Saturday, December 30, 2006

More 2007 books

More books from people in my listserv, bulletin board, e-mail and real time worlds.

Joy Allen, Baby Signs, Dial Books for Young Readers, (illustrator) Cam Jansen: Summer Mystery writen by David A. Adler, Viking; (illustrator) The House in the Middle of Town, written by Crystal Bowman, Standard Publishing
Laurie Calkhoven, George Washington: An American Life, Sterling; Miles of Smiles: Travel Games and Quizzes to Go, American Girl
Julia Durango
, Angels Watching Over Me, Simon & Schuster; Pest Fest, Simon & Schuster
Heather Vogel Frederick, Spy Mice: Goldwhiskers, Simon & Schuster; The Mother-Daughter Book Club, Simon & Schuster
Jamila Gavin, Walking on My Hands: The Teenage Years (autobiography), Hodder (UK)
Diane Greenseid (illustrator) Waynetta and the Cornstalk, written by Helen Ketteman, Albert Whitman
Jennifer Holm
, Babymouse: Heartbreaker, (with Matthew Holm), Random House; Camp Babymouse, (with Matthew Holm), Random House; Babymouse: Skater Girl, (with Matthew Holm), Random House; Middle School is Worse than Meatloaf, Illustrations by Elicia Castaldi, Ginee Seo Books
Betsy James, Listening at the Gate, (paper), Simon Pulse)
Barbara Newman, Tex and Sugar: A Big City Kitty Ditty, Sterling; Bones and the Birthday Mystery, written by David Adler, Viking
Pooja Makhijani, Mama's Saris, Little Brown
Linda Sue Park, Tap Dancing on the Roof, Clarion (poetry collection); Clicks!, a serial novel written with nine other authors, Scholastic
Sara Pennypacker, Pierre in Love, Orchard Books; The Talented Clementine, Hyperion Books for Children; Clementine's Letter; Hyperion
Dian Curtis Regan
, Cam's Quest: the Continuing Story of Princess Nevermore and the Wizard's Apprentice, Darby Creek Publishing; Princess Nevermore: Updated and Expanded Edition, Darby Creek Publishing
Susan Roth, Babies Can't Eat Kimchee, with Nancy Patz, Bloomsbury
Ruth Sanderson, Mother Goose and Friends, Little, Brown; More Saints, Lives and Illuminations, Eerdmans
Laurie Stolarz
, Project 17, Hyperion
Ellen Wittlinger
, Parrotfish, Simon & Schuster

Enjoy the feast.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Children Who Write

I was one. In some ways, even with a half-century clocked in (gasp!) I still am. So I was intrigued by the story of Nancy Yi Fan, who wrote Swordbird in response to class discussions about war and terrorism, then sent the manuscript by e-mail to the CEO of HarperCollins. Her book is doing the rounds now in galleys. Speculation is that it will serve as part of a larger plan to gain Harper a presence in China. That's all been amply covered elsewhere. There's information on the book on the publisher web site, and admiration from fans to be found too, so I won't go there. Reading Swordbird reminded me of my own writings in childhood. They ranged from wild to earnest, and stamped me in a deep and personal way. For many years I lost writing as a tool for making sense of the world. When I found it again in my thirties it was like coming home. There was something about the process of writing as a child, something both tactile and visceral, that grew to be part of my structure of self.

For years I thought of the writing of children either as preparation for adult writing (Austen, or the Brontes, or Ruskin) or as in the case of Daisy Ashford, a path that led nowhere, in that the writer did not live up to early potential. But then I read The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf, edited by Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster. It's a weighty collection of essays examining the writings of children, suggesting that juvenilia ought to be an area of study by itself, regardless of whether those children grew up to be famous writers or not. Here's a comprehensive review of the book from JASNA, the Jane Austen Society. Many of the essays explore the childhood writings of famous 19th century writers, but the most interesting ones are about the inner worlds of child writers, of writing as an empowering act in itself, regardless of publication, of imitation as an extension of play. There's something interesting and authentic to be found here, these essays suggest, if we take the time to think about what they mean for us, the ex-children who sit in judgment.

