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.”
“Clap your hands

And stamp your feet,

Sing the songs

And tap the beat.”
“Clap our hands

And stamp our feet,

Sing the songs

And feel the beat.”

“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.