Monday, August 30, 2010
There are wonderful books aimed at inspiring children to write and read. Now that school has started, I thought I'd share a bundle of titles that I've come across. Some of these books are useful during school visits. Others are wonderful classroom additions. All of them are visually appealing.
This list of recommended reads is full of color, humor, and story. The whole idea is to make writing fun for kids. Yes, even grammar and punctuation. If we can wrap Language Arts lessons into a positive experience, young writers are bound to blossom. But, these aren't only for elementary school kids. Writers of all ages can benefit.
THE PLOT CHICKENS by Mary Jane Auch, illustrated by Herm Auch (Holiday House, 2010) Henrietta loves to read so much she decides to write a book of her own. With the help of her three old aunties, she hatches a plot, gives her character lots of problems, and writes what she knows. But when Henrietta publishes her story, the critics say she's laid an egg! Is this the end of Henrietta's career as an author?
A BOOK by Mordicai Gerstein Once upon a time there was a family who lived in a book. All but the youngest had stories they belonged to--fighting fires, exploring space, entertaining in the circus--but she didn't have one yet. Walking through all the possibilities of story types Mordicai Gerstein presents her quest in unique and changing perspectives
SHOW; DON'T TELL: SECRETS OF WRITING by Josephine Nobisso's, illustrated by Eva Montanari (Gingerbread House, 2004) Innovative yet accessible writing strategies appropriate for both fiction and nonfiction are presented in this enchanting tale of a writing lion who holds court for a cast of animal friends. Aspiring writers learn the essential nature of nouns and adjectives and how to use them to express their individual visions so that they “show and don’t tell” every time. Writing lessons are cleverly integrated into a tale that incorporates a sound chip, a scratch-and-sniff patch, and a tactile object to engage the aspiring writer’s five senses in fun proofs.
S IS FOR STORY: A WRITER'S ALPHABET by Esther Hershenhorn, illustrated by Zachary Pullen (Sleeping Bear Press, 2009) What is a first draft? What is a writer's notebook? Authur Esther Hershenhorn uses the alphabet to help explain, explore and examines the tools, techniques and strategies for those hoping to live the literary life. Budding writers of all ages will be inspired to put pen to paper (or fingers on keyboards)!
THE PUNCTUATION STATION by Brian P. Cleary, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff (Lerner, 2010) All aboard! Join a family of giraffes on their journey to Punctuation Station. As the train chugs along, you'll learn the ins and outs of using periods, commas, apostrophes question marks, hyphens, quotation marks, and exclamation points!
WORDS ARE CATEGORICAL SERIES. Here's one title: SLIDE AND SLURP, SCRATCH AND BURP: MORE ABOUT VERBS by Brian P. Cleary, illustrated by Brian Gable (Lerner, 2009)One book is never enough to explore the wide range of verbs! The crazy cats deliver loads of additional examples to illustrate the power of both action verbs and linking verbs. **Different titles cover specific grammar points with humor. Nouns, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, antonyms, synonyms, metaphors and similes, conjunctions, etc.)
VOICES IN THE PARK by Anthony Browne (DK, 2001) Four different voices tell their own versions of the same walk in the park. The radically different perspectives give a fascinating depth to this simple story which explores many of the author’s key themes, such as alienation, friendship and the bizarre amid the mundane.
WHAT DO AUTHORS DO? by Eileen Christelow (Sandpiper, 1997) A sprightly text and colorful illustrations follow two creative people-and a talkative dog and cat-through the writing process step by step, from the inspiration for a story to the satisfaction of sharing the book with readers. Eileen Christelow based this instructive picture book on questions children asked during her classroom talks around the country. Simple enough for young children to understand.
THE BEST STORY by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf (Penguin, 2008) The best story is one that comes from the heart. The library is having a contest for the best story, and the quirky narrator of this story just has to win that rollercoaster ride with her favorite author! But what makes a story the best?
Her brother Tim says the best stories have lots of action. Her father thinks the best stories are the funniest. And Aunt Jane tells her the best stories have to make people cry. A story that does all these things doesn't seem quite right, though, and the one thing the whole family can agree on is that the best story has to be your own.