Books I'll Be Looking For in 2007

Books for children, written or illustrated by people I know in real life or cyberspace or both. I'll add to the titles as I find out about new ones. Thanks to everyone for sending me your book news.

Andrea Beaty, Iggy Peck, Architect, Abrams Books for Young Readers
Alfred B. Bortz, Ph.D., Physics: Decade by Decade, Facts on File (20th Century Science set)
Fred Bortz, Astrobiology, Lerner, Cool Science Series (Yes there's only one Dr. Fred but he can be bow-tied or sans, depending.)
Toni Buzzeo, Fire Up with Reading: A Mrs. Skorupski Story, Upstart Books
Shutta Crum, A Family for Old Mill Farm, Clarion
Audrey Couloumbis, Maude March On the Run, Random House
Jacqueline Davies, The House Takes a Vacation, Cavendish; The Lemonade War, Houghton Mifflin
Alex Flinn, Beastly, HarperCollins; Diva (paperback), HarperCollins; "Brainiac" (short story in Declarations of Independence by Donald Gallo), Candlewick; "The Cards that Are Hidden" (short story in Full House by Pete Hautman), Simon & Schuster
Phillis Gershator, Skysweeper, illustrated by Holly Meade, Farrar Straus Giroux; This is the Day! illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, Houghton Mifflin
S. A. Harazin, Blood Brothers, Delacorte
Cynthia Kadohata, Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam, Atheneum
Jo Knowles, Lessons From A Dead Girl, Candlewick Press
Joe Kulka, Wolf's Coming! CarolRhoda Books
Brian Lies, illustrator, Deep in the Swamp, by Donna Bateman, Charlesbridge Publishing
Christine Kole MacLean, Mary Margaret Meets Her Match, Dutton/Penguin
Rafe Martin, Birdwing (paper) Scholastic/Afterwords
R.A. Nelson, Breathe My Name, Razorbill
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, Carolrhoda
Kim Norman, Jack of All Tails, Dutton Children's Books
Barbara O'Connor, How to Steal a Dog, FSG/Frances Foster
Cynthia Leitich Smith, Tantalize, Candlewick
Gloria Spielman, Janusz Korczack's Children, Lerner
Tanya Lee Stone, Amelia Earhart: A Photographic Story of a Life, DK; A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl (paperback), Wendy Lamb/Random House
Kyra Teis, The Magic Flute, Star Bright Books; Illustrator, Words Are Like Faces, written by Edith Baer, Star Bright Books
Vivian Vande Velde, Remembering Raquel, Harcourt
Jennifer Ward: There Was a Coyote Who Swallowed a Flea, illustrated by Steve Gray (Rising Moon); Because You Are My Baby, illustrated by Sylvia Long (Rising Moon); Way Up In the Arctic, illustrated by Ken Spengler (Rising Moon); Forest Bright, Forest Night (board book, Dawn Publications); I Love Dirt! 52 Projects to Get Outside, Get Dirty and Enjoy Nature, illustrated by Susie Ghahrehmani (Shambhala Publications)
Jane Yolen, Sleep, Black Bear, Sleep with Heidi E. Y. Stemple, illustrations by Brooke Dyer, HarperCollins; Here's A Little Rhyme: Baby's First Poetry Book, with Andrew Fusek Peters, illustrations by Polly Dunbar, Candlewick Books (USA) and Walker UK Books (UK); Baby Bear's Big Dreams, illustrations by Melissa Sweet, Harcourt; How Do Dinosaurs Go to School?, illustrations by Mark Teague, Blue Sky/Scholastic; Rogue's Apprentice with Robert J. Harris, Philomel Books; Sea Queens, Charlesbridge Books

In travel book land:
Sandra Friend, A Hiking Guide to Florida's National Forests, Parks, and Preserves, with Johnny Molloy, University Press of Florida; North Florida & the Florida Panhandle: An Explorer's Guide, with Kathy Wolf, The Countryman Press

And finally, my 2007 title, Remembering Grandpa, from Boyds Mills, illustrated by Layne Johnson.

