Monday, June 29, 2009

The Five-Minute Writing Career*

*that would be five minutes at a time. Read on for clarification

One of our readers asked how much time the Teaching Authors devote to writing, how much to career development, our individual websites, professional reading etc.

I am THE worst person to ask, so of course, I am the one to address this question first!

There are people who are organized. They keep schedules, tidy desks and have all their Christmas presents bought and wrapped by Halloween. These people might be my fellow bloggers.

Alas, I am not one of them.

I am a genetically disorganized and unscheduled person. If you are looking for a pie chart of how much time you should spend brainstorming, writing, designing a website, doing outreach, reading, etc...well, maybe one of my colleagues will provide you with that information.

When I first got serious about writing as a career (as opposed to a whenever-I-felt-like-it-proposition), I met a published writer. I was amazed that not only had she produced three novels in five year, she had two kids under the age of 10! I simply couldn't imagine how she carved out the time.

So I asked her.

She would hide in the bathroom and scribble furiously for a couple of minutes. Apparently her kids understood "Mommy has to go to the bathroom" more than "Mommy is working."

What? I thought you had to write four or five hours without interruption to produce anything. This woman was literally writing five minutes at a time. Then I had a child and discovered what she meant.

My writing day went from five hours a day to however many minutes I can string together, in five or ten or thirty minute increments. My number one priority is writing. Face it, if you aren't writing, you don't have a "career" to develop! If I have a pending school visit/presentation, that takes precedence. If I have a revision deadline, THAT goes to the top of my "to-do" list. Updating my website and promotional materials is relegated to my "spare" time. I make a point to attend at least two workshop/conferences a year (they're tax deductible!) I have addressed professional reading in previous posts.

This summer I had planned to catch up on odds and ends like the website. As per usual, when I actually plan, Life put my plans into a blender. I had eye surgery. My daughter's figure skating practice went from two to four or five hours a day, five days a week. The rink is a zoo with day camps and hockey camps and kids just looking for a place to cool off. Sometimes the only place to sit is the lobby floor. That is if you don't mind being stepped on or becoming the goal net in a roller hockey game. I can work through a fair amount of mayhem, but I have my limits.

If any of this rings true for you, you are not alone. Here are some books written for us, the Chronically Time-Stressed, Overscheduled and On Deadline Writers.

Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman's Guide to Igniting the Writer Within by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett; I'd Rather Be Writing by Marcia Golub; Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids by Christina Katz; Page After Page by Heather Sellers.

WHAT I'VE READ SINCE LAST BLOG:(YA Fiction) Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott; (YA Historical fiction) Lost by Jacqueline Davies; (Adult Non-fiction) Boy, Alone by Josh Greenfield

Friday, June 26, 2009

More About Favorite Childhood Books plus Teaching Authors at ALA

A few readers have written to share their favorite childhood books. Sarah mentioned Mama, Buy Me a China Doll; Free to Be You and Me; Pickle Chiffon Pie; Harriet The Spy; and The All-of-a-Kind-Family. Cynthia’s list included the Oz books, National Velvet, E. Nesbit’s Five Children trilogy, and Louisa May Alcott’s Jack and Jill. Pamanmat remembered Nancy Drew, Archie comic books, and Great Expectations. What special books do you remember from your childhood or teen years? We’d love to hear about them!

Out and About

Several Teaching Authors will be at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference at McCormick Place in Chicago next month.

Esther Hershenhorn
will be at the SCBWI-Illinois Booth, #1626, on Saturday, July 11, from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., promoting her new book S is for Story: A Writer’s Alphabet, out this September with Sleeping Bear Press. The booth promotes Illinois authors and illustrators. SCBWI members, please stop by and say “Howdy!”

JoAnn Early Macken
will be speaking on Sunday, July 12, on a panel of nonfiction authors called “Nonfiction Book Blast! Booktalks Your Reluctant Readers Can’t Resist.” Seventeen authors and a moderator will present booktalks librarians can use to interest young readers in nonfiction. The panel appears from 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. in Convention Center Room W181
(Level 1 of the West Building). Participating authors and their books include:

  • Lisa Rondinelli Albert, Stephenie Meyer: Author of the Twilight Saga (Enslow, 2009), So You Want to Be a Film or TV Actor (Enslow, 2008)
  • Mary Bowman-Kruhm, The Leakeys: A Biography (Prometheus Books, 2009)
  • Laura Crawford, In Arctic Waters (Sylvan Dell Publishing), The Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving From A to Z (Pelican Publishing), Postcards From Chicago (Raven Tree Press)
  • Jeri Chase Ferris, With Open Hands: The Story of Biddy Mason (Lerner), Arctic Explorer: Matthew Henson (Lerner)
  • Kelly Milner Halls, Dinosaur Parade (Lark/Sterling Publishers, 2008), Saving the Baghdad Zoo (HarperCollins/Greenwillow, 2009), Tales of the Cryptids (Darby Creek Publishing, 2006)
  • Amy S. Hansen, Bugs and Bugsicles: Insects in the Winter (Boyds Mills Press, 2010), Touch the Earth (NASA and NFB, 2009)
  • Gwendolyn Hooks, Makers and Takers (Rourke Publishing, 2008)
  • Katherine L. House, Lighthouses for Kids: History, Science, and Lore with 21 Activities (Chicago Review Press, 2008)
  • Patricia K. Kummer, The Great Barrier Reef (Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2009), The Great Lakes (Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2009), North Korea, and South Korea (Scholastic/Children's Press, 2008)
  • Suzanne Lieurance, The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Sweatshop Reform in American History (Enslow)
  • JoAnn Early Macken, Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move (Holiday House, 2008)
  • Carla Killough McClafferty, In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
  • Wendie Old, The Halloween Book of Facts and Fun (Albert Whitman), The Groundhog Day Book of Facts and Fun (Albert Whitman)
  • April Pulley Sayre, Honk, Honk, Goose: Canada Geese Start a Family (Henry Holt, 2009)
  • Anastasia Suen, Wired (Charlesbridge, 2007), The U.S. Supreme Court (Picture Window Books)
  • Christine Taylor-Butler, Sacred Mountain: Everest (Lee and Low Books, 2009)
  • Rebecca Hogue Wojahn and Donald Wojahn, Follow That Food Chain (Lerner, 2009)

Library media specialist Sharon Mitchell will be the panel moderator. Hope to see you there!

