Friday, June 26, 2020

MY Favorite Grab ‘N’ Go Writing Exercise: The Name Poem!

This month my fellow TeachingAuthor bloggers and I are putting forth our favorite Writing Exercises for you to grab and go.
April shared her new In One Word poetry form, Bobbi her favorite Writing Workshops, and Gwendolyn her practice of typing out favorite texts and/or passages,
Carmela advised us to try something new and Mary Ann reposted her Creative Eavesdropping exercise.
My favorite Writing Exercise is an Oldie-but-Goodie, too: The Name Poem.

I came upon this exercise serendipitously when my Holiday House editor Mary Cash requested I drop my character Howie Fingergut’s grade from Fifth to Fourth.
I of course said: “Of course!” 😊
But it was fifth graders I knew like the back of my hand. I’d never taught fourth graders.
It was a few weeks later, while seated in a Fourth Grade classroom at The Frances Parker School in Lincoln Park, that my eyes zeroed in on the Name Poems dotting the walls.
Name Poems?
Name Poems!
I could define my character Howie and his singular world view with but 5 adjectives! Why hadn’t I thought of this earlier?

Howie’s name poem not only helped me nail Howie. It helped me nail his heart and thus, what he was after.  Howie, it turns out, had longed to change his “I” word to “Important.”

I recommend my students and writers create Name Poems for their characters.
I don’t know why but this exercise always works.

What also works, though, is to create a Name Poem for yourself!
It’s a sure-fire way to see just where your story crosses paths with your character’s.
Katherine Paterson wrote that, when it comes to our characters, it’s simply “one heart in hiding…reaching out to another.”

Imagine my smile when I discovered just how much I had in common with Howard J. Fingerhut.

For the record, once you grab this exercise to define your character and/or yourself, choosing defining adjectives isn’t the only way to go. Think about verbs, nouns and even favorite expressions.

Thanks to Karen’s Got A Blog for hosting today’s Poetry Friday.

Happy Writer-Muscle-Building!

Esther Hershenhorn

Friday, June 19, 2020

Trying Something New: Syllable-Square IN ONE WORD Poem

Happy Poetry Friday! I share a link to this week's round-up at the end of this post, below the poem I wrote using a new form invented by my brilliant co-blogger, April Halprin Wayland! But first, I want to share another in our series of GRAB 'N GO WRITING EXERCISES.

When I first became interested in writing for young readers (many years ago!), I took a continuing education class on the topic at our local community college. I'd fallen in love with the picture books I was reading my young son and wanted to write some myself. I spent the first five weeks of the class working only on picture books. Then, as one of our last assignments, the instructor asked us to write in a different form or genre. I ended up writing the first chapter of a young adult novel. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed that assignment. I went on to finish a complete draft of the novel and applied to Vermont College MFA program with the intention of revising the novel for publication. That particular novel ended up in a drawer, but writing it helped me discover my novelist's voice and eventually led to the publication of my two novels.

So I want to give you the same exercise today: Try Something New! Write in a different form or genre than you're used to. If you're a picture book writer, perhaps try a short story or a chapter of a novel. If you're a novelist, you could try a picture book. But if that doesn't sound fun, then perhaps try a short story, or a different genre of novel. For example, if you typically write realistic, contemporary stories, you could try fantasy or historical. Whatever you decide, I'd love if you'd report back here on how the experience was for you.

My poem today is also the result of trying something new. April kicked off this series of GRAB 'N GO WRITING EXERCISES by introducing the IN ONE WORD poetry form she invented. Well, my poem today is in that form. As it happens, my current work-in-progress is a collection of poems in a variety of forms with connections to math. For example, I've written several Syllable- Square poems, where the number of syllables per line equals the number of lines. I first learned of this form from JoAnne Growney's Intersections–Poetry with Mathematics website. One of my favorite Syllable-Square poems is Growney's 5x5 "Counting the Women."

For today's poem, I decided to use April's IN ONE WORD form to write a Syllable-Square. For this form, you choose a core word, and then each line of the poem must end with words made from the letters in the core word. I chose the word MATHEMATICS as my core word. According to the Wordmaker website, you can make 420 different words from the letters in MATHEMATICS! That was rather overwhelming. So I started to choose words from the list that most appealed to me. The word mismatch ended up being the key that unlocked the poem for me. I've included a bit more of the poem's backstory (as April calls it) below. I also share a great poetry writing app I recently discovered.

The poem's backstory: After writing the first line, poetry and math, I new my poem would be a 5x5 Syllable-Square. I played around until I had a decent first draft I liked, then shared it with my dear April, who gave me some helpful suggestions. As I revised, I realized I wanted to make the poem more "mathy" by including words with math connotations. That's when it occurred to me to incorporate perfect (as in perfect numbers) and powerful (as in raising to a power). I initially hyphenated power-ful to make the connection clearer, but decided the line looked cleaner without the hyphen. In case any of you aren't familiar with the term, the last word, STEAM, is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. Finally, I wanted a title that also consisted of 5 syllables, to match the lines of the poem. I couldn't think of anything clever so I initially used the first line "Poetry and Math." But then I realized that the poem was the result of "Trying Something New," which happens to have five syllables! 😊 I'd love to know what you all think of the end result. In particular, would you hyphenate powerful?

Now for the poetry-writing resource I mentioned: Not long ago, I discovered a phone app with tools that help with poetry and songwriting: Lyric Notepad. It's available for both Android and iPhone. One of its great features is the line syllable counter--it's caught my counting errors numerous times. The app also highlights words that rhyme, though the "near rhyme" function doesn't work that well, in my opinion. If you use it, just be careful to save your work elsewhere, too. I've lost revisions to poems even after I've "saved" them in the app.

For more poetry, be sure to check out today's Poetry Friday round-up by Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect. And if you'd like to see videos of STEAM poetry, be sure to visit the STEAM Powered Poetry site.

