I just finished reading three amazing novels that re-energized me to dive deeper into my craft, but also reminded me why I chose a career in social work instead of majoring in English. All three of these novels (FLIGHT BEHAVIOR by Barbara Kingsolver, ASK THE PASSENGERS by A.S. King, and WONDER by RJ Palacio) dove deep into character motivation, fears, flaws, mistakes, confusion, kindness, family, friendships, love, empathy, and resilience. All three novels asked lots of questions, big questions with no easy answers. They were full of heart and spoke the truth.
I took my first psychology class in high school and continued with more in college until they finally out-numbered my English classes. After my B.A. in psychology, I earned a master's degree in social work. The next 10-plus years were spent in various social work positions with children, teens, and families in Georgia, California, and Michigan. My worldview greatly expanded, it felt good and valuable to help others, but my favorite part of the job was what most social workers dread -- paperwork. I loved to hunker down in my office and write lengthy assessment reports, which are essentially people's stories.
I've been thinking about the intersection of my writing and social work careers. A social worker/author friend told me that one of her professors said, "Social work is in everything you do."
And so I continue to write stories that matter. Stories that ask big questions, stories that touch the core of humanity in each one of us. At least that's what I'm trying to do. And that's why I continue to work on my craft.
In January, I began a writing course with author Tim Wynne-Jones as my mentor. I'll tell you how it's going in the spring issue of The Mitten. Until then, we hope you find warmth and inspiration in our winter wonderland edition. Thanks to our members who continue to contribute articles and art - keep it coming!
Sometimes, with the distance of a few years and a few more heartbreaks, our first crushes can seem kind of frivolous. And all the angst, joy, pain, rapture, panic, butterflies, nausea, tingling and lightheadedness kind of fades into a general wash of silliness.
I'm extremely lucky to have kept in touch with some friends from high school thanks to Facebook and a mutual friend who is really good at getting us all together once in awhile. We always laugh hysterically and rarely talk about our current lives or future hopes. Instead, hours are spent screaming "Remember that time ..." across tables and driving crowds of people in the opposite direction.
In the last couple months, I had two occasions to visit with such friends, both of whom were once objects of my affection. I've always kept journals, so after these visits I got curious and dug the high school editions out and read several of the painfully-shallow entries. I remembered so many of the experiences I documented in those notebooks on such a visceral level. They're still as embarrassingly G-rated as they were then, but that didn't change how alive I felt simply sitting next to my crush in the booth at Big Boy. It was so important I would write about how his arm brushed against mine and debate with myself whether it was an accident or if he intentionally left it there longer than necessary because he was in love with me. (Insert about 27,000 more stories exactly like that and you will have the complete history of my high school love life.)
No matter how hard we try not to grow up, life, work, bills, relationships, mortgages, car troubles and everything else that interferes with our creative life makes it really easy to forget how important our feelings were to us back then. Revisiting our victories and heartbreaks is a great way to authenticate the intense emotions our characters are experiencing. And it's not just exclusive to those of us writing YA. I remember how desperately in love I was with Jeremiah White. In kindergarten.
Yes, I laugh at my journals, but in retrospect, all of those triumphs and tragedies in many cases led me to lifelong friendships. So I guess they weren't frivolous after all.
SCBWI-MI "Your Area's Got Talent" Networking Events
Feb. 16-17, 23-24 and March 2-3
(See Events and Opportunities section for a complete list of locations, dates and times.)
Wild, Wild Midwest Conference
Fort Wayne Marriott
Fort Wayne, Ind.
Hosted by Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and both Ohio SCBWI chapters.
Kiddie Litter by Neal Levin
Why I Write YA
By Katie Van Ark
GRAND RAPIDS PUBLIC LIBRARY -- I sit looking at the silver gray stairs and balconies soaring up. Behind me, the neon orange sign flashes, "Teens." I sit in the corner, against the wall. I don't belong in the teens' section. I didn't as a child when, though my reading level was easily there, the books with teenage problems and *gasp*, sex, were too mature for the 11-year-old girl and scared her away from ever venturing to those shelves. I don't now, as an adult, trespassing on the teens who want to read about sex without me looking over their shoulder. Perhaps this is why all of my teen novels contain what the publisher refers to as "romantic elements." Meaning, of course, sex.
