Friday, March 30, 2012

Celebrating Poetry Friday with a Poetry Month Preview, and a Timely Poem

I've been immersed in poetry this week as I prepare for two days of school visits where I'll be "Celebrating the Pleasures of Poetry." I can't think of a better way to kick off National Poetry Month 2012!

While working on my lesson plans, I found some terrific online poetry resources, including:
Speaking of Kenn Nesbitt, he has several funny poems that are especially timely for this weekend.  I've excerpted the first and last stanza from one of them below. You can read the whole poem at the Poetry Foundation site.

And when you're done here, be sure to visit the My Juicy Little Universe Blog for this week's Poetry Friday roundup.

Now, for that "timely" poem I mentioned:

Good Morning, Dear Students
by Kenn Nesbitt

“Good morning, dear students,” the principal said.
“Please put down your pencils and go back to bed.
Today we will spend the day playing outside,
then take the whole school on a carnival ride. . . .
                      . . . .
. . . “Tomorrow it’s back to the regular grind.
Today, just go crazy. We really don’t mind.
So tear up your homework. We’ll give you an A.
Oh wait. I’m just kidding. It’s April Fools’ Day.”

That's right, April Fools' Day is this weekend. Enjoy!

Happy Poetry Friday, and happy writing!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Deserved Laurels for Our JoAnn EARLY Macken!

Remember what Ben Franklin said about “early to bed, early to rise….?”
How it makes a (wo)man healthy, wealthy and wise?

my TeachingAuthor slot is Wednesday, every other week.
So every other Tuesday night, sometimes way past midnight,  guess who was finalizing her TeachingAuthor post,
battling Blogger to upload links and photos?

But, you know what?
Once I set the schedule to 7:00 AM Wednesday and clicked “Publish,”
I was instantly comforted:
“JoAnn’s next!” I’d remind myself.
I had myself my very own clean-up hitter.
I could count on JoAnn to give our readers sound advice, a reminder to play, plus that touch of Friday Poetry I so covet and admire.

For some strange reason, I was absolutely certain JoAnn was readying her post while I was readying mine, living up to her maiden name, EARLY.

I “attended” Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children Program vicariously, thanks to my fellow blogger Carmela and one of my All-time Favorite Children’s Book Authors, Carolyn Crimi.
When they connected me to their class Listserv, The Hive, they connected me to several of my future fellow TeachingAuthors, including JoAnn.

It turns out JoAnn and I share lots besides our Midwest (Chicago and Milwaukee) lives:
a publisher (Holiday House),
past and present SCBWI Regional Advisor roles,
educational publishing experience,
and best of all, of course,
our fellow TeachingAuthors.

I’ve dubbed JoAnn’s September 30, 2011 post “The Earlybird Gets the Story” My Favorite JoAnn Early Macken Post.
JoAnn loves writing first drafts!
Her joy for the process is downright palpable.
She shared this beautiful photo and beautiful poem.

We Are the Early Risers

We are the early risers.
We are drawn to the water
like turtles in spring.
While the sleepyheads snuggle with pillows,
we are shucking off sneakers and socks
to tiptoe through sand dunes
and wade in the shallows
and watch dawn hatch from the waves

Somehow I became a part of that first person plural “we” and I was rising early,
vicariously, with JoAnn.

I know JoAnn is still rising early to partake of and celebrate all that’s in her Life.
She’s marching forth,
but just in case she tires,
I offer up for resting these deserved laurels.

We’re counting the days, JA, 'til you Guest Post on TeachingAuthors!

Your Grateful Fan Esther Hershenhorn

Monday, March 26, 2012

Marching Forth

As we consider our fond retrospective in honor of JoAnn, the post I choose to share is about the day that forever makes me think of her.

JoAnn is perhaps the hardest-working writer I know.  Simply reading her to-do lists leaves me exhausted.  Among the 'read, write, revise, organize,' there's always: shoveling snow for a neighbor or cleaning up litter in the park or marching at a rally with her equally hard-working sons and husband.  All of this is accomplished with good cheer and a sunny, 'Wish me luck.' 

JoAnn doesn't need luck.  She's got guts and gumption.  Further, she always takes time to stop and smell the flowers -- literally, and usually with the dog's leash in hand.

At Vermont College, I remember trekking around campus with JoAnn in that first glorious summer.  I said to her one day, 'I don't know why I keep wanting to call you Judy.'  She replied, 'Well, I do have an identical twin named Judy.'  At the time, I was working on Mind Games, which has semi-psychic identical twins among its cast of characters.  It was one of those providential moments that made me feel both lucky and inspired.