WORD AFTER WORD AFTER WORD by Patricia MacLachlan, (Katherine Tegen Books, 2010) Every school day feels the same for fourth graders Lucy and Henry and Evie and Russell and May. Then Ms. Mirabel comes to their class- bringing magical words and a whole new way of seeing and understanding. An honest story about what is real and what is unreal, and about the ways writing can change our lives and connect us to our own stories- word after word after word.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
School visits can be a lucrative way for authors to supplement their incomes while increasing name recognition among their most loyal followers: students and teachers.
But, what about pre-book-published authors? Will a school perceive “value” in a writer who doesn’t as yet have books published? I think the answer is an emphatic yes! Even more important is the value realized by the author.
To some people, it may seem like I was putting the cart before the horse in 2008, when I gave my first presentation. I didn’t have to go looking for the opportunity. My son’s elementary school teachers were well aware of my journey toward publication and they could see by my magazine and newspaper clips that I was a professional. I was quickly asked to speak with second graders about writing nonfiction. I was unbelievably nervous. Would the children fall asleep? Would they bounce off the walls? Could I come up with a presentation suitable for six and seven year olds that would inspire them and make the tiniest bit of sense? Would the teachers decide I was a great big fraud? In the end, we all had a glorious time. Smallish hands shot up with question after question. Ideas sprang from young minds. Teachers sent me thank you notes, with gracious praise.
Since then, I’ve spoken to first, second, third, and fourth grade classes. I’ve learned a lot during these presentations. Most importantly, we must always keep the kids’ ages in mind when we customize our talks. If you can get into the head of the particular age group, keeping a casual, friendly tone, you’ll earn yourself a gaggle of potential fans.
Oh, and as for money, I’m sure there are many differing opinions. Personally, I wouldn’t dream of charging my kids’ schools. At least not until my name graces the spines of books I can feature. I’m of the opinion that, while in the apprenticeship or intern stage of writing, we should look at the experience as just that. Experience. Think of it as Toastmasters with a tardy bell.
What I’ve learned as an Apprentice School Visit author
• Present yourself as a professional whose time is valuable.
• Avoid talking to classes right after lunch or at the end of the day if possible. The reasons are probably obvious.
• Customize your presentation in such a way that it complements what the teacher is covering in class. *talk with the teacher ahead of time.* If they are using the 6+1 writing traits, try to incorporate the points. If they are reading a particular book, read it in advance.
• Be interactive! Ask lots of open-ended questions. Popular TV Shows and books for the age group are loaded with writing lessons. Kids relate to what’s familiar to them and you’ll look “cool” for knowing them, too.
• Reward interaction. **In the spring, before speaking to a fourth grade class, the teacher gave me permission to distribute jolly rancher candies. The competition to earn the most candies was fierce. And my...ahem...distribution method kept them alert. (they were well warned that candies would be airborne.)
• Be dramatic and animated! Various media outlets ensure that kids are bombarded with drama. Engage your inner storyteller to draw them in. **When asked to talk to third graders about memoir, I chose a specific event in my own life and brought it to life, all in the hopes of encouraging the use of detail and senses in writing. I used a scuba diving trip as my example and practically acted the scenario out. The kids were riveted as I described my fear, the squeaky hot wetsuit, the sound of air through the respirator, the salty water, the current, the bubbles, the sudden urge to urinate, the sea snake.
• Use hands-on activities when possible. Second grade was studying sound waves while I was working on my book and article about Franklin’s glass armonica. While talking about the story of the invention, every child got a chance to play the musical glasses. So, curriculum became a part of my writing lesson.
• Have fun. Tap into your inner child and jump in the sandbox. Kids know when an adult is being less than sincere. Be a poster child for the pleasantries of writing.
• Thank your teachers and librarians. Share your business cards, email address, website URL, etc. And let teachers know about the projects your working on. When your book(s) finally does come out, you’ll have a built-in fan base.
* Post the resulting thank you cards and letters in a visible place to remind you why you write for children.
** By the time your book(s) come out, you'll be a seasoned presenter with the skills to wow any audience.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Creative Nonfiction is such a nebulous term. A genre still in its youth, we often hear it referred to as literature of fact, narrative nonfiction, or literary nonfiction. So what does it mean? What determines if a story is pure nonfiction or creative nonfiction? And when is the line crossed, making a book historical fiction? Ultimately, the answers determine where a book will be shelved in the local library.
