Monday, February 27, 2012

The Echoes in Stories

With Hugo carrying five Oscars, it seems a good time to think about ways in which the literary and artistic past can create and sustain echoes in stories. Take the work of Dianna Wynne Jones. She had this wonderful ability to take ordinary characters, often quiet outsiders in some way,  place them in bizarre and wondrous and terrifying situations, and stir it all up into pure magic. But what always strikes me about her work is how it seems to have, for lack of a better word, a story lineage.  In Howl's Moving Castle, Sophie, the young hatter, has powers she herself is unaware of, until she's cursed by the Witch of the Waste--hear the echoes of Oz there? There are so many other intertextual references in this book. Tolkien, Shakespeare, Alice, Arthurian legend, can all be found in little asides, in signs on walls, in the names and aliases of characters.

In Miyazaki's charming Studio Ghibli version, the castle comes to life in a wonderfully three-dimensional way, as home, fortress, motorized vehicle and portal between layers of reality. The people are entirely enchanting, and notably, the warts have disappeared from the characters. Even Calcifer the fire demon has lost a little of his caustic edge. It's all quite lovely, however, and the visuals are magical all by themselves. What's lost is some of that complexity that make the books of Dianna Wynne Jones so delicious. And a few of the literary references, the ones that can only show up in narrative. On the other hand, much has been retained, and something has also been gained, in the passage of this story from book to film, from England to Japan. You don't have to know Japanese to feel the creative leaps made when the story crossed linguistic borders.

In very different vein, I just read Susan Orlean's biography of the legendary silent film dog hero, Rin Tin Tin. I  enjoyed the book for many reasons, but this passage on p. 137 seemed to be speaking to the whole notion of how story endures:

"The question of pedigree is, in a sense, the continuing story of Rin Tin Tin, pedigree doesn't seem as important as the idea of a character continuing, and lasting, across time. In that regard, the issue of bloodline seems like a will-o'-the-wisp, a distraction, a technical issue. The unbroken strand is not one of genetics but one of belief."

That's how it is with stories. Howl and his castle, Sophie and her dreams. Readers and viewers create meaning from the creative illusion of text, and image, whether that image is in illustration or film. It's all about belief. Whether the page or the screen captivates, and how it does so. But somewhere in the mix, the evidence of that strand offers a little assurance. It offers connections both temporal and emotional, a nod to those who get the embedded code and maybe a little invitation to those who don't. Stick around, those echoes seem to be saying, in Roland Barthes-ish mode. When you're ready you too can click on this link.    

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

CBC Diversity Committee

Welcome news! 
Following on the heels of years, literally years, of conversations at conferences as well as on child-lit and other forums, a group of editors have come together under the auspices of the Children's Book Council, in a Diversity Committee, with the common goal of increasing diversity in children's publishing in the US. Since this is a goal to which I've more or less dedicated 20+ years of my writing and teaching life, I am especially thrilled to read this on the CBC Diversity blog site:
The CBC Diversity Committee is dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to children’s literature. To create this change, the Committee strives to build awareness that the nature of our society must be represented within the children’s publishing industry.
And this:
We endeavor to encourage diversity of race, gender, geographical origin, sexual orientation, and class among both the creators of and the topics addressed by children’s literature. We strive for a more diverse range of employees working within the industry, of authors and illustrators creating inspiring content, and of characters depicted in children’s literature.
"Creators of" and "topics addressed." Yes! This is a thoughtful and meaningful recasting of a conversation that in the past has been all too prone to degenerate into polarized rhetoric about the right to write.

The committee is calling to all within the industry to become partners, spread the word, and participate in a variety of ways, including through social networking. I'm not sure how writers and illustrators can weigh in at this time, beyond blogging and adding a Twibbon, but I just want to applaud. This has been a long time coming and I'm so glad it's happening now.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Katie Davis on How to Promote Your Children's Book

Katie Davis is the only author-illustrator I know who has not one but ten-count-em-ten versions of her bio on her web site. Including a rebus version.

That is so Katie. She's a rare combination of inventive, fearless, and infinitely flexible. She makes this promo stuff look natural, sensible, and maybe even fun. So it's lucky for the rest of us she's written How To Promote Your Children's Book: Tips, Tricks, and Secrets to Create a Bestseller. The book has 30 chapters, 217 pages, each with homework to help you get motivated and started on your path to promote your book and build your career. Over 60 authors, illustrators, and librarians contributed countless (Katie tried but lost track) pieces of advice to promote your book and support your career. The book includes resources, links, and videos. Here's Katie herself, in an interview that is part of her blog tour with this book.

[Uma] What made you decide you needed to put your wealth of promotion knowledge and skills into a how-to for others?

[Katie] I truly believe the title of Chapter Six: Give More Than You Get and You'll Get More Than You Give. The more outward looking I've become and the more I help others, the better I feel and the stronger my career becomes.

[Uma] That I understand! I've always felt that way about teaching and mentoring other writers. But promotion? Talk about why you believe authors and illustrators need to quit being promo-chickens.

[Katie] Legend has it that there actually was a time an author or illustrator could sit back and the publisher would do all the promotion. If you still believe that then I've got 2 bridges and a bestseller printing machine for sale.

