Friday, February 28, 2014

Habits, Patterns, Rituals, Whatever Works

Today, I’m starting a new series of Teaching Author posts on a topic I hadn’t previously thought about much: writing rituals. An article by Debra Eve, “How to Create a Three-Phase Writing Ritual,” is our inspiration.

Eve begins by making the distinction between habits and rituals. Rituals include things like lighting a candle or saying a prayer—making a conscious effort to separate from everyday activities—in order to transition to a different reality to write before returning to normal life.

My pre-writing routine definitely falls into the habits category. First thing in the morning, I fetch a cup of coffee and sit at my desk. I try to write by hand for awhile before I turn on the computer. When I’m in the middle of a project, I plunge right in, scribbling on the draft I printed at the end of the previous day’s work. Between projects, if I’m not sure what to work on next, I write Morning Pages to try to discover where to focus my attention. Writing Morning Pages also helps when I'm stuck. Sometimes they are all I can do; sometimes they help me let go and move on to more productive work. Some days I also read or do a writing exercise.

I just submitted the monarch butterfly manuscript that’s been on my mind for more than four years and my top priority for several months. So I’m in that In-Between Phase right now. I’m writing Morning Pages, recycling old drafts, and catching up on mundane tasks. This clean-up process helps me let go and move on to the next exciting possibility. (I think I might have it! I started my preliminary research on my last trip to the library.)

That clean-up step doesn't qualify as a ritual, either—it's just what works for me. And that's what matters, right? But now that I've put some thought into writing rituals, I'll consider developing one. Who knows? It might be just what I need.

Stay tuned to find out what the other Teaching Authors have to say about habits, patterns, and rituals. We’d love to hear about yours!

JoAnn Early Macken

Monday, February 24, 2014


I’ve been out and about the past few days in The Big Apple, taking in both sights AND sounds while attending the 2014 Annual SCBWI Winter Conference at the Grand Hyatt New York. 
Imagine: 1085 children’s book creators from 47 states and 20 countries gathered together in one beautiful ballroom to celebrate our community, our books, our creative efforts, each other while learning and taking heart from the words of the esteemed faculty. 

YOU can attend too, sort of and vicariously, thanks to Team Blog.  Just click here. 
I heartily recommend you do so, with a cup o'coffee or two by your side. It's an Instant Education courtesy of our Children's Book World's Best and Brightest.
You will be two-hat-sizes smarter by the time you reach Nikki Grimes' closing keynote.

Speaking of "smarter,"
why not test everything you’ve learned about voice from our past weeks’ TeachingAuthors posts by matching these unique 2014 SCBWI Winter Conference speakers (and one or two non-Conference folks I happened to meet) -

 A.   Sylvia, The Grand Central Hyatt

B.     Lin Oliver, Executive Director of SCBWI 

C.     Author Jack Gantos

D.    Author Kate Messner

E.     Author and Poet Nikki Grimes

F.     Gabriella Pizzolo, of MATILDA                             

G.    TeachingAuthor Jill Esbaum

with their identifiably-distinctive spoken words :

(1)   If you’re drawing characters, really swing your cat!”
Keynote Address: How everything I learned about fiction and nonfiction in picture books, poetry, short stories, novellas, or, angst, dialog, a hundred drafts, and good luck all end up in the crown jewel of literature: THE NOVEL

(2)  “Rule #1: You can’t have brave without scared.
Rule #2:  Never underestimate the power of failure.
Failure is a pretty good trail marker to let us know we’re going in the right direction.”
Keynote address: The Spectacular Power of Failure

(3)  “We love everyone and you’re all welcome here!  Your success is our success. The
only thing we’re missing is the Jamaican bobsledders.”
Welcome and Introduction

(4)  “May I help you, please?”

(5)  “I HATCHED was named a Sunday Book Review Editors’ Choice in today’s New York Times!!!”

