Friday, November 21, 2008

Prairie Writers' Day 2008

Writers and other publishing types who live on the coasts tend to feel a bit sorry for those of us who live in those flyover states of the Midwest. Maybe not so much anymore, now that our President-elect’s vacation home will be in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, but still. What they might not realize is that we can get the cream of east-coast children’s publishing to come visit us, thanks to our fantastic local SCBWI chapters.

I present to you: Prairie Writers’ Day 2008, courtesy of the Illinois Chapter of SCBWI. On November 15 2008, 175 published and pre-published childrens’ writers from Illinois (as well as a few from neighboring states) gathered for the 4th annual Prairie Writers’ Day at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. You might want to make yourself comfortable, because this is long!

First up was Harold Underdown, editorial consultant, go-to-guy for all things KidLit on the internet at The Purple Crayon and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Children’s Book Publishing. Harold introduced his two sidekicks, Mr. P (a.k.a. Mr. Glass Half Empty) and Mr. O (Mr. Hey, That There Glass is Half Full!) for an overview of the childrens' book publishing industry. Mr. P got his say first, as he so often does. Yes, the publishing industry has consolidated to the extent that the Big 5 publishing houses account for 1/2 of all the published books in the U.S. Many of the houses have closed their doors to unsolicited (or unagented) manuscripts. This has led to a loss of institutional memory in the industry, which seems now to be more interested in publishing safe spin-offs of old series and pushing movie and toy tie-ins than finding and cultivating new talent. And then, of course, there is the huge elephant in the room: the recession. Could things be worse?

Enter Mr. O! Not only could they be lots worse, but there’s much to be hopeful about! Turns out, Mr. P gave you only part of the picture. Yes, children’s book publishing has gone multi-national, but so has the rest of the world. Live with it. And there are still many independent presses and small imprints within the Big 5 that understand and love the children’s market and continue to do well. There are still many opportunities for unagented authors to reach editors, especially in the nonfiction and picture book markets.

But isn't technology rotting our childrens’ minds? Not necessarily! Consider the wonderful audiobooks that bring children’s books to entire families trapped in a car as they drive from, say, Illinois to Kansas for Thanksgiving. Think, for example, Bruce Coville’s Full Cast Audio books. E-books? Just another way of reading.

Loss of institutional memory? Dig a little deeper, my friends! The next speaker on the panel, Martha Mihalick, editor at Greenwillow, can trace a direct lineage back to the great Ursula Nordstrom. Take that, Mr. P! Yes, there is some schlock being published nowadays, but---who knew?—that sort of stuff has always been around. We just don’t remember it because it hasn’t lasted! Ha!

And as for the 800 pound gorilla that is the recession—well, perhaps it weighs only 600 pounds. Look at it this way: would you rather be making and selling SUVS, luxury jackets and the like, or books? ‘Nuff said.

Harold’s virtual handout is available on

Next up: Martha Mihalick, editor with Greenwillow Books. She drew the “character” straw in the craft discussion, and a good thing, because she said that she is strongly drawn to character-driven books. She most often finds herself turning down manuscripts when the characters fall flat. Populate your books with memorable characters! This is not just true for novelists, but picture book writers as well. Think of Lilly, Olivia, Fancy Nancy, Max (the Wild Things) and the Pigeon who wanted to drive the bus. Characters should be identifiable as types (jocks, nerds, etc.) but there should also be characteristics that set them apart and make them memorable.

Using some Greenwillow books, Mihalick illustrated the categories that can reveal character: objects/possessions; people around them; actions (and reactions); opinions. I’m looking forward to reading or re-reading the books she mentioned with an eye to character: The Thief (Megan Whalen Turner); Tracking Daddy Down (Marybeth Kelsey); Me and the Pumpkin Queen (Marlane Kennedy); Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse (Kevin Henkes); The Last Apprentice series (Joseph Delaney); Deadline (Chris Crutcher). Well-rounded characters, Mihalick ended by saying, gain the reader’s trust.

Editor Cheryl Klein (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic) talked about plot. There are two types of plots, she said: those based on character, and structural plots. But in either case, any plotline must also include an action plot (the changes in circumstances) and an emotional plot (changes within the protagonist). I won’t go into Klein’s talk in detail, because she has posted the outlines of some of her talks on plot on her website, Talking Books. Highly recommended, especially for those of us who struggle with plot.

Caroline Meckler, Wendy Lamb Books editor, took on that most elusive beast, voice. We all know it when we read it, but what is voice exactly, and how do we find our story’s voice? The elements of voice, she said, are diction (choice of words); detail (life and color); imagery (sensory details); syntax (sentence structure, length, cadence, etc.), and tone. The voice that works for I Capture the Castle (one of Meckler’s favorite books) would obviously not work for, say, a John Grisham novel. Author Joan Aiken (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) wrote, “Nothing encourages the flow of a story so much as the discovery of the voice in which it is to be told. I once sat down and began a book with the lines, ‘It was dusk—winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills…” In those fourteen words I had already fixed the whole mood and atmosphere of the story so firmly that, though the book they began was interrupted after three chapters by outside circumstances, and not recommenced until after a gap of seven years, when I took it up again, I had not the slightest difficulty in going on from where I had left off.” (The Way to Write for Children: An Introduction to the Craft of Writing Children’s Literature, p. 33).

