Monday, December 31, 2012

The End of 2012

How does this year end, then? In sorrow for the loss of children's lives? In astonishment at the folly of some solutions to problems of too much violence? In shame and dismay that in the 21st century, women in India (and elsewhere) must still fear for their safety? In hope that this will change? In panic at the future of the only planet we can call home?

I'm beginning to think that if there's one thing we can count on in life, it's change. Like it, hate it, resist it, deny it, change is the only real deal. We'd better embrace it, or we'll fool ourselves into extinction.

Tim Wynne-Jones's beautiful post on the VCFA faculty blog speaks to many things but what struck me as I read it is how often it made me change my mind--just when I thought I understood where he was heading with the anecdote, the perspective shifted, the ground fell away beneath my logical mind.

Peace to all, if only for the moment. 

Monday, December 03, 2012

Interruptions, the Passage of Time, and Happy 90th Birthday, Barbara Brooks Wallace!

On November 11, I was at the SCBWI-NM retreat at beautiful Hummingbird Music Camp in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. I'd cranked out a couple of new chapters of a work in progress and was planning to write another 500 or so words, only that never happened. I ended up rushed to hospital, then in surgery a couple of days later, and then flat on my back hooked up to IV's for a few days longer. I learned the Latin name for the malfunctioning part of my innards--appendix epiploica, take that!

And I was very, very lucky. I received terrific medical care at the Sandoval Regional Medical Center, a brand new facility in Rio Rancho, NM. There were no complications. Surgery took all of 15 minutes. And I'm fine now, thanks, having learned something about time and its passage.

That whole week dragged on so painfully while it was playing out, yet now that it's over it seems to have passed in a flash. It makes me pay more attention to how I treat time when I'm writing, and by that I mean both the fictional passage of time in my stories (When do I slow time down and zoom in on it in a scene? When do I speed it up and summarize its events?) and managing the time I spend writing them. It just somehow makes me want to be more attentive and intentional about it, to appreciate time more when I have the ability to use it, treat it, shape its passage.

And so I want to end this post with a shout-out to my friend Bobbie. Barbara Brooks Wallace is the author of Peppermints in the Parlor, Ghosts in the Gallery, The Twin in the Tower and other marvelous middle grade Victorian-era mysteries set on the east coast of the United States.

Bobbie turns 90 today. That seems such an accomplishment to me, something completely admirable, getting to a huge marker in life's marathon of experience and endurance and wisdom.

I wish I were there to help her celebrate in person. Some us did manage to send flowers and gifts, however.

Happy birthday, Bobbie!

Monday, November 05, 2012

Process Talk: Margarita Engle on The Wild Book

[Uma] Welcome, Margarita Engle. I have so much to ask you about The Wild Book, I hardly know where to start! So how about we start before even opening the book, with the glorious jacket image by Yuyi Morales? I spent a long time looking at it before I started reading, and then a long time again when I was done. For me it picks up and visually distills so many elements of your book. In light of the fact that the book is all about creating images from words on the page, will you tell me how you, personally, "read" this beautiful image?

Fefa, much later in life
[Margarita] I was so thrilled when I saw the cover illustration! My editor, Reka Simonsen, always knows how to choose the perfect illustrator for each project.  In the case of The Wild Book, she chose Yuyi Morales, who is from Veracruz, a part of Mexico that is culturally and geographically quite similar to Cuba. Yuyi instinctively understood which colors would be rich enough to show tropical farm life, yet gentle enough to make a young girl's hopes glow.  Yuyi also knew how to show a diary that looks like it is growing from vines, lucky crickets woven from leaves, and a bad caimán that would make any river shore scary for children.  Best of all, Yuyi seized the idea of dyslexia as "word blindness," and transformed it into something incredibly beautiful, simply by fluttering a transparent bird over the girl's eye.  The girl, of course, is my grandmother when she was young.  For this part of the image, Yuyi had nothing to work with but an extremely old, blurry photo of a teenager looking startled.  Yuyi took that frightened expression, and changed it into the mere suggestion of a triumphant smile!

[Uma] The simplicity of your words is deceptive.
"Think of this little book
as a garden,
Mamá suggests.
She says it so calmly
that I promise I will try."

Talk to me about the work that goes into making your words flow so naturally and simply.
Margarita Engle at an antique book fair in Havana

[Margarita] It was a great challenge to write about my grandma's dyslexia in her voice, because reading always came easy to me.  Struggling to read was something I had to imagine. On the other hand, I usually have to do a great deal of historical research, but in this case, I simply wrote down the stories my grandma had told me about her childhood.  They were stories I had heard many times, recounted in more and more detail as she aged.  By the time she was well past 100, she remembered her early years so vividly that the stories felt like something I had experienced, rather than something I had merely heard. As far as the flow of words, I think the key is spending a lot of time outdoors.  I love nature.  I love walking.  There is a rhythm that grows from nature walks.  It is also extremely important to set the first draft down on paper, with a pen.  That flow of ink cannot be simulated on a computer screen.

[Uma] Eerie towers in old sugar plantations, tales of the reconcentracion camp in Fefa's parents' days, kidnappings, a rogue caiman, guns--there's so much here that forms backdrop and context to the story of a girl trying to decode written language. How much of this book is family history and how much is fictionalized?

[Margarita] All the scary parts of the story are factual.  My grandmother could laugh about the kidnapper when she was old, but the caimán hunting incident remained traumatic and painful.  I did change certain things, and I also imagined many details.  The events I changed were either to tighten up the timing, for storytelling purposes, or to soften terrifying images for young readers.  

[Uma] Can you talk a little about the bird images that play such a powerful role in this story?

[Margarita] Birds fly into all my stories, perhaps because they are always tales of freedom, in one way or another.  The notion of "bird people," comes from Canary Island ancestry on my great-grandfather's side of the family.  The Canary Islands were named for dogs (canem in Latin), not canaries, but the islanders have a traditional language that consists entirely of whistling, and they brought that language to Cuba.  As far as the parrot in The Wild Book, it was a real wild parrot that lived on the roof, and listened to voices.  My grandmother really did teach the parrot to call people 'ugly,' and she laughed every time she spoke of getting in trouble when the parrot insulted distinguished visitors.  She must have had a mischievous streak when she was a child!

[Uma] What was the most joyful part of writing this book?

[Margarita] It was such a joy to imagine my grandmother's childhood voice.  I am so grateful to her for telling me about her difficulties, as well as her triumphs. I hope children will either read The Wild Book themselves, or hear it read out loud to them by parents or teachers.  I think my grandma would love knowing that children might feel encouraged by her perseverance.

Here is a snippet from the starred review in Kirkus:

The author gives readers a portrait of a tumultuous period in Cuban history and skillfully integrates island flora, fauna and mythology into Fefa’s first-person tale.

Congratulations, Margarita!