(6)  It’s so important that we ask ourselves the hard questions.
Just keep writing.  You’ll figure it out eventually.
The key is to learn to trust the process.
Take 2 poems and call me in the morning.”
Keynote address: Creating the Dream through Fiction for Young Readers

(6)  Just because you find that life's not fair, it
Doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it,
You might as well be saying you think that it's OK.
And that's not right.
And if it's not right, you have to put it right.
But nobody else is gonna put it right for me.
Nobody but me is gonna change my story.
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty

From: MATILDA, “Naughty,” lyrics and music by Tim Minchin

Here’s hoping you earned a perfect score and took heart from the above Truths that left me hopeful, grateful, and determined to use my voice to tell my stories.
Esther Hershenhorn

Here are the correct answers: 1-C, 2-D, 3-B, 4-A, 5-G, 6-E, 7-F
Alas, I still dream of winning an SCBWI Conference Joke Contest. This year's theme? Placing a children's book character in a Winter Olympics headline.  My favorite winner was "Humpty Dumpty Disqualified for Possession of Crack."

Friday, February 21, 2014

Sylvia Vardell's Poetry Aloud Here! Using Your Voice in a Poem of Instruction ~

Howdy Campers!

Happy Poetry Friday ~ the hostess for today's poetry feast is Karen Edmisten--thank you, Karen!

and congratulations to Sylvia Vardell on the publication of an updated, shiny NEW EDITION of her fabulous Poetry Aloud Here--Sharing Poetry with Children, which has been in print for over ten years (the new book is called Poetry Aloud Here 2)! I am elated that one of my poems (printed below) introduces the book.  Man-oh-man--what an honor!

Click here for Sylvia's description of her inspiring book (Booklist called the first edition "required reading for all children's librarians"), and here's the notice from ALA.

If you've been following TeachingAuthors, you know that we're in the middle of our series exploring Voice: what it is, how to find yours and/or how to teach it.  JoAnn kicked off our discussion with her definition of voice and her original poem, "I Have A Voice"; Jill continued with a real-life example of student voices and some wonderful picture book writers' voices; Carmela introduced us to a terrific book on this topic and offered an e.e.cummings poem as a stunning example of voice; Mary Ann showed us how she teaches how to create a character's voice; and Carmela came back with a Wednesday Writing Workout on distilling your own writing voice.

When talking about voice in my Writing the Children's Picture Book class, I read parts or all of the following books: Gennifer Choldenko's Moonstruck, Karla Kuskin's The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, Ruth Lercher Bornstein's Little Gorilla and Rabbit's Good News, Chris Raschka's Yo! Yes? and John Coltrane's Giant Steps, Susan Patron's Burgoo Stew, and many other books.  My heavens--what a chorus of wildly diverse voices in that flock of books!

Then I read them Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat (sic)," which begins:

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
   In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
   Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
   And sang to a small guitar,
"O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
    What a beautiful Pussy you are,
         You are,
         You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!" (read the rest here)

and give them 10-15 minutes to write the same story from the POV of one of the characters in the story.  They may decide to become the Owl the Pussycat, the boat, the ring...whatever they want.  (Someone in today's class wrote from the POV of the Bong Tree!) The results are wonderful, distinct and often hilarious (Pussycat as a woman of the night, for example...)  We immediately discover both the writer's and the character's voice.

St├ęphane Jorisch illustrated this version of Lear's poem...
demonstrating his own distinctive voice

So many ways to convey one's voice!

Here's my poem that's in Sylvia's book (she says joyfully)--it's a poem of instruction

by April Halprin Wayland

To begin,
tell the poet’s name
and the title
to your friend.

Savor every word—

read it one more time.

Now, take a breath—
and sigh.

Then think about the poet,
at her desk,
late at night,
picking up her pen to write—

and why.

Now it's your turn: try writing your own poem of instruction!

poem and drawing (c) 2014 April Halprin Wayland, who thanks you for reading all the way to the end

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Wednesday Writing Workout: Distilling Your Writer's Voice

In last Friday's post on "voice," I mentioned the book Finding Your Writer's Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall (St. Martin's), and how it provides specific exercises for helping a writer develop his or her distinctive voice. As promised, for today's Wednesday Writing Workout I'm sharing an exercise based on one in the book. It's from Chapter Seven, "Distilling Voice." I encourage you to borrow the book from a library (or better still, buy your own copy) to read more about this exercise and others in the book.