The authors have also collaborated to produce a wiki (Nonfiction Book Blast) that includes all the booktalks, searchable by title, author, subject, and intended age level. The front page includes links to the authors’ web sites. After the conference, other authors, librarians, and interested readers can add booktalks of their own. Check it out!

JoAnn Early Macken
will be autographing Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move at the Holiday House Booth, #2138 in the West Building,
from 1:00-1:30 p.m.

April Halprin Wayland and Carmela Martino will also be strolling through the convention center and exploring exhibits. Watch for them, and be sure to say hello!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Those Oldies But Goodies

When folks ask me what I do, I say I'm in the Hope Business.
(A Good Thing, too, since I happen to be a Cubs Fan.)
Unlike other books, for other audiences, a children's book must always offer Hope. Not a Happy Ending, mind you. Just the possibility of one.

I cut my reader's teeth on "Happily Ever Afters," on inevitable, yet surprising satisfactory resolutions. Like several of my fellow Teaching Authors, my first reading memories are of my treasured Golden Books, the books I carefully chose, then dropped into my mother's shopping cart, during our weekly visits to our local Philadelphia A & P.

I especially loved the retold fairy tales.
Hansel and Gretel.
Little Red Riding Hood.
I couldn't wait to "read" these books to my dolls and friends, once my mother read them aloud to me.
Today, Eloise Wilkin's illustrations instantly connect me to the child I once was.

An early school memory? Sitting on the Reading Rug in Miss Patton's Kindergarten room at Overbrook Elementary, listening to my beloved teacher read us Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling. All of me stilled, except my captured heart that beat-beat-beat for someone I knew well.
The story's closing words often visit me unbidden: "I never dreamt of so much happiness when I was the Ugly Duckling."

By the age of 8, I was devouring my "orange True books," which is what I called my growing collection of the Bobbs-Merrill childhood biographies ofFamous Americans.
Real-and-true people could have Happy Endings, too! Each gifted book commemorated an important life occasion - my Birthday, my Half-Birthday, Hanukkah, Valentines' Day, a successful school year marked by O's and S's.

My mother's selections, purchased in John Wanamaker's downtown Philadelphia
Book Shop, always featured accomplished women, a powerful message in the 1950's.
Betsy Ross and Julia Ward Howe.
Amelia Earhart and Clara Barton.
Juliette Lowe.
Louisa May Alcott.
The list goes on and on.

Though blue, not orange, the pages of my Betty Crocker Junior Baking Book also claimed my attention.
The book accompanied my Betty Crocker Junior Baking Kit, which included cookie cutters, a cupcake pan, 2 layer cake pans and my very own rolling pin! Sadly, not all of my baking efforts resulted in the book's promised Happy Endings. However, licking the bowl had rewards all its own.

A new suburban home in the middle of my fifth grade year meant an across-the-road-and-down-one-street library, a first-time ever library card and virgin library shelves waiting to be explored.
I spent the remainder of that year and several years after voraciously reading through the blue-spined books on the "K" shelves of the tiny library's even tinier Children's Room.
Thanks to Carolyn Keene, to whom I often wrote fan letters, I rode along with Nancy Drew and her River Heights companions, seated in the back of her spiffy blue roadster, following clues and feeling the breeze.

Of course I wound up working in the Hope Business!
How could I not?
For someone who knew long ago she wanted to write children's books, my Life Story's satisfactory ending is neither surprising nor inevitable.
Fairy tales. Biographies. Cookbooks. Mysteries.
Genre by genre, one book at a time, I was solving the mystery of how to cook up Happy Endings.

P.S.I was in my twenties when I learned why Carolyn Keene never wrote me back.
My favorite mystery writer was actually several writers employed by The Stratemeyer Syndicate to churn out, formulaicly, Nancy Drew adventures.
But, I'm forced to smile a "Well-whaddaya-know-about-that!" smile each time I see, today, one of the above books on bookstore, library, school and home shelves.
Random House publishes the Golden Books, first published by Western.
Simon & Schuster retooled Nancy, her friends and even her roadster, and publishes the mysteries, some in graphic novel format.
Simon & Schuster also publishes the updated and expanded Bobbs-Merrill Childhoods of Famous American series.

As for my Betty Crocker cookbook? That's been updated and re-issued too.
Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling continues to be illustrated and published around the world.

I never dreamt of so much happiness when I first began reading.

Writing Workout:
Keeping a Reader's Journal

Oh, had I only kept a Reader's Journal when I first fell in love with reading and books!

Today I keep two Reader's Journals: one for the children's books I read as a writer; another for the books I read as an adult reader. Commercial Reader's Journals are available in all shapes and sizes. Or, simply purchase a dime store composition book or a dollar store sectioned notebook.

For each book read:
(1) note the title, author, publisher, publishing date
(2) note the date read
(3) copy the Library of Congress summarizing statement that usually appears on the copyright page
(4) note a favorite passage, a character's name, a word you learned while reading
(5) decide if you would recommend this book or not, and share why.

Keep a section for Books You Wish to Read.
Save a section for Books You Lend, Books You Borrow

Revisiting your Reader's Journal will make for fascinating reading.

Monday, June 22, 2009

School's Out!

As a kid, I spent many summers in my parents' hometown in Pennsylvania (near where Esther grew up). My grandparents had a pool, and I swam all day long. When I was not swimming, I was reading. I would take a stack of books in my luggage at the beginning of the summer and read them again and again. Like Mary Ann, I read for comfort, and I savored the best-turned phrases just as much as I savored my daily dose of chocolate (which, for those who don't know me, is saying a lot).