Here's to a year of rich, rewarding reading and writing in our little universe of children's books. An outbreak of peace in the wider world of grownup thieves and bunglers would be nice too!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Truth, Fiction, and Spaces in Between

Bringing Asha Home is the story of a fictional family waiting for their adopted baby girl, named Asha, to come to them from India. It grew out of gatherings I was invited to years ago, of families in Maryland who had adopted children from India, and whose stories stayed with me over the years, moving me to write this version. Realistic fiction. At least, that's what I thought it was.

But I am only the writer. What do I know? Today, I received an e-mail from my editor at Lee & Low, with a news item from the Salt Lake Tribune. It turns out that Utah's first family is planning a pre-Christmas trip to India to pick up their 1-year-old adopted daughter. Her name is Asha. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., first lady Mary Kaye Huntsman, and their seven-year old daughter Gracie Mei began the journey to adopt their Asha around the time my book was going to press. The story of their wait is the story of the fictional family in Bringing Asha Home, with a few differences. The older sibling in my story is a boy, Arun. The sequence of events is off by a few months. And the rakhi motif is missing from their experience. But in all other respects, the Huntsmans are living my fiction.

Coincidence, of course. Asha's a common enough Indian name. Meaning "hope," it was a natural name for me to pick for the child in my story. I'm sure there are other families in the US who have adopted baby girls named Asha from India. Still, life weaves patterns in its own organic way, makes truths out of fiction, knocking complacency out from under my typing fingers. It's why I do what I do.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Updates and downloads

Children's and YA literature author and general all-around book-diva comments on Bringing Asha Home in her cynsations blog.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Hedgebrook


Hedgebrook Farm lies on a country road on Whidbey Island, WA. I had the rare privilege of spending three weeks there recently working on my writing. It's an astonishing residency. The competition's stiff. This year they had close to 500 applications, for the 40-odd residencies offered. Once you're invited, the gift they give you is time, and space that is magical in its beauty. A handcrafted cottage in the middle of misty cedar and maple forest, organically grown food served up with loving care, and the perfect blend of solitude and community.

So what was it really about? Was there something to be gained from secluding myself (with limited cell and Internet access) from the world, building fires in the woodstove, walking through the woods, basket in hand to collect thoughtfully packed meals catering to my individual needs from the farmhouse,reading journals written by women who had been in Cedar Cottage before me? What was the point? Ursula Le Guin had been in Cedar some years before. I got to read her delicate observations. So what?

I wrote through the first tangle of a new work. It's not complete, but I did the sort of verbal brush-clearing in three weeks that would probably have taken me a year in "real time." I came away with a clearer sense of all that I didn't know about this story. All right, a lot that I didn't know. I revised another story that I'd set aside earlier and didn't quite know what to do with. A new picture book manuscript featuring Josie the resident cat came purring down the trail and planted itself in my brain. Who knows where it will go?

But it was the intangibles that really made this an otherworldly experience. Here's one.

I'd gone to Bellevue with Anjali Banerjee one weekend for a Diwali/Tihaar event at the Barnes & Noble (thank you Brenda Gurung, for a lovely evening). The event featured Anjali's books and mine, dancing, theater,kids, families. Coming back to the quiet of Hedgebrook afterwards was more difficult than I'd anticipated. I was sad to be away from home during Diwali. My head was full of the buzz of the evening. The forest felt very quiet. On my way back to my cottage, an owl swooped down from the trees and flew ahead of me, with great flapping wings. Later that night, it visited the cottage, flying by, then flapping down to perch on the open window for what seemed like a very long moment. The owl in Hindu mythology is considered to be the companion animal of the goddess Lakshmi.