Friday, November 02, 2012

November is Picture Book Month

The Picture Book Month site features posts so far by Tom Lichtenheld and Chris Raschka. Celebrate this art form where story is made in the spaces between pictures and words, in the turns of pages, and in the minds of young readers and listeners and the adults who care about them.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and R. Gregory Christie accepting the 2012 BGHB Fiction Award

I loved what Vaun said about throat-clearing:
Sometimes you have to do an awful lot of writing to figure out exactly what it is you have to say.
And I loved illustrator R. Gregory Christie's comment:
"I feel it's really important that our young people realize that the clock doesn't start ticking when they were born, and there's a whole history of experiences and knowledge that can help us better understand the issues we go through today."

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Process Talk: Veera Hiranandani on The Whole Story of Half a Girl

Sonia Nadhamuni is half Indian and half Jewish American. When her father loses his job, she’s yanked out of her comfortable private school and sent to public school, where, for the first time, her mixed heritage prompts questions, comments, and even teasing. Then Dad takes a turn for the worse. I asked Veera Hiranandani to talk about the creation of her middle grade novel, The Whole Story of Half a Girl.

[Uma] You have some things in common with Sonia, your young protagonist and narrator in The Whole Story of Half a Girl. Talk about why writing this book was important for you.

[Veera] When I started the book, I felt like I was brushing the dust off a story I had been carrying inside me since I was Sonia's age. Even though many of the events and characters are fictional, Sonia's multi-cultural background and emotional experiences connected to that are very close to my own. I felt somewhat alone during those years and I wanted to write this book for kids going through similar challenges. I also wanted to create an awareness about these issues for kids who don't feel "other," but who might know kids who do. And no matter what your background is, who doesn't have to face questions about feeling different and fitting in? I hope this book can give young people a little company during those times.

[Uma] The novel is all about borders--internal ones, as well as those in the real world--that have to do with race, religion, politics, economics, privilege, power, and of course the borders one crosses socially in adolescence. How did all these disparate threads come together for you in the writing of this book?

[Veera] Well put. Borders so often are what define us to others and many times we want to draw them as clearly as we can in an effort to claim our identities. But the truth is we really get to know ourselves when we're forced to cross those borders and spend some time in the blurry middle areas. When you're part of two cultures, many times you find yourself living in between borders. From the beginning I knew Sonia would have to come up against borders around her cultural and ethnic identity and that was the problem I centered the story around. As she interacted with her parents and Kate and Alisha, more borders kept popping up like fences that she had to figure out how to jump over. They just sort of appeared as I fleshed out the plot. I try to look closely at boundaries of race, economics, class, politics and the like and how people choose to claim these identities. I find that very interesting and revealing in books and in real life.  

[Uma] Sonia's struggles are often moral ones, in the choices facing her--choices related to friendship and kindness, family and community. It's the rich supporting cast of characters--Alisha in particular, but also Kate, Mom, and Grandma--whose actions and words lead Sonia in the end to think for herself. Tell me how you went about crafting those secondary characters.

[Veera] Well, some of the characters like Mom, were very formed for me from the beginning, but Kate and Alisha were more challenging. In an earlier draft, I originally included an additional friend character, but she seemed to crowd the book and I decided to omit her. When I did that, Kate and Alisha became much clearer to me. I tried to craft supporting characters that would force Sonia outside her comfort zone. I wanted them to surprise her, not be what she might have expected or what the reader expected. I didn't want them to be opposites, yet I wanted them to represent different sides of Sonia. Grandma's role became more apparent the deeper I went into the book. She represents someone from an older generation who also had to push herself across borders to make the right decision. With Grandma, I could show what Mom had to go through to be who she wanted to be and now it was Sonia's turn to decide who she was with the wisdom of previous generations to help her along. 

[Uma] Sonia's dad is struggling with job loss and depression as she herself struggles with the fallout of those in her life. Still, you don't opt for easy or tidy resolutions. Do you have any thoughts that may be helpful to writers who struggle with plotting in general and resolutions in particular?

[Veera] It's not an easy task by any means. Again, this book went through many drafts, but the ending I have is actually my original ending. In an earlier draft I changed the ending which did ultimately felt too neat and tidy, so I went back to my first ending and changed the material leading up to the ending. I learned that sometimes if you like an ending, but it doesn't feel quite right, it might be how you lead the reader there that needs work, instead of the final ending itself. Dad was the biggest surprise for me in the book. I honestly didn't know he would be as large a part of the book as he was, or would struggle as much as he did. In my earliest drafts, he was much murkier, his struggles sort of burried. I realized there was an undercurrent of pain to the character there that I hadn't fully understood. Only as I fleshed him out in later drafts, did I realize how much was there.  

And here's the starred review from Kirkus. Snippet:
Four decades separate Sonia Nadhamuni and Judy Blume’s Margaret Simon, but these feisty, funny offspring of Jewish interfaith marriages are sisters under the skin.
Congratulations, Veera!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth on Hands Around the Library

"Once upon a time, not a long time ago..."

You might not think that any of the events of what has come to be known as the Arab Spring could possibly translate into a children's picture book. You'd be wrong.

I invited Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth to tell me the story behind the story of their beautiful new book, Hands Around the Library. The books recounts a true incident in which people came forward spontaneously to protect the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the glorious library that exists today at the location of that other ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt.

Karen wrote: 
I married an Egyptian who is passionate about his hometown of Alexandria, Egypt and we've visited fairly often. So when Susan was traveling to Egypt, I insisted she include Alexandria - and specifically the Alexandria Library (opened in 2002 as sort of a reincarnation of the ancient Library).  Susan of course does nothing in a small way. So she didn't just take a look at the library and leave, she met the children's librarian and established a friendship. She came home completely enthralled and decided we needed to collaborate on a book NOW.  NOW took more than a year, by the time we wrote a manuscript and revised it to meet the wishes of the publisher. We had planned a book about the ancient and modern libraries in Alexandria. The revolution happened while we were writing so we planned to have the protesters holding hands to protect the library as the culminating moment of the book.  The publisher wanted that event as the centerpiece of the book - and all of the other information became back matter.  But we are very pleased with the result - and so is Kirkus, which gave it a starred review and coined a phrase we think is perfect. "Freedom and libraries: an essential combination."
Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth
Here's Susan's take: notice how her words spill into each other. There's a collagist's mind at work. You can almost hear the cutting of the paper and fabric behind the illustration.

How Hands Around the Library Came to Be…Probably.
What starts a book? Inspirations? Epiphanies? Obligations? Assignments? Living? Longing? Schooling? Friends? Relatives? Desires? Ambitions? Needs for expressions? All of the above?

Why do I always know I MUST write and illustrate?? Because that's what I DO? Because that's all I've ever done? Because that's all I could possibly do? Because I love writing and illustrating so desperately even as I suffer and struggle and complain about doing it? Because I have a 32 page brain? All of the aboves??

