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.

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.

Supriya Kelkar on Research and Family History in Ahimsa

new-visions-award-winner.pngWinner of the New Winner Award from Tu Books/Lee and Low, Supriya Kelkar‘s debut middle grade novel, Ahimsa, takes place in 1940s India, against the backdrop of a nation struggling to unite even as its people fight for independence from British rule. Ten-year-old Anjali is the protagonist, thrown into the reality of a swiftly changing world when her mother announces that she has quit her job to follow Mahatma Gandhi and become a freedom fighter. I corresponded with Supriya in anticipation of her novel’s release on October 2, which is, appropriately enough, Gandhi’s birth anniversary. 
[Uma] What came first for you with this story–the history, the character, an idea, an era, or something else? Talk about what led you to think about writing this book. 
 
IMG_6435 (2).JPG[Supriya] It started with the thought of my great-grandmother, Anasuyabai Kale, a Gandhian freedom fighter in India who was jailed for her role in the movement. I was fascinated by the idea of a strong, sometimes flawed female leader in the early 1900s. As a screenwriter, I thought the story would make a great biopic. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t figure out how to write it as an interesting screenplay. I then thought about making it a fictional story, where the character based on my great-grandmother was not the protagonist, but rather, the mother of the protagonist. But again, I struggled to make it work. Then I had the brilliant idea to write it as a novel to work out the story beats, and then go back and write a screenplay with the solutions I had discovered in the process. Clearly, I had no clue what I was doing because it turned out writing a novel was not a quick and easy task!
 
[Uma] What sources, personal and research, did you tap while you were writing Ahimsa? 
 

Gandhi's letter to Anasuyabai  Kale.jpg

Letter from Mahatma Gandhi to the writer’s great-grandmother. Used by permission of Supriya Kelkar

[Supriya] My great-grandfather had written a biography of my great-grandmother. That book was a great resource. It showed me how life was at the time. The freedom movement could be very small-scale at times, with individuals doing their part to make a difference for a few other people in their area through protests and letter writing campaigns. It also showed how those changes could inspire greater changes in the country. I also used Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, an academic website on Dr. Ambedkar, and old newspapers for research. For personal sources, I spoke to several family members and friends to make sure I was representing the time accurately, including my parents. Since my great-grandmother and grandparents had all passed away, I relied a lot on my great-aunt. She was able to fill in a lot of details about her mother’s story and the time period for me.

 
Ahimsa-cover-revised3 FINAL.jpg[Uma] I find as a writer that every book teaches me something. What did writing this book teach you? 
 
This book taught me the importance of patience and not giving up. I wrote the first draft of Ahimsa in 2003. There were many times over the years that I wanted to give up on the manuscript because it felt hopeless and things weren’t happening fast enough on it. I’m so glad I stuck with it!
  
[Uma] What tripped you up along the way, even after you’d begun to feel more in command of the work? 
 
[Supriya] Despite all the research through the years of writing Ahimsa, it wasn’t until I was working on the copyedit and double-checking my work that I realized a couple of the famous Gandhi quotes I had used in the book were probably things he had never said. It took a while but in the end, I was able to find words that were actually from one of his publications.
 
[Uma] Ahimsa is a concept that’s desperately needed in today’s contentious world. What do you want young readers—and their adult allies, too—to take away from this story?
 
The main thing I want readers of all ages to take away is the importance of empathy. Just because an issue doesn’t personally affect you, it does
not mean the problem does not exist. I hope young readers will be inspired by Anjali’s journey from a child of privilege to someone who is very aware of the wrongs in her world and is willing to do what she can to right them.
[Uma] Congratulations, Supriya Kelkar. Much luck with this book and others yet to come.

Context and Reference

Walking in one of Prague’s many interconnected parks, it’s possible to spot this little blue head perched on a wall in someone’s house. In a museum, sterile and possibly behind glass, one might pass this by, or at most see it as one piece among many. But here on this wall, there is something moving and tender about this sculpture.

L1030275Perhaps it’s the red brick behind the head or the matter-of-fact way it faces the road. Regardless, you stop to look back. You  see the subtle asymmetry in the face in the way you might see your own face in a mirror. Character emerges from that face, as meaning emerges from Sis’s book, arising from its context, “quietly shimmering, motionless, as if frozen in time.”

The Three Golden Keys yields plenty of meaning all by itself. But reading it while walking through these streets, I’m moved by the power of place. Setting is more than an element to employ in fiction. Used with skill, setting is story.

Susan Krawitz on Viva, Rose! (Part 2 of 2)

gringoposter[Uma] In historical fiction the research can take its own time as well. How much research did you have to do? What were your sources? 

[Susan] I did SO MUCH RESEARCH. Whoops, that’s in caps. Sorry. 

So much. That’s better.

