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:

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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.

 

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.

Ten Years of Magic with The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

The Underneath coverTen years ago when I first read The Underneath, the narrative voice lifted me up and carried me off on a kind of story tide, irresistible and primal. I asked Kathi to talk to me about that voice that moved and stirred and haunted me.

 

[Uma] Where did the narrative voice in The Underneath come from? What did it take to bring it to the page?

 [Kathi] Uma, you ask the best questions. But they are also hard questions. I wish that I could say that the narrative voice for The Underneath came to me in a dream and I was able to channel it directly to the page. But oh my, that would be a big, fat lie.

For me, the voice always begins with the landscape. Each place has its own inherent sound, and what creates the sound for me is the mixture of voices that arise from it. When I was working on The Underneath, I paid attention to how the wind in the trees made a kind of baritone harmonic hum that created a basis for the other sounds to pop up and reflect against. There were the sounds that the various animals contributed—purring, howling, growling, screeching, hissing, etc. And then there were the deeper sounds of those who had once lived in those marshy lands—the Caddo and Hasinai. I listened for their footsteps, for their campfires, for their laughter and sighs. And of course, there was also the sound of their absence, maybe the most heartbreaking of all. I also paid attention to what I think of as regional sounds—the music of the bayou for instance, a kind of zydeco beat—as well as my own southern dialect, the one I grew up with, with its soft extensions of the vowels and its tendency to mush consonants together and expand one syllable into two. And over all of those came the bird calls, with their wings beating against the air—also a kind of thrumming, humming sound.

So, all of this together creates what musicians would call a “sonic landscape,” or maybe a “soundscape.” (I think a great example would be Aaron Copeland’s “Grand Canyon Suite.” Listening to it always takes me right to the Canyon).

I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to capture the voice that encapsulated that landscape and its denizens. And one of the things that occurred to me is that there was no real hurry there, so I slowed down the rhythm of it and allowed the pacing to reflect that lumbering slowness. This gave me room for repetition and chanting and at least a little background humming.

I hope this makes sense. I really do believe that place, and all that it holds, is where we find the voice of a story. Of course, each character will have his or her voices, but they are overlaid against the setting. My flat, grassy backyard sounds very different from that mountain in your backyard.

[Uma] So true. And like the rocks and trees in a yard, there are stories within stories in this novel—the naming of a creek, lovers separated, a lost child, and more—stories of sacrifice and betrayal and redemption, anger and grief and through it all the small, insistent journey of a kitten. How did all these threads come together for you? What existed in early versions and what fell into place along the way?
[Kathi] This whole book started from a short story that I had written about a boy (who very much resembled my older son Jacob) who rescued a kitten from a creek. I kept going back to that story, and it just seemed like there were more to tell. The snake was there already. The hummingbird was there, and all along, the kitten—Puck.
The story was fine as it was, but it kept calling to me, and so I began to pull at it. I’ve often used the simile of taffy. The story felt like that, like taffy, and I just kept pulling at it. And as I did, another strand would appear, and then I’d pull some more, doubling the length, tripling the strands.
The ironic thing is that at the end of it all, it was that boy, that original boy, who was taken out. That was heartbreaking, really. He reminded me so much of Jacob, and he had brought the story such a long way. So, I had to think of him as a kind of navigator, as the book’s director in a way, and once the larger story made its way to shore, the boy was done with his part. Sometimes I think maybe I’ll return to that boy, but in a million ways I believe his story is somehow underneath it all, and he’s completed his job.
[Uma] These words from the book just got me straight in the heart back when I first read them. A decade later, they still get me:
“Who would look out for them? Who would stand watch?”
Kathi Appelt photo 2015_credit Igor Kraguljak

Photo © Igor Kraguljak, 2015

You, that’s who, I’m thinking. Is that a fair read? Can you talk about how you as writer stand watch and bear witness?