Posted by Carmela

Friday, June 12, 2020

Turn Your Reading Passion Into Better Writing

Years ago, when I first decided I’d like to write books for children, I attended a program about Oklahoma history. One speaker mentioned Bass Reaves. Bass escaped from slavery in Texas, crossed the Red River arriving in Oklahoma Territory ready to begin a new life. He learned the lay of the land and survival techniques from Native Americans. Eventually, he became a United States Deputy Marshal under Hanging Judge Parker and always found the outlaws who dared to hide from him.

I fell in love with Bass. I quickly decided I was the perfect person to tell his amazing life. I even found an editor who was somewhat interested in my attempts to capture his story.

Then one day, the editor sent the email that broke my heart. She explained she would not be publishing my manuscript. I was devastated! My heart was broken. I don’t remember her exact words, but I read – there is a new Bass book and it’s so much better than your feeble attempts. I still feel the pain! I remember attending an American Library Association conference and there in the distance was BAD NEWS FOR OUTLAWAS – THE REMARKABLE LIFE OF BASS REEVES, DEPUTY U. S. MARSHAL, Written by  Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Bass in all its glory. I quickly changed directions and walked down another aisle. It was such a painful moment in my writing life. I’m tearing up now as I think about it.

My husband thought my reaction was over the top. “Write something else,” was his remedy. The editor emailed, “Send me something else.” SOMETHING ELSE! I had nothing else. My writing life was over and it had just begun.
Well, it took time (years) but I recovered and I continued to write. Then one day I bought a copy of BAD NEWS FOR OUTLAWS. It’s fabulous! A page-turner! No wonder it received so many awards. It is a thousand times better than my feeble attempts.

Recently, I met Vaunda at a conference and told her my pitiful story. She hugged me and my world righted itself.
I also typed it and I could see, feel, and understand why I loved it and what made it successful. I began typing other books that moved my spirit.

I challenge you to type a favorite book or even a page or two of a longer work. What makes you cry, smile, or laugh out loud? Why was it hard or easy to put down? What made you decide it would have a place of honor on your bookshelf?

Think about your responses. You might discover a technique that will lead to stronger writing.

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks

Friday, June 5, 2020

Creative Eavesdropping

Young Writers at work!
It's not officially summer, but teachers count the seasons by the school year. Normally, summer "begins" for on the last day of school. For a lot of us, that was early we've been in "summer" for going on three months already!  I'm calling the time since Memorial Day, "second summer." Then on June 21, there is "real summer."

Teaching Authors posts Writing Workouts on Wednesdays but we figure everyone is blurry-eyed and Zoomhausted.  Some of you may be desperately exhausted looking for a ready-to-go writing exercise for yourself or your students. Hence we are offering you Grab 'N' Go Writing Exercises.

This past week has been emotionally draining.  So in the interest of retaining my sanity, I'm offering a "Classic Workout." In other words, I've posted this exercise before. However, since it was in 2013, and it's just the exercise and not the original post I'm re-using, hopefully it will be useful. I first learned of this exercise, in a slightly different format (intended for adult writers) in a workshop led by Louise Hawes. (Thanks, Louise for the inspiration!) This is great for kids who "can't think of anything to write about"...and worn-out adult authors whose brains need a jumpstart.

I call it "Non-Sequiturs." My students call it "That Eavesdropping Thing."

I am an inveterate eavesdropper. I started as a kid, listening through heating grates and the old drinking-glass-to-the-wall trick. I graduated to picking out bits of oddball conversation overheard in public places...buses, check out lines, restaurants. It never fails to amaze me, the things that people will talk about...loudly! public. Maybe they feel invisible in crowds of people. I'm glad they do. It has provided me with endless writing inspiration. 

Here are a few "classics" from my list...

"...and then he carried my grandmother's table out in the yard and burned it." (Overheard in a really long check-out line at Old Navy.

"I like Sprite better than Coke, because it's clear, you can see what's in it. I don't trust Coke. You can't see what's in it because it's all dark and stuff." (Heard on a commuter train, from a woman who then claimed she worked for Coca Cola.)

"Life ain't no Swiss picnic." (Don't remember where that came from!)

"I need a present for a girl I don't like very much." (Two teen girls in a jewelry store.)

The possibilities are endless.

So, randomly pick two quotes. When I'm doing this with students, I ask them to write down two quotes...which they have been asked to bring to class...on separate slips of paper. I tell them they can only use one sentence...not an entire conversation. They should not identify the speaker in any way. Just the quote. Then each student draws two slips.

Take the two random quotes, and somehow connect them in a scene. You write without any thought of this becoming part of a longer work.  You are only writing a scene.

For this exercise, a scene includes:

Characters--when I use this with students, I insist that there are at least two named characters. I ask the students to imagine what kind of character would say this? Adult or kid? Talking animal or mythical creature?  

Setting--where does the scene take place? Outer space? A school bus? Soccer practice? In a fantasy world. (Don't get me started on building fantasy worlds...that's another post.)

Of course, in actual writing, scenes include a lot more stuff...but we're doing away with all that for the moment. We're just getting your writing motor running.  For kids who can never think of something to write, this exercise frees them up a lot. You just have two characters and two sentences. I do tell my young writers that their scene needs to be a full page (handwritten) minimum, that includes other conversation and action. And it has to make sense. The non-sequiturs cannot continue to be non-sequiturs in the context of the scene. The sentences are a seed...grow your scene around them.

Often, this exercise grows into a story for the students. The first time I did this exercise in the aforementioned writer's workshop, it became the nucleus for my book, Jimmy's Stars. Other times, the characters have jumped from the exercise into a story that had nothing to do with the original scene. It's one of those "writing magic" things. 
Available on Kindle!

So time to get that writing motor running!

