Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The talent trap

I would like nothing more than the opportunity to fall into this trap someday, but until then I will enjoy the privilege of the unfamous to carp about those who are hugely successful...

The trap is that of having to live up to success. The pressure to keep the money-makers -- er, I mean books -- coming seems to catch up with almost every bestselling author. Despite what I believe to be the best intentions of truly talented authors, some of their less-than-stellar efforts make their way into print.

One picture book example I read recently was A Chair for Always by Vera B. Williams, another sequel (the third, I think) to the lovely A Chair for My Mother. It has some of the same charms, including the lovable characters of Rosa and her extended family. But I found its two plots -- a new baby in the family and the possibility that The Chair might need to be recovered -- cumbersome. It was almost self-consciously heartwarming. There's a big cast, too. If you weren't familiar with the family already, I think you'd get lost.

Another example was Would I Trade My Parents? by Laura Numeroff and James Bernardin. Numeroff's If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is great fun and some of its spinoffs manage to capture that same wonderful absurdity. But while this book addresses a question that I bet most children have considered and shows a wide diversity of families, it has no story arc, no surprises, no real humor. I welcome the message that there are lots of ways for families to be happy and lots of different kinds of good parents, yet I found the story dry.

(I didn't notice until I added the covers to this post that they have similar designs -- the central child character surrounded by the many adult characters. Interesting coincidence.)

So I'm putting this out there for the future. When I become a household name for my many No. 1 bestsellers, feel free to let me know when an effort isn't up to my usual standards. Consider this post permission to call me on it.

 As if.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Making connections

Last week was a good one for hearing from people who have read Maggie's Monkeys. First there was the interaction with Ms. Smits and her class, which seemed to cheer up the teacher and students as much as it did me. (See my previous post.)

I loved seeing MM on their Shelfari shelf.

Then there was this blurb in Storytime 101: Alien Ants and Spiderman Underpants (don't you love that subtitle?):
Maggie's Monkeys, by Linda Sanders-Wells. This book is definitely worth checking out or buying so you can read it several times with your child. It has a beautiful but subtle lesson about family loyalty and being a good big brother (or sister). I didn't have this book on Tuesday, so if you came that day, please get ahold of this book! It's wonderful.
People like Sandra Smits and Teresa Klepinger, who is the "Storylady" at her local library, are our best hope for raising future generations of readers. Thanks to both of you for your work with children. I'm thrilled that you shared my story with the kids around you.

Friday, January 22, 2010

From the mouths of boys

I woke up tired and tapped out today. Then when I checked my email, I found a Google alert letting me know of a blog post that mentioned Maggie's Monkeys. It turned out to be the Smitizen News, written by Ms. Smits about her fourth-grade class at Holmes Elementary in Spring Lake, MI. After a project where she used picture books to help her students with fluency, she wrote:
"Each child had a picture book, we worked on pausing, phrasing, stress, intonation, rate or pace, and integration (putting all the pieces together). Each child practiced alone, with Mrs. Smits, and with a partner who gave them wonderful advice on how to improve their fluency. When they were ready, they recorded their reading in to the computer."
 As you've no doubt figured out by now, a certain astute student named Hunter chose MM. And I got to listen to him read it aloud. He did a great job and it was so much fun to hear what he chose to emphasize and how he interpreted the dialogue. I found myself clapping my hands with delight, sitting here alone with the computer.

Thanks, Ms. Smits and Hunter, for brightening my day!

Monday, January 18, 2010

And the award goes to...

I'm not the sort of person who has favorites. If you ask my favorite children's book or author -- or color, for that matter -- my honest answer is, for what? My favorite book to read at bedtime, or my favorite from my childhood, or my favorite to read to a group of kids, or the one most likely to make me laugh, or the one most likely to make me cry, or the one I wish I had written or ...

For me, there's never a single favorite. Not even when you narrow the categories. I love so many books and authors for so many different reasons that it's like being asked which is your favorite child (or what I imagine that would be like if I had more than one child).

So with the big award announcements at ALA Midwinter today, I had my usual reaction. Which is to feel sort of let down. Not because I don't like the winning books, but because the awards always leave out so many other fabulous books. I realize the whole point is to single out the very few best books but how can you pick? And how is it okay that so many other books don't get to enjoy the benefits of the limelight?

I guess it's a good thing I'll never be in the position to decide on awards because I'd cause a hung panel. Anyway, my congratulations to the 2010 winners. The only major award winner I have blogged about is When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, which just won the Newbery medal. If you haven't seen them yet, Kids Lit has a list posted in real time during the announcements. They're not up on the ALA site as of yet.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Writing ... or not

Fellow writers:

Does blogging count as writing -- or does it keep you from writing?

I've been blogging for six months now and am starting to wonder whether it's worthwhile as an exercise that at least keeps me engaged in the world of children's literature or if it's simply a distraction from doing real writing. And by real, I mean the stuff that results in manuscripts that can be sent to editors and has at least a remote chance of getting published. (I know that's not what "real" writing is for every writer, but that's what it is for me. The remote chance of getting published implies it's a work of substance and quality, so I hope it doesn't sound like my goals for my own writing are shallow.)