Editor/ author Lee Gutkind describes Creative nonfiction as “dramatic, true stories that use scene, dialogue and close, detailed descriptions--techniques usually employed by poets and fiction writers--to examine and explore a variety of subjects...”
Let’s see if I can break it down even more.
Pure nonfiction informs and instructs, sticking to the facts
Creative nonfiction includes a/the story surrounding the facts by introducing place, scene, setting
Pure nonfiction describes the subject(s)
Creative nonfiction adds characterization so that the reader becomes involved and can relate to the subject.
Pure nonfiction is journalistic and scholarly
Creative nonfiction employs a literary voice-a tone- to the story
Pure nonfiction focuses on fact.
Creative nonfiction allows the reader to hear the author’s perspectives
Pure nonfiction is thoroughly researched
Creative nonfiction is thoroughly researched
Pure nonfiction never invents dialog, facts, or events
Creative nonfiction shouldn’t either- theoretically
As Susan Taylor Brown states, "If you want to teach young readers about the Irish potato famine, the rain forest, or even math, tell them a story. Tell an interesting tale about interesting people doing interesting things and readers come back for more, sometimes not even realizing they are reading about something that really happened. This is creative nonfiction."
Okay, so let’s turn back to the subject of nonfiction picture books, keeping in mind that the term “nonfiction” is generalized in children’s literature. That is, until an author like myself decides to pick it all apart and point out inconsistencies most visible when perusing library shelves.
Once again, I’ve chosen a select few picture books that I have on hand. Let me preface this by stating that all of these books are admirable and worthy and so are the various genres. Honestly, I'm all for presenting true stories to kids in whatever way works best to entertain the young readers, as long as we don't deceive them.
Today, I’m focused on the intricacies of classification and distinction.
GLOBAL WARMING by Seymour Simon (Harper Collins, 2010)
Marketed and shelved as nonfiction, right where it belongs.
A classic example of pure nonfiction, this book is loaded with wonderful information. Opening questions in the text offer a promise of what the reader will learn “Why is the climate changing? Could Earth be getting warmer by itself? Are people doing things that make the climate warmer? What will be the impact of global warming? Can we do anything about it?
FACE TO FACE WITH MANATEES by Brian Skerry, (National Geographic, 2010)
Marketed and shelved as nonfiction.
“You’ll learn all about these sea cows- and about the threats to their world and what you can do to protect it.”
OLD ABE, EAGLE HERO: THE CIVIL WAR’S MOST FAMOUS MASCOT by Patrick Young, illustrated by Anne Lee (Kane Miller, 2010)
Marketed and shelved as nonfiction.
The true story reads almost like fiction with great "show-don't-tell" details. “Old Abe was very brave in battle. He jumped up and down on his perch and screamed at the enemy.” “As the soldiers crept near the enemy, Old Abe whistled. He was warning his friends that a stranger was close by.”
STRONG MAN: THE STORY OF CHARLES ATLAS by Meghan McCarthy (Knopf, 2007)
Marketed and shelved as nonfiction
The true story of how small Italian immigrant, Angelo Siciliano, overcame bullies’ taunts to become a famous bodybuilder and promoter of fitness and exercise. Like Old Abe, this story is wonderfully "showing." “Angelo was frustrated. He needed to think, so he went to his favorite thinking place- the zoo. There, he spent hours watching the animals. That’s when he noticed a lion stretching.” “Eureka! Angelo came up with a fitness routine.”
*There are a few lines of dialog that are not clearly attributed to Atlas’ documented words. If they are indeed invented dialog, can this title truly be classified as nonfiction? Hmm!
Fiction / Historical Fiction
FANNIE IN THE KITCHEN by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Atheneum, 2001)
CIP denotes this as fictional account, but the book is shelved in the nonfiction section (biography.) Even the jacket flap indicates liberties taken with the facts, but kids will assume it's all true because of the nonfiction label.
“Here’s the story “from soup to nuts”-delightfully embellished by Deborah Hopkinson- of how Fannie Farmer invented the modern recipe and created one of the first and best loved American cookbooks.” It is indeed a delightful story, but is it worthy of nonfiction status? I dunno about this one.