And what about the why of any given book, specifically THIS BOOK? I'm going to try to figure this out…

1. For all my 17 leap-birthdays I've felt a fascination and appreciation and awe for Egyptian art and culture.

2. For all 16 of those birthdays I longed to visit Egypt. During those many years I tracked as much Egyptian art as I could find all over the world, outside of Egypt. And there is so much of it! I had seen and appreciated and loved enormous amounts of the real stuff long before I managed to see the REAL STUFF, i.e., the treasures of Egypt IN Egypt.

3. Finally, in 2009, I arrived in Egypt and IT DID NOT DISAPPOINT.

4. It was then that my dear friend and soon-to-be-collaborator, Karen Leggett Abouraya, literally FORCED me to include Alexandria in that itinerary. I thought it was a little ridiculous. I had gone to see the pyramids! The Sphinx! The Archaeological Museum in Cairo. Forget the rest, I thought. Who cares about ancient libraries that aren’t even there anymore? But Karen was relentless in her electioneering, and so I went to Alexandria.

5. Like the pyramids, THE LIBRARY DID NOT DISAPPOINT.  It was dazzling, awesome, inspiring, amazing. Fabulous, unbelievable, unimaginable, spectacular.

6. And, as does happen, to me, anyway, the vision made me desperate to write about it. And to pay homage to it visually.

7. And, because she was such an integral part of my experience even though she wasn't physically there with me for the epiphany, I really wanted to do this with Karen. And as it happened, she shared my vision and was happy to be part of the venture.

8. And then came the living history of events (the revolution and the touching reality that the protesting people loved their library and spontaneously decided to do WHAT THEY THEMSELVES WERE ABLE TO DO TO PROTECT IT), from whence we were presented with our story line.

9. And then came the visual imprints with serendipitous, delicious coincidences---like the appliquéd designs from Egyptian street tents that I loved when I was there---that turned up in an original, in an especially gorgeous version, on the wall in Karen's house!

And those waving protest signs, all over the television reports of the revolution, suddenly appearing right before my eyes in New York City when a group of protesting American-Egyptian-Coptic-Christians gathered right where I was crossing the street, exactly when I was in the midst of sifting images to use for this book.

And the images from the extraordinary architecture of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina---from the 500 alphabets to the vastness of the internal space--- these certainly helped to start the whole process.

All of the above, and more, of course, led me to choose my papers and fabrics, and helped me to pick up my scissors at last.

10. And all this may really be the story of the story, at least my part of the story, of how Hands Around the Library came to be.

(Leap birthdays? Susan, that's for another time!)

If I might paraphrase the touching words of Dr. Ismail Serageldin, thank you, Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth, for bringing this book forth into the journeys of children's lives.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Process Talk: Kate Hosford's fictional Uma and Infinity

In Kate Hosford's glorious new picture book, Infinity and Me, young Uma (yes, that's right, she's my very cute fictional namesake!) contemplates the stars in the sky and thinks about her place in the world in her own eight-year-old way. There is a vast concept at play here, stars and symbols. Then there are friends and family, and butter chicken, and oh yes, red shoes. How could you not be charmed?

From the starred review, it's clear the Kirkus reviewer loved it too:
Uma’s struggle with the meaning of infinity offers readers a playful, gorgeous introduction to the mathematical concept.

I'm proud to say that Kate Hosford was my student in the picture book semester at VCFA. I'm delighted to welcome her now to WWBT to talk about the wacky enchantment of this lovely book from Carolrhoda Books.

[Uma] Tell me how this book bubbled up to the surface for you.

[Kate] Although I was not the most promising math student, I’ve always been interested in philosophical concepts, and went on to major in philosophy at college. One of the fascinating things about infinity is that it is an important concept not only in math, but in other fields as well, such as science, philosophy, religion, and art.

In high school, I had a wonderful teacher who spent a year with us reading all of Plato’s dialogues, and studying the Pre-Socratic philosophers. One of the Pre-Socratics, Zeno, was fascinated with the idea of infinite divisibility, and how it creates paradoxical situations when we apply this logic to time and space. For instance, Zeno said that you can’t every really get from point A to point B, because first you have to get half the way there, and then a fourth of the way there, and then an eighth of the way there, and so on, forever. This, he said, would make any sort of movement impossible. Therefore we can never depart from point A. We all know that this can be disproven by simply walking from point A to point B, but it’s not so easy to explain why that is the case. When we start thinking about infinity, we soon find ourselves in an Alice-in-Wonderland sort of world where paradoxes are the norm, and that is a place that I find both fascinating and scary.

[Uma] When you were writing the story, you tested the concept out with children. Talk about that.

[Kate] I made a point of talking about the concept with different groups of school children (grades K-2) to see what they thought about infinity. They defined infinity by saying things like this:
“If you start counting to infinity, you will die and you will still be counting.”
“Infinity is when you ask what’s outside of a galaxy, and then outside of that, and on and on.”
“It’s a very high number but it’s not really a number. Nobody knows what number.”
After talking to children, I became even more excited about pursuing this idea. Infinity was an idea that mattered to them, they had smart and interesting things to say about it, and they were tuned in to its paradoxical nature.

I also knew that if anyone told me that a picture book about infinity was too sophisticated for young children, I would have lots of great quotations, which would provide a nice counter-argument. Yes, children will be confounded by infinity, but no more so than the rest of us. Rather than ignore a topic like this for children, isn’t it better to simply explore it? Children are already thinking about infinity and any number of other profound topics, and that needs to be reflected in the books that they read so that these questions can be discussed.

[Uma] These are all intellectual reasons. Were there also emotional reasons?

[Kate] Those were somehow not obvious to me until the book was actually printed and bound.

Like Uma, I was a child who became overwhelmed by philosophical and religious ideas. This became apparent in second grade, when my best friend told me that I would burn in hell if I didn’t become baptized. I was completely petrified by this thought for many years. However, like many children, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone about my fear, even though I had very supportive parents who undoubtedly would have made me feel better. Once I saw the finished book, I was finally able to see that the story was really connected to that eight year-old version of myself. But unlike me, Uma asks other people for help. In this book, ‘infinity’ really serves as a stand-in for the existential angst that most people feel at some point in their lives.

[Uma] Of course I'm so very flattered that you wanted me to share my name with your young character--but why? Why is she Indian-American? Why that little aside in the text?

[Kate] In college, I spent a semester studying Buddhism in India, and I consider that to be one of the seminal experiences of my life. It was a time entirely devoted to questioning and contemplation. Perhaps because of this, when I pictured my questioning protagonist, she was Indian.

I tried out many different names for the main character, several of which meant ‘limitless,’ or ‘without boundaries’ (which I thought would be a nice touch), but none of them seemed quite right. I love the name ‘Uma’ because those three little letters sound very strong, resonant, and universal. The name ‘Uma’ is sometimes used for the goddess Parvati, who is a powerful figure. This is important to me because my protagonist is in the process of discovering her own strength. I’m so grateful that you lent me your name, and it’s wonderful to have the association with you —another strong woman I admire very much.
Gabi Swiatkowska and Kate Hosford in Paris

[Uma] It's my pure delight, Kate. Can we shift gears now and talk about Gabi's art? It's so beautiful and luminous--what are your reactions to the pictures in the book?

