Friday, August 26, 2011

Alice's Story: An Anti-Bullying Play From Making Books Sing

This just in from Making Books Sing, the people who produced Tea With Chachaji, the musical theater adaptation of my picture book, Chachaji's Cup.

A fundraiser on Kickstarter to back Alice's Story, an interactive theatre production designed to help kids put a stop to bullying.

UPDATE: This project's been funded!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Congratulations to Cynthia Leitich Smith on Tantalize: Kieren's Story

Cynthia Leitich Smith is a writer of picture books, a chapter book made up of interlinked stories, short stories,YA novels, and now a graphic novel! Tantalize: Kieren's Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle, releases today from Candlewick Books. Congratulations, Cyn! I'm proud to call you my friend and colleague in the book and VCFA worlds.

Howling Great Giveaway on Cynsations.

More from Cyn on her nod to Bram Stoker, and how she handles diversity in her bestselling series.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sandip Roy on Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton and her daughters in 1946. Wikimedia Commons image
August 11, 1897 was Enid Blyton's birthday. Sandip Roy posts an ode to Blyton on the occasion.

Snippet: I didn’t read Enid Blyton because I wanted to be white.  I didn’t read her because I wanted to escape a world of uncaring adults. I read her because the plucky children came out on top.

Mind you, as a writer working in the trenches of the children's publishing market I'd take him to the (yoga) mat over this sweeping generalization: Children’s fiction has long become obsessed with depicting reality. Broken homes. Race relations. Adoption. Religious intolerance. Drugs. If it’s not about the pressing social issues of the day, it has to be educational – about history or inter-faith harmony or metaphysics. It has to teach something.

I could name a dozen books published in the last few years that could counter that statement, but that's for another post. I'd argue that Blyton's books were pretty darned teachy in their own way. Rashna B. Singh has a terrific chapter on Blyton in her book Goodly is Our Heritage: Children's Literature, Empire and the Certitude of Character.That I, eating up all the books I could lay my hands on in 1960's India, missed that aspect, says more about me and my circumstances than it does about Blyton. Children have a protective filter in their minds. They get what they are ready to get.

This part, however, is certainly true for me:
...Enid Blyton had some 800 books. She got to be there through our entire childhood...
Racist, sexist, classist, and xenophobic as the worldview in her books was, Blyton was a staple of my childhood as she was of Sandip Roy's.

In many ways, she was part of my writing journey as well. Had I not read about a talking parrot in her books, could I have written a chirping girl, forty-five years later, in mine?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reading the World Challenge: Three Titles Plus One

A reminder that the Reading the World Challenge continues on PaperTigers.

The first three books in my response to the challenge are part of a guest post over at The Brain Lair.

The titles I chose:  
  • Good Night, Commander by Ahmad Akbarpour, illustrated by Morteza Zahedi, translated from the Farsi by Shadi Eskandani and Helen Mixter and published in Canada by Groundwood Press. 
  • I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. by performance poet, storyteller and teacher Arthur Flowers, with illustrations by Patua scroll artist Manu Chitrakar from rural Bengal. Designed by Guglielmo Rossi and published in India by Tara Books.
  • Reading the World asks readers to choose at least one book set where they live. My "local" book, set in northwest New Mexico, is Songs of Shiprock Fair by poet, writer, teacher, storyteller Luci Tapahanso, illustrated by Anthony Chee Emerson and published in the USA by Kiva Publishing.
Next on my Reading the World list is Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle, a fictional account of a Caribbean pirate shipwreck. It's told in spare verse with shifting first person viewpoints. We hear from Qebrado, dubbed "the broken one," the pirate captain Bernardino de Talavera, Alonso de Ojeda who is in chains below deck, and the young lovers Narido and Caucubu. The collision of the Taino and Spanish-speaking worlds is both tragic and inevitable. The roles of captor and captive become reversed, ambitions are thwarted and hope can lie only in reinvention. Images of trees and ships echo throughout, the heart of one speaking in the creak and roll of the other; always, close at hand, is the sea. Engle charts the troubled waters of history with her customary combination of skill and heart. Published in the USA by Henry Holt.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Process Talk: Conversation Ahead with Joanne Rocklin

I've been trading e-mails with Joanne Rocklin, author of One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street, which caught my fancy because like my own middle grade,  The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, it derives its momentum from many stories intersecting in a single place. It breaks with some of the same conventions, while the same kind of energy seems to hum at its heart.

