Author Event!

Children’s book authors Jan Greenberg & Sandra Jordan will be at the St. Louis Public Library — Schlafly Branch — this coming Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m.,  with illustrator Brian Floca and editor Neal Porter of Neal Porter Books.  The four will be discussing their latest picture book project, Ballet for Martha:  Making Appalachian Spring.

If you have questions, you can call the library at 314-367-4120.

If you can make it, tell me all about it.  I have to work!


How teens respond to stress

When writing about your teen character, you no doubt apply stress to make their story as interesting as possible.  That’s good.

But if you base your character’s reactions to stress on your own reactions, that may not be good according to UCLA neuroscientist Adriana Galvan.  In addition to how stress effects brain function, Galvan has also studied how teens and adults interpret and respond to stress differently.

For example, the greatest sources of stress for adults are work and school work.  Teens?  You might be tempted to say school work, after all that is what we stress about.  But the greatest source of stress reported for teens is parents.

Adults respond least well to stress in the morning.  Teens, in the early evening.

When stressed, teens also show greater cognitive impairment than adults show.

So if you have your teen character running frantically to school, worried about a test, but later chilling at home in the evening, you might want to think again.

Read all of the National Science Foundation article about Galvan’s work here.


Why Books Get Banned

Recently, a concerned professor has asked his local school district to ban Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (read about it here).  Speak isn’t the only book on his A-list but he wants it removed from the local curriculum because it is “soft porn.”  I haven’t had the opportunity to ask, but I’m guessing that said Professor did not read the book which is actually about rape.  And depression.  And coming back from an emotional edge.

Why would someone demand this book be banned?  Because it makes him squirm.

Take a hard look at the books that people call to have banned and you’ll a variety of reasons listed.

  • Sex
  • Offensive language.
  • Violence.

Unfortunately, these books need to remain available for the same reason that their author wrote them.  Somewhere in your community is a child who needs to read about rape, molestation or alcoholism.  Somewhere is a boy or girl who needs to know that you can experience any or all of it and not only survive but thrive.  These books help give these souls a voice.

The above aren’t the only reasons that books are banned.  It may not be as common here in the Americas as it is elsewhere, but adults are also seeking to ban books based on politics.  Do a search on The Shepherd’s Granddaughter and you are going to find information about the case that was recently heard in Toronto.  This book tells the story of a young Palestinian shepherd who lives in Israel.  One father has tried to have it banned from the Toronto schools based on its anti-semitism.


Again, the squirm factor.  Israelis are not without fault in this story.  In fact, some of them are positively wicked.  Others? Quite sympathetic, but this seems to escape the notice of would-be banners.

What need is there for this book?  Balance.  All we have to do to hear the Israeli take on the story is turn on the tv or pick up a newspaper.  This book tells the other side of the story and would be an excellent stepping off point for a classroom discussion on balance or media bias.

The next time you hear about someone who wants to ban a book, why not make a trip to your local library or book store.  Pick it up.  Read it cover to cover.  You may find yourself with something new to think about, you’ll almost certainly learn something about our society and you might find a new favorite book.


Banned Book Week

September 25 through October 2, 2010 is Banned Book Week.

For those of you who have never been in on a discussion about book banning and censorship, banning does not mean telling your 7 year-old that she is too young for Twilight.  That’s parenting.

Banning is trying to limit access to a book at a school or library.  It happens every day in every state.  Don’t believe me?  Check out this map for some examples of banning which may hit very close to home.  I even found a case in my home town.  ::sniff::

Last week a huge stink was raised about attempts to ban Speak — I’ll post more on this tomorrow.  Yep.  Last week.

Personally, I wonder about the wisdom of adults who don’t want children exposed to X, Y or Z and then raise a big stink about it.  Why?  Because when I was a tween or teen, this would have sent me running to find a copy of the book.  Come on.  Admit it.  How many of you read Wifey after someone’s mom forbade it?  I’m sure my friend’s mother wondered where her copy had been after the entire 8th grade got done with it.