Jennifer RofĂ© (previously Jaeger), of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, works closely with her clients on revisions. Using her clients’ books as examples, she outlined some of the revision questions you need to ask yourself when you’ve finished your first (or second, or third…) draft. Is there a good balance between direct and indirect characterization? Read Milagros, Girl From Away, by Meg Medina, for good examples of characterization. Make sure you—and your reader—understand what motivates your characters. She cited The Year the Swallows Came Early, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice (coming out February 2009) as a good example of character motivation. Is the story moving forward effectively, and are all the scenes and dialogue necessary? Check out The Farwalker’s Quest, by Joni Sensel (coming out in February 2009) for a well-paced read. And finally, are the plots and subplots sufficiently developed? Is the storyline unfolding sensibly? Read Cynthea Liu’s Paris Pan Takes the Dare, coming out in June 2009.

Pretty rich stuff for writers, no? But SCBWI-Illinois, much like the Cat in the Hat, had still more tricks to throw at us. Sharon Darrow, faculty chair of the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, did a terrific teaching session using a complete rhymed picture book manuscript and the first few pages of two longer manuscripts submitted by SCBWI-Illinois members. SCBWI-Illinois’ very own Carol Grannick, a licensed clinical social worker, talked about Learned Optimism for Writers (check out Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, by Martin E.P. Seligman). And SCBWI-Illinois member and fitness instructor Mary Loftus led us in two much-appreciated fitness breaks, with specific tips for staying fit while writing. (This might be a good time to stretch!)

If you’d like to improve your craft, whether you’re published or just starting out, I highly recommend attending an SCBWI writers’ event near you. You can find a local chapter at Many of the editors who come to these events agree to accept unsolicited manuscripts from attendees (after the event, of course!). I know of quite a few people who say that they sold a manuscript as a direct result of attending an SCBWI event. And you never know when you’ll meet someone who can help you advance your writing career—or just make a new friend.

Happy Writing!
--Sara Latta

(cross-posted on KidLit Central News)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Prairie Writers' Day teaser

What do Harold Underdown (The Purple Crayon), Martha Mihalick (Greenwillow Books), Jennifer Rofe (Andrea Brown Literary Agency), Caroline Meckler (Wendy Lamb Books), and Cheryl Klein (Arthur A. Levine Books) have in common? Well, aside from being some of the top names in children's publishing and really nice people, they all joined 175 aspiring and published childrens' writers at Dominican University in River Forest IL on Saturday for the 4th Annual Prairie Writers' Day. I'll be blogging about the conference over at KidLit Central on Friday, November 21, so if you're interested in writing for kids be sure and check it out. I'll post my report here as well.

In related news, I recently stumbled upon the Illinois Authors Wiki, a project of the Illinois Center for the Book. I'm pretty pleased to be listed on the same website as Jane Addams, Sherwood Anderson, L. Frank Baum, Ray Bradbury, and Gwendolyn Brooks, among many others. Pretty cool!

A gem of a book

The Newberry Library's exhibit Artifacts of Childhood: 700 Years of Children's Books was interesting but ultimately disappointing. The chronological organization was vague and often confusing, with a case featuring a 1970s-era book sitting willy-nilly by one featuring Renaissance-era books. And although the individual descriptions of the artifacts were well-done, I didn't think the exhibit conveyed the overall theme of the evolution of children's books from rather grim, moralistic teaching tools to the books we enjoy today. Still, worth a visit if you're in the area.

But I was to be richly rewarded! Outside of the bookstore (which is excellent and part of the Seminary Bookstore and 57th Street Bookstore co-op, so I got a discount) there was a small library cart of used books. I found this lovely little volume of poetry by Naomi Shihab Nye, 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002 National Book Award Finalist):

I was thrilled with this find, because I'd been wanting to read her poetry, and at $2.50 you couldn't beat the price. And then I turned to the title page and read this inscription in Shihab Nye's neat hand: "For Senator Obama and his beautiful family. Naomi Shihab Nye, 2007."

I was thrilled, of course, but part of me is sad that Obama (or more likely, some staff member) didn't hang onto this book. I think that he, Michelle, and especially their sweet daughters would love these poems. So, First Family, if you want the book back, it's yours. For $2.50.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans' Day

Thanks to those veterans who have given so much of themselves in the service of our country. I came across this amazing book of poetry, Here, Bullet, written by Iraq War vet Brian Turner. As a science writer, I was particularly struck by this lovely poem. A note at the back of the book explains that the poem refers to Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, a scientist from the turn of the first millenium who made advances in the fields of physics, among others. (For a longer review of Here, Bullet, visit Guys Lit Wire.)

