Friday, April 3, 2020

Ten Thousand Sorrows, Ten Thousand Joys

Like everyone else, I am sheltering in place. Because I have taught classes online for years, I have been fortunate to not experience much disruption in my classes. However, as a writer, it has been more challenging to make my art during this time of anxiety-producing calamity and deluge of bad news.

While staying informed is a necessity to surviving the crisis, it becomes all too easy to become overwhelmed by it. To be swept away by it. To be defeated by the despair of it.

“The arts are … a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
Ashley Wolff

The light still shining amid all the darkness, however, is the harboring community of writers and artists that share my space. Remember the Taoist principle, noted by Chuang Tzu, “When you open your heart, you get life’s ten thousand sorrows, and ten thousand joys.” 

Over these many weeks, with all the ten thousand sorrows we’ve experienced as a nation and world community, many artists – writers, illustrators, storytellers, musicians, editors, librarians, teachers, and more – have started to share their art in all its many forms. And in so doing, they became the ten thousand joys, the candles of light amid the dark night.

Illustrator Ashley Wolff and her incomparable Rufus reminded everyone in every state to Be Strong.

Storyteller Kevin O’Malley invited those in his Facebook sphere to send him ideas, whether about their favorite people or their favorite things, and he responded to making every wish come true!

Kevin O'Malley
Shevi Arnold created the Facebook public group, Social Distancing Society, now approaching 1.8 K members, all sharing laughs, music, arts, videos – all a reminder that we are in this together! Do check it out!

Book Riot offers a list of children authors posting videos of reading their books and offering activities for their young audiences. Mary Cadden at USA TODAY highlights Storyline Online, a children's literary website featuring videos of actors reading children’s books alongside produced illustrations. Each book has a recommended grade level and activity guides. Among the readers: Betty White reading “Harry the Dirty Dog,” author Jannell Cannon reading her book “Stellaluna” and Rose Byrne reading “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” Betty White!!!

O! And look at this treat! Master Storyteller Eric Kimmel reads folktales from around the world!

There's more, it turns out. My FB friend Danny Alderman serenades a slew of us with oldies but goodies weekly.  Check out his Facebook page, Danny and Kim and Friends for more videos and activities.

As Nicole Fichera, in her article “Art in Times of Crisis,” reminds us that “When we shift our attention away from fear, art will be waiting for us.”

       “Art brings our mind into balance.” -- Nicole Fichera

Share your favorite videos and inspirations, whatever it may be. Let's add to the ten thousand joys that bring light in this time of darkness! 

--Bobbi Miller

About the photo: One of my favorite inspirations, Granddaughter decorates the front window with her favorite things, so if you walk by the house, you'll smile.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Wednesday Writing Workout: Six Brilliant Words

Today I'm happy to share a guest Wednesday Writing Workout from Illinois author Melanie Weiss that's perfect for National Poetry Month, which begins today.

Melanie and I connected last fall after attending an SCBWI-IL Food for Thought meeting. Melanie is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and worked as a journalist for newspapers and magazines for 20 years. She began writing her debut novel, Spoken, shortly after she became an “empty nester.”

Spoken received the Bronze Medal for Young Adult-Social Issues in the 2019 Readers' Favorite International Book Award Contest. Here's a one-sentence summary of the novel:
When high school freshman Roman Santi discovers the Spoken Word Club, it leads him on a journey of new friendships and finding the dad he never knew.
You can read more about Melanie at her website and follow her on Facebook.

Today, Melanie shares a Wednesday Writing Workout on using six-word stories/poems in the classroom, but the exercise is appropriate for writers of all ages.

Wednesday Writing Workout:
Six Brilliant Words

By Melanie Weiss

Flash fiction is a genre of fiction that involves telling a story using between 5 and 1,500 words. Today, we are going to focus on the smaller side of that scale, the six-word story:

Flat tire.
New job.
No job?

This example is just six short words but it says everything you need to know. Writing a six-word story can be fun for every age and makes an excellent creative writing assignment that encourages students to use precise, concise language. It's wonderful, isn't it, how six little words can be strung together to say something so much BIGGER?

Six-word stories are a great way to help students (and adult writers) get more comfortable with writing short stories and poems. Since April is National Poetry Month, this is the perfect time to work on six-word stories. They can be a starting point before moving into haikus and other forms of free verse poetry, such as spoken word poetry. Prompts for six-word stories are endless. You can find countless sources online, including these at Page Flutter and these art-themed prompts.

In the classroom, adding the six-word story to your curriculum offers students an interactive exercise in thinking creatively as they share these stories with their classmates. The stories are often goofy, usually fun, sometimes serious or head-scratching, but always entertaining.