Why not join me in observing Banned Book week by reading one of the top ten most challenged books of 2009?  There’s quite a list to choose from.  The books in red I’ve already read.

ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series) by Lauren Myracle for drugs, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group

And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson for homosexuality.

The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky for anti-family, drugs, homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited to age group

To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee  for offensive language, racism, unsuited to age group

Twilight (series) by Stephenie Meyer for religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.

Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger for offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.

My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult for homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler for offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker for offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier for nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group

I clearly read banned books.  Do you?


Goals: Wrapping Up September

Whew.  What a busy writing week I had last week.  I managed to rack up 8500 words, surpassing my 6000 words/6 days goals.  Hurray!   I really do think that posting my goals over my desk is helping.  So is having so many deadlines — thank you to my editors!

Last week I roughed the Mo SCBWI newsletter which I am going to take to final and post this week.  I wrote my blogs.  I rewrote a picture book manuscript.  And I also wrote 6 new video scripts.

This week I’ve got more blog posts to write, 6 new scripts and I want to do at least one more draft on that picture book.  AND I want to get a new query or two out and circulating.  I read copies of my target magazines last week but this week I want to write the actual letters.

Fingers cross that this is a super productive week.  I may have to unplug the phone.


Bad, bad books

Recently, I read The Joys of Slightly Subversive children’s Books, a blog post by CBI’s Laura Backes.  Within the blog, she comments that as long as there is a large enough audience to keep a book in print, there are no bad books.

Maybe I was just sleep deprived when I read this, but the phrase bad books immediately brought to mind an image — books jumping off the furniture, books swinging on the ceiling fan, books just generally being naughty.

Once I got that out of my head, I started thinking about Laura’s statement and was surprised to realize that I disagree.

Because, a book may sell and sell very well but still be boring and preachy where the child audience is concerned.  It sells, because the adult buyer loves the lesson it teaches and teaches oh so well.  Adults may very well recommend such a book to each other for various reasons, but that doesn’t mean that the message ever reaches the bored senseless audience.

Fortunately, editors are gatekeepers for a reason and they keep many malevolent manuscripts from becoming bad books.  Here are some signs that you may be creating a malevolent manuscript:

  • More important than the plot or the characters is the message.  Yes, you can teach a lesson through theme and consequences, but if you feel the need to state the message at the end of the book, you probably need to focus more on story.
  • Your adult characters become mouth pieces and spend lines and lines of dialog discussing the dangers of alcohol, sex and fast driving.  I’m not saying these things are good, but again work the lesson into the story.  Let your main character find it out for him or her self.
  • At the end of the story, your main character realizes that mom and dad are 100% correct.  Yes, it may be true but these goody, goody characters are really hard for young readers to identify with.

If you are in doubt about your manuscript, find a critique group.  Pay for a paid critique at a conference.  Read bagfuls of books published in the last two years.  You’ll learn how to work a lesson into the story so that your reader doesn’t have to swallow this great big bitter pill.  You’ll learn to write stories that guide even as readers beg for time to read one more page.

You can do it.  I know you can.


Chronicling America

If you aren’t familiar with Chronicling America, check it out here.  Chronicling America is a joint project between the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Humanities and various state agencies to make historic newspapers from 1836 to 1922 more readily available to researchers.  They do this by digitizing content so that we can access it online.

Within the site, you can find newspapers from Arizona, California, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington.

Within the St. Louis Republic, I found:

  • 3851 references  to the World’s Fair.
  • 924 references to China, although I realized that this is both the country and porcelain.
  • 145 to Queen Victoria.
  • 66 to Abraham Lincoln.

Why not take a look the next time you are working on a historic topic and see what you can find?


Who Reads What: What We’re Told vs My Reality

If you’ve been writing for children for very long at all, you’ve heard many discussions about knowing who the audience for your book is and who will read what.  The common belief goes something like this:

  • Kids want to read about people like themselves.
  • We need books that feature children who look just like your reader so that they are more comfortable in the land of literature.
  • Girls will read books with male main characters but not the reverse.
  • Don’t make it too hard to read or they’ll flounder and quit.

