Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday Round Up: Black History, Teachers, and More

Ah, another Friday week-in-review. This week flew by as did the last, and the week before I didn’t have time for a wrap-up but I wanted to mention the Black History Month event I went to sponsored by The Texas Book Festival, KAZI Book Review and the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center on Saturday February 12th. Friend and fellow, DDD Varian Johnson sat on the esteemed panel, in between two-powerhouse historians: Dr. Juliet Walker and Dr. Jennifer Jensen Wallach.

The two hour long conversational style panel covered books of note from the past, books of note to keep an eye-out-for and everything in between. Dr. Juliet Walker spoke much about black businesses and how the study of economics within the black community is not given its due. She was a fascinating (and funny) speaker. I was more than taken with Dr. Jensen Wallach’s energy and passion for African-American history. I snapped up her book From Black Boy to World Citizen, a biography of Richard Wright to add to my collection and was glad to have a few moments to chat with her as she signed the copy of my newly purchased book. And, Varian Johnson, as always, was charming, knowledgeable, and spoke with a tremendous love and respect for the YA field. It was a great night, followed by a great dinner with friends.

Associate Professor Sharon O'Neal and I. (Namaste)
And now, fast forward again to this week. On Wednesday I had the honor of visiting Associate Professor Sharon O’Neal’s graduate students whom are studying Children’s Literature. I was there as the students moved into looking at historical fiction, and spoke about Truth with a Capital T, though a contemporary novel is one that has historical threads running throughout. Sharon moderated the TBF panel I was on last October and it was such a treat to see her again. If one ever needs an introduction, Sharon O’Neal is the one to give it. She makes one feel like a celebrity and plums ones past for all sorts of juicy tidbits.

After the intro we got down to business, having a free-flowing discussion that covered everything from race, revision, novel structure, the back story behind my upcoming picture book Grandfather Gandhi (co-written with Arun Gandhi), the societal economics portrayed in Between Us Baxters (my historical novel set in the Civil Rights Era) to bridging the gap between the North and the South and so much more.

Teachers and soon to be teachers studying Children's Lit. Yep, and that is 4 year old Bethany up on the screen.
At the end of the evening, Sharon asked the class to share one thing they loved about the book and I was so touched hearing the student’s replies. One student shared that she came from a racial diverse family with adopted siblings and felt that Maebelle and Isaac were representative of that family dynamic, another student thought I nailed the 11-year old voice, and another wondered as she read if I—the author—was white or black since I did such a fine job portraying both races (I loved hearing this) and another student—a teacher of high school kids—read the line near the end where Isaac admits he has waited his whole life not to be the one and only—and how this line made this woman teary-eyed and gave her the way in to talk about this book to her high school kids. It was such a treat to be with these students—those in the classroom—and those looking for positions.

In an email of thanks for the wonderful evening to Sharon O’Neal this morning (did I mention there was tea and cookies, as well!), Maebelle had to have her say too. She wrote:

Dear Ms. Sharon,

A big heartfelt thank you from cousin Isaac and I for reading and sharing our story. Teachers (always spelled with a capital T, in my opinion) are the hardest working folks around and I know, without a doubt, that if you or any of your students were issuing that G&T test I never would have been kicked out of the program. But, now that I have been, I reckon it is a-okay. 'Cause like that song says, "you got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em." And, after meeting you and those book loving ladies last night I know I don't need a test score to dub me the real deal and I sure do thank you for that.

Signing off with my new fav-o-rite word.


Maebelle T (for Teachable) Earl.

Thursday night brought out the book folks for yet another celebration—this one at Waterloo to celebrate Meredith Davis for receiving her MFA from VCFA. Meredith is near and dear to all of us. She began the Austin SCBWI community fifteen years ago and we kid-lit folks owe her a big debt of gratitude. Meredith’s talents, time, efforts, and gracious smile have graced us all at one point or another. So it was a thrill to turn out and celebrate her accomplishments with cheese fries and cake!

Upcoming at the WLT (my home away from home)

The WLT YA A to Z Conference has added more folks to the upcoming April Conference. See here for details.