I was just telling my husband yesterday that when my grandparents needed a break, sometimes they'd send me to visit my mom's sister. She had three TV channels, no nearby neighborhood kids, no pool, and of course, no books. I remember that, in desperation, I once started reading her twenty-year-old encyclopedias.

So yes, bearing in mind that I am a geek, these are the books and authors (for better or worse) that inspired me to become a writer:

The Bobbsey Twins:
For one brief, not-so-shining moment in time, every girl my age (6, 7, 8) in every state in which I lived (a good number of states -- from Hawaii to Maryland) was reading the re-issued Bobbsey Twins. The Mystery at Cherry Corners was the first non-picture book I was ever given as a gift (by my grandparents the Christmas I was five). My mother read it aloud to me at bedtime. Having been reared by non-readers with nothing in the house to read herself besides Dick and Jane, she clearly enjoyed this ritual at least as much as I did. She voiced each character with gusto, and her level of animation (probably even more than the Bobbsey Twins' adventures) is the thing that made reading feel like an adventure to love.

I later "graduated" to Nancy Drew but found her to be so perfect that I couldn't stand her. (Irony that I later became Carolyn Keene -- but that's a story for another post.) The Hardy Boys were better. I tried some Trixie Belden, some Happy Hollisters. Ah, those were the golden days of the children's mystery series. Oh, and how I loved Encyclopedia Brown.

The Bobbsey Twins books were again reissued (in paperback) when I was a tween, with lots of PC tweaks (much-needed), but zero zip or fun.

I have the entire series of Sweet Tart-purple-spined hardcovers on my shelf upstairs to this day -- and, twenty-six or so moves later, I think that speaks volumes about how much I cherish the memories, if not the volumes themselves.

Beverly Cleary:
The first book a teacher gave me to read on my own was Ramona, the Pest. (A hint, perhaps.)

I adored all the Ramonas I read as a child and all the Henry Huggins books. I also re-read Mitch and Amy and Ellen Tebbits dozens of times. One thing I really appreciated was Cleary's skill at illuminating multiple points of view. In one book, she could convince you that Otis Spofford or Ramona was the most annoying person in the world (from Ellen's or Beezus' point of view). And, though you still totally empathized with Ellen and Beezus, you could read the book in which Otis or Ramona was the star and suddenly understand exactly how and why they were so misunderstood.

For the record, I think the most perfect book I've ever read is Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

Madeleine L'Engle:
My class was forced to watch a filmstrip version of A Wrinkle in Time in second grade. Either the filmstrip was very bad (likely) or I was just not ready (equally likely), but I was consequently turned off to this book for years. I finally forced myself to read it one day when I was sick and had nothing else on my shelf. I have never been a fantasy fan, but L'Engle is my big exception.

Some of my favorite lesser-read L'Engles are A House Like a Lotus and The Young Unicorns. Of the Time Trilogy, I liked A Swiftly Tilting Planet the best. I think I trace my eighth-grade interest in ESP (and thus, in its way, Mind Games) to this book.

Laura Ingalls Wilder:
Little Laura grew up to become a famous writer -- spun off into her own TV series, no less. Takeaway lesson? This could be a very cool thing.

I think I'd seen Little House on the Prairie on TV (it was the '70s) before my mom and I started reading the series together. I definitely remember that we started with book #2 because we thought, based on the title of the TV show, that it came first. Farmer Boy aside (I could never get through that one), I read the others over and over and over. On the Banks of Plum Creek was my very favorite.

I dressed as Laura Ingalls Wilder four Halloweens in a row. Again, it being the '70s, my dress and sunbonnet were some ghastly mix of orange and chartreuse. Inexplicably, neighbors always thought I was Holly Hobbie. Do you see the resemblance?

Judy Blume:
When I was in second grade and a somewhat precocious reader, my mom followed a librarian's advice (based, I presume, on reading level and not age) and checked out Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret? for me to read.

I really enjoyed the book, but my mom was quite shocked when I started asking her questions about periods and bras. We thus had "the talk" a little earlier than she expected.

Ellen Raskin:
The Westing Game is genius. So are Figgs and Phantoms and The Tattooed Potato.

Once I discovered her, I kept waiting for a new book by Ellen Raskin. Alas, it was not to be. :(

So in sixth grade I was forced to become a sucker for a good Miss Marple yarn; but Ellen Raskin is my idol.

Sydney Taylor:
All-of-a-Kind Family! Need I say more?

I also remember my middle school maudlin phase (predating Lurlene McDaniel) in which I read over and over again such books as Alex: The Life of a Child (made more heartbreaking by the fact that Alex would be exactly my age if she were alive today). Mary Ann and I also discovered we were both childhood devotees of the Marie Killilea books about her daughter, Karen. These were classified as "inspirational," and they were. I suppose that was the appeal in reading this genre -- a good tearjerker always leaves you with hope at the end.

In a nutshell, my reading list has shown me that I like either meandering, anecdotal tales (the kind that rarely get published anymore -- at least in the absence of a very voicey voice); or mysteries that are chock-full of plot. Nothing in between, thank you very much.

This summer I plan to reread the Eleanor Estes series -- gems that were out of print for much of my youth. I can't wait to read them to my kids!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Summer and Happy Father's Day

Welcome Summer!

This is prime Reading Season, which is why we're in the midst of a series of posts on memorable books from our childhoods. However, I want to take a brief time-out to wish all the all the dads out there:

Happy Father's Day!

Friday, June 19, 2009

My Five Fave Poetry Books

Enjoy all of the delicious books we've been talking about this summer—and if you buy them, please BUY LOCAL. Find your local bookseller here.

The folks in these stores are paperback promoters, kidlit campaigners, poetry proponents, school supporters, chapbook champions and author advocates.

They hand sell, They create community. They read and recommend. They carry crazy amounts of inventory so we can walk in and touch before we buy.

