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 http://www.bookweekonline.com/.  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 (http://gaithersburgbookfestival.org/). 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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#WeNeedDiverseBooks

WeNeedDiverseBooks

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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Further Adventures in Conferencing

Okay, I’ve been conspicuously absent for a few weeks. Please forgive my scattered brain. I never did quite learn what my mother tried to drill into me: “You can’t do everything.” I do try to say no and cut things from my life, but it never seems to work. And so I end up doing a few things not as well as I’d like. Something always suffers and it was Childish Nonsense in this case.

Sitting down at the Spring 2014 conference

Sitting next to Giuseppe Castellano at the Spring 2014 conference

Lest it appear that all I do is attend conferences, let me assure you that is not quite true. I do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about conferences, but this is because, with my partner Sue Peters, I organize our regional conferences. But, face it, conferences are some of the best things about SCBWI. They are inspiring and educational, a great opportunity to meet the powers of the industry, and a really good way to get out of the house.

March 29 was the spring conference for the Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia region of the SCBWI. It’s the first one I remember being so well-attended.

The international organization changed their website (scbwi.org) in October 2013. Our region now has a website (mddewwv.scbwi.org) as part of that project, and one of the features is event registration. In the long run, this is going to be a blessing. In the short run, the roll out has been plagued by bugs and a steep learning curve for the users. I apologize to anyone who had problems registering. We did our best to help, though we couldn’t always work the problems through. I promise it will be better for September. Fact is, I’ve literally used computers since the beginning of the pc age (we once had a Commodore 64, which we hooked up to the television) and have always kept trying different things until I found something that works. I sometimes forget others don’t work the same way, so please bear with me.

So, with our fantastic speakers and the fact that generated a sell-out crowd, I ended up talking to my laptop and to the inimitable Josh Smith at headquarters quite a bit. And pulling my hair out. Not bald yet.

To top it off, our efforts at providing quality audio-visual presentations were less than successful. I apologize for this also.

Our speakers: Lesléa Newman, author, spoke about her book October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. She had me in tears talking about this young man’s tragic death. Giuseppe Castellano, art director at Penguin, was well-received with his inside look for artists. Alex Arnold, editorial assistant at Katherine Tegen Books, conducted a workshop on plotting. Tara Lazar, author of Monstore, talked about the journey from concept to picture book. (Who, what, where, when, but WHY?!) Debra Hess form Highlights was great talking about nonfiction. Christa Heschke, agent at McIntosh and Otis, spoke about the query process. Social media was the first topic for Sara D’Emic, associate agent at Talcott Notch, and her client Rori Shay, author of Elected. Alyson Heller, associate editor at Aladdin, spoke about the importance of first chapters. Other afternoon sessions included one on query letters, one on characters, and one on websites.

It was a fantastic conference, but I was really exhausted afterward. Whew!

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Forsooth!

“I don’t know what anybody sees in Hamlet. It’s just a bunch of clichés strung together.”Shakespeare

Why do we study Shakespeare? Might as well ask why we learn to talk. Whether people know it or not, they are, in fact, using Shakespeare every day. (I feel the same way about math, but Will is gonna use up all the space here.)

I really do not care who wrote all that stuff. All I care is that someone wrote it all down. And I think most scholars believe it was all written by one person. Of course, there are always some who will dispute even that, but they will probably also argue whether the sun came up this morning. My real point is that none of us exist in a vacuum and you can cause a small ripple or a tidal wave. The trick is not to ignore the tidal wave.

Someone once concluded that the only body of work more quoted, at least in English, than Shakespeare was the Bible. That’s pretty good company.  I found thirty phrases generally attributed to Will without much effort. Guess we wouldn’t know what to say without him.

Admittedly, many of these are paraphrased quotes (I blame that on modernization), but these are all phrases heard every day and penned by Will over 400 years ago:

  1. All’s well that ends well
  2. Break the ice
  3. Brevity is the soul of wit.
  4. Catch a cold
  5. Dogs of war
  6. Green-eyed monster
  7. Heart of gold
  8. I have not slept one wink
  9. I must be cruel, only to be kind.
  10. In a pickle
  11. It was Greek to me
  12. Laughing stock
  13. Lord, what fools these mortals be.
  14. Love is blind
  15. Make your hair stand on end
  16. Set your teeth on edge
  17. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
  18. The play’s the thing
  19. The world’s mine oyster
  20. There’s method in my madness
  21. This is the short and the long of it
  22. Tis neither here nor there
  23. Too much of a good thing
  24. Unkindest cut of all
  25. Up in arms
  26. Vanish into thin air
  27. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
  28. We have seen better days
  29. Wear your heart on your sleeve
  30. Wild goose chase

Next time, maybe I’ll explain why it’s futile to hate math.