And the WLT Manuscript Contest and Book Awards (do not have to be a member or a Texas author to win) final deadlines are looming. Get entries in by March 1st for the Manuscript Contest and March 15th for the Book Awards. See here for more details.

Coming Up for Me (and Truth with a Capital T)

The kind folks at the Brazos Valley SCBWI are hosting me for a workshop titled “Creating Your Own Canon” on March 26th from 10am to 1pm. If in the College Station area or willing to head down that way, click here for the workshop registration materials.

Don’t forget the YA Diversity in Fiction Tour is making an Austin stop. Authors Jo Whittemore, Varian Johnson and I join Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo. Check the YA Diversity Tour website for more information.

Outside Awesome Austin

Congrats to the SCBWI Golden Kite Winners. Thrilled to see so many books I love and a big shout out to buddy, Tanya Lee Stone.

In sad news, the children’s industry which has been hit hard with a number of deaths recently is saddened to say goodbye to yet another. Author L.K. Madigan, died this week at the age of 47. This write-up is especially touching.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Inside the Writer's Studio with Kimberly Marcus, author of Exposed

Today for Inside the Writer’s Studio we welcome debut novelist Kimberly Marcus. Her raw free verse novel Exposed has had much pre-buzz and I am thrilled the book is now out and we all can read what those behind the scenes have been buzzing about. I’ve met Kimberly in person at various conferences in the Northeast, and she is down-to-earth, warm, and funny as she is talented. 

Here is a bit about the novel from the publisher, Random House:

In the dim light of the darkroom, I'm alone, but not for long.
As white turns to gray, Kate is with me.
The background of the dance studio blurred, so the focus is all on her
legs extended in a perfect soaring split.
The straight line to my squiggle,
my forever-best friend.

Sixteen-year-old Liz is Photogirl—sharp, focused and confident in what she sees through her camera lens. Confident that she and Kate will be best friends forever.

But everything changes in one blurry night. Suddenly, Kate is avoiding her, and people are looking the other way when she passes in the halls. As the aftershocks from a startling accusation rip through Liz's world, everything she thought she knew about photography, family, friendship and herself shifts out of focus. What happens when the picture you see no longer makes sense? What do you do when you may lose everything you love most? Told in stunning, searingly raw free verse, Exposed is Kimberly Marcus's gut-wrenching, riveting debut and will appeal to fans of Ellen Hopkins, Laurie Halse Anderson and Virginia Euwer Wolff.

And look at the raves from authors we all know and love!

“Exposed is on the money. Not a word out of place and it tells a great grim truth.”
Chris Crutcher,award-winning author of Whale Talk

“Tight, edgy emotionally true down to the bone. I couldn’t put it down!”
Tamora Pierce, New York Times bestselling author of Bloodhound

“Honest, heartfelt, moving, and memorable.”
Nancy Werlin, New York Times bestselling author of Impossible

“Gripping and thoughtful, Exposed takes a penetrating look at how a single night can change you forever.”
Patricia McCormick, author of Sold, a National Book Award finalist

Is there a story behind Exposed that you wish to share? (Ie: the ah-ha or lightning moment where the story inspiration struck)

Years back, when I was focused on writing picture books but contemplating the thought of writing a novel, I met an editor at a writer’s conference. We started up a conversation in which I mentioned that I was a therapist, with a particular interest in trauma work. She said to me, “If you ever decide to write a book about trauma, I’d love to see it.” I’d been thinking of how my clinical background might serve to inform a novel-length idea, and her comment was just the boost I needed to get started.

How do you stay inspired to face the dreaded blank page? Is it something you dread? Look forward to? Share a bit about your writing process.

I’m happy to share a bit of my writing process, but I don’t profess that it should be a model for anyone else! I tend to dread the blank page, and feel much more comfortable picking a story apart during the revision phase than I do trying to get out a first draft. I make stabs at writing in a linear fashion, but seem to find that most scenes come to me out of sequence. And scenes tend to come to me, most often, as snippets of running dialogue between characters. I don’t tend to worry too much about tag lines, or word choice, or description in the initial stages of writing. Those things get attended to later, when I’m going back to figure out exactly what it is that I’m trying to do with that particular scene, what the emotional core should be. After that I think about things like the best word choice, necessary tag lines, description, and imagery. And then I try to put the whole thing together in a way that makes sense!