So please don’t browse in their stores and then buy it “cheaper” online. Because it’s not cheaper if you put them out of business. Independents offer us so much more than books.

Okay, now…here my five favorite poetry books. Note that my favorites are always changing…these are TODAY’s favs--ones that influenced my writing and my life.

1. On my thirteenth birthday, my older sister’s friend gave me A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I was stunned and flattered that she thought I was adult enough to understand these beat poems. Some of the poems took my breath away.
I loved “Dog,” which I performed in a modern dance solo. I recited the poem as I moved dog-like across the stage in a black leotard and tights, wearing our family dog’s collar. Picture that for a minute! Now read “Dog” here.

Just as Anne Frank’s book showed Mary Ann Rodman that she, too, could become a writer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s little book taught me that my hidden journals filled with poetry might one day become something more than journals.

When I was an adult, Ferlinghetti signed my copy. I burst into tears.

2. My mentor Myra Cohn Livingston recommended All The Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth, filled with poems about every day objects. Myra constantly said, “Tell me something new—or tell me something old in a new way. Make it fresh.” She said that the poet’s challenge was to get someone to see something as they had never seen it before.
Worth’s small poems make me tilt my head and look at things from another perspective…I’ve never looked at safety pins quite the same way after reading Worth’s poem “Safety Pin” with its “surprised eye.”

3. Many years ago, Gale, the company that publishes the reference guide Something About The Author, commissioned me to write my autobiography for this series. Up to that point I had only written picture books, so the prospect of writing something long was daunting.

I read lots of autobiographies, trying to figure out how I wanted to tell my life. Finally, I came across Calling The Doves—el canto de las palomas by Juan Felipe Herrera.This exquisite collection is about growing up in an itinerant farm worker family…in only 18 poems. It was revolutionary to me to realize that readers don’t need to know everything to be able to follow a storyline. This book inspired me to freely include poems in my own autobiography, which is in volume 26 of Something About The Author (in the reference department of most libraries) and also on my website.

4. The enchanting poetry book about the artist’s process, That's How it is When We Draw, written and illustrated by my dear friend, Ruth Lercher Bornstein, has taught me (again) that less is more.Ruth’s writing is unfailingly simple and clear. She can walk the tightrope of childlike writing…never allowing it to become cloying or sweet.

5. I found This is Just to Say—poems of apology and forgiveness, by Joyce Sidman when I was searching for books to add to my list about forgiveness and apologizing, to tie into the publication of my new book, New Year at the Pier—A Rosh Hashanah Story, which deals with these issues.
Sidman’s is a wonderful collection of poems about a classroom of students who write poems of apology—and receive poems back from those they hurt.

So for today, those are my Fav Five!

Here’s a poem about the pleasure of books which Lee Bennett Hopkins has accepted for a forthcoming anthology:

by April Halprin Wayland

I stand on our couch
closing windows,
pulling down shades,
shutting out shouting streets.

Wheels, squeals and dust driven past
Those constant distant drums outside
are gone.

Inside I sit close to Mom.
I lay my head against her.
Listen to her heart
Listen to the words.

Listen to the whisper
of each

© April Halprin Wayland
WRITING WORKOUT by April Halprin Wayland

1) Choose a poem you like.

2) Read it to yourself.

3) Read it aloud.

4) Write it in your own handwriting.

5) Now—write your own poem that does one of the following:
a) answers this poem
b) imitates this poem in content
c) imitates this poem in structure
d) takes one phrase from the poem and uses it in a completely different way.

6) Write with joy!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Summertime = Reading for Pleasure

As a child and teen, I always looked forward to summer as a time to read for pleasure (as opposed to assigned reading). Once a week, I rode the CTA bus to my local branch of the Chicago Public library to check out as many books as I could. Yet now, when students at school visits ask me my favorite books as a child, I draw a blank. Rather than specific books, I remember the genres.

For example, I recall being obsessed with mysteries in fifth grade. I read every Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys book at my library branch. Unlike Mary Ann, it never occurred to me to reread them. (Maybe if I had, I'd be able to remember some specific titles now) Reading mysteries was an adventure in puzzle-solving. Once I knew the solution, there was no motivation to read the story again. So after I finished all the mysteries in the children's section, I went upstairs to the adult section and checked out the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. I devoured those books so quickly that they, too, form a blur in my memory.

Some time in junior high, my interest shifted to fantasy. My favorite series was J. R. R. Tolkien's Hobbit/Lord of the Rings. I was fascinated not only by the story, but also by the amazing world Tolkien created His were the first books I ever re-read, and they were just as fascinating the second (and later, third) time around. While I read lots of books during my "fantasy stage," the only others I recall are those in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series. (Of course, Harry Potter hadn't been published yet.)

From fantasy I progressed to science fiction. Again, I read voraciously within the genre, but the ones that stand out are Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and Robert Heinlein's novels.

When I took a high school class in British literature, I became a fan of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. It, like Tolkien's books, is one I've read multiple times. In turn, my interest in British literature led to a "Charles Dickens stage." My favorites were Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities. I have no idea what other teenagers were reading at the time, but I knew my friends would tease me mercilessly if they found out I read Dickens "for fun." So I kept my passion a secret. I didn't tell them about reading Tolstoy's War and Peace either.

Lately, I've been thinking about how historical fiction has a great deal in common with fantasy and science fiction. All three genres transport readers to unfamiliar worlds with very different rules from our own. Of course, the worlds Austen, Dickens, and Tolstoy created were based on the society they lived in. I, on the other hand, am attempting to write a historical young-adult novel set in Europe over 200 years ago. The research is sometimes daunting, but always fascinating.

To help with that work, I attended the Historical Novel Society Conference in Schaumburg, Illinois last weekend. I neglected to bring my camera, but thanks to my friend and fellow young-adult author Sarah Barthel, I do have some pictures to share. Here, I'm seated with Julie Phend, another young-adult author, at Saturday's Banquet, which featured a historical costume fashion show. And below, is a photograph of the show participants.