In both books, a number of narratives of children and a host of eccentric adults, intertwine and are brought together by a narrative voice that spans past and present, and can hop nimbly between places and people.

Joanne and I are digging into questions about process and trust and how you keep going--all that good writerly stuff. Look for more as we find themes that connect our thinking about the writing of these books.

And check out One Day and One Amazing Morning.... Among other things you will never look at an orange construction cone in quite the same way again! Here's an audio excerpt:

Friday, August 05, 2011

The Fragility and Robustness of Humor

Remember a time when you laughed so hard you nearly cried? They're very close sometimes, those particular extremes of emotion. I've been watching this video from the Philoctetes Center (unfortunately closed now) about poet Marie Ponsot's struggle with aphasia. It's moving and wonderful for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that this amazing woman and gifted poet is 90 years old!

But if you watch for just a few minutes from about 1:35:55 onward, you can listen to a writer in the audience speak about his stroke. What's so peculiarly moving is that he is a writer of humor, and that this part of his work is not returning to him.

In discussions of craft, we often hesitate to talk about the writing of humor, as if it were something so flimsy and frangible that it would die if we did.

But humor can be much more robust than that. Humor's tough. It often comes from having grown a thick skin, and it can help others do that.  Leonard Marcus's collection of interviews, Funny Business, is compelling precisely because those thirteen comic writers are unafraid in this regard.

On page 88 of Funny Business, there's a picture of the 8- or 9-year-old Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) at Cub Scouts. He's out of uniform. He's looking right into the camera. His chin is set. He has a scowl firmly fixed upon his face. There are universes of intent behind that scowl.

A couple of other kids in that picture, like the young Daniel, are not engaged in the knot-tying that's going on. They, however, are not taking on the world.

I hope that writer finds his funny voice again. When he does, we may learn something about how humor operates in the brain. Unfortunately there won't be a Philoctetes roundtable to bring that knowledge to the world.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

"I hear them like migrant birds." A Conversation with Audrey Couloumbis

This week's Kidlitosphere roundup for Interview Wednesday is at Gathering Books. Myra's on Singapore Time so if you're anywhere in the Americas, watch for additions through part of tomorrow.

The borders we're crossing in today's interview are those that exist between the adult writer self and the child character.

In Audrey Couloumbis's latest middle grade novel, Lexie, ten-year-old Lexie deals with the aftermath of her parents' divorce during a week spent at the beach with her father, who's invited his girlfriend and her two sons to join them.

From a starred review, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June 2011:
As she did in Jake (BCCB 12/10), Couloumbis demonstrates her skill at writing with quiet understanding and unstudied polish for younger readers. Her ability to walk through complicated emotional dynamics in kid-accessible impressive, making Lexie a perceptive narrator but not requiring her to be implausibly sophisticated.
I have known Audrey for years in the way that one can get to know people through letters and then e-mail and phone conversations, through correspondence about the things that matter to both of us in writing and in life. I'm very pleased to be able to talk to her now about this book that is sometimes funny, sometimes tender, and always spot on.

[Uma] Lexie's voice rings so true, endearing and compelling yet completely unsentimental. How do you tap the sensibility of the middle grade child with such perceptiveness?

[Audrey] I start writing the moment a character has something to say that interests me—I hear them like migrant birds, listen now or let them go on their way, probably never to return—and go from there. For Lexie it was a comment that let me know we had something in common: waiting for a father to arrive. Mine was always coming in on a plane that was late, late, late. And in my case, people around me never came to realize that tardiness was, if not deliberate, at least a condition he didn’t object to. He liked arriving to be greeted by a welcoming entourage.

[Uma] "Like migrant birds." I love that. So how did Lexie's story arrive on the page for you?

[Audrey] Working with Lexie, I drew on the reality of being met with an awareness that life went on without me. Oh, a stepmother. Oh, a pregnant stepmother. Oh, no longer traveling, but not coming home to live either? On the rare occasions I think of those surprises, I wish my grandparents were around so I could ask, What did you really think of all that? Because they were being surprised too.

So there was more than a little of my father in Lexie’s dad. Funny to realize that now, because recently I was asked if I’d patterned any of the characters after someone I knew. I said no, I didn’t think so. I liked bringing a little of the childhood experience of separation out into the open with Lexie.

But isn’t it funny how writing works to bring out a little of the old stuff we’d shoved into a drawer years ago, and even then we don’t recognize it right away.

