Friday, August 17, 2018

Something from Nothing

The calendar says the first day of fall is September 22, but we all know summer ends the first day of school. Here, that is August 6.  Right on schedule, the temperature ratcheted up to 95 plus. Kids at bus stops, melting into the sidewalk at 7 am? So wrong. So unseasonal. Like a street corner Santa in July.

Summer is pure pleasure for long as there is air conditioning. Summer brings out my latent optimism...partially because I am teaching Young Writer's Camps (pure joy), and partially because the skies are mostly sunny. The laid back schedule of summer allows me to indulge in a trip to someplace I've always wanted to go. Sort of like a bucket list, except I'm not organized enough to keep an actual list.

So this summer, we went to Watts.

Yep, that Watts.  The one that those of us of a certain age, watched burn in the riots of 1965.
My daughter, me and the Towers.
For me, Watts means the Watts Towers.  Somewhere in my childhood (maybe an article in Life magazine?) I learned about this magnificent yet quirky installation, built over the course of 34 years. Built by one Sam Rodia. Just Sam.  Nobody else.

There are whole volumes dedicated to the "meaning" and "form" of the Towers. Finding out about Sam Rodia, not so easy. Here is what we don't know about Sam: his real name (variously listed as Sam, Simon and Don; it changed with every census), his actual age(ditto),when he immigrated from Italy (he does not appear on any Ellis Island ship roster), what he did before 1921( from the records, he wandered up and down the West Coast, working as a day laborer, marrying and divorcing at least three women, with whom he had at least two children..that the state of California knew about.) Sam-Simon-Don was a recluse who wasn't much of a talker. Interviewed later in life, he would toss out whatever answer came to him first, forgetting what he'd said previously. Or maybe he just didn't care.

Here's what we know for sure. In 1921, when he was 42 (maybe),Sam bought a triangle-shaped lot at the end of a 107th street in Watts. Back then, Watts was a bedroom suburb of LA. surrounded by truck farms owned by Japanese families. Watts itself was a mixture of immigrant groups, eventually joined by African-Americans, seeking employment in the factories that were taking over the farm lands. Watts was a transportation hub for both rail shipping and the Red Line commuter trolleys that ran between Long Beach and Los Angeles. The railroads ran right along the northern edge of Sam's property.

After his day job in construction, Sam came home and began to build on his pie shaped bit of land. Sam, who had no training in design or architecture, was constructing something out of wire and rebar and discarded steel rails he picked up along the railroad beds.  Sam worked without welding or nails. Without scaffolding or plans. He used the railroad tracks to bend steel into the shape he needed. He worked on his own time, using his own money.

"What are you building, Sam?" the neighbors asked.

"I'm gonna build something big," he'd say.  The neighbors knew Sam well enough to not ask questions, so they just watched. They watched for 34 years as Sam built a mosaic wall around the whole property. Not a plain old wall, but one with a scalloped top.  Did the scallops represent sea waves, waves that would take him home to Italy?  Sam never said.

The walls and towers

Within those walls, Sam erected three towers, the tallest of which was 99 feet. Sam was only four foot ten, so the concrete enforced ribs of the towers were close together, as far apart as a man of his stature could reach. When the towers grew beyond his tallest ladder, he climbed the lower rungs of his tower, higher and higher, adding increasingly small layers until he judged the tower "big enough." He covered his metal skeleton with a thin shell of concrete. He ornamented every inch of the concrete with whatever he found in his neighborhood.

Here is what he used: Seashells, abalone and clam shells. Bits of mirror. Rocks, large and small. Remnants of linoleum and marble. Broken dishes and tiles, rejects from the local pottery factories. Glass bottles the neighborhood children brought him: green soda, blue Milk of Magnesia, brown beer bottles and Chlorox jugs. Glass telephone line insulators. . He embedded his "jewels" into the concrete when it reached the right consistency not too wet or the pieces would sink and be covered, nor too dry, lest the elements would not set firmly and fall off.

Sam worked without a safety belt. With his gas fitters pliers, he shaped the glass in the fire he kept going at the back of the property. He had a tile cutter. These were his only tools.

Sam worked and worked. For thirty four years. Then one day when he was 75 (or 73 or 78), he climbed off his tower and said, "I'm done." Some of the work wasn't finished, but Sam was. He sold the property to his neighbors for 200 dollars (they wanted to open a taco stand), packed his suitcase and moved to Martinez near San Francisco, where is sister lived. He lived in Martinez for the last ten years of his life, dying only a week before the Watts Riots.

He never saw the Towers again.

From across the street, the structures make a lovely multicolored whole, glass and tile sparkling in the sun. But closer, you can see the individual elements. Plate halves. Seven-Up and Canada Dry bottles. Rows of seashells. A patchwork of Arts-and-Crafts style tiles, the same pattern as some in the Smithsonian collection.

The Towers are currently under restoration, so the whole area was fenced off. I can only imagine what it would be like to wander the lot; there is a fish pond, a gazebo, the "ship of Marco Polo", the archway of Sam's house (the original burned in the late 50's after Sam had moved away) These pictures were taken by sticking my phone through the fence rails (probably illegal). I wondered at how Sam had created such an amazing work of art, using nothing but discards, and his own imagination and hard work. (You bet I'm coming back when those fences come down.)