The conference was a great experience--I was inspired by the talented speakers, and I learned some helpful research tips.

This summer, I'm combining research with fun by reading as much historical fiction I can find that is set in the world I'm trying to re-create. And now I use JacketFlap to keep track of all the books I read, so I won't forget the titles. If you'd like to see what I've been reading, check out my bookshelf on my JacketFlap page.

By the way, if you can recommend any good books set in 18th-century Europe, do let me know!

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Little Mental Comfort Food

When I think of "books I loved as a child", I don't have to think hard, because they are right here on my bookshelves. I am a big believer in re-reading. The ultimate book experience is when you literally "fall into" a story world that seems as real or more real, than the one you live in. As an adult, I can see that I coped with a pretty stressful childhood by escaping through books. I read everything that came down the pike...magazines, adult books, pamphlets in the doctor's office...but there were those special books that I read again and again and again (and still do.)

My parents never understand how I could read the same book over and over. "Not A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN again?" they would groan. Or THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL. Or CHARLOTTE'S WEB. "Does it come out differently this time?" they would tease.

I couldn't explain that no, this time the Nazis don't discover the Franks or that Charlotte doesn't die. Re-reading was like visiting old friends who were always happy to see me. It was like snuggling into my favorite quilt, When I first heard the term "comfort food", I immediately thought of my beloved book friends. Time spent with Francie Nolan or Anne Frank was exactly like a good bowl of mashed potatoes and gravy.

Most of these books are middle grade or adult novels. I don't ever remember reading picture books or Dr. Seuss until I was an adult in library school. What follows is an oddball assortment, some of which are out of print (alas).

CHARLOTTE'S WEB by E.B White--This is the book that I would take to a desert island; it has everything. Humor (Templeton the rat is my all time favorite fictional character), suspense (Will Charlotte's plan succeed?) and the reassuring notion of no matter what, life goes on. I also learned the beauty of description, something I nearly always skipped in reading. But White's humorous descriptions, and lists of items (such as the contents of Wilbur's pig slops) serve as both scene setter and insight into the characters.

HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh--This was the first book I encountered where the adult weren't founts of wisdom (with the exception of Ole Golly). In fact, as viewed through the lensless glasses of Harriet M. Welsch, most adults were foolish or clueless or both. Harriet, as the title implies, was an unapologetic eleven-year-old snoop, and so was I. Harriet taught me how to listen to people through walls, via a water glass! Harriet also taught me that there was a time for the unvarnished truth, and a time to keep it to yourself.

THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL by Anne Frank--Anne was the first person who told me I could be a writer. Well, not personally, of course, but as I read her diary I was enthralled by how she made what could have been a deadly dull reciting of daily events (even if they did happen during WWII while hiding from the Nazis) a fascinating narrative. I was even more impressed when I learned that she revised the journal at least twice before her discovery, with the thought of publishing it after the war. I found comfort with Anne. While the Nazis might not have forced my family into an attic, I did live in daily fear of the Ku Klux Klan. Anne became my junior high equivalent of the imaginary friend.

THE FAIRY DOLL by Rumer Godden; TIME FOR LISSA by Rebecca Caudill; THE CHINESE DAUGHTER by Frances Lattimore What do these three books have in common? Certainly not the settings (England, the U.S. and pre-Communist China, respectively). The common thread is that the main character has a special relationship with a doll. I was never much of doll girl, as far as playing with them. But the girls in these books treated their dolls as surrogate siblings. As an only child, I desperately wanted a sibling, or since that was not in my power, a special doll to bond with. These books represented to me that unattainable ideal. Word of warning if you search these books out, THE CHINESE DAUGHTER has some politically incorrect notions of Asians, by today's standards.

THE BEANY MALONE/KATIE ROSE AND STACY BELFORD BOOKS by Leonora Mattingly Weber. Once I ditched Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins (cringe!) I discovered the World of Beany and Katie Rose and Stacy...specifically Denver, from the 1940's to the late 60's. Between the Beany books and the Katie Rose/Stacy books, there were 23 volumes, following the same characters as they moved through adolescence, college, marriage and parenthood. After Beany finally married The Boy Next Door, she turned up as a cameo character in the Katie Rose books, so I could still keep up with the Malone family. It was an insular little world where people dated and married their classmates, and no one ever seemed to leave Denver. This was comforting to someone like me, who attended 10 different schools before I graduated from high school. I loved the idea of people who were lifelong friends, a phenomena I had never encountered, Then I met my husband who went through elementary to graduate school with the same cast of characters. How I envy the continuity of his life. Just like fiction!

THE MELENDY TRILOGY by Elizabeth Enright. Since these books were published during WWII, I always considered them "historical fiction". I was adult before I realized that the Melendys could have been the contemporaries of my parents...and may have been the beginning of my interest in life on the Home Front (the origins of JIMMY'S STARS, perhaps) At any rate, like the Malones and Belfords, the Melendys were a large, single parent family, whose lives and adventures seemed blissfully unencumbered by adult interference. Ah!!!!

AN OLD FASHIONED GIRL by Louisa May Alcott--This was a book that turned up in my Easter basket one year, no doubt because it was next to the candy display at E.J. Korvette's. I believed that any book given as a gift should be read, no matter how deadly dull. I had read LITTLE WOMEN the year before, in third grade, and was unimpressed by the March girls. But Polly, the old-fashioned girl of the title, was much livelier and more naive than Jo et al, in this take on the " country mouse/city mouse." After a year or two with Polly, I was ready to re-read and enjoy LITTLE WOMEN...but OLD FASHIONED GIRL is the book I still return to.