So, in honor of JoAnn, let us March Forth into spring with big plans, big motivation, and big smiles. We are lucky to know you, JoAnn! --Jeanne Marie      

Friday, March 23, 2012

Goodbye Songs, Goodbye JoAnn, Hello, Poetry Friday and a Poetry Prompt!

Howdy Campers--and happy Poetry Friday!

Thanks to wonderful Mary Lee and Franki 
of A Year of Reading for hosting today!
This round, each Teaching Author (so far Carmela and Mary Ann) will be sharing one of our favorite posts by blogmate JoAnn Early Macken, now on our Blog Advisory Board (or BAB).  Just kidding.  We don't actually have a BAB, although maybe we should. We're saying goodbye to JoAnn who is so busy teaching, writing and running Wisconsin's SCBWI chapter, she can scarcely breathe.

JoAnn's poetry and photos sing.  Though we had hoped to talk about different posts from JoAnn's tenure, I was so struck by her poetry in the same post Mary Ann chose, I have to share JoAnn's photo and poem, "Landscape with Dog Nose":
Landscape with Dog Nose by JoAnn Early Macken

I wanted to capture the crisp horizon,
gradations of shades,
mountainous clouds,
but she insisted on
stepping into the shot.
Well, why not?
She’s always part of the picture.
photo and poem (c) 2012 JoAnn Early Macken, all rights reserved 

I'll miss blogmate JoAnn's unique view of the natural world, her kindness, her beautific smile, her poetry...and so much more.

If you missed her post with this poem, you'll find it here. Because it's an old post, you won't be able to comment on it, so share your thoughts below, or email them to the TeachingAuthors via this link.

We love you, JA!

When I think of goodbyes, folk songs flood my brain.  The first one that came to me as a tribute to JoAnn was Woody Guthrie's Deportee, which is a terrific and important song, but doesn't exactly hit the right emotional notes to send our JoAnn off to her next chapter.  I'm here to allay your fears: her leaving did NOT involve a firey plane crash.

Next, Tom Paxton's Last Thing on my Mind came to me--but again, his chorus just doesn't quite express our relationship with JoAnn:

Chorus from Tom Paxton's Last Thing on my Mind:
Are you goin' away with no word of farewell?
Will there be not a trace left behind?
I could have loved you better, didn't mean to be unkind;
Oh, you know that was the last thing on my mind.

The next one that popped up was Woody's children's song, Why Oh Why.  Just like three obstacles in a story, the third one's the charm--the perfect song!

Chorus from Woody Guthrie's Why Oh Why:

Why, oh why, oh why oh, why?
Why, oh why, oh why?
Because because because because
Goodbye goodbye goodbye

Okay...I know this looks--well, simple.  But you've gotta hear Woody sing it:

And here's another silly g'bye poem.  I wrote this one as my family ended a fairy tale vacation in Fiji:

(bula = hello; vi naka = thank you; sota tallee = see you later)
by April Halprin Wayland  .

Bula, bula
and vinaka
Fiji rula:
no more clocka
everybody laughing, jolly
ask your name and make-a talka
leaving soon—so sota tallee!
poem (c) 2012 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved  

Writing Workout: Goodbye Poems

1) Get quiet.  Think about a recent goodbye.  Maybe a news event will inspire you, like Woody Guthrie's Deportees. Maybe it's deeply personal, like Tom Paxton's Last Thing on my Mind.  Perhaps it's silly like Woody's Why oh Why...or my Goodbye to Fiji.
2) Write it!
3) Share it!

P.S: Although I'm no longer in the running in the March Madness Poetry Tournament, I'm having a blast reading and voting as the new poems come in.  Come read along!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Days Are Getting Longer, But They Still Have Only 24 Hours

The first day of Spring arrived here in the Northern Hemisphere yesterday.  (We in the Midwest have been experiencing record-breaking high temperatures for a week now, so it actually feels like summer has arrived.) And I finally got outside to take a photograph of the daffodils in our front yard:
As I mentioned last Friday, the TeachingAuthors are dedicating a series of posts in honor of JoAnn by dipping into the archives and sharing with you, our readers, some of our favorite posts of hers. JoAnn is an amazingly productive person, able to juggle many tasks and projects. Although we'll miss her as a TA, I respect and admire her for saying "no" to something she enjoys and values so that other parts of her life don't suffer. Life is a balancing act for all of us, and especially for those of us in creative pursuits like writing. It's difficult to earn a decent living as a fiction writer, so most of us have to "support our habit" with teaching, school visits, freelance work, a "day job," etc.

