Grace Lin on the Kidlitwomen Podcast

Grace Lin‘s books are gems, every one. Over the years, she has mined her own childhood for funny, upbeat stories that shed light on what it means to grow up Asian American.

   Artwork for Essay by Ellen WittlingerAnd now, with impeccably  rendered introductions charmingly bookended in kid voice, Grace has launched the Kidlitwomen Podcast. Here, via essays and interviews, she takes on ageism with Louise Hawes, librarian adoration of male writers with Kate Messner, intersectionality with Tracey Baptiste, editor gender bias with Ellen Wittlinger, women writers’ financial fears with Nancy Werlin, determining your own value with Emma Dryden, and more.

I’m looking forward to more. I am so grateful for these women who are speaking up about issues that matter in our field. Refusing invisibility–how much do I love that?

Thank you, Grace Lin!

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

Those were the words that led to Senator Jeff Flake’s spine suddenly kicking into gear, which in turn led to this week’s FBI investigation of the allegation by a decorous, professional, polite, restrained accuser, against an angry, outraged, arrogant, self-righteous candidate for the highest court in the land. Whatever might transpire, those spoken words remain. Look at me.

Important words. If you don’t look at me you are telling me that I don’t matter. If you don’t look at me, you are telling me you don’t care. But also, look at me and acknowledge that I have power. My words have power. They count. I count.

LookatmeIt’s no coincidence, I think, that the command, “Look at me,” so commonly used when an adult is speaking to an unruly child (so ludicrously appropriate when spoken to national leaders who have lost their collective way) is only a word and a punctuation mark removed from June Jordan‘s glorious poem, “Who Look at Me?”

Excerpt:

Who look at me?

Who see the children
on their street the torn down door the wall
complete an early losing
games of ball
the search to find
a fatherhood a mothering of mind
a multimillion multicolored mirror
of an honest humankind?

Say it out loud. Humankind–a word with depths of meaning from which we have strayed. The world could use a mothering of mind.

On Mentors and Mentoring, Part 3

Traci Sorell and Kathi Appelt responded to my inquiry about the role that mentoring played in their own lives and how they hope to pass the love along:

Traci Sorrell:

Traci+Sorell+Home+Photo.jpg

Photo by Kelly Downs Photography

I wouldn’t be a published author without mentoring. Fellow picture book authors, Ann Ingalls and Sue Lowell Gallion, both members of the SCBWI KS-MO region have been extremely supportive of my development. I met Cynthia Leitich Smith through social media and her guidance on navigating writing as a career has been equally invaluable.

I haven’t served as a writing mentor before, but I have mentored others in previous careers. Serving as a mentor gave me the opportunity to give back for all help I’ve received throughout my life. It reinforced an early lesson I learned about helping others coming behind you (in whatever field you are in) to navigate that journey. Also, it taught me to listen to what the mentee needed (which might not be what I needed as a mentee) and to connect them to the resources that would best help their growth and development.

I hope that by working with my WNDB mentee I’ll learn more about the person and their writing style and interests. I’m also interested in the human or personal connection with other creative folks in this business, so I look forward to how my knowledge base will continue to expand based on the mentee’s background, what they write and what they need most from me as a mentor.

And this from Kathi Appelt, whose exuberant energy and love of children’s books have kindled fires in many writers:

kathi-225x300.jpegWhen I was in the first grade, my teacher Mrs. Beall, looked me squarely in the eyes and said this wonderful thing:  “Kathi, when you grow up, I think you’re going to be a writer.”

She probably said that to every one of the first graders, that’s the kind of teacher she was. But when she said it to me, I had this overwhelming feeling of YES. It wasn’t so much that I intended to become a writer in the first grade. In fact, what I really dreamed of being back then was a cowgirl. But what Mrs. Beall did was plant a seed of possibility. First grade is all about possibilities, about the shape of what can be.

And I think that’s what a good teacher does—shows you the glimmers of what can be.

