Illustrator Magic

I will confess it. I have illustrator envy.  As a picture book writer teaching other writers to write picture book text, I am painfully aware of knowing only half the form. So it’s always like seeing magic unpacked when I watch writer-illustrators in action.

Square+-+DebbieOhi-PhotoAnnieTruuvert-201807-flat500.jpgLast month at VCFA’s picture book workshop, Debbie Ridpath Ohi was a joy to behold. She was energetic, funny, honest, passionate about the picture book form, and more than generous in sharing her experience and knowledge with us.

And she was an empath! She managed to get at the heart and soul of what each student was trying to reach in every single manuscript, yet offered clear perspective on what was needed (or not needed) in each work in progress.

The questions flew. Light-bulb moments flared into being. We laughed a lot, talked a lot. It hardly felt like work to be digging this intensely into the form we all loved.

The day after I got home from residency, this arrived in the mail.

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What joy! My very own portrait, swirling yarn in the thought department, or maybe ideas, or both? I’ll treasure this gift.

And there will be more. Watch this space for a guest post from Debbie on thinking visually, the form of the picture book, and anything else that strikes her dancing visual and storytelling mind.

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.

 

J.L.Powers on Writing, Publishing, and Being a Third Culture Kid

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All images used by permission of J.L. Powers

I met Jessica Powers when she took the picture book semester at VCFA, and I’ve been interested in her work ever since. In this guest post, she talks about who she is and the paths that have led her to what she does.

I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico Border in a working-class Mexican and Mexican-American neighborhood. I am what people call a “third-culture kid”—I grew up in a culture completely different than my parents’ culture (they are from the Midwest U.S.A.). This fact shaped me more vigorously than just about anything else. I always feel a bit “in-between”—not quite this and not quite that. Sometimes that’s a wonderful feeling; it’s easy to distance myself from the cultural habits and values of white, middle-class Americans—after all, it doesn’t represent me or my lived experience. Sometimes, it’s difficult because people are determined to place me in that cultural box even if it doesn’t fit me very well.

The summer I turned nineteen, I worked with street children in Kenya, and quickly leapt into a genuine love for African people that went on to sustain me as a graduate student of African history, as a learner of Zulu/Xhosa/Ndebele and currently Afrikaans, and now as a publisher of African writers. I have spent the last decade in and out of southern Africa, loving the many people there who have chosen to embrace me as a friend and family member. Yet I still have a very strong connection and pull to the Mexican Border, where my family still lives.

9781617755804_FC.jpgEven though I loved many of the classics as a kid, they produced in me a keen and vigorous longing. I never saw my world represented in children’s books. So as a writer of books for young people, I’ve always written about the worlds that I do live in, which are generally not mainstream.

My first novel was set in El Paso, about Mexican-American and Mexican kids, because that’s the world I’ve always known. My second, third, and fifth novel (forthcoming) were set in African countries (South Africa and Somalia) because that’s the world I’ve immersed myself in as an adult. My fourth novel (co-written with my brother, and the start of a series) is pulling on my love for the vast and wonderfully varied cultural terrain of the U.S. But can I say that I am returning to the Border soon enough for a future book? Look for that on the horizon!

I’ve worked for wonderful diverse publisher Cinco Puntos Press for a very long time. That’s been a classic fit. And last year, I launched my own publishing company, Catalyst Press and Story Press Africa.
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Why in the world would I do such a crazy thing? Well. I’m glad you asked!
After my child was born, I was really frustrated with the lack of African literature for young people. It seemed like there were two types of books: folk tales and books about Nelson Mandela. Come on, people! We publish tens of thousands of books every single year!

9781946498984_FC.jpegSo I teamed up with the amazing people at Jive Media Africa to start the African Graphic Novel Series. And because I love African literature widely and indiscriminately, I’m also publishing a variety of short story collections, crime novels, thrillers, and other books by Africans and/or set in Africa. Come check us out! I promise we will have something you love!

More about J.L. Powers: In addition to her writing and publishing, J.L Powers also writes and edits The Pirate Tree, a blog on social justice and children’s literature. 