This is basically a freewriting exercise. Since there are many variations of freewriting, let me start by describing my "rules" for freewriting (which I first introduced back in this blog post):
  • the idea is to keep your pen moving without pausing and definitely without editing
  • write with pen and paper rather than at a keyboard
  • if you find yourself stuck, write something like "I don't know what to write next but I'll think of something soon" until you do think of something
  • if your mind wanders away from your main topic, that's fine. Just keep writing.  
Now, for today's Wednesday Writing Workout: Distilling Voice.
  1. Using a timer, freewrite for ten minutes each day for a week. Write as quickly as you can, without thinking, judging, or editing. You can start something new each day, or continue where you left off the day before. 
  2. After the week is over, put aside what you've written. Take a week off without looking back at what you wrote. 
  3. After the second week, pull out your notebook and read aloud your freewrites. As you read, mark the words, phrases, or passages that "leap out at you, that grab your attention."
  4. Repeat step 1, only this time, begin each freewrite session with one of your marked words or phrases. As it says in Finding Your Writer's Voice"Using your most exciting writing as your point of departure helps you avoid introductions and leap right into what's vital."
  5. After you've done this for seven days, again put your writing aside for a week.
  6. Repeat step 3, only this time, after marking the words and phrases that most captivate you, cross out any words that you don't find interesting or unique. Read aloud what's left. What you have now should really "sing." If the writing still feels bland or weak, repeat steps 4-6.
I first did this exercise years ago and found it extremely enlightening. To quote Finding Your Writer's Voice:
"You may end up with a prose poem, a surprising non sequitur with its own sense of wholeness, a surreal story, humorous nonsense. Consider this one of your best pieces of writing. Pin it above your desk. Let it inspire you."
If you give this exercise a try, do let us know how it works for you.
Happy writing!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Replay of "Wrestling with Voice"

Hello, Readers! Carmela here with a quick announcement. Today would normally be Mary Ann Rodman's turn to post. However, she is taking a blogging break. We hope she'll be able to return soon. Meanwhile, we've lined up a terrific new "voice" to join us. I'll post an official welcome to her in a few weeks. For today, since we've been discussing Voice as the third of the Six Traits of Writing, I'm providing you with an excerpt from Mary Ann's post, "Wrestling with Voice," which she published back in March 2010.   

So now, I turn the microphone over to Mary Ann. Enjoy!

Trying to define “voice” in writing is like trying to define “air” (the invisible stuff you breathe) or “love”( an emotion that makes you act stupid). After much hairpulling and consulting a bunch of writing manuals, I think I have a definition.

     Writing is what you say, and how you say it. Voice is the “how you say it” part. The term can be used in different ways. One is the writer’s voice. Since I am not a literature scholar, I’m not going to try analyzing writer’s voice, within the confines of a blog post!

     A more manageable topic is character voice. In this context, “voice” consists of the vocabulary, speech pattern and tone used by the individuals. Think of some memorable fictional figures. Could you ever confuse Jane Eyre with Scarlett O’Hara? Huck Finn with Holden Caulfield? Ramona Quimby with Laura Ingalls? Is there another literary child who sounds even remotely like Eloise? Each of them speak and think in a way that is completely their own.

     What influences character voice? The character's gender, age, setting, cultural background, education, family, economic status, occupation and on and on. Taking these factors into consideration, even persons who share some these aspects will still sound unique. Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield are both teenage boys. The uneducated, resourceful and adventuresome Huck, narrates in the dialect of a 19th century Mississippi River “rat.” Holden, immature and introspective, uses repetition, slang and fairly limited vocabulary, that reflects his isolated, upper-middle class, Post-World-War-II American prep school life.

     Even characters who may share many of the same characteristics, should be distinguishable from one another. One of the best examples of this is Rachel Vail’s Daring to Be Abigail. The story takes place in a camp cabin of 11-year-old girls who at first glance, seem to share exactly the same background. Within two pages, the reader knows each of the eight main characters as separate entities. I have read this book over and over, trying to figure out how she established characterization through voice so rapidly, without resorting to stereotype. I’m still reading!

