Monday, February 9, 2015

Transcendence and Kwame Alexander

Guess what I got to do on Saturday?

I had the incredible pleasure of hearing the 2015 Newberry Award winner, Kwame Alexander, speak at the winter SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference. His book, The Crossover, is masterful. Its written in verse (free verse, rap, some rhyme). You should read it, no matter how old you are. It is transcendent.

Tran.scen.dent, adj., "existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe."

As in: this transcendent novel floats a few feet above what anyone else can do. As in: the way I feel, having just finished it, is transcendent. As in: I can only aspire to lift my readers to a transcendent level.

First, let me say that Kwame is the consummate storyteller, even when standing at the front of a room. Everything he says is well crafted, unexpected, entertaining and illuminating. What a skill.

His talk was about another transcendent issue; getting diversity into children's books. And his instruction was simple. Live a diverse life. He used his book to illustrate. Reading aloud several passages, he asked if the protagonist was black or white. Many people had firm opinions, though of course the answer is that it doesn't matter. It is about the reader.

A teacher called him in a panic to ask whether the protagonist was black or white, because the kids would want to know. Kwame told her they wouldn't ask, but if they did, to let him know. They didn't. Kwame visited a school in Ohio. Only two percent of the students were "of color." When he got there, the members of the basketball team each recited a piece from the book. They didn't care or ask -- they were the protagonist, each and every one of them.

At the end of the day, Kwame says, kids don't have a problem with diversity. We do. The grownups. We've got to get out of their way and stop confusing the issue. Time for some transcendence.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Snow Day

Its been snowing outside. The weather forecast was throwing around scary words - "historic," "power outages" and  "national guard." My husband is traveling, so I put in a few extra supplies, made sure we had batteries in the flashlights and extra water just in case, and my son and the dogs and I hunkered down. Then we only got 7 inches.

I'm used to snow. I grew up north of Boston, and we used to have some amazing snow storms. We lived in a big house (big enough to accommodate the ten of us) on High Street, and we all had shoveling duties in those days before the snowblower.

A great blog by Gordon Harris includes an article and photos of the historic storm of 1978 -- it was crazy, although my biggest memories are of people cross country skiing down the middle of the unplowed streets, and of Governor Dukakis in his winter sweaters on tv.

One day, after another, less historic storm, one of my sisters wanted to make cookies but we were lacking ingredients. The sun was shining, the streets had been plowed, and since the A&P was just a half mile from the house, I volunteered to go. My big sister Ginger tied a scarf around my neck and warned me to stay off of the road itself.

I headed out, bundled warmly and began my trek trough the drifts on the sides of the road. Now the drifts were enormous by my standards, and with each step I sunk in above my boots. It was slow going, and in no time I was weaving a story, having to do with Heidi and bringing supplies to my poor grandfather stuck in the cabin up on the mountain. I purchased my milk and eggs and headed back out into my daydream, completely immersed in my story of heroics.

Imagine my surprise, halfway home, when I heard my name called out. It was not Grandfather, of course, it was Ginger, and she had called several times before I came out of my reverie. She was in the road, and I was carefully picking my way through the drifts as high as my middle.

She was not pleased. "We were so worried about you, what on earth took you so long?"

I looked at her in surprise. "You said not to walk in the road!"

I think she still feels guilty, but I had a wonderful time.

Friday, January 23, 2015


I've started on my journey to publication with my middle-grades book, and so far I am taking the responses in stride: 

Unfortunately, I don't believe that we are the appropriate agents to represent this material

In this very competitive market, we are simply not enthusiastic enough about our ability to sell this work to offer you representation

We’re afraid your project does not seem right for our list

They are all very nice about it, and wish me luck as they send me out into the wilderness, and I am determinedly not taking it personally. After all, J.K. Rowling is said to have been rejected by 12 publishers (who are all very sad today) and C.S. Lewis was reportedly rejected over 800 times before he got something published! Beatrix Potter finally self-published. Meg Cabot collected rejections for three years before The Princess Diaries finally clicked with a publisher. 