I knew I had to work the six-word story into my young-adult novel, Spoken, because the novel takes place partly at a fictionalized version of Oak Park and River Forest High School in Illinois. Not only does the school have a robust Spoken Word Club, it's the high school Ernest Hemingway attended and graduated from in 1917. Hemingway has been credited with writing the first six-word story, though this is one of those myths that continues to live despite being debunked.

The weight of connecting six well-thought-out words cannot be denied. We ALL have it within us to unleash that power and create our own six-word masterpieces.

I thought it may be easiest to borrow from Spoken and allow the novel's Spoken Word Club Teacher Patrick Collins to explain:
     Mr. Collins walks in the room and strides up to the white board at the front of the classroom. He turns to us and bows slightly. “Today we will be writing flash fiction. Does anybody know what that means?”
     Mr. Collins points to a student in one of the front rows who has her hand straight up in the air.
     “It’s telling a story but with not a lot of words.”
     “Yes, that’s pretty much it, Gina,” says Mr. Collins.
     He turns to the whiteboard and writes:

     For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.
     “This has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway. One of the greatest writers of the 20th century. It’s an extreme example of a story packed into just six words.
     “Your mission today is to write just six brilliant words that tell a story. Think about the message you want to convey and what imagery you want to represent.”
. . .

     “Now let’s spend about ten minutes and I want each of you to write your own six-word story,” he says. “Make each of your six words shimmer, like a brilliant piece of art.”
     “No pressure, right Mr. Collins?” jokes Jordan.
     We bend over our desks, pens in hand, diving down into our thoughts. The room is pure silence except for the scribbling, the scratching out of phrases, a few toes taping.
     After the ten minutes, students start sharing their stories with Mr. Collins as he captures the musings on the whiteboard.
There are ways to stretch this assignment further. Students could illustrate their short stories. A student could pass the story to another classmate and that classmate could draw what the story is telling them. Take a look back on Carmela Martino's popular TeachingAuthors' post Getting to Know Me--Six-Word Memoirs, which offers students the opportunity to find a concise way to share who they are with their teacher and classmates.

The beauty of the six-word story is simple: One classroom, countless stories, students soar.

Thank you, Melanie, for today's Wednesday Writing Workout. Readers, I hope you'll try this exercise on your own or with your students. If you do, please let us know how it works for you.

Posted by Carmela

Friday, March 27, 2020

Trimerics: back to the familiar and into the unknown

Howdy, Campers!  Happy Poetry Friday (PF link & my poem are below)

First of all, we at TeachingAuthors hope you're getting some solid sleep, walking a dog, connecting with those you hold dear, and finding a little island of peace in this brave new world. We appreciate each of you very much.💓

This is our final post on how we're taking leaps in our career or our writing during this leap year, beginning with Bobbi's terrific Taking Leaps in Historical Fiction. (Lately, going to the grocery store feels like a leap of faith, doesn't it?)

But before we get started, a brief detour. The Jewish holiday of Passover in 2020 begins at sundown on Wednesday, April 8, and ends Thursday evening, April 16. The first Passover seder is on the evening of April 8. Here's how to celebrate Passover online, posted on the blog, and here's an article on how those in Staten Island are (or are not) celebrating Passover in this strange time (Orthodox Jews cannot celebrate online).

So the other day I got a lovely email from Alysse Rich, the Principal of the Children’s Jewish Studies Program in Toronto Canada's Danforth Jewish Circle. If you have 10 minutes, enjoy watching Alysse (and little Arthur) reading and singing my Passover picture book, MORE THAN ENOUGH, (cheerfully illustrated by Katie Kath) to her school. (Alysse plays a mean guitar player and has a lovely voice.)

Okay ~ now let's get back to our regularly scheduled program: the leaps each of us has taken or hopes to take.

Today I encourage you to take a leap: try a poetic form that's new to you. And since I've fallen in love (again) with trimerics, why don't you try writing one? 

In June 2011, I posted about falling in love with trimeric poems for the first time. Here's a good definition from Trimeric \tri-(meh)-rik\ n: a four stanza poem in which the first stanza has four lines and the last three stanzas have three lines each, with the first line of each repeating the respective line of the first stanza.  The sequence of lines, then, is abcd, b – -, c – -, d – -. 

My love for trimerics faded, but now I love being back in the arms of this form. In fact, trimerics have become my escape from pandemic pandemonium (and emails!  Is everyone drowning in helpful or alarming or helpfully alarming emails?!?).

Why do I love trimerics? Because all I need is a first line. That line takes my hand and leads me to places I've never known. Each new poem pushes me to leap into the unknown.
drawing (c)2020 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.