[Kate] Gabi and I met about twelve years ago when I was also working as an illustrator, and became good friends. I’ll never forget the first time I saw her artwork. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, or since. I find her work absolutely stunning, both for its visual beauty, incredible inventiveness, and its emotive qualities. I don’t know any other minds that work like Gabi’s.

I actually wrote this story with Gabi in mind as the illustrator. I knew that this concept would be perfect for her artwork. After I sent it to her, I received an amazing little dummy with sketches in the mail. In their own way, these sketches are just as beautiful to me as the finished art.

[Uma] We know how different this is from how picture book publication typically works. For me, as a writer, it's magical to think of your being able to hold that little dummy.

[Kate] The art still takes my breath away, and I think it always will. Gabi really captured the pensive, searching mood of the story, and made it dream-like, which is perfect for this elusive concept. I’m sure readers will disappear inside the illustrations, and continue to notice new details every time they read the book.

[Uma] How have children responded to the book?

[Kate] I’m excited to see our book venture out into the world and to hear what children have to say about the book, and about infinity. I’ve already done some preliminary classroom and camp visits where I explored infinite divisibility through fractals with older children, and asked younger children to write about their own images of infinity. My latest favorite definition of infinity is from a girl who imagined it as “a book that never has a last page.”

[Uma] That is wonderful! Children have the most amazing minds. For young readers, and for those (mere) adults who work with them, you have plans for online resources, I gather.

[Kate] I am going to have an infinity curriculum on my website that parents and teachers can use. I would also love it if children wrote to me on my website and told me how they define or envision infinity, or their feelings about infinity. Maybe I can compile quotations (anonymously) and put them on my website to share with others. It could function as a kind of a virtual infinity quilt. It would also be great to have feedback on the curriculum materials.

[Uma] Watch this page for more. Readers may also want to write directly to artist Gabi Swiatkowska.  Here's the  New York Times review of Infinity and Me. Congratulations, Kate and Gabi!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Catching Up With Minal Hajratwala

Minal Hajratwala's Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents is a book with vast vision and a sharp eye, combining historical sweep with deep personal meaning. I read it in one big gulp, unable to put it down. It's not marketed as YA but to my mind it holds interesting potential for YA readers as well as adults, raising questions of why we are who we are, and what we can become from the hand we're dealt.

Here's what Publishers Weekly had to say in a starred review of Leaving India:

Told with the probing detail of a reporter, the fluid voice of a poet and the inspired vision of a young woman who walks in many worlds, Hajratwala's story offers an engaging account of what may be one of the fastest-growing diasporas in the world. 
In addition to her own work Minal also teaches writing. Here on WWBT, I'm happy to announce a new online class she's offering: Blueprint Your Book, "a 6-Week Course for Crafting Your Manuscript," runs from September 15 to October 22, 2012.

[Uma] Your Blueprint course sounds fantastic. What sets it apart, in your envisioning of it, from other online writing classes?

[Minal] Thanks!  I am a huge fan of freewriting as a way of generating material and working through blocks.  So a lot of the teaching that I do for beginner and all-levels classes is about freewrite, freewrite, freewrite. Find the gorgeous, the deep, the resonant and meaningful voices within you and give them the freedom to come out.

But of course, you can't build a house just by finding beautiful pieces of wood and hoping they'll fit together.  You need a blueprint— either ahead of time, or after you have some clarity about your core elements.  Working out structure is essential.

And for a writer, structure is very difficult to figure out.  Your fantastic writing group that meets once a month might not have the time to track the ins and outs of your whole novel, for example. You're holding it all in your head, and in order to move it around, it needs to get out of your head.  There's a lot of information out there that can feel random if you don't have a guide to how *your project* can work with it: "Write on index cards! Use the Hero's Journey! Have a climax by Page 123!"  These formulas don't work for everyone, or they work a little bit but then have to be used in conjunction with other elements.

[Uma] So how does all that work? By which I mean, how can it come together organically, so you're not totally lost in the maze?

[Minal] If you're building a house, you can't just draw a floor plan, right? You have a whole team of people figuring out where to put the pipes, electric wires, supporting beams inside the walls, whatever.

That's why just an "outline" doesn't work for a book.  You have to figure out not only the plot, but also the emotional currents, the themes, the character arcs, the transitions, the geographical movements, how the metaphors are working together, what your story is really trying to say.  It's really natural to get lost and bewildered in all of the complexities of any story.  Working on structure with tools for every one of these elements is a way to step back, get un-lost, and be strategic about harnessing all of your powerful material.

I realized there was a gap in what's available for writers when I would talk about the many different structural tools that I used in the seven-year process of writing Leaving India. Writer friends and clients would get super-excited about a self/world narrative timeline, or an emotional map —  and there was often a "Wow" moment of breakthrough. I felt it would be great fun to share all the tools together in a workshop and let everyone try them out together.

[Uma] I love that you're using the same tools to prepare yourself for NanoWriMo. Talk a little bit about the value of practicing what you teach.

[Minal] Yes, I’m excited to create my workplan for writing 50,000 words of my novel in November. The first time I did it, I just freewrote like mad, which was fantastic AND had the result that lots of things didn’t end up connecting. I realized that I’ll get even more out of it this time if I do some good planning ahead of time.  I’m going to make specific plans for what I’ll be writing.  It’ll probably change along the way, which is perfect — I just want to have a working structure (not a straitjacket) in place so that I can keep going instead of wasting time wondering what to write about.  I figured some people might like to join me in that process, so I’m excited to share my toolbox/toybox.

I've used every structural tool and exercise I'll share in the workshop.  The great Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi said, "The reason I talk is to encourage you to practice."  Likewise, I feel that a big part of a writing coach's role is simply to encourage a writer's continued practice and effort.  I love to help open up fresh directions and possibilities when the writer gets bogged down or confused or lost in the complexities of the work.  Writing a book can be such a difficult journey and a good teacher/coach has to be able to share enthusiasm and a sense of the rewards — so working with the tools myself gets me excited about them all over again.  As a teacher, it's so important to
be able to transmit a genuine sense of pleasure and possibility.

The times I've been most enthusiastic to enter into a new way of working, or to try something totally strange, are when a teacher or another writer has been able to say, "This is what I did AND IT WORKED."

[Uma] What you say about the organic form of story really resonates for me. How do you achieve a balance between self-discovery and the practical elements of instruction? Can you talk about the concept of balance in general? Does it help, or does it fail us as writers?

