Building a Personal Reading List

faqsSome time ago, I got an email from reader Maxwell Shea who came across my FAQ lists and had additional questions. I’m posting my replies here, since they may be of interest to others as well.

Admittedly those FAQ lists are old and in need of updating, but that will have to wait until I have time on hand. Me and time, we’re constantly at odds.

Anyway, here we go:

MS: You said to try to read mostly newer books when getting a feel for how to write for children, but I don’t quite understand why you might say that, other than to say don’t try to copy other famous books.

UK: Well, here’s the deal. If you are submitting to today’s publishers, you’re just going to have to read a representative number of today’s books, to see where your voice is going to fit into the conversation. It’s not about copying someone else’s work, but rather understanding the range of subjects and sensibilities currently found in publishing catalogs, so you can figure out where the gaps exist that you and only you might be able to fill. Aside from gauging the field for submission purposes, I think a writer for young readers should read widely and deeply, across the age ranges, across the decades and also across borders of geography and culture. I tell my students that in each month’s bibliography they should read at least one book published before they were born, and one or two books published outside North America.

Nothing can replenish a writer’s wordbag like reading, so read generously. Learn to read critically. Write an annotation for every book you read, looking not for what you like and dislike but what you can learn from that book. If you want to write in a particular form (picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels), start reading now. Read 50 books before you try to write one. Read to see how others do the work you are seeking to do.

MS:Wouldn’t a voice with fresh ideas and some skill be equally at home finding inspiration in the richness of the early 70s as well as what’s on the bookshelf today? In fact, I actually am disappointed in a great deal of the new books I read when I go to a bookstore. There must be an insatiable demand for cuteness. I know there must be many more good books being published than I see at bookstores. I just can’t see how reading new books, whether as an adult would-be writer or as a child would be an improvement over a similarly rich bench of books from 40-50 years ago.

UK: We do have an amazing artistic history in our field, so sure, draw on whatever inspires you but remember that you can’t compete with books that are deemed classics, for one good reason. Those books are still around. Unlike in adult literary writing, where today’s writers aren’t competing with the giants of decades past, the nostalgia factor in the sale of children’s books is huge. I also think it’s a paradox of the art we work in that if we want to write something that endures, we must write the stories that matter to us and will resonate with children in a world that is vastly different from that of the 1970s. The word, in Paulo Freire’s terms, must connect the reader and the world.

Finally, don’t be too quick to write off today’s writers based on the overflow of cuteness on shelf at your local bookstore. If you can’t find indie bookstores with informed children’s/YA staff (and I know they’re scarce in many communities) scour library shelves instead. Get to know your local children’s and YA librarians. Read review journals and the many blogs that offer information and opinions on current books. Start making your own lists of books that speak to you, books that extend your thinking, books that make you want to read more, and books that make you want to write.

From Sea to Sea to Sea: Celebrating Indigenous Picture Books

I began reading this newsletter from IBBY Canada with interest. I noted titles to pass along to students in the winter/spring 2019 VCFA picture book intensive. I read about authors and illustrators. And then, to my delight, I began to recognize names and titles and to find my own connections.

mancalledraven-233x300First, this passage on Tlicho First Nation writer Richard Van Camp‘s books. The story of Children’s Book Press and of Harriet Rohmer’s mission to give voice to many cultures and peoples is part of the history of children’s books in the United States. Two of my own picture books have remained in print thanks to Lee and Low’s acquisition of CBP’s list. But back to Richard Van Camp. Look at this account of what ensued when Harriet called Richard asking if he had anything to send her:

Richard said: “Yes, I do have something …” and pulled out the manuscript for The Man Called Raven, which he had written at a workshop. Richard sent it down to San Francisco page by page from the fax machine at Home Hardware in Fort Smith — at a cost of $4.20.

Page by page. A fax machine. Richard’s creative response to Harriet’s next invitation is well worth reading as well.  Laughter and inventiveness surely lead to the building of bridges.

In comments reported from Project Co-Chair & Author Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis (Nipissing First Nation) I found yet another connection:

One of the first children’s books that Jenny remembers liking in her early days as an educator was Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2000), published in the US. Jingle Dancer is about a young girl who wants to dance in the upcoming powwow, and how the strong women in her life — her aunt, her neighbour, her cousin and her grandmother — each contribute a row of jingles to her dress. Jenny says about the book: “The imagery and lessons of Jingle Dancer showed the dignity of the characters — and really portrayed a positive community experience. It was a story that I often shared with young people whose history was fractured due to acts of colonization. This story offered children an opportunity to reflect on history and begin their own journey to heal and reclaim their culture.”

It has been my delight over many years to cross writing and teaching paths with the multi-talented Cynthia Leitich Smith who has been my writing and teaching colleague for years and whose work has shaped our field in important ways.