Here, for your reading pleasure, are three trimerics.

In TENDER, the first line walked onto my page, unattached to any idea. It grew into a poem about my son when he was a young teen.

by April Halprin Wayland

He's a slip of a boy, really.
Tender as a slim green shoot
just angling out of earth.
But there are other ways in him.

Tender as a slim green shoot,
he also bristles into cactus,
a dragnet of needles—watch out!

Just angling out of earth,
he can still be caught (wear gloves!)
He can still be taught to breathe gently.

But there are other ways in him
beyond tender, beyond thistly.
Walk into his rooms. Switch on each light.
I have NO idea where this one came from:

by April Halprin Wayland

"One more thing," she said quietly,
not wanting to interrupt him.
He looked up from the last chapter.
He had been reading a murder mystery.

Not wanting to interrupt him
was her mantra, her world view, her Golden Rule...
until Aunt Blanche had that talk with her.

He looked up from the last chapter
and saw that she was aiming a blow torch
at his lap.

He had been reading a murder mystery.
He was dying to know how it ended.
He didn't know that she had been reading it, too.
And this one I wrote today. Once again it started with the title.


by April Halprin Wayland

When I was little,
my mom used to say,
"Every bad dream is a story you tell yourself."
She would rock me to sleep.

My mom used to say,
"Dark things that shake you awake
will be gone in the morning."

"Every bad dream is a story you tell yourself,"
she'd murmur, rocking.
I loved her warm flower smell.

She would rock me to sleep.
She can't anymore.
I've learned: now I tell myself a different story.
all poems (c)2020 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.

If you DO find yourself fiddling with trimerics when taking a break from sewing face masks (which, even if they're just bandanas, are apparently great if you want to keep yourself from touching your face 90 times a day), please share them with me ~ I'd love to read what you came up with!

Thank you, Tabatha, for hosting Poetry Friday
at The Opposite of Indifference

posted in good health from a respectful distance by April Halprin Wayland

Friday, March 20, 2020

Leaping Over the Inner Critic . . . to Fly with the Hive

     I know these are trying times as we struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, but I'm trying to stay positive. So I want to begin by saying Happy Spring! and sharing a photo I took on my walk yesterday:

Walking outside improved my mental health, and seeing these blooming snowdrops gave my spirits an added boost!  🌷🌷🌷

I also want to say happy Poetry Friday! See the end of today's post for a link to this week's Poetry Friday roundup.

     Now to continue our current TeachingAuthors topic: I've enjoyed reading all my fellow TeachingAuthors' posts on taking leaps in their writing and careers. One of the biggest writing-related leaps I've ever taken was my decision to apply to the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. I first learned of the program from Sharon Darrow, a wonderful teacher I had the privilege of working with many years ago. When Sharon explained the low-residency program to me, I knew immediately that I wanted to attend. At the time, I was working on a YA novel that was in great need of revision, and I figured the MFA program would be the perfect place to fix it. But when I considered the possibility of applying, my inner critic started screaming at me about how ridiculous the idea was. After all, my only published work at the time consisted of nonfiction articles for newspapers and magazines. How could I pursue a graduate degree focused on fiction writing (which was my goal).

SCBWI-Network Meeting at Fountaindale Library, January 2020
     I've been thinking a lot about dealing with the inner critic lately because I recently gave a talk on the subject at an SCBWI-IL Network meeting. (That's where the above photo was taken.) Back when I was considering attending Vermont College, I didn't have the tools I have today for quieting the critic, so I hesitated. But when several unexpected events coincided that would allow me to attend the MFA program, I took it as a sign that I was meant to apply, and so I DID! Keep in mind, I'm afraid of heights, so attending Vermont College felt like I was taking a giant leap across the old stone quarry near my home. But I'm so glad I didn't let my inner critic (or my fear of heights) hold me back. I made HUGE leaps in my writing while I was in the program. I ended up putting my YA work-in-progress aside to focus on a project I'd never expected to write: a middle-grade novel inspired by events from my own childhood. That novel was later published as Rosa, Sola by Candlewick Press. The MFA program also gave me credentials to be a teacher. (You can read a bit about my path to becoming a TeachingAuthor here.)

     But just as important, Vermont College was the place where I connected with many wonderful writers, especially those in my graduating class, which was known as the Hive. You can see us in the photo below. I'm standing on the right side, wearing a red polo shirt. Directly in front of me is fellow TeachingAuthor Mary Ann Rodman Downing. The woman at the far left of the front row is former TeachingAuthor Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford, and in the middle of the middle row is another former TeachingAuthor, JoAnn Early Macken. Some other authors you may recognize in the group are Gretchen Woelfle, April Pulley Sayre, Carolyn Crimi, Carolyn Marsden, and Gretchen Will Mayo. As members of the Hive, we called ourselves "Bees." (You can see a stuffed bee perched on Gretchen Woelfle's shoulder in the front row.)