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New York 2014 Conference Buzz

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Big giant head in hotel lobby sporting Suess hat for the children’s writers

Another amazing SCBWI conference is in the bag. Just a quick run through of my notes. Hope this helps some who couldn’t be there, but there’s nothing like being there.

The overall theme was the seven essentials for children’s literature. Some speakers really took this to heart. Others did not.

I did not attend a Friday intensive though I did help with the registration for this event. I hear the intensives were great.

There was a party for industry professionals Friday night, along with the illustrator portfolio showcase. A lot of freaking talent in that room! My Co-Regional Advisor, Sue Peters, and I used the opportunity to start seeking speakers for regional conferences. (Sneaky RAs)

Saturday began with introductions by Steve Mooser and Lin Oliver. With 1085 registrants, 153 were men (up a little), 867 were women, and 65 were apparently neither. 47 states (no Dakotas or Hawaii) and 20 countries were represented. The joke contest was to write a headline for the Winter Olympics starring a children’s book character. Boy, was I surprised to actually win with the first one that popped into my head: Team Rapunzel Best in Curling. Some other good ones: Steve Mooser’s Does a Russian Bear Putin the Woods? And Lee Wind’s Vladimir Putin’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Gay. At least we have fun.

Jack Gantos gave the opening keynote. He spoke about his process. He even shared photos of his writing desk at the Boston Atheneum. For picture books, he makes a 16-square grid. Starts with character introduction, setting, problem, action, action, emotion, crisis, resolution, solve problem, and end. One of his best points was that the best stories have two endings – a physical one and an emotional one. After writing, he moves on to a focused re-write, concentrating on one issue at a time.

I attended the morning breakout session on Creating Nonfiction with Debra Dorfman and Marisa Polansky from Scholastic. Their seven esssentials consisted of:

  1. Explore your interests
  2. Explore your strengths
  3. Explore your audience
  4. Explore your bookstore, school book fair, school book club
  5. Explore the opportunities
  6. Explore sources
  7. Explore publishers

Of course, being from Scholastic, they had some really good examples to back up each point. They mentioned they’re always looking for that unusual idea that speaks to kids. Biographies of little-known people or about quirks of already-famous people are a plus. Combining ideas, like their new Dinosaurs (or sharks or dolphins) in a Box are great. (This is a nonfiction book, a fictional story, poster, and flash cards boxed together.)

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Some of HMH’s recently published picture books

My afternoon breakout was with Jeannette Larson of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, speaking about Writing Picture Books. She had a list of essential ingredients for a great picture book (originality, rhythm, economy, conflict, wholeness, purpose, and authenticity) and a list of ingredients of a writer of great picture books (curiosity, love of language, observance, flexibility, patience, courage, and honesty). Originality means yanking out those clichés. Rhythm means making your text readable, especially out loud. Economy means making every word do its job. Conflict is not about arguing. Wholeness = beginning, middle, and end. Purpose is not about a message. Authenticity means it’s truly child centered.

She also came with great examples. She says that picture books matter, especially in emotional terms, because you never know what the ripple effect will be.

The afternoon keynote was given by author Elizabeth Wein, who spoke about accepting responsibility for everything you write or do. She said that maintaining grace in the face of success will win you a lot of friends.

After that was a discussion panel about banned books.

The evening began with a dinner hosted by the individual regions. It was great to meet with some of the people from our region. I was so glad to see that each of our regional states was represented. And the mini cupcakes were scrumptious.

Later, I had volunteered to attend a social especially for brand new SCBWI members. I’d forgotten how energetic and inspired new members are. What a wonderful group of people!

Sunday morning was the time for award presentation. Tomie dePaolo, at 80, and Jane Yolen, at 75, were unbelievable. I adore them both.

