Friday, July 31, 2009

Open Heart Surgery—Writing a Holiday Story

Happy Poetry Friday!

Today's poem and Writing Workout/Lesson Plan on writing a holiday story are at the bottom of this post.

There’s always so much to do to launch a book. So much more than I’ll ever do. I have a file called “PR opportunities” which exhausts me just to scroll through.

Nap time!Luckily, NEW YEAR AT THE PIER--A Rosh Hashanah Story is powered both by the airy and emotionally true watercolor illustrations by Stéphane Jorisch, and by its association with a holiday. So though I am doing lots of PR, more people are approaching me for interviews and book signings than with past books.

So today’s advice? Write a holiday book!

Or maybe not. Keep reading.

When my first picture book, TO RABBITTOWN (Scholastic), came out, it was also stunningly illustrated (by Robin Spowart). It came out every Easter, which stuck me as funny, since I’m Jewish. It got a starred review in School Library Journal, went through many editions, became a paperback, stayed in print for eight years and sold over 64,000 copies.

That was pretty cool, but because it was my first book, much of that miracle was lost on me. I didn’t understand the amazing goldness of a starred review in SLJ, didn’t know that a publisher doesn’t normally take out an ad to promote a book, didn’t know that picture books were going out of print within two years.

When my next book, THE NIGHT HORSE (Scholastic) went out of print before anyone knew it was on the shelves, I took notice…to put it mildly.

There were lots of factors, of course. But it was clear to me that a book which had a handle—like a holiday—might have a longer shelf-life. So I asked my local independent children’s bookstore owner what holiday books she wished she had.

Ground Hog’s Day, she said.

With scrunched forehead and clenched jaw, I put on my mining hat, carried my heavy pick, and went to work on a Ground Hog’s Day story. I tried—I really did. But I wasn’t even sure what a ground hog looked like. And I’m a native Southern Californian—I couldn't understand why anyone would care if winter lasted longer. So the story? Flat.

Ten years later, an editor asked me if I had any Jewish stories. I immediately began to describe tashlich, a joyous, communal ritual during the Jewish New Year. I told her about the families gathered on the beach, the moving, melodic songs we sing as we troop up the pier, the goose-bumpy spiritual aura around us as we toss pieces of bread into the ocean, cleaning the slate for the New Year.

I began writing it immediately, heatedly, jumping up and down, singing Avinu Malkenu, dancing around the story, trying to get the right angle. I could write this story because I got chills when I thought about tashlich.

I think it’s called emotional honesty.

So here’s what I’ve learned. Would it be a good idea to write a holiday story? Yes…if you can’t wait to share the way you celebrate it (or avoid it, which might be an interesting spin on a holiday…). If you can barely restrain yourself from running out of the house this very minute and bopping passersby on the head with your story or dressing them up, painting their faces, taking their hands and leading them to the tent where you celebrate your holiday.

Then—congratulations! You’ve found that warm-homemade-bread-pesto-avocado-deliciousness of your story.

Writing Workout/ Lesson Plan (cleverly disguised as a poem): Writing A Holiday Story

by April Halprin Wayland

Lead us
to your backyard in the dark.
Light those red candles.

Sit us down
in your grandfather’s rattan chair
on the grass.

Bring us
that steaming rice dish.
Put a fork in our hands.

Sing us the song.
Now teach us the words
so we can sing along.

(c) April Halprin Wayland

And please--don't make this writing sandbox of ours into work, as I did for so many years with that mining hat and heavy pick. Write with joy!All images by April Halprin Wayland


Color Online said...

Enjoyed your entire post especially your poem. Thank you.

Tara McClendon said...

I love holiday books, and I know I'm not alone when I go to the library in February and all the Valentine's Day books are checked out.

Mary Lee said...

"Write with joy!" Great advice!

Sylvia Vardell said...

As always, I love your writing, April-- the narrative about your process, the sweet cartoons, and your perfect poem. And of course you know I love NEW YEAR AT THE PIER so much and wish you mazeltov and many years in print!

April Halprin Wayland said...

So glad for all your comments--they fuel me! I'm really, really happy to have found a way to draw again...I've missed doodling all these computer years.