[Minal] Oh, balance!  You know, Uma, for me balance is not the most helpful priority.  I think about Michelangelo saying, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  He didn't say, "I wanted to balance how much I use the big chisel and how much I use the little chisel, in order to be fair to both, so I used one and then the other for a long time until the angel somehow happened."  He knew and wholly believed in what he was seeing: that's the organic form.  He was intimate with his tools: that's the craft.  And he put them together obsessively to make his vision come true.

So I say, get intimate with your tools.  Allow yourself to be passionate about daydreaming and envisioning what you want to create. Sometimes this concept of balance makes us hold back a little on everything, in order to have energy for it all.  Why not dive deeply into the organic discovery of your own work and voice, with everything you have? Then dive deeply into the practical elements of plot and character development and narrative design, too; don't hold back. (And take time to rejuvenate when you can: do that wholeheartedly, too.)

Instead of balance, making writers feel like we have to do it all, I try to encourage a mindful, strategic approach.  If freewriting stops being productive, maybe it's time to step back and do some structure work and figure some things out.  If you're making endless outlines and haven't written a new word in a long time, see if there's a whiff of procrastination or fear about you, and get support for that.

Go back and forth, get obsessed, use every Post-It note in the house if you have to, but keep going forward.

One of my favorite quotes is from an interview with a Cirque du Soleil choreographer who was asked how he finds the right compromise between his artistic vision and the safety of the performers.  And he looks shocked and says something like, Oh no! There is never any compromise. It has to be 100% safe AND 100% gorgeous.

[Uma] Oh, I love that! Makes me think of the wild magic of a Cirque performance, with much the kind of energy you'd want swirling through a piece of writing. Oh, you're making me want to drop everything and go write!

[Minal] Writing has to be 100% everything. So, personally, I'm not after balance at all.  I'm looking to create pockets of time and space when I can be completely obsessed and immersed with my project, whether I'm in a structural mode or a freewriting mode or a revision mode.  That doesn't always mean a writer's residency, although that's precisely why residencies are amazing and hyper-productive.  It can also mean that sacred hour from 2am-3am when everyone else is asleep and nothing intervenes.

At that moment I'm not balancing a plate on my lap and a cat on my laptop and incoming phone calls: I'm totally unbalanced, in the world of my book. That's a moment of grace for me as a writer.

[Uma] So when is the right time in a project to focus on structure?  And is any of this specific to genre and form?

[Minal] I would say it's never too early, and it's not really too late until your book is finished.  Most writers are naturally moving between the structural level and the word-by-word level throughout the process. Getting conscious about what you're doing structurally can save you a lot of time.

Genre writers have certain structure elements in place, and because of this, I think sometimes plot development, for example, gets a "non-literary" rap.  But actually every book has its own internal structure.  Every manuscript needs the writer to, at some point, emerge into awareness of what is holding the work together in terms of theme, arcs, etc., and make those connections solid.  Even if you're working in a stream-of-consciousness, anti-structure form,
there is still an underlying logic to the manuscript.

[Uma] True. But what's the emotional cue you need to pay attention to,  then?

[Minal] At any point where you feel lost, confused, stuck, or ready to enter a major overhaul, structural tools can help you find a clear way forward.  When used at the beginning, making a blueprint can save you a lot of time. Some attention to design, and the various layers on which your book is moving, can help you find the form in which you have total freedom to tell the story you want to tell.

Thank you Minal Hajratwala, colleague and Hedgebrook alum, lover of unicorns, mentor of young writers, and more! Come back anytime to WWBT.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Catching up with Marion Dane Bauer

During the July 2012 residency, Marion Dane Bauer was awarded an honorary MFA by Vermont College of Fine Arts. We as an institution owe her so much. It seems trite to say we wouldn't be the program we are today without her, but it's true.

Marion continues to push herself, still thinks and rethinks the craft of writing for young readers. Here's more on Little Dog, Lost, her new novel in verse. Here's the starred review from Kirkus.


And oh yes, read what Marion says about novels in verse at The Hate-Mongering Tart. Using form as a challenge instead of staying where you're comfortable--brave writers do that.

Snippet: Verse novels, I have been known to opine, rarely accomplish fiction’s most important task, inhabiting their characters fully.

But Marion is one of those rare writers who promises nothing that she will not deliver with clarity and honesty. Count on that.

Still more. On Wednesday, September 19, at 7:00 pm EST, Marion offers a free, live teleconference call on picture books, and then a webinar a week later, on point of view and psychic distance.

The initial events are free--signup is required. The content remains free and accessible for 24 hours, after which it will be downloadable for a modest fee. It's a wonderful opportunity. Those who have never been taught by Marion will encounter the wealth of her knowledge, her marvelous, dry wit, and her incisive way of getting to the heart of the work we hold dear. And maybe some of us who miss her still can get to revisit the love.

Friday, August 24, 2012

On Childhood Reading, Writing, Culture, and More: Video interviews from 2011

Some of this material was posted on the Colorin Colorado web site. Thank you, Lydia Breiseth!

Oops, I just found an error in something I said! Poona=old name of the town. Pune=new name. I know that. How did I mix them up? It's just the verbal equivalent of typing "teh" for "the." My apologies.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Process Talk: Shelley Tanaka on Nobody Knows

When we think of novelizations of films, it's the commercial blockbusters that come to mind: Star Wars, or the legions of Oz sequels. But here is Nobody Knows, Shelley Tanaka's novelization of the Japanese movie Nobody Knows/Dare mo shiranai from filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda.

Published by Groundwood Books, Shelley's novel, like the movie, is a small gem, a tale of children, abandonment, heartache, and the survival of hope against all odds.

Here's my virtual conversation with Shelley.

 [Uma] How did this project come about for you?

[Shelley] I saw the film not long after it was released. I couldn't get it out of my head -- the beauty of the children, the power of the director's shots, and the fact that the film seemed so rooted in the child's point of view -- something I'm very interested in as a writer and editor. I thought the story might make a good book, and Groundwood's publisher, Patsy Aldana, agreed.

It took a long time to obtain the book rights (the film came out in 2004). Hirokazu Kore-eda, who wrote and directed the film, was consulted about intention and treatment before I started to write. Originally I wanted to make the story more hopeful, so I suggested a new ending where Akira sees the nice clerk from the convenience store, and he turns to approach her, and the reader is left thinking he might finally be about to seek adult help. I also tried to worm out of showing Yuki's death and burial. Patsy immediately said that was a cop-out, and Kore-eda basically said my proposed ending missed the whole point of the film.

They were right, of course.

[Uma] There's a darkness to the film that is captured in cinematic ways--take the mother. The film uses visual and auditory techniques to show us her shallowness, with its implied impending danger for the children. We absorb these things through camera angles, through the surreal, childlike quality of her voice, through sideways glances and gestures. Even the way she serves Akira his noodles is self-absorbed--it's not about him and his hunger, it's an almost petulant gesture. Can you comment on the mother in film and in print?