Friday, May 29, 2020

Keeping Calm and Writing On

First, a reminder that today, May 29th,  is the last day to enter to win an author-and-illustrator-autographed copy of Amy Alznauer's book, The Boy Who Dreamed of InfinityThe book has received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly! Go to Esther's post and scroll to the end for directions on how to enter.

As April reminded us, Teaching Authors  posts Writing Workouts on Wednesdays, but we figure everyone is blurry-eyed and zoomhausted. Some of you may be desperately looking for a ready-to-go writing exercise for yourself, your kids or your classroom, offering GRAB 'N GO WRITING EXERCISES. 

But I’m still too blurry-eyed. Try as I might, I’ve been having a hard time getting into the mood myself. It’s hard to settle my thoughts, and keep my butt in chair, to concentrate on my writing. You know what I mean.

So, I did the next best thing. I’ve long sang the praises of my favorite workshops offered by my honored friend, the Gandalf-esque Harold Underdown (in partnership with another master-editor, Eileen Robinson), including their KBR Webinars and Workshops.  I’m currently taking their Graduate Novel Revision Workshop. Their exercises and discussions, now more than ever, keep my head in the game.

And this week, I indulged in taking another webinar, this one hosted by Writing Blueprints, a creation of Children's Book Insider. 

This class, it turns out, was exactly what I needed at this very moment. HOW TO GRAB & HOLD THE ATTENTION OF AN AGENT OR EDITOR, a webinar by the indomitable, legendary editor Emma D. Dryden, owner of drydenbks. Everyone knows about her thirty-year career in publishing, working with Margaret K. McElderry, becoming Vice President/Editorial Director then Vice President/ Publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books, imprints of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. She brings all of that experience to each and every one of her workshops.

I was a longtime admirer (who isn't?) of Emma before I became her client some years ago. As her client, I called her Dumbledore, because she always said what I needed to hear at the moment I needed to hear it. I didn’t always want to hear it, true enough, but in listening to her wisdoms, I became a much better writer, and much better informed in navigating the business of writing. And now, I am privileged to call her a friend.

 This webinar is available as a recording, and includes the best handouts ever! While the focus is on YA and younger audiences, the information is applicable to every genre, and to every writer. Eleven handouts filled with resources and exercises will keep your head in the game, too.

I include this little exercise from the workshop, in which Emma helped us to clarify the important elements of our story -- the heart of the story --  in preparation for writing our agent query. We filled in the blanks using only a couple of sentences: 

  1. My manuscript is about (external plot):
  2. Underneath that, my manuscript is really about (internal plot):
  3. I have to write this story because:

"Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic." says Dumbledore, in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

So, how do you find your magical words?

“Keep going,” says Emma D. Dryden.

Keeping calm and writing on. Safe journeys!

--Bobbi Miller

Friday, May 22, 2020

A New Poetry Form ~ IN ONE WORD

Howdy, Campers ~ Happy Poetry Friday! (my poems and the link to today's host are below)

But first: May 29th is the last day to enter to win an author-and-illustrator-autographed copy of Amy Alznauer's book, THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY, which has gotten starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly! Go to Esther's post and scroll to the end for directions on how to enter.

We TeachingAuthors generally post Writing Workouts on Wednesdays, but we figure you're blurry-eyed and zoomhausted. Some of you may be desperately looking for a ready-to-go writing exercise for yourself, your kids or your classroom.

Or, you've had two cups of strong coffee, read the whole newspaper including the real estate ads, weeded your entire yard, vacuumed, run 10 miles, made two loaves of sourdough, finished the 1000-piece puzzle and are now looking for something fun to do.

Either way, this round we're offering you GRAB 'N GO WRITING EXERCISES

And today, we're going to learn a new poetry form.

drawing (c) 2020 April Halprin Wayland all rights reserved
Or maybe it's a form I hadn't heard of if you're familiar with it, I'm all ears!

First I'll show you my poem, using this form, then I'll tell you its backstory.

The poem:

by April Halprin Wayland
"I feel we've been duped,"
he began, "our world's been upended,
you crept
into our lives so deep
we must prune
you, denude
you. And though we've been reduced,
we have also endured.
But I can no longer pretend.
This is unprecedented."

poem © 2020 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved

The backstory:

The word UNPRECEDENTED is in almost every sentence of every answer, every op-ed, every comment, every excuse right now. And frankly, I'm freaking tired of it.

And in the poem above, every word at the end of each line can be found in the word unprecedented.

The site Wordmaker finds all the words hidden within a longer word. It found 321 words in Unprecedented. 321! Of those, I choose 31 one to play with. And of the 31, I used 10 in the final poem.

How to write an IN ONE WORD poem:
1) Think of a word. Any word--one you've always loved, one that enrages you, that peaks your interest, or speaks to you.
2) Look it up in Wordmaker (to make it more challenging, don't look it up...find the words yourself)
3) Choose some words on that list...then use or toss them, one by one.
4) Write the poem as prose--in one paragraph.
5) Break the paragraph up into a poem so that each line ends with one of the words from your list.
Okay, here's one's today's very rough draft:
POEM-MAKING (title is from the book of the same name by Myra Cohn Livingston)
by April Halprin Wayland
It's a kind of art—
lit by air
and light. Kept in a vault,

it can only chase it's own tail.
So blow on it, gently—this is vital.
It's yours; invent your own ritual.

poem © 2020 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved==========================

The backstory:

For this poem, I choose another word that's used so often it's driving me bonkers: VIRTUAL.

Below are the 18 words I decided to play with from the 65 words offered by Wordmaker.
I used the six that I've crossed out: 
it, lit, air, art, rut, rail, tail, liar, vial, vail, rival, trial, vault, viral, vital, trail, ultra, ritual

One of the wonders of this form is that I can take a word that makes me sick and come up with a poem that's kind or glowing. 