Books by J.L. Powers

Amina coverUnder Water (forthcoming January 2019)

Broken Circle (co-written with M.A. Powers, 2017)

Colors of the Wind: The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza (2014)

Amina (2013)

That Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone, a collection of essays from around the world (2012)

This Thing Called the Future (2011)

Labor Pains and Birth Stories: Essays on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Becoming a Parent (2009)

The Confessional (2007)

 

 

Nora Carpenter on Yoga Frog

Nora Carpenter author photo verticalI’m delighted to report that VCFA grad Nora Carpenter (my student!) has a new picture book out. A yoga book–with a frog character leading the way.

I asked Nora: Where did this book idea come from?

[Nora] When I first started teaching yoga to kids back in 2007, I searched the Fairfax County library system (I lived in Northern Virginia at the time) for a book that introduced a basic yoga flow in a way that was fun and simple without being simplistic. I found one kids’ yoga book, but it was written for older kids (10+), was incredibly wordy, and focused on minute details (“place your hand three inches from the end of the mat” kind of thing). There was no way it was going to help me teach preschool or young elementary children. Fast forward a few years to my time as a student in the MFA for Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I decided to write the book I wish I’d been able to find in that library. My efforts produced a series of lyrical yoga poems, some of which I included in my graduate reading.

[Aside from Uma] I remember those poems. They were quite wonderful.

Yoga Frog clear cover.jpg[Nora] They caught the ear of someone who went on to work for Running Press, so RP reached out to me about writing a yoga book. It was one of those moments that was both super long in the making and also serendipitous. My poems didn’t get picked up, but if I hadn’t created them, I might never have gotten the opportunity to write Yoga Frog. Writing (and life) is weird like that.

[Uma] How much did it change along the way?

[Nora] My early story drafts featured a young frog who befriends Yoga Frog and learns from him. Then I reshaped it into a dialogue form. Then I changed the frame. At one point there were tween frogs in the book! In the end, the book worked best as nonfiction.

[Uma] What did writing this book teach you? A joyful moment? A moment of realization?

[Nora] It reminded me to have fun while writing. Creation is tough work, but at the end of the day, why do it unless you love it? I had so much fun writing this book! It also reminded me not to cling too tightly to my work and to experiment with different forms. I was really excited about the initial, story version of Yoga Frog, but my editor was like, “eh.” She liked it okay, but she really wanted the book to make it super simple for kids/beginners to learn basic poses. In those first drafts, the story had taken over. So I scrapped all those drafts and started again. Magic happens when you let yourself play.

[Uma] How did you decide on the combination of Sanskrit names and your own whimsical ones?

cat pose at Malaprops[Nora] I wanted interested readers to have access to the proper Sanskrit names, but in my teaching experience, more child-friendly terminology gets better results with young kids. For example, preschoolers can have a hard time conceptualizing a pose which literally translates as Half Lord of the Fishes. However, by calling it Caterpillar and giving it a specific kid-friendly action with sounds (searching for leaves to munch as you twist) it gives children a way to remember what they’re supposed to be doing in the pose. (Why are we twisting? Oh yeah, we’re looking for leaves.) Poses like Chair (Utkatasana) didn’t require a kid-yoga name because children have no problem imagining they’re sitting on an invisible chair or creating a chair shape with their bodies. At the end of the day, my goal was to help kids relate to the poses in the simplest, most fun way possible.

[Uma] I found your backmatter fascinating as well. If it’s hard to write books aimed at the very young, I cannot imagine what it takes to get a toddler into balasana. Talk to me about how you approach teaching yoga to very young children.

Tree pose at Malaprops[Nora] I make it as imaginative and interactive as I can. Adults sometimes don’t realize that kids’ yoga classes look quite a bit different than adult classes. Specifically with very young children, I’ve found that nothing engages them like imagination and pretend play. For instance, if I asked a group of toddlers to mimic me in Child’s pose (Balasana) and stay for five deep breaths, most of them are not going to stay in that position very long. They get bored, restless, and start rolling around or getting up. However, if, like I do in the book, I ask them to pretend to be hawks and fly down to protect their chicks for five breaths, almost every single toddler is able to do that. The pretend play element gives children something to focus on, whereas adults are better able to concentrate on the sound of their breath or counting. Plus, it’s just fun! The kids love flapping their wings and “flying” down to their nest. It gives them ownership of the movement so they’re not just doing something that a grown up asked them to do for reasons they don’t understand. Importantly, the results of kids and adult yoga are the same. While pretending to safeguard their chicks, kids’ bodies and breath are still slowing down as they relax into a resting, forward folding bend. That is the main function of Balasana, even in an adult class.