     My students sometimes have trouble creating distinct character voices. For instance, a conversation between two ten-year-old boys, whose dialog could be interchangeable, because they speak exactly alike. When I ask the writer to tell me about these characters…who is their BFF? what’s in their school backpack? what is their least favorite school subject? …the answer is often “I don’t know.” The problem is that the student is trying to write about characters they don’t really “know”.

     My characters live in my head for years and years before I get around to bringing them to life. I keep notebooks, computer files and file folders on future characters, as they "share" with me such diverse information as their favorite baseball player, what their side of a shared dresser top looks like, how they feel about various family members. Sometimes I learn more about my characters through the writing process, but I would never presume to tell their stories without having at least a working knowledge of them.

written by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, February 14, 2014

Finding Your Writer's Voice

Happy Valentine's Day to all our
TeachingAuthors Readers!

Since today is also Poetry Friday, I'll be sharing an excerpt from a favorite love poem at the end of this post. But first, I want to continue our current discussion of Voice, the third of the Six Traits of Writing.

As JoAnn said when she kicked off the topic last Friday: "we each have a writer’s voice that is all our own." Finding Your Writer's Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall (St. Martin's) calls voice "your most powerful tool" as a writer, saying:
"Your voice is actually a very ordinary thing: It is just who you are, projected artistically. It is often linked to your speaking voice, and your breath, and the rhythms and sense of pace that you draw on when you are too absorbed in what you are saying to listen to yourself from a distance. It is also linked to your body, the language or dialect you spoke in childhood, and whatever naturally interests you. Your voice is how you write when you don't have time to be elegant."
I also agree with what JoAnn said about a writer's voice developing over time. But Finding Your Writer's Voice provides specific exercises to help speed up the process. I plan to share one in our next Wednesday Writing Workout. (If you happen to live in the Chicago area, you may be interested in a course I'll be teaching this spring in Oak Brook, Illinois, using the book as our text. See my website for details.)

I love the experiment Jill mentioned in her post on Monday, in which students easily identified the author of something written by one of their classmates. It reminded me of feedback I've heard from several of our email subscribers. When they receive a TeachingAuthors post, they don't know who wrote it until they see the byline at the end. But after subscribing to our blog for awhile, they're able to guess the author long before then.

Jill also shared some wonderful examples of distinctive voices in picture book texts, in both first-person and third-person narratives. One thing my students often struggle with is making a first-person narrator's voice different from their own writing voice. I try to help by sharing this excerpt from Monica Wood's book Description (Writer's Digest Books):
"Consider the differences in the following line delivered by different narrators:
         Sandra's son reminded me of a prince, only more imperious.
         Sandra's kid looked kind of like my cousin Gino, only loads cuter.
         Sandra's little boy reminded me of that boy in the shelter, only fatter, and a cleaner face. . . . 
All of these narrators have a set of experiences and prejudices and obsessions that is unique to them. As their author you must allow them their own visions."

There's so much more I could say on the topic of voice, but I'll leave that to my fellow TeachingAuthors.

Before I share the poetry excerpt I promised, I want to remind you that today is the last day to enter for a chance to win Crystal Chan's acclaimed debut novel, Bird. You can read all about it here.

Now, for today's poem. One of my favorite love poems is "[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]" by e.e. cummings. Wow, talk about a distinctive voice! Here's how the poem ends:

            from [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
                     by e.e. cummings 
            . . .
           here is the deepest secret nobody knows
           (here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
           and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
          higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
          and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

          i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

You can read the whole poem at the Poetry Foundation website. And then visit Linda's TeacherDance blog to check out the full Poetry Friday round-up.

Happy writing!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Picture Book Magic: Voice

I visited a high school class one afternoon. I had them all write a paragraph about something – any little thing – that had happened to them that day. Then, with permission, I read them aloud and asked the kids to guess who had written each. The results were eye opening – for all of us. They guessed correctly about 80% of the time.

