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!

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Pulled? Banned? What? The Dirty Cowboy by Amy Timberlake?

A couple of days ago, word was that in Lebanon, PA, the Annville-Cleona School District was taking a closer look at Amy Timberlake's picture book, The Dirty Cowboy, illustrated by the talented Adam Rex. Upon receiving complaints from a parent, the school board had insisted the book be pulled from the shelf at Cleona Elementary School.

The librarian--are they not heroes, librarians?--protested. The board voted to remove the book anyway. Oh, and they're also shutting down the library program and placing all three librarians on furlough. Says something about where books rate, in their estimation.

The said parent, according to a story in the Lebanon Daily News, was of the opinion that the illustrations in the book would lead to children concluding that nudity was okay. And that would lead to children feeling that pornography was okay.

Hmm, so help me understand this. Here we have a picture book about a bath. A dog. A cowboy. An extended joke about getting clean and its potential hazards for a habitual slob. I will point out that while admittedly, the cowboy has to take his clothes off to bathe (well, don't you?) there is nary a naked rear end visible in this book. Adam Rex has been cleverly circumspect in that matter. The laughs are all drawn from what we can't see.

Here's a video of the book being read during the 5th annual Celebration of Reading event. And a post on the pulling/banning/exiling/whatever this is from Elizabeth Dulemba's blog.

And one more thing. I'm beginning to feel a little personally involved in this whole business. Not only because I am a writer and sensitive to the  notion of books being pulled off shelves. Not only because I love family stories and this is one, for sure. But its origins go back to Silver City, New Mexico. My neck of the southwest! Just look at this wonderful book trailer in which Amy talks about where the story came from.

I am just baffled. These people have never obviously taken their children to an art gallery. No Manets and Renoirs in these kids' worldview. No Greco-Roman sculpture. 

Oh, and I really, really hope those librarians don't lose their jobs.