Your Voice Matters: Guest Post by Carmen Oliver

Last month, at the Royal BC Museum, I got to see the IMAX movie about the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the planet’s most spectacular wild places.

Great Bear Rainforest IMAX Trailer from Pacific Wild on Vimeo.

A Voice for Spirit BearsAnd I got to read Carmen Oliver‘s picture book, A Voice for the Spirit Bears, about Simon Jackson, the founder of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition. What a happy coincidence! The rush of water and the leap of salmon in the IMAX movie, the incredible close views of those amazing bears, and the voices of the First Nations people who are the stewards of that land–all that was fresh in my mind. I asked Carmen to tell me what sparked this story for her. Here is what she wrote:

One Labor Day, as a girl, I watched a muscular dystrophy telethon on television. Many of these kids were younger than me. And their lives were filled with mounting physical challenges but they radiated strength, positivity, resilience, and hope. My mom explained to me that the money raised would help scientists to find a cure. That people all over the world could be a part of the solution. That year a seed was planted in my twelve-year-old mind. So I harnessed the help of my brother and friend Dana to go door-to-door Christmas caroling and to ask for donations for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. I can’t remember exactly how much we raised (fifty or sixty dollars rings familiar) but I’d felt that in a small way I’d made a difference.

Now fast-forward twenty years. In my early thirties, I read an article about a rare type of black bear called the spirit bear. One in ten of these bears are born with creamy white fur and they’re found only in Canada. I’d never heard of them before. As I dug into the research, a young boy’s name kept re-surfacing—David Simon Jackson. At the age of thirteen, Simon learned about the endangered spirit bears living roughly six hours away from his home in British Columbia and he wanted to help use his voice to save their habitat and keep them safe. He was bullied in school and overcame his own stuttering problem to speak out and raise awareness about the many issues affecting their habitat including over-logging. He created a youth run organization (Spirit Bear Youth Coalition) of six million members from eighty-five countries to ensure their survival.

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This story spoke to my twelve-year-old activist heart. It spoke to the shy girl who could relate to being bullied in school and to loving wild life—especially bears. It spoke to the girl who wanted to make a difference in the world. And still does. So when I came across this quote by Simon, I knew I had to turn his journey into a book for children. This is the book I needed when I was twelve-years-old. A book about strength, positivity, resilience and hope.

I think Simon’s story found me. And in telling his story, I want children to understand that every voice matters. They have important things to say. They can make a difference in the world. Their voices are our future.

If I could go back in time and talk to my twelve-year-old self, I’d tell her that no matter how many times people put you down, shun you, make fun of you – you matter. Your voice matters.

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I began this book in 2006. Along the way, I had many people tell me Simon’s story was an article at best. That it would never become a book. But I didn’t listen to the naysayers. I believed a story about a young boy with no remarkable skills or intellect, but armed simply with a passion, can take hold of a cause and unite the world was – remarkable. All change begins with one voice speaking out. Your voice can change the world.

In Simon Jackson’s words:

“If together we can succeed in saving the spirit bear, we will have proved that one young person with no remarkable skills or intellect, but armed simply with a passion, can take hold of a cause and unite the world. After all, we are the voices for the sick, the poor, the children, the dreamers…and the bears.”—Simon Jackson

Here is a video Q & A with Simon Jackson about the book on Canadian Geographic:

The Golden Rule and Paying it Forward: Carmen Oliver and Don Tate

Carmen Oliver and Don Tate have been longtime critique partners, and they’re getting ready to lead a workshop together in Honesdale, PA for the Highlights Foundation. I asked them: 

What have you learned about giving and receiving feedback on a work in progress? What’s helpful and what’s not, from the viewpoint of the giver and the receiver of critical feedback?
  

Carmen consulted with Don and here is her reply: 

Yes, our first critique group formed back in the mid 2000’s. We met through SCBWI and partnered with several other writers. Over the years, some of the groups have folded, but Don and I have remained constant critique partners. We’ve bounced ideas off one another, we’ve even dabbled in writing a book together. As our careers have gotten busier—and Austin traffic widens the divide (we live on opposite ends of the city)—we often meet on-line or over the phone to discuss projects.