That’s voice. It’s in a story’s point of view, in word choices and phrasing, tone and style, sentence lengths, rhythms, even the way an author uses white space on a page. I wrote months ago about Alan Bradley’s swoon-worthy similes … I think I could pick out his work if somebody read it to me blindfolded. Me blindfolded, not them.

Those of us who read middle grade and YA would know within a few paragraphs whether something had been written by Kate DiCamillo or Rick Riordan, by Maggie Stiefvater or John Green.

Carrying a consistent voice through a novel-length story is a challenge of daunting proportions. Picture books … well, fewer words, so … easier? Um, you probably don’t want to say that in a roomful of picture book authors who work long and hard to craft a story, to employ an authentic voice that makes that story ring true.

I thought it might be fun to look at a few picture book openings, paying special attention to voice.

I’m Bad!, Kate & Jim McMullan

  Are you BAD?
     I’m REALLY bad.
     Got rip-‘em-up CLAWS.
     Got bite-‘em-up FANGS.
     Bad breath?

Whoa, talk about a strong voice. Add a little attitude, a little growl, to your read-aloud voice, and what kiddo wouldn’t follow this dino anywhere? When it turns out that he’s a baby dino who gets scared and has to run for his mommy… perfection.

Edwin Speaks Up, April Stevens

  Mrs. Finnemore was racing around the house.
  “Gloo poop SHOE noogie froo KEY,” Baby Edwin was babbling. He was all dressed and ready to go to the supermarket.

So Baby Edwin can’t talk coherently yet. So what? Ms. Stevens just lets him talk anyway. And the resulting lines of dialogue are a blast to read aloud – and will have young listeners rolling on the floor. When it turns out that the family’s series of misadventures (occurring during a trip to the grocery store) could have been avoided if they’d only LISTENED to baby Edwin? Priceless and adorable and lets kids feel smart. Win-win-win.

A Visitor for Bear, Bonnie Becker

  One morning, Bear heard a tap, tap, tapping on his front door.
     When he opened his door, there was a mouse, small and gray and bright-eyed.
     “No visitors allowed,” Bear said, pointing to the sign. “Go away.”
     He closed the door and went back to the business of making his breakfast.

Awww, don’t you just know this crusty bear has a big soft heart buried somewhere under all that chest hair? Ms. Becker’s language does that, with her “tap, tap, tapping” and her light-hearted description of the mouse as “small and gray and bright-eyed.” Kids instantly know they can sit back and relax. This grumpy Bear isn’t as scary as he seems (after all, the mouse isn’t afraid). Only a few lines in, and already we know that these two clashing personalities are here to entertain us – and steal our hearts.

There Goes Lowell’s Party, Esther Hershenhorn

  In the whole of Crumm County, past Piggott’s Peak and Slocum’s Bluff, no one loved his birthday better than Lowell.
     No siree.
     From one spring to the next, past summer, fall, and winter, Lowell rose each morning saying, “Hey, there, sun!” Next he’d X out the date on his trusty calendar, peeking at the pages, gauging the months and weeks to go.

All Esther had to do to zoom us waaay out into the country was include those terrific names:  Crumm County. Piggott’s Peak. Slocum’s Bluff. Add a gung-ho kid who loves his birthday so much he X’s out days on his “trusty calendar” months ahead of time, and who could resist turning the page? I mean, clearly something’s going to rain on the ever-upbeat Lowell’s parade (and boy-howdy, does it ever!), and we’re curious about how he’ll deal with the adversity ahead. Not that we think of all that consciously when reading this (or hearing it read aloud). But that’s what the best writing does. Masterfully - and subtly - manipulates our emotions.

I Hatched!, Jill Esbaum

  A patch of light!
     One final peck.
     I give a shove and s-t-r-e-t-c-h my neck.
     My head pokes through.
     At last, I’m hatched!
     Hello, what’s new?

Nothing subtle here. Just a bouncy little killdeer in a rush to break free and launch himself into the world. Reviewers have been great about recognizing the energy and exuberance I was trying to capture, so … hope it works for anybody else who reads the book.   :)

Honestly, the manuscripts I’ve had the best luck with are the ones with the strongest voices, the ones I was a wee bit embarrassed to send an editor, lest they think I was crackers….