My grandmother's bowl--yellow at the top right of arch
Then, on my way to the car, something ornamenting an archway caught my eye. Two bowl halves, decorated with daisies. That was my bowl! Or rather, it was my Grandmother Smith's Hull mixing bowl that had then been Mom's, then mine. And now here was its broken twin, gleaming on Sam's archway.

Sam did what we all do as writers (if on a somewhat grander scale). He took the detritus of every day life and fashioned it into a whole, unique entity, something whole Sam could've built. We take the odds and ends of our lives, and shape them into stories, without help, using only our imaginations and our gut feelings. We also work without a safety belt or net. We climb our story towers, working as far as we can reach, until something tells us we're done.
The bowl

Why do we do this?

Why did Sam build the Towers? Was he constructing his own little town? Was he building the "ship of Marco Polo",pointed toward Italy, to take him home? These were all things Rodia had told reporters over the years. Does it really matter? The one statement that Sam never varied from is good enough for me.

"I'm gonna build something big."

And so are we.

...And we have a winner!!!

We are pleased to announce that Geri G. is the winner of our giveaway of HP? Who's He? by Patricia Karwatowicz!

For more about Sam Rodia and The Watts Towers here are some wonderful children's books:

The Wonderful Towers of Watts by Patricia Zelver, Boyds Mills, 2005
Dream Something Big by Diana Hutts Aston, Dial, 2011

Friday, August 10, 2018

O! The Feels!

For these summer weeks, Teaching Authors are exploring how the summer season might affect our writing, work plans and/or schedule. Don't forget, we’re also offering readers the opportunity to win an autographed copy of Patricia Karwatowicz’s HP? WHO’S HE? Be sure to read the details on Carmela’s post.

Like Esther, I simply keep on keeping on. Or, echoing Dory’s wisdom, I Just Keep Swimming.

Besides beginning my third term teaching MFA grad students and learning all this new techno-stuff, I continue to search for a new agent. Until my stories find this champion, I continue to study in hopes of mastering my craft. And to that end, let me tell you about a new discovery, Donald Maass’ book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Fiction is primarily an emotional exchange. The reader stays connected to the hero because she feels the story. The reader wants to see the character succeed, or at least wants to see what happens next. The character’s motivation creates empathy between herself and the reader. After all, readers can empathize with a character’s motivation, especially if it’s similar to her own. Readers want to know why these characters are in the mess they are in. They what to know what happens to these characters. If the plot is what happens to your character, then her motivation is the force that sets the plot into motion and keeps it going. It’s why she goes after her goal in the first place.

Maass explores these emotional modes of writing, and demonstrates how to “... use story to provoke a visceral and emotional experience in readers.” According to Maass, the language of emotion makes the difference to a reader’s experience. And plot can be understood as a sequence of emotional milestones...

“Because that’s the way readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own.”

In other words, as Maass suggests, you are not the author of what readers feel. You are the provocateur of those feelings.

With this in mind, Maass explores three primary paths that an author can use to create this emotional experience.

One. Report what characters are feeling, using language and images that evoke feeling. As we know, words can have multiple meanings. The denotative meaning is the explicit definition as listed in a dictionary. Childhood, for example, means the state of being a child. However, the emotional weight, or the expressiveness of language, comes from the connotative meaning. The connotation of the word impacts the tone and themes of the narrative. When Dorothy says "there's no place like home," she is referring to the emotional impact of her family. Because fiction is an emotional exchange, a writer chooses words to create a larger emotional impact. Maass calls this the inner mode, the telling of emotions.

Two. Imply the characters emotional – or inner – state through external action. Maass calls this the outer mode, the showing of emotions.

“Like billiard balls colliding … a character’s actions transfer an emotional impact to the reader, who feels it with equal force, and the reader caroms across the table.”

Three. Create an emotional dialogue between author and reader. Maass calls this the other mode, in which readers feel something that a character does not feel. The reader reacts, resists and sometimes succumbs, but  “…she can never escape the churn and flow of her own feelings.”

Just like when we don’t fully understand why we do the things we do, a character does not always understand her behavior. This confusion, however, makes your character real to the reader. Her confusion reinforces her struggle. Madeleine L’Engle (The Heroic Personality, Origins of Story, 1999) offers that the heroic personality is human, not perfect. What it means to be human is “to be perfectly and thoroughly human, and that is what is meant by being perfect: human, not infallible or impeccable or faultless, but human.” A character’s confusion is authentic. This sense of authenticity is important in keeping the reader connected to your story.

Human beings are complex, messy, flimsy, brave, heroic, cowardly and courageous and infinitely interesting. Emotions skim the surface and run deep, creating conflict and contradictions in the character’s life. When an author masters this emotional connection in her writing, it becomes the difference between a reader simply reading the story, and instead experiencing the story.

Or, that's my hope. I’m still working on it.

Story – whether in prose or verse – can do things, so Maass reminds us, that no other art form can. It engages the imagination on a deeper level. It stirs hearts and brings about change in a way that other art forms rarely achieve.

“Writing a novel is itself an emotional journey akin to falling in love, living together, hating each other, separating, reconciling, gaining perspective, accepting each other, and finally finding deep and abiding love. Writing fiction is like living…The emotional craft of fiction is a set of tools, yes, but more than anything it’s an instrument beyond the range of any book: the gracious gift of your own loving heart.”