One of the most important things that we’ve learned is the Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. We don’t tell each other what or how to write. Rather, we ask questions. This allows the other to delve deeper into their story, to think more broadly. We ask “what if” questions, which can help to find holes in the story structure. We suggest taking a look at a story from differing vantage points.

 We’ve also learned the importance of encouraging and not discouraging. Criticism must be honest, yet constructive and helpful. Sometimes it takes a lot longer for an author to uncover the heart of the story.

 When receiving feedback, it’s important to step back at first, take a breath. Don’t take criticism personally. Take a second to be open to what your critique partners are offering. Don’t be so quick to respond defensively. Mull over comments. Consider what is useful to you and what is not. After you’ve had time to process your thoughts, delve back into your project. Keep the dialogue open with your critique partners, if you have questions that need further answers.

 [Uma] In the end, we’re all looking for publication, but how do you tell the stories that matter to you while still being realistic about what’s likely to sell? What does that balancing act entail for each of you?

 [Carmen] Initially, Don doesn’t worry what’s going to sell or not sell. Instead, he writes what interests him, what he wants to explore or to learn about. Often times, through research and exploring the topic, he discovers whether the investment in time is worth it. Some topics are exciting at first discovery, but then quickly fizzle out for various reasons. Writing a book requires a lot of time, so it’s necessary to choose a subject that will keep your attention through the months, and even years.

 [Uma] And you?  How does this balance work for you?

[Carmen] Back in 2005, I began working on A VOICE FOR THE SPIRIT BEARS: HOW ONE BOY INSPIRED MILLIONS TO SAVE A RARE ANIMAL (Kids Can Press, May 7, 2019). This book took eleven years to figure out. I never gave up on it because I believed it was a global story that would matter to young kids everywhere. And so I kept at it until I found the heart of the story. Over the years several publishers turned the manuscript down, so I put it away and then came back to it with fresh eyes, to do the additional work needed. I also believed that this story needed to find the right home. And eventually, it did.

 In the publishing world, it’s a good idea to study lots of books of the genre you’re writing for, to know the crème de la crème! What books are being talked about, getting the publishing industry’s attention? Why? Which ones strike a chord in you? Which ones linger long after the last page? Which ones make you stop and think? Pay attention to those books, learn from them. They’ll likely inform your own work.  

 [Uma] And teaching? Where does passing the love along fit into your writing life?

 [Carmen] Early on, Don and I realized that teaching would definitely be a part of our journeys. Within children’s publishing, we’ve discovered the generous tradition of reaching out to help others. We’ve both received mentorship from many award-winning authors and illustrators over the years. It was important to pay it forward, to the next generation of writers/illustrators following their dreams. Our students have inspired us. We learn just as much from aspiring book creators as they learn from us.

 [Uma] This one’s for Don. As a writer who is not also an illustrator, I often wonder if there are stories that are just beyond my capacity to tell because I can’t think like an illustrator. Don, can you talk about how your illustrator’s mind benefits your writing? What can a wordsmith like me learn from someone like you?

 [Carmen checked with Don, and reported] Don doesn’t think the capacity to tell a story is limited because you’re not an illustrator—although as an illustrator, he’s always asking: What does it look like? It’s one thing to put pretty words on paper. It’s another thing to make those words visual. As a wordsmith always ask yourself what is happening in a scene, picture it in your head. With a picture book, every detail can’t be in the text. But the more familiar you are with the visual details of a scene, the better equipped you are writing visually. Like Don says: You’re painting a picture with words.

 For example, when Don wrote and illustrated POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON, he learned that a letter writing campaign, and books that published against slavery, was an important element of the climax of George’s story. But, oh how boring and not very visual that would be. Instead, Don chose to focus on visualizing the results of the published letters and books—people fighting back against injustice.

Thanks, Carmen and Don. Have fun at your workshop. You too, all you lucky Highlights writers and illustrators who get to work with this talented teaching duo.