[Uma] You are so finely attuned to the sensibility of the young child, so essential in writing for the youngest readers and listeners. Maybe those poems will find a home someplace one of these years. Thank you, Nora!

[Nora] Thanks so much for having me, Uma!

Update: Nora Carpenter’s YA novel, The Edge of Anything, is slated for publication in Spring 2020. Here’s a preview summary:

Sage is a high school volleyball star desperate to find a way around her sudden medical disqualification. Lennon is a loner teen photographer with a guilty secret. As Sage’s carefully planned life unravels and Len’s past increasingly threatens her safety, the girls develop an unlikely bond, finding the strength to conquer their internal monsters in a place neither of them expected: each other. Set in the mountainous outskirts of Asheville, North Carolina, The Edgeof Anything explores the transformative power of friendship and how it can help you find yourself and the goodness in life, even when everything feels broken.

Congratulations, Nora!

Ashokan Farewell at the VCFA Graduation

Graduations at VCFA are always touching and beautiful, but the one on January 20, 2018 was made particularly poignant by a haunting piece of music played by graduates Allison Ritchie on violin and Jillian Fox on piano: Ashokan Farewell.  It’s the tune that Ken Burns made famous in his PBS Civil War documentary. It tugged at the heart, background to the reading of the letter from Union officer Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife. Ballou knows he will die, and his anguish shows. The letter itself was found on his person and delivered to his wife after his death.

…”with my own joys,” Ballou wrote, “I lay down nearly all of yours…” He said that when his last breath escaped him, it would whisper her name.

It’s a complicated story, as is the story of the composition of that piece of music by folk musician and composer Jay Unger. The piece is titled in honor of a music and dance camp that Unger and his wife and musical partner Molly Mason have run in the area since the 1980’s. It’s also a tribute to the place in the Catskills where a dozen towns were flooded to create reservoirs, the Ashokan among them, to provide drinking water to New York City.

About composing this piece, Jay Unger writes:

I composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982 shortly after our Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps had come to an end for the season. I was feeling a great sense of loss and longing for the music, the dancing and the community of people that had developed at Ashokan that summer. I was having trouble making the transition from a secluded woodland camp with a small group of people who needed little excuse to celebrate the joy of living, back to life as usual, with traffic, newscasts, telephones and impersonal relationships. By the time the tune took form, I was in tears. I kept it to myself for months, unable to fully understand the emotions that welled up whenever I played it. I had no idea that this simple tune could affect others in the same way.

Unger calls it “a Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx.”

Purely by the kind of coincidence that you can’t make up if you try, the word Ashokan reverberates in quite a different way for me. It’s an adjective derived from the name of an emperor, Ashoka, who ruled almost all of present-day India in the 3rd century BCE. In the words of University of Hawaii history professor Jerry Bentley, following a bloody conflict, “Ashoka reflected on the war in Kalinga, which reportedly had resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and 150,000 deportations, ending at around 200,000 deaths.” Fron that moment, the legend goes, he gave up war, and dedicated the rest of his long reign to peace and the welfare of his people. Is that legend or reality? It was so long ago that the boundaries become permeable.

All those geographies and histories overlap and coalesce in this one tune. War and peace, sacrifice and the conflicting needs of people, and always time, stretching onward and over continents, all of it finding expression in stories.

Marion Dane Bauer on”Writer Air” and Mentoring

ph_smMDB01_150dpi.jpgIt's my great delight to talk once again with Marion Dane Bauer. Marion is a beloved writer and teacher. Her blog is a source of inspiration for many. She's a founding mother of the mother of all MFA programs in writing for children and young adults, a Newbery Honor author and a woman of humor and heart.  I got to talk to her about a new mentoring program she's launching.

[Uma] You’re offering something new just for women writers, Marion. You describe it as “occasional brief—Monday through Friday—one-on-one writing retreats for women in my St. Paul, Minnesota home.” It’s nothing less than the gift of your time, mind, and presence. I remember being at a writing retreat years ago and freezing up in the first few days, experiencing an unexpected terror at the solitude and the work ahead. But the presence of a mentor dedicated to me and my project, dedicated to meeting me where I am…it’s astonishing. Just the thought of such an experience makes me focus and take my own work more seriously.