What do you think?

-- Bobbi Miller

Friday, August 3, 2018

Sounds of Summer...

For the next few weeks we Teaching Authors are exploring how the summer season might affect our writing, work plans and/or schedule.
We’re also offering readers the opportunity to win an autographed copy of Patricia Karwatowicz’s HP? WHO’S HE? Be sure to read the details at the end of this post.
. . . . .

I’m proud to say, I spend my days - and often nights - growing writers, seeding and feeding human beings who want to tell their stories to children.
Like farming, it’s a four-season endeavor, not to mention, fortunately, a labor of love.

Often while planting and fertilizing, each crop’s possibilities have me pinching myself.
Canadian writer Brian Brett wrote, “Farming is a profession of hope.”
Writing for children is one in the same.  Indeed, isn’t the offering of hope what defines a children’s book?
(My own writing, when I find or finally make the time, can be similarly described.) 😊

this summer,
I’ve simply kept on keepin’ on. I’ve turned page after page to feed myself the newest books - sighing, laughing, crying and ah-ing whilst watering and sunning my writers 'til the cows come home.
As always, I continue to LOUDLY thank the Universe, for my writers as well as for my teaching opportunities – specifically, this summer’s Advanced Picture Book Workshop at Chicago’s Newberry Library, the one-week July Manuscript Workshop in Landgrove, Vermont and my current participation in Judson University’s Doctor of Education in Literacy program.

I’d decided last December to mainly utilize children’s books published in 2018 in my teaching and coaching throughout this year.  Showcasing the marketplace is always a plus. Writers need to know the books being published.  Writers also need to know, though, publishing happens.  Debut authors offer pure Inspiration.

Let’s hear it for these rich resources that continue to help me feed my writers:

Epic Eighteen Authors and Illustrators
The Electric Eighteens (debut mg and ya authors)
Kids Indy Next Lists (seasonal)
The Nerdy Book Club
Mr. Schu Reads (Twitter)
ALA Booklist (Twitter)
PW’s Children’s Book Issues/Children’s Bookshelf

And let’s hear it, too, for my Chicago Public Library’s budget and reserve system that placed each season’s books in my welcoming hands.

Finally, that sound you hear is me enthusiastically applauding Juana Martinez-Neal, Lindsey Stoddard and Adrienne Kisner, authors respectively of these three debut cream of the crop 2018 books – the picture book ALMA AND HOW SHE GOT HER NAME (Candlewick Press), the middle grade novel JUST LIKE JACKIE (HarperCollins) and the YA novel DEAR RACHEL MADDOW (Feiwel and Friends).  Their characters – Alma, Robbie and Brynn - opened my heart and their stellar craft opened my eyes, enabling me to further fortify my writers and students.

Hands together clappin’ and Happy Growin’- all-year-long!

Oh, and be sure to click HERE to enter our Book Giveaway of Patricia Karwatowicz’s HP? WHO’S HE? Today’s the last day!

Thanks to Mary Lee and Franki at A Year of Reading for hosting today’s Poetry Friday AND helping me feed my writers.

Esther Hershenhorn

Here’s a photo of Epic Eighteen debut picture book author Christy Mihaly sharing her Holiday House picture book HEY! HEY! HAY! with 3 of my Vermont Manuscript Workshop writers (from left to right Laurie Stein, Nancy Ramsey, Christy, me, Cheryl Sullivan) this July.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Pause Politics With Poetry and Songs!

Howdy Campers, & Happy Poetry Friday! (The link to this week's PF host, my poem, and a reminder of our latest book give away are below.) 

Today, we in the TeachingAuthors treehouse begin tackling the topic: If/how the season affects our writing/work plans/schedule.

Hmm. For me, it's not about how the season of summer affects my writing, but how campaign seasons affect it.

photo by April Halprin Wayland 2007
In 2004, Bruce Balan and I co-founded a PAC (political action committee), AIC. Every four years since, we've put aside much of our lives to help make our country kinder and more civilized towards children. After the election, we settle back into our lives to volunteer, to play, to parent, to be a friend, to write and to teach.

That's how it used to be. But after the November 2016 election, AIC members asked us to keep working for our children's futures.

What does this mean for my writing? I still write a poem a day, but now, just 100 days from November 6th,  my books have gone "to the back of the bus." Argh.

But there's good news, too. To combat my fury/fear/foreboding while working for change, I've been reading Alison McGhee's inspiring and poetic blog posts, reading the marvelous book, World Enough & Time: on Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen (actually listening tothe author narrates it in a soothing voice with an English accent), listening to less news and more music.

Ah, music! As a longtime folk music fan, I've discovered and fallen in love with this anthem to peace by Woody Guthrie, which his son Arlo Guthrie put to music as Woody was dying:

Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Arlo Guthrie 

My peace my peace is all I’ve got
that I can give to you
My peace is all I ever had
that’s all I ever knew
I give my peace to green and black
to red and white and blue
my peace my peace is all I’ve got
that I can give to you
My peace, my peace is all I’ve got
it's all I've ever known
My peace is worth a thousand times more
than anything I own
I pass my peace around and around
‘cross hands of every hue;
my peace, my peace is all I’ve got
that I can to give to you

I decided to imitate this song for my daily poem. "How hard can it be?" I thought, "It's so dang simple."