THROUGH THE TEMPEST DARK AND WILD: A STORY OF MARY SHELLY, CREATOR OF FRANKENSTEIN by Sharon Darrow, illustrated by Angela Barrett
by Sharon Darrow (Candlewick, 2003)
From Book-List- This fictionalized picture-book biography focuses on the stormy adolescence of the nineteenth-century woman who wrote Frankenstein.
Marketed as fiction but shelved in nonfiction (biography)
A riveting and revealing story, but does it belong in the nonfiction section?
Ultimately, I think there's a place for all three genres as long as we're honest with kids about what is fact and what is fiction. A few questions come to mind as I pay closer attention to these kid-lit nonfiction sub-genres.
1.) Will kids assume fictionalized details are true if a book, with invented dialog and events, is classified as nonfiction? Is that fair to young readers?
2.) How do libraries make the shelving decisions between fiction and nonfiction? (I think it's time to invite some librarians to this discussion.)
3.) On the author front, which is more marketable today, creative nonfiction or historical fiction? (any editors or agents of kid-lit nonfiction in the blog house?)
4.)Do apprentice authors worry too much about fitting into one or the other?
Want to read more about the Creative Nonfiction genre? Check out some of these great Resources.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
I love writing retreats. Scratch that...I need writing retreats.
As a busy, involved mother married to a husband with a very big job, requiring long hours, home is riddled with responsibility for me. I write at the same desk I pay bills from. My deadlines rest on the same calendar with doctor's appointments, PTA meetings, volunteer commitments. Even with a home office with a closing door, my attention is pulled in countless directions, especially during the summer.
A few years ago I recruited my BFF, author Carmen Oliver, to embark on the first of, what would be regular writing retreats. We bid farewell to our families and hit the road. An hour west, in the heart of central Texas, we set up residence in my family's waterfront lake house. We knew then, as now, that much of our time will be spent ignoring each other- split up on opposite ends of the property. Immediately, my blood pressure drops and the quiet envelops me like a warm blanket. There is, purposely, no internet connection. The TV is kept silent. Chocolate flows. I am always amazed at how productive I am on retreat.
Maybe it's the natural setting that drops ideas into my lap like leaves falling from the trees. Or the motion of the water, bubbling to the surface and flowing ever forward. Or the surprising squirrel muse that inevitably appears to remind me to keep it real. Senses come alive, distractions evaporate, and the story lands on the page.
Since that first retreat, more author friends have joined us for writing weekends. Cynthia Leitich Smith, Julie Lake, Bethany Hegedus, Jane Anne Peddicord, Erin Edwards, Shana Burg, to name a few. In fact, check out Cynthia's recent retreat post about our latest outing, where she made huge progress on her graphic novel adaptation of Eternal.
You don't need a lake house to organize a retreat. Be creative. Choose the kind of setting that inspires you most, away from your normal writing environment.
Here's what our typical retreat schedule looks like:
Day 1- Typically Friday afternoon- Arrive and settle in. This is social time. Over dinner we chat and get comfortable with the surroundings. Often, we end the evening talking about what we're working on. Sometimes, we keep it to ourselves.
Day 2- Come together for breakfast 8:00-8:45. Everybody retreats to his/her desired writing spot.
12:00-1:00pm Come together for lunch. Retreat.
6:00pm Come together for dinner. We generally go out to a cozy restaurant and relieve the pressure from a long day with a glass of wine or some such. When we return, we share what we've written that day, or open a discussion about a story issue plaguing us. Sound boarding is ever so helpful and friends are generous with support.
Day 3- Breakfast 8:00-8:45am - Retreat.
12:00-1:00 Lunch. Last chance to share. Retreat.
5:00pm- Pack up and head home with stacks of completed manuscript pages in hand.
What are you waiting for? Retreat! Retreat!
Oh, and if you're interested in renting this lake house for your own writing retreat, shoot me an email. We give discounts to SCBWI members.
Sunday, August 8, 2010
It was bound to happen.
I spent three years, fifty rewrites, nine hundred miles to research, and countless dollars preparing, what I was certain, would be my book debut, the first kid-lit book on my chosen subject. Even the interested agent was anxious to finally see the end product, after suggesting I rewrite the original chapter book as a picture book. Arggh! As a final stage, I hired a fantastic writing coach/editor to help me put the spit-shine on the manuscript. Deadline to her, next week. Then, out of the blue, it happened.