I say that I am not embarrassed about my stories, but I must be because every time I begin to tell someone about one of my novels it's only a matter of time before I feel the need to confess that there's sex in them. I'm not even Catholic.
Do you know what I want? (No, not that, I'm not a teenage boy after all.) I want someone to come up to that 11-year-old girl. To point her in the direction of A WRINKLE IN TIME and its companion novels. To say, "You'll love these stories about this wizard." Maybe even to encourage some Dickens or L.M. Montgomery. And when she is headed to high school at 13, I want that someone to come back. To show her FLIPPED and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's ALICE books, that will grow her into 14 and the crush that will be her first boyfriend. I want those books to echo what her mother always told her about sex. That we're all curious, that it belongs in a caring, committed relationship because that will make it beautiful. That waiting is good but the world won't end if she doesn't.
And when she is 16 and has already been kissed and this might-be-love feels right and not right at the same time, I want someone to show her my books. To let her take on those feelings through someone else, to make the waiting maybe not so hard. To ease the tension as she wonders all those years if love will keep. (It will.)
Most of all, I want her to realize that no one feels at home in the teen section. We can skirt around it or avoid it. Hang out in it, revisit it, or even sit in the corner with our backs pressed to the wall. Beyond those shelves, the adult section awaits and those silver stairs are ready to take us whenever and wherever we want to go.
Katie Van Ark teaches kindergarten and writes YA because if life is like a box of chocolates, she wants a Whitman's Sampler. Why I Write YA was chosen for the Lake Michigan ISI anthology.
A 'Beauty' of a Fall Conference
|A panel of Michigan authors discussed their writing process, road to publication and all the details they've learned since getting their book deals. From left to right are Tracy Bilen (WHAT SHE LEFT BEHIND), Laura Ellen (BLIND SPOT), Kelly Barson (45 POUNDS MORE OR LESS) and Carrie Pearson (A WARM WINTER TAIL).|
The 2012 Fall Conference was a two-day event dedicated to young adult and middle grade novels. Attendees arrived in the Motor City on a Friday afternoon for optional craft-intensive workshops offered by Libba Bray and her editor Alvina Ling from Little Brown Books for Young Readers. Afterwards, guests checked into their rooms at the Atheneum Suites Hotel and hit the streets of Greektown for dinner and eyebrow-singeing flaming cheese.
The official conference began the next morning with pomp and pageantry -- the theme inspired by Libba Bray's YA novel, BEAUTY QUEENS. If you've read the book, you'll understand Libba's sense of humor and how she had us laughing throughout the day. Her husband and literary agent, Barry Goldblatt, joined the stage, and Alvina Ling shared more of her editorial advice. Later in the afternoon, we were treated to a guest panel of recently published Michigan authors. Kelly Barson, Tracy Bilen, Laura Ellen Handy, and Carrie Pearson shared their publication journeys and inspired us with their success.
Thanks to Anita Fitch-Pazner, Lisa Healy, and the AdCom team for organizing a fun and informative conference. Read on for behind-the-scenes reports from AdCom members who shadowed the conference speakers.
Alvina Ling: 'Drink and Be Filled Up'
By Catherine Bieberich
Alvina Ling is a firm believer in hard work being its own reward. In both her intensive and her presentation, Alvina stressed the need for authors to focus on their craft. She held out hope that all good writers have the potential to become great writers if they are willing to put the time and effort into revision. She talked at length about the opportunity writers have for touching and changing their readers' lives, which is exactly why they should put that extra time into perfecting their message.
No one story element is more important than the others. Every story must have strong voice, character, plot, and conflict. Alvina gave us great suggestions for strengthening these different elements. She stressed the importance of making characters compelling enough to continue speaking to the reader long after the last page is turned.
How do you get to this point of published perfection? Certainly not by shoving samples of work at unsuspecting agents and editors -- definitely a no-no. But by attending conferences and workshops with an open mind and enough paper for taking notes. By studying craft, by reading the books that give you hope and inspiration, and, as Alvina stressed in Detroit, by simply doing the work.