So I broke it down to figure out what form Woody used (the letters at the start of each line indicate the rhymes):

A My peace my peace is all I've got
B that I can give to you
C my peace
D xx my peace
A my peace my peace is all I’ve got
B that I can give to you
A My peace, my peace is all I’ve got
F My peace
G xx my peace
A my peace, my peace is all I’ve got
B that I can to give to you

I have a new appreciation of Woody's songs that often sound simple. 

As writer Lillian Ross said: The act of a pro is to make it look easy. Fred Astaire doesn't grunt when he dances to let you know how hard it is. If you're good at it, you leave no fingerprints.'s my imitative poem—still a muddy draft. (originally the last line was in winter, spring and fall  I wrote this note to myself about it: The repeated line does not deserve to be the last line.)

by April Halprin Wayland
This piece, this piece is all I've made
but I must heed its call
this piece has taken all my days
although I know it's small
this piece is gathered from the fields
and from a waterfall
This piece, this piece is all I've made
but I must heed its call
This piece, this piece is all I've made
it's raw, uncivilized
this piece I wrote, then put away
it hadn't crystalized
I'm feeling brave I'll share it now
(if I can read my scrawl)
this piece, this piece is all I've made
but I must heed its call
poem (c)2018 by April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.

And so, while fighting the good fight, I am led to listen to, read books by, and try to emulate people who are kind, civilized and articulate.

photo by April Halprin Wayland 2017
And that's how this season has affected my writing.

Thank you for reading this, Campers. And what about you? Do you have looser/different goals in certain seasons, or are you pretty consistent year-round?

And don't forget TeachingAuthors' drawing for a chance to win an autographed copy to HP? WHO'S HE? by Patricia Karwatowicz, which ends August 3rd! Details on Carmela's post.

Thank you, Catherine, for hosting today at Reading To The Core!

posted with hope by April Halprin Wayland with help from Monkey, Eli and everyone who does good work.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Book Giveaway and Student Success Story Interview with Patricia Karwatowicz

Hello, everyone! Today, I'm pleased to bring you a Student Success Story interview with my former student Patricia Karwatowicz in honor of the recent release of her first novel, HP? Who's He? (4RV Tweens and Teens). At the end of this post, you'll find instructions on how to enter for a chance to win an autographed copy!

Before we get to the interview, I hope you won't mind if I share three terrific tidbits of news about my own novel.
Playing by Heart:
All this good news happens to coincide with a special offer I'm running. From now through Labor Day (Sept. 3), I'm giving away a free ebook copy of either of my award-winning novels to any teachers or homeschooling parents interested in previewing the books for possible classroom use. Plus, I'll schedule a FREE 20-minute virtual visit (via Skype or Google Hangouts) with any class that reads either book as a result of this offer. You can see all the details on my website.

Okay, now it's time for the Student Success Story interview with Patricia Karwatowicz.

Before I begin, let me share her bio with you:
     Pat is a former pediatric nurse, twenty-year religious education teacher, wife of fifty years, mother of four grown children, and grandmother of five. She loved helping kids heal physically, and spiritual healing seemed a logical progression. The characters in her faith-based stories show generosity and courage, and her stories open children's eyes to God’s presence in their daily lives. Pat enjoys reading, walking, birding, and talking with kids. Her home is in Naperville, Illinois. You can read more about her and her books at her website.

Pat's middle-grade novel, HP? Who's He? was released by 4RV Publishing a few months ago. Here's the synopsis:

After Grandfather's move to heaven, a family breakup, and a relocation to bone cold Illinois, life doesn’t balance anymore for twelve-year-old California surfer dude HP. Then Grammy Jan sends him a pocket cross and his grandfather's old Bible, which happens to contain a special message to HP from Grandfather. Empowered, HP gears up for Mission Possible to find out who he is and what he stands for, and if he's even on God's radar. 

Congratulations on your new book, Pat! I'm so glad its release inspired me to setup this interview, which I discovered is long overdue. It’s hard to believe, but it will be 20 years this fall since you took my Writing for Children and Teens class and the follow-up Workshop class at the College of DuPage! I believe the classes played a role in your getting your first magazine piece published. Would you tell our readers about that?

Who knew it was that long ago, yikes! Yes, I was all ears listening to your expertise on writing tips and the business of publishing books. Your first magazine story in Pockets inspired me to write my own submission, and in a year, Pockets published my first story “Big Worry” about my grandson moving away.

I'm always pleased when my students find success from taking my advice! Can you share about how the class also led you to expand your knowledge of the field of writing for children? What advice would you give to beginning writers seeking to learn about children’s publishing?

After your class, I read a ton of books on writing. Hubby gave me a birthday present for a week-long trip to Highlights writers camp. I joined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), which led to my joining a critique group. The group lasted 15 years, and we still cheer each other on. We've had quite a few books published and agents landed. Joining SCBWI is the best advice I can give, along with taking Carmela Martino’s classes!

Thanks, Pat! Your first published books were part of a picture book series. Would you tell our readers a little about those books and how you found your publisher?