I’ve had many wonderful teachers, and each one of them has taken my hand and in their own distinctive styles, shown me what is possible.  This is what I aim for in my own work as a mentor, too. And who knows, maybe some day I’ll even become a cowgirl.  It could happen.

Are those not truths to carry in our hearts? The human connection. The glimmer of what can be. Thank you, Traci and Kathi!

See earlier posts on the WNDB mentoring program with contributions from Robin Stevenson, Alex GinoFrancisco X. Stork, Swati Avasthi, and JaNay Brown-Wood.

Note: This is not an official WNDB promotion but a reflection of my personal/professional interest in the program and in diversity in our field.

 

On Mentors and Mentoring, Part 2

More on the relationship of mentoring and writing from a couple more of the 2019 WNDB mentors, writers of distinction who care about books for young people.

Swati Avasthi:

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Photo credit: Anne Marsden

As a teacher at Hamline’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I’ve had the honor to mentor many writers.  Each time, I’ve gotten unexpected gifts:  the first look at an amazing manuscript, the knowledge my students have offered from expertise in their day jobs, a connection that outlives graduation, and most importantly, a sense that I am part of a larger community. I’m constantly rewarded, even though I can never anticipate in what form that reward will come.

I’m specifically excited about mentoring at WNDB because I’ve gotten to work with very few mentors of color as a writer over the years and none in my early years. But whenever, I get that chance, something powerful and honest stirs in my work, simply because I’m in a space free from the white gaze. By mentoring in WNDB, I hope to find more and more ways to create a safe and supportive spaces for a writer of color and continue to grow as a mentor. And who knows what other gifts and lessons mentoring will bring?

JaNay Brown-Wood:

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Photos by Tatsu

Something I’ve learned during my time in the children’s literature industry is that there are always more opportunities to learn from individuals at every level of the industry, no matter how seasoned of a writer you are. I think by serving as a mentor, it allows for me to reflect back and think about things I wish I would have known as I started writing, as well as think about tips that helped me along the way. Additionally, looking over someone’s work, critiquing it, providing feedback, catching things that the writer might have overlooked, and pushing them to improve their skills help me as a writer, too. Scrutinizing someone else’s work helps to remind me of best practices in the craft of writing. For example, am I taking my own critique advice in my work? Am I making sure my work includes scenes as opposed to telling? Do my characters sound like children, or adults in children’s bodies? Am I being particular in the words I choose? Is there a true narrative arc including a pressing conflict? These are each things I’ve mentored others with before, so they stay at the forefront of my mind as I write and revise my own work. Lastly, I hope to continue to fine-tune my own teaching and mentor skills so that I can mentor others in the future, leading them to feel excited and proud of the work they produce.

Thanks, Swati and JaNay!

See earlier post on the WNDB mentoring program, with contributions from Robin Stevenson, Alex Gino, and Francisco X. Stork.

Note: This is not an official WNDB promotion but a reflection of my personal/professional interest in the program and in diversity in our field.

On Mentors and Mentoring

Thoughts on the relationship of mentoring and writing from some of the 2019 WNDB mentors, all writers of distinction in the field of writing for young people.

Robin Stevenson:

20180606-20180606-_M8A1392.jpgWhen I started writing, I was on maternity leave and in my mid-thirties. I knew nothing about writing or publishing, so I reached out to the only author I knew- my friend Pat Schmatz. Pat gave me gentle, insightful feedback on manuscript after manuscript, asking perceptive questions about my characters and being curious about my stories-and in the process, helping me become a much better writer. I will always be so grateful for this generosity.

The WNDB mentorship program will be the first time I have served as a mentor in a formal arrangement, but I have been teaching and freelance editing for years. I love supporting other writers as they develop their manuscripts, and I always learn from it myself. I think that reading and responding to other people’s work helps me to view my own writing more critically— and having to articulate my ideas helps to further develop and clarify them. Working with writers as they take a first draft and transform it into a much stronger completed manuscript is inspiring: so much can be achieved in revision. It is always a good reminder to me not to give up on my own uncooperative first drafts! Best of all, I have made many wonderful friends, and have enjoyed watching former students become colleagues. I am very much looking forward to being a mentor for We Need Diverse Books in 2019.