Hive graduating class, summer 2000 
     Even though the members of the Hive live all over the United States, many of us have stayed in touch over the years via an email group. We've had several mini-reunions, too, where subsets of the Hive have gathered to critique, celebrate, and support each other. I'd hoped we'd have another reunion this summer to commemorate the 20th anniversary of our graduation (gasp!), but in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, that's unlikely. Still, I'm so grateful to be a part of this amazing group of writers.

     Our class graduated in summer of 2000, which, like 2020, was also a Leap Year. Completing my MFA was a career leap that truly helped my writing take flight!

     Be sure to check out this week's Poetry Friday round-up by Michelle Kogan.

Remember to always Write with Joy!

Friday, March 13, 2020

1, 2, 3...LEAP!

                                             ( Leap Jump Leaping)
In honor of 2020’s Leap Year status, we at TeachingAuthors have set our 20/20 vision this month on leap-taking.

Fortunately, I’m no stranger to undertaking leaps that do not necessarily guarantee success, personally, but especially professionally.
I write the stories that claim my heart, sometimes published, sometimes not.  As E.B. White said, “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.”
In 1997, my “You-can-do-it-Esther!” Writers Group sprinkled me with their holy water and I became a teacher of adults who write for children, first at Ragdale, then Chicago’s Newberry Library, adding the University of Chicago’s Graham School’s Writer’s Studio soon after.
In 2000, I stood before that very same Writers Group, clicked the heels of my Sporto snow boots twice, and they declared me a Writing Coach.
It was in 2009 that Carmela Martino repeated my Writers Group refrain and christened me a TeachingAuthor.
My fellow writers believed in me! They helped me leap. Indeed, they helped me succeed.  I remain forever grateful. They gave me Hope.

It takes a whole lot of constructive Hope, Hope that bolsters, Hope that helps one envision possibilities, to ready one’s muscles to leap.
Hope, that according to Maria Popova, the creator of the brilliant Brain Pickings, is a “stretching of the soul’s ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.” (Her May 15, 2016 Commencement Address to the graduating class of my alma mater, the Annenberg School of Communications of the University of Pennsylvania, should be required listening before anyone leaps.)

Today, in honor of Women’s History Month, I wish to single out and shout my sincere thanks to five of my writers and students whose leaps of faith not only helped them tell their stories – think: HERstory.  Their successful-despite-the-odds efforts continue to help me flex my muscles in preparation for my next leap of faith.

Each of these women gifted me with Hope. They represent yet another subset of children’s book creators for whom I remain forever grateful.  May they prove to be just the Rx you’re looking for as you stretch your ligaments while readying to leap.

Meet Maureen Valvassori, author of A IS FOR AMBROSE: THE A TO Z OF AN AMAZING SAINT (Watering Can Productions, 2019), pictured here on the left with her book’s illustrator Sue Cahill at their book’s launch last August at Maureen’s alma mater, St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. Maureen serves as the Director of Pastoral Care, Outreach and Special Events for Sacred Heart of Winnetka in Winnetka, Illinois, but she was bent on telling Saint Ambrose’s story to children. She’d published several Barney books for Scholastic in the past but this time she chose to publish independently. Thanks to good ol’ serendipity, she met Sue, who’d always wanted to illustrate a children’s book, while both were counseling at The Well of Mercy. The Catholic Writers Guild awarded this biography its coveted Seal of Approval and two weeks ago Maureen introduced Hampshire, Illinois catholic school students to this Patron Saint of Milan, Italy, Bees and Education while celebrating Dr. Seuss’ Birthday.

This September Fitzroy Books publishes Carol Coven Grannick’s debut novel - the middle grade novel in verse REENI'S TURN. You can read all about it in Carol's recent Nerdy Book Club post. Now it’s Carol’s turn finally, after all sorts of leaps involving all sorts of Writer-Group-and-Agent-driven revisions, to do an honest-to-goodness celebratory grande jeté. This past July Carol and I spent lots of time at my Manuscript Workshop in Landgrove, Vermont creating her website, determining her audience, considering outreach opportunities and nailing her description – Author, Poet, Chronicler. Her numerous posts for writers underscoring the value of optimism and a Positive Mental Attitude continue to keep a whole lot of children’s book creators, myself included, taking leaps and following their hearts.