I learned the basics of picture book writing by taking classes at SCBWI conferences and studying picture books. Write to Publish, a conference held yearly in Wheaton, IL that features editors, publishers, and agents in the Christian market, launched my picture book A Shiny Red Apple. A Cook Communications agent loved it, but felt it needed to be a series. She asked for two more stories, and in a month, I sent her A Sprig of Parsley and A Child’s Song. Gotta strike while the iron is hot! They published all three.

Your newest book, HP? Who’s He?, is a middle-grade novel. What made you switch to novel writing? Would you share a bit about the novel and what inspired you to write it?

Having developed six faith stories for younger readers, I wanted the challenge of doing this for older kids. As a religion education teacher, I saw a real need for middle-grade students to connect faith to their contemporary world. HP is a likable but flawed kid who needs reason and truth in his life. A Post-it note in an old Bible and a pocket cross begin his adventure of finding God and becoming the best person he can be. When it gets too hard, he sketches, goes birding, and eats lots of peanut butter.

Your novel’s main character, HP, comes up with lots of creative peanut butter recipes, many of which are included in the back of the book along with your original (and very clever) illustrations. Can you tell us where you got the recipes and how they were compiled and illustrated?

I love peanut butter and remember living on it as a picky eater, so some of the recipes are things I ate as a kid. They don't require cooking, so can be made unsupervised. (Except for the killer cupcakes, which are a throw-back to the sixties!) I’ve taken years of watercolor classes so art is my second love. My 85-year-old teacher Ruth Van Sickle Ford gave me the punch line when someone asks how long it takes to paint a picture. She would say, “Two hours and 85 years.” I use that when I’m asked how long it takes to write a novel. As for the drawings, I wanted them to look like twelve-year old HP did them.

HP? Who’s He? is published by 4RV Publishing. Can you tell us a little about 4RV and how you came to publish with them?

This small press was listed in a monthly Children’s Writer newsletter about nine years ago. (Unfortunately, the newsletter is no longer in print.) 4RV took the story because they were open to Christian writing.

Book promotion can be especially challenging when you’re with a small press. Can you tell us some of the things you’re doing to promote HP? Who’s He? and about any events you have planned?

I follow The Publicity Hound website and have been implementing some of the tips there. I also read everything I can find on marketing and how to reach out to people. I've found that requests usually take two or three follow-up calls.

Here are some of things I've done or plan to do:
  • My book club featured my book. 
  • I got an interview with the Daily Herald newspaper. 
  • I placed books in The Catholic Shoppe in Westmont, IL
  • Had a “Book Birthday Party” at home for friends with games and fancy deserts. I shared my author journey and read from the book. (Grandmothers are part of my target audience.) 
  • I asked the library to buy the book, but they need people to request it. (Something readers in our fan club can do!) 
  • I had a table at the Chicago Catholic Homeschooling Conference 7/12-13. 
  • My book will be part of a Local Author showcase at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville on Sunday, August 5, 2-4 pm
    I invite all your TeachingAuthors readers to join us!
  • If any of your readers happen to be near Burlington, Iowa, I'll be signing at the Burlington Buy the Book store there on Saturday 9/8, from 12-3 pm (scheduled the same weekend as my nursing class reunion). 
  • Several Iowa newspapers will also be running interviews about me. 
  • My church will offer a signing and I'm working on doing an event with the Knights of Columbus. (The book features honorable knights and the knight’s code.) 
Marketing is as hard as writing the book and finding a publisher! The reward is connecting with kids and readers and writers. It’s fun!

Wow! You've sure been busy, Pat. Well, thanks so much for taking time for this interview. And thanks, also, for offering our readers a chance to win an autographed copy of your new book.

Readers, to enter our drawing for a chance to win an autographed copy of HP? Who's He? (4RV Tweens and Teens), written by Patricia Karwatowicz, use the Rafflecopter widget below. You may enter via 1, 2, or all 3 options.

If you choose option 2, you MUST leave a comment on TODAY'S blog post below or on our TeachingAuthors Facebook page. If you haven't already "liked" our Facebook page, please do so today!
In your comment, tell us what you'd do with the book if you win our giveaway--keep it for yourself or give it to a young reader?

(If you prefer, you may submit your comment via email to: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com.)

Email subscribers: if you received this post via email, you can click on the Rafflecopter link at the end of this message to access the entry form.

Note: if you submit your comments via email or Facebook, YOU MUST STILL ENTER THE DRAWING VIA THE WIDGET BELOW. The giveaway ends August 3 and is open to U.S. residents only.

P.S. If you've never entered a Rafflecopter giveaway, here's info on how to enter a Rafflecopter giveaway and the difference between signing in with Facebook vs. with an email address.

Don't forget Poetry Friday. This week's roundup is hosted by My Juicy Little Universe

Finally, remember to always Write with Joy!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, July 13, 2018

When My Work Pesters Me, I Listen

One of the things I love about historic research is that there is always something more to learn. No matter how much I’ve learned about a topic, there is always something deeper, richer, and more complex to know about it.  

I’ve had that experience this week as I’m working to get the final edits done on my book that is coming out this fall titled Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, published by Holiday House.  This book is full of all sorts of fascinating information and images.  And though I’ve never done it before like this, I’ve written an introduction and <gasp> even placed images in the introduction.  These amazing, powerful images will pack a punch even before the first word of chapter one.  

It was the caption to one of those images that wouldn’t let me rest this week. 