With the vernal equinox behind us, the daylight hours now exceed the nighttime ones. Yet we still have only 24 hours in a day. And I still struggle with how to prioritize and manage what I do with that time. Often, it's my creative writing that suffers, as I focus on "income-generating" activities. When that happens, I think of a post JoAnn wrote nearly two years ago called "One Big Rock" in which she shared this image:

In the post, JoAnn talked about her own time-management challenges and the advice she heard at a presentation on the topic: (I'm paraphrasing here.) If this "one big rock" represents your most important priority, you need to put it in your time-management "jar" before the container gets filled with pebbles and stones.

I think of that image, and JoAnn's words, whenever I start to feel out of balance. If you missed her post, or would like to reread it, you'll find it here. Because it's an old post, you won't be able to comment on it, so I hope you'll come back and share your thoughts below, or email them to the TeachingAuthors via this link.

Happy writing!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Magic Carpet(bag) Ride

     Blessed was that day in July 1998, when I first met JoAnn Macken in the Burlington, Vermont airport. We newbies in the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children Program milled around the one conveyor belt, looking for our bags, but also sizing each other up. (To digress for a moment, Jeanne Marie, I first remember you sitting on the floor, your back against a pillar, reading I, Juan de Pareja which if I am not mistaken, is historical fiction...see last week's blog!)
     This was back in the day, before luggage charges and laundry lists of what you could and could not bring on a plane. I was living in Bangkok, and had already been "home on furlough" for two months. My two enormous suitcases were large enough to carry small children (or, in reality, seventy pounds of books).  As I dragged my bags toward the jolly green Vermont College school bus, I noticed a woman who appeared to have grabbed Mary Poppins' magic carpet bag by mistake.  I soon learned that Magic Carpet Bag Woman was JoAnn. What struck me about her bag was that other than the unusual shape, it was a completely unremarkable piece of luggage. What really got my attention was its size...smallish. Certainly much smaller than my mini-steamer-trunks-on-wheels.
     That has to be her carry-on bag, I thought. But no. It turned out that one bag had all she would need for ten days of heavy study and hard writing. I felt a little sorry for her. What could she possibly have in that bag besides a change of clothes and maybe a journal?
    I soon found out, that like Mary Poppins,  JoAnn's bag contained anything you might ever need. Someone need herbal tea to sleep?   JoAnn had it.  Epsom salts to ease sore muscles from hiking uphill and down? Ask  JoAnn.  Blackberry preserves, tiger balm, an extra pillow?  If you needed it,  JoAnn had it. I never did figure out how she got all that stuff in that one (magic?) carpet bag.  I started calling her, "JA the Girl Scout" since she was "always prepared."
      JoAnn herself turned out to be exactly like her suitcase...prepared, organized and a head full of images that she weaves into the most amazing poems. I too lived in Wisconsin in a lakeside town for six years. I have many memories of those surreally frigid winters...but some how they did not end up in such beautiful poetry as the ones in this blog from earlier this year.
      Continue to March forth (and January and the other months as well) my talented and intrepid friend.
Blogging with you has been one heckuva magic carpet(bag) ride.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, March 16, 2012

Missing JoAnn

Today would normally be JoAnn's turn to post. But as she announced two weeks ago, she's had to leave the TeachingAuthors team, at least as a regular contributor. All the TAs have shared with her privately about how much we're going to miss her. Beginning on Monday, we'll also share with you, our readers, a small tribute to JoAnn.

In honor of JoAnn, who always shared such wonderful photographs with us, I wanted to share a photograph today too. With our unseasonably warm weather here in the Midwest, some of the Spring flowers are already blooming. However, I haven't had a chance to get out much to enjoy them. So I'm going to "cheat" and share this clipart photo instead:
And since today is Poetry Friday, I'd also like to share the opening of William Wordsworth's "Daffodils":

      I wandered lonely as a cloud
      That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
      When all at once I saw a crowd,
      A host, of golden daffodils;
      Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
      Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

You can read the rest of it at the PoemHunter website

Speaking of poetry, don't forget to check out the amazing March Poetry Madness competition going on at Think Kid, Think. As I type this, there's still time to vote for your first-round favorites. Our own TeachingAuthor, April Halprin Wayland, is participating. You can see her match-up here.  

Today's Poetry Friday round-up is at Greg Pincus's GottaBook blog.  Greg happens to also be participating in March Poetry Madness. Read his match-up here. And see the list of all the participants here.  

Happy Writing!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Of Heroines and Herstory

there I was, aboard a Southwest Airlines jet, paging through the March issue of Spirit magazine, when I came upon Brad Meltzer’s article “No One is Born a Hero” in which he shares how he came to write his newest book, Heroes for My Daughter (Harper, April ’12).