And speaking of inspiration, Alvina left us with the words of Stephen King, from his book On Writing: (A book she highly recommends.)
"Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy ... you can, you will, you should, and if you're brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up."Catherine lives in Battle Creek, Michigan where she writes novels in her spare time. Most of her time is spent teaching Accelerated 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.
Libba Bray: The Girl I Want to be When (If) I Grow Up
By Vicky L. Lorencen
WARNING: This is going to get a little gushy.
A few years ago when I was asked to contribute to Authors and Artists for Young Adults (a biographical guide published by Gale Cengage), I had to select from a lengthy list of YA authors. I didn't scan past the "Bs" because as soon as I saw the name Libba Bray, I knew I had to write about her. The more I learned about Libba, the more I knew I had to meet her. Was I ever excited when I learned she was coming to our fall 2012 Greektown conference!
Yes, Libba Bray is the New York Times bestselling author of The Gemma Doyle trilogy (A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY, REBEL ANGELS and THE SWEET FAR THING); the Michael L. Printz Award-winning GOING BOVINE; BEAUTY QUEENS, an L.A. Times Book Prize finalist; and THE DIVINERS series. But she's so much more-she's just the kind of author I'd like to be when (if) I grow up.
Libba exuded warmth and grace and wit from the moment she arrived. Approachable, encouraging and a little bawdy (my kind of gal), Libba came ready to share words of wisdom with her eager audience.
"If you want to write, and you want to write well, you have to read," Libba said. "Reading is like food. It's sustenance that feeds our creativity. It reminds you of what's possible."
Libba encourages writers to read across genres and outside our comfort zones. Such good advice.
When I was a kid my mom or dad took the time to read to me nearly every day. I need to do the same for my inner child so that she can grow up healthy and strong and amazing -- like Libba.Vicky Lorencen, also known as "Miss Conduct" to those who attended the fall conference, lives "on the edge" every day -- that wicked, wiggly line between childhood and adulthood. She says it's exhilarating, but murder on her shoes.
Barry Goldblatt Tells it Straight
By Ryan Hipp
I could tell you a lot about Barry Goldblatt. I could tell you about his humor, his nerdiness, or his lovable cynicism. I could share with you how he was an awkward kid, and an even more awkward teen. I could tell you how he fell into children's publishing quite by accident, but fell in love with it and made a real career in it.
But I really just want to share one defining moment from his presentation. There was one great take-away that especially resonated with me -- and it was about puppies.
"There is no such thing as universal appeal," says Goldblatt. "Even with puppies. Not everyone loves babies. Not everyone loves kittens. Not everyone loves puppies. No matter how cute they are, not everyone loves them. So for every person that loves something, there is an equal and opposite person that perhaps loathes something."
This really made me change my opinion on trying to find the perfect universal theme that all of the world will adore. Goldblatt suggested that "some of the most impactful literature out there creates a strong emotion in either direction." Goldblatt urged, "If you stay true to what you love, you can build an audience that will stay true to your work."
Goldblatt thinks that children's literature is the most important literature because, "for most people, it is the very first experience with and exposure to the written word." For young adult fiction, Goldblatt was clear that there are no longer any taboos, and writers that take a no-holds-barred risk are the ones that appeal to him. "Teen fiction can be as powerful and liberating as any adult book on the market, and can often even reach an adult audience ... which only helps to bring young adult literature more attention."
When it comes to submitting work to Goldblatt, one of the reoccurring problems with submissions is cover letters.
"A bad cover letter is 'the kiss of death' for me," he says. "If it is full of bad grammar and typos -- I won't even read the manuscript. I don't want your life story. I don't want to know why you want to be an author. The ideal cover letter for me says, 'Here's my manuscript. Hope you like it.' That's it. Short. Sweet. To the point."