Our local kid-lit angel, Cynthia Leitich Smith, had the misfortune of informing me that somebody beat me to it. A new book on my subject had just been released, by an award winning author no less. GAAAASP! My heart began to race. My palms turned balmy. I was close to hyperventilating. A profound sense of violation struck me. I had been robbed! The story had been hot-wired and ripped from my very soul. Not fair! This is MY story!!!
I had kept vigilant watch for any competition indicated by Publishers Marketplace, Google, Horn Book, Library contacts, etc. And, according to state archivists, I was the only kid-lit writer to dive into white-gloved research on the primary sources. So, hearing the news threw me for a nauseating loop. How had I missed this?
I sank into a self-declared pity party for the remainder of the day, while the inevitable questions plagued me. Have I wasted the last several years on this project I’m so passionate about? Is there still room for my book? While wallowing in my despair, I turned to my critique group and writerly friends. So many of them shared similar experiences, with fiction and nonfiction. They were encouraging and sympathetic and hopeful.
The harsh reality for all writers is that there could be numerous people churning out manuscripts about the same nonfiction topic. Or with similar characters or plot lines as your novel. We know, intellectually, that we do not own exclusive rights to our subjects or ideas. It wasn't my rational mind reacting to the news. It was my heart.
I reeeaally wanted to hate this competing book, so it pains me to admit that it’s quite lovely and admirable. Dagnabbit! So, this weekend has been dedicated to reevaluation. What will I do with my manuscript? How do I process this experience?
#1 Utilize my picture book text-only study format to recreate the author’s manuscript.
(new book is historical fiction with invented dialog. Mine is nonfiction)
#2 Evaluate the content differences between the new book and my manuscript
(We chose similar events, but I have oodles of additional options.)
#3 Evaluate my angle, focus, theme.
#4 Reconsider intended readership.
(new book is for ages 4-8, so I should go for older readers.)
#5 Hit the library. Check out multiple kid-lit books on Darwin, for example, to make note of how each stands out. Gobs of these titles came out this year alone.
#6 Believe that there IS room for my book, if the approach is unique and compelling.
#7 Be grateful that my book didn’t come out simultaneously against this award winning author.
#8 Remember that, even if the book never publishes, the experience has been worth it.
#9 Stop beating myself up for not being quick enough.
#10 Remember, if Cinderella was invited to enough balls, eventually another maiden would show up in the same gown. Writing is no different. It's a matter of choosing unique accessories that stand out from the rest.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
My last blog post pointed to the need for authors of picture books to omit physical descriptions as much as possible to allow the illustrator to paint that part of the story. One of the best ways to learn to write with that in mind, is to read existing picture books critically. That's difficult to do, because the illustrations are already there, like a second very attractive narrator, drawing your eyes away from the words. Take a little time to narrow down picture books you think are worthy, then separate the text from the art. No scissors, shrouding paper, or hypnosis required.
Purchase the picture books you admire and type the texts out in a word document. Basically, you're recreating the author's manuscript. You'll now have the before and after version of the book. I'll pause for just a moment to remind everyone that authors get paid by royalties and kind words, so please approach this exercise as a study tool only. And don't hesitate to show your appreciation by recommending their books.
I have a folder full of these kinds of text pages that I've used to study everything from pacing, language, page turns, tone, length, etc. It has been a complimentary education to the countless workshops and conferences I've attended. Attached is the general format I use.
My goal in studying the picture books I most admire, is to identify common patterns and to zero in on the characteristics of each book that works well. Make note, though, that there is no substitution for writing, writing, writing.
Sunday, August 1, 2010
Pictures + Story = Picture book. Sounds easy, right?
Writers hear it all the time.” Show don’t tell.” Paint images with your words so that the reader visualizes the characters, the setting, the detail. There’s nothing better than picking up a novel or chapter book with such vivid language that the reader feels he/she is walking in the character’s shoes. But, what about picture books?