I think I've invented a new poetry form! An IN ONE WORD poem.  What do you think?  
drawing (c) 2020 April Halprin Wayland all rights reserved

It sure is fun to play with. Try it!  And if you're feeling brave, share it with us!
Thank you, Carol, for hosting Poetry Friday today at Beyond Literary!

posted by April Halprin Wayland with a hug she wishes weren't virtual or unprecedented
drawing (c) 2020 April Halprin Wayland all rights reserved

Friday, May 15, 2020

A Mentee Success Story – PLUS – Book Giveaway!

after waiting almost five whole years,
I can officially introduce our TeachingAuthors readers to debut children’s book author Amy Alznauer!
She’s a Mentee Success Story if ever there was one.
And, one lucky reader gets to win a copy of Amy’s first published book, THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY: A TALE OF THE GENIUS RAMANUJAN (Candlewick), beautifully illustrated by Daniel Miyares, just by entering our Book Giveaway at the end of Amy’s interview.

I’d briefly mentioned in my recent Silver Linings post how lucky I was in 2015 when my SCBWI-Illinois Chapter gifted me with the opportunity to mentor a “picture book writer ready to cross the publishing threshold” via the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship. Amy’s Artist Statement and draft of her Ramanujan biography proved she more than met the bill. And little surprise.  It took but one lunch meet-up for both Amy and Ramanujan to claim my heart.  As the South Indian mathematician Ramanujan was destined to share his genius with the world, Amy was destined to tell his story to children.

Amy lives in Chicago with her husband, two children, a dog, a parakeet, sometimes chicks, and a part-time fish, but, as of today, no elephants or peacocks. (She advises we check back.) Her writing has won the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction as well as the Christopher Award for LOVE AND SALT (Loyola Press, 2013). Her essays and poetry have appeared in collections and literary journals including The Bellingham Review, Creative Nonfiction and River Teeth. She has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh. She teaches calculus and number theory classes at Northwestern University. She is the managing editor for SCBWI-Illinois’ online newsletter. And, if that weren’t enough, she serves as the writer-in-residence at St. Gregory the Great, where she has a little office in a big building with a bad internet connection, so she actually gets some work done – in theory, she adds.

Everything about Amy shines.  There’s her writing, of course. There’s her expertise on a whole host of subjects. And in everything she tackles, personally and professionally, and always passionately, she commits herself to excellence. Her gratitude and generosity abound.

But see for yourself! In response to Covid-19’s challenging impact on her debut book’s promotion, Amy has keenly utilized social media to share key elements of her deeply personal connection to Ramanujan’s story, helpful insights into the mentorship process, her thoughts on creative nonfiction, especially the picture book biography, and how the author-illustrator relationship worked. Click on the links. Amy’s spirit is contagious.

Laura Crawford, whom Amy’s mentorship memorializes, shared a similar spirit. In one of Life’s delicious ironies, the very last picture book Laura had been working on had a mathematical theme, too.  So many facets of this mentorship gladden my heart.

Thank you, Amy, for so thoughtfully answering a few more questions not already addressed in the above referenced videos and interviews.
I remain infinitely thankful for all our mentorship process continues to bring us.
Both you and Ramanujan – finally and officially – now reside, not just in my heart, but in our Children’s Book World, too.

Esther Hershenhorn
Thanks to Jama’s Alphabet Soup for hosting today’s Poetry Friday
Be sure to enter our Book Giveaway at the end of Amy’s interview to win an author-and-illustrator-autographed copy of THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY: A TALE OF THE GENIUS RAMANUJAN.

. . . . . . . .

You’ve waited five whole years since Candlewick’s purchase of your manuscript in the summer of 2015 for the debut of your very first published children’s book, the picture book biography THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY: A TALE OF THE GENIUS RAMANUJAN. And you’ve been waiting since you were five to tell Ramanujan’s story to the world. How goes it? 😊 And how has Covid-19 forced you to tweak your publishing vision?
Remember: Ramanujan considered the big – and – the small.

Yes, this book has been a long time in the making. I have a box full of hundreds of index cards, a collection of interviews on mini-cassette tapes (yes, my research stretches all the way back to the analog age), and travel journals. But even much earlier, ever since my father found Ramanujan’s Lost Notebook when I was only five-years-old, this story has been a constant presence in my life.

I remember one funny incident in particular. It was my father’s birthday, and since my mother loves surprises, she designed a birthday hunt which ended in my sister’s bedroom, my father crawling on the carpet around to the hidden space under the back of her high bed, and finding there an oddly shaped object covered in a child’s printed quilt. He pulled off the unlikely drape to unveil an exquisitely carved bust of Ramanujan, brilliantly scowling in bronze.

So again, yes, this book has been percolating in my imagination for a very long time. And now, as you said, after that long lead-up, suddenly Covid-19.  But the shut-down has been so cataclysmic, so total, that it’s hard to take it personally. And on the positive side, I’ve found that there is a simultaneous intimacy and reach in virtual events that in-person events might never have achieved. I love seeing people in their homes. Conversation and presentations are necessarily less formal, with the tech snafus and invariable interruptions by children and pets. There is a pervasive sense of connection through hardship and gratitude for the chance to connect. And as the world reinvents itself, I find that instead of having a planned launch, I am making it up as I go, along with everyone else. There’s been a freedom in that I never could have anticipated.

When we first began working together, I shared E.B. White’s so-true words: “All writers are revisers.” Can you share a few insights you gleaned from working with your award-winning Candlewick editor Hilary Van Dusen to make this the best story it could be told the best way possible? Were there any surprises?

Well, before we get to Hilary, I want to back up and say that the most significant revision happened when I started working with you, when I put away all the old drafts and began with a blank page. This taught me that such a radial thing is in fact possible and can be transformative. In some sense I already had the story, the arc of it, the moments, but I didn’t have the voice or orientation. I was writing at a great distance from the central character and looking back from the vantage of history. I needed to move in close, where a reader could feel the joy and movement of the quest, and I needed the narrative gaze of the story to be forwards not backwards.