Go ahead, aliens. Give it your best shot.

So when it comes to voice, my best advice is this:  Reveal the story in the voice that serves it best. Whether that voice is a dino with an attitude, a baby with his own language, or a down-home twang, go ahead. Let ‘er rip.

Jill Esbaum

P.S.  Congrats to Liz Steinglass, WINNER of an autographed copy of I HATCHED! Thanks, everybody, for entering!

P.P.S. And you can still win a signed copy of Crystal Chan's BIRD by entering our contest, here! Hurry!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Voice and a Voice Poem

Today, I’m kicking off a new series of posts on voice, the third of the Six Traits of Writing. We addressed the first trait, ideas, in a series of posts that Carmela kicked off. Our series on the second trait, organization, began with Jeanne Marie’s post. Visit them if you'd like to catch up.
On to voice!
Discussions about voice often include vague statements like “I’ll know it when I see it.” But voice is not really so hard to explain. Just as we each have a unique speaking voice, we each have a writer’s voice that is all our own.
Your writer’s voice develops over time, both from being yourself and from making a conscious effort to express your thoughts in new ways. Your ideas and the words you use to describe them come from your own unique experience and perspective. Your writer’s voice shows your personality through point of view, word choice, and language patterns, including rhythm and rhyme.
A character’s voice is not necessarily the same as the author’s voice. If it were, all our characters would sound the same.
It’s Poetry Friday, so I’m adding a voice poem I wrote (in my writer’s voice) about the voice of a character who might be me. You decide.
I Have a Voice

I have a voice.
My voice is mine.
And when the creeping tendrils twine
around the everblossom vine,
I’ll whisper in the darkest night.
I’ll shout out loud in broad daylight:

I have a voice.
My voice is mine.
I’ll buzz with fuzzy bumblebees.
I’ll chirp with chickadee-dee-dees.
I’ll sing until the stars all freeze:

I have a voice.
It’s mine alone.
I’ll laugh when I am on my own.
I’ll share with wild unruly bears,
elephants and dogs and hares,
even if nobody cares.
I’m generous that way.

I have a lot to say.

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at No Water River. Enjoy!

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Metaphorically-Speaking: Crystal Chan's Wednesday Writing Workout

Crystal Chan’s writing in her debut middle grade novel Bird (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster) shines, pure and simple, much like the story’s star, twelve-year-old Jewel.
Posted comments from several readers of Monday’s (Soaring!)Student Success Story  who read the novel’s beginning pages on Crystal’s website chorus this truth.

Lucky us that Crystal agreed to share a Wednesday Writing Workout with our readers.

And, don’t forget to enter our Book Giveaway to win an autographed copy of Bird.  The deadline is February 14.
Thanks, Crystal, for sharing this Wednesday Writing Wokout – as well as – your story and Bird with our TeachingAuthors readers.

Happy soaring (metaphorically-speaking)!

Esther Hershenhorn

                                                            . . . . . . . .

Good writing uses metaphors – metaphors add sparkle to your prose and can quickly convey ideas that otherwise would get muddled up.
Take this passage, which is from my novel, Bird:

We slowed down when we reached the thin, outlying trees, which seemed to sweat in the summer heat. The trees further in got bigger, thicker, and under their protective canopy they became a grove of mothers holding out their arms, shielding us from the sun.

See? [The trees] became a grove of mothers – with that short metaphor, an image is conjured up, feelings evoked, the tone set.

Here’s an exercise for you to write a poem using metaphors. I found it in Steve Kowit’s In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop.

Why poems? Because good writing is also poetic. And the more you can tune your ear to the cadence and rhythm of words, the more you can stretch your mind to make leaps and use metaphors as the bridge between them, the stronger and more compelling your writing will be.

1.       Take an object you have nearby – perhaps a ring, a piece of pottery or paper clip – and place it in front of you. Spend a few minutes looking at it quietly.

