Childish Nonsense

Exploring Children's Literature

Thank you, Maya

A lot of people have expressed their appreciation for Maya Angelou since her passing, but I really can’t resist putting in my two cents.

Caged BirdI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published when I was sixteen, an extremely formative age for anyone. As a junior at a nearly-all white school in the sixties, I was more than curious about the experiences of those on the other side of town. I read The Autobiography of Malcom X about the same time. I took the one African-American History course offered at my school.

What struck me most about Dr. Angelou was her guileless ability to tell a story. Her agenda was there, without a doubt, but you never felt she was preaching. She was just telling it like it is, as we used to say. And how did she do that? By being a masterful writer. That’s how.

A review of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from The Washington Post in April 1970 (by Ward Just) said it very well. “It is personal. It is not propaganda .… It is one woman … writing from a talent so strong as to make each part of it immediate, direct, devastating, and – oddly – beautiful.”

Most of her works were – personal, talent-ridden, immediate, direct, and beautiful. You can take any line from And Still I Rise, a 1978 poem, and it will resonate. Of course, it’s better not taken out of context, but who could deny the power of

“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, / I am the dream and hope of the slave. / I rise / I rise / I rise.”

She knew how to make a point. And she clearly knew her place in history.

On a personal level, I want to thank her for being such a wonderful and inspiring writer. I want to write like she did. I want to make every word count and infuse each of those words with meaning and passion. But I also want to be the incredible person she was. Loving and giving and so self-assured that she enjoyed her notoriety and never shied away from it or her fans.

You can rest well, Maya, because you sure did well on this earth.

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Children’s Book Week

CBW_Poster-smallGo ahead. You can say it. It is that time again? Very funny. But the only time I stop talking about children’s literature is when I’m reading children’s literature or making a valiant attempt to write some myself. So there! Pffft! (Hope I spelled that correctly.)

Children’s Book Week was May 12 to 18 this year. Something is going on in every single state and the District of Columbia to celebrate children’s books. If it’s not too late, maybe you can join in. There is a good list of official events at  This event was established in 1919! So, if I’m too late, there’s always next year.

In my neighborhood (literally, in my neighborhood. I could walk there if I weren’t so lazy.), is the fifth annual Gaithersburg Book Festival ( I’m shocked this has become such a big event. Workshops, book signings, and general good times. All celebrating quality literature. Can’t beat it. And it looks like the weather may even cooperate.

That’s about it for this post. Unless you want to hear about some of my pet peeves. They’ve been especially peevish this week.


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I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity in children’s books lately, partly as a result of a grassroots movement among authors to get diverse books into the hands of children. For the past couple of weeks, authors have been Tweeting about this idea. Kate DiCamillo, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature through the Library of Congress and current Newbery winner for Flora and Ulysses, has asked authors to read books celebrating diversity at local independent book stores this Saturday, May 17, as part of Indies First.

So, WHY do we need diverse books? The answer is very simple. We want diverse readers. And not just superficially diverse, but diverse in their thinking and outlook.

For years, Americans have been asking why Johnny doesn’t read. It always comes back to books not interesting him.  Why should Johnny read anything if none of the characters look like him or talk like him or have any experiences similar to what he goes through every day? Authors like Matt de la Peña, who actually knows what it’s like to be caught between two cultures, have started to provide more deep-feeling narrative to fill the gap. But kids need more, and at younger ages. Readers start loving books young.

As an incredibly white woman, I can also see why the white majority needs an education on the feelings, experiences, and just plain ordinariness of people of all cultures and sub-cultures. The world is changing, and change is not always bad. Kids need to see that.

Last, traditional publishers need to know that, unless they speak to all segments of the population, there is an impact on their bottom line.

I didn’t want to get preachy with this, but I did want to call attention to this movement. #weneeddiversebooks

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If you don’t think setting is important, just think of some of your favorite stories set in another place and time. Would Gatsby have been so great in 21st century Afghanistan? Would Harry Potter have been so magical in Antarctica? Would Scarlett O’Hara have had such an impact in the Hunger Games? (Okay, a big maybe on that last one.)

parkMany writers like to think of the setting as another character, requiring the same care as the main characters. And they may be right. But sometimes I think setting is as elusive as voice. Sure, you can tell the reader you’re in a park and that the weather is warm and sunny, but how does the park feel? That’s the challenge.

Thoughts that help me get the setting straight:

  1. Get your five senses involved. How does the park smell? Are there hot dogs roasting? Do sunbathers reek of sunscreen? Can you smell the honeysuckle? What do you taste? Is there sweat trickling down your face? Is that watermelon sweet and a little salty? Does it taste like home? Is there a warm breeze brushing your bare arms? Is the sun heating your face? Can you hear kids screaming with delight? A puppy yipping to get its favorite toy? The trees creaking in that breeze? What color is the sky? What else do you see? And just how do you convey all this information while still maintaining the flow of the story?
  2. Think about what the setting says about your characters. Would Gatsby attend a rock concert? Harry Potter sought challenges, but the reader was more likely to find him in a cemetery than a toy store. Would Scarlett O’Hara wear jeans?
  3. Think what the setting can do to advance the plot. You have this neat little park with flying kites, sunbathers, and joggers. What would a sudden thunderstorm do to that idyllic picture? Will all the park-goers go to the same shelter? Will they interact? Do they already know each other or are they just meeting for the first time?


Well, now that I have a setting, guess I’d better get to work on my story.

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