The caption as I wrote it a while back has been through various readers including my editor countless times, copyeditors, and even managing editors as they read the manuscript. The caption was absolutely fine and fabulous.  

The image on the page is a diagram of a slave ship.  The caption mentioned the transatlantic slave trade and identified the name of the ship and when it was built.  It was a good caption.  It was enough information, especially for the introduction! 

But still that caption pestered me.  My work does that to me-and when it does I pay attention.  

I started wondering…a great thing for a nonfiction author.  Are there any specifics I could add to the caption?  Maybe just a few words if I could find some detail about the ship or the human cargo it carried.

Then it got really interesting.  I found that specific ship on the Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database provided by Emory University.   I found out lots of details about this slave ship.  I know who the captain was, who owned the ship, where they picked up the enslaved, where they took them, how many Africans were packed belowdeck, how many were men, women, boys, and girls.  I know the voyage across the Atlantic took 51 wretched days.  I even know how many of them died on the voyage.  

And as if all that wasn’t enough, I discovered that abolitionists in Great Britain used this diagram to show the horrors of the slave trade.  And William Wilberforce, a British politician, used a model of that specific ship when he spoke to Parliament against the slave trade.  

Click here to see the model.

What a fascinating piece of history!

Although there was nothing wrong with the original caption, I knew more about the topic than what it said. And, well I just had to share it. So I emailed my editor suggesting an eleventh hour addition (actually the hour is more like 11:55) for the caption on page 2.   

And my wonderful editor Kelly, agreed with me and found a way to make it work.  

I’m really glad that caption pestered me.  

Carla Killough McClafferty 

Friday, June 29, 2018

Permission to Imagine

 I teach creative writing to kids. You'd think I am surrounded by junior Weltys and
Me, one happy camper!
Hemingways. I am, most of the time.

A couple of years ago, I got a call from a total stranger who heard I tutored. I do occasionally mentor high school students with Important Writing Projects--college essays, a fantasy novel they are self-publishing, a contest entry. A call from a dad about his 8th grade son was not a surprise.

His request was.

"Can you tutor my son in creativity?" he asked.

My hearing isn't what it used to be, especially over the phone. I asked him to repeat what he'd said. He did.

He wanted me to teach his son "to be creative."

I am not a phone person. I have a hard time making myself understood if I can't see who I'm talking to. The dad, son and I made an appointment "to discuss" at Starbucks.

When I first moved to my North Atlanta suburb 17 years ago, I joked that I was really living in Lake Wobegon--"Where all the children are above average." Every kid was either in the Talented-and-Gifted Program, or a prodigy in some other field. I had never seen such a cut-throat bunch of students and parents. I'm not talking high school juniors, aiming for Harvard Early Admission; these were fourth graders.
The Carriage House-Young Writers HQ

Now here I was at Starbucks with a dad insisting I "teach" his son creativity. Cautiously, I asked what he expected from "creativity lessons."

"He must be able to write an excellent college essay. His grammar and form are very good, but he has no ideas. Very dull. I don't understand. He is an A students, but no imagination." Dad spoke rapidly, thrumming his fingers on the table, obviously annoyed with my stupid questions. "He is going to be Ivy League."

I sipped my soy latte, trying to figure out a nice way to say it was a little early to obsess over Ivy League admission, and that you can't "teach" creativity.

I asked if his son liked to read. No, he did not. He was "too busy" to read. Busy with what?
Extracurricular science classes, violin lessons, learning a FOURTH language.

"He sounds busy all right," I agreed. "But what does he do in his free time? Does he like to read?"

I thought Dad was going to pound the table, so I grabbed my latte. "Free time? There is no free time. He must work at subjects that will get him into an Ivy League college."

The dad called to the boy who had been banished to a corner table.  He was the most arrogant 14-year-old I have ever met. He had always excelled at everything...until he hit the wall with his lack of creativity. I could tell he thought that since he wasn't creative, it must not be very important.When the son started interviewing me as to my credentials, that was it. I told Dad I didn't think his son and I would work well together. And got the heck out of Starbucks.

I chalked that up to one of those weird things that happen sometimes. I spent a few moments regretting that an intelligent boy had never had the chance to be creative, and therefore dismissed it as unimportant. Then I forgot about Dad-and-Son.

Until Young Writer's Camp the following summer. Since I have to get know my students in the first hour of a one week camp, I have question cards with the basics--name, age, last school attended. Then the not so usual--how many books have you read for fun in the last school year? What's your favorite book? My last question is"What is the most important thing I need to know about you?" I started asking this after I had a hearing impaired camper, and no one thought to tell me.

 I get goofy answers ("I love Minecraft. Can I just do that on my phone?) or heartbreaking ("My best friend died last month and I am really sad.").                                      
Sssh! Writers at work.

For the last three years, at least one student every session writes "I have no imagination"--or some variation of that.

That floored me. I subscribe to Pablo Picasso's philosophy. "All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." I substitute "writer" for "artist" and "once he grows up" to "once he leaves middle school."  These kids are 10 and11.

Why on earth would any child that young think they had no imagination?

"How do you know this?" I ask, and get the same answer every time. "My teacher said so." Or, "My parents say so."

How depressing. A fourth grader who believed himself incapable of original thought

As I talked to these campers, a profile emerged. They were incredibly over scheduled, starting in toddlerhood. When I asked what they did for fun, they gave me a blank look. Free time? Fun? Something that did not involve winning and losing? This was a new concept for them.