I meet the Best People doing what I do – i.e. teaching and coaching, and Dorothy Wiese is living proof! I honestly think we were playmates in another lifetime. Dorothy's pre-writing years involved earning undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate degrees while raising her children and farming (!), then teaching business courses to women as a full professor at Elgin Community College and all around the world! A mighty fine writer of especially nonfiction, she continues to hone her picture book writing craft, as evidenced by her travels to NYC in February to attend SCBWI’s NY Conference and Golden Kite Gala. We are both always on the look-out for a likely publisher for her beautiful picture book WORDS BY HEART about a little boy who, when he finds himself alone with his Swedish grandpa on a first visit, and neither knows the other’s language, somehow finds a way for the two of them to connect.

Gwen Levy knew: she was writing that story she’d spent years seeing with her own two eyes and wanting to tell, then readying it for submission by the time her July Big Birthday arrived – or else! There were those few dabbles in an earlier class, but this year, Gwen meant business. Indeed, she not only wrote and readied the story with no time to spare; she mailed it off to the perfect trade publisher at the local U.S. Post Office she and I share at the John Hancock Building in Chicago. (That’s Postmistress Jean on the other side of the counter.) And, because there’s no time like the present, Gwen is currently seeking the perfect illustrator so she can publish independently. WHAT THE CLUCK? is beyond timely. It’s the story of two unlikely individuals – a Duck and a Turkey – who despite their differences become 2 BFFF’s  – Best Feathered Friends Forever. There is no stoppin’ Gwen Levy! 😊

Bindy Bitterman has been blooming 4 score and then some, in a variety of gardens – collector, paper aficionado, antique dealer and all-around bon vivant, but she’s been downright blossoming since discovering writing for children in my Spring Newberry Library class last year. Bindy writes a flawless limerick, a talent she recently re-discovered. And like Gwen, she is driven.  Her mouse-and-cat story is told totally via limericks and she, too, remains unthwarted in working hard to get this story to children.  You can find her at Chicago’s Green Mill’s Sunday Open Mic and/or Evanston’s Celtic Knot where she’s been warmly welcomed and acclaimed, even. She was also named the Poet Laureate of The Admiral at the Lake, the senior retirement high-rise community in which she resides. She wrote an original limerick - “Those Who Help Me Leap” – to close this post in pure Show, Don’t Tell fashion.

       In the first flush of feeling inspired,
       Though 88, I was just wired!
       What got me excited? 
       'Twas being invited
       To an Open Mic – who could be tired?”

Thanks to Matt Forrest Esenwine at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme for hosting today’s Poetry Friday!

And again, thanks to the above amazing women who help me keep my soul's ligaments limber.

Happy leapin’!

Esther Hershenhorn

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Wednesday Writing Workout: Voice is YOU!

Good News!
In celebration of her newest picture book THE BOY IN THE BIG BLUE GLASSES (EK Books, 2019) award-winning Australian children’s book author Susanne Gervay has again gifted TeachingAuthors readers, this time with a Wednesday Writing Workout.

Those of us lucky enough to know Susanne know she is not just a children’s author. She was awarded the Order of Australia for Children’s Literature and the International Literacy Association’s Lifetime Literature Award for her body of works on social justice for children and nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Somehow she also finds time to serve as the Regional Advisor for SCBWI’s Australia East Chapter and New Zealand, which is how Susanne and I first connected. Children around the world know her for her I AM JACK series which prompted her first bully-related TeachingAuthors WWW in October of 2013 – “Read a Book. Stop a Bully.”

In her latest book, Sam doesn’t like his new glasses, no matter the benefits his family, friends and teacher bring to his attention. He does everything he can to lose those big blue glasses, except…they keep being found. In time, of course, Sam discovers wearing glasses isn’t all that bad and people like him just the way he is.

Susanne is the perfect person to be sharing a WWW about VOICE. Her Aussie accent is awesomely unforgettable, but so is she and the voice she’s brought to children’s literature and social justice world-wide.

Thank you, Susanne, for speaking out and up and to the world on behalf of those who can’t and for of course sharing your writing smarts today with our TeachingAuthors readers.

Here’s to making our voices heard – and – in honor of Sam, 20/20 vision!

Esther Hershenhorn

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Voice is YOU!

Voice is your perspective of the world and life. It’s your humour and sadness and emotions. It’s how you view characters. It’s your writing tone.  It’s what gives your writing individuality, captures readers and makes the story unique.

Your voice is in every character, description, dialogue, every line and scene. It is the heart, within the story. But how do you achieve this?