There were other such Hedgebrook moments, when the deer came to visit, and when the eagle screeched by overhead. I'm deeply grateful to be part of this amazing community.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Updates and downloads

Monica Edinger has entered the blogosphere, with her baby blog, Educating Alice, featuring homage to both The Naming of Cats and Caroll in one swell foop. Something tells me this baby will grow quite magically.

Speaking of Alice, I'll be leading the New Mexico SCBWI retreat at Hummingbird Music Camp this year–next week, in fact. The theme being The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, I am approaching this with my Annotated Alice in hand (Martin Gardner, with the red and gold cover). Nothing else will do. I have no idea how it will all turn out, but those sessions were loads of fun to name (e.g., Good-bye Feet! (on following the drift of a draft) after the pool of tears scene. Any excuse to read the Annotated Alice and ponder on the fact that the real Cheshire Cat might have been a carved image in a church where the young Dodgson's father was rector.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Getting out of the story's way

Somewhere between the Anything Goes If You Feel Good school of writing and the Obsessive Writer in Charge school lies a vast middle ground. I wandered there recently story in hand, while working on one of those revisions from hell. The kind that seems to be able to inflict nothing but damage. Each attempt seemed to add only layers of useless material.

A tai chi breather was in order. Just in time, Sifu Dug Corpolongo came up to our neck of the desert for a weekend workshop.

We spent two days examining the details of form, figuring out how to use intention to drive movement, learning to recognize the instincts buried in us, separating them from dysfunctional learned habits. Some of us were struck by how we could go through a small section of the form feeling the chi, knowing when the forearm moved it, or the elbow swept it into compactness. We could feel, tangibly, the point at which we lost that awareness. After that the form became reduced to function, no more. It lost something large and vital and interior. It became merely an exercise.

So it is with writing. I carried this idea home with me and began to apply it to a piece of fiction that is likewise threatening to peter out after the first 10 pages. I went back to the beginning looking for the energy that had set this work in motion. It worked. I could pinpoint the exact place where the piece emptied, lost its chi.

Now, in revising the work, I'll try each time to return to the early passages and push their energy forward through it. This rhythm, roundness, is what I need to pay attention to–not the logic or the ideas or where things connect, but how they feel and flow.

Teaching too is driven by its own inner rhythms. That's how you know when something is working, and resoundingly when it's not.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Updates and downloads

Josephine Bridges for The Asian Reporter on Uma's new picture book from Lee & Low, Bringing Asha Home.

More of illustrator Jamel Akib's artwork.

A downloadable teaching guide for Naming Maya (pdf format).

A downloadable flyer on my school and conference presentations, so I don't have to keep clogging my slow-as-slow connection trying to send this to those who ask for the info.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

10 days in Montpelier, Vermont

Imagine 100 people packed into close quarters in a charming yet definitely aging building. Imagine a schedule that began at 7:30 am with breakfast and often didn't end until past 9:30 pm with readings by incredibly talented and energetic people, most of them a little crazed from lack of sleep. Imagine a cafeteria menu that ran from inventive to–um, inventive. And conversations, endlessly circling around books, work in progress, viewpoint, genre, movies, plot, stories, more books.

Do not imagine (because I am trying to forget) a couple of nightmare travel days courtesy Delta Airlines.

Food and travel notwithstanding, I feel honored to have been invited to be a part of the July 2006 residency of the Vermont College MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. From students as well as faculty, I learned more than my brain felt it could possibly hold.

I wondered at first why Kellye Carter Crocker, from the fabulous MFA graduating class, wanted to quiz me about the correct pronunciation of the Tamil goodbye, "poyittu varain," from Naming Maya. I tried protesting that it didn't matter. I'd meant the language to be like background music in the story and it was much more important to me that she had enjoyed the book. She insisted. Fine, I said. The words mean goodbye but not goodbye–literally, "I'll go and return." The proper response being in the affirmative, "Go and return."

It turned out Kellye loved the expression so much she used it in the invocation for the graduation ceremony. I knew it was coming, and still, when we got to that point in her talk, it made me cry. Words can be like that, leaving us and yet coming back repeatedly.