True or False?
  1. Promoting your book means standing on the corner hawking, "Get yer terrific tome right heah!"
  2. You have to be the life of the party to promote your book.
  3. You don't need a "platform."  
  4. A shy writer has nowhere to turn!
  1. False. You can promote your book via a blog tour - hey, like I'm doing right now! - and never have to actually talk to a single person.
  2. False. You don't have to have a big personality. Just be yourself. Real and humble is more compelling anyway.
  3. False. Yeah, you kind of do. But you can decide on the kind of platform you want. Do you write science books? If that's what you love it becomes fun, not the shudder-inducing word, "branding." On your blog you can include an experiment of the week. On your YouTube channel you can use your webcam to create videos of experiments. Interviewing someone else is a great way to get comfy in front of the camera and takes the pressure of you. And btw, if you don't have a YouTube channel, why not? It's the second biggest search engine, which'll bring a lot more eyeballs to your site, and is connected to the biggest, Google.
  4. False! Check out the fantastic blog, Shrinking Violets Promotions and of course, How to Promote Your Children's Book has lots of great ideas to help you. But the most comforting thing to remember is to just be yourself and your platform will evolve organically.

[Uma] I like that. You don't have to do things that make you shudder but you don't have to feel paralyzed either. I love how the boundaries between building community and promoting one's own work are permeable in so many of the ideas you suggest. Talk about that as a concept.

[Katie] Say you do a recipe exchange with your neighborhood friends because you're all interested in cooking. You're great at desserts so you talk about dessert recipes a lot, and you share tips and secrets for the best ones. Soon you're known in the neighborhood as the Dessert Lady (or Guy). Social media is the same idea on a larger scale. And you become known for your particular strengths, and you share them. You're not pushing them, you're sharing them. You're helping others. Take advantage of the accessibility we now have, make a neighborhood through Twitter, Facebook, Google+ … wherever you are most comfortable, and connections will be made. The operative word in Social Media is social, and reciprocity rocks!

And so does Katie Davis. Look at what editor and children’s editorial & publishing consultant Emma Dryden of drydenbks LLC, says of Katie's book:

Katie Davis has done an excellent job with this helpful book - including interviews with and examples from loads of children's book professionals - and it ought to prove a helpful, timely marketing tool for children's book creators! As a children's book editorial and publishing consultant, I'll definitely be recommending this eBook to my clients.
Here's Katie Davis speaking to Emma Dryden in a podcast.

Here are all the stops on the Katie Davis How to Promote Your Children's Book blog tour:

Feb 1  E is for Book
Feb 2  Elizabeth's Banana Peel Thursday
Feb 3  Chris's Creative Spaces
Feb 6  Deborah Halverson's Dear Editor
Feb 7  Right here on WWBT
Feb 8  Shutta Crum
Feb 9  Sharron McElmeel
Feb 10  Kerem
Feb 24  Christine Fonseca
March 1  Julie Hedlund's 12x12 in 2012
And finally, you can comment on this post to enter a drawing for a free download of How to Promote Your Children's Book (in PDF format). Just comment. Easy. Social. Reciprocal. And very Katie.

Or if you want to buy the e-book for Kindle or Nook, Katie's web site features links for both. Thank you, Katie!

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Challenge, Counter, Controvert: Subverting Expectations

In Michael Ondaatje's novel, Divisadero, the narrator says, "I look into the distance for those I have lost, so that I see them everywhere."

Elsewhere he writes of a steeple:

"Built in the thirteenth century, the belfry had been constructed like a coil or a screw. It had one of those unexpected, heliocoidal shapes--the surface like a helix--so that as it curved up it reflected every compass point of the landscape."

It's the surprise in this text that keeps me reading. How can you look into the distance and see those lost people everywhere? How does so expansive a word as "everywhere" manage to loop me back so close to the narrator's consciousness? How can "everywhere" conjure up personal, proximal space? The belfry, too, curves up in a single sharp, clear image. Yet its multiple reflections seem created purposefully, to reflect "every compass point" and thus to distract the reader's mind into attentiveness.

So how does all this internal contradiction work in narrative, given how much we're taught to prize logic and order? Shouldn't the work of crafting a story be all about trying to figure out what makes sense?

I will admit that I love complication and contradiction. I love the places in books where meanings rub up against one another and create new and mind-boggling patterns. Always did, even as a kid.

I'm writing this from India where continuum and contradiction are present in tandem: Republic Day flag-buntings and traditional rice-flour kolam on thresholds and sidewalks, the whir of ceiling fans and the shrieking of tropical birds at daybreak. Here, controverting meaning is part of daily life.


Take the other day, for example, when I went to the bank. A young woman was seated at a table as people came and went. She was creating mehndi designs with henna paste on customers' and bank employees' hands. A caricaturist was working away in a back room. A bank employee directed anyone who caught her eye: Mehndi? Quick sketch? Naturally, I volunteered.

The bank, it turns out, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. This birthday bash could last a week, a couple of weeks, or a month. No one is quite sure, but a party is promised at some point soon.

This mega-promo deliberately sets out to disrupt your sense of what is normal, so you're compelled to ask, Why is this happening? What could it mean? That asking keeps you guessing, and more to the point, it keeps you from walking out. Maybe you'll open a new account, or refer a friend. See the parallel with a reading experience?

The henna went on cool and dark green. Within an hour the leaf paste had flaked off, leaving a pale orange tattoo. A few hours of later, it turned a deep, glorious brick-red, the pattern having been fixed by the heat of my palm.

So it is with challenge, countering and controverting. It heats text up. It shifts expectations. It disturbs the rhythms of normalcy. When it's done right, it can keep us turning the page.