How important is community in keeping you inspired? What authors are a part of your virtual and/or hometown community? How do they keep you inspired? How do you inspire them?

Community is key to keeping me inspired. I’ve been blessed with a fabulous in-person writers group. We meet once a month and they keep me on my toes. I also have two trusted readers, who also happen be talented writers and trusted friends, who are willing to read drafts of my work before I dare show those drafts to anyone else. And I have a small group of writers whose valued opinions I save for the later, and hopefully neater, drafts.

What were some of the challenges you encountered when working on this novel/picture book? How did you overcome those challenges?

One challenge in working on Exposed was figuring out whose story it was to tell. Originally, this story wasn’t told from Liz’s point of view. It was told from the point of view of her best friend, Kate. Then, for a while, it was told in alternating voices between the two characters. But the more I worked to flesh the story out, the more interested I became in Liz’s view of what was happening. Eventually, I gave the story entirely to her. Another challenge was finding the best form for telling the story. Exposed is written in free verse poetry, but it didn’t start out that way. It started out as a novel in prose. At one point in its writing, I became stuck on a scene. A friend, who knew my love of poetry, suggested I try recreating the scene in free verse as an exercise to get unstuck. It worked, helping me to create a snapshot of emotion, so I decided to write the whole book that way.

How does “place” come through in your writing? How important is place in this current novel/picture book? Is it tied to a place you once lived or are familiar with or is it a new world entirely?

I think there are many interpretations of the meaning for “place,” including the emotional spot your character is in. But, with regard to place as setting, Exposed takes place in the fictionalized town of Shoreview (a beach community on Cape Cod in Massachusetts) and on the nearby island of Martha’s Vineyard.Shoreview is based on the real town of Falmouth, MA. The beach town and island locations are important to the plot because Liz works in the concession stands on the ferries that travel back and forth between Shoreview and the Vineyard, and because she is focusing part of her photography portfolio on off-season shots of the island and its residents. The beach is also important, as it’s the place where Liz and Kate met and spent so much of their time together. I grew up not far from Cape Cod and have spent a a great deal of time there myself, mostly in a home in Falmouth. I’ve also vacationed for years on Martha’s Vineyard and consider it one of my favorite places.

How do you balance the internal and external arc in the story? Which comes to you first—the external action or what is emotionally at stake? How do you weave the two together?

I think the balancing of those arcs is, for me, one of the toughest parts of the writing process. Thankfully, I have a fabulous editor to help me out! The emotional arc is, almost always, the one that comes to me first. Perhaps that’s because the external arc is one I usually see as more tied to plot, and plot doesn’t pop into my head in a speedy fashion (though I would love it if that happened!). I try to weave from the get-go, but it’s usually only after a few revisions that I figure out how the threads might work together as a whole.

Do you have a favorite craft book? If so, what is it? And what is your favorite take away?

One of my favorite craft books is The Screenwriter’s Workbook, by Syd Field. As you can probably tell from the title, this is not a book on how to craft novels - but I find it quite helpful, especially in terms of structure and pacing. I’ve read a number of wonderful craft books, but also some that are quite dense in tone and content. I think one reason I like this particular one so much is that the author breaks down screenplays from movies I’ve seen as a way to show how they are developed. This makes for an interesting, relatable way to view my own process of writing.

Inspired by the Actors Studio, what sound do you love? What sound do you hate?

 I love the sound of the ocean. I hate the sound of my alarm clock!

In ode to Maebelle, the main character in my new book Truth with a Capital T, who keeps a book of little known facts about just about everything, please share a wacky piece of trivia that has stuck with you or please share a little known fact about YOU.