Alex Gino:

alexpenbooklaunch-225x300.jpgHaving a mentor was critical for me as a writer. I don’t think my first book, George, would have been published without it. I had pushed myself through writing a first draft, which was a new accomplishment for me, and I had even gone through and looked for typos and better word choices. But I had no idea how to turn this pile of words into a cohesive story with a full arc divided into satisfying, chapter-size chunks. It was my dear friend, Jean Marie Stine, an amazing sci-fi editor and writer, who sat down with me page by page, looked at the structure of my story, and showed me where to push for me when I didn’t know where to go. I was (and am) extremely lucky to have Jean Marie in my life, but not every writer just happens to know a professional editor. I am delighted to now be able to mentor others through that mysterious process from completed draft to marketable manuscript.

Francisco X. Stork:

francisco_stork.jpgI didn’t have any writing mentors but I was fortunate in my life to have teachers who were willing to be friends with me outside of the classroom. These were individuals who were living with purpose and dedication to their work and their “mentorship” was really the life-example that they provided to me.

I have learned that the role of a writing mentor is not only  about providing feedback to the manuscript or in providing practical advice for publication.  The important part of being a mentor is to share with the mentee what it means to be a writer and the attitudes toward our work and the writing life that are harmful and helpful.

Each mentor-mentee relationship is different. Each is a dialogue and not a monologue,  so there will be growth on both sides.

More to come. Applications accepted in October 2018 for the WNDB 2019 mentorships.

Note: This is not an official WNDB promotion but a reflection of my personal/professional interest in the program and in diversity in our field.

WNDB 2019 Mentorships Announced

a1a3d5c0-e214-46fb-8a60-6b52c89d4cccBeginning in October, the We Need Diverse Books™ (WNDB™) Mentorship Program will accept applications for the program’s fourth consecutive year. The mission of the program is to support writers early in their career by pairing them with an experienced children’s author or illustrator.

A total of 11 applicants will be matched with mentors, in picture book text, middle grade fiction, young adult fiction, MG/YA nonfiction and illustration. Read more about the mentorship and application process on the WNDB™ website. For further information, contact co-chairs Miranda Paul and Meg Cannistra at mentor@diversebooks.org.
The 2019 WNDB™ mentors are an award-winning group of children’s book creators including Alex Gino, Swati Avasthi, Coe Booth, Traci Sorell, Francisco X. Stork, Robin Stevenson, JaNay Brown-Wood, Samantha Berger, Kathi Appelt, Marina Budhos, and Joyce Wan.
I invited the 2019 mentors to share some thoughts about their experiences with mentoring. Look for their responses here in the next few days.

A Textbook for the Study of Picture Books

Salisbury and StylesMore than halfway through 2018, I’m taking stock of my writing and teaching year. A novel draft half-done. A short story taking shape in my mind. Waiting for an editorial letter. Some travel. Some relaxation. It feels like a great balance.

The semester off from teaching stretches ahead, but I know it will rush past, so this is also a good time for a little advance planning.

I’ve agreed to teach the picture book semester when I return to Vermont College in January 2019, which reminds me that I need to decide on a common text, something that offers an overview of the form. I’ve looked at a few options and none of them is entirely satisfactory. Some are too market-driven, others offer formulaic paths to the intricacies of the form. One is brilliant, if dated–more on that in a minute.

And then there’s Children’s Picturebooks: the Art of Visual Storytelling by British academics Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles.

In my mind this book that offers a solid background to the picture book form wins hands down over the how-to manuals. While the historical section is arguably Eurocentric–where, for example, is Buddhist narrative art and Japanese scroll painting?– the account of contemporary books is optimistically international in scope, including American and British classics but also a number of titles that have gained recognition in Europe. My students will gain from thinking about how to extend this reading list by adding books in translation from Asia, South America, and Africa.