One really, really great source was a book by well-known journalist John Reed called Insurgent Mexico. He was history’s first embedded journalist, tasked by a publication called Metropolitan Magazine to live with Villa’s army for four months and send stories back home. Reed was hugely sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, and wrote passionately detailed articles about the revolution and its people that read like fiction. He was one of the first journalists to employ this technique, which is now widely used by modern journalists.

I also studied all I could find about Jewish settlement in the west, using online sources, non-fiction books, and fiction, including picture books. One, Zayda Was a Cowboy, by June Levitt Nislick, was named a Sydney Taylor award notable book by the Association of Jewish Libraries, which led me discover that the AJL also offered an annual manuscript award.

russiannesteds[Uma] Which you won! Congratulations. Like nesting dolls, one thing led to another.

[Susan] Thank you. I believe winning this award, which is intended to lift books out of the slush pile, was instrumental in getting Viva, Rose! published.

I could say some of my own life experience served as “research” as well. Before my daughter was born, I spent a lot of time riding horses and climbing rocks (my one and only trip to Texas was to a climbing site near El Paso), and those experiences ended up in the book. 

And last and most fun, I did some genealogical searching, with the help of my sister and her friend, on the web. We uncovered all kinds of fabulous information about our Texas relatives from old census records. We also discovered some of their descendants still live in San Antonio, and I recently sent one an email—and he actually wrote me back.

[Uma] How did you balance big historical realities with a sharper, closer look at the journey of a single character?

[Susan] It can be a challenge to fully serve history and also fully serve a fictional character in a fictional story. Though ultimately, I couldn’t plop all the nerdy research details I loved into the book, I felt they served as a sort of a radiant, energetic imprint beneath the story. And it wasn’t possible to adhere strictly to the whats and whens of the Mexican Revolution—if I did, the fictional tale would suffer. But the issues and events of the time HUGELY informed the book’s character and plot choices. I hope I conveyed an accurate energetic sense of the hopes, fears and goals of the people involved in the Mexican Revolution. Which, not surprisingly, are also the hopes, fears, and goals of many in today’s world, as well.

[Uma] Anything else you’d like to add?

[Susan] One of the best parts of this book’s award and publication was the delightful discovery that not all who wander are indeed, really lost. 

Viva, Rose!, which is the first book I’ll publish, took over a decade to go from inception to print, but it’s clear to me that everything I’ve ever done in the writing vein contributed to this outcome. The time spent as a journalist and newspaper columnist, the short stories and screenplays I wrote, the years as a freelance editor; even the bad poetry I wrote in college. All of it went into some huge mental and emotional MixMaster and became the slurry that formed this book.

There were some huge bumps along the road (including an agent who signed, then dropped the book before submitting it!), and it’s such a relief to realize that all the side gigs, delays, and wanders were actually not in vain. I see their imprint in this book’s pages and am now so grateful for every step it took to reach this goal. And I’m also grateful that no matter how far (or impossible!) the finish line seemed, I just couldn’t seem to stop imagining it existed and stepping towards it.

[Uma] Imagining it existed. The story itself, the shape it took, and the book. Such a wonderful journey, Susan. Viva Susan, and Viva, Rose!

Susan Krawitz on Viva, Rose! (1 of 2)

vrcover3My cyber-writing-friend and colleague Susan Krawitz celebrates the publication of her middle grade novel Viva Rose! She has a few things to say about family tall tales and their transformation into a fascinating story for young readers. 

[Uma] Viva Rose began with a family story—tell me that story. 

[Susan] When I was a kid, two of my grandfather’s sisters lived together in a big house in Bensonhurst Brooklyn. It happened to be the same house Moe, Curley and Shemp of the Three Stooges grew up in, but that’s another story altogether. Anyway, when the family would gather there for holidays, my wacky uncle Sheldon liked to tell the kid-crowd stories of my grandfather’s cousins Rose and Abraham Solomon who, in the 1920s and 30s, used to visit from their home in San Antonio Texas. Rose had a lovely singing voice, and always came bearing gifts, and Abe wore full cowboy regalia so he could look like a rube and pool-shark the locals at the billiards hall. Uncle Sheldon said he played chess on horseback—balancing a board? Play-acting a knight? It wasn’t clear. But the wildest tale of all was that he’d joined Pancho Villa’s army during the Mexican Revolution of the early 1900s. 

serapesombreroBut were these stories true, or was Uncle Sheldon just entertaining the kids? Great-Aunt Edie did have a Mexican serape draped on a chair in her room, and a sombrero hanging on her wall. At any rate, the tales of our Russian/Jewish immigrant cowboy relative were fun to think about, and the serape and sombrero made me curious. 30 years ago I gave my sister, who’s a historian, a T-shirt with a picture of Pancho Villa’s gang on it, and we joked about which bandido might be our cousin. And then she came back from a trip to San Antonio with a printout of a 1932 newspaper article she’d found in the library’s microfiche that confirmed our family’s Abraham legends and created some new ones as well. 