For folks seeking an agent, Goldblatt offers this advice: "Do your homework, ask lots of questions, and never settle for someone just because they'll take you on. Your agent will be with you financially, but also personally and will be a part of your life and work process ... So you don't want just anyone. Make sure it's someone you can trust to be open with about what you want from your career."Barry Goldblatt is the head of BGLiterary: www.bgliterary.comRyan Hipp is the Illustrator Coordinator and Adcom member for SCBWI-MI.
Notes from the ILLUSTRATION NATION
Lori Taylor has been busy with many, many projects, including a new picture book with SCBWI-MI author, Sarah Perry. You'll learn more about their collaboration in the spring issue of the Mitten. Until then, check out Lori's blog: http://lori-loritaylorart.blogspot.com/
We received this photo from an illustrator's meeting and asked Jeff Jantz to tell us more about the characters he's creating. Here's what he had to say, and he shared a few more pictures of his work.
This is the latest of what I have been working on. It is a new path for me. I call it illustrative sculpture. In the last couple months I have been redefining everything I thought I knew about illustration.
This still needs a little work, we just took the photo yesterday. I am hoping to set this guy up at library's climbing stacks of books.
My wife and I are working on these as a team. She handles the photography and digital end of things. I build the figures, sets and the lighting. To learn more about Jeff, check out his website: http://jeffjantz.com/
To see more work from SCBWI-MI illustrators, follow the Scribblers blog: http://www.miscbwiscribblers.blogspot.com/
An Interview with Editor Whitney Ross
By Kristin Lenz
I won a raffle prize at the holiday party for GDRWA (Greater Detroit Romance Writers of America). In fact, every single person who attended the party won a prize.
Published authors won books or marketing packages, and pre-published authors won critiques or phone calls with agents and editors. My prize was a phone call with an editor at Tor, Whitney Ross. I was appreciative, but to be honest, I attempted to trade! As far as I knew, Tor only published SF and Fantasy, and I'm a realistic contemporary woman.
Before placing the call, I reached out to my writing community. An author friend published by Tor knew Whitney personally and assured me of her kindness, and MichKids listserv members sent me questions they'd like answered. Here is what I learned:
Whitney has a master's degree in publishing from NYU, and worked in agenting and bookselling before becoming an editor. Tor is one of many imprints at Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, which is under the umbrella of Holtzbrinck/Macmillan Publishers. Unlike many publishing houses which have an acquisition committee, Whitney and her fellow editors take their manuscript requests straight to Tom Doherty, the founder and head of the company.
Editors are not limited to a specific department, but rather they acquire a variety of manuscripts and publish under the best-fitting division, such as Tor Teen, Starscape, or Forge. Their main focus is science fiction and fantasy for children through adults, but this also includes a blend of many different genres, ie. romance, historical, mystery. Whitney said that she personally is looking to grow her own list to include some contemporary titles. (Yay!)
Whitney would also love to see a straight or paranormal historical, such as a YA version of the popular OUTLANDER series. In answer to a question from MichKids, she said the editors would consider middle-grade Steampunk and highly illustrated novels, and she pointed to the upcoming PLANET THIEVES to be published by Starscape, as an example of a novel with illustrations.
Whitney was very personable, and we spent much of this phone call simply sharing our passion for books. Here's her official bio: Whitney Ross is an editor at Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, publisher of Forge, Tor Books, Orb, Starscape, and Tor Teen. In her free time, she's also a book collector, wannabe jetsetter, and Starbucks junkie, and enjoys competitive sports such as skiing and shopping. She is from Phoenix, Ariz., and is actively seeking science fiction and fantasy, urban fantasy, romance, historical fiction, and young adult novels.
The Tor website lists the snail mail address for unsolicited submissions (look under FAQ). The editors only accept email submissions from agents or through conferences, and Whitney said they try their best to respond (as opposed to the "no reply means no" policy that seems to be more and more prevalent).
To learn more about the various imprints and their specific submission guidelines, go to http://us.macmillan.com/TorForge.aspx
Birds of a Feather Read Together
Artwork By Nina Goebel
Four Things I Learned at the Hapkido (Korean Self-Defense) Seminar that have Applications for Children's Writers
By Charlie Barshaw
1. Never assume anything having to do with kids is easy.
I started the session entitled "Teaching Kids" thinking "I'd like to teach kids self defense." And, I admit it, I likewise thought, "How hard could this be?" I ended it drenched in sweat, breathing in gasps, and nursing a pulled groin muscle.