My previous posts have spoken to the need for picture book texts to be very short, partly because the attention span of the intended audience is limited. But, even more importantly, picture books are, by nature, visual. One of the biggest challenges for picture book writers is to limit visual details in the text and allow illustrators to work their magic. It feels awkward not to "show" in our writing. Let's face it, illustrations can offer much more detail about the settings than the limited word count will allow for the writer. And, when the subject is nonfiction, the duty of historical accuracy is shared by both parties. When done well, the marriage of art and text is fulfilling, and rich, and whole. And, the contextual depth of illustrations almost always add to what the reader learns.
I recommend studying ALA Caldecott titles. In fact, you'll see that I've featured a few winners in previous posts. Today, though, I've chosen a few more excellent examples. You'll notice that I've chosen titles with historical subjects, simply to show somewhat extreme relevance.
Study these and other nonfiction picture books, paying attention to how little visual information appears in the text. How many words would have been required to write the visual detail? Could words alone do justice? Remember, picture book audiences are drawn to the pictures.
14 COWS FOR AMERICA written by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez (Peachtree, 2009)
In 1324 words, the author uses a poetic tone to introduce the Masaii people of Kenya and the touching gift they bestowed on America, following the World Trade Center tragedy of 9/11/2001. The story is powerful and telling. But, the illustrations bring context to the world so foreign to most readers. Would the story be the same without seeing the African landscape, tribal clothing, Maasai faces, the attachment to the revered cattle? Imagine how long the text would have been had the author written these visuals into the text. Would the words have been as powerful as the images? As fulfilling as the illustrations are, this book is a great example of how images add depth and contrast. In this case, the poor, humble people of Africa bestowed their most beloved symbol of life on the richest nation in the world. The story has to be seen to be truly felt.
GOLIATH: HERO OF THE GREAT BALTIMORE FIRE written by Claudia Friddell, illustrated by Troy Howell (Sleeping Bear Press, 2010) 1594 words
The author's storytelling technique capitalizes on the drama of the 1904 inferno that threatened to destroy the city of Baltimore. The text is full of suspense and action as fire horse, Goliath, charges through the flames to deliver Hale Water Tower No. 1, then pulls his team to safety after becoming trapped between burning buildings.
Troy Howell likewise capitalizes on setting the scene and introducing readers to the visual phenomenon of fire horses, and the water wagons that preceded the modern fire truck by centuries. But the illustrations do more than snap a picture. Readers see the flames, feel the heat, and witness the facial expressions of the firefighters on the scene. As the illustrator "shows" the story, the reader feels the story, while learning something at the same time.
LEONARDO'S HORSE, written by Jean Fritz, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (Putnam & Sons, 2001) 2632 words
Perhaps my favorite title by Ms. Fritz, this book offers a fabulous peak into Leonardo da Vinci's inspiration for and journey toward the completion of his famed bronze horse. With surprising twists and turns, the story is full of dramatic interruptions and a surprise outcome for da Vinci.
Hudson Talbott approached the illustration process as da Vinci would have commissioned it. With thoroughly researched detail. The first visual draw to the book is the unique shape of the very book. What is striking about the illustrations, is how much more the reader learns about this historical figure. The backgrounds are infused with, what appear to be da Vinci's sketches, drawings, designs. By giving visuals to da Vinci's thoughts, dreams, and fears, the illustrator has expanded on the author's text to show da Vinci as the brilliant, complex, multi-talented, visual dreamer he was. One of the final spreads in the book offers a visual of the sheer size of the completed bronze horse, with a speck of a man adding final touches to the statue's back.
POMPEII: LOST & FOUND, written by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Bonnie Christensen (Knopf, 2006) 1446 words
The author of the famed Magic Tree House series stretches her writing muscles with this great introduction to the lost city of Pompeii. The story takes readers from day-to-day life of Pomepeii residents, almost 2,000 years ago, to the devastating burial of the town as Mount Vesuvius blows. But the story doesn't end until archaeologists put the historical pieces together. This is a classic case of a tragic story of yesteryear proving "cool" history for today's young readers.
Bonnie Christensen approached the illustrations by first adopting an art style befitting the setting. Even non-artists like me can appreciate the ancient Italian feel of the frescoe art, which was popular thousands of years ago. The images feel old and worn, promising a peak into the past. A great way for young readers to get a feel for a story so distant in both time and geography.