But then, Hilary was so attentive to the details and wanted every scene to be accurate and full. So, we combed over every page, filling out various moments. There were two surprises through this process. First, we ended up adding over 500 words, which seems quite counter to the advice given at conferences about keeping picture book word-count low. And we amplified the presence of divinity. Maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me, but I somehow imagined the publishing industry wanting to focus on the facts and the mathematics and to minimize something as subjective as felt religious experience. But Hilary wanted authenticity, and for Ramanujan mathematical inspiration came, he believed, through a goddess, who placed her thoughts on his tongue. To me it gives tangible, illustrated form to the most mysterious aspect of creativity: its source. And beautifully, we see mathematics coming not in a masculine form, as it’s so often depicted, but through the mind of a non-western female figure.

2020 marks the pub date of not one, not two, but three picture book biographies authored by Amy Alznauer!  Candlewick released THE BOY WHO KNEW OF INFINITY in April; Enchanted Lions publishes THE STRANGE BIRDS OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR: A LIFE in June; and in September, Candlewick releases FLYING PAINTINGS, THE ZHOU BROTHERS: A STORY OF REVOLUTION AND ART. Readers can link to your most glorious conversation with SLJ editor Betsy Bird about creative nonfiction, especially in children’s literature. What do you now know that you didn’t know in 2015 about this singular format – the picture book biography, and the kind of story it accommodates?

People approach picture book biographies, just like all forms of literature, in vastly different ways. But here is what I’ve come to know about my particular approach to this genre. For me there is a single, imaginative task at the core of a biography – and that is locating the child within the adult. Nobody springs fully formed into their adult, celebrated self. From the very beginning of every person’s life there are some questions that seem more pressing than others, some aspects of the world that shine more brightly and call out to be noticed. There’s a path that beckons, although it might only be clear in retrospect.

My job as a biographer is to imagine the child who will someday be the adult and forge a continuity between these two provinces of being. And even more it is to bring the reader into that younger self first, so they can imagine growing up with the child in the story.

There were two early questions written down in the family record that Ramanujan asked as a little boy. Who was the first man in the world? And, what is the distance between clouds? Why did these questions in particular catch his attention? To me, these questions about small and big have a continuity with the mathematics that will later captivate him. And Flannery as a girl had a passion for birds, especially strange chickens and other fowl. What was it about this fascination that played into and really became her literary imagination?

So, to begin writing I ask myself: how do I connect the boy’s questions with the man’s pursuits? How does the little girl obsessed with birds become the woman sitting a typewriter? Answering these questions will not only suggest plot but also metaphor, which will become the mechanism for forging that connection between child and adult.

One of our earliest conversations, and in my mind, one of our most important, focused on your personal connection to and passion for Ramanujan’s story – and – the important Universal Truths his story offers young readers.  In your Everywhere Bookfest presentation with the illustrator Daniel Miyares, you each addressed both those elements. What was it about the adult author Flannery O’Connor’s life story that grabbed your heart and demanded it be shared with children?  What was it about the internationally-renown Zhou Brothers that made you fall in love and write their story for young readers? What do you hope is the take-away of each of these picture books?

For Flannery I was first inspired by her essay King of the Birds, in which she details her early search to find the strangest, most beautiful bird. Her quest eventually culminated in her raising peafowl. But then when I visited the archives at Emory University and discovered stacks and stacks of her early drawings and stories about birds and people, I was all in. Her fierce, funny, dark imagination was in full bloom when she was five, ten, fifteen years old. To me her fascination with birds was a perfect metaphor for the types of strange and beautiful stories she would someday write. So, the plot, the metaphor, the woman within the girl were all there.

For the Zhou Brothers it was a single moment in a café that set me off. I was at the Zhou B Art Center for the first time, for one of their open-studio third Fridays, which they run throughout the year. I sat down to give my eyes and mind a break from taking in so much art and started leafing through their gorgeous catalogue. In an opening essay, the younger brother DaHuang talks about the nature of collaboration, and I’ll paraphrase: People think collaboration is about harmony, he said, but that’s wrong. It’s more like this. You make something beautiful and then someone comes along and destroys it, and you have to find a way to go on together. To me this seemed to be about everything all at once – about loving another person, a brother, about loving a nation even when it hurts you, about making art even in the face of oppression. So, I thought that if I could write a book that wove those three strands from childhood all the way through to their first adult achievement, I would have a powerful story about art, revolution, and love.

Finally, in the Artist’s Statement you submitted for the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship, you wrote: “I want to write not only about children, but for children.”  You did just that and instantly became a full-blooded, full-hearted member of the Children’s Book World, generously returning so much of your time and expertise to our SCBWI-Illinois Chapter. What do you think distinguishes our Children’s Book World from others?

To me it is a kinder, more creative, more expansive world than any other world of letters I’ve ever experienced. I wonder about this difference all the time. Why shouldn’t the children’s book world be just as competitive, back-biting, and petty as other circles of writers? It might have something to do with our readers being children. We are aware always that we are writing for young people and so also aware that our words and images matter. We are less likely to write to impress our peers when we know such sincere readers await. It might also have to do with the intrinsic collaborative nature of our art.  Our words are so often illustrated. Even in longer books, art often plays a significant role, not only on the covers but at chapter headings and throughout. So, we are in that collaborative position that DaHuang Zhou described. We always have to find a way to go on together.  That really is the position of all human beings with respect to one other and to the world at large, but often this reality is hidden from us. Maybe as children’s book writers, we feel it more viscerally in the level gaze of our readers and in the work we do with each other.

. . . . . . . .