[Uma] I happen to know a little something about how you began thinking about turning this history into a book for young readers. Will you tell that story? 

[Susan] I can truthfully say that the kernel of this story was the very first one that lodged in my heart and urged me to write it as a novel. I tried it as Abraham’s story first, but that tack didn’t seem to have much steam. And then, Uma, our mutual friend, Audrey Couloumbis sold a pair of middle grade Western novels featuring fabulous female protagonist (The Misadventures of Maude March and Maude March on the Run!). You and I were in an online critique group with Audrey at that time, and she said to us, “Who has an idea for a Western?” Both you and I raised our hands.

[Uma] Well, I kind of raised my hand. You were more enthusiastic.

[Susan] When I came up with a plot idea that made a thirteen-year-old Rose the protagonist, the story engine really began to chug. That happened more years back than I care to admit, but I was so delighted to discover recently that you also grew a book from that conversation, and it will be published right around the same time as Viva, Rose! 

[Uma] Not a Western, but set in the western United States, and also historical, yes.  

[Susan] Doris Lessing said, “In the writing process, the more a thing cooks, the better.” 

[Uma] Too true. Thank you, Susan. More in Part 2. 

Tolstoy Was not Writing for Me

Is there anyone who shows us better than Toni Morrison how to weather life and keep on singing? Singing fiercely, what’s more. Look at this 2015 Guardian interview.

Admittedly, her forays into children’s books have left me, well, puzzled. Because where is the ferocious beauty of language, the glorious leaping narrative I know from The Bluest Eye or Beloved? Where is the “appetite for truth?”

Never mind. Today I’m breathing in this passage from the interview:

Most writers claim to abhor labels but Morrison has always welcomed the term “black writer”. “I’m writing for black people,” she says, “in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it” – she refers to the writer James Baldwin talking about “a little white man deep inside of all of us”. Did she exorcise hers? “Well I never really had it. I just never did.”

Today I am returning to a picture book that is not selling. Nothing saps courage more than a manuscript that has not found a home. I’m told there’s too much information in this one. The structure is slight. There’s not enough there there.

I’m setting those comments aside for now. They may be completely on target but addressing objections head-on has never been my style.

Instead I’m going to see if it will help to come at the story another way. To try to zero in on the child reader–a brown kid like the brown kid I used to be, the brown kid I still carry around inside me. Not writing for everyone, the way Tolstoy was not writing for me. Maybe that way I’ll find out if there is in fact a story lurking behind the words.

Diversity, Language, and All That

As we come to the end of the year, I’ve been thinking about the evolving conversation about diversity. It raises so many questions for me. In plenty of ways, I get it. I do. I’ve been writing while brown for 25 years.WNDB_Button

I support We Need Diverse Books. Of course I do. How could I not? And I’m proud to claim as my publishers houses whose work is advancing that cause.

But I also worry sometimes that the conversation is becoming reductive and oversimplified. I still don’t know who’s inside and who’s outside the diversity window. I don’t know where I’m located, which side of that window. I was born in India. I write in English. I can speak my native language but my literacy doesn’t go much farther than labeling spice mixes on jars in my pantry. I’m an American citizen, now living in Canada. What single space can I possibly claim to write about with authenticity, and what does that mean, anyway? I’m sure there are other people who feel a connection to every place I’ve ever lived, and their versions of it will be different from mine.

Which is why this New Yorker article by Jhumpa Lahiri fascinated me–it’s about her journey to learn, not her native Bengali, but Italian. Learn it enough to write in it, at first haltingly, then with greater confidence but also with humility, knowing one’s limitations. It feels like an act of courage.

James Baldwin said: “I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness.” There was a writer who stayed true to his own convictions. Maybe that’s the point.

Katherine Hauth on Children, Summer Reading, and the Passage of Time

Delectable poetic lessons on the food chain designed to help young readers rather literally digest the natural world.

That starred review quote from Kirkus Reviews is a punny summary of Katherine B. Hauth’s picture book published by Charlesbridge, What’s For Dinner? Quirky, Squirmy Poems from the Animal World. In a post on the publisher’s blog , Katherine writes:

For me, a silver-haired eight year old, what it means to be a poet is to be childlike, in the sense of seeing with unbiased eyes and heart, and to write honestly in the best language possible for the subject and for my audience.

But writers can only be nourished, so to speak, when readers read. In this video conversation with me, Katherine talks about a summer reading program she created, pretty much out of dust and juniper pollen, in her neighborhood in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. It grew over the years. It created its own story.