Master Rich Hodder treated me, a yellow belt, and eight black belts as the kids in his class. He doesn't coddle kids in his class.We did so
There are lessons about writing in all experiences. For Charlie Barshaw, a recent Hapkido seminar led to revelations about his work.
many sprints, hops, and rolls that this turned out to be the most grueling and strenuous session at themartial arts seminar.
For children's writers (as well as educators of the little folk) this is hardly a revelation. Kids are not "easy." They are complex creatures, easily bored and distracted. They demand stimulation, emote imagination, and crave action.
Yet, it's almost a cliché when wannabe writers, full-of-themselves celebrities, and even some successful writers for adults turn to children's books for a quick and effortless literary buck. So, don't approach writing for children with anything but the greatest respect, and get ready for some of the hardest work in your adult life.2. Make believe is hard work, but kids embrace it.
Master Hodder had us squat on our haunches and do a duck walk. No self-respecting duck walk would be complete without the quacks.
Squat jumps became bunny hops, but only when you added a finger pointing up from each ear. Likewise, frog hops happened when you accompanied them with "ribbit." Standing-straight-up hops transform to kangaroo hops when you build a pouch by linking your arms in front of your belly. Walking on all fours, arms and legs straight and back hunched made you a camel.
It was all still exercise, but when you added the animal characters, it's a role kids willingly invest energy into. Kids like role playing: they can imagine themselves as the highest hopping frog in the swamp.
When writers can give kids a role to play, a hero to emulate, kids will respond.3. Einstein says, "Keep it simple, Shakespeare."
Master Hodder quoted Albert Einstein. "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
He was talking about teaching complex movements and forms to his students. But as hard as "simple" can be to achieve, it is a goal worth attaining.
I guess if that's not enough of an explanation for kid's writers, then I don't quite get it.
Seriously, though, isn't writing the ultimate search for simplicity? Using "easy" words to convey a whole host of emotions and events, the whole panorama of existence deconstructed one letter at a time. Writing for kids most of all requires us to break everything down to its basic core, the truth.4. Use a specific yardstick to evaluate your work (and other's too).
Grand Master J. R. West's highest expression of praise is "It doesn't suck." If he assesses your #3 son mok sul grip as "not sucking" then you've done well. Less successful would be the next gradation, the dreaded "sucks." However, you know you've really got some work to do if he informs you that you'd "have to improve to suck."
Dr. Kimm describes the three levels of self-defense technique as "Escape. Control. Destroy." Whatever grading system you use for the evaluation of your work and those of your peers, be fair and honest. Escape outside distractions so you can focus on the work. Control your emotions and view the piece dispassionately. Destroy the barriers to the real heart of the story. Most of all, make sure to strive to see that your work "doesn't suck."
As disparate as children's writing and Korean self-defense seem to be, they have elements that relate to each other. They're both scary and rewarding. They're both educational and painful. There is danger if you're too cavalier, but it's a unique and soul-satisfying way to improve your quality of life.Charlie Barshaw is trying to earn his keep as Executive Assistant to writer/illustrator/spouse Ruth McNally Barshaw. He is in charge of the 2013 Networks Day, cleverly called "Your Area's Got Talent," and he is co-chairing the Fall 2013 Writer's Retreat with Pat Trattles. He is also embroiled in writing three novels.
HUGS AND HURRAHS
Lisa Wheeler's newest book of poems, PET PROJECT: CUTE AND CUDDLY VICIOUS VERSES, illustrated by Zachariah Ohora, was released by Atheneum on Feb. 1.
Vicky Lorencen has a crazy, mixed-up puzzle called
SCRAMBLED SAYINGS in the December 2012 issue of Highlights.
AND she's on her way to the SCBWI Winter Conference in New York as the recipient of Shutta Crum's scholarship! Thank you Shutta for your generosity, and congratulations to Vicki!