[Kathi]  Story is the only way I know how to bear witness. Or maybe I should say it’s the best way I know how. I realize there are other ways.
When I wrote The Underneath so long ago, I think my concern then had a lot to do with the way we treat others in our world, particularly animals. I’ve gotten plenty of comments that are pointedly disapproving about the treatment of Ranger in particular. I always respond that there were no animals harmed in the writing of the book. But it’s interesting to me that most of the concern for my characters is directed toward the animals. Not so much for the singular human. Granted, my villain is a dedicated villain. There’s not much that is redeemable about him. However, he was treated badly as a child, and yet I’ve never had anyone bemoan his fate.
[Uma] Oh, that is very interesting. Do we not care about humans who are treated badly?
[Kathi] In some ways, we are more empathetic towards animals than we are towards children, which is a sadness for me.
But it’s also a call to action. I think this disregard for our children shows up in school shootings, in overburdened foster care systems, in underfunded schools. In a law passed because a puppy died on an airplane flight, only days after that flight. But here we are, almost twenty years from Columbine, and no significant laws about gun control. It’s so infuriating.
Ten years ago, a mistreated dog set my fingers on fire. Today, I look at those kids in Parkland, and my heart says “go there.” Bear witness, as you say. And I’m so happy to have you and so many of my colleagues going there with me. Namaste, Uma. Namaste.

 

[Uma] It’s a privilege to walk this road with you, Kathi Appelt. Namaste.

 

Kathi talks to Cynthia Leitich Smith about surviving and thriving in the long haul as an actively publishing children’s and YA author.

Turning Tail

Truebluescouts.jpgKathi Appelt‘s glorious book notwithstanding, I must confess that earlier this year, I’d about had it with raccoons. They dug up my newly planted flowers. They threw all the dirt onto the grass. They left big holes and plenty of scat in their wake. I was about ready to trap the vermin for tearing up my strawberry plants but then something happened.

A rustle in the yard, and some squeaking. I looked out. A raccoon mama was hurrying past, with a juvenile in tow. Their stripy tails twitched. The moment they realized they were being watched, they turned their faces toward me. It was an eye contact moment.  Oh, I thought, you may be cute but can’t you go be cute somewhere else?

I moved toward the window, and instantly they were on alert. I was treated to a live animation of the expression “to turn tail.” Watching the tail-turning and the swift retreat, watching them scramble up the fence and over into the forest beyond, it struck me that in the moment we locked eyes, that baby raccoon and me, I was held hostage to cuteness.

Who was I to resent a little foraging, a little curiosity?  A little grubbing around in the dirt?

L1010641.jpgI stuck the strawberries and the fuschia back in the ground, cleaned up the mess, and breathed deeply. And really, over the summer, everything grew just fine.

They’ll be back, I’m sure. But so what? I have turned tail, in a manner of speaking. We live on a planet that is in imminent danger of being controlled by us all the way to mass extinction of all life including our own. The least I can do is share my garden with a couple of raccoons.

 

 

Two Fox Tales From US and UK Writers

TillyFrom British children’s writer and my colleague at Bath Spa University, Julia Green, Tilly’s Moonlight Garden. Tilly’s moved, her mother’s dealing with a difficult pregnancy, dad’s distracted, and there’s a fox in the garden. Imagination and the supernatural juggle for room in a beautifully crafted text that captures the liminal spaces of an eleven-year-old’s mind. Uncertainty and ambiguity are not easy craft choices and Green opts for them every time, refusing to connecting every last dot, trusting that the reader will get it.

 

 

foxAnd from two gifted American writers, my VCFA colleague Kathi Appelt and Allison McGhee, a delicate, moving story about friendship, love, and loss, Maybe a Fox. I’m fascinated by the fact that this is a collaborative text, because of how seamless it is. You can’t tell where one writer’s voice leaves off and the other picks up. Two narratives–Jules, missing her sister, and Sam–intertwine with tender connections. Immediate losses. Memories, symbols. But the literary devices are never heavy-handed. The narrative never flinches from difficult moments, yet its always loving. In many ways, like Green’s novel, this too is an ode to the child’s heart and mind.  A lovely twist at the end of the story leaves the reader with an echo as soft as a touch of the young fox Senna’s fur.