So can you tell me what led you to this?

[Marion] It’s been a winding journey, and the destination turned out to be both inevitable and surprising, as the ending of any good story should be.  I have taught writing all my writing life, and I love teaching.  Having the opportunity to be one of the founding faculty and then the first Faculty Chair for the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults was, for me, the pinnacle of a long teaching career.  I loved the college.  I loved the faculty.  I loved my students.  I loved Vermont.  And of course, I loved teaching!  But the day came when it was all a bit too much  . . . too many students to keep track of, too much travel, too much of a struggle to hear in group conversations, too much time away from home and away from my own work.  So I retired with both regret and relief and settled into simply being a writer, which I’ve always held first anyway.  I told myself I didn’t miss teaching.  When people approached me, asking me to critique a manuscript, I turned them away.

But one day something curious happened.  A friend came to visit bringing a couple of picture book manuscripts she was working on.  She settled into my guest room, and we spent the next few days alternating between work and critique and occasional breaks for play.  And I found myself filling my lungs with what I can only call “writer air.”  It was like getting an extra dose of oxygen.

A few days after she left, another friend, a former student, came to town.  We met for breakfast and she told me about her struggle to get a new novel under control.  It seemed the most natural thing in the world to say, “Come home with me.  I have a room waiting for you.”  And she did.  We spent several days talking through and straightening her too-complex story line.

It was during one of those conversations that I found myself thinking, This is fun!  And then, I’d like to do this more often!  And the idea of mentoring writers in my home sprang to life.

[Uma] As you begin working with writers in this new and very intentional way, what are you finding out? About the process? About yourself?

[Marion] First, I’ve found out some things I already knew.  That I love teaching, that I do my best teaching one on one, and that my ability to pull a clear trajectory out of a story can get a mired manuscript moving again.

Second, in the intensity of this one-on-one exchange I have come to be especially aware how important it is never to intrude on another writer’s work.  I’m learning that I am most effective when I listen hardest and hear most clearly what the writer intends.

And third, I’ve discovered what a deep pleasure it is to have so much of my career behind me.  I’m still writing, of course, but I no longer have anything to prove, even to myself.  Being in that place opens me to real rejoicing over the success that comes to others and that rejoicing gives me energy to help propel those others forward.

[Uma] Can the intention itself be a changeable thing? Can the work sometimes take its own direction and outgrow the writer's original vision for it? Often we need to shed both ego and intention to follow the story's path rather than our own. How does the mentoring context foster honest engagement with a work in progress?

[Marion] My experience is that our stories, if they come from our deepest, most hidden places as our best stories do, speak a truth we are struggling to apprehend.  Sometimes we can get in our own way, in the way of our stories, as we work because we are trying to impose a truth rather than discover it.  A discerning reader, standing outside the story, can often see more clearly than the writer herself the truth she is reaching for.   And that is the moment when working with a mentor becomes gold.

A good editor can be that mentor, of course, but these days for most writers a manuscript has to be almost perfectly executed before that editor will come on board.  And so it can help enormously to have access to a source of objective and committed insight before a manuscript ever seeks an editor.

[Uma] No one knows better than you how teaching and writing can be mutually strengthening, and also how one can get in the way of the other. How do you see the mentoring retreats fitting in with your own writing life?

[Marion] I make it clear to my retreatants that I will be available but still going on with my own life and my own work while they are here, and I do just that.  I also limit the number of retreatants I invite into my home.

But beyond that it’s all gain for me.  Clarifying someone else’s story brings new clarity to my own, and simply talking, day after intensive day, in writer-speak—plot, point of view, voice, motivation—renews both the clarity and the energy I bring to my own pages.  When I live in isolation from other writers, my work begins to lose its legitimacy in my own eyes.  It doesn’t matter how many books I have published, some of the sense that what I’m doing matters slips away.  Talking to another writer, I find the significance of my own work again.  It’s that easy.

That I can do all this without leaving my home couldn’t be more perfect.  Gathering someone into my nest, nurturing her, building a new friendship or renewing an old one, all while helping a fellow writer’s work grow . . .  what better way could I spend the golden years of my career?