2.      Notice things about the object that you never noticed before. Allow yourself to feel it, smell it, observe it from various angles.

3.      Write four metaphors turning it into four different things: “The paperclip is a silver whirlpool…”

4.      Finally, write a poem about the object using some of those metaphors. Let the poem go where it wants to, its direction determined more by the inventive play of language than by your conscious efforts.

Happy writing!

Crystal Chan

Monday, February 3, 2014

Crystal Chan: A Soaring (!) Student Success Story

Oh, how I am beaming as I write today’s post. J
I’ve been cheering on my former Newberry Library
Workshop student and fellow SCBWI-Illinois Chicago kin Crystal Chan since I first declared her a Writer and specifically, a Novelist.
And now you can do the same, once you learn her story and how she came to write her just-released well-reviewed debut middle grade novel Bird (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster).

Our TeachingAuthors Bookgiveaway of a signed copy of Crystal’s Bird keeps me beaming. Be sure to read the Rafflecopter details that follow my interview. The deadline is February 14 at midnight.

Bird’s cover showcases blurbs by Newbery Honor Medalist Kathi Appelt and Newbery Medalist Cynthia Kadahota.  Kathy called the novel “a mysterious, lyrical, and thought-provoking novel from an important new voice in children’s literature.”  Cynthia wrote, “Crystal Chan has written an enthralling first novel about the darkness, light, and beauty that make up the human condition.”

Crystal offers this synopsis of Bird on her website.
“It’s only natural to have silence and secrets in your family when you’re born on the same day that your brother died. At least, that’s sure what it seems like for twelve-year old Jewel. Add to that the fact that you’re the only mixed-race family in your rural Iowan town, and well, life can get kind of lonely sometimes. But when a boy named John moves into her town, his courage and charisma immediately stand out and the two kids instantly click. John’s presence, however, has an unsettling effect on her family. As the thick layers of silence in her family begin to unravel, Jewel finds that her life is not as stable nor her family’s expectations as certain as she once thought. Suddenly, Jewel needs to choose whether to stay loyal to the person her family wants her to be or to claim her own identity, no matter the cost.”

Be sure to check out Crystal’s website where you can read the opening pages of Bird - as well as – listen to part of the Listening Library Audiobook recorded by Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in the Hunger Games.

You can learn more about Crystal at The Class of 2k14 website.
You can also click here to read Goodreads reader reviews.

And now, here’s Crystal!

(1) Five and a half years have come and gone since we first worked together in my 2008 Newberry Library Picture Book Workshop and I declared you a Novelist of the first order?  Do you recall what you were hoping to learn – and – what you indeed took away – about writing, the Children’s Book World, publishing and most of all, your story?

(laughing) I sure do remember when you declared me a novelist – and how heartbroken I was about it! I just wanted to be a picture book writer…so then I did NaNoWriMo to prove you – and more importantly, myself – wrong, as in, See? I’m not a novelist. So then imagine my surprise when a month later, I had a novel. Not one that will ever be published, but a novel nonetheless, which was astonishing. Like, I did it. And the thing I realized in that whole process was that I had a story to write in the first place. I had something to say. And that was so shocking that I decided to write a second novel, see where it would take me.

(2)We’d met earlier at Chicago’s Cenacle Retreat Center when I was booking and planning a weekend Retreat for our SCBWI-Illinois Chapter.  Once you learned about our most vital children’s book community, you jumped in fully-clothed and pronto, connecting and then helping others connect.  How did those connections and learning opportunities help you connect to your own writing and eventually, the writing of Bird?

I was Chicago’s co-Rep for SCBWI-IL, yes. It was so great, getting out and being the first person to meet folks, to be the contact person for speakers (authors, illustrators, agents, editors) – it was a lot of work, and totally worth it. And it was through the SCBWI network that I learned about the downstate Words in the Woods workshop, where Kathi Appelt, a guest speaker, read my novel The Messenger, fell in love with it, and helped introduce me to agents. 

