Childish Nonsense

Exploring Children's Literature

Not Really Nonsense

I’ve been having trouble deciding on a topic to keep the blog going. Part of the problem is I’m still decompressing from the conference – almost two weeks ago now. So, might as well continue my commentary on that.

I was reminded time and again what makes good children’s literature. Much of what I heard was about nonfiction, but most of the tenets also apply to fiction.

Award-winning nonfiction author Sally M. Walker brought up these points:

  1. The most important thing is to relate to the reader. Think about what kids find interesting. It also helps if the writer is passionate about the subject and the aspect about which she is writing.
  2. Read with the ear, not with the eye. Read your work aloud.
  3. Use strong verbs. How many times have we all heard this? But hear this advice, internalize it, use it, and love it.
  4. Choose your adjectives and adverbs well.
  5. When doing research, follow the trail, wherever it leads.
  6. Look for the lost stories – the unusual forks in that trail.
  7. Try not to mix concepts, especially within one sentence.

Similar thoughts were expressed by Richard Peck, also a multiple award winner.

  1. You are only as good as your opening line. Grab that reader.
  2. Puberty may be the death of childhood, but it is not the birth of reason. This is mostly for young adult fiction, but I think it also means that the craziness continues.  If the writer is truly interested, the reader will be also.
  3. You always have less to lose than you think. Go for it.
  4. You learn the most from the experience you were avoiding. Take a chance.
  5. Observation, not experience. Research, not recollection. To me, this means that your own experiences can only serve as a starting point.

As I continue to decompress and try to work on my own writing, looking back on all these thoughts helps me to move forward.

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Creating Sparks Conference

July 14-15, 2012 marked the summer conference for the MD/DE/WV SCBWI. It also marked one of the best faculties ever assembled for a local conference.

With award-winning authors, accommodating editors, and attentive agents, it’s hard to go wrong. Over 150 attendees absorbed as much as they could of the knowledge and inspiration in the air. Over 70 of the participants took the opportunity to get one-on-one feedback from the editors, agents, and published authors present.

We were covered by the local paper.

As the registrar for the event, I did miss some of the speeches but I never missed the camaraderie, and I caught as much as I could. I even won a bagful of great books and supplies from the pre-conference challenges. Can’t beat that.

Most impressive: Big surprise (not)! Richard Peck. Technically, he only gave one keynote. Since nearly everyone went to his breakout session, he really gave two keynotes. In his first session on Saturday, he talked about there being no app for eye contact. In other words, a good writer will always connect with his reader. He mentioned Maurice Sendak and Ray Bradbury and how well they connected to their audiences. Then he talked about looking for ways to connect and doing your research. Observation, not experience. Research, not recollection.”

His other session was about grabbing the reader. Since the art department will mess up your message, make sure your first line is a grabber. We had so much fun listening to him share some of his favorites.

Most inspirational: Deborah Wiles. What can you imagine? Need I say more?

Most informative: Well, now, that’s a tough question. Christine Peterson, managing editor at Capstone? Sally M. Walker, author of many award-winning nonfiction titles? Author Bobbie Pyron? All of the above, I think.

Most dedicated: Molly Jaffa of Folio Agency. She completely lost her voice and kept right on working. Unbelievable. When I get sick, I still want my mommy.

I heard good things about everyone on the faculty. Everyone was friendly, accessible, and gracious.

I introduced myself to Richard Peck.

He shook my hand and said, “Hello. I’m Richard Peck.”

Well, yeah.


Famous Nonsense

I wanted to get this posted before I forget. This afternoon, I start my stint with the MD/DE/WV summer conference. It’s going to be a good one, and I look forward to blogging about it.

Very few things cause more of a reaction among serious writers than the topic of books published by people who are famous in some area other than writing.  Or when writers known for adult content decide it’s time to write a children’s book.

Madonna famously decided to write children’s books because “There was nothing out there.” The quote is very much taken out of context, but it still angered many good writers.

So what’s the big deal?