Is it August Already?

Before the Vermont College residency (about which more shortly) I got to spend a couple of wonderful days with Jamila Gavin, with whom I've corresponded for a little over four years now. Jamila was in the US last month to lead a residency at Hollins University's MFA program in Roanoke VA.

We had many conversations about reading, writing, life, the universe, and everything. Among other things, Jamila asked if I'd ever read Rumer Godden. Indeed I had. Rumer Godden's The River was the first book I ever read that was set in India and written in a way that did not patronize me. It was an astonishing reading experience. I read it all the way through once, and then again. Even though the viewpoint wasn't close to my own, I was surprised that the story didn't feel "long ago and faraway." Having been put in my "native" place a little while before by The Secret Garden, I had no idea anyone was even allowed to write in this way, very honestly and without a message of power belonging to one group rather than another. I was 13 years old, and The River unlocked a place in me I hadn't known existed.

In a way Rumer Godden gave me permission to write.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Is Wednesday Purple?

While preparing to lead a seminar for my upcoming Vermont College residency, I began looking for research on characteristics common to artists, poets, and writers, and came upon this presentation by neurologist V. S. Ramachandran on Synesthesia and the Universal Principles of Art. In the world of synesthesia, one sensation involuntarily conjures up another. E.g., a synesthete might see numbers (or days of the week) in color; might experience shapes in music, or texture in a particular flavor.

All right, this conversation's obviously been going on for awhile, but no one's invited me to join in! I ended up spending an entire afternoon absorbed in the slides and talk.

My understanding of synesthesia being limited to reading Richard Cytowic's book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, several years ago, I'm newly intrigued by the breadth this presenter's reaching for in making connections with artistic process. No coincidence, he says, that synesthesia's 8 times more common among artists, poets and novelists than in the general population. He draws parallels between cross-wired senses and the ability to think in metaphor, suggesting that synesthetic experience is just an extreme manifestation of abilities we all possess. Ramachandran's written a book that includes material on this subject: A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness : From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers.

Ramachandran's commentary on art is more speculative, but it's interesting! I remember observing an art project with 1st-3rd graders a couple of years ago in which kids studied abstract art by Vasily Kandinsky, created their own imitative/exploratory pieces and wrote about them. Have to remember that when I do my next round of workshops in schools.

Back to pulling my thoughts together for that residency. A sparkly 4th to those in the US.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Conversing with Text

Just a step away from talking to yourself is this notion of talking to text. We're lucky to have a site of National Writing Project in our area (Bisti Writing Project–that's pronounced Biss-TIE, not BEE-stee!) It's a wonderful group of teachers who write and they're kind enough to let this writer who teaches hang out with them. We're in the middle of our summer institute right now and one of the pieces of writing we're all working on a "conversation with text." Such a simple idea. Read something. Write in response to the something you've read. Naturally I'm getting glassy-eyed trying to decide what text I want to respond to, and how. Today, I think I'm settling on a George Orwell collection of essays, Why I Write. But then there's also Emma Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma.

Why Orwell? you might ask. He didn't think much of the children's books of his time. In a 1936 essay he wrote, "Modern books for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in the mass." Wonder what he'd have to say about–hmm, let's see, picture book gems by Madonna!

Possibly it's that other George (the Shrubby one) who's making my thoughts turn to Orwellian themes. Here's a passage from Orwell's essay, "Shopkeepers at War."

"...the...moneyed class, unwilling to face a change in their way of life, had shut their eyes to the nature of Fascism and modern war. And false optimism was fed to the general public by the gutter press, which lives on its advertisements and is therefore interested in keeping trade conditions normal."

Ah, Eric Arthur Blair, where are you when we need you?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Talking to yourself

I want to talk about one of the terrific things about being a writer. Okay, so there are a few of them. But this one is a big deal. When you're a writer, you're allowed to do this thing that they scolded you for when you were a kid–you're allowed to talk to yourself and people around you indulge this marginally neurotic behavior. You even (with luck) get paid to live in your own head from time to time. Which is how come (by talking it out with myself) I came to subscribe to a theory about the different selves that live in a writer's head.