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Friday, May 8, 2020

3 Aids for Creativity in the Time of the Coronavirus

Today, I'm wrapping up our series on "Creativity in the Time of the Coronavirus." As April mentioned in her post, the topic is a take-off on the title, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, which neither she nor I have read. We just like the title.

April also shared that the inspiration for this series came from a Tweet thread posted by Cynthia Leitich Smith back in March. (The link April shared didn't work for some reason, but I think this one does.) Cynthia also posted the following graphic on her Facebook author page summarizing the Tweet thread. (If you can't read the following, April typed up the Tweets in her post.)

I love how Cynthia's post acknowledges that individual writers and illustrators (and really, creatives of any kind) can respond so differently to the same situation. One thing I've learned in my many years of teaching and writing is that no one way is right for everyone. While some writers work best by having a regular, daily writing time, others feel that creates too much pressure. Some writers thrive when they set word-count goals while others despise them. Similarly, we each have our own way of dealing with the stress of the coronavirus pandemic.

One of my goals for this group blog has been for the six TeachingAuthors to share our own unique approaches to being teachers and writers, even if those approaches are wildly different. For this series, Bobbi kicked us off by discussing examples of writers, illustrators, and storytellers who have been sharing their art and become "candles of light amid the dark night." In her post, Mary Ann confessed to being stalled in her writing and shared some of the books and articles helping her to be okay with that. April admitted that she finds the shower of online resources tiring. Her coping mechanism is to continue her habit of writing one poem a day, and she shared a powerful poem in her post (along with a video of a newborn pond turtle 😍). Esther's indomitable spirit shines through in her post on how "Unexpected Kodak Moments" (and her favorite ice cream) are helping her get through this crisis. Gwendolyn extolled the soothing quality of jazz and shared that "Just giving myself permission to write without worrying about the result makes me feel extra creative."

My fellow TeachingAuthors have already provided so many marvelous tips and resources. And yet, I still have something to add--I'd like to share the three things that are most helping my creativity during this time.

1) Nature
     As I mentioned in my last TeachingAuthors' post, walking outside gives me a mental health boost, especially now. I've been taking regular walks around the neighborhood (practicing social distancing when I encounter anyone). I find paying attention to all the changing signs of spring--sights, sounds, and smells--very uplifting.

I encountered this just-starting-to-bloom lilac on a recent walk
      On days when the weather keeps me indoors, I sometimes go online for my nature fix, checking out the latest videos or photos on the Morton Arboretum Instagram account or the Illinois Birding Network Facebook group. (I never knew Illinois had so many bird varieties!)

2) My critique group deadlines
     The critique group I'd participated in for many, many years disbanded some time ago after several members moved out of state and others simply stopped writing. I missed the group, but not the problem of having to fit those meetings into an already meeting-filled schedule. But in January of this year, I was fortunate to connect with a group that critiques each other virtually, via email, twice a month. Having that regular deadline has really helped me stay on task, especially since the shelter-at-home order. I know deadlines don't help everyone, but they're terrific motivators for people like me who are what Gretchen Rubin calls "Obligers." In her bestselling book, The Four Tendencies (Harmony), Rubin describes how Obligers need outer accountability to meet their own expectations. (If you're interested, check out her website for more info and take a quiz to find out your own tendency.) During this crisis, I've felt too distracted to do much reading, even for pleasure. But thanks to my regular critique group deadlines, I've been making slow and steady progress on my work-in-process. 
3) Jigsaw puzzles 
     Even before the pandemic started, I'd been thinking about pulling out some old jigsaw puzzles stored in our basement. Inspired by social media posts of others doing jigsaw puzzles, I finally did so. When the news gets overwhelming, working on the puzzle really calms me.

I hope this TeachingAuthors' series has brought comfort and inspiration to you, our readers. I'd like to end with Cynthia Leitich Smith's words:
You take care. Wash your hands. Do what you need
to do. Really, it’s okay.
Posted by Carmela

Friday, May 1, 2020

Where Is My Creative Mind?

I keep telling myself, “Come on Gwendolyn. Show your creative side. Rewrite that last paragraph. Show some pizazz!  Pizazz? I let out a deep breath. My pizazz floats away disappearing in the warm April breeze along with any cool thoughts I might have had about my current work-in-progress.

I keep watching the news for updates. I think about my writing project. I watch the news. I think about my project.

What now? I need to finish this project. The deadline is somersaulting toward me with no brakes in sight.

I don’t turn off my TV. Instead, I tune in my favorite music station. It plays jazz music all day and all night. No voices. No commercials. Just soothing jazz. I get some of my best ideas while listening to jazz.

I talk to my writer friends who are extremely generous during regular times and even more so now with COVID-19 AND lockdowns on our minds.  We read each other’s work, offer comments that are on point. You ask yourself, “Why didn’t I think of that?” They bring out more of my creative self.
Pull out a manuscript in your “Not Quite Ready” file. With a new perspective, you may be able to zero in on what could turn it into a sale. Relax. Take deep breaths. Close your eyes and type or write with your favorite pen. Don’t judge your work. Don’t even read it. Just keep going. As I write this, I’m thinking to myself, “Gwendolyn, you need to follow your own advice.”

While Hubby fishes, I write  by the calming
waters of  Lake Draper in Oklahoma City.
I am one of those who stops typing more often than I should and reread, delete and add as I write. Maybe it is time I follow my own advice. After all, it seems as if I’ll have plenty of time for revisions. WOW! Just giving myself permission to write without worrying about the result makes me feel extra creative. Maybe I’ll try a different point of view. There is an old manuscript I want to bring to life.

Is there an idea or character you visit from time to time, but never seriously follow through with your plans for it? Then maybe this is your moment. You won’t know until you explore it fully.

Fill your computer screen with stories only you can write. Your creative mind is within you. Use it. I promise to do the same.