From board books to picture books for older readers, From Sea to Sea to Sea is a catalogue of 100 of the best picture books created over the past 25 years by Indigenous authors. The full catalogue is available here. What an opportunity for young readers everywhere to find and make connections.

 

The Unnatural Beauty of Flowers

L1090614.jpg

Lupins blooming near Lake Tekapo, South Island, NZ

“Lupines” are a collection of several annual or perennial herbaceous plant species belonging to the pea family. They are native to North and South  America and the Mediterranean basin. One species, the Oregon lupine, is threatened in its upland prairie habitat.

But the lakeshores of New Zealand are not the natural home of these dramatically beautiful flowers. In New Zealand, the flower does more than drop the “e” from its name. Lupins burst into explosions of bloom along the shores of New Zealand’s Lake Tekapo and on the lower slopes of Mt. Cook. They provide feed for the ubiquitous sheep. They look glorious and few travelers would even stop to think if they belong there, let alone wonder what native plants they’re crowding out.

I am reminded of the iconic children’s picture book, Miss Rumphius, among whose charming elements are those lupines. I’ve had a few quibbles with other elements of the book, especially with the spreads in which Miss Rumphius travels the world and meets the “Bapa Raja” of an unnamed tropical isle. Why exactly, I wonder, did he take her into his house and serve her himself? Why did he give her a shell on which he’d painted the words, “You will always remain in my heart?” Would the king of a tropical island do this as a matter of course for some foreign lady who walked up and down his beach pocketing the shells? Honestly, study this closely and it could be a 4-page history of the colonial experience!

But I’ve never wondered about those lupines. Until today.

It turns out that scattering the seeds of gloriously prolific flowering plants is only one way in which we humans have shaped the planet, and not always for the better. There’s a whole science now of invasion ecology because “biological invasions impact everything from ecosystems to commercial enterprise and human health.”

The New Zealand Department of Conservation maintains that thick stands of invasive Russel lupin negatively impact the “habitat of threatened braided riverbed birds such as wrybill/ngutu parore, black stilt/kakī and banded dotterel/tūturiwhatu.”

 

Sorry, Miss Rumphius. The lupines are beautiful, no question. But was that a good idea? And what grew on that bare hill that those flowers choked out?

Reality, Fiction, and Why I Keep on Writing

The post that follows first appeared on author-illustrator and long-time e-mail friend and colleague Elizabeth Dulemba‘s blog. I got to meet Elizabeth in person when I spoke at Hollins University’s Francelia Butler Conference last year.

I’m reposting this piece here because I need to keep these things in mind as we embark upon a new year and the world seems to be plunging into ever greater chaos and cruelty. 00-01-ladyliberty

(More about Elizabeth Dulemba’s Lady Liberty poster here.)

It’s not always easy being a writer. A lot of people don’t get what I do. Many confess they’d love to write a children’s book. What they mean is that they don’t think it’s that difficult and so they’d love to be, not writers, but the authors of published books. It’s the product they’re after—the bright, glossy picture books, the cute middle grade jackets with smiley kid faces on them. Who wouldn’t want their names on books for young readers?

I’ll bet those same people would retract their wishes double-quick if I offered them a day at my desk. Working alone—four hours at a stretch without another human being to speak to face to face. A day spent writing 1,000 words and throwing out 500 of them. Facing the 15th revision of a novel and knowing I’m not there yet. Tossing out the picture book idea that has no traction, after spending months trying to wrangle it onto the page. And we’re not talking yet about fielding rejection letters.

So why do I write, other than for the inescapable reason that if I didn’t, I’d be unemployed?

I write because I have to. Because as a child growing up in India, I didn’t see myself in any of the books I read, so it took me until I was thirty-one and a new mother to figure out that real, live people could write children’s books. I write because the stories keep bubbling up. I only write the ones that won’t leave me alone, and there are still enough to keep me going for the rest of my days.

Sometimes I write in order to tell clear and simple truths. Out of the Way! Out of the Way! is the picture book story of a boy who takes a single, simple action, enables a tree to grow, and becomes witness to his changing community. No action, no tree.

Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh came from my interest in the stories of so-called “Mexican Hindu” families of California’s Yuba City and Imperial Valley. It began as an intellectual exercise and only became a story when I gave up authorial control and let the character lead the way. For example, I didn’t plan at first for the story to involve softball, but as I wrote successive drafts, that became inevitable. What sport would a girl pick, when what she longed for, above all, was to be recognized as American? I didn’t have a choice. That story led me to meet with descendants of those early Punjabi immigrants in Yuba City, to walk around Yuba City with a 1945 map in my hand, trying to see the place as it might have been.