Alhazen of Basra
by Brian Turner

If I could travel a thousand years back
to August 1004, to a small tent
where Alhazen has fallen asleep among books
about sunset, shadows, and light itself,
I wouldn't ask whether light travels in a straight line,
or what governs the laws of refraction, or how
he discovered the bridgework of analytical geometry;
I would ask about the light within us,
what shines in the mind's great repository
of dream, and whether he's studied the deep shadows
daylight brings, how light defines us.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Canvassing, revisited

I've been thinking about my canvassing experience in Indiana a lot lately, and so I was fascinated to come across this letter from a book I found in a used book store recently, Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999 (Lisa Grunwald & Stephen J. Adler, eds., The Dial Press). The poverty Les Johnson describes sounds terribly familiar.

The summer of 1964--"Freedom Summer"--would remain among the most memorable in the lives of hundreds of students participating in the efforts of the SNCC to register Mississippi blacks for the vote. Volunteer Les Johnson wrote home...the same month that President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Canvassing is very trying, you walk a little dusty street, with incredibly broken down shacks. The people sitting on porches staring away into nowhere--The sweat running down your face! Little kids half-naked in raggy clothes all over the place--this is what you face with your little packet of "Freedom Forms."
We don't canvass except between 4 and 7 at night because most people are in the fields in the day.
I've spent 3 hours, talking and got only 2 forms signed, other times I've gotten 10 in an hour.
We've gotten almost 2000 registered now in Clarksdale.
Unfortunately, Freedom registration is terribly remote to these people. I almost feel guilty--like I'm playing for numbers only; for you walk up to a porch, knock on a door and enter another world. A world made up, mainly, like Pop Art. The walls are inevitably covered with a funeral hall calendar, a portrait calendar of President Kennedy, old graduation pictures. Maybe a new cheap lamp from Fred's dollar store.
You meet an afraid, but sometimes eager, curious face--one which is used to--many times over 70 years worth--saying "Yes Sir" to everything a white man says--and not really listening. You see their pain, the incredible years of suffering etched in their worn faces; and then if you convince them to sign you leave. You walk down the deteriorating steps to the dirt, to the next house--the next world and start in on your Sales pitch again, leaving behind something which has broken you a little more. Poverty in the abstract does nothing to you. When you wake up to it every morning, and come down through the streets of it, and see the same old many playing the accordian on the ground, the same man selling peaches out of a basket too heavy for his twisted body, the same children, a day older--a day closer to those men--after this everyday, pov erty is a reality that is so outrageous you have to learn to be unshocked and become jaded for the moment--or else be unable to function.
Little hands grope everyday for a nickle--it's hard to say "no" to kids who's lives are already a Hell which White America refused to care about.
These children represent a tremendous amount of energy, a talent, and value--all of which the white world says--"let this energy pitch cotton, and clean up after me, and do work I don't want to do." That energy is finally coming to the surface in Harlem and Rochester and as Mr. Baldwin has said, "if we don't find a productive channel for that energy we will be destroyed by that energy."

The children that Les Johnson describes are my age or a little older now. The folks I met in those broken-down neighborhoods are white and black and Hispanic now, but the most notable difference between Les Johnson's experience and mine was the palpable feeling of hope for a better future.
Yes we can.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A night to remember

Meet the next First Family of the United States: Barack, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha Obama. Barack--and all of us who knocked on doors, made phone calls, gave money, and of course VOTED--made history yesterday. Three hundred eighty nine years after the first African slaves landed on our shores, 145 years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and 43 years after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, we have come together to elect a black man, Barack Hussein Obama, as president.

This is an historic event not just for all of the African-Americans whose dreams seemed to be so often deferred, but for all Americans. Barack Obama showed us how to look beyond the divisions of class and race, red and blue states, "real" and I guess "fake" America, and embrace our common goodness. His refusal to engage in name-calling and partisianship in this campaign, his cool in the midst of the financial crisis, and his intellectual curiosity are all encouraging signs of the kind of president he will be.

Over the course of the campaign, I've spent days canvassing for Obama in Indianapolis and Lafayette, Indiana. For anybody who has never knocked on the doors of complete strangers to talk about politics, I recommend it. Seriously. It will force you to examine your stereotypes. At times, you will be way out of your comfort zone. And often, it will warm your heart. A few anecdotes:
  • A bright 18 year-old with a developmental/medical disability who had decided to vote for Obama after studying each candidate's health care platforms. He was clearly excited about being able to vote for the first time.
  • A 39 year-old woman of very modest means who recently registered to vote for the first time because she saw in Obama a man who cared and would make life better for her and her family.
  • A man who told me that his entire family, including his son in Iraq, had already voted for Obama. He saw in Obama the candidate who would be most likely to bring his son home safely and to ensure that vets receive the care and benefits they deserve.
  • An older black woman who wanted an extra door hanger as a keepsake to pass on to her grandchildren.
  • And even a 76-year old white man who admitted that "he'd like to see the n****r in the White House. I don't like black people," he said, "but I think he'd make a good president."
Given the amount of time I've spent in Indiana, then, I felt a special thrill when I read--only this morning--that the state went for Obama. First time Indiana has gone for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964. I like to think I own a tiny part of that achievement!

I haven't been blogging much lately because obsessively checking the political blogs eats up a lot of time, if you know what I mean. Obama's win has put my world to rights again.