Faster than a finger snap, today’s assigned blog post celebrating National Women’s History Month took front and center in my TeachingAuthor’s mind!

Meltzer chose fifty-five remarkable and diverse individuals – from Eleanor Roosevelt to Amelia Earhart, from Anne Frank to Lucille Ball, from Sally Ride to Randy Pausch, to guide his daughter’s journey to adulthood. Each was a fighter in his or her own way.

I couldn’t help think, though: many were the very same “fighters,” female “fighters especially, whose childhoods I had read about in the “orange true books” that marked my childhood’s most special occasions.

And I couldn’t help ask: which Heroes would I choose, or rather, which Heroines, to include in my collection had I mothered a daughter?

Which then got me thinking: who would I choose were I to write a collection entitled Heroines Who Keep Me Moving on My Writer’s Plotline?

Lickety-split, I had my top three Heroines + this Golden Opportunity to introduce them to our readers.

(Note: I happily surprised all three when I emailed last week to ask for their permission to share their stories in this post; not a one knew how meaningfully she’d impacted my life, both Writer’s Life and otherwise.)

please meet Phyllis Harris of Ames, Iowa.                                                
When I first met Phyllis, at an SCBWI Woodstock, Illinois Writers Retreat, in the late ’90’s, she’d just begun her graduate studies at Vermont College.
She was 71 and 4 years widowed, earning her MFA in Writing for Children!
“I saw the ad in Horn Book,” Phyllis shared, “and I thought to myself: all those authors in one place instead of two or three at a conference. What a bonanza!”
Phyllis ’fesses up that she was “looking for the girl I was before I was married with responsibilities.” It would put pep in her step like no other decision she could make. “I knew nothing and brazenly went forward, in my life-changing event.”
Phyllis’ short stories have been anthologized with those of Margaret Atwood, Carol Farley, Lisa Wheeler and our very own TA JoAnn Early Mackin in Stories Where We Live – The Great Lakes (Milkweed), as well as in other collections. Her publishing credits also include children’s magazines and poetry journals.
So many times I've let my increasing chronological age stop me in my writer's tracks...until I think of Phyllis and I'm out the metaphorical door.

Say "Hello!" to writer Beth Finke, of Chicago, Illinois.
All who know Beth shake their heads in wonder at her spirit, her passion and her ability to connect.
Beth was a 26-year-old newlywed with a promising career when juvenile diabetes caused her to lose her sight. Journals kept during eye surgeries and transcribed onto Beth’s talking computer became the foundation for her memoir Long Time, No See (University of Illinois Press), a book that celebrates how “ordinary people can work through extraordinary difficulties.”
Her beautiful seeing-eye dog Hanni inspired her beautifully-written picture book, Hanni and Beth: Safe and Sound (Blue Marlin Press) which in turn inspired children – and their teachers, librarians, parents and neighbors – around the world.
Beth writes with candor, humor and an all-out appreciation of Life, whether she’s writing for Easter Seals, NPR or a Letter to the Editor.
Whenever I've allowed Life to somehow overwhelm me, I retrieve my mental image of Beth and Hanni, out-and-about – in downtown Chicago, at Printers Row Lit Fest, on a school visit, at a conference.  The two help me see a path I might take.

Finally, hug and “Howdy!” (and I mean HUG!) Brenda Yee of Rochester, Michigan.
Once again, SCBWI connected me to another Kindred Spirit, at the same Woodstock, IL Retreat Phyllis Harris attended; Brenda later served as the Michigan Chapter’s Assistant Regional Advisor.
For years I’ve carried in my trusty Filofax a tiny sticker photo of Brenda and me, taken in a Photo Booth on the Santa Monica Pier.
Ten years ago, as children were reading her first published picture books, including Sand Castle (Greenwillow), Brenda suffered a life-altering stroke.
But guess who’s back, moving forward on her Writer’s Plotline, having persevered non-stop, 24/7, with the help of family, writing kin and friends, to RE-learn from scratch all she'd forgotten.
Each time Brenda’s name pops up in my email box, I pump-fist the air. “Yes!” I shout. “Brenda’s writing again!”
Brenda re-teaches me every time I forget: none of us are safe from Life’s unexpected turns, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find some way, a way, any way, to pick ourselves up, put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward.

The word story comes from the word history, which means "a narrative of events."
And history’s story? It comes from the Greek word “historia” which means "to ask or inquire, to learn and know."

Like all Heroines worthy of our celebration, Phyllis, Beth and Brenda overcame odds and a variety of limitations to realize their Dreams and return home triumphant.