I've only received four rejections so far (six if you count the two who haven't responded). I have taken them to heart, though, and return to my first pages again and again to try to read them through someone else's eyes. I've looked more deeply at the openings of other books in the genre, and made some adjustments. I keep track of queries and responses and keep researching agents. Thank goodness there are a lot!

My optimism ultimately does not come from statistics or anecdotes, though. It is the memory of my 11-year-old friend, Eleanor, who asked to be excused early from dinner so she could finish the last twenty pages of my manuscript. That told me all I need to know. I'll keep sending it until a grown-up agent or editor has that same feeling. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

How Old Is A Hero (or Heroine?)

How old should a hero be, if he or she is to appeal to a kid? I read a blog piece written by an agent who represents authors of Middle Grades books, and he thought the hero should be no older than the oldest age of target market. He'd been reading queries (notes authors send to agents trying to entice them to look at their books) that had 13-year-old protagonists. He thought they should be no more than twelve.

My book has a 13-year-old protagonist. I want this particular agent to ask to see more of my book. I decided it really didn't matter that much to my story whether my hero was 12 or 13, so for the purpose of this particular query I was writing, I changed him to a 12-year-old. He'll be fine. But it doesn't answer the question. How old should a hero be?

Harry Potter, after all, was famously eleven when we were introduced. The Narnia siblings ranged from eight to thirteen. the Orphans of the Mysterious St. Benedict Society are all 12 and under, and Jess in the Bridge to Terabithia is in fifth grade, so, Ten or Eleven. But I had the feeling when I was was writing that he had to be thirteen.

I think the important distinction is what concerns the character, and for that purpose I don't think there is much difference between twelve and thirteen. In fact I think  you could look at the span from 10-13 as the period of transition from child to teenager. My daughter cried the night before her tenth birthday because she wouldn't be in single digits anymore. She sensed the beginning of what we all experience as we grow older. We look forward eagerly to whatever comes next, but we still mourn what we were.

In those early double-digit years we are still children, but we are champing at the bit. We want to grow up badly, but we still hang on to the vestiges of childhood. That changes in the teens when we realize we are much smarter than our parents and can't understand why the world doesn't welcome the contributions we are ready to make.

So why did I make my hero thirteen? I think I wanted him to be a little older than the kids who would be reading the book. I know I always read up a bit in age, and I think many kids do the same. But when I dig deep to remember why I picked that magic age out of a hat, I realize it had to do solely and completely with one fact. It goes back to the time when I dreamed up the book and starting bouncing plot points around with an important consultant - my youngest son. Guess how old he was?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Bette Midler Loves Kids Lit!

I’ve always loved Bette Midler, and now I have another reason – she is a fellow lover of kid-lit. While innocently reading a copy of People Magazine in the doctor’s waiting room the other day, I came across this little piece.

Three of Bette's four "Books of My Life" are kid's books, and she chose all-stars. 

Her childhood favorite, Betsy Tacy and Tib, by Maude Hart-Lovelace, was one of mine too. The series is worth a whole blog entry on my part (and will receive due attention in the future). 

Bette identifies most strongly with Huckleberry Finn, of course, Mark Twain's quintessential American icon. The connection is an obvious one - Huck and Bette are both free spirits with heart. 

And the book that made her cry? The poignant White Fang, by Jack London. The Divine Miss M is not just a fan of kids books, they are the books that move her the most.

Her choices are wonderful books for kids, and each also offers a unique snapshot of life in an America that is no more. These are characters that have become iconic examples of our favorite national qualities - adventurous, kind, stubborn and persistent. 

Is Bette my kindred spirit? I like to think so - her beauty, talent...well, maybe our inner qualities are more in sync. But she is a good person, is truly funny and makes me cry whenever she sings. And she blogs too - check out her highly entertaining  "Bette Midler"!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Legends of lacrosse

The season is over. Not winter, nor spring. No, I'm talking lacrosse.