Here are the opening lines of my chapter book I AM JACK:

“Mum, will you listen?” 
Mom’s talking to Nanna. She said she’d only be a minute. That’s such a lie. A minute means an hour in Mom time. 

How old is this character approximately? A girl or boy? What’s the nature of the character? What is his issue? What is the tone?
(Answer:  Jack is an 11-year old boy who is insightful about adults, impatient and has something he has to solve. He needs to speak to his mother about it, but there’s a block.)

So, how can YOU achieve VOICE?

Read the start of successful books and ask questions.
Can you hear and see the character?
Do you feel the tone?
Are you engaged?
If you are, then the voice is effective.

For example, here’s the opening scene in the middle grade novel CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White:

 “Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. 
"Out to the hog house," replied Mrs. Arable. "Some pigs were born last night." 
"I don't see why he needs an ax," continued Fern, who was only eight. 
"Well," said her mother, "one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it." 
"Do away with it?" shrieked Fern. "You mean kill it? Just because it's smaller than the others?" 
Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. "Don't yell, Fern!" she said. "Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway." 
Fern pushed a chair out of the way and ran outdoors. The grass was wet and the earth smelled of springtime. Fern's sneakers were sopping by the time she caught up with her father. 
"Please don't kill it!" she sobbed. "It's unfair."

Ask yourself:

Who is Fern? What is her character?
What is her reaction to her father’s ax?
What is the issue?
What is the tone?
Do you like Fern?

Here’s the opening of my latest picture book THE BOY IN THE BIG BLUE GLASSES:

I don’t want glasses.
My parents say that I look very handsome in them.
I don’t want to look very handsome in them.
They make the backs of my ears hurt.
Grandma is surprised when she sees me.
“Who’s the handsome boy in the big blue glasses?’
“It’s me, Sammy.”
“It can’t be. You’re so handsome.”
Grandpa is very surprised too.
He asks who the Superhero with the glasses is.
“It’s me, Sammy.”
Grandpa smiles.
“Well, there’s a new Superhero in town.”

Ask yourself:

Who is Sammy and what is his character?
How old do you think he is?
What is the issue?
What is the tone?
Do you like Sammy?

Here are a few Tips for Writing VOICE:

Read and be informed, but do not mimic another author’s voice. You need to find your own voice. This means risk uncovering your unique perception of character and story.

Have a rant – write notes down – what you want to say. This can unlock the ‘you’ in voice, giving you a place to start, where you can play around with the tone, character, emotional engagement, until you feel your voice.

The voice must be appropriate to your purpose, audience and context.
For example, in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee, the purpose is to reveal the impact of racism on justice. This is achieved through the voice of a little girl, Scout. The naivete of a child provides a unique and authentic voice that navigates the adult world, creating humour, satire, darkness and hope.

When you write from 1st person, then it is the character’s voice with your unique view and presentation of that character.

When you write from 3rd person, it is the author’s voice. The decision needs to be made as to what sort of perspective and tone you will bring to the voice.

Voice is unique. When you read Steinbeck, Kate DiCamillo, Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, you recognise the work because it contains their voice and the essence of who they are.

“A writer's voice is not character alone, it is not style alone; it is far more. A writer's voice is like the stroke of an artist's brush; it is the thumbprint of her whole person - her idea, wit, humor, passions, rhythms.”  Patricia Lee Gauch

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Leaping Into A New Me

Years ago, I published a few magazine articles including one about Oklahoma prairie dogs infected with the plague. The PLAGUE! Those cute little animals had The PLAGUE?

Farmers and ranchers didn’t prairie dogs because of the holes they dug caused horses and cattle to break a leg if they inadvertently stepped in one. Fascinating information.

I was so happy to receive a manila envelope with my author copies. I flipped through the pages and found it with my name as the author—By Gwendolyn Hooks. My little girl was at home and we danced together. I was so happy! But wait. Something was missing. I turned the envelope upside down and gave it a few shakes. Nothing. I flipped through the magazine. Nothing, but a letter of congratulations from the editor.

Perhaps my payment would arrive separately. To double-check, I called the editor and asked about my payment. She was cordial and asked if I was a professional. “We only pay professionals.”
I didn’t feel very professional. I said, “No, I’m not a professional.” I ended the conversation determined to learn how to be a professional writer, keep writing, and always be prepared. I took a leap of faith that I could learn how to succeed in my new career.

There was an upside to my prairie dog adventure. It wasn’t enough to write from my heart, but I needed to learn the business end as well. I attended meetings and met other writers. Some were new like me and others were real professionals who shared their experiences, answered questions and offered encouragement.

I also thought seriously about why my article was placed in the children’s section. Maybe I needed to explore writing for young readers. My leap of faith landed me where I belong and I never regretted it.