[Uma]  How do you know when some of that old "stuff" might be ready to grow into a story, or don't you always know?

[Audrey] Usually I start with a piece of dialogue that ends up somewhere in the story, occasionally it’s more of an image that evokes the mood. In both cases, although I sometimes realize there was a trigger, the starting point rises from some mysterious where, like champagne bubbles. Once I start writing, the voice is steady on.

I realize that’s a less than helpful answer.

[Uma] No, actually it's a good one. I think we often go looking for the superficial story event as a trigger when what we need to be attending to is something much deeper, something that creates the conditions for that mysterious bubbling up of story.

[Audrey] I’ve tried starting stories from something overheard and fascinating—“He was killed by a tornado ! Drug right outta the winda!” but it never seems to work the same way. Probably the main criterion I use for writing a story is the willingness of the characters to offer up their points of view.

[Uma] And they do. Listen to this:
He sure could yell. Vicky picked him up and sat on the bed and rocked him, crooning over him. Harris's face had turned beet red. But he wasn't bleeding and he didn't look broken, the first thing Mom always checks. He looked like he would live.
In your writing the bonds between children are luminous, almost magical even though stories are realistic fiction. We had Willa Jo and Little Sister in Getting Near to Baby, which is to my mind one of the most wonderful renditions ever of a sibling relationship in fiction. And in Lexie we have the evolving relationship with the three-year-old Harris. What's the importance of these connections, child to child, in your writing? How do they serve to enable your child characters to maneuver through a complicated adult world?

[Audrey] You’ve approached the question with a very generous compliment, which I warn you, I resist.

[Uma] Resist away, Audrey! I insist on it. I love that book!

[Audrey] The first thought to come to mind is, my experience of these moments in a sibling relationship, often couched between the various conflicts of age, gender, family placement, circumstances, and just plain old chemistry, are about those events that require us, any of us, to step up to a higher level of understanding and tolerance, even if only temporarily. So while an instance represents those ultra protective moments when siblings recognize a need, they aren’t representative of the entire relationship by any means.

That said, I think the relationships that grow between the child characters in all of my books reflect that moment, partially or wholly, when kids recognize their essential helplessness in the face of a difficult situation—their helplessness to change how the adults are likeliest to respond, that is--or their dependence upon the adults in charge of what happens next.

Kids do realize they have to depend on each other to some extent in a crisis, and they are largely more trustworthy, in my view, than adults. They’re pure in their intent. I remember living from that feeling, and if I can’t always operate from there now that I’m “older and wiser” I can reexperience it with my characters over and over.

[Uma] It is true, isn't it, that your child characters draw on inner strengths they often didn't know they had?

[Audrey] Kids are rarely truly helpless. They extend themselves in quietly heroic ways, rising to an occasion to a degree most adults don’t expect of them and possibly won’t appreciate—even though that adult is expecting a kind of cooperation, a moderated behavior, that they might or might not get—and kids are selfless in the way of people who think they’ll last forever, that nothing of themselves is finite. I admire children, generally, and I like to show that not-so-helpless side of them. But I also like looking at how that intersects with some hapless adult’s expectations.

[Uma] Thank you Audrey. Here's to heroism and rising to the occasion, and to good books for children, books with humor and heart!

[Audrey] Thanks, Uma, for the opportunity to talk about Lexie, and writing.

[Uma] My pleasure. Come back and talk to me any time.

Oh, and another thing about this book. It's charmingly illustrated by Julia Denos. Look at this picture of Lexie reading in the window.  I love the fact that so many middle grades these days are getting the benefit of interior art!

Finally, here's Audrey's interview with Erika Rohrbach on the Kirkus blog.  Here's a snippet from that interview:
Conflicting emotions are where you begin to find characters like Ben—where there will be real ambivalence about what they’re dealing with. I hope that I deal with conflicting emotions well in whatever I write because it seems to me that any experience of emotional value is going to have some of that; it’s going to have places where other people looking are probably going to make judgments.
A summer-perfect read that captures the eccentricity of its child characters, and will warm the heart anytime.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Write at Your Own Risk

A new blog, Write At Your Own Risk, launches today from faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Several of us will be posting to the blog, writing at our own risk.

Thank you, Sarah Blake Johnson, for the photograph that led us to the blog title.

Speaking of writing and taking risks, Neesha Meminger has a wonderful article up at Hunger Mountain on the politics of story.