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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What's Going on Now

  I'm juggling a lot this week. The children's literature class I teach at a local college is ending it's term, so I have projects to grade. I'm almost always impressed by some of the presentations my students give.
  My boss is back from BEA (which means lots of well-intentioned new ideas).
  And I'm desperately trying to finish Heart of a Samurai. It's the only Newbery I didn't read before this years' announcements.
  Why "desperately"? Because today my advanced reading copy of Land of the Painted Caves arrived. I started reading this adult novel series when I was 17 years old. The plans were for 7 books total, so I was looking forward to each new book.
   I turn 47 this year, so it's been a long time coming. I wonder, in today's market, would publishers have allowed such a thing to happen? I don't know. But I do know, I'm extremely happy J.K. Rowling wrote a little faster than Jean Auel. And now I'm happy the conclusion of this series has arrived.
   If I'm off the grid for a while, you'll know why.
Keep reading.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Drop Everything and Write!

   Drop Everything and Write! An Easy Breezy Guide for Kids Who Want to Write a Story by Linda Leopold Strauss [E & E Publishing] (out now).
   I believe in full disclosure, so I need to preface this entry with letting you know I've known Linda for many years. How many? I don't quite remember, but I do know that when I decided to jump into the world of writing for children, it wasn't long after that I met her. (That means it's close to 15 years now). In fact, for a long while, she was the only other person who read my work. It was her encouragement that sustained me during those first years. She's very good at encouraging new writers and offering helpful, constructive criticism.
  I've championed this book since its inception, and here's why:
  Yes, there are other books out there about writing, but this one is aimed at middle grade writers. It's a step by step primer for young, budding writers. Parents can use this to encourage their child's interests and help them along. And teachers have a great resource for any student who comes up and asks for help with "writing a book."
   But it's more than that. This book is an excellent starting point for any adult who wants to write for children. The book gives concrete examples of all those terms often thrown around by writers and editors -- characterization, plot, theme, voice, show, don't tell, and dialogue.
  In addition, there are some great writing exercises for all ages.
  I found one more thing about this book that I loved. As a former English and reading teacher, I found myself reviewing this book with great interest. Not only is it a book about writing, but I kept thinking, "This book would be great to teach literary elements and analysis with the kids." After all, it gives terrific and clear examples of all the elements, provides examples from novels they will (or should) have read, and gives them concise instructions on how to recognize and utilize these devices. What teacher wouldn't love that?
  Take some time and check this book out. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at its easy-to-read style, and its many, many uses for kids and adults.
   Keep reading.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Absolute Value of Kathryn Erskine

As I said in an earlier post, knowing a writer or illustrator doesn't always make me love (or even like) their latest work, but it does usually get them a higher place in my "to read" pile. Such is the case of Kathryn Erskine's upcoming book, The Absolute Value of Mike [Philomel] (June release). When the book arrived, I placed it on top of the pile.

I'm certainly glad I did. This one takes a 180 degree turn from her National Book Award winner Mockingbird. While there are some serious undertones to the book (many of the characters are coping with the death of a loved one), there's a great deal of humor in the book.  Additionally, the main character, Mike, seems to have fallen into a modern day Oz, encountering one eccentric character after another, and he's left to pull them together to fulfill their wishes.

There is an open-ended, but satisfying ending to the novel, so I'm guessing there may be a companion novel to follow. (One can only hope -- I don't want to say goodbye to these characters just yet.)

Add this one to your pile when it comes out. You won't regret it.

Keep reading.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

You're My Idol

          Given tonight's premier of the new season, I thought I'd post something I'd written a couple of years ago during one of my "frustrated" periods of submissions and rejections. Enjoy.

In spite of her Academy, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild awards, I feel sorry for Jennifer Hudson. No matter how many accolades she has received, every newspaper, TV show, and magazine has prefaced her name with “American Idol reject”  — a constant reminder that at one time she was just not good enough.
While Ms. Hudson stands as an inspiration for all aspiring singers and actors, there are some important lessons writers can glean from her story as well.
Let’s face it; American Idol did not reject Jennifer Hudson. The judges recognized her abilities. But even after Randy Jackson brought her back for another chance, the public voted her off the show. In a sense they told her, “This isn’t your time. Wait. Be patient.”
Writers encounter this message regularly. Phrases like “Not right for our list,” “We already have something similar on our list,” and “Your writing shows promise,” are just ways of telling the writer, “Your time is coming, but not now.”
As frustrating as this may be, writers need to keep Ms. Hudson in mind. Continue writing, continue submitting, and when it is your time, watch what happens.