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks

Friday, February 28, 2020

Leaping into the Deep End

I don't know how to swim. Years of Learn-to-Swim classes, and I still can't do anything resembling a crawl. I can't coordinate my arms and legs and breathing, but I can make from one end of a pool to the other. I'm not afraid of water. I know I can save myself. I just don't look pretty doing it.

It's the same way with me and picture book writing. I never meant to be a picture book writer. My comfort zone has always been middle grade and YA fiction. I can remember what it was like to be those ages. Those genres allow me to explore side roads in plot, take deep dives into characters' heads.

Picture book writing doesn't allow for meandering or deep diving.

Picture book writing used to terrify me. A set number of words, which has shrunk considerably over the years.  Every word chosen for maximum impact. Connecting with a young child's world in language they can understand. Words that are read aloud, so they must flow in a rhythm that is easy, yet interesting. Terrifying!

So why do I have seven published picture books, with number eight arriving fall of 2021?

I took the leap into picture books by accident.

I've told the story behind My Best Friend before, but if you missed it the first time, here is the synopsis.  I got really mad over some pre-school "mean girls" picking on my four-year-old daughter at the neighborhood pool. A Jack Daniels-and-Coke later, I had written a story meant to cheer her up. She couldn't have cared less. Due to circumstances beyond my control, that was the only new writing I had done in six months (I was revising Yankee Girl at the time. ) As a result, My Best Friend became my workshop piece at Vermont College's MFA in Writing for Children Program that summer. My lovely workshop leader, Eric Kimmel, was the only one who showed any enthusiasm for it, and told me I needed to submit it "somewhere." Seventeen rejection letters later, it sold. Won some awards. Is still selling well fifteen years later.

I was more surprised than anyone. I still am. All I did was write a happy ending story for my unhappy child. Picture books were supposed to be hard... and here I'd hammered out this story in two hours, with next to no revisions between my computer and the published book. How did I do that?

I'm still asking myself that, twenty years after the hot, sticky afternoon Mr. Jack Daniels and I sat down and banged out that story about little girls, friendships and swimming pools. Faced with the expectation that I would write more picture books, I set about learning how to write them. My Best Friend was a gift from God. I wrote because I had no expectation that anyone other than my daughter would ever hear the story. Now I was supposed to do it again. Terrifying!

I hear stories in my head, rather than see them. I knew how picture books sound because I read endless picture books to my daughter. I absorbed their language and rhythm into my bones. I understood the "rules" for picture book writing. So I wrote picture books...ten of them over two years.

They were all awful. So awful I never even printed them off.

You can have a million ideas...but how do you know which ones are worth writing? What makes one book good and another least favorite adjective..."slight" I didn't know. I still don't. All I could do was write what I wanted in the moment, put it away and look at it again in a couple of months.

It took two years and another crisis with my daughter, before I came up with First Grade Stinks! Two years to find a "story seed" that truly had potential. Then came another year of writing and rejecting stories that came from that seed. Thank goodness for good writing friends who can read objectively and make suggestions. They wouldn't let me give up, no matter how many times I chased the story "into the weeds."

If you are reading this post, hoping to find the magic formula for picture book writing...surprise! I don't possess it. I am still chasing story seeds that float away like dandelion fluff. I am still writing "slight" books that never make it to manuscript status.

The real "leap" was in allowing my self to jump into the deeper water of picture book writing, while only sort of knowing how to do it. Swimming the length of a pool and back takes me a long time. Sometimes I have to tread water to catch my breath. But allowing myself to do something in my own clumsy, klutzy way, without expecting to look confidant and coordinated...that's a leap! I've learned to feel the same way about picture book writing. Coordinated or klutzy, automatic or trial-and-error writing...both can end in the same result, something that children want to hear over and over.

It's worth the effort!

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, February 21, 2020

Taking Leaps in Historical Fiction

Sebel's gravestone in Patterson, NY

As we begin our new series in “taking leaps,” I’m focusing on the leaps that historical fiction needs to take in order to be a complete story. I’ve discussed elsewhere how challenging a task it can be. Historical fiction is the coming together of two opposing elements: fact and fiction. The controversy is grounded in conveying the ‘truth’ of history. Other popular genres have distinct rules that govern basic premises. Dystopian fiction, for example, features a futuristic universe in which the illusion of a perfect society is maintained through corporate, technologic, or totalitarian control. Using an exaggerate worse-case scenario, the dystopian story becomes a commentary about social norms and trends.