In Book Uncle and Me, nine-year old Yasmin means to read a book a day for the rest of her life. When her supplier is threatened, she needs to take her nose out of her book and do something. There’s an election going on—isn’t that how things change in the real world? But wait—kids can’t vote. But then again, they have a voice. And they should use it, because sometimes grownups just can’t see sense.  I don’t say that last part in the book but I sure hope that kids get that subtext. I hope the readers of this book will grow up to be adults who vote, who keep an eye on their communities, who care about fixing corruption and unfairness in the world.

Let’s face it, the world is as beautiful or cruel a place as we humans make it. These days, there are times, especially when I turn on the news, that I’m just about ready to give up on humankind—our collective indolence, fear of powerful bullies, refusal to stand up for what’s right, the instinctive refuge we take in self-interest and self-preservation. But I also see stories of people who are brave and kind and generous and refuse to accept that cruelty and injustice are inevitable—people who put their own lives on the line for freedom and justice, or who volunteer their time and expertise in dangerous places, to help those who need it most.

And me? I write. And maybe, through my writing, I work on conveying a worldview that values hope and justice and fairness. If a book of mine validates child readers, if it helps to make them believe that a tree matters, if it shows them to speak out against unfairness, or imbues them with the will to make a difference—well then, I’ve done my job. I may not live to see that new and improved world for myself, but my readers might. Maybe some of them will even be instrumental in creating it.

 

A Wordless Dance of a Picture Book

waltz-of-the-snowflakes-cover.jpgIf you’re a fan of wordless picture books, Elly MacKay’s Waltz of the Snowflakes lends itself to conversation with a child reader.

Or to a cozy turning of pages with a grownup page-turner and an attentive child listener, set to the  music of the titular waltz itself.

Layers of story, the gradually shifting emotions and the progression of color in the book give writers a way to access the illustrator mind–an essential kind of thinking if you want to write a picture book.

In Praise of Words

book1-large.jpgbook2-large.jpgAnu Garg founded Wordsmith in  1994.

I was a newbie writer. The Internet was new to me, and I learned to access e-mail (another new concept) in tortuous ways that involved typing in lines of code and holding my breath until the messages came through. Anu’s daily messages featuring words and their origins were a thrill to receive. A Word A Day has cheerfully navigated all kinds of platforms–listserv, a web site, three bestselling books.

The New York Times called the daily word e-mails “the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace.”

Subscribe and feel the word-love with  A Word A Day arriving predictably in your inbox, charging you up. Metanoia at its best.

Building Community through Reading and Art

IMG_2483.jpgLast weekend, I had the privilege of receiving the FOCAL award for my middle grade historical novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh. The award is given by the Friends of Children and Literature, a group that was founded in 1979. Its founding was a radical act. LA Public Library was considering doing away with the children’s section and the group was formed to raise awareness of children’s books in the community and to bring families from all over the area to the library for reading related programs, including puppet shows. Membership has grown from a dedicated group of twenty volunteers to hundreds of participants. Their energy and vision was evident at the award luncheon.

Maria puppet.jpgFor starters, the award is a puppet. Yes, that is correct. This puppet, my main character, Maria. I got to meet the puppet-makers, Jesse Kingsley and Moira Lael Macdonald.  For each year’s award, the organizers commission two puppets. One goes to the author of the winning book, the other resides in the library in a special cabinet dedicated to the nearly four decades that the award has been given to exemplary books with California content. Susan Patron, David Klass, Beverly Cleary–my book was in the best company!

Then there were the essays. I sat at a table with the young writers of three winning essays about my book. They got to read their essays out loud. Each one was touching, genuine, personal, and keenly voiced in the way that only children’s writing can be. So that’s two art forms–puppetry and nonfiction writing–threaded into the afternoon.

A third artistic creation was on each table–a centerpiece lovingly designed and crafted by students from  L1090031.jpgNobel Middle School. Each depicted the same scene from the book, all the details drawn from a careful reading. I got to meet the readers–Dylan, Enna, Allison, Miranda, Yume, and Eliana– who created the center pieces, along with Ray Moszkowicz, the art teacher who has adopted this project.

So thank you, FOCAL President Caroline Gill and the award committee. I learned so much by being a part of this year’s luncheon. This wasn’t just about one book. It was about weaving creative thinking into a year-long process. It was about the building of community.

 

Images of Home in Three Picture Books

What it is about us humans that we keep longing for home? Wherever we are is never quite it. Home is always some far place, or in a time long ago, or even just a dream in the heart.

From Groundwood Books, here are three picture books, each addressing the notion of home in a very different way.

MalaikasWinterCarnival.jpgIn Malaika’s Winter Carnival, Mummy is marrying Mr. Frédéric. Suddenly Malaika not only has a new sister, Adèle, but has to move to a different country. Here’s a fresh twist on the immigrant story that raises questions of what constitutes home. Look at  how very strange Malaika’s new country is! It’s cold, for one thing, and people speak with a “different talk.” For another, the new sister “kiss me two sides of my face,” a little gesture that leads us to the setting—Quebec, where people speak French. A gentle resolution results in this child-centered story.