Cover reveal! For Kelly Barson's upcoming YA novel, 45 POUNDS (MORE OR LESS)
Danielle Hammelef's story,
RUNNER UP, will be published in the May 2013 issue of Pockets. You're a winner, Danielle!
Marcy Blesy's debut picture book, AM I LIKE MY DADDY?
, illustrated by Amy Kuhl Cox, was released in December 2012 by Bronze Man Books,
AM I LIKE MY DADDY?
a university publisher at Millikin University in Decatur, IL and is available online here
Neal Levin had two poems, HEADLESS HORSEMAN and THE VAMPIRE'S NEW CLOTHES, published in the e-book Open Doors: Fractured Fairy Tales, edited by Elisabeth Hirsch (Wayman Publishing). Profits from this anthology was donated to Primary Children's Hospital in Utah in the form of Christmas gifts for the long-term patients staying there.
Dana Atnip was asked to design the new logo for the "Rate Your Story" website
and Facebook page. She also designed the badges that will be given to people when they have a story or article rated (children's through adult stories accepted).
Congrats, MichKids! Send us your good news by March 20 to be shared in the spring issue.
EVENTS AND OPPORTUNITIES
(Note: Events and opportunities are not necessarily sponsored or endorsed by SCBWI-MI. We try our best to list only high-quality notifications through reputable sources. Please confirm all information with the source whenever possible.)
If she can brave a wintery ride, so can you! Attend one (or more) of the upcoming Your Area's Got Talent events, being held statewide.
YOUR AREA'S GOT TALENT
EVENTS ALL ACROSS THE STATE
A series of gatherings will be taking place in the next several weeks. Find the one closest to you and sign up to go!
Please take a moment to peruse this list. Is there a meet near you?
If so, when you RSVP, thank your host. They made it possible for the talent in your area to coalesce into one big shining cluster one day in bleak mid-winter.
Questions? Contact Charlie Barshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org
When: Sunday, Feb. 17, 2-4 p.m.
Where: Panera Bread, 3205 Washtenaw Ave.
What: Free form, with maybe some writing prompts
When: Saturday, Feb. 23, 10 a.m. to noon
Where: The Library of Michigan
What: A morning of food, writing prompts, genre talk, etc.
When: Saturday March 2, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Where: Peter White Public Library
What: "I've Always Wanted to Write a Children's Book"
When: Saturday, March 16, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
What: Sweet Spot Cafe at the Culinary Institute, where we will sip coffee and share a little, before we walk to Laurie Keller's talk and exhibition. Then we walk across the street to the Muskegon Museum of Art's exhibit of Laurie Keller's work
When: Saturday, February 23, noon
Where: Bear Track Studios
What: Baby Steps = Big Victories (writer/illustrator mix)
When: Saturday, March 2, 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Caribou Coffee, Woodward Avenue and Normandy
What: Network, meet and eat
When: Sunday, Feb. 17, 2 to 4 p.m.
Where: Lowry's Books and More
What: What's New and What are We Working On? and The Changes in Publishing -- Now What?
When: Sunday, Feb. 17, noon to 4 p.m.
Where: Horizon Books, lower level, downtown TC
What: Open forum, writing prompts. Bring a journal/notebook and a sack lunch. Some snacks will be provided
When: Saturday, Feb. 23, noon
Where: Troy Public Library
What: Creative Ignitions (group will help find solutions to creative blocks)
WEST MICHIGAN -- SOUTH HAVEN
When: Saturday, Feb. 23, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Where: South Haven Memorial Library
What: Starting Out, Starting Over or Moving Ahead -- ways to set realistic goals to move your career forward. Open to authors and illustrators
Contact: Heather Powers at email@example.com or call (616) 637-0682
WILD, WILD, MIDWEST
2013 SCBWI Multi-State Conference
Lasso your calendar and don't let this event get away!
May 3-5, 2013
Fort Wayne Marriott
305 E Washington Center Rd, Fort Wayne, Ind.
We're rounding up children's book buckaroos interested in a weekend chock-full of breakout sessions, intensives, networking, big-name keynotes, editors, agents, an art show, manuscript and portfolio critiques, a cowboy costume party and more!
