Portrayals and Prejudice

Yesterday, I read an article about the controversy surrounding The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz.  Admittedly, I haven’t read the book yet although it is on my list.  The Hired Girl is set in 1911.  The main character, fourteen-year-old Joan, is desperate to get off the farm.  She takes on a variety of hired jobs and in one interview she’s asked if she is Jewish.  Her response stirred up the controversy.

“I was as taken aback as if she’d asked me if I was an Indian. It seemed to me—I mean, it doesn’t now, but it did then—as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there are Indians out West, but they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.”

The controversy stems from this alleged negative portrayal of Native Americans.  I say alleged because it seems more like negative thoughts than an honest-to-goodness portrayal.

The book’s defenders point out that Joan’s attitude is accurate for the time. Furthermore, she apparently grows beyond this belief in the course of the book.

Questions were asked.  Answers were given.  Dialogue insued.

Birthday CakeContrast this to the controversy over A Birthday Cake for George Washington.  It is about George Washington’s slave and chef, Hercules, and his work to bake a birthday cake for Washington.  In one of the illustrations, Hercules and his daughter smile at each other.  Critics claim that this misrepresents slavery. “Slavery is bad!”

Not surprisingly, no one argued against that point although they did point out that the book doesn’t say slavery is good. The controversy continued and those involved with the bookself clammed up. No dialogue.  Just accusations.  I get the complaints because this is a portrayal, but I would really have loved to talk to the editor and gotten her view of things. But I also understand why she chose not to argue with people.

The protest grew and Scholastic pulled the book.  This makes me almost queasy. Like Mitali Perkins, I wish they had added to their book list instead of subtracting.  Additional books could create a dialogue.  Removing a book?  That’s just censorship.

I also wonder what will happen with future books, or books that might have been. I suspect that there are a lot of stories out there that will never be told.  Publishers will be too reluctant to take the risk even if the stories could broaden our view.

I hope my concern is misplaced. The problem is that I can’t think of a single case where censorship has led to greater intellectual freedom.




Naming a New Character

Frankie’s sewing machine.

How much effort do you put into naming a character?  I have to admit that for me it varies.  In part because how I create a story varies from piece to piece.

Some characters come into being with a name attached.  Felicity has always been Felicity.  That said, her last name has evolved over time.

Other characters take a lot more effort.  When this is the case, I’ll know the character’s story problem and some of the steps that she takes to solve it.  I’ll be familiar with what she values in life and what she fears.  I’ll be rock solid on what she wants most of all.  Heck, I may even know her cat’s name.  And then, finally, I figure out her name.

I’m going to admit that I’m a little suspicious about my current character.  The novel is set in the Cold War.  I think it is set in 1975 but it might be as early as 1970.  She lives in the suburbs.  She doesn’t have a job.  Unless she works at Golde’s, a now defunct department store that had a talking minah bird that fascinated me.  In the appropriate season, she hunts mushrooms in the country.  She sews many of her own clothes — Jackie O being her fashion model.

As you can see, she hasn’t been entirely forthcoming with the details.  Thus my suspicion.  But I do have her name.  Franky.  Or maybe she spells it Frankie?  I know for a fact she does not spell it Franki.

I know she’s a Frankie/Franky for a variety of reasons. She’s strong and resilient and classy but a bit unconventional.  She’s a woman who knows what society expects and that’s well and good, when it suits her.  When she wants/needs to do her own thing, there you have it. She’s smart and well read but doesn’t have a college degree unless you count her MRS.  Definitely a Franky/Frankie.

But I still wanted to know when and where this name would be popular. If ever (more on that later).  Thank goodness for the Social Security Administration.  In addition to checking out the top 200 names per decade, you can chart a name’s poplarity since 1900. Frances was most popular in 1918 when it was #8 