[Shelley] In the film the mother's baby voice and her body language say everything about her character. But I had to sort of forget about her because although we see that she is a child herself, her children don't really see that. I compared her to Yuki at one point, tried to get across her fragility and her immaturity, but this isn't her story. We don't even really want her to come back, because she's such a disaster. We just want her to keep sending money so the kids can do a better job of looking after themselves. But the children want her back. She's their mum. They love her and want to be parented, as bad as she is at that. It's interesting when the audience doesn't want what the characters want.

[Uma] What strikes me about your text is its great economy of words. How do you convey great subtleties in very spare text?

[Shelley] So the novel is pretty faithful to the film. I struggled with a few spots. In the film there are a number of phone calls, where Akira does make contact with his mother. I couldn't make sense of these, and they opened up the whole question of him knowing where his mother was, which became confusing and distracting in the book. There are also a couple of scenes where Akira is not present -- when Yuki falls, and when the landlady walks into the apartment and only the girls are home. I left out the fall because I didn't think we actually needed to witness it, but the landlady scene was important --  she backs out of the apartment when she sees the children on their own, the place a mess. She doesn't want to know.

[Uma] Novelizations usually add material to the story of the film, since novels tend to be longer than screenplays. That's not true in this case. Can you talk about your obligations to the movie and its story when you wrote this novel?

[Shelley] After my proposed changes were shot down, I realized that the novelization would have to stick as close to the film as possible. Whenever I tried to embellish or write more, it felt false. Everything is in the film. I figured if I could transfer the film to the page, then the reader would bring the rest, the same way the viewer does to the film.

For me, it's the loving moments that are the most gut-wrenching. There is an amazing scene in the film where Akira and Yuki go to the station to meet their mother, who never comes. An enormous amount of emotion and narrative are conveyed simply through the expression on Akira's face. Yuya Yagira, who plays Akira, won Best Actor at Cannes, and in my view, he deserved it for this shot alone. I did go into Akira's head here, and was afraid of tipping over into the sentimental, as I'm very squeamish about the L-word. But I had to. There's a whole novel in his face here.

[Uma] Shelley, you're a talented nonfiction writer. What did you learn from this movie, from using it as primary source material, if we want to frame this in nonfiction terms?

[Shelley] After watching the movie many, many times, I realized how nuanced and rich the film is, how Kore-eda avoids making it too bleak or relentless. Nothing is gratuitous or graphic. He cuts away from the most searing moments. There's a lot of light -- the sun shining through the trees, the red flowers, the plane in the sky, the children's faces. The emotion -- happy and sad -- is pure and simple and true to the world of the child.

And I saw that the ending is not without hope. The children have survived a terrible crisis. Yuki's spirit is with them. The two big girls have become close. The little brother is his irrepressible self, still full of unalloyed joy when he finds a coin in the telephone booth. Despite everything, the kids are together by virtue of their own basic goodness and resilience.

They do their best. They get through. And we're cheering for them at the end.

[Uma] We are indeed. Movie and novel are rich and layered, and true to a certain kind of esthetic choice--simplicity and a kind of spare and subtle touch that evokes at all times a great respect for the children whose narrative this is.  Thank you, Shelley!

Monday, August 06, 2012

Process Talk: Ann Stampler on The Wooden Sword

On her web site, YA and picture book writer Ann Stampler says:
My forays into other careers notwithstanding, I have always wanted to be a writer, and have always, ever since I was first able to write, had notebooks and file folders and bankers’ boxes full of stories, and pieces of stories, and fragments of novels, and random paragraphs.  As a teenager, I saw myself as smart and socially hopeless.  Now I see myself as less smart and less hopeless, but I’m still basically the same person I’ve always been; I’m just a lot happier about it. 
I also love what she has to say about the power of story:
I was lucky enough to be raised in a family that read to me and told me stories, and my love for books and stories has stayed with me throughout my life.
Welcome, Ann Stampler.

[Uma] You're a passionate advocate for retold folklore. Tell me why you believe these old stories matter.

[Ann] Folk tales are a remarkable tool for conveying a culture's values and flavor from one generation to the next.  The best folk tales have compelling story lines that make them interesting to hear and compelling for storytellers to carry from village to village and continent to continent.   But the tales' embedded values -- the wisdom and the messages they bring us from our ancestors -- are what make them so special.

[Uma] In your picture book, The Wooden Sword, the encounter of a powerful shah with a poor shoemaker leads to a testing of faith, the triumph of hope and the forging of connections, with a little wink on the side to the reader. What was it that drew you to this story?

[Ann] In terms of story, I love the humor in this tale, the fact that both the shah and the poor shoemaker are, in some sense, tricksters who outsmart each other and ultimately enrich each other's lives.  In terms of message, the notion that an optimistic faith -- along with cleverness, resilience and hard work -- can get us past the obstacles that life throws in our paths seemed important  to share with this generation of children.  Finally, in today's political climate, a story that shows people of different faiths, who practice those different faiths, coexisting and coming together with mutual respect, was difficult to pass up.

[Uma] You have included a detailed author's note in the back about the variants of the story and the choices you made in retelling it. Why do you think such a "story behind the story" is important information for young readers and for those who introduce this book to them?

 [Ann] With all folklore, we have evolved beyond the point when the re-teller can just go, uh, this is a story from, er, Africa, and proceed to misrepresent both the bones of the original story and its cultural context.  At least I hope we have.

Folk tales are great stories, but they are also cultural artifacts that we preserve by telling them well.  I always write an author's note for the folk tales I retell to give readers a sense of where the stories come from, how they reached me, and how they might have been changed in traveling from their original countries to me in the U.S.  With my earlier books, this has been easier to accomplish, since the stories came to me via my immigrant grandmother, and I could see how her spin affected the tales by reading and hearing other versions, and by understanding her point of view.

 The Wooden Sword, however, is the first story I've done from outside my own culture.  I knew an Eastern European version of the story, but it didn't have the same resonance for me as the Afghani* one I chose to retell.  I worked very hard to get the story right, as did the illustrator.  But The Wooden Sword comes from a culture that no longer exists in situ; it comes from the Jewish community of Afghanistan, which emigrated, en masse, in the mid-twentieth century.  And I found myself relying on people, more than books, as resources, including Afghani Jews, a professor of Islam at Loyola Marymount University, and folklore and other scholars in the U.S. and abroad, all of whom were extremely generous with their time and knowledge.  It seemed to me important to share the background of the story and how I came to tell it as I did, to make it possible for readers (presumably not the five and six year-old-readers who are The Wooden Sword's primary audience, but for the parents and teachers who read it along with them, and for those children if they pick up the book again as they grow older and begin to see different layers of the tale) to understand just what they were getting.

While I think that this story has messages that are valuable for children of all (or no) faiths, in addition to being a lot of fun (which I get to say because I didn't make it up!), I've been particularly gratified to learn that both Jewish and Muslim children and families have enjoyed it.  I believe that the author's note, explaining my choices in writing the book and the origins of the story, helps to give context to the spiritual and cultural underpinnings of the tale, and makes them easier for parents to discuss with their children.