[Uma] And what better way to share the love than in this beautiful space? Look what you get for the week: rides to and from the airport, gourmet meals, pampering, company and solitude in the proportions that work for you–all this and manuscript whispering, the Marion way! Lucky writers.

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Teaching, Writing, and the Spaces in Between  

I am jet lagged already. I am on my way from India to Vermont, in the tender care of Lufthansa and assorted other airlines.
This is not the ideal way to prepare for residency, I know, but for complicated travel reasons, I didn’t have a choice. So here I am on my way to VCFA for the Winter 2017 residency, my workshop packet uploaded to my iPad. In a strange way, being in this travel bubble is helping me to get ready for the bubble that is residency. Ten days of lectures, workshops, students, old friends and new on faculty, preparing for the semester ahead, engaging in those large, animated, circuitous conversations about the work we all hold dear.

img_0580I understand the VCFA sign’s been repainted a brighter green since I was there last. That is fine by me. India has prepared me for extravagances of color and form.

The brighter the better.

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But now I’m beginning to appreciate the sign’s design, the spaces it affords for a shifting perspective. I can put my face into that square, or hang my current story over its edge like a melting Dali clock. I can look through its window and appreciate the space I have to live my writing life when I am not teaching. Which is every other semester now, because there is too much that needs to be done. I can’t teach year round and do it all.

Too much writing, too much travel, too much life. These ten days will have to stoke my writing fires year-round.

Is it Craft or is it Magic?

Students in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA  are asked to turn in an annotated bibliography each month. Mostly trade books for young readers, with a sprinkling of craft books and books not specifically intended for children. I ask my students to use that bibliography as an opportunity to read closely and thoughtfully and generously. I tell them to read books they might not otherwise have selected for themselves. To read several books published before the year they were born (thank you, Sarah Ellis). To read books published in countries other than their own. And when they read, I ask them to look for what makes a book work for them, or fail to do so. I tell them they must get beneath the surface of the text and try to examine its working parts. Which also means understanding their own reactions to a book–why do they like or dislike it? What part of that is the book’s doing and what part the reader’s background and feelings and experience?

My students sometime worry that this kind of close reading is going to ruin the magic of it for them. Secretly they worry that tinkering with their writing is also going to somehow kill its beating heart. Megan Abbott speaks of just this in her reflection on a youthful epiphany on reading Macbeth. Perhaps craft and magic are not two separate things, after all.

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Photo courtesy of VCFA

And now, VCFA has launched this incredible new venture. Focusing on bringing diverse young readers and writers to the table, the initiative introduces diverse young minds to the magic of craft and the universe of reading and writing. This has not happened overnight. It’s taken hard work and persistence and collaboration between the college and our amazing graduates. It’s taken an enduring belief in the confluence of craft and magic.

Breathing Again in Vermont

The last six months have been filled with loss and mourning. Then the VCFA residency rolled around and I had to postpone my travel to Vermont. Apart from travel delays, I have never been late to residency in the ten years I’ve taught here. But I couldn’t be in two places at once. And I had to make time for:

  • laundry between trips
  • recovering my breath
  • dealing with that feeling of emptiness you get when life has just beaten you up and there is nothing you can do

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But now I’m here at VCFA with this amazing writing community of students and faculty. Over the years, the conversation of books, life, and the intersections between them has stimulated and energized me and made me a better writer. This is a magical place and what happens here ends up having a profound effect on books for children and young adults in North America and beyond.

Now it is healing me and I am profoundly grateful.

 

VCFA’s Bath Residency

IMG_0344IMG_9328Thank you to Tim Wynne-Jones and Martine Leavitt for allowing me to drop in on the Bath Spa residency in July 2015.

IMG_9307I rode a bus through rolling countryside to the Newton Park campus, attended Martine’s terrific lecture, and then came back down the hill to town for an afternoon playing tourist in this lovely city. All purely joyful.

A million thanks as well to Julia Green, Lucy Christopher and everyone at Bath Spa University, and of course to Melissa Fisher, world-class residency planner, solver of problems and creator of program magic, and everyone else–you know who you are–who supported this effort.

Two residencies at once, one on either side of the pond. Quite a feat, VCFA!