It's not new. Dorothea Brande wrote about it in the 1930s, in Becoming a Writer. The theory involves a creative half and a managerial half–you've heard of this, I know. Take heart, Anne Lamott fans. I frame the venerable concept in bird terms.

The mockingbird is the creative half of your writing self. It exists to energize you, enable you to create. It takes songs from the entire range of its experience and trills them into your ear, letting you think you have the ultimate answer to your fictional ultimate questions. If you let it carry on uninterrupted it does really well for awhile. Then it gets a little...shall we say, self-absorbed. If you continue to let it run wild it can write you a gloriously wonderful and fatally flawed first draft–and then it won't shut up.

That's where you bring the crow on. The crow, unfettered, rips your work to shreds. But you need it–desperately. Trust me. We all need the crow. We have to tame it, though. Let it tell you what's wrong, but don't let it take the heart out of the story.

The trick is to alternate the two personas. The trouble is, I forget this stuff from one book to the next. A bit like forgetting labor pains. Which is one of the reasons I began this blog, so it could be what a third-grader in one of my writing residencies this year called a "rememory." Me, I could always use an extra rememory.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Titles

I'll confess. I love titles. For any given story I can generate a dozen or more titles. In fact I have a file full of titles with no stories attached to them–yet. Every once in a while I'll go to that file, pull out a title and write a story for it. Mostly, once I do that, the story outlives that starter title and finds another one more suited to it.

Minds are rambling things that work in complicated ways. Mine just happens to like the notion of short, snappy collections of words that serve no purpose other than to lead to more permanent words. Sometimes in my classes I organize title swaps, where students generate titles for the sole purpose of giving them away. At first that takes courage–it's hard to get over this sense we have that we shouldn't "give" our words away. It's a good exercise in developing the ability to cut your own words as you must do in revision.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The nature of critique groups

Criticism always hits me over the head when I get it. It's why, in a writers' group, authors must remain silent while their work is being discussed. It isn't easy. I often feel the urge to protest, "You don't understand why I wrote this story!" I did once burst into tears, I must confess. We got over it, as a group, and remain a working group to this day. They were gracious and did not throw me out for my sorry behavior.

Here's what I know about the process of reading and commenting on work in progress in a group setting:

1. You don't have to use all the criticism you get. Use only what works. Remember each member of a group would otherwise take your story and turn it into something else. In revising you can't and shouldn't try to serve everyone in your group. But you shouldn't serve yourself either. You should serve the story. What does IT need?

2. You do have to listen to what the members of your group are trying to get at. Pay attention to precisely how they understand or don't understand your story. If they're confused, readers might be too. Think about why is someone suggesting a certain change? Even if you don't make that particular change in the way that's suggested, you might consider addressing the underlying concern in some other way. That other way will be all your own, reflecting your individual genius, but get off your writerly high horse and think about what your readers are saying, and why.

3. If it all feels overwhelming, take 3 positive comments from the criticism you got, and sing them to yourself all day long. Then look at 3 things that need changing. Reserve some time to write.

If you feel you're in a state of disequilibrium, that's great. You're getting ready to make the next growth spurt. That's the nature of living things, so it's the nature of writing process as well.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The silences between the leaves


You must enter in
To the small silences between
The leaves,
You must take your time
And touch the very peace
They issue from.
–John Moffitt
(To Look at Any Thing)


Mostly, we don't. Far easier to let the eye skim over the leaf and note the color, texture, time of year. Very young children know to turn the leaf over and examine the bugs that live in the spaces between the veins. Yesterday a group of first graders and I painted–tempera on corrugated cardboard–echoing the shapes we saw at Aztec Ruins National Monument. At first, I found myself engaged in paint control. Then I let go, and that's when their work began to grow. It gets easier with practice. All you do is listen for the silences. You don't have to fix them. It's a little bit like living with questions instead of rushing headlong toward answers.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Vermont College