Kate Messner gave a great talk on the Power of Failure. She spoke a lot about not looking at so-called failures as failures, but turning them into learning opportunities and one more step forward. She used her speech at a TED event in 2012 as one example and invited us to be brave. Failure teaches us to celebrate the dance and gives us a chance to start over.

The last panel on Sunday was about the Art of the Picture Book. Five established illustrators (Marla Frazee, Peter Brown, Oliver Jeffers, Raul Colon, and Shadra Strickland) and Arthur A. Levine talked about the direction of the industry, about mistakes and moving on, and on art notes from writers and how aggravating those can be. (This came up more than once during the weekend.) Illustrators want to bring a different dimension to a project. One illustrator wanted to make the point that the writer and illustrator don’t collaborate. The words and pictures collaborate.

Nikki Grimes gave the closing keynote. As a poet, her process is very different. She usually starts with individual pieces (poems) and then ties them together. She approaches them like a jigsaw puzzle.

After the door prizes, I said a find farewell. The hotel staff continued to call us the children’s writers group and kept asking when we were coming back. Very soon, I hope.

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Stuck in the Middle

It often surprises me that blogging needs to have a structure. Actually, each new genre that I try my hand at has a structure. Who Middleknew? For example, a good picture book has a beginning, a middle, and an end – just like any other kind of story. It’s such a simple concept but so easy to forget.

So, I had some very good teachers along the way, some of whose names I don’t even remember. (Well, one of them just came to me, but let’s pretend I still don’t remember.) I credit my senior English teacher directly with getting me out of freshman writing in college.

I went in to take the pass-out test. I had no clue what to expect, but I wanted to give it a try. One of the possible topics was to pick a book and argue that everyone should read that book. (Okay, those who know me well know I’m still doing this exercise.) I felt like I’d struck gold. But the one thing that got me through it, with the nerves and all that, was my former English teacher in the back of my head saying, “Subject, number, and order.” He drilled it into us.

Quick English lesson for the uninitiated. Especially when writing an essay, you say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you said. In each section, you need to state your topics, how many points you will make, and in what order you will make them. Easy peasy, no?

Yeah, just about as easy as beginning, middle, and end. I feel I’m still working on my voice, (that may never end) but I do think I have a handle on this principle. The trick is remembering to watch for it with each story. Along with the tension, etc.  I’m not saying it’s never good to flaunt the rules. It’s just wise to have a reason for flaunting. I habitually get stuck in the middle, but I try not to panic.

I doubt I convinced anyone that day to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but I did learn how important basic principles can be. And, BTW, I need to plan my posts a little better.

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Voice – What Is It?

VoiceThe challenges went well, though I did let some of my weekly goals lapse a bit. I never did get back to my novel or my nonfiction book. I would like to share how the challenges fit together and furthered my quest for perfect stories.

Jan. 12 to 18 was Meg Miller’s ReviMo (http://www.megmillerwrites.blogspot.com/) and the first full week of the forum for 12×12 in 2014 (www.juliehedlund.com/12-x-12/). Combining these two was such a natural fit, it was a little scary.

Start the Year Off Write 2014 (www.shannonabercrombie/my-blog/) has been a blast. And I love how the prompts provided by the guest bloggers have made for some fresh ideas. I highly recommend any writing prompts you can find.

This week, I’ve had a dastardly chest cold and have not been as productive as I’d like.

The one thing I seem to need to work on the most is my picture voice. “What is voice,” you ask. Ah, that is the $64,000 Question. Voice is what I lost with my cold. Haha.

Ask even a veteran writer, editor, or agent what voice is and you will get, first, a blank stare. Then you get a statement like “I don’t know, but I know a good voice when I hear one.” Then you’ll get attempts at explaining it through examples. Seriously.

The closest the dictionary comes to an explanation is “a range of sounds distinctive to one person.” That’s a start, I guess. But it’s so much more than that. And I’ll let you know when I find mine.

The general public seems to have the idea that writing picture books is easy. Get an idea. Write it down. Fine, but good luck getting children to listen to it or read it. I’m full of ideas. Heck, I’m even full of imagination and humor, but putting that on a page is one of the most difficult undertakings ever. My humor tends to come out cynical and more than a little off the wall. Okay, off the wall might work, but kids won’t get the cynicism.