In Exposed, Liz takes some photos of the Flying Horses Carousel on Martha’s Vineyard.This is a real carousel, in the Vineyard town of Oak Bluffs. It’s the oldest operating platform carousel in the country, and it’s listed as a National Historic Landmark, with horses that don’t go up and down like modern carousels. This might not classify as wacky, but here’s something I find interesting: Their manes and tales are made from real horsehair, and their glass eyes each contain a tiny hand-carved animal.

Thanks to Kimberly for being with us. Exposed is long-awaited and I am so thrilled I can now get my hands on a copy!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

SCBWI Books, Boots, and Buckskin Wrap-Up

(Note: written on Sunday and posted today.)

I am bleary-eyed and sipping coffee at Dominican Joe’s and waiting to pick up my friend, K. A. Nuzum, for one last lunch, before my SCBWI Austin Conference festivities officially end.  What a weekend. Debbie Gonzales, Carmen Oliver, Mark Mitchell and so many others organized a heck (*wink to Elizabeth Law) of a conference.

This year’s conference was held on the St. Edward’s campus at the Ragsdale Center. We were welcomed by the St. Edward’s President, who revealed, in the future the college known for its fabulous liberal arts programs hopes to add a concentration in Writing for Children and Young Adults. How wonderful that would be! And, then came the readings. What a treat! Since graduating VCFA I’ve missed hearing authors read as most book parties only have brief readings when a book release is being celebrated. The lights were turned low and Kimberly Willis Holt was the first to read from The Water Seeker. (And she had an enormously gracious introduction by Liz Garton Scanlon. The intro’s at the conference were works of art in and of themselves.) Kimberly’s red hair obscured some of her face as she read—causing a fan to gush at me in the ladies room on Saturday a.m. “I loved your reading last night.” I told her I loved last night’s reading too but had to disappoint her that I wasn’t Kimberly. Ah, but to be confused even for a moment was a thrill and an even bigger thrill came when I was asked to sign a copy of Between Us Baxters for the Holt family.

Next up to read was Carolyn Coman who read and showcased the incredible art by Rob Shepperson, the illustrator in her new novel, The Memory Bank, published by another event attendee Arthur A. Levine. I adore Carolyn, her words, her work, and the way both wrap me in a spell I never want to leave. It’s no surprise that after her reading The Memory Bank flew off the BookPeople table upstairs.

After Carolyn, Arthur A. Levine put on his author hat and read from his new picture book Monday is One Day, illustrated by Julian Hector, who was also in attendance and stood at the projector flipping the book’s pages so we could all admire the art. (I was thrilled to learn the book is dedicated to the editor of my forthcoming picture book Grandfather Gandhi, Namrata Tripathi, who Julian told me  Nami discovered him when he was at Parsons.)

The evening ended with wine and cheese and bids at the silent auction. A group of VCFA folks and friends headed down to Pollvo’s and ate to our bellies were full.

David Diaz in a photo project by Amy Rose Capetta
The full festivities began on Saturday a.m.  I had six ten-minute critique sessions with writers from Austin and other parts. For a number of my critique-es this was their first conference. I admire their bravery in showing their work, taking in the feedback and remember sitting on their side of the table receiving feedback in a semi-public  situation. Kudos to them and I wish them all luck on their writerly journey.

After the whirlwind sessions (speed-editing, anyone?) I was able to join most of the events in Jones Hall. I got to see David Diaz paint on the spot as Carmen Oliver read a bit from a picture book WIP. David answered questions and kept inspiration high.

Elizabeth Law, Publisher of Egmont Books, U.S.A. was given a fabulous intro by talented Austinite P. J. Hoover. Elizabeth never fails to inform her audiences and also entertain them. She is spontaneous, hysterically funny and cares about books, authors, and our industry even over her other passions Farmville and Twilight.

At lunch everyone mingled and strangely enough I found myself back to back with my editor Michelle Poploff (the editor behind this year’s Newbery winning book, Moon Over Manifest.), which is how we ended up meeting for the very first time at an SCBWI NJ Conference held at Princeton. We chatted over our shoulders and I revealed that later in the day at the panel I was to moderate with she and stellar agent, Emily van Beek of Folio Lit., I was going to ask both a little-known-fact about themselves in ode to my last question on my weekly Inside the Writer’s Studio interviews. (Plus, Michelle is directly responsible as she pushed me to find an emotionally resonant little-known-fact to open each chapter of Truth with a Capital T.)