My son’s school started a new program this year — 5th and 6th graders are shuffled into multi-grade book clubs 4 times/week.  I’m volunteering 1 day/week with the group led by my son’s teacher.  The groups are created based on reading level but the children will be shifted, as needed, between one book and the next.

The group I am working with has 2 boys and approximately 12 girls.  They are all African American.  Given the numbers of subsidized lunches given out each day, I know that many of these kids are from homes that are least marginally impoverished.

Now, according to the common wisdom, there is only a marginal chance that they will connect with their assigned book — Bridge to Terabithia — which has a  white, male, impoverished protag.  Why do I say this?  Because they have only one trait in common and the illustrations make it clear that he doesn’t look a whole lot like them except for the basic features shared by humans in general.

They were also struggling with the vocabulary itself.  Crimson threw them for a complete loop.

Yet, these kids were seriously into this book.  They got what was happening and they could correctly answer more questions about the book than I could since I hadn’t finished reviewing the book yet.  The teacher offered them the chance to write a play about the book when we are done reading it and you would have thought she was handing out I-phones (or whatever the commodity of the week is).

My son’s group is reading Esperanza Rising.   I could not have gotten him to read this book on a dare, but he’s into it.  Tonight we are planning to drill on the 5 pages of Spanish vocabulary that the teacher gave them.  That much in Spanish would make this book pretty challenging since our local Hispanic population isn’t very big.

Again, this book seems to have several marks against it yet these kids are flying along, eagerly going to their groups and, for the most part, listening intently to what is going on.

I’m not saying that African American kids don’t need to read about people like themselves, but I think we need to find ways to help all young readers connect with a greater variety of characters.  We should be building bridges and not creating divides.

I don’t have a lot of grand theories based on my observations, but I am definitely going to be noodling this over as I go back to book club on Thursday.


Goals: New System Swinging through September

I don’t know if last week was just an extremely productive week (this happens when you have numerous deadlines throughout the week) or if the posted goals are helping.  I think it is a little of both — having them printed out and posted above my desk puts them “in mind” at all times.  The result?  9428 words.  Among other things:

  • I wrote cover letters and got two book manuscripts out (2 toward my annual goal of 6).
  • I finished 7 video scripts.
  • I wrote my blogs.
  • I finished and submitted an article for Children’s Writer.

This week I’ve again posted my goals above the desk.  I have a lot to do that involves reading and other nonwriting tasks so I’ll be interested to see how my word count fairs.  This week, I plan to:

  • Write my blog and several prayers for
  • Work on my other blogs.
  • Start my next Children’s Writer article.
  • Work on two picture books, one of which may be ready to submit at the end of the week.
  • Work on one or two queries (The Writer and Writer’s Digest).
  • Start making the formatting changes requested for a freelance job.
  • Start noodling over the web site redesign.

I hope that everyone else is having a good writing week too!


Free Writing Workshop

Now that everyone is back in school, it is time to start writing again.  Need help keeping the words flowing?  Then join us for another free writing workshop next month at Florissant Presbyterian Church.

When:  October 16th, 10 am until Noon
Where:  Florissant Presbyterian Church
Topic:  Plot:  What It Is and How to Fix It

Plot is all about your character and your story.  What is your character trying to do and what gets in their way both influence your plot.   Your story might have a romantic plot or a mystery plot or something altogether different, but plot is also hard to get right.  This is serious because plot problems bring your character and your story to a halt.

In this workshop, I will cover various plot types as well as various plot problems and how to fix them.

Click here for details including a rough schedule.

If there is something specific you’d like to see me cover, let me know.  But also feel free to bring your own work, complete with plot problems, and we will see what we can do to help you fix them.

Don’t forget to RSVP to Jessica in the church office (314-837-8555) so that we know how many people to expect and have enough chairs set up.

Hope to see you there!