By doing so, they unknowingly kept me moving forward, so I could learn and know my story so my readers could do the same.

It goes without saying, Women's History Month or not, I remain forever grateful.

Esther Hershenhorn


This isn't exactly a Writing Workout, but what Heroines would you choose for your Lifetime collection?

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Kardashians meet Little House

As I borrow from the title of Mary Ann's very thought-provoking post, and I ask you to bear with my extended analogy.

I write for a soap opera.  Soaps are going the way of dodo thanks to cheap and tawdry reality TV.  Reality TV = bad in the minds of most TV writers. 

However, when Mary Ann chronicled the historical fiction heroines of yesteryear, I made an important realization about my myself.

I'm sure I have mentioned before that I was such a Laura Ingalls Wilder devotee -- pig bladders and all -- that I dreamed of visiting her home in Mansfield, MO.  (For the record, I still haven't been).  Teachers and librarians (and later, I myself) tried to cultivate my interest in similar books.  [Remember, I am a slow and, when it comes down to it, somewhat reluctant reader.]  Caddie Woodlawn?  No go.  Pam Conrad?  Lovely, but... nope.  Sarah, Plain and Tall?  It's beautiful and spare and all that jazz (and I loved Glenn Close in the movie), but I don't ever need to read it again.  Louise Erdrich?  SO wanted to love it...  so appreciated it... but I just couldn't get into it.

Lesson learned?  A) I'm not really into historical fiction.  I've known this all my life.  But what does it take to get me hooked?  It takes reality!  Laura Ingalls Wilder really lived!  Another fave, Island of the Blue Dolphins, was likewise based in historical fact.  And then there was The Miracle Worker. These stories are beloved by millions of kids, right?  Is there not a Laura Ingalls Wilder Award?  A Scott O'Dell award?

I, like many kids before me, am a reality book junkie!  Aagh!

I was volunteering in my daughter's classroom last week. I had earthworm duty, which was fun, but another mom was supervising the writing table.  The kids were reading the fab Diary of a Worm, Diary of a Spider, and Diary of a Fly.  And here's an amazing writing exercise (credit goes to my daughter's amazing first grade teacher, Leigh Friedman):
Think about the FACTS the author needed to know in order to write the FICTION.


Subsequently, the kids will write their own Diary of a Mealworm book (after watching mealworms squirm over their desks all quarter) for publication.

Non-fiction, historical fiction, science fiction -- we know that most fiction that we write will involve research.  [I will never forget hearing Susan Fletcher say that she based her beloved dragon books on historical fiction and the study of other lands.]  There is something in the grounding of a true situation, a true PERSON that makes a book come to life for me -- and surely I am not alone.

Plucky heroines appeal to us because we still need them as role models.  Now, as I raise a daughter and watch the dispiriting "culture wars" news during Women's History Month, I remember as a first grader thinking that I had three options for future employment: nurse, secretary, teacher.  I am proud to be a teacher, but my, how times have changed!  Our daughters have the whole world at their feet -- God love them, and God bless them!  -- Jeanne Marie

Friday, March 9, 2012

Women's History Month collides with Poetry Friday--CRASH! BAM! BOOM!

Howdy, Campers--happy Poetry Friday!  Lucky you--today's poem and Writing Workout are below.

But first, a quick word about the brand-spanking new March Madness Poetry Tournament, which promises to give birth to 126 new children’s poems in 21 days!  The brain child of poet Ed DeCaria at THINKKIDTHINK!, it's set up just like March Madness basketball tournaments.  The first round begins Monday, March 12th. The tournament continues for three weeks, ending April 2nd.

And--she says nervously--I'm one of the 64 poets in the first bracket.

I have two feelings about this.  The first is YEE-HAW--this'll be fun!  The second is--YIKES--what was I thinking?!?!  So bookmark the tournament, come to Ed's virtual stadium and cheer--then vote for your favorite poems and let's see who's left standing!

And now back to our regularly scheduled program...
Mary Ann and Carmela have posted brilliantly about Women's History Month and children's literature.  Frankly, I'm in awe of those who write any kind of nonfiction. I love the idea of research, but I don't dig through dusty files or interview 106-year-old survivors of avalanches. I'm absolutely terrified of getting facts wrong.  That's why writing this blog sometimes scares me--I'm sure I'll miss mentioning something crucial or misquote someone. 

Oh, the circus in my brain!

photo credit: Double--M via photopin cc
Like Mary Ann, I have strong memories of reading Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink.  After reading it, I remember feeling a hysterical sort of joy in finding out that girls were feisty and fearless.