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks

Friday, April 24, 2020

Those Unexpected Kodak Moments…courtesy of COVID-19.

While quarantined and sheltering in place,

April writes poetry, celebrating just being.
Mary Ann likes and links, connecting online.                           
Bobbi celebrates our communities of writers.
I collect Unexpected Kodak Moments.

FYI:  in case you weren’t around in the 80’s, I’m referring to any happenings worthy of being memorialized with a photograph, originally captured using George Eastman’s Kodak camera.

COVID-19 has dramatically darkened our world as we once knew it.
The challenges for many of us are indeed overwhelming, and on a whole host of levels.
Even a “Non-stop finder of Life’s Silver Linings” such as I,
a Cubs Fan,
indeed, someone who responds, “Hopeful and grateful!” when asked how she is,
must admit: our world is askew.
This sadly unchanging view from my window says it all: the American flag atop Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, lowered to half-mast, honoring the now more-than-1400 Illinois citizens felled by the Coronavirus.

Tears? Yes.
Fears? Absolutely.

But just as Mr. Rogers advised us to look for the Helpers, I remind myself to look for those Unexpected Kodak Moments.
I know first-hand: a well-planned Plotline can suddenly twist where we’d expected it to turn, forcing us to travel unknown paths set against unimagined backgrounds, with who-knows-what-and-who waiting around the bend.
But I also know, after considerable schooling in the above: while traveling those new obstacle-strewn roads Life’s redirected Plotlines offered us, every now and then, surprise, surprise! We come upon a happening that not only brings us a dollop of Joy. It demands a revisiting so we can see how we got through.

Here are but a few of the Unexpected Kodak Moments I’ve gratefully captured these past five weeks while doing my best to shelter in place. Hopefully one or two will bring you a smile and get you on your way to finding yours.

With apologies to Mr. Eastman, this is my Logitech C270 HD Webcam Moment… ….because of course on Tuesday, March 31, in the middle of ZOOMING everyone in my personal and professional worlds, my Lenova’s camera died.  Who knew laptop cameras were more precious than toilet paper? BUT I FOUND ONE – in Hong Kong - after 2 ½ hours online! And for an additional fee, and an elevated price, Tak Yuet International delivered it to me as promised in 9 days! And even better, even though I’m a Luddite, I attached it to my laptop and it worked!*
(My screensaver’s crocus blooming amidst snow and ice is there to remind me of Albert Camus’ brilliant line: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” Fingers crossed.)

The above video, though 19 minutes in length, still qualifies as a Kodak Moment, and an Unexpected one at that. Its availability brought hundreds of guests to SCBWI-Illinois’ first-ever April 15 Virtual Book Launch Party celebrating debut author Amy Alznauer and her eloquently-written picture book THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY: A TALE OF THE GENIUS RAMANUJAN, gorgeously illustrated by Daniel Miyares and published by Candlewick. Amy’s originally-planned Book Launch was to be tomorrow Saturday at Anderson’s in Naperville, Illinois.
That “asterisk” beside the mention of my new spiffy camera above? Well, and of course, my logitech270’s Mic didn’t work once we began taping so I was forced to ZOOM in via my iPhone, thus explaining my non-static intro and wind-up, for which I apologize. However, I’m certain my love for Amy came through loud and clear. In 2015 my chapter gifted me with the opportunity to mentor “a picture book writer ready to cross the publishing threshold” via the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship. Both the winner Amy and her manuscript’s subject Ramanujan immediately claimed my heart.
Be sure to read my May 15 TeachingAuthors interview with Amy. We’ll be raffling a copy of THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY.)

Thank goodness I didn’t discard my Illinois K-8 Teacher Certificate because I’m teaching once again, this time at VOVO SCHOOL!
(“Vovo,” by the way, is what my Brazilian-born 10-year-old grandson Gabe calls me.)
Gabe lives and breathes reptiles, spends hours “herping” (looking for reptiles beneath rocks, inside trees, affixed to the walls of his Sonoran Desert home) and dreams of being a herpetologist one day. Naturally, All-Things-Reptile lie at the heart of our daily lessons.
Science. Geography. Math. Writing concrete poems in the shape of lizards. Learning reptilian idioms. Taking virtual tours of Reptile Houses in zoos around the world. There are online reptile stores to explore - and - Reptile Shows to virtually attend.
All sorts of learning opportunities continue to snake through my mind, keeping Gabe learning ‘til his school district reopens in August, and best of all, the two of us connecting in fun ways.
I highly recommend educator Emily’s Snake Discovery channel.

Multiple Kodak Moments continue to fill my days as long-heard-from students, writers and fellow children’s book creators both near and far away email to query, “Are you doin’ okay?” 
No matter the possible link to warnings to remember “the elderly in hi-rises in densely-populated urban areas.” 😊
To be so thoughtfully remembered at such a time as this does wonders for the soul.
The Good News these folks share becomes my Good News.
For instance, here’s the cover of Claudia Friddell’s long-awaited picture book biography of Joseph Pulitzer, SAVING LADY LIBERTY: JOSEPH PULITZER’S FIGHT FOR THE STATUE OF LIBERTY, beautifully illustrated by Stacy Innerst and published this March by Calkins Creek.
You might remember Claudia and her first picture book GOLIATH from my January, 2010 Student Success Story.

I was so missing my Nia classes and 3-miles-per-day walks, so discovering Jenny Ford’s YouTube Marching Workout was a Kodak Moment for me.

Fortunately, my daily Marching Workouts more than readied me to walk 7 city blocks to and from my local Whole Foods for the 7 am Senior Shopping Time to discover this week’s Unexpected – and delicious - Kodak Moment. Not one but TWO pints on an otherwise empty freezer shelf.

Each day I receive a Gratitude quote. This Monday I read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s words.
         “The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.”

I agree. An unexpected dollop of Joy can go a very long way, especially when sheltering in place during a quarantine.