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith. I read this only because 1) I had already read all the books I had brought with me to my grandmother's house and 2) it was the only book in her house that didn't have the word "arthritis" in the title. I was ten, and so was Francie Nolan, the main character. I was totally hooked by the first chapter's description of Francie's weekly visit to the library to choose books. Going to the library was the high point of my week, which occurred right after my weekly trip to the allergist. Francie might have been living in the slums of 1910 Brooklyn, but we were total soulmates on the subject of reading. My grandmother gave me her copy to take home. Although this book now resides in YA departments, when it was published in 1943, it was an adult bestseller. This was my first book that even MENTIONED the possibility of human reproduction. I thoughtfully dog-eared the "dirty" pages for my friends to view and share in the back seats of the school bus. I read everything else Betty Smith wrote (I had to have a note from my mother to check out books from the adult section of the library) and while I enjoyed them, nothing equaled the Nolans.

AUNTIE MAME and THE JOYOUS SEASON by Patrick Dennis. I discovered these two in a junk store bin on a trip to Florida. I had, once again, read everything I had brought with me, and would have read WAR AND PEACE if it had been in my motel room. These two books were never meant for children, even though the narrators are both young boys (in the first case, an adult looking back at his childhood). I thought they were hysterically, laugh-out-loud funny. I particularly like THE JOYOUS SEASON, a child's eye view of "jet set" New York of the '60's and divorce. (I told you they weren't really for kids!) I was twelve when I read them, and the combination of innocence and snarkiness in the voices of the fictional "Patrick" of AUNTIE MAME, and Kerry, in THE JOYOUS SEASON (which I think is out of print.)

As an adult, I no longer have the luxury of sprawling in the back seat of a car on a ten hour road trip with a stack of books and a bag of lemon drops to suck. Now I'm the one driving, and my daughter gets carsick if she tries to do anything that involves a printed page. Enter...the Recorded Book! Now, my Inner Child and my actual child enjoy those long drives with some of my old favorites (such as Beverly Cleary's HENRRY HUGGINS and RAMONA, THE PEST...both excellent readings by Neil Patrick Harris and Stockard Channing, respectively) and new ones (Carl Hiaasen's HOOT and Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series come to mind.)

I'm taking off for the beach in a couple of weeks, and I think I'll take a few old Patrick and Polly and of course, Wilbur and Templeton. Time to reconnect with my real inner child again!

What I've been reading: I've been recovering from eye surgery, so I haven't been doing as much reading. But since we last talked, I've read NEW YEAR AT THE PIER by fellow blogger April Halprin Wayland (picture book), GEORGIA RISE: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF GEORGIA O'KEEFE by Katherine Lasky (Non-fiction picture book);UNDER THE BRIDGE by Rebecca Godfrey, BANGKOK DAYS by Lawrence Osborne, HUNGRY by Allen Zadoff, ANNIE'S GHOSTS by Steven Luxemburg (Adult non-fiction)

Still Memorable After All These Years Posted

When I speak at schools, students often ask me what books I read when I was their age. I can usually remember one or two, and I often say that I really ought to make a list someday. With help from my sisters, I finally started that list. I posted it on my web site. Here are some of my favorites.

The Color Kittens, the story of “two color kittens with green eyes, Brush and Hush,” who had “buckets and buckets and buckets and buckets of color to splash around with. Out of these colors they would make all the colors in the world.” They dreamed
“Of a purple land
In a pale pink sea
Where apples fell
From a golden tree.”
Until I found an old copy at a rummage sale a few years ago, I hadn’t realized that Margaret Wise Brown wrote it. I still love the soft illustrations, the gentle tone, and the playful language.

The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss. I can remember Mom reading this one to my sisters and me. We all listened in suspense as the poor bewildered boy with the magically appearing hats bravely made his way up, up, up that winding staircase with the executioner following right behind him. The thought still makes me shiver.

Angelo the Naughty One by Helen Garrett. The story of a boy who runs away on his sister’s wedding day because he is afraid to take a bath. "Papa said he was a disgrace to the family and Mama was ashamed, but Angelo was always naughty. He even yelled when his face was washed!" I loved the friendly, exotic (to me) illustrations and the descriptive names of Angelo's brothers and sisters: Maria Rosa, the eldest one; Gloria, the rough one; Juanita, the sweet one; Louisa, the bright quick one; sturdy Thomas; Miguel, the tiny one; and Antonio, the baby, whom everybody loved. After a vigorous scrubbing, a ride on a prancing black stallion, and the festive wedding, Angelo’s father calls him the Brave One because he is no longer afraid of water.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. A breakthrough book for me. What freedom she had! What a name! I delighted in reciting it: Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim’s Daughter Longstocking. I loved how strong she was, how she lived with a horse and a monkey, and how she shared her gold with her friends Tommy and Annika. I wanted to be her.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Naturally, I identified with Jo. I imagined myself a tomboy and a writer and even started calling myself Jo instead of JoAnn. I picked up a copy a few weeks ago and was amazed to recognize how familiar it all was. I must have read it many times.

What makes these books so memorable to me? The same things that grab any child's attention: thrilling, imaginative stories about brave, clever, determined characters who figure things out for themselves, who make mistakes and make amends and are loved in spite of their faults. Exciting language with rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay. Surprise and wonder, comfort and reassurance. I hope that kids today still find these things in books. Plus welcoming laps to sit in and people who care enough to read with them.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

So, How Do You Publish That Children's Book You've Finally Created?

So, How Do You Publish That Children's Book You've Finally Created?

Thanks, Lia L., for posting the above question. It's the Number One Question asked of all children's book creators, even of those who may not also teach Writing.

(The Number Two Question, by the way? "How do I get an agent?")

Your timing couldn't be better. My Writing for Children Workshop "Oh, The Places You'll Go!" this past weekend at the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest answered that very question.
[note: photo by Julie Bridgers-Schatz]
My Top Five Writing for Children Truths, shared with an enthusiastic crowd?

(1) infinite writing and publishing possibilities exist
(2) writers write
(3) writers read
(4) writers connect
(5) writing and publishing opportunities abound

I bet you know all about the writing (i.e. learning and honing your craft) and the reading, too, of the very best children's literature published today. (Check the links we've listed in the "Children's/YA Lit Reading Lists" sidebar to access recommended titles.)