I went to my picture book shelves to re-read some of the books that featured women in history and found one I want to share.  I hope, regardless of your political views, you can appreciate the poetry and genius of Kathleen Krull's book, Hilary Rodham Clinton--dreams taking flight and Amy June Bates' wonderful illustrations.

I'm highlighting this book because I love the way Krull, in just a few words, carries the subtitled theme through the book, showing us both metaphorically and literally how much Clinton wanted to fly. Here are a few sentences from the beginning: "Once there was a girl who wanted to fly.  She dreamed of zooming in a spaceship...She wrote to the national space agency to volunteer.  But it was 1961, and some paths were still closed to women, such as the job of astronaut." 

It was published in the heat of the 2008 election.  From the last few sentences:  "Was the land ready?  No matter...Sooner or later, we will have a woman president, and it will be because of every girl who has wanted to fly."

Krull, on her website, writes: Women's history is one of my passions. This book follows directly from one of my earlier books-- A Woman for President: The Story of Victoria Woodhull (2004). Woodhull was the first woman to run for president, Clinton the one who has gotten the farthest, with 28 other strong women in between. May I live long enough to see a woman in the White House, and perhaps write books on some of those other women.

Watch a webcast of the Kathleen Krull speaking about her book, A Woman For President at the National Book Festival, Washington, D.C.
photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via photopin cc

Recently I was inspired as I listened to the autobiography of Helen Keller as I cruised Los Angeles freeways.
by April Halprin Wayland

I am reading this book for the ten thousandth time.
I have read this book over and over,

so the words are worn and pressed—
I can scarcely make them out.

Never mind, though—
I have read Little Lord Fauntleroy ten thousand times.

I can say every word of this book to myself,
sitting on the grass, leaning against the great elm tree.

I open the book again
because it pleases my fingers to caress each word.
poem © 2012 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved

                                             WRITING WORKOUT ~ Quote Unquote

1) Find a beautiful or inspiring quote by a woman.  You might try this site--there are many.  I Googled quotes by women.
2) Read about this woman's life.
3) Can you make her quote into a poem using what you've learned about her?  I used Helen Keller's quote about reading as my title and took off from there.  Since I'd "lived" with Helen, listening to the audiobook of her autobiography, I felt as if I were Helen...I knew what it was to be her.
4) C'mon--toss those words in the air!  Run around in circles until you collapse on a fluffy phrase! Put a mirror on your desk and soften your serious, wrinkly writing face.  It's not as hard or as stressful as we make it!  And believe me--I'm talking to myself here...

 And thank you Myra, at Gathering of Books, for hosting

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Writing Authentic Women's History--Getting Inside Your Character's Skin

On Monday, Mary Ann kicked off our series of posts in honor of Women's History Month. The logo you see at left is from the Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month site, which will feature posts from 31 different children's authors and bloggers discussing the topic of women's history in books for children and teens. Today's post there by Elizabeth Bird of School Library Journal's Fuse#8 blog highlights several great children's books about uncelebrated women of history.

Today also happens to be World Read Aloud Day. When you're finished reading this post, head on over to the official World Read Aloud website to learn more.

Now, back to the subject of Women's History: Like Mary Ann, I love reading well-written historical fiction featuring female protagonists. It's the next best thing to time travel! However, I despise books where female protagonists are not portrayed authentically. One of my specific "pet peeves" is the absence of church or prayer in novels set in times and places where daily life revolved around religious practices. Historical novelist Linda Proud expressed similar feelings on her blog:
"I’ve just read a book set in the 13th century where neither the feisty heroine . . . nor her lover nor her horrible husband nor any other character ever goes to church. Never a priest wanders into the story, never a bell rings, never a new cathedral appears on the skyline. Don’t get me wrong – it was exceptionally-well written and a gripping read. It was just that something was missing, . . . ."
As an author, though, I know it can be tricky to incorporate religious practices without boring our readers, especially when those readers are children or teens. My current work-in-progress is a young-adult novel set in 18th-century Milan and inspired by two real-life sisters. More is known about the elder sister, Maria, a child prodigy who could speak seven languages by her teen years and who became famous as a female mathematician. I originally considered making her the novel's main character. But Maria was a devoutly religious girl who spent her teen years trying to convince her father to let her become a nun. I decided it would be too challenging (for me, at least) to hook today's average teen reader with such a main character.
Milan's Duomo (cathedral) still under construction, circa 1745

So instead, I'm writing from the younger sister's point of view. Teresa was a child prodigy herself, known for her talents as a singer and harpsichordist, and later as a composer. She clashed with her father when he wouldn't allow her to marry a poor suitor--a dilemma more likely to appeal to today's teens.