Up a tree, imagining.
Enriching children's lives with extracurricular activities can be a good thing. My own Young Writer's Camp falls in that category...the difference being there are no awards or winners at camp. The reward is having fun and using your imagination to do and be whatever you want.

Imagining takes time. Time that appears "unproductive" to a task-oriented parent or teacher. Even adult writers have a hard time explaining to others (OK, spouses) that lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling with Beethoven's 9th blasting is "writing." Characters are living and dying in my head, to a Beethoven soundtrack. They have to live in my head awhile before they make it to the page.

As an only child, I spent a lot of time alone. An only child with chronic respiratory infections. I missed so many school days through fourth grade, that by today's attendance policies, I would still be in second grade. Home alone, I read, drew, wrote and imagined whole towns full of people, all of which resembled Mayberry. If you've ever read Harriet the Spy, it was a lot like her game of Town.

Any number of authors have had long spells of illness when they had to entertain themselves with books and their own minds. I am not recommending chronic illness as a way of nurturing creativity. What I am advocating is down time. Time to stare at ants on the side walk, gaze at the shapes of clouds, invent imaginary friends and pets. Time to slop around with paints without a teacher's direction, to put on music and make up your own dance without worrying about posture or precision. It's not about perfection; it's about the freedom to create. The freedom to fail without repercussions or shaming.

Take my own daughter (please! Rim shot!) She too is an only child who spent a lot of time alone.  Like me, she learned to entertain herself with crayons and paper. In school, her artwork did not win praise because she "did not produce representational images." In other words, she preferred colors and shapes to drawing a horse or a house. She just stared down her teacher and continued to draw her own way.

Her artistic epiphany came on a day when I was trying to finish book edits. Desperate for quiet, and an activity that didn't require my supervision, I gave her a bag of ancient disposable cameras. By the end of the week, she had used them all up. This was at my parent's house, and when we went home, I saw no reason to drag the cameras with us. I mean, she was five. I wasn't going to waste money developing pictures that were probably shots of her feet or the ceiling.
From one of the disposable cameras. Lily's grandmother.

Weeks later, a package arrived from my parents. Mom, ever-the-doting grandmother, had developed the pictures. And...hey, these pictures were good. They were carefully composed, centered, and focused. One roll was nothing but shots of my mother's antique collection, one vase, one statue, on piece of porcelain at a time, like an auction catalog. Another roll I had watched her shoot...walking around the yard, snapping pictures of the ground. Or so I thought. These were pictures of dead leaves and roots, with interesting shadows and shades of brown. Beautiful. There were closeups of household items--a doormat, an electric fan. How did a five-year-old, whose teachers had labeled as "lacking in artistic skill" learn to do that?
Lily's 1st award winner. 3rd grade

I still don't know.  She continued to photograph, first with my old school Nikon, (which she still prefers) and finally her own digital Canon. As a result of a bored five-year-old messing around with disposable cameras, was that at high school graduation, her portfolio was recognized as one of 10 "AP Photography Profiles of Merit" from across the country.

Is she the next Ansel Adams? No. She's an education major in college. But she has a love of photography, something that gives her the satisfaction of creating. She has a photographers eye. She had the time to explore the world through her lens. Even though at the same time she fell in love with figure skating (another creative outlet) she always had time for her camera, taking it with her to classes and competitions.

Do I expect any of my writing campers to become the next JK Rowling or John Grisham? That would be great, but I don't expect it. I expect them to explore their imaginations and have fun. I hope that some will continue to write. I know they do, because they return year after year for the advanced camps.

I've been a public school librarian and I know the strong and weak points of American education. The one thing the most curriculum lack is the one thing that cannot be tested or taught, but without which, all other subjects are just words on a page.

Imagination. We have scheduled imagination out of our kids' lives. This summer, as you scurry around, trying to keep your kids busy, schedule a little time to do nothing. Give them the chance, as my mom used to say, to use their heads for something besides a hat rack.

Have a great summer everyone. Now I need to go prepare for my returning advanced camp writers.  I can't wait!

Friday, June 22, 2018

Something in a Summer's Day

A something in a summer’s Day
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer’s noon—
A depth—an Azure—a perfume—
Transcending ecstasy.

(Excerpt from Emily Dickinson, A Something in a Summer’s Day)

What are you doing these summer’s days? I find it's the perfect time to catch up on my reading. With this in mind, I recently read our own Carmela A. Martino’s Playing By Heart.

I love historical fiction, especially those stories that focus on the feminine experience. We are all familiar with Laurel Ulrich’s statement, well-behaved women seldom make history. The sentiment underscored the invisibility of women in history. Not long ago, Jo Eberhardt wrote  about her surprising discovery when, after counting the books in her personal library, she found that only a mere 27 per cent of her books had female protagonists, despite “her conscious intention for a 50/50 split.” Further researching female protagonists in other media, she found that over 70 percent of lead characters in popular movies were male. And even in those movies that feature female protagonists (Divergent, Hunger Games, Twilight), male characters speak more than female protagonists, and thus still dominate the story. 