But what about those possibilities?
What about those opportunities?
And how does connecting, especially via SCBWI, connect those two?

First and foremost, ground yourself in today's Children's Book World. Familiarize yourself with the publishing segments, the formats, the countless possibilities for telling your story the best way possible.

Recommended primers include Barbara Seuling's How to Write a Children's Book and Get It Published (John Wiley, '04), Harold Underdown's The Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books (Alpha Books, '08) and the annual Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market (available every August).

Also, be sure to subscribe to Publishers Weekly Children's Bookshelf, an e-newsletter dedicated to children's book publishing, available every Thursday, after noon.

Second, do your homework to identify and target likely publishers for your manuscript. The parent in you wouldn't send off your child to play at his new friend's house without first checking out a few important facts about the home and the residents, right? Establish that same mind-set when sending off your crafted, polished manuscript. How likely is the welcome and acceptance? How story-friendly, format-friendly are the recipients?

One assignment might be to purchase, page through, reread, study Publishers Weekly's upcoming July 6 Children's Book issue, listing trade children's book publishers' Fall 2009 lists and highlighting notable books. [Note: Spring books are listed in the February Children's Book issue; the issue's available in libraries and bookstores.]

Another? To visit the website of the Children's Book Council. Study the list of publishers, across a variety of publishing segments; then visit publisher websites to read (and study) their current catalogues and submission policies.

Next, seek out, at your local children's bookstore and your library's children's book department, and then hold, in your own two hands, books published by your targeted publisher. Know their work, how yours compares, how yours would sit comfortably on that publisher's list.

Third, connect the dots by joining SCBWI, if you haven't already(!). The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators is the only professional organization for children's book writers and illustrators, numbering 23,000 children's book creators around the world. Membership is guaranteed to connect and maximize those infinite possibilities and abounding opportunities.

Don't forget to utilize SCBWI'S website-available updated For-Member-Only marketing guides specific to our industry's publishing segments - i.e. trade, educational, magazine, religious, e-zine, etc. Each guide lists publisher focuses, needs, submission policies, acquiring editors and their titles.

Remember to access Arthur Levine's For-SCBWI Members-Only editor guide, also available on SCBWI's website, listing trade editors and the books they've published.

Read the bi-monthly SCBWI Bulletin, online or hardcopy, highlighting editorial moves, calls for manuscripts, contests and niches needing filling. Soon you'll realize the gold to be mined in the Events Calendar which lists agents, publishers, imprints and editors.

Attend a Writer's Conference, especially an SCBWI-sponsored Conference, to connect with a particular editor and/or agent, learn his or her editorial needs and preferences, receive a critique from a faculty member and submit a manuscript to a participating editor whose publishing house is closed to unagented work.

Consider applying for SCBWI grants and contests, often judged by editors and agents. This is yet another way to get your manuscript read. SCBWI offers a variety of grants, including the Work-in-Progress grants, the Don Freeman Grant (for illustrators), the James Giblin Grant (for non-fiction), the Barbara Karlin Grant (for picture book writers) and the Sue Alexander Manuscript Award for a manuscript critiqued at the Summer Los Angeles SCBWI Conference. The Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market lists a variety of additional contests available to published and unpublished writers.

So, to summarize?

Ground yourself, do your homework, connect the dots.

Soon, Lia L., that good story you told so well - so well, in fact, it's certain to re-sound in a young reader's heart, will find a home and publishing house.

Writer's Workout

Many children's book publishers sponsor contests for unpublished writers to enter, including Lee & Low, Random House, and Milkweed. Indeed Christopher Paul Curtis credits his publishing success to the Delacorte Contest. His submitted entry, The Watsons Go To Birmingham, didn't win the contest but won him an editor's interest and invitation to revise, allowing the book to go on to win a Newbery Honor.

Simon & Schuster's Spoonfuls of Stories Contest accepts entries from unpublished authors through July 15, 2009. The 2008 winner, Lori Degman of Illinois, won $5,000 for her rhymed picture book 1 Zany Zoo, and went on to sign a two-book contract and sign with an agent as well.

We writers need to grab that Golden Ring, even when it's disguised as a Cheerio!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Serendipity and the Art of Life

My novel, Mind Games, began, in its way, when I was in eighth grade. It began with my quest to prove for the sake of science (and my grade -- like Benjamin D. Lloyd, I was all about grades) that ESP does, in fact, exist. My project was successful to the extent that it won (I think) an honorable mention at the state science fair. But in the end, I neither proved nor disproved my hypothesis -- that life is too full of "coincidence" for there not to be a guiding hand behind it all.

In life, I call that hand God's. In art, of course, that hand belongs to the writer.

Eighth grade was the beginning of a long agnostic period for me that ended shortly before I began writing Mind Games. An all-powerful, ever-loving, omniscient God is, after all, the ultimate in terms of Supernatural. And so that favorite writerly question -- what if? -- began to needle me. What if a group of students undertook a project similar to mine and actually got an answer?

At Vermont College, I remember being advised that it was helpful to mentally "cast" characters when writing fiction. Since I always have an actor in mind when penning a line of (ever-sparkling) soap dialogue, this advice was tremendously helpful to me. True, my casting was a little unorthodox, as once I imagined my grandmother in the role of a ten-year-old sibling. And there's always a little (maybe a big) part of me in every character I create. Mine is the only skin I've lived in, so I find that I need to grab on to something familiar in order to believably assume someone else's made-up life.

My ultimate casting coup in my writing thus far would have to be Bonnie. Bonnie is a friend from church, an adult in her fifties with special needs, and the basis of Kathleen in Mind Games. Since "twin ESP" is a subject of interest to me and since I'd had identical twins in my original eighth grade project testing group, it seemed natural to have twins appear in my novel. Then I started to think about the interesting story possibilities of making Kathleen a twin. Thus Claire was born. (Ironically, the last character to show up in the novel, she is probably the one most like me.)