A chapter on how children respond to picture books offers an opportunity for questions and discussion. Material on the interplay of text and illustration will help writers find ways to decode the layers of meaning in picture books. Pictorial text, the widening of material deemed “suitable” for children, digital impact on art–these are all good places to begin a semester-long conversation about picture books.

I may still ask students to read the opening chapters of Uri Shulevitz’s Writing With Pictures and just skip the badly dated section on publication and production.  In all, however, Salisbury and Styles offer aspiring picture book writers a common vocabulary, a clear introduction to key concepts, and a contemporary framework for looking at this art form so central to children’s literature.

 

Writers Supporting Refugees in Canada

Writer and author of books for young readers  Robin Stevenson asked if I’d like to moderate a panel she’s putting together. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make that date, but the panel is in a cause that’s worth writing about and somehow it seems right to publish this post on September 11.Robin-Stevenson_event_08-30-18-Poster.jpg

20180606-20180606-_M8A1619.jpgI asked Robin to tell me more about her forthcoming event. Here is what she wrote:

Like many Canadians, I got involved in refugee sponsorship back in 2015, when the refugee crisis was headline news. Since that time, media interest has waned, but the number of refugees worldwide has continued to grow. Canadians have a unique opportunity to help: by joining with others to form sponsorship groups, we can help more refugees resettle in our communities. I’ve been a part of two groups sponsoring wonderful families who are now living here in Victoria, and I have started a third group—this one to sponsor an 18 year old girl who fled persecution in her country two years ago, and has been on her own as a refugee since. She is highly vulnerable in her current situation– we hope her case will be processed quickly so she can start a new phase of her life here in Victoria.

Part of the commitment of a sponsorship group is financial: the group commits to supporting the refugee for their first year in Canada. So we are fundraising. And because I am a writer who loves working with other writers, I am working with author and sponsorship group member Kari Jones to organize an event that combines our interest in refugee justice with our love for all things literary. It is called Pathways to Publication: Finding a Home for Your Children’s Book or Teen Novel, and it will take place Saturday October 27, in Esquimalt.

We will have two panels: one of successful authors— Susan Juby, Mahtab Narsimhan, Ria Voros and Laurie Elmquist–and one of professional editors of picture books, middle grade and young adult novels. There will be opportunities to ask questions and chat with the panelists. And there will be door prizes! You could even win the chance to get a chapter of your own manuscript critiqued by a published author.

Tickets are available on EventBrite. (link:  https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/pathways-to-publication-tickets-49233930010) I hope to see you there! And if you can’t come, but want to support this young refugee, please consider donating through our fundraising page. (link: https://chimp.net/groups/victoria-young-refugee-sponsorship-group) Every dollar gets us closer to our goal. Thanks so much!

And thank you, Robin, for those important thematic links of community and home–for writers, for the work they care about, and for these young people who have endured horrific circumstances and whose future now depends on the help and goodwill of strangers.

Guest Post: Susan Fletcher on Journey of the Pale Bear

Susan Fletcher‘s prose is glorious, and the history behind her middle grade novel, Journey of the Pale Bear (Margaret K. McElderry Books, October 2018) is fascinating. But the beating heart of this story is a deeply felt friendship between a boy and a bear, under circumstances both breathtaking and improbable. I asked Susan to write about how she built that relationship, how she made it so alive and so compelling.

journey-of-the-pale-bear-9781534420779_lgHere’s what she wrote:

It started with the bear.  I had read Daniel Hahn’s The Tower Menagerie and was taken with the exotic animals that lived in the menagerie in the Tower of London, beginning in medieval times.  And the animal that kept coming back to me was the bear, apparently a polar bear, a gift from the king of Norway.  The thing about the bear was…they let her out of her cage!  They let her swim and catch fish in the Thames River.  Though I was fascinated by many of the menagerie animals—the elephant, the leopards, the porcupine—it was the bear who captured my imagination.