After a flurry of recent phone conferences, I'm thrilled to report that I've been invited to join Vermont College (the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults) as a visiting faculty member for the July residency and the fall 2006 semester. Having applied a bit nervously, feeling sure the best I might get would be a nice rejection letter, I'm still a bit dazed. As an autodidact myself, I'm sure I'll learn far more than I can ever hope to teach.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Reappropriation of language

I was in San Francisco last week, for the book launch of The Closet Ghosts, school and community speaking engagements, and the Reading the World conference. I got to meet Shiraaz Bhabha, illustrator of The Closet Ghosts, and her husband and very cute baby.

Living as I do in small-town New Mexico, I don't get out that often to places with large South Asian communities. I got to meet many children and families of South Asian origin at a most enjoyable event sponsored by the Breeze Foundation and Santa Clara City Library. Children who attended wrote their own stories and shared them with the audience. The conversations I had raised issues of language and labels and what they mean.

Take Hanuman. In The Closet Ghosts, I describe him using the common shorthand of "the monkey god." Some Hindus might find this problematic, feeling it evokes derogratory images, opens us up to racist jokes and put-downs. But how else is it possible to decsribe wonderful, nuanced, loyal, powerful Hanuman in three quick words in a picture book? "The Hindu god with the face of a monkey and a human-like body" would be far more accurate. In the small story container of the picture book, I don't have that many words at my disposal. And I can't assume that every child who reads the book will know who Hanuman is, if I don't use some common frame of reference to describe him in the text.

For what it's worth, this is my argument--I'm taking the term "monkey god" back from the racists, and making it my own. I find nothing worth ridiculing in the acceptance of the link between humans and monkeys. I would rather be connected to Hanuman by some distant relationship of blood or spirit or both, than to some people I can think of. If I refuse to accept the burden that others have placed on language, I am free to use the words I choose and give them refreshed meaning.

As Snoopy would say, "So there too."

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Carnival of Children's Literature

Author Melissa Wiley hosted a Carnival of Children's Literature on her blog, Here in the Bonny Glen. Check it out for a wild array of voices on the subject.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Judging for the Golden Kite fiction award

Whew! I was on the panel for the SCBWI Golden Kite fiction award this year. The reading was astonishing and overwhelming and scary, and the discussions by e-mail and phone were intense but I am telling you that the abso-bloody-lutely hardest part was the sworn-to-secrecy bit. This morning Jamie Weiss of SCBWI tells me I can come out of the judges' closet.

The book we chose, from among 12 amazing finalists, was A Room on Lorelei Street by Mary Pearson.

Mary, congratulations! I read and reread your book, and I want you to know it made me cry! It is so difficult to create a young protagonist whose flaws and dilemmas come alive enough to make an adult reader's heart hurt.

The honor book we chose was Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles. A touching, funny book peopled with lovable eccentrics and a child protagonist who doesn't miss much.

The judging process was amazing. First of all the hundreds of books arriving in daily boxes over about four months. The UPS delivery woman and I would talk about them. "Any good ones in the last lot?" she'd say.

At one point I was reading 6 books a week, then 6 more the next week plus rereads from the previous and so on. I'd read standing in line at the grocery store, the post office, even at traffic lights. It was a transformative experience for me to be able to get such a wide-ranging survey of the books being written by SCBWI writers, and to delve deeply into the ones that I adored on first reading.

The final phone call with fellow judges Cara Haycak (author of Red Palms) and Jane Buchanan (author of Goodbye Charley and others) took nearly two hours. That was after a couple of weeks of trading e-mails arguing vehemently for this or that book. It was really difficult making that final choice. There were so many great books in the mix.