Despite wanting modern readers to empathize with Teresa, however, I'm not going to simply transplant a contemporary character into a historical setting. So I need to research and understand what life was like for girls like Teresa and Maria, who were born into 18th-century Milan's upper class. I've learned that, although they were surrounded by luxury, their lives were extremely limited. And that, despite their many accomplishments, the sisters had only two socially-acceptable options when they "came of age": an arranged marriage or life in a convent. The choice wasn't even theirs, but their father's. I think it's important for girls of today to read stories that realistically portray those times. Otherwise, how can they truly appreciate the challenges women had to overcome to get to where we are now?     

So how do we get inside the skin of a historical character who lived and died long before we were born? I found an article by Juliet Waldron called "Day in the Life Method of Writing Historical Novels" that contains tips and exercises to help do just that. I've adapted an exercise from Waldron's article into the following Writing Workout to make it appropriate whether you're writing about historical or contemporary characters. I hope you'll give the Workout a try, then come back and let me know what you learned.

Meanwhile, if you're writing historical fiction, here are two additional articles you may find helpful:

Writing Workout: Getting Inside Your Character's Skin

  1. Imagine your character waking up in the morning. What awakens her? An alarm clock, sunlight, household sounds?
  2. What is she sleeping on? A bed, a couch, the floor? What is the bed made of? How big is it? What are the covers like? Is she sleeping alone or sharing the bed?
  3. When she opens her eyes, what is the first thing she sees? Is the room furnished? With what?
  4. What is the first thing she smells? Are they welcome cooking smells or less pleasant aromas?
  5. What is she wearing, if anything? How does the fabric feel against her skin?
  6. When she gets up, what is the first thing she does?
You may never use the answers to these questions in your story, but pondering them should help you better imagine your character's life, and that will come across in your writing. For additional questions to consider, see Juliet Waldron's article, "Day in the Life Method of Writing Historical Novels."  

Happy Writing!

Monday, March 5, 2012

What if Laura Ingalls Hung Out at the Mall?