For some writers, blogging may be a form of discipline or a motivation to keep fingers moving on the keyboard. But writing is my day job too. I spend 40+ hours a week focused on words and communication. I don't need a blog to force me to put words on paper (metaphorically speaking). Maybe I should be spending this time -- yes, this very minute! -- doing my real writing.

On the other hand, I blog in short bursts of an hour or so. Which is not quite enough time to get into the right head space and work on a manuscript. And at least it does keep me thinking about kids and kids' books, even if it hasn't sparked the give-and-take that I'd originally hoped.

So is it worth continuing? I don't know.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Random reading

Another browse of recent picture books and some random reactions to them:

I found a spate of didactic picture books, which I really don't like. Maybe it's because I've never liked being told what to do. I think lots of kids are like me in that.

Me and You by Genevieve Cote is about two friends, each of whom wishes to be like the other, which is something lots of children feel. It is gentle and sweet, but I wished for a more subtle or humorous ending than each friend telling the other, "I like it when you're you."

Still, I liked it better than Two of a Kind by Jacqui Robbins and Matt Phelan, which is for slightly older children. It's about being popular versus being a true friend. School Library Journal says, "There's not much here that hasn't been done before but the book imparts a good lesson that needs reinforcing." When a picture book has a subtitle -- "The ins and outs about being in, or out" -- that's a clue it has a Message. (Bias alert: Both the girls who are not part of the in crowd wear glasses. Which registered painfully in my fragile outsider myopic consciousness.)

That fact that he wears glasses even as his alter ego isn't why I liked Eliot Jones, Midnight Superhero by Anne Cottringer and Alex T. Smith, but it didn't hurt. This is a pure flight of fantasy. Eliot is quiet and well behaved during the day, but at night goes on all kinds of missions,  from returning lost teddy bears to saving Earth from a meteor. Lots of fun, no moral. Score one for the good kids.

I've known lots of parents, particularly of boys, who worry because their sons are late to start talking. They will enjoy Bartleby Speaks! by Robin Cruise and Kevin Hawkes. It's a charming story that reassuringly demonstrates that some children may choose not to speak until they have something to say.

I saved my favorite from this batch for last. Finn Throws a Fit by David Elliott and Timothy Basil Ering is wonderful. The story is straightforward -- the title tells the whole plot -- and conveys the fierceness of a child's tantrum perfectly. The illustrations are also a treat, and they capture the energy and destruction vividly. Finn's fit is brought on by nothing real, but has all the power of a natural disaster and lasts "until it doesn't." It's a great book for any toddler who's ever had trouble containing his or her frustration. Which is to say, any toddler.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A turning point

Now that we're all back to business, I'm ready to start thinking about what I hope to accomplish with my children's writing for 2010.

It feels like a "make or break" year for me. While 2009 was a great ride with Maggie's Monkeys getting published, I've been struggling with the truth that it doesn't seem to have been the "foot in the door" that we writers always believe the first book will be. (That may sound like a premature conclusion until you consider that the book was accepted and has been a credential on my cover letters for nearly four years now.)

Since that acceptance, I've received 59 more rejections -- five of them from the editor who bought MM. Of those five, only one sparked any real interest from her, but even after I made revisions to that story she declined it. That was hard.

If getting published is going to lead to getting published again, it seems like that will have to happen this year -- beyond that, even decent sales and nice reviews probably won't have much impact.

On the positive side of the balance sheet, I recently made contact with an editor who asked for revisions to a picture book manuscript that is one of my favorites and that has been well received by a couple of other editors (making it to the editorial board once before being rejected). I also have another project in first draft stage that I hope to get in editors' hands within a few months.

I reached the point once before in my 12 years of writing for children where I felt it was nearly time to give up. It was 2005 and I'd accumulated dozens of rejections. The frustration and disappointment were taking a toll on me. I promised myself I'd give this pursuit everything I could for a year so that I wouldn't have to second-guess myself afterwards if I quit. I spent a lot of time writing and rewriting, I submitted heavily and I even went to the Highlights workshop at Chautauqua, which was extremely hard for me -- and generally a miserable experience.

I did hone my skills during that time, but at first it didn't seem to make much difference. Then in November I got a positive editorial letter from Candlewick and made the revisions that led to the acceptance a couple of months later.

So I'm going to make my best effort again this year and hope it pays off. It's still my dream to be able to keep contributing to children's literature and I'm not quite ready to give up on it.

I'm wishing for success for all the other writers and illustrators who share that dream and are working hard to realize it. May 2010 be filled with all our phones ringing with "the call."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Not a resolution

I don't make New Year's resolutions, but if I did I might resolve to work my way through all the titles in 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up by Julia Eccleshare and Quentin Blake.

Hmm. That's nearly 20 a week. A little daunting, unless that's all I was doing. But wouldn't that be a great way to spend 2010? I especially like that the book apparently isn't US-centric, so I'd probably meet some new authors along the way.

Maybe I can think of a way to do it and then write a book or make a movie about the experience, like Julie & Julia or Super Size Me. But with less food.