Onlyinmyhometown.jpgKisimi Taimaippaktut Angirrarijarani/Only in My Hometown by Angnakuluk Friesen, illustrated by Ippiksaut Friesen (they’re sisters), is a bilingual book with three fonts. How can that be, you ask? It was written in English and translated into Inuktitut (the Aivilik dialect). The Inuktitut language is represented in two fonts–syllabics and transliteration into roman script. And the illustrations–how fantastic is this?–were painted with watercolor and acrylic on elephant poo paper. Yes. That is correct. I thought I was seeing things too, because the book opens with these words: “Sitting on the elephant…” Elephant? In the frozen north? You have to read the book to understand this particular and heartfelt evocation of home.

 

bitterandsweet.jpgIn Bitter and Sweet by Sandra Feder, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker, Hannah doesn’t want to move, but her father has a job in a new town. Hannah’s grandmother tells her there are bitter and sweet parts to change. As the move becomes reality, Hannah keeps trying to find the sweet parts, and with each new spread, even as she opens up to hope, the sweetness keeps eluding her. The chocolate “ptooey” page is especially charming. The story circles naturally around with Hannah’s phone call to her grandmother, arriving at a final turn of understanding and resolution.

Childhood is a place of emotion barely understood but deeply felt, and in a different way, each of these books captures the fresh new feelings of a young life, newly lived.

 

One Book, One Community: A Welcome Choice at a Critical Time

OneBook_March2018-683x1024.jpgI was more than pleased to see the 2018 selection of  March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell as the community’s One Book at San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico. It felt like a welcome choice for so many reasons.

It was a comic book that influenced the young John Lewis, at a time when comic books were largely viewed as evil influences upon the young. Aydin writes about this in his article on the historical context of March:

Congress, never one to miss a bandwagon, held its hearings on the connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency.

Then, as now,  Congress seemed to have kind of missed the point of what will count as progress in the relentless sweep of history.

In our time, the unthinkable has happened. This from the New Yorker:

Literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses, once the most common mechanisms for disadvantaging minority voters, have been consigned to the history books, but one need look no further than the governor’s race in Georgia to see their modern equivalents in action.

Which is why I’m happy to see that in San Juan County, far from the halls of power, people will be reading Lewis’s powerful book. Everyone reading it should think about what it means now.

Remembering Barbara Brooks Wallace

Barbara Brooks Wallace, author of children’s books and two-time Edgar Award winner, passed away November 27, 2018, of natural causes.  It’s a term she would have liked–Natural Causes. I imagine I can hear her saying, “That could be a title.”

Back when the Internet was young, I was on a blue board lovingly titled The Pub, where a bunch of us chatted, rejoiced in each others’ publications and awards and commiserated when someone skidded on the inevitable peanut-shells the industry sometimes threw our way.  Barbara Brooks Wallace was our resident link to the history of the field. She’d worked with Jean Karl, which made the rest of us feel we were touching the hem of a goddess. Here’s Bobbie talking to me about receiving her first contract from Jean.

barbara_brooks_wallace.jpgBobbie was remarkable–full of ideas and questions and determined to stay connected. Here’s a 2013 post she wrote for Cynsations.

When Bobbie turned 90, we Pubbies put a birthday package together for her. It was my privilege to mail it, along with the scarf and matching blue socks I’d knitted. She’d been grumpy about that birthday and when the package arrived, she called me. I picked up the phone and there was Bobbie, laughing so hard she could barely talk. “You weren’t going to let me be cranky, were you?” she said.

Here’s what fellow Pubster Dian Curtis Regan says in remembrance:

Every time Bobbie posted to the Pub, her words made me smile. At the time, she was pushing 90 (!) yet was still ‘in the game,’ writing and publishing and wanting to talk about both.
To learn that she published a new book at the age of 95, Seeking Nip and Tuck, makes me happy, and also makes me want to be just like her.  What a wonderful role model for all of us writers.
Excerpt from the book description:
We’re in the dangerous streets of the New York tenements at the close of the 19th century, with two young boys who have escaped their vicious stepfather by faking their own drowning in the river. Matt and Mickey Deacon disguise themselves by changing their names to Nip and Tuck. But just changing names for two proverbial peas in a pod is hardly enough to save them from the determined evil predators who are seeking them…

And this from Fred Bortz:

On a trip to the DC area a few years ago, I met Bobbie at her assisted living place and took her out to dinner–Chinese, of course. Her sparkling personality was exactly as expected from our online interactions.

I am certain that as she passed away, the twinkle in her eye was the last thing to fade.

Go, Bobbie! If there’s an afterlife, you’re in some celestial Pub, still in the game, writing up a storm.