Most writers work very hard at their craft. Many non-writers seem to have a view that children’s literature, in particular, as simple and therefore easy to write.  Having someone – anyone – just decide to write a children’s book, have it immediately published, and have millions in sales gives the impression that what we do is easy.

However unfounded, there is a feeling among professional writers that celebrities are somehow taking a spot that belongs to a better writer. This may be true to a certain extent, but most children are not going to ask for a book just because the author is otherwise famous. Books by Madonna and others appeal more to their established fan bases. One of the first celebrity books was written by Jimmy Buffett. A lot of Parrotheads bought it.

At one and the same time, celebrity books are a distraction and a boost. When a book supposedly written by Snooki Polizzi appeared, the Today Show cancelled their usual segment interviewing the winner of the Newbury Medal in favor of an interview with Snooki. Hers was not a children’s book, but still … But when people like Henry Winkler team up with SCBWI president Lin Oliver, the resulting wonderful work does a lot for children’s writers.

Then there is the issue of, shouldn’t celebrities have the same opportunity to write that the rest of us do? Often, their work is very good. This would be true if they were held to the same standards as the rest of us. I wouldn’t want my children reading junk just because it had a celebrity’s name on it.

Many celebrity writers contribute all their would-be fees to charity. I heartily applaud this effort.

Obviously, this is a very complex issue. One that I cannot resolve. But it’s fun to consider all the aspects.

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Stormy Nonsense

I have tried twice to write a particular blog and both times it’s been pre-empted by another topic. Oh well, I’ll get to it eventually.

Last Friday, we were subjected to a fast and furious thunderstorm that left the capital area devastated. This is the kind of event you will find folded into many books. If only authors remember to make notes on the details for later fodder.

At 10:30 p.m., the movie we were watching had just finished. All through the last half of the movie, the cable company’s emergency warning system would come on with unintelligible messages that looked only like lines of code. This happens regularly when they’re testing the system. So much for early warnings. I attempted to turn on a news or weather channel so we could find out what was really going on. The electricity flickered a few times, making the television go off and on. The wind came up, and my husband stood by the window to try to look at the storm. I had just told him I didn’t think he should stand next to the window.

The wind roared. I got up from my chair. My husband said “I’m going to the basement.”

I said, “Where do you think I’m going?”

The dog was right on our heels. Our Midwestern training in recognizing dangerous storms paid off. We know when to respect Mother Nature.

The lights went out for good. We waited a while and went to bed.

By morning, it was obvious we would get no relief from the searing heat predicted. On Friday, we had hit 100 degrees with a 75 degree dew point.  Also, the water company had lost power, so our battery-operated radio said we were under mandatory water restrictions.

We could probably hang out at a cooling center, but what would we do with the dog? We couldn’t leave him in the hot house. I’d never do that. Especially to a pet.

My cell phone was still in operation. I called the power company to make sure we were on their list. Then I called our daughter, who lives about 25 miles north.  She had power! And air conditioning!

We grabbed a few things from the freezer and headed north for the day. Most of the stop lights along the way were dark. Tree limbs everywhere. One neighbor around the corner lost a stand of eight large pine trees. Their trunks broke in half about halfway down.  A local jogging path was impassible. A clock tower at our closest grocery store lost one face and the entire façade of its lower half. Our three lost shingles suddenly seemed like nothing.

The power company made no predictions for the first day and a half. Then they promised 90% restoration by a week after the storm. This was not going well. We slept in our own house the next night, though it was beastly hot. At least we escaped the hottest part of the day.

The second full day without power, we planned to spend part of the day with our other daughter, also 25 miles north of us and part of the day with the first daughter. It was starting to be a routine already.

About 1:30 p.m., we called our own house and got the answering machine. The power was on! Praise the powers!

Things are just starting to get back to normal. I threw out the milk and eggs even though I don’t know if they were bad. The grocery store was just starting to restock these items when I went to replace them.

Events like this force you to appreciate the little things, like being cool when you want or reading with enough light. Makes you feel lucky to be alive.

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