Later that day, it was panel time. I titled my talk with Emily and Michelle “The Ins and Outs of Acquisitions” and much information not usually covered was discussed: the pros and cons of editorial agents, what may be a deciding factor when more than one offer comes in on a project, how acquisitions works at Delacorte,  and some other juicy tidbits that you had to be in the room to hear. 

Folio Literary Agent, Emily Van Beek and her 3 words. 

Moi with my 3 words in ode to the Memory Bank, our Acquisitions panel discussion and David Diaz's transformation of the verb fly in his picture book, Frida.

The last session of the day assembled all of the visiting agents and editors for a big, informative, and funny (how can it not be with Elizabeth Law and Arthur A. Levine on the panel. Let’s just say, the sexiness of sea mollusks were spoken of as the next big trend.) panel moderated by Julie Lake with individual and stellar introductions given by Carmen Oliver.

The day ended with a slide show of the roaming photographer’s pictures capturing the spirit and energy of the conference. More wine, cheese, and book talk occurred. I spoke briefly with Arthur A. Levine about my mentor, Norma Fox Mazer, who passed away last year. Arthur launched his own imprint with my favorite of Norma’s tough/tender stories, When She Was Good.  Silent auction item winners were announced, illustrator portfolio winners too and one by one everyone trickled out of the Mabee Ballroom.

Debbie Gonzales organized an after conference party at the Wyndham for the conference faculty, area authors, and other book professionals. The Delacorte Dames and Dude gathered ye round Delacort editor Michelle Poploff for a group picture. Some funny. Some serious. Some with our own version of jazz hands. And, again, as the night wound down and after the quesadilla bar shut down, we made our way back to our homes and hotel rooms, tired, content, and ready to write again.

And for some other Awesome Austin Conference Write-Ups visit:

Donna Bowman Bratton, editor and author, Arthur A. Levine on Community, PJ Hoover and for more fabulous 3 Word Project pics by Amy Rose Capetta visit the Austin SCBWI Page,  illustrator and portfolio critique winner Marsha Riti with I am sure more write-ups to come!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Reading Like a Writer, The Heart of Sundee T. Frazier

Yep, it is the third Monday here in Black History month and I have been featuring some of my favorite middle grade novels from the last year or so. We looked at the Wisdom of Kekla Magoon, the Bravery of Rita Williams-Garcia, and now today we're exploring the Heart of Sundee T. Frazier, with her latest novel, The Other Half of My Heart.


Sundee is a friend and a critique partner. We share the same editor and same agent so we often trade work when it is close to sharing with either Michelle (editor) or Regina (agent). I had the good fortune of reading about Minni and Kiera long before other readers would. I got to see how the way not only the mind and intellect of Sundee works but also the heart. Sundee is not a sloppy writer, she chooses her words with precision. And she slices into the heart the same way, with the skill of a surgeon.  Look at this scene:

Mama put her drink on the counter and grasped the phone with her hand again. She stood silently, looking out the window over the sink. When she turned, the skin between her eyebrows was wrinkled. She pinched the bridge of her flat, triangular nose, the way she often did when talking to her mom. "We've already discussed this. I agreed to let them participate when they turn twelve. They just turned eleven." Mama reached for a cookie. Normally, Mama didn't eat junk food, but Grandmother Johnson, a large woman who liked to throw her weight around, often drove her to do things she wouldn’t normally do.

"Black Pearls of America is a fine organization. I was a part of it. Yes, I know the girls stand to gain by participating. But why—"

Keira came running down the hall in her socks and slid into the kitchen. "Is she talking about the pageant?" she asked Minni excitedly. She'd pulled her thick, tight curls into two pompons, like Mickey Mouse ears.
Afro puffs, they called them in their house.