(3)Your gorgeous promotional postcard captures Bird in these words:  “Entrenched secrets, mysterious spirits, and an astonishing friendship weave together in this extraordinary and haunting debut.  Nothing matters.  Only Bird matters.  And he flew away.”
How did this story of twelve-year-old Jewel come to be?  What was           its spark?   What were your challenges?  What do you hope your      readers take-away from Jewel’s journey?

I had just finished reading Keeper, by Kathi Appelt, and was sick at home from work. I had also finished my first manuscript and was fretting that I might not have another idea for another novel. Ever. I was thinking about this for hours, and finally I got so sick of myself that I said, Crystal, either you get up out of bed and write your next book, or you go to sleep because you’re sick. But you’re not going to lie in bed thinking about not writing your next book.

And then I started thinking more about Keeper, and how I loved that story; it’s about a girl who thought her mother turned into a mermaid and goes out to sea in search of her. And I thought, A girl who thinks her mother was a mermaid - that’s such a great idea – I wish I had thought of that! But what if… instead... there was a girl whose brother thought he was a bird, but then he jumped off a cliff because he thought he could fly … Then the voice of the protagonist, Jewel’s voice, started speaking and I got out of bed and wrote the first chapter.

(4) Readers love to know a Writer’s Next Steps.  Once you completed Bird, how did you go about connecting with your agent, Emily van Beek of Folio Literary Management (  And once the book sold to Atheneum Books for Young Readers, what was the revision process with your editor?

I actually didn’t complete Bird first! I went to a full manuscript writing workshop with Namrata Tripathi, which was at this lady’s house and ran for an entire weekend (it was really cool). I was about to submit my first novel, The Messenger, and only had a partial to submit to Namrata for this workshop. I had maybe 50 pages, no ending, nada. About four months after the workshop, when we submitted The Messenger to her, she basically said, Thanks but no thanks – but I want to acquire the partial of Bird, because I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it. And so we jumped. And she worked with me from the very first draft.

(5) Your website ( speaks volumes as to what you hold dear, including the links to mixed race resources.  The homepage reads – “Imagine beyond boundaries.” What did you want this website to do for you, your readers and the book itself?

I love that image on the landing page – of being in the woods under a starry night sky. The stars and sky play an important role in Bird, and Bird also has this feel of mystery, of possibilities – I felt that this image captured an essential part of the book. When I first saw that picture, it took my breath away for a moment, made me pause a moment, and I realized that’s what I wanted to give to my visitors: a quiet moment. We rush around so much – no more so than on the web – and I wanted that image to be a gift, where I’m not saying Buy this or Do that but just giving the visitor something, even if they just click away after seeing the picture. And the thing is, if someone really connects with the image, hopefully they’ll connect with the book, as the tone and themes of the book are actually quite similar.

(6) Foreign rights to Bird have sold to Text Publishing (Australia), Random House UK (United Kingdom), Intrinseca (Brazil), Magellan (Germany), Kluitman (Netherlands), Helium (France), RAO Publishing (Romania) and Epsilon Yayinevi (Turkey.  Can you share how this pinch-yourself-to-know-it’s-real experience has altered your life?

(laughing, again) Yeah, right? It’s been quite a whirlwind of activity, and this whole writing trajectory has happened quite fast. It’s been stressful – I’ve needed to be more agile than I’ve ever been. I mean, at conferences people stand up on stage and say, This is how the submission process works, this is how the acquisition process works, and none of that has applied to me. In fact, it gave me such wrong impressions of “how things work” that I wish someone would have just said, The path to publication is different for each person, and here is the range of experiences…That would have been more helpful. 
(7)Finally, can you let readers in on what you’re currently writing and/or your next book?

Ooph! I’m writing a YA story, but other than that, my lips are sealed. J

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Thank you, Crystal, for sharing Bird and your story with our TeachingAuthors readers.

And readers: be sure to return Wednesday, February 5 for Crystal Chan’s Wednesday Writing Workout.
You can win an autographed copy of Bird by entering with Rafflecopter, below.  The contest will end February 14, 2014 at midnight.  Please add a note in our comments section telling us why you hope to win the book.  Thanks!

Happy soaring!

Esther Hershenhorn
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