In the end I am very excited about our choice of Mary's delicate, beautiful book, and Deborah Wiles's whimsical, funny, honor book with its dead-on voice and quirky characters. And I am grateful to have been invited to be part of this process.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Three Places to Correct

I have been going to tai chi class for a little over two years. In the parlance of the Sifu I began with, that places me somewhere between being a "tourist" and becoming a student. This does not, however, stop the Si-hing who is now our instructor from putting us semi-inepts to work teaching the really green newbies who have just joined. So there I am zealously pointing out to someone things about her stance, her elbows, her breathing, her... And at this point the instructor very gently moves us into doing something else altogether. Later he says to me, "You might consider focusing on 3 things to correct, each time."

Moment of truth. I often have them in tai chi. I find many tai chi principles apply well to writing, because they seem to apply to life. I went home and tried this with my own work. I usually do that before trying this stuff out on others. I found it felt comfortable and more, it allowed me to make more changes in a work when I took them 3 at a time.


Sunday, February 05, 2006

Reviewing books

I've been reviewing books for over ten years now, ever since I met Marilyn Courtot at a school book fair in Maryland. I was signing my then brand-new book (the one this blog's named for) and she was starting a newsletter about children's books, Children's Literature. Ever since then, Marilyn's been sending me a box of books every few months, and I have been reading and learning. Children's Literature has morphed into the CLCD, an online database subscribed to by libraries and institutions around the world.

If you're trying to write children's books, it helps to read lots of them. Newbery winner Linda Sue Park suggests it might be the single most important thing to do. The more you read, the more you begin to develop opinions of your own, learn to separate what you like from what you don't like. More, you learn to defend your opinions and cultivate your critical skills. All of which will stand you in good stead as you grow your own writing.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Two Process Schools?

Dualities are always seductive: left-right, black-white, up-down. Easy ways to classify the world. I, however, come from a place in which you can't classify anything quite so easily. People and places have many names, nothing stays the same, and even gray arrives in multiple shades of dewdrop, granite, and rainy sky. Here's an article on Advaita (non-dualism, monism, call it what you will) that offers a sampler, philosophically speaking. So I'm always a little suspicious of easy 1-2 categories.

Still there do seem to be two ways of looking at process: Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird school, where you slash your veins and bleed all over the paper, bringing your deepest griefs and longings to the page; and Jane Yolen's Take Joy approach, in which you write for (yes, what a concept!) the love of it.

I tend to think they're on a continuum, and the place you choose for yourself along that path is your truth. The rest is an illusion--the thing the Advaitins call "maya." The illusory part when you write is that prewriting, throat-clearing bit you do before, during, and sometimes even after you have found the story. It's your mind getting in the way, trying to edit and fix and refine prematurely. It results in things like tentative language, characters hemming and hawing and refusing to take action, or action that's so over-the-top it distracts from the truth of the work. More reason to keep your eye on the horizon. The preliminary draft steps are important, but when I'm writing those drafts I need to remind myself that I have farther to go.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Tai chi and writing

Two years ago my shoulder froze, a writing-induced trauma. I was headed for steroid treatment and possibly surgery. A friend suggested tai chi, so I joined a class at the local community college. It helped unfreeze my shoulder. That got me in. The practice made me stay. Even gray-haired lady writer types can engage in this meditative martial arts practice.

A sample tai chi realization: "Keep your eyes on the horizon," the Sifu says.

Of course. Don't forget the big picture. Don't get bogged down in the clutter of details. Always remain mindful of that wide horizon you were after to begin with. Be conscious of what set you on the path to the story. Don't lose that in revision. Sounds familiar, no?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Why write with a broken tusk?

Welcome to this blog with an odd name. The Broken Tusk, my 1996 collection of stories about the elephant headed Hindu god Ganesha, will be out again later this year (thank you, August House), which is part of the reason for this blog. The rest of it is this: Ganesha is the writer's ally and helper. He removes obstacles. The tusk stands for sacrifice, a promise made and kept, in the service of creating a perfect story-poem. All of which any writer will understand.

This blog will contain occasional reflections on writing process, and links to other people's thoughts about it.

More to come.