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.