[Uma] Thanks Ann! What an interesting intersection of story, history, geography and culture.

*Note: On the choice of the adjective "Afghani" vs. "Afghan" Ann writes:
I know that Afghan versus Afghani has been debated at length; I went with the choice of the Afghani expatriates who helped me with the book, and whose perspective is closest to that of the community from which the story comes.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Tu Books/Lee & Low: First New Visions Award for Writers

With their announcement of the New Visions Award, I'm delighted to see Tu Books take the lead in calling for more genre fiction by writers of color for middle grade and YA audiences. It seems to me that if writers of color venture into this terrain then characters in these genres will become more diverse, more nuanced, more blended, more multifaceted, more real.

The New Visions Award will be given for a middle grade or young adult fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color. Authors who have not previously had a middle grade or young adult novel published are eligible.

Manuscripts will be accepted through October 30, 2012. Eligibility and submissions guidelines here

The New Visions Award was established to help more authors of color break into publishing and begin long, successful careers, while also bringing more diverse stories to speculative fiction.
Don't you love the ring of that? Long, successful careers? Writing books with cultural grounding, slant, perspective, voice, heft? In genres young readers love?

The award is modeled after Lee & Low's successful New Voices Award, which was established in 2000 and is given annually to a picture book written by an unpublished author of color. Since it was started, the New Voices Award has led to the publication of outstanding picture books such as Bird by Zetta Elliott and The Blue Roses by Linda Boyden.

I'm anxious to see what works turn up on the editors' desk in response to this call for submissions. Over the years,
the editors and publishers at Lee & Low, and now Tu, have chosen to place themselves in an important space in the ongoing conversation on culture and literature for young readers.

Read more from Stacy Whitman of Tu Books: Is Multicultural the Right Word?

Monday, July 09, 2012

Fairies! A True Story by Shirley Raye Redmond

In 1917, when photography must still have seemed magical to people, a couple of girls in England played with the notion of truth and illusion. Cousins Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright claimed to have seen fairies--and photographed them! Among the people who believed them was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here's a brief interview with Shirley Raye Redmond, the author of Fairies! A True Story, a Random House Step Into Reading book. And yes, there was a movie about this true incident as well.

Oops! The VCFA residency ate my wits, obviously. I posted that intro and then forgot to post the interview--here it is. Sorry. I plead exhaustion as my excuse.

[UK] The Frances and Elsie fairy story is fascinating because it could only take place with the help of a then-new technology--photography--which must itself have still seemed like magic to people in 1917. How did you get interested in this particular story?

[SRR] Fairies are hot—in fact, the Tinkerbell books put out by Random House (Disney license) and all the lunch boxes, pajamas and other associated items, are the number one items sold to girls in the USA under the age of 10. So I wanted to write about fairies and cash in on the current rage. As nonfiction is my “true love,” I searched around for a nonfiction angle, discovered the Cottingley photos and decided to pursue that. I just loved the girls’ creativity and pluck.

Also, when reading to children in a classroom setting or at  a library event, there are often youngsters in the crowd
who will ask, “Is this a true story?” and when I say, “Yes!” they seem to relish the story all the more. That’s one reason I love finding true stories that are fun to share with young readers—such as my book PIGEON HERO! about the real G.I. Joe and THE DOG THAT DUG FOR DINOSAURS and now FAIRIES, A TRUE STORY.

[UK] You've written in many forms and genres. What's different about writing an early reader?

[SRR] The most difficult aspect of writing early readers—particularly nonfiction ones—is getting all the pertinent information into an
interesting story arc in under 850 words. It’s tough! Plus all the words must be grade level appropriate as youngsters need to be able to read the book by themselves—unlike a picture book, which is often read by an adult to the child.

 [UK] All writing in a sense is about the creation of an effect on the page--when a writer works in nonfiction, what's her obligation to truth vs. effect?

[SRR] This is rather like walking a tightrope, and the focus is often dictated by the publisher. Random House is extremely dedicated to facts and truth, as you put it, even for very young readers.  I have to document every fact, every bit of information for my editor, who then has the material vetted by an expert in a related field. Also, the clothing and artistic depictions in the illustrations have to be as accurate as possible. For instance, the illustration of the camera used by Frances and Elsie is based on an old photograph of the actual camera. So, it can be a challenge to come up with text and illustrations that are both accurate and appealing for young readers while still creating a mythical mood or playful tone.

[UK] Thank you Shirley Raye Redmond. Much luck with this and future books.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Connections: Congratulation, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Suzy Lee's Shadow, and Tributes to Ellen Levine

After a month-long travel hiatus, it's especially wonderful to come back to blogging with a cheer for a dear friend and writing colleague. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson's YA novel, No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller, has just won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction!

Illustrated with archival photos and R. Gregory Christie's haunting black and white line drawings, this amazing work blurs the borders between history and family story, fiction and nonfiction, using multiple voices to tell the story of a man driven by a mission. See starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. It's such a thrill to see this beautiful book get the recognition it deserves.  I'm privileged that I got to see it in many iterations along its journey. Congratulations, Vaun!

Speaking of crossing boundaries, I've long been fascinated by illustrator Suzy Lee's work. Her wordless picture book, Wave, plays with intention and action in glorious blue spreads, using both gutter and the landscape orientation of the book in wonderfully imaginative ways. It's a visual narrative that I think writers of picture book texts would do well to study, just to get the feel of the story moving back and forth, wave-like in its progression, and never once straying from the young child's sensibility.

I got to meet Suzy briefly in Singapore, and heard her speak about another of her books, Shadow. It's the second of three picture books (the first was Wave) that Suzy calls the Border Trilogy. Here's a link to a slide show of the third book, Mirror which has not as yet been published in a North American edition.

And finally, a sad goodbye to novelist, picture book writer, fearless activist and all-around inspirational woman Ellen Levine.  This summer, at the VCFA residency, we'll be taking time to remember Ellen's life, her books, her vision, her legacy. More tributes to Ellen Levine from Debby Dahl Edwardson and Rene Colato Lainez.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Process Talk: Divya Srinivasan on Little Owl's Night

I'm so pleased to be talking to author-illustrator Divya Srinivasan about her beautiful, whimsical picture book, Little Owl's Night. which debuted last year to many glowing reviews.

Little Owl wanders around the forest, encountering a variety of animals, seeing the fog roll in, seeing the moths flutter toward the moon. Listen to this line: "Silver dust fell from their wings." So simple, and absolutely the right words. Little Owl's Night captures a young child's whimsy without ever straying into the dreaded terrain of cutesy. And the bats--don't forget to look for those bats! Welcome, Divya.

[Uma] Talk about the reversal of the usual dawn-to-dusk cycle in this book--where did that come from for you?