Minni shrugged. She hoped not. They'd been hearing about Miss Black Pearl Preteen since they were six. From Grandmother Johnson, of course – not Mama so much, although she had competed in Miss Black Pearl of America as a teenager. 

One gets the sense right away with what is at stake. A beauty pageant--and one for young black women. This tugs at the reader as we already know that inside the biracial family Kiera is the twin with darker skin, and Minni is the one who has white-appearing in features. (For a real life family where this is the case, read about the British family here.) These differences in skin tone have never mattered to the girls before, but now, as they are coming of age they will. Yes? To others. But also to themselves. 

With humor and compassion, Sundee explores the heart of these two sisters. Booklist even raved:

 "A novel with a great deal of heart indeed . . ."

 The book beats with love, sisterhood and explores biracial families with truth and honesty. If you haven't yet read it, do. The other half of your heart won't be sorry you did.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Inside the Writer's Studio with Charlotte Agell

Today we welcome teacher, artist, mom, talented Swede, Maine resident and future Hunger Mountain contributor (look for her upcoming essay Where the Censor Hides when the new issue goes live!) Charlotte Agell the author of The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister  and much, much more. Though I only knew Charlotte from online, having been introduced by the curious Kirsten Cappy of Curious City, I am awed by Charlotte’s zest for life, for art, and for what really matters. It is my pleasure to have her with us for Inside the Writer’s Studio today.

Here are a few of the awesome reviews for India McAllister.

“Illustrated with India’s captioned drawings, the engaging first-person narrative centers on one child’s concerns, captures the emotional nuances of her relationships with others, and includes well-defined portrayals of adults as well as children. A promising start for the series.” --Booklist

Enjoyable, engaging and emotionally resonant.” --Kirkus Reviews

"A delightful addition to the middle-grade canon."-- Publisher's Weekly

Now on to the interview…

How do you stay inspired to face the dreaded blank page? Is it something you dread? Look forward to? Share a bit about your writing process.

As a halftime middle school teacher, I’m always trying to clear the decks for writing and drawing. My lack of time somehow allows me to skip the blank-page-staring-back-at-me stage. Ideas notice that I am very busy, and, perverse entities that they are, swarm around my head, taunting me to choose them, choose them – we know you only have a few minutes…. The blank page becomes a place to catch one of the ideas, to play with it for a few minutes. Who knows what will happen next?

Whenever possible, I scrawl down the freshly idea, jot down the picture notion, right when it strikes. This means I have notebooks and post-it notes everywhere…my own literary litter. Since ideas sometimes (often!) come at inopportune moments - a run, a ski, the middle of the night - I’ve developed some mechanisms for remembering. One of these is to move my ring to the “wrong” hand, thereby reminding myself that I need to write something down as soon as possible. Thinking I will remember never works. If I wait too long, somehow the physics of it changes, the fresh energy dulls.

Then, there’s the follow-through stage. I often have many things going at once. Back burner ideas, front burner ideas. I love it when I’m so immersed that time just flies, especially when I’m not simultaneously trying to cook something. (I have a big sign over my desk: Don’t cook and write at the same time, for you will burn the rice! Based on a true and acrid story!)

How important is community in keeping you inspired? What authors are a part of your virtual and/or hometown community? How do they keep you inspired? How do you inspire them?

My school community keeps me very inspired. I’m a teacher in a 5th-8th public school in Maine. Everyone is writing, writing, writing, and reading all the time. This helps me stay close to the world of kids, now that my own are grown. It also helps put the act of writing in some perspective. It’s precious, yes, but not meant for a pedestal. We’re all busy writing. It’s just writing. Kids, of course, are amazing thinkers and philosophers. I am so very often inspired by my students and their amazing writing journeys.

Brunswick, Maine is full of writers and illustrators. Newbery honor author Cynthia Lord lives just down my street. YA author Maria Padian is around the corner. Blogger and writer Sarah Laurence is only blocks away. The list goes on…. Not only that, but my chosen hometown features not only Bowdoin College, but also a fabulous longstanding independent bookstore, The Gulf of Maine. There’s always a creative conversation happening somewhere nearby! The writing community in Maine in general is very supportive. Check out Maine Writers & Publishers Association, for example. This setting feels like exactly where I want to be, - close to the sea in a place that values writing and art. I feel fortunate absolutely every day.

Charlotte, her daughter, and mother.
My husband, daughter, and son are all artists of one sort or another. Actually, that goes for most of my extended family. They understand the strange process sometimes necessary to the creative process. When I leap up from the dinner table in order to go write something down, they don’t flinch. My husband is used to the scritch of my pencil at the oddest of hours. Nobody ever asks me how many pages I have written on a particular day. Making stuff is the norm around here.

Theme can be seen as a dirty word but as writers I believe we all have something to say, something we want to share with the world. What is that something for you?

One of my books is called Welcome Home or Someplace Like It. It features Aggie, who has moved a great deal, and wonders what and where home is. As someone who grew up on three continents, I think the theme of home runs through much of my work. Whether it’s India figuring out her identity as an adopted girl in a tiny Maine town, Adrian fighting against HomeState for a more sane society, or picture book Dragon and friends going up a mountain chanting, “We can always go back home again,” I often seem to be chewing on the notion of HOME.

Is there anything that you are afraid/worried/concerned of tackling in your work? Genre-wise? Audience-wise? Topic-wise?

Not really, although sometimes others get concerned. Occasionally, I feel censored. In one picture book there is a mom nursing a baby (there would have been two such, but a major publisher made me change just such a picture). India has a gay father (and there is a breast on the wall of her mom’s house – a plaster cast depicted as a line drawing). Aggie’s brother is gay. Adrian swears a lot, until he’s deep enough into his mission to feel empowered. Maybe some of these things are controversial, but I hope not! They are just integral to the worlds I have crafted…and why not?

How does “place” come through in your writing? How important is place in this current novel/picture book? Is it tied to a place you once lived or are familiar with or is it a new world entirely?

I have set my current book/series in a fictitious inland Maine town. My daughter dubbed it Wolfgang, when I was trying to come up with a name. It’s an inside joke, as another novel of mine features a fictitious coastal town named Ludwig. My Maine settings are a curious mix of elements of the real Maine and those of my childhood Sweden. It’s important to me that the settings ring true, not just physically but also psychically. I’ve anchored them in my own emotional landscape, as well as tethered them to the real geography of Maine. It’s where I wander!

How do you balance the internal and external arc in the story? Which comes to you first—the external action or what is emotionally at stake? How do you weave the two together? 

The internal arc always strikes me first, since I inevitably begin with character. I have to wait to see where the characters will take me, which is often a time intensive quest (thirteen drafts anyone?!). Characters like to gallavant and roam, but if you listen to them, they will take you where they need to go. Don’t argue! This is probably the reason that the average novel supposedly takes 2-10 years. (I wish I could remember where I heard this!) Picture books happen the same way with me. I work out from the particular (character/conflict) to the more general journey and plot. Once in a while, I radically boil things down. My very first picture book, The Sailor’s Book, started life as a chapter book. When it wasn’t working, I took out 98% of it. Sweet! Almost like making maple syrup out of sap. 

Which literary character, yours or another author’s, do you most relate to? And why?
I’m very fond of Harold and his purple crayon. He creates his own world – and it sometimes gets scary and out of control, just like the creative process. But who would want to live any other way? Not I. Pippi Longstocking, fellow Swede, is another inspiration. She dares to be herself in the most ridiculous and empowering ways.

Do you have a favorite craft book? If so, what is it? And what is your favorite take away? 

Worlds of Childhood – the Art and Craft of Writing for Children, edited by William Zinsser (Houghton Mifflin 1990) is dog-eared and full of sticky notes. It features the perspectives of six very different writers for children – Jean Fritz, Maurice Sendak, Jill Krementz, Jack Prelutsky, Rosemary Wells, and Katherine Paterson. Reading their words, it becomes extra clear that telling the truth lies at the heart of the craft - even if it’s not the literal truth. I like to think about that.