Hosted by: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and both Ohio SCBWI regions
Click here for the brochure; registration begins Feb. 8 for SCBWI members.
Don't Forget Frida Pennabook
Email questions to Kristin Lenz at firstname.lastname@example.org and she will pass them along to our esteemed advice columnist.
The world of children's literature is a lonely one, and sometimes it's helpful to tap into the expertise of a fellow writer or artist. Got a question? Need advice? Just ask Frida.
Author School Visits
By Teresa Crumpton
Like a flurry of snowflakes an innocent question floated down from UP Writer Extraordinaire Carrie Pearson. Looking forward to a school visit, she asked her compadres on the MichKids List for a smidge of advice. The heavens opened, and the snow of wisdom fell. Ruth McNally Barshaw, Leslie Helakoski, Shutta Crum, LorriCaldwell-Casely, Carrie Pearson, and Diana Magnuson offered the following advice.
Before You've Got a Gig
Ruth says, "Whenever you can, get into the audience for other authors' presentations. I learned a TON watching Lisa Wheeler and Shutta Crum and a few other authors in action..."
Match your book and its inherent lessons with learning objectives established for the target age group. Consider what fun ways you can support the teacher's ongoing goals with activities from your book.
Keep a growing file of ideas, activities, songs, questions, and give-aways. When the time is right, you'll pull it together.
Before the Day of the Visit
At least a month before your visit correspond with the teacher. Strongly suggest that students will get the most out of the presentation if they've read the book beforehand. (This comes from Edie Hemingway, Co-RA SCBWI MD, DE, WV.)
- What is the age group?
- How many groups?
- How many students in each group?
- How many presentations in a day?
- What time is lunch? Who provides it? How long is the break?
- Does the teacher want a "how I wrote this book" talk or is he open to something more substantive?
- Have these students used writing prompts before?
Ask the teacher to remain with the students during the presentation. It will help keep order. Agree with the teacher ahead of time that she will handle things like the child who raises his hand continually.
Will the students have read the book? Will they do pre-presentation activities? (You can have an Official Pre-Presentation Handout (OPPH) ready for the teacher. It lists activities that will engage the students and help them get more from your presentation. Their level of involvement will be directly related to the disciplinary needs during the presentation.)
Items for the OPPH may include:
- Have the art class make a banner welcoming the author or design bookmarks for the students
- Have students and teacher come up with a list of questions for the author ahead of time
- Have the students check out the author's website before the visit
- Give the teacher a riddle about something you are going to bring and if the students guess it, you'll donate an autographed copy of your book for the classroom.
- Ask the teacher to hold a competition for who gets to introduce the author so the class has to learn about the author and where he is from.
- Ask the teacher to have paper and crayons or markers available if it's a classroom presentation
Ask about logistics. Where can you park that won't get you trapped in a sea of mini-vans and SUVs? What time do you need to leave to avoid the end of day traffic jams? Some people only wear cotton; we authors and illustrators do not compete for road space with stressed moms, dads, grandmas, and nannies. It's a rule.
What technical equipment is available? If you need techie stuff, get the name and phone number of the person responsible to have it set up, so you can check on it the day before and again that morning. (Also have a Plan B for when he hits the lottery the night before and is never seen at school again.)
Other logistical questions:
- Where is a locked place for you to leave your valuables while you go to the restroom or lunch?
- Which door do you enter?
- With whom do you sign in when you enter the building? Call this person the day before and make sure she knows you're coming.
- Is a fire drill planned for that day? (Don't scoff; it happens! Some of us have the luck of a plump snail in a French kitchen.)
- When do you get paid?
Stuff to Use
Pack a two-wheel cart/milk-crate combo, especially one that's sized for hanging files. But keep materials in Ziploc bags and a cover on the box in case of rain.
Plan Q: If you are going to be selling books, try to arrange for pre-ordering so you can order them from the publisher and have them delivered directly to the school-before the day of your presentation. You guessed it: more checking-up-on-people phone calls -- but at least you won't have to lug 30 or 60 or 120 books into classrooms where kids forgot or lost their money or spent it on Twinkies because Hostess is no more.