May you need a stack of photo albums to store your Unexpected Kodak Moments these coming months and after!

Esther Hershenhorn
Thanks to Christie Wyman at WonderingsandWanderings for hosting this week’s Poetry Friday.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Our 11th Blogiversary!

Hard to believe that today marks ELEVEN years since we started this blog. Happy blogiversary to us!

Last year we did a series of ten posts to celebrate our tenth blogiversary, with contributions from all ten of the marvelous TeachingAuthors who had contributed to this blog over the years. Given the difficult times we're currently experiencing, I think a quieter celebration is in order this year. But rather than let the date go by unmarked, I thought I'd repeat the terrific Thanku poem Esther shared in her post for our tenth anniversary:

           THANKU TO YOU!

     Here’s to our Readers!
     Fans, Feeders, Fuelers all.
     True storied treasures.

poem (c) 2019 Esther Hershenhorn. All rights reserved.

We wouldn't still be doing this if not for you, our wonderful readers. Whether you're a new follower or you've been here from the beginning, we appreciate each and every one of you!

And don't forget to always Write with Joy!

Friday, April 17, 2020


Howdy, Campers, and Happy Poetry Friday! (My poem and the PF link is below)

The topic we TeachingAuthors are exploring in this round is Creativity in the Time of the Coronavirus, a take-off on the title, Love in the Time of Cholera. It's funny--I've been thinking about the title of that book a lot lately, though I've never read it. I wonder if you've thought of that title, too.

And as much as I appreciate and am in awe of the shower of resources, inspirations and suggested activities raining down around us,
can I be totally honest here and say that simply reading the title of each link tires me out?

Eli, after looking at too many Instagram posts

In suggesting this topic, our Blog's Founder and Queen Mother, Carmela, sent us this link to Cynthia Leitich Smith's Twitter thread on March 22nd. (I've condensed it--it was 10 separate tweets on the same day):

Dear Children's-YA Author/Illustrator,
  • It’s okay if you can’t get any writing and/or artwork done today.
  • It’s okay if you need your writing and/or artwork more than ever.
  • It’s okay if you’re upset that your new book isn’t getting the attention it deserves.
  • It’s okay if you’re struggling to do online events.
  • It’s okay if you don’t have a single idea for a video lesson or activity.
  • It’s okay if you’re opting out of online events.
  • It’s okay if you owe people messages.
  • It’s okay if you don’t have the money to purchase or donate.
  • It’s okay if you can’t focus on anything beyond your family/household.
  • You take care. Wash your hands. Do what you need to do. Really, it’s okay.
I love all those okays. This list is so forgiving. So comforting.

Have you looked at your calendar lately after canceling event after event, and secretly breathed a sigh of relief?

I had to stop attending my beloved critique group when I was ill and have yet to reconnect. I couldn't drive across Los Angeles for an hour when I was sick. Once I let that go, I realized something: that drive is not healthy for me even when I'm well

And thus I eliminated several things I'd done regularly for years.

Am I an agoraphobic in an audacious person's clothing?

On March 24th (So long ago, right?  Where have all my days gone?), I was feeling "teacherly" and emailed a friend, who seemed as lost as I feel now:

Dear Janey,

I think you're asking for survival tips. 

Yesterday my survival tip was to label what I feel. I feel lethargic. Just finding that one right word for how I was feeling helped me. And I stopped yelling at myself for not being as productive as I imagine everyone else is. I just let little April be lethargic. 

Today I made a point of meditating before having breakfast. (What? Delay my breakfast????). Because it's easy to not meditate as my day speeds off on its own. This helped.
And I hiked with my dog and my two grand dogs (I call myself their Dogma) on a beautiful, muddy trail. Drenching myself in 
green always moves my meter closer to happy.

Note that this upbeat, helpful email was written when my son and his fiancee were hunkered down with us. I loved having them and their dogs fill our house. (Bonus: he bakes bread every day. That smell is house perfume.)  But they drove off to New Mexico two weeks ago, where he'll starts his residency in emergency medicine soon. (I know--yay, Son, and also, oh, dear...).

So now I'm alone most of the day, which is VERY different. I am not gardening. I am not making ratatouille. I am not decluttering. I am not even cutting my bangs.

But how am I surviving creatively?

I write a poem every day and send it to my friend, author Bruce Balan, who sends me a poem each day, too.

Want an example?

On April 7th, I wrote in my journal:
LA County is asking everyone to refrain from even shopping for food this week. We're bracing for a big wave of COVID-19...unless we all lay low. This is kind of like when you're in the ocean and you've miscalculated and that huge wave, which you'd thought you could swim over, is about to crash on top of you and you dive deep, hoping to avoid being in the washing-machine of the wave.

from Pixabay
And here's my April 7, 2020 poem (I immediately want to tell you that it's just a draft and I know it needs cutting and lots of other things are wrong with it, but I refrain from telling you this):

by April Halprin Wayland

Remember when Daddy took your hand
after you were thrashed
in a watery washing-machine of a wave
and you both walked slowly, so slowly
into the summery ocean
as that big wave came closer

and you could barely breathe
but he was gentle
he was calm
he held your hand
until you rose above the roar
as it pounded sand

and when the next one—the very next one
came growling at both of you
he showed you how to dive deep,
deeper then you thought you could go
below the wave's grasp
so it rumbled it rumbled

and all waves
the rest of that day
were just plain old nothing-to-be-afraid-of waves
you could fly
you could breathe
you were somewhere glorious and far away
all day

poem and drawing of the child in the rain © 2020 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved

So...for today, I stand back and watch the world spin. And I forgive myself. It's okay.

Thank you, Molly, at Nix The Comfort Zone for hosting Poetry Friday!

Posted with gratitude by April Halprin Wayland with help from Eli and our teeny tiny newborn pond turtle: