' lives. I'm grateful for all the people -- starting with Howard and Abbie, the rest of my family and friends -- who supported me and reveled with me throughout the long process of getting to publication and the fun afterwards.

Here are a few highlights:

A reader's version of the cover.

The French version.


A child with his "find the invisible monkey" sheet (and his car).

And a teacher's blog with Maggie's Monkeys on her Shelfari.

Thank you to everyone who's been part of this terrific year!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Stay tuned for Book Two

The Maze Runner by James Dashner succeeds in many ways. The main character is likable and sympathetic (if gifted with enough advantages that he is more "hero" than "everyday guy"). The construct is intriguing -- I especially liked the giant maze walls rearranging themselves at night. And the monsters are certainly monstrous. Dashner is a genius to combine robotlike features with a slug!

But the book does what far too many "first in a trilogy" books do. The conclusion is all about setting up Book Two, not paying off Book One. I understand cliff-hangers and all that, but I do think it's possible to make an ending satisfying and still leave readers anxious for the next installment.

When I've hung in there with a story for 350+ pages, I think I deserve a few pages devoted to a real ending. I want the characters to have a moment of triumph or insight that lasts longer than dinner.

Is that so much to ask?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Wait for it

Most of the time, I like writing. I even like revising a lot of times. I enjoy keeping up with what's going on in children's literature and learning what I can about editors and publishing houses. In fact, I like almost everything about the writing process -- except waiting.

Anybody who's ever pursued publication knows about waiting. It's what we do after we submit. Wait. We distract ourselves with other tasks, including other writing, and we send out other submissions, etc. But on some level we're just ... waiting. Right?

The closer a manuscript comes to possible success, the harder the waiting gets. An editor asks to see a full manuscript based on a query. Or an editor asks for revisions. Or an editor says she's showing it to her editorial director. Each step of the way, getting through the time until you get the verdict is progressively more agonizing.

All the waiting is beginning to seriously wear on me. It's a bit like living in suspended animation all of the time. I've been doing it for years now, and I'm not sure it's a good thing for my mental health. It's hard to live in the moment when a part of you is caught up in anticipating/dreading what's around the next corner.

It's a separate phenomenon from having your hopes repeatedly dashed, which is tremendously hard to live through time and again. Waiting for feedback or a decision on a manuscript is holding your breath and getting a rejection is having the breath knocked out of you. Neither one is good for you.

Sometimes I wish I had an agent who could do the waiting part for me. Not even tell me where she's submitted or when. It might free me up to stay focused on the writing.

But of course getting an agent would mean more of the same. Research, query, submit ... wait.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Liar, writer. What's the difference?


I'm always getting to books after everyone else has discovered, analyzed and written about them. This time it's Liar by Justine Larbalestier. The one of the cover conflict fame (I couldn't resist using the before and after versions here, because the before is just so wrong).

If you don't know the premise of Liar, suffice it to say Micah is the ultimate unreliable narrator. She promises to tell the truth, but you're never certain whether or when she has. Even when you finish the book. It's a delicious mind-bending mystery.

You should read it if you haven't.

But one of the things that intrigued me was how Larbalestier plays with the very heart of being a writer. She lets Micah tell us the tricks of storytelling (or lying, if that's how you want to look at it) straight out. Early on in the book, I noticed what a wonderful job the author did with sensory detail that made scenes come alive. Then further on, Micah tells the reader that's how to make a story convincing -- not just good details, but how they're delivered. "Let them tease the information out of you. Lightly sprinkle it. One detail here, the smell of peanuts roasting; one there, the crunch of gray snow underfoot."

And again when Micah admits to (or seems to admit to!) having made up a character in the book. "I wanted to see if I could do it: invent a person. Make them believable. Real. Whole." I was struck with how that's what we do as writers of fiction. Micah's core question is the one we are always asking our readers: Do you believe me?

It's odd that two almost completely opposite books like Liar and Maggie's Monkeys could both strike me as being the stories of writers at work. (My observations about Maggie are explained a little bit here.) But I guess we're all always writing about ourselves in one way or another.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Rockin' robin

I've been playing around in Twitter lately, and it's been an interesting experience for me as a writer in a few different ways.

One is the obvious: 140 characters. I think of myself as a fairly succinct writer, but that limit can be ... well, limiting. Especially if you add a link. It's challenging to say something that might be relevant or informative or funny in so few characters. I've been experimenting and am happy that I have a very small audience as of yet so that I don't have to worry too much about sounding inane or arch, which can be a consequence of trying to be clever. At least when I do it.

Another thing that's fun to explore in that arena is voice. Twitter is very casual and, particularly since I follow mostly writers and editors, there are a lot of people who are talented at using that voice to good effect. I find I really like what I encounter there. It feels welcoming, comfortable. Some people today bemoan the loss of formal writing skills, and I know what they mean, but I find that when done well Twitter is strong writing.

I'm not saying that every Tweet is a pearl of writing. But if you care about writing and try to do it well, Tweeting is harder than it looks. It's been fun to begin exploring its limitations and strengths. (I realize that talking about Twitter like this probably makes me sound unimaginably old and out-of-it to anyone under 40, but I'll just have to own that. I don't have a smart phone either. Let me make it clear, though, I'm in the Jackson Five generation of Rockin' Robin, not Bobby Day.)

Has the first novel entirely in Tweets been published yet?

I have some additional thoughts about Twitter as a tool for an author and how I use it vs. how most people use it, which I'll save for later. But if you're a writer who hasn't checked it out yet, I say do it. I'm @swellbooks.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A quiet book


I was browsing new picture books at one of my local indie bookstores a few days ago and picked up The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Renata Liwska. As the promo materials note, "There are many kinds of quiet -- from first one awake quiet to top of the roller coaster quiet."

The book is very minimal and understated, a catalog of different kinds of quiet. But between the carefully chosen examples and the expressions on the animals' faces, it conveys a huge range of emotions. I loved the complexity and variety the author managed to get across in such a simple format and so few words.

There is don’t scare the robin quiet. Others telling secrets quiet. Thinking of a good reason you were drawing on the wall quiet. Bedtime kiss quiet. And lots more. This is a perfect bedtime book. Very sweet.

(I noted that the book creators'  names weren't on the front cover. That would be hard for me if I were the author -- would love to know the story behind that decision.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I never get tired of this


New review today for Maggie's Monkeys on the Young Readers blog. Becky wrote:
I found this one to be a cute book, a funny book, with some heart! I loved the story of this one. How a brother and sister can not get along, and yet, when it really matters, when it really counts, they can be there for one another.
She also encouraged readers to look for the pink monkeys, which I love. I really advocated for there to be monkeys on the pages somehow, despite the fact that Jack can't see them. I'm so happy with how Abby Carter brought my characters to life and am glad readers also appreciate what she accomplished in illustrating a book with invisible characters.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Absolutely true diary of a part-time critic


It happened again this week. I belatedly read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,  the National Book Award winner. I'd seen nothing but rave reviews for it and had been meaning to get to it for a long time.

And I liked it. Junior is a very sympathetic protagonist and his troubles are real. It was a welcome trip into a world I know only from the outside.

But I didn't love it. Just as when I read When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead's Newbery winner, I wasn't as blown away as I'd expected. (My reaction to that book is here.) In each case, I thought the book was good. Very good even. But to me each was marred by a certain self-consciousness. Maybe it's because I'm an adult and a writer, but I could see the man behind the curtain. In Alexie's case, I could feel the author's need to make me understand life on the rez. As well as the effort going in to making the book funny and poignant.

I'm happy to learn more about life on the rez. But my sense of the storyteller distracted me from the story, kept it from feeling as real as I wanted it to. I wasn't able to be immersed in that world. As a result, some things didn't ring true. (When Rowdy uses the word nomadic repeatedly at the end, for example. It made an otherwise believable character seem like a mouthpiece for the author.)

The truth is, I'm not blown away very often. I'm still capable of being caught up in other worlds. Of closing a book and realizing I didn't notice the author's technique. Even when the book has gotten a lot of attention and awards. (One example that comes to mind is Looking for Alaska by John Green, which I felt warranted every word of praise it got.)

So the question bothering me is, have I become a cynical or harsh reader? Have I lost the ability to put the critic aside and read as a reader? Are my expectations too high? Certainly I'm not able to produce books anywhere near this level, so is it jealousy? Or something else?

Why do I seem to be the only one who doesn't love these books?

Monday, March 15, 2010

This book's gonna be a good book

This is a great video by middle school students in Florida. I hope their energy is catching. (It's fun to look for books in the crowd. I think I saw Holes, Star Girl, The Giver, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Web editor


Okay, so I totally stole that title from the piece itself. But it's too perfect not to use.

This article in Slate called Hey, Charlotte, about that thing you wrote last night... by Dan McCoy is a riot. Wilbur gives Charlotte a bit of helpful advice about her writing.

It might sound familiar to anyone who's gotten writing advice:

"It's not as if I don't appreciate your efforts on my behalf. This must have taken all night, and it certainly looks beautiful up there, bedecked in morning dew and glistening. And—let's make this clear—I'm no writer... So, please, don't take this the wrong way, but I have a few notes."

But my favorite part was:

"As a sentence fragment, it lacks a certain clarity. What if someone took your unattached clause and hitched it to the word have, as in the sentence, "Have some pig"?"

Thursday, March 11, 2010

About the author


Yesterday I got an email from someone who told me she read my entire blog and found very little personal information on it. She was trying to write an introduction about me for an authors' reception this week and couldn't do it based on the blog. I was kind of taken aback, to tell the truth. I know I'm a private person, but felt like this is one place where I put myself out there a bit.

Reflecting on it, though, I realized she was right. I share my ideas and feelings here, but not much personal information. My thoughts were that the blog is about children's literature, not me.

But since I had to send her some sort of bio, I thought I might as well share it here too. Even if I can't imagine anyone finding it very interesting.
  • My "day job" is creating communications for KnowledgeWorks Foundation, which is working to spark innovation in education, particularly high schools. I do a mean PowerPoint.
  • I worked for many years as a corporate communications consultant, and my insistence on learning about the audience firsthand led me to such varied things as traveling on a towboat on the Ohio and working a commercial laundry collection route.
  • I'm an armchair genealogist, meaning that I have collected all the information on my family I could find on the internet and am able to report that I am a descendant of King Edward III of England. (No need to bow.)
  • For a brief period, I worked at Mademoiselle magazine, but unlike Sylvia Plath did not get a novel out of the experience. I did get to meet Dr. Ruth.
  • I never went to kindergarten, my favorite place is the beach, I'm allergic to bees, my biggest regret is not traveling more and my thumbs are double-jointed. But that's more than anyone would want to know.
Aren't things like that the hardest writing assignments in the world?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Great minds


I just saw this interview at Cynsations with M.T. Anderson on the subject of my last post. Not that he or the incredibly helpful blogger-interviewer Cynthia Leitich Smith (who has done a series of interviews on writing across formats) was responding to me. But it's interesting to hear thoughts on the subject from a National Book Award winner:

"After I write one kind of thing, I have a natural inclination to write something that feels as different as possible, to stretch myself in another way."

If you haven't read Feed or the first Octavian Nothing,  I recommend them. I haven't gotten to Volume II of Octavian yet. But I was surprised by how much I liked the first one -- as the synopsis didn't sound like something I'd enjoy. When a book outside your usual genres  or topic areas captures you, that's something special.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Age appropriate

A couple of times lately I've had a conversation with another children's book author about the age range we choose to write for. Among the authors I know, there are generally two types.

One type is drawn to and writes almost exclusively for a single age group, whether it's picture book readers, young adults or something in between. Many authors feel they are meant to write for one particular age, and some are just more comfortable with one particular kind of writing. It makes sense. The learning curve for different levels is steep. The style, length, voice, plotting, etc., are completely different from one age group to another.

The other type of author writes across all age groups or at least several of them. I fall into this category. I don't write board books or easy readers, but have put a lot of effort into picture books, chapter books, middle grade and YA. The only thing I've had published beside the picture book are stories in Cricket, which hits the middle grade reader, but I've written pretty extensively in all these age groups.

Lots of us in the latter group have noticed a trajectory in our writing. Our subject matter ages as our children do. We tend to write for the age group into which our kids fall at the moment. Maybe we're opportunistic, but we know those kids, their worlds, their concerns. At least when the kids are young, we also tend to read a lot of other books for that age group, so we know the field. Those are huge advantages.

I don't write exclusively YA now that Abbie is a teenager, and I wrote my first attempt at a YA novel well before Abbie was in high school. But I do feel more out of touch with toddlers than I once did and a lot more versed in the ways of texting and ACTs and homecoming dances.

That's all good, but it raises a question. When Abbie moves beyond what is generally considered the upper age for young people's books, am I finished? Do I start writing for adults, or do I move freely among the age groups because I've experienced them all?

I don't know, and mostly I don't think about it. (In general, I try not to think about Abbie reaching adulthood and leaving.) But I have noticed one trend that could counteract the problem of not having a child in the house. Some of my older colleagues are now writing books for the ages of their grandchildren...