Megan Leigh suggests that  among many stories claiming to have strong female characters, one overriding issue seems to be distinguishing between strong and weak, and passive and active characters. A female who is caring, vulnerable, even emotional tends to be considered a weak character. Yet, a strong female who is aggressive, abrasive, even with difficulty connecting emotionally, is considered negative. Both types are flat, negating their own flawed, complex humanity. In contrast, male characters are often allowed to play the full emotive spectrum. Says Leigh, in too many stories, the strong female protagonist is considered “special,” the exception or chosen one. If only one woman is ever shown to be capable and complex, and is presented as the exception, the “very framing of the narrative in a way that has men writing off most females as incapable, is an issue unto itself.” 

What about our favorite TV shows that feature strong female protagonists that dare to tackle male-dominated jobs? These include super smart spies, corporate lawyers, political leaders, even homicide detectives. And don't forget about the growing trend in super heroes and wonder women.  Despite the implied power positions, these jobs are often in the background. Their story-lines are often dominated by the unhappy state of their private life. Despite being labeled as capable, they are often rescued by their male counterparts. While their male counterparts are dressed in practical clothing that allows them to run, jump, and maneuver themselves effectively, the female protagonist tends to wear form-fitting clothes, with shirts buttoned down suggestively, and high-fashioned heels. Even their boots have heels. Meanwhile, those who weld their power are considered manipulative, shrill, even overly cold and emotionally disconnected, and usually it is because they are unhappy without a man in their life. I could go on, but you get my point. 

It would seem, according to Tasha Robinson, that “strong female characters – someone with her own identity, agenda and story purpose – has become more of a marketing term than a meaningful goal.” 

Sometimes it is not always about the outrageous or the rebellious. Sometimes it’s about doing the unexpected. While the feminine hero may follow a similar path as her male counterpart, the language, the ordeals and even the symbols are uniquely her own. They neither seek domination over another or ascendance into elitist power. 

Choices are made when life no longer fits into her definition. 

This is why I love Carmela's new book.

“The day I decided to take my fate into my own hands began like any other.” So states Emilia Salvani, who is destined by birth order as second born to become a nun. Gifted with musical genius, she struggles to find a way to earn the respect of the maestro, and find a way to avoid a life in the convent.

Set during 18th century Milan, Italy, the story follows two sisters who navigate a strict Catholic social construct. Her older sister, Maria, is a gifted linguist. While her father hopes to secure a noble marriage, Maria longs to join the convent and help the poor. 

Carmela’s attention to detail in her luscious imagery as she builds this eighteenth century city is captivating. Her characters are fully-realized, complex beings, making choices and facing consequences as they strive to make a life of their own. Carmela includes an author’s note, detailing the lives of the two sisters who inspired this story. 

This is a thoroughly engrossing, lyrical novel. It's perfect reading for a summer day in the garden.

Happy summer reading!

Bobbi Miller

Friday, June 15, 2018

Out-and-About at Chicago's Printers Row Lit Fest!

If it’s the second weekend in June in my hometown of Chicago, I’m thinking BOOKS – new, used and antiquarian, for readers old and young, and AUTHORS aplenty and anything LITERARY.
In other words, the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Lit Fest!
Five city blocks long, utilizing the nearby Jones College Prep High School and the Harold Washington Public Library, this book lovers’ fest draws crowds by the thousands.

Once gain, I loved it all – from exploring the books of academic presses and small independent local publishers to bumping into friends and students and fellow writers to discovering a first edition of Sydney Taylor’s ALL OF A KIND FAMILY.

But I especially loved facilitating my annual “So, You Want to Write A Children’s Book?!” panel in which I both introduced and lauded 5 Chicago-area debut children’s book creators who just happened to be my SCBWI-Illinois kin.

Meet, from left to right, boasting their AUTHOR badges:

picture book author Lisa Katzenberger (TRICERATOPS WOULD NOT MAKE A GOOD NINJA, Capstone), picture book author as well as publisher Christine Mapondera-Talley (MAKANAKA'S WORLD, Global Kids House), YA author Amelia Brunskill (THE WINDOW, Delacorte Press), illustrator Jacqueline Alcantara (THE FIELD, North South Books), and in front, middle grade author Jessica Puller (CAPTAIN SUPERLATIVE, Disney Hyperion).

They generously shared their Back Stories, their journeys, their smarts and their books with a room full of folks eager to write for children.

All agreed: committing to realizing their dream is what made the difference.
Whether it meant participating in the 12 x 12 Challenge, launching your only publishing company, applying for and winning a WeNeedDiverseBooks mentorship, studying at Chicago’s Story Studio or turning your play into a novel with help from NaNoWriMo and the University of Chicago’s Graham School’s Writers Studio.
Each author also earnestly recommended connecting with like-minded, like-hearted children’s book creators, especially via classes and SCBWI.

My next Out-and-About in Chicago? 

Stopping by this beautiful new statue of Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Chicago-based black poet honored with a statue and memorial in a Chicago public park.  Unveiled last Thursday, June 7, on Brooks’ Birthday, the installation sits at the North Kenwood Park at 46th and South Greenwood Avenue that carries her name. There’s also a replica representing the poet’s porch, as well as a path of stones, each engraved with lines from her poems.

Speaking of which, thanks to Karen Edmisten* (The Blog with the Shockingly Clever Title) for hosting today’s Poetry Friday.

Happy Out-and-About-ing!

Esther Hershenhorn