What I Learned from TeachingBooks.net

teachingbooks-logo-bookmark-smallTeachingBooks.net is a terrific resource for teachers, offering all kinds of information on books for young readers and the authors and illustrators who create them. They’ve been doing this for years. They started when the Internet was new and relatively uncluttered. One of the really useful tools they provide is a set of audio-recordings by authors and illustrators on how to pronounce their names. As someone with a long last name, one that may seem like an obstacle course to someone unfamiliar with it, I’ve been grateful for years to have my own little audio pronunciation guide on TeachingBooks.net.

And now I have new reason to be grateful to the good people at TeachingBooks.net, for inviting me to record brief audio about some of my books.  Listen! Here I am talking about Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, Book Uncle and Me, and Out of the Way! Out of the Way!

Sure it’s nice promotion for my books. But there’s more to my gratitude that this. I expected I’d just take this on as a promo task, one of things you do because you know it’s good for your books but really, you’d rather be working on your new favorite book, the next one! But in preparing for the recordings, I found out something about writing and reading.

I’ve known for years how to write so that a book sounds credible when it’s read out loud. But in my mind, reading out loud has usually meant reading an entire picture book or a chapter or two of a novel. It’s easy to pick out passages from novels that work well for, say, a bookstore  reading or a reading at a VCFA residency, where I have anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour.

But TeachingBooks requested me to talk a little about a book, and read an excerpt–all within three minutes.  That meant the excerpt needed to be no more than 2 minutes long.

The picture book, naturally, posed no problem. The chapter book and the novel were another matter. All the passages I considered were either too long, or depended on the reader already knowing the background and context, or didn’t have a balance of dialogue and narrative, or didn’t have enough of a narrative arc. I realized that I needed all that for a reading of under two minutes. The opening scenes of both books came in at a little over three minutes so that wouldn’t do either.

I did manage to find a few passages that worked and was happy with the ones I ended up picking, but it made me think about how limitations of time and words can really push a writer not only to pick the best, strongest words possible but also to bring the underlying strength of a story to the surface.

The next time I revise a draft, I’ll keep this two-minute challenge in mind. I suspect it will help me spot and delete my more self-indulgent passages more efficiently.  Not that every scene needs to make the two-minute cut. But the prospect of reading a passage out loud within a limited amount of time isn’t a bad way to remain aware of the need for energy in a work in progress.




The Public Side of Being a Writer

Monica Edinger got me thinking about the public side of being a writer. You spend hours holed up in your own mind or communing with research texts. Battling with drafts. Crumpling your way through reams of revision. Talking, let’s face it, to imaginary people. Then when the book is done, suddenly, you have to go out and meet people and talk about it. You have to put on that public face.

What is that face? Most of the time I try not to think about her, quite honestly, and when I do, I feel a bit funny because, you know, I don’t play the banjo or even the ukulele. I’m not an entertainer. I feel funny pushing my own books. I’m that introvert who loves juggling words and wrangling with ideas.

It’s not that I can’t speak in public, mind you. Give me something I care enough about–like the books I’ve spent my adult life writing for young readers–and I have plenty to say. About the dreams and the battles that were part of the work. About all that I’ve learned and new questions that arise to puzzle and intrigue me. About the human act of storytelling that has the power to connect us all.

Musician James Radcliffe says he writes because writing about something lets him know how he feels about it and why. That’s certainly true for me while I’m working on a book. Connecting with audiences, especially young audiences, can give me similar insights. Those will arrive more readily if I haven’t had to reinvent myself, learn to play an instrument, or try to be somebody I’m not. I’ve made those connections in ways that come naturally to me.