Anyone who’s watched the show has at one time or another asked, “Why are you letting Simon speak to you like that?” It’s a natural reaction to criticism. But most of the aspiring singers nod, smile, and many say, “Thank you.”
For most people this behavior boggles the mind, but writers understand this seemingly unbelievable response. As each rejection letter arrives, there’s an overwhelming urge to send a response to the editors and tell them just how utterly and completely wrong they really are.
But writers don’t this. They accept the criticism, and in many cases, they prove to the editor just how fine of a writer they are. After all who else but a truly talented writer can compose a sincere thank you note that eloquently states, “I appreciate your telling me what’s wrong with my work and that you aren’t going to publish it. And I hope that you get the opportunity to do this again in the near future.”

Jennifer Hudson didn’t win American Idol, but that didn’t stop her from pursuing her dream. Instead, she used her talents to audition for a role in a film. Sure, it would require her singing skills, but she would use them differently. Sometimes writers need to remember their writing talents can be used in many different ways.
Novels and short stories are not the only venues for publication. Writers need to realize this and expand their horizons.
It’s been a long-held belief by writers that magazine credits improve the odds of getting a book published. Maybe. Maybe not. But in the pursuit of those credits, many writers have found careers and talents they didn’t know they had. And more than a few writers have eventually used those newfound gifts to create the book they always wanted to write.

So your work has been turned down a few times. Whose work hasn’t? But unlike that constant reminder following Jennifer Hudson’s success, publishing is a forgiving business. And failures or rejections, while they may end up as inspirational stories for future writers, are quickly pardoned and forgotten. So when that “someday” arrives and your writing receives the recognition you have always known it deserves, headlines won’t read HarperCollins Wannabe Wins the Caldecott or Random House Reject Nabs Newbery.

Jennifer Hudson has never let an opportunity pass to thank American Idol for the role it played in her success. More likely than not, if she had won, her life would have been very different from what it is now.
Maybe she would have won a Grammy for her debut album, but it’s doubtful she would have had the time to audition for her role in Dreamgirls. The recognition she most certainly deserves might not have happened, if she had won the competition.
So, as a writer, if you can’t let go of the rejections, keep a list of all those who rejected your work. And when the honors finally do arrive, thank those people, publicly and sincerely, for saying, ”It’s not your time. Wait. Be patient.”
If it hadn’t been for them, you would have never found the perfect editor at the perfect publisher who recognized that you were good enough, and it was your time. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

It Never Ends

When I started working at The Blue Marble, I thought it was great that publishers sent advanced reading copies (ARCs) for us to preview. Imagine seeing the works of your favorite authors BEFORE anyone else does. This was great! But as the years have progressed, I sometimes find this practice daunting -- this time of year especially.

While I'm trying to "catch up" on the award winning books I somehow missed reading, more and more ARCs are arriving. Already we have shelves of them dated through August of 2011. Some of my favorite authors' ARCs beckon me each time I walk past them. And there are new voices joining in the chorus too.

I have managed to get a few ARCs read recently. Some, I'm already hoping the rest of the children's book world will find as wonderful as I have.

Fantasy Baseball by Alan Gratz [Dial] (March release).
   By the time I was halfway through this book, I had a bit of reader's remorse. I'd wished I'd highlighted or taken notes on the storybook references and characters Alan includes in this book. There were so many I lost count. Honestly, I felt like I was on a treasure hunt, discovering new surprises with each page.
  This is the ultimate fantasy baseball book, with the main character waking up to find he's playing for Dorothy's (of The Wizard of Oz) baseball team -- a team made up of storybook characters. And even more interesting, all the teams are made up of fantasy players. The team who wins the league gets a wish from The Wizard himself.
  While the story is loads of fun, there is a serious and moving subplot woven through the book. Don't miss this one.

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt. [Clarion] (April release)
   This is a companion novel to Schmidt's Newbery Honor book, Wednesday Wars, and it's stunning. It follows Doug Swieteck as he moves to a new community. For some, this may be seen as an opportunity for a fresh start, but Doug's demons follow him. Fortunately, there are those in this new community who see Doug as a blank slate, not a reflection of his past or of the actions of certain members of his family.
  This time Schmidt uses the painting of Audubon, not Shakespeare, to shine a light on the dark places in Doug's life. And while this novel doesn't have as much humor as its predecessor, it does have the same emotional strength and poignancy.