In ode to Maebelle, the main character in my new book Truth with a Capital T, who keeps a book of little known facts about just about everything, please share a wacky piece of trivia that has stuck with you or please share a little known fact about YOU.

I turned an abandoned phone booth into a poem booth. It lives outside my classroom door. Each week it is filled with students’ work. This week’s theme is “nothing.” There are several thought-provoking poems, and one blank sheet, signed by the “author.”

 Thanks to Charlotte for being with us and don't miss her essay Where the Censor Hides, soon to be live on Hunger Mountain.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reading Like a Writer: The Bravery of Rita Williams-Garcia

I love One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia and am so glad it racked up during awards season. There was no award out there it didn’t get recognized for—except maybe the Edgar, which it is not a fit for. To recap the shiny stickers for One Crazy Summer we have: a National Book Award finalist, a Newbery Honor winner, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction. Hear, hear!

The book is outstanding for so many reasons. So. Many. Reasons. But my applause is for Rita Williams-Garcia's unparalleled bravery.

Delphine and her sisters Vonetta and Fern not only stole our hearts, they captured the spirit and societal changes going on in the late 1960’s at the onset of the Black Power Movement. The very first paragraph grounds us in the era as the three sisters take off on an Oakland, California bound plane with the line, “Those clouds weren’t through with us yet and dealt another Cassius Clay-left-and-a-right jab to the body of our Boeing 727.” Later in the first chapter, Delphine goes on to add:
“Big Ma---that’s Pa’s mother—still says Cassius Clay. Pa says Muhammad Ali or just Ali. I slide back and forth from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. Whatever picture comes to mind. With Cassius you hear the clash of fists, like the plane getting jabbed and punched. With Muhammad Ali you see a might mountain, greater than Everest, and can’t no one knock down a mountain.”  (3)

It isn’t just the references to a famous boxer that set the tone and time. The girls mother—Cecile, the main source of conflict—as the girls try to bond with their mother who left them years ago does much to capture the time and place. Cecile is a poet. She is bound by words, not by family strings. As I read Cecile, who comes across not only as unlikable but obstinate, unloving and un-self sacrificing, I found myself bonding with her. I felt like one of the women from For Colored Girls Who Have Suicide When the Rainbow is Not Enuf by ntozake shange had stepped off of the stage and into Delphine, Vonetta and Fern’s lives. I wanted to hate this woman who wouldn’t call her youngest daughter by her name, who didn’t shield the girls from pain, who didn’t cook for them but I didn’t. The girls can’t either and by the time the book comes to a close there is movement in terms of the mother/daughter conflict that the book grapples with that is at the epicenter of the societal changes and the Black Panther exploration.

Along with Cecile, one multi-layered woman, I adored the no holds barred way Rita Williams-Garcia examines race. As a white reader, I cringed when passersby in the airport stop to give the three “cute colored” girls money and want to take their picture and Delphine comments:
“The lady opened her pocket book, took out a red leather change purse, and scooted coins around, searching for the right amount for adorable, well-behaved colored dolls. Big Ma would have thought that was grand, but Papa wouldn’t have liked it one cent. Now it was time to do what Papa had told me: see after my sisters.
‘We’re not allowed to take money from strangers.’ I said this polite enough to suit Big Ma but strong enough to suit Papa.
The redheaded stewardess was appalled by my uppity behavior. ‘Don’t you know when someone is being nice to you?’
            I put on my dumb dodo face to fake not knowing what she meant.

What was the sense of making the stewardess stand guard over us if she refused to protect us from strangers? She thought it was all right to have the large white woman gawk at us, talk to us, and buy our attention. We might as well have stood by ourselves.”  (17)

I not only cringed at the white woman’s demeaning behavior but applauded Delphine’s thoughts and the oh-so-smart way she reacts—by walking the racial line of the times but not giving in to such idiotic behavior. I also applauded the fact that kids—white, black, biracial, Asian, Indian, Native American, etc.—were going to be reading that passage, and the airport scene that comes near the end of the novel.

One Crazy Summer is as vibrant as its cover and as complex as the changing times it depicts and will long be a favorite book of mine, all year round, not just in February.