      Hooray!  It's Women's History Month! I love historical fiction. I write historical fiction. These two facts are something of a miracle, considering that I grew up disliking historical fiction.
     OK, let's back up a little bit here. As I have said in (way too many) other posts, I am a compulsive
reader.  I have always loved history, although not the kind that in my social studies books. According to those texts, the only important women in American history were Molly Pitcher (who may not have been a real person), Betsy Ross and Dolly Madison. Their contributions to history were (maybe) bringing water to soldiers, sewing a flag, and rescuing George Washington's portrait in the burning of the White House during the War of 1812.
    There had to be some other women who were famous for somewhat less domestic feats. Lots of us of "a certain age" fell in love with biography reading those Childhood of Famous Americans books, which I just discovered are still being published. Ah ha! Here were the female role models I was looking for; astronomer Maria Mitchell, Mary Lyons who founded Mount Holyoke College, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female American physician, Annie Oakley, Olympian Babe Didrickson, choreographer Martha Graham. My all time favorites are still Clara Barton and Amelia Earhart. These women broke the rules, stood up to society, danced their own dance, went where no woman had ever gone before (sorry Star Trek fans.)
    But what does all this have to do with historical fiction?  A lot.  When I was in elementary school, female characters in historical novels were far and few between. Granted, the very nature of society before the mid-20th century relegated women to the most passive of roles in both life and fiction.
     Fictional boys tamed wild animals, survived in the wilderness, rode the Pony Express. Girls sewed samplers, looked after siblings and were pretty much under domestic house arrest. Not only that, but girls were rarely the main characters.  Finding a female character who didn't spend the whole story dipping candles and churning butter was a true treasure.  I still own The Cabin Faced West by Jean Fritz (autographed, too!). The main character, Ann, appealed to me because she missed her old home when her family moved to the Pennsylvania frontier.  My family moved a lot, too. Also, Ann was the first character I encountered who kept a diary! The minute I returned Ann's story to my third grade "class library shelf," I was off to Woolworth's to buy my first diary. (A side note here; not only is The Cabin Faced West still in print, it's also an e-book! Not to shabby for a book published in 1958.)
     There was Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, who roughhoused with her brothers, and played pranks on her sissy girl cousins. In one memorable episode, she wins a logrolling contest. Caddie was my kind of girl!
     Like every other girl I knew I worked my way through Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series.  I learned a lot about hog-skinning, sewing samplers (again!) and making molasses candy. OK. Fine. Laura was a tough minded girl who frequently got in trouble for her "boyish" ways. As far as I could tell, the only "boyish" thing about Laura was her determination to what she wanted and not always as she was told. The series seemed awfully predictable to me; Mary, the good sister, Laura, the "naughty one", stern Ma, fun-loving Pa (who I never once imagined to look like Michael Landon) and lots of bad crops, insect plagues and unfortunate weather.)
     I had just about given up on the Ingalls when I came at last to The Long Winter. At long last, Laura's  strong mind and sturdy body took front and center as she and her father kept the family alive during an endless winter of blizzards in the Dakota Territory. I was right there when Laura and Pa twisted straw "sticks" to burn when the fuel ran out; when scraped together a family Christmas celebration out of nearly nothing. And I really was there when Laura just loses it after weeks and weeks of being trapped in the house with her family.
   Things seemed to be looking up on the historical fictional heroine front. For awhile.
   There were still gutsy girls aplenty, ploughing the prairie, disguising as boys to join the Army, surviving every kind of disease, plague and catastrophe imaginable.  But slowly, these girls did not so much seem to be girls of their own time, but rather 20th century girls dressed in quaint clothes.
     I am not going to "name names" here. Many of these books are hugely popular, award-winning books written by authors far better known than I. However, it chaps my hide to read a book that supposedly takes place in the Middle Ages...and the main character not only knows how to read and write (something very few people of either sex could do), but talks to her parents in a manner of a sitcom teen. Or educated women in the American wilderness, don men's clothing and work along side them. I know that women did work in the fields (although they wore dresses), but these women were considered to be lower class, because the family couldn't afford field hands. They were pitied rather than admired for their ability to pull a plough.
    This "modernization" of historical fiction is one of my pet peeves.  In fact, I wrote my master's thesis on the subject. I've had many a debate with classroom teachers over the validity of these very popular "historical" books that are anachronistic in spirit.  Teachers tell me they love these books because they make history "accessible" to their students. I contend that these books are not history at all.  What students are learning is that for thousands of years people have always thought and believed in the manner of 20th century middle class Americans. Not true! (Stop me before I start ranting.)
     Perhaps the tide is turning again.  Here are some of my favorite books that I believe to be true to the time of which they were written; true in detail, speech and most importantly, societal attitudes. (And yes, sometimes those attitudes are not political correct, but historically accurate nevertheless.)
    The best book I have read in the last five years is Ruta Septys' Between Shades of Gray. I cannot even begin to describe it other than to say that it pulls no punches, and that I never once felt that I was anywhere other than WWII Russia.
     Here are some other gutsy girls whose authors felt that telling the truth was more important than dumbing down history for the sake of accessibility: Nory Ryan's Song by Patricia Reilly Giff, Prairie Songs by Pam Conrad, Anya's War by Andrea Alban, Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson, One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams, Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, Lyddie by Katherine Patterson, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, Francie by Karen English, So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, My Louisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis Holt,
     I hope you will send us your favorite historical fiction females.  You know me. I'm always looking for that next great book!
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, March 2, 2012

Economics, Looking Ahead, & March 4th!

Nearly three years ago, I wrote my first Teaching Authors post on a topic we all addressed in turn: "How I Became a Teaching Author." I approached the subject as I usually do: with eagerness, excitement, and a little trepidation.

Today, alas, I'm writing my last post, at least as a regular contributor. I'm teaching at two local universities, I'm active in SCBWI, and I'm swamped with freelance work that I can't turn down. Could it be that the economy is improving? Mine is, at least at the moment. Cross your fingers.

In between my first and last posts, I've been lucky. I've collaborated with the sweetest, smartest, most generous blogmates in the world. I've met (at least online) many clever readers through their thoughtful comments. And I've learned a ton, not only about the topics we posted on but also about myself and my own writing. Having that every-two-week deadline forced me to think fast and then let go, even with (gasp!) my poems. I'm not nearly as scared of posting as I used to be.

I am not disappearing completely! You can still find me on my web site, where I'll occasionally post news, although probably not as often as I posted here.

I'll be teaching "Writing Creative Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults" at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Tenth Annual Spring Writers Festival on Sunday, March 11.

This summer, I'm teaching "Writing Picture Books," a four-week graduate course, at Mount Mary College and a five-day course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Write by the Lake Writer's Workshop and Retreat, "Writing Rhyming Picture Books: A Logical Approach to Sweet Stories, Silly Verse, and Soothing Lullabies."

I'm looking ahead as usual with eagerness, excitement, and a little trepidation. I hope to be back here from time to time as a guest Teaching Author. I wish you all, dear blogmates and readers, the best of luck in your continuing endeavors. I'll keep checking in.

In the meantime, March forth!

JoAnn Early Macken