Plan R (when Plan Q fails): Arrange ahead of time to call the office when you arrive and the signer-inner person will send three strong boys out to your car to help you carry your stuff and to show you to the office. Also a rule. We don't schlep more than our own body weight.
Way ahead of time-develop a detailed checklist and affix it to your cart so you can leave home hassle-free. The checklist should include bottled water, protein bars, your props, and something that makes you laugh.
Shutta wrote an article about working with small kids in large groups. It is available at http://shutta.com/wideeyedandcurious.pdf
. She says, "... some of the stuff is VERY basic, but handy to know. Like how to seat kids when they're on the floor. How to use masking tape to make "fault lines" for a staging area, how to handle the child who will not put his/her hand down in the middle of something important, how to handle inattentive parents, how to dress, etc., and how to handle decision making for little ones -- only ONE decision at the end (Do you want blue or pink or whatever?)
Carrie Pearson's website www.carriepearsonbooks.com
has a huge amount of helpful information.
Now is the time to shine. These children love you! You've gotten them out of another pop geography quiz. No, no -- they love your book. Here's a chance to connect with them after all those months alone at your computer.
Here are some presentation ideas:
Edie Hemingway takes Road to Tater Hill to middle-graders. She opens by playing her dulcimer like the wise-old-lady character. Later she passes around a five-pound smooth river-rock, like the one her main character makes into a Rock Baby after the death of her newborn sister. Edie counsels the kids not to pass the rock on quickly, but hold it, see if they can feel what Annie felt. She reads to them the Rock-Baby scene while they are passing the rock. Then she leads them in a directed writing exercise focusing on a sense of place. Edie prefer small groups of kids who've already read the book.
For young children Leslie Helakoski suggested-make up a song. "Make it silly and add movements or with hands only, like a finger play. Young kids love this and you can put it on your website for teachers to use along with your book. Teachers and librarians love activities they can pull out and use later."
Another type of presentation is A Book in a Bag, which many teachers use. The presenter decorates the bag and tells part of the story while pulling pertinent props from the bag. Teachers might appreciate the author modeling A Book in a Bag before the teacher assigns each student to do one of her own.
Florida author Patti Zelch wrote READY, SET ... WAIT! WHAT ANIMALS DO BEFORE A HURRICANE. When she presents in a classroom setting or to a small group at the library, she has each child create his own hurricane box, and while they work with their hands she tells the story of each animal and how they prepare for the hurricane. The knowledge of what's going on and preparing for it gives the kids a sense of power.
The most significant suggestions focused on being prepared. Some authors use a PowerPoint presentation with memory-jogging notes. Some memorize the speech. Diana says," Knowing it inside out works great for me. I put my talk into a color- coded outline in large-size type, easy to read. And I use large-print color-coded cards to help remember all the important points."
Many authors agree that the most effective presentations get the kids involved-asking questions, answering them, anything to keep them engaged.
Faced with an audience of 800 primary students, Patti Zelch opened with True or False. "I used to be a teacher. How many think that's true?" Show of hands. "I have two dogs and a parrot. How many think that's false?" The kids respond.
To help them pay attention as she reads her picture book (which is also projected while she's reading) Patti talks about non-fiction being true, real. "But there's one animal in the book we didn't know enough about to write for sure what he does before a hurricane. See if you can tell which animal we're not sure about."
Her audience leans forward on their stackable molded-plastic seats while she reads.
"It's the crocodile," a sixth-grader announces, "because the author wrote 'may.'"
It's enough to make an author smile.
Every author for children knows that stuff happens. It's unanimous that better prepared leads to better experience. Savvy authors come ready to go with the flow. It's the only way to keep your sanity in the flurry.
Teresa Crumpton holds a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University. She has published feature and news articles in major newspapers, more than a dozen technical books and some fiction. She teaches college writing and works with authors of award-winning fiction. As editor and writing coach she works one-on-one with writers. Contact her at www.writing-excellence.com and email@example.com.
By Ann Finkelstein