True (Sort of) by Katherine Hannigan
   By the end of the first chapter of this book, readers know they are in for a special treat. Hannigan's talent for creating quirky and likable characters is at its best. True (Sort of) weaves the stories of a girl who is new to town and has selective mutism, a boy who is suddenly discovering he's no longer tall or talented enough to keep up in basketball, and a main character who is fighting the reputation she's gained through her own behavior. Each must face the truth in order to overcome their obstacles.
   Like Ida B., Hannigan tackles some very serious issues in this book. But she does it with such finesse that readers will not be pulled out of the store when faced with the jarring truth.

Well, that's about it for now.

Keep reading.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Perfect timing

This past week, the ALA announced the major literary awards for  children's literature. This year, there doesn't seem to be as much of an uproar as there has been in recent years over the choices. The books aren't all geared toward one sex. There are no anatomically correct names appearing on the first page (at least in those books that one would not expect that), and while the Newbery winner was not one on many (or any??) lists, everyone who has read the book -- including myself-- is not disappointed in this "dark horse" winner.

Usually, what I feel and hear from others is not about what was honored, but about what wasn't honored. Those who love children's books become very attached to our favorites, and it's hard to let go. (I still haven't forgiven the Newbery committees for passing over City of Ember, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and Alabama Moon)

So I thought I'd say congratulations to those who were honored for their hard work and excellence, but instead of writing about the winners, I thought I'd spend a little time recommending some things you might want to read while you are waiting for your copies of the winners of to arrive.

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz [Dutton]. This is a true kids' book. Funny, with enough gore (or as Gidwitz puts it "awesomeness") to delight everyone. In addition it makes a great read aloud.
Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea [Random House]. Beautifully written. Both funny and tragic, and yet it has such an emotionally satisfying ending. Reluctant readers will like this one (some pages have only  few words on them).
Mockingbird by Kathy Erskine [Philomel]. An amazing and timely book which also won the National Book Award for this year. This really is a masterpiece of writing. (Disclaimer: Kathy and I met at Chautauqua in 2004 and have been friends since. For any author, including Kathy, this does not influence my opinion of their work. However, it does get her books moved up in my "to read" pile.)
Dream of Night by Heather Henson [Atheneum]. When Heather told me what her new book was about, I was a little skeptical. A book told in three voices, including one of a mistreated horse? Could she pull it off? She did. What a wonderful book about acceptance, forgiveness, and healing.
Drizzle by Kathleen Van Cleve [Dial]. A book about a girl who lives on a magical rhubarb farm. Really. There's mystery. Humor. And anyone who makes a reader care so much about a rhubarb plant named Harry, deserves an award for something.

Bruiser by Neal Shusterman [Harper]. Almost nine months after reading this book, it still haunts me. The fine line Shusterman draws between abuse and reason is so thin, readers have a hard time figuring out where they stand.
Dirt Road Home by Watt Key [Farrar Straus Giroux]. This companion novel to Alabama Moon is rough for any reader. But it's so compelling that it can't be put down.

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin [Harper]. Not eligible for awards because it was self-published in 2008. This is the best read aloud of the year, and the illustrations are as wonderful as the text.
The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt] Again, not eligible because the illustrator is Canadian. A great book on all the types of "quiet" there are. The text is sparse, but the illustrations make it a pleasure to read again and again.
Chalk by Bill Thomson [Marshall Cavendish] This wordless picture book is not only stunning in its illustration, but also in it's concept.

Coretta Scott King
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper [Atheneum] Actually, this could be in the Newbery section too. One of Sharon's best pieces of writing, with a brilliant insight into the world of students who cannot communicate but can learn.

Well, that's about it. There are others of course, but I have to finish reading the only Newbery winner I had not read, The Heart of a Samurai, and then move on to this coming year's selections. (BTW, that may be what I tackle next here. There some great stuff on the way.

Keep reading.

Just to Start

It seems blogging is the thing to do these days, so I finally got myself motivated enough to start one. Now the question becomes, what am I going to write about?

Well, my world pretty much focuses on writing and reading for children, so I thought I'd start there. I thought I'd share my insights into books I've read, authors I've met, the great teachers and librarians I've had the privilege of working with, and my own struggles as a writer.

At the very least, this will give me a place to voice my thoughts. And if anyone else wants to read them, then that's even better.