For the past thirteen springs, our household has bowed down before the god of lacrosse. We have bought equipment, we have taxied children to afternoon and evening practices and games, spent our weekends on the sidelines, brought coolers of gatorades and food ranging from snacks and pasta parties to full-out tailgates feeding fifty-plus young college men. We have sacrificed spring break for so long that I can't even remember what it was like to be able to visit relatives or plum locales in mid-April. 

Today the high school team ended its bid for the county championship, the club team finished a couple of weeks ago, and last week the college team fell in the semi-finals of the conference championship. If you are not a lax family, the previous sentence may sound like gibberish. But to us, these and other terms - checking, heads, shafts, crease, face-off, riding, long stick, and sideline - all have new meanings.

Lacrosse is the quintessential American game. The Native Americans played it throughout the East, from Canada and south to the Carolinas and beyond. It varied in form, and was often a form of battle between warring tribes. But it also produced some wonderful folklore.

My favorite tale comes from the Cherokee. In this tale, the animals challenged the birds to a game. As the birds took their places in the trees and the four-legged animals prepared themselves on the ground, two small mouse-like animals climbed the trees and asked the birds to join their team, explaining that the animals didn’t want them as they were too small. The birds found a piece of leather to attach to the legs of one, and created the bat. They took the other and stretched him, and created the flying squirrel. The two new creatures turned out to be valuable members of the team, and helped bring a victory to the birds.

The Cherokee called the game “anetsa” and tied a bit of leather to their strings in honor of the bat and the flying squirrel who helped them. Our boys and girls have lots of rituals too, including their “swag” such as socks worn a certain way, a band around the knee, hair ribbons and head bands for the girls; and they prepare as if for war, complete with war paint (blacking under the eyes) and war cries as they take the field.

For myself, I admit that between seasons I miss watching the grace, the speed, strength and agility of the game. But we can have a toss in the backyard. And now that I think of it, there are those summer tournaments…

Monday, January 6, 2014

Biblio Memories

 The Library in Ipswich Massachusetts, where I grew up, was an old brick building with a pretty ivy-covered entrance. The main entrance wasn't for me - it was, after all, to the adult section.  

When I went to the Library I turned right and made my way down a set of outdoor steps to the subterranean children’s section where I loaded up. The library was a short walk from home and I went often. It gave me independence. I could get there on my own and pick out my own books, by myself.

During my walks to and from I would inhabit other worlds – Heidi in the Swiss Alps climbing through the snow drifts; or Anne of Green Gables puzzling out her existence on Prince Edward Island; or a young Anne Frank, escaping from her attic hiding place and finding her way to freedom (in your imagination you can change the endings if you like).

I remember the desperation of being curled up on the couch at home with a book I was about to finish and realizing the library was already closed. It was torture to be unable to get a new book until the next day – or even after the weekend. I had no Facebook or Candy Crush to alleviate the boredom until I could get the next book in the series. And anyway I didn’t want something else to do. I wanted the glorious feeling of being completely engrossed in a story. 

As I look at my bedside table overflowing with books I haven’t had time to read, I reach back in memory to that boredom, that listlessness of wandering dramatically through the rooms in our house. I wish.

The library in my grown-up town is very different from that little space in Ipswich. This one has a light and airy children’s room with computers and story time. There is a cafĂ© off the main lobby where local writers gather or moms with strollers clog the passageways. A large section is devoted to books on tape, and another to DVDs of movies. The elderly sit side-by-side with school children at computer monitors, surfing the web and checking their email. The entrance is not ivy covered, and the bricks are in the walkway, inscribed with the names of benefactors from a long-ago fundraiser. The card catalogue has been replaced by an on-line catalogue, through which one can check if a book is available here or in another library, in another town.

I imagine my old Library in Ipswich has evolved, too, and has many of the amenities one would expect in 2014. But I prefer leaving it intact in my memory, as it was when a young girl relied on its bountiful shelves.