So, how do we solve this myriad of problems. Mostly by word choice. I’m not, in any way, suggesting that we need to talk down to kids. In fact, I never once talked down to my children. What I am suggesting is that you have to engage your audience. (I’m not convinced that children have shorter attention spans. They’re just interested in different things than adults. Some adults have NO attention spans.) If you can engage children with six-syllable words (discombobulated comes to mind), all the more power to you.

The most important thing: show don’t tell. One of my current sentences reads:

Made no sense the sandwich delivery guy never came inside with the bags.

Okay, that’s a little telling. How about:

When the delivery guy arrived, Robbie woofed his best play bark. Why did the guy drop the sandwiches and run? Silly guy.

Better, but I almost doubled the number of words, so there must be a better way. But that’s what I’m talking about. It’s a constant search for the right combination of words to get the point across while your audience is still awake. And if you think that’s easy, …

Here’s to finding your voice!

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Running Start on 2014

2014

.

So, after reflecting on 2013, my next step was to start making a plan for 2014. As with a lot of ideas that goal-oriented, it’s often advisable to break down the tasks into smaller increments and concentrate on one action at a time. Goals should be identifiable, quantifiable, and attainable.

Let me outline the goals I set for this past week and where they led me.

  1. Read and critique works of others. Check.
    • Read and reviewed a manuscript for a member of my online critique group.
    • Finished and reviewed Sarah Sullivan’s All That’s Missing. Highly recommended.
  2. Sign up for 12×12 in 2014 (www.juliehedlund.com/12-x-12/) Check.
    • Signed up for gold level and participated a lot on Facebook group.
  3. Begin other challenges. Check.
  4. Revise a chapter a day for novel. No.
    • Well, that was overly ambitious, but I did get through three chapters.
  5. Advance on all current picture books and start thinking about new ones. Check.
    • Two canine-related and the rhymey one
  6. Progress on nonfiction book. No.
    • Note to self: Only 24 hours in a day.
  7. Work on getting registration ready for regional conference in March. Check.
  8. ADDED: Pay attention to new opportunities.       Check.

I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot of details, but, again, there are only 24 hours in a day. Keeping track of all of this is helping me modify the goals for next week and make more plans. Hopefully, there’s some information in here that can be of help to other writers.

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Getting Down to Business

HappyNewYearWhere to start? Where to start?

As “they” say, it’s always best to start at the beginning.  And so, what the heck IS the beginning, considering I’m in the middle of a hundred different things?

I think “It was a dark and stormy night” is out.

So is “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

Even “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” is taken. Drat!

So, following the advice of several experts, including the incomparable Katie Davis(katiedavis.com), I decided first to take stock of my writer-related accomplishments of 2013. Hey, even I am impressed after writing it all down. No wonder I’m tired. (And this doesn’t even take into account that I had a bout of shingles in August.

  • In January, I began a major revision to my middle grade novel, my baby that I’ve been working on for years. I’m happy to say the first pass through is completely finished and now I’m adding scenes and polishing.
  • In March, Sue Peters and I took over as co-regional advisors for Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia SCBWI. I feel like I’ll find my sea legs by the time our term is up. It’s a big job. I did get the privilege of conducting a meet and greet in West Virginia. What a wonderful, talented group of people. Part of that was a sneak peek at Sarah Sullivan’s amazing debut novel, All That’s Missing.
  • In August, Sue Peters and I attended and worked at the LA conference of the SCBWI. If you ever get the chance to attend, do it! This community will blow you socks off. Support up the wazoo. So much information I can’t possibly absorb it all.
  • Also in August (Can you tell August was a big month?), I purchased a suite of book review websites, gradereading.net. Also still finding my sea legs on this.
  • In November, I participated in Picture Book Idea Month and came away with well more than 30 good ideas. And they’re still generating. Four of them are now rough manuscripts.
  • I read and reviewed 87 books, according to Goodreads.
  • I also continue work on a middle grade nonfiction book. I find having more than one project often keeps me from getting bored and lets some projects simmer when I get stuck.

So, what does all this mean?

  1. I can accomplish a lot if I keep myself organized.
  2. I’m learning a lot and always improving my skills.
  3. Goals, plans, and keeping organized are very, very important.
  4. 2014 is gonna be great!
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