As part of my research I contacted the Oregon Zoo, where I met, up close, the resident brother-and-sister polar bears: Conrad and Tasul.  Conrad (the male) was enormous (1500 pounds!), and had a commensurately big and goofy personality.  I really fell for Conrad.  But the polar bear in my book was going to be young, and young male polar bears are some of the most dangerous animals on the planet, making friendship with a boy unlikely.

I decided that my polar bear would be a female, maybe separated from her cubs, and that there would be a bit of mother-cub vibe between her and my protagonist, Arthur.  In fact, without realizing it, I had already put some of that vibe in the early drafts.   Right from the get-go, Arthur hums to the bear.  I found out later that polar bear cubs do a sort of humming thing with their mothers.  There was also an early scene where the bear reaches out a paw to make contact with Arthur.  I found out later that mother polar bears do this with their cubs.

So, what about Arthur?

He is a runaway, missing his mother, of course.  He is out of place in some way; he doesn’t quite fit the world in which he finds himself.  He is cut off from his family, unprotected.  I kept discovering echoes between Arthur and the bear.  They are both strangers in the world in which they find themselves.  They are isolated and lonely.  They long for freedom, and home.  In a way, they need each other.

In the 13th century, people didn’t feel as we do about animal rights.  I wanted Arthur to bond with the bear, but he still had to be a boy of his times.  One of the challenges of the book was to believably take Arthur from a place where a wild animal in a small cage is not a moral issue…to a place where he believes that caging this bear for the rest of her life would be cruel and wrong.

And finally, I thought about all the animals I have lived with and loved since childhood: a parade of dogs and cats and birds.  Somehow, without words, we understood one another.  We had relationships—friendships, actually—each unique.  So I tried to think, concretely, about how these friendships worked, and to bring that to the page, as well.

Susan, you do that and more. Congratulations on this beautiful book.

How Many More Ways Will America Fail Children?

Pashminacover-450x635In this Nib cartoon strip, graphic novelist and cartoon artist Nidhi Chanani shows us what it’s like to parent her mixed race child.

In Pashmina, Chanani fictionalized her own experience growing up in America with freshness, humor, and intensity. Her Nib reflection on life, language, and identity choices will feel familiar to many who are trying to raise children in an inclusive society.

Is that a vain hope? Because I think America was learning to be an inclusive society once, not so long ago, in an eight-year era that some apparently saw as less “hopey changey” than might be imagined. Maybe that whole hope change thing was delusional. Or maybe it’s just that democracy can be rigged and hijacked as much as any other system can and we’re watching a crook-in-chief do just that.

Still, I was moved by this New Yorker article by Dave Egger about a church in Connecticut that has decided to open its doors to immigrants seeking sanctuary. Moved for so many reasons. Here were fellow South Asians from Pakistan, whose troubles had all started with caste barriers in their homeland. Caste, I should add, is the identifier that makes me weep for my own people. Its horrific taboos have migrated from their source traditions into converts’ communities in South Asia, even when their adopted religions are supposed to abhor such differences. Moved as well because in the land where I arrived in 1979, immigrants were seen as welcome additions to society, not infestations to be removed.

The article quotes the Bible:

Here’s how Americans can do the right thing: first, more churches that, like the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, want to embody the words in the Bible—“Welcome any alien into your land, for you were once an alien in the land of Egypt”—can consider their roles in protecting families who have committed no crime other than wanting a safe place to live.

But the churches can’t fix the rigged and broken system. Voting might help but only if enough people with intelligence and honesty run for office, and tell me where the incentive is for that?

Finally where, I wonder, does all this leave the child in the church who just wants to play and go to school and be a child? Or Nidhi Chanani’s daughter, whose parents are trying to expand her linguistic world in the passionate belief that this will help her make sense of the real one?  What about the loosening of regulations that will put children’s health at risk? And how come a public shrugging of the shoulders has become the last word on those other children separated so recently from their parents at the border?

How many more ways will America fail children before something shifts?