A Sprig of Rosemary and a Paradox to Match

Courtesy of Books Around the Table (“A potluck of ideas from five children’s book authors and illustrators”) Margaret Chodos-Irvine writes about perseverance and self-doubt and the power of connections. All those things that are natural and inevitable in this strange business we’re in. And paradox, right? If you want to understand the landscape of your intention for a story, you don’t look at it directly. Instead, you examine the sprig of rosemary. Not once, but over time. And you trust that you will become the writer you need to be to tell that story.

official headshotIt reminded me of a guest post Sarah Aronson wrote for this blog in its last incarnation a couple of years ago: here it is again, still worth considering. Sarah Aronson’s novel, BELIEVE (Carolrhoda Lab), the story of a sole survivor of a suicide bombing, deals with the power of faith, the lure of fame, and the strains of friendship. 

During the High Holidays, Jews revisit one of the most complicated and disturbing stories of the Torah, The Binding of Isaac. In this story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham does not refuse God. Instead, he brings his son to the mountain and prepares him for sacrifice. Luckily, an angel stops the madness and offers a lamb instead. It is a crushing story, and I am always troubled by it. I’m disappointed in Abraham for not standing up to God. I’m disappointed in God for inviting Abraham into this ultimate game of chicken. And I always spend time thinking about Isaac and how he lived the rest of his life. I think about how this penultimate incident changed him and affected every chapter of his life thereafter.

believeMy rabbi seemed to be reading my mind, because what she said next really made sense for the holiday as well as the writing process and plot development—things I’m always thinking about. She said, “Before we can look forward, we must look back. We must examine where we have been. Only then can we see where we are going.”

Look back. To look forward. Is that really all it takes?

First, a confession: If you know me, you know I’m a back story junkie. When I’m starting a new book, the character’s past is always the first thing that interests me. Sometimes, I find the backstory from a memory in my own life. Sometimes, it comes from an image or scene from the news—from the stories in our world that I can’t let go of. No matter what, the past gets me thinking. It speaks to character motivation. It reveals what Franny Billingsley calls “the default emotion,” or what a character will do when they are stressed out. When I know how my characters have behaved in the past, I can better anticipate their reactions to actions and situations in the plot.

This is what I do:

I start by asking the question, “Who are you?” I answer this question as many times as I can without making myself crazy (usually around fifty times). I start at the cliché level: sister, friend, and student. Then I go deeper. I think about who they are in terms of emotions: are they paranoid? Or superstitious? Are they angry? Or forgiving? And I don’t stop there. I try to think concretely. I try to find answers that the character would not want his friends to know. Is my character a chocolate lover, late sleeper, or obsessed with fashion? Is he loyal? Or does he blab at the first opportunity? Is he unhappy? Does she feel alone? All these traits help me anticipate and make the most of future conflict and themes. They reveal my characters’ controlling beliefs. Most important, they provide plot clues. By understanding how these traits have served my characters in the past shows me what they love and hate and where they draw a line in the sand—when enough is enough. It gives me clues about how they react to events in the plot.

believeconnectThen I examine connectivity. I look at allies and enemies: who sticks up for each other and then I determine sources of conflict. I look first at their pasts. And then at the events of the story. Here is one connectivity chart from a draft of BELIEVE, a novel whose inciting incident happens ten years before page one. In this chart, you can see that there are a lot of tripods. Each one is fortified by conflicting emotions. Seeing them on the chart showed me how to raise the stakes in the plot; it made it easy to see where the conflict was brewing. Once I understand how every character is connected—not just to the main character, but to the other characters on the chart—I can better predict who needs to be in the big scenes. I can anticipate who needs to be on the page to move the plot forward.

It may seem simple, but it works for me. By looking back, through character and connectivity, I can envision the future. I can understand where the hot spots will form and the plot will turn. Only when I know what happened in the past can I begin to think about what will inevitably come next as well as what will surprise.

Looking back has another benefit, one that is more personal. By taking the time to look back at our own writing pasts, we feel more accomplished and are better able to set goals for the future. When we give ourselves recognition for work accomplished, we are motivated to work harder in the future. Every time I start a new class, I insist that my writers.com students celebrate each milestone. We have a special topic called “Chocolate and Flowers,” where we cheer each other on when we figure out something new, send out a manuscript, or even get a rejection. (That’s an important step!) This is what my rabbi was hoping we would all do. She was not just saying, “Look back at this story.” She was urging us, “Look back. Celebrate where you’ve been. Resolve to do better.” It’s not just good advice for this time of year. It is important to take a moment to thank ourselves, our husband or wife or partner, our children, and our friends for supporting us as we discover made-up worlds and people. When we look back, we can also see how far we’ve come. By thinking about the past year, we can look forward to the next one and set new goals for our writing lives.

Thank you again, Sarah for being the dedicated teacher and writer that you are, and for showing so many other people the way along this complicated road.