The real-life Bonnie has two siblings. She'd told me that her older brother also had special needs and was institutionalized; and that she and her sister were "about the same age." I assumed that this meant that her sister was slightly younger but habitually took on a caregiving role, so Bonnie was no longer sure which of them was older. One day, many months after I'd begun writing Mind Games, we celebrated Bonnie's birthday at church and I discovered that it was also her sister's birthday. Indeed, they were "about the same age" -- they were twins! But because they were not as close as Bonnie felt twins were typically thought to be, she did not freely share this information.

Serendipity, indeed! In a book about interconnectedness and the lack of true coincidence in life, the existence of a real-life Claire was the ultimate validation.

I don't steal plots from life, but I do steal incidents, details, the things I see and hear and wish and dream that make me the person and the writer I am. In writing for soap operas, where the ideas are not mine and the words I write are spoken by actors who may not say what is written on the page, my sole contribution (for what it's worth) is usually in those details -- my daughter who said "laloo" instead of "I love you" when she first began to talk; the sound of my grandmother snoring in the bed beside mine; the feeling in my heart on that perfect day on which I married my husband.

Mr. Ford is a middle school teacher, so he brings home LOTS of stories about students, which I feel free to use (and which I cheerfully tell them when I come in for class visits). Of course, these are snippets, anecdotes -- I don't actually know the kids, so the heart of their stories becomes fiction easily and by necessity.

My next writing project is set in the Civil War era and partly based on the diaries and letters of a girl from Maryland. I already have a complete draft of the manuscript, in which I managed to turn an intriguing story into a plodding one. Back to the drawing board, my first order of business will be to get to know the characters all over again -- this time, inside my own head.

"Method" Writing
by Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford

Years ago, I decided to take an acting class so that I might have some sense as to what occurs in the creative process after I turn in a script. I was living in LA at the time, so I enrolled at UCLA Extension (shout-out to April), and my teacher, Barbara Tarbuck, is a wonderful and very busy working actress. We delved into the basics of Stanislavski's teaching, aka "The Method." In a nutshell, Stanislavski developed a number of exercises to help actors inhabit their characters more fully.

The very same process is, perhaps obviously, just as applicable to writers. I might not typically do "morning pages" or other writerly exercises (see my next post for more on time management); but, in germinating a novel in its earliest stages, I have found a variation of these exercises invaluable in helping with character development.

For the classroom:

1) Practice people-watching (a favorite activity of most actors and writer I know). Pay attention to the details of conversation and action you observe. Use what you see to extrapolate and build a believable character biography. (Though we usually think of biographies as non-fiction, what you are doing here is turning life into fiction in its most basic form.)

For writers:

2) Create a biography of each of your novel's major characters. Where do they come from, and what incidents have been most important in shaping them into who they are today? What are their likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, quirks, fears? And of course, the most important question you must answer for every character: WHAT DO THEY WANT?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Family Stories into Fiction

As my very smart husband says to me with a twinkle in his eye, “You don’t have to try to turn your life into fiction—it already is fiction.”

It takes a certain distancing to create a fictional character that is not literally you. One way to separate you from your character? Join a critique group.

Our group of four writers meets twice monthly. My group tells me when to cut an entire thread from my novel (even when I whine, "But I really did pretend I had wings when I was a teen") and when to cut a character.

Cutting can be EXTREMELY painful.

For example, in my real life, my sister plays a major role. So when my critique group suggested deep-sixing the sister in my current novel-in-poems-in-progress—aargh!

I don’t take every suggestion they make...but after weeks of reflection, I decided they were right—the story works better without her.

Looking for story ideas? Start with the non-fiction at your family dinner table.

My family’s long and painful quest for a dog turned into THE GREAT DOG SEARCH (which is on my CD/MP3). I tell this story when I speak in schools, beginning with the dogs we had before we found Rosie (including Magic, the huge black lab who was a “career change dog”—he flunked out of Seeing Eye Dog School—and Luke, the white puppy who was killed by a car.)

“I knew you were going to laugh when I talked about Magic, and I knew you were going to gasp when Luke died,” I say to the students at the end, “because this is one of our family stories.”

After dozens of tellings at the dinner table, I’ve cut the unnecessary parts and figured out how to get a laugh, how long to pause when the car speeds around the corner, and how to describe Rosie, with her Cleopatra eyes.

* * * * *

A family story
is a piece of shattered glass

tossed and washed

by waves

its fierce edges


so I can hold
its ache

its grace
its laughter


in my hand

(c) April Halprin Wayland

We all have family stories. Looking for story ideas? Try the WRITING WORKOUT below.


FAMILY STORIES-- Stories You Didn't Know You Knew

by April Halprin Wayland

You know the stories your family tells again and again whenever someone new comes over? Like the time you added salt instead of sugar into the cake mix or the fact that your brother is accident prone (is the family joke that he has a frequent flyer card in the emergency room?)

You tell these stories over and over because they work—perhaps they get a laugh or they explain something (so that’s why Joey has the scar on his arm). They bring people around the table closer together, too. These stories have stood the test of time.

Try one of the following:

  1. Invite someone over for dinner. Or go to someone's house for a meal. Listen for the stories. Take notes.
  2. Interview someone in your house. Ask them to tell you a story about you when you were little. Take notes.
  3. Look at family photos or videos with a relative and ask them about family stories. Take notes.
  4. With a notebook and pen, walk slowly through each room of your home. Does any object remind you of a family story? Perhaps a rocking chair was brought by your grandfather from the "old country"; maybe you remember the day your mother brought home that blue bowl—and redecorated the whole kitchen to match it. Take notes.
  5. Pair off with a classmate and interview each other, sharing your family dinner table stories.

Now, choose one of the stories you've jotted down. Write it as if you are telling it at the dinner table. Include as many of the five senses as possible (his hair smelled of lemons, her apron felt stiff and starchy, the air was freezing cold).

Read your story to a relative or friend...or at the family dinner table!

Have fun!

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