Nothing about history is obvious, and facts are often open to interpretation. Once upon a time, it was considered factual that blood-letting was the proper way of treating disease, that women were emotionally and physically incapable of rational thought. It was illegal for women to be soldiers, and to vote. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he didn’t discover America. In fact, some would say he was less an explorer and more of a conqueror. History tends to be written by those who survived it. As such, no history is without its bias. The meaning of history, just as it is for the novel, lays “not in the chain of events themselves, but on the historian’s [and writer’s] interpretation of it,” as Jill Paton Walsh once noted.

So it is with my newest project, in which I explore the events surrounding Sybil Ludington’s midnight ride.

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of a lovely feminine Paul Revere
Who rode an equally famous ride
Through a different part of the countryside,
Where Sybil Ludington's name recalls
A ride as daring as that of Paul's.
--Berton Braley, Sybil Ludington’s Ride. Published in The Sunday Star: This Week's Magazine. Washington D.C. April 14, 1940. Sybil Ludington; The Call to Arms, by V.A. Dacquino. 2000, Purple Mountain Press.

The trouble is, not every historian believes that the event happened. There’s no reliable historical evidence that suggests Sybil made her midnight ride, according to one study in the New England Quarterly. Nor is this ride referenced in any contemporaneous writing of the era, or in books about women’s contributions to the Revolutionary effort. Still, since her story first appeared in the 1880 history of New York City by Martha Lamb, Sybil has become an iconic figure. In the 1950s, as the decade was engulfed by Communist scares, she was the symbol of a pro-American youth. She was the ahead-of-her-time feminist icon of the 1960s and 1970s. Sybil Ludington, the lobe teenager riding for freedom, became the symbol of courage and individuality that is appealing to young readers.

But who was Sybil Ludington? That’s the million-dollar question.

Her father, Henry Ludginton is quite the historical figure. He began his military career as a royalists. Eventually he became a Colonel for the continental army. He was an aide-de-camp to George Washington. He was friends with John Jay, the founding father who was also instrumental in developing Washington’s spy network. Much of what is known about Sybil comes from his memoir, published by his grandchildren in 1907. We know, for example, Sybil is the eldest of 12. They lived on a relatively successful farm and gristmill in what is now Putnam County, New York, not far from the Connecticut border. Beyond that, there were many inconsistencies in her story. As a result,  I had to make lots of leaps in order to re-create her story.

For example, in a 1838 letter to her brother, she signs her name as Sebel. The census report of 1810 uses Sibel. The pension record she filed in 1837 refers to Cybal, which is then crossed out, and replaced with Sebal. Lamb, in her 1880 text, uses Sibyl. In 1907, the Connecticut Magazine called her Sibbel. Her gravestone in Patterson, NY, erected by her sisters, uses Sibbel.

For my story, I opted to use the name she signed herself: Sebel.

In order to understand her life, I had to explore the larger contexts of her story: as the daughter of a royal military officer, living on the (then) frontier, during the time of a profoundly changing political and social upheaval that ultimately led the revolutionary war. Some facts, such as dates of specific events and troop movements (and so on), are fixed points in time. Much of what happened has been glossed over, reduced to dates in a textbook. Other facts have been ignored. But history is more than dates. History is people, too. In the best of historical fiction, as with any story, a child becomes a hero who gains power over her situation, a theme that contemporary readers appreciate. In my story, The Young Rebels, Sebel's ride is only part of the story.

Some people are equally attached to the story. For example, Ludington's family friends include John Jay, the founding father who helped establish George Washington’s spy ring. Enoch Crosby was another family friend, and one of Washington’s first spies. Ichabod Prosser was a notorious Tory. I had to make leaps of imagination to develop realized characters.

Staying true to the times and the people, I did imagine discussions, often extrapolating from their own writings if I could find them. Lucky for me, John Jay and his cohorts are particularly long-winded about their ideas. Also, I didn’t want to oversimplify the contradictions of a war that focused on independence for some, but not for others. And here, the record is even more sparse. Women and the enslaved were not often included in revolutionary records. For this information, I read the records that explored the history of slavery in Connecticut and New England. I read Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, the Slave Narrative Collection, and the poetry of Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784).

Some of my research.

“Historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, illustrating the continuity of life,” says Karen Cushman, the master writer of historical fiction. Historical fiction, “like all good history, demonstrates how history is made up of the decisions and actions of individuals and that the future will be made up of our decisions and actions.”

My interpretation of the famous unknown ride features two perspectives -- Sebel and her sister Rebby -- who struggled to make sense of these up-ending contradictions surrounding them . The plot weaves together the fates of these sisters, their friends, in a tapestry that reflects their humanity, heartache and heroism in a war that ultimately defined a nation.

It's still a work in progress.

-- Bobbi Miller