[Divya] I first thought about the visuals and what setting would be fun for me to draw. A night forest with twinkling stars and a bright full moon seemed beautiful and mysterious. I made the main character a little owl so we could see what all and who all he sees as he flies through a world that is cozy and familiar to him, but one that a child who is asleep at night might be curious about and would like to imagine.

[Uma] And it's a vision driven by that beautiful, wide-eyed rendition of Little Owl. Divya, how much did this change from your early visions of it?

[Divya] My first version of the book was 40 pages. In the middle section, a cat tells Little Owl that yes night is beautiful, but daytime is too. This prompts Little Owl to ask his wise mother about the daytime world unknown to him. She tells him about monkeys and lions and other animals that exist in other places. There was also a friendly witch casually flying into the night. I stuck in a lot of elements I loved and hoped for the best.

[Uma] Hear that, drafters? Raise your hand if you do this too! It's a messy business, bringing a story to the page. And then you sent a fully illustrated version off, yes?

[Divya] I fully illustrated the whole thing and sent it off. Viking Children's Books ended up wanting to publish it, but my editor said it felt like two books in one. She also thought it would be better to keep it to 32 pages. She was right. I removed that middle section, replaced it with a couple of new spreads, and was able to keep much of the rest the same.

[Uma]  There are lovely lyrical elements in the text--the fog rolling in, that silver dust that captivated me. My favorite lines of all are probably these:
"Little Owl sat on his branch.
How he loved the night forest!"
How did you end up balancing poetic language with the young child's sensibility in which this book is so squarely grounded?

[Divya] Thank you! I've mainly been an illustrator and animator, working in visuals, and this was my first attempt at having writing published. I've always kept a journal and, among other things, I write down ideas for scenes and word combinations I like, hoping to use them in a project someday.

My editor really wanted the pictures to stand out without heavy text getting in the way visually. And I loved that. I'm naturally wordy I think, but I also love whittling sentences down to what is essential, finding just the right words that would be fun to hear as well as to read aloud.

[Uma] Want to talk about your next book?

[Divya] I'm working on final illustrations for my next picture book, which is about an octopus. Again, I started thinking about the visuals first, and an underwater setting seemed rich with possibilities for colors, forms, and alien-looking animals. The more I learned about the octopus, I knew that had to be the main character: shy, curious, camouflaging, shape shifting. We're still figuring out the title, but Viking Children's Books is set to release it in Summer 2013.

[Uma] Congratulations, and thanks for stopping by WWBT, Divya! Looking forward to your next. I hope to have you back here when you're closer to publication date.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Training Your Inner Critic

Posted simultaneously on Write At Your Own Risk, a shop talk blog from the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Coe says, in her wonderful post:

The kind of self-talk that goes on during the fragile stage has so much power over the course of our writing.  Positive self-talk can be inspiring, keeping us motivated as we find our way with a new story. 
But negative self-talk can be debilitating.  It can stop us before we put a word on the page, keeping us in an endless cycle of wanting to write but holding ourselves back, time after time after time.
And that is so true--or at least it is when you're at (or is it on?) that fragile stage.

I know all about fragile stages. I was the klutzy kid who, at 11, stepped on the only loose floorboard in a wooden stage during a dress rehearsal--and fell right through, perfectly in time to the high tumbling notes of Ariel's song from The Tempest.

Oh, how I wish that I had possessed a smart, knowledgeable inner critic at the time! A voice of caution. A voice that might have warned, "Hear that creak? Step away. Fast." Instead I stayed and fidgeted. Made the board creak louder and louder, until the fateful crash.

You may gather from this that I'm all for inner critics.

Coe's right, of course. You can't let the critic loose when you're creating that first, fragile stage. That's a structure you want to get across with quick, light steps, just barely managing to lay the planks down as you go. Pay no attention to the creaking. That's normal.

It will be flimsy, of course. You want it to be. If you nailed it all down it would be secured way too soon. You want it changeable, with moveable parts many of which will need replacing.

But what comes next is the part of writing I love the most. Revision. Which is where I urge you, revive your inner critic. Tame him. Give her tools. Then put that critic to work.

When I have that first clumsy construction done, my inner critic and I can stroll around its edges, studying it, figuring out what fits, what doesn't, and what was very definitely a misstep. I have to train my critic. She can't go crashing all over that fragile stage. But I do need her to raise questions. Does that character belong? Do those two others need to be a single person? Does that motivation work? Is that premise too clever? Too neat? Too slight? What's this really about? Whose story is it? Who should tell it and to whom?

Image source:
Only my inner critic would dare raise such questions.

My creative self certainly couldn't do this work. She's so tired from having flung floorboards around that she thinks she's done.

So...sure, challenge your critic when the drafty winds are blowing through those loose boards. But crush? Drown? Hmm, I'm not so sure. Put her on a plane, maybe. Send him away on vacation while you play with the puzzle pieces. But when you have a working version, bring that critic back, rested, refreshed, and ready to ask the tough questions.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Asian Festival of Children's Content (AFCC) 2012

So I'm heading to Singapore again in a couple of weeks to attend and speak at the Asian Festival of Children's Content, May 26-29, 2012.

AFCC is offering discounted registration to SCBWI members for full and partial conference attendance. The conference, which is more like several conferences in one, features a most interesting lineup of speakers. Just for starters, look at these random names I pulled off the speakers' list: Suzy Lee, Christopher Cheng, Candy Gourlay, Alvina Ling, Leonard Marcus, Margarita Engle. I'll be on a panel with Cynthea Liu and Rukhsana Khan, and sharing a session with Ruth Starke on writing in and out of culture .

Last year's event drew 608 conference participants from 23 countries. Organized by the National Book Development Council of Singapore and The Arts House.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Tagore's birthday and the limitless Zohra Sehgal

Today, May 7, is the 151st birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, author of numerous works of prose and poetry, Nobel laureate (1913), artist, poet, philosopher, teacher, and the one who gave Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi the affectionate title of "Mahatma."

Verse 60 of Tagore's Gitanjali (the one that begins, "On the seashore of endless worlds children meet....") is a tender, beautiful ode to childhood, although as the Yeats foreword to the English edition suggests, perhaps it is about something else as well, something beyond human aspiration. Even in translation, its images are luminous, its energy transcendent. 

Tagore's signature in Bangla. Source: Wikipedia

Here's what Tagore had to say about education:
"...what happens within is much bigger than what comes out in words. Those who pin their faith on university examinations as the test of education take no account of this."
Too bad the test-makers and educational administrators of the world haven't been paying attention. Think K-12 and you'll see that faith, pinned like a butterfly on the specimen-boards of schools.

And here is the inimitable Zohra Sehgal, grand dame of Indian theatre and film, at 100 years, reading from a Karadi Tales book, The Case of the Stolen Smells. What an amazing woman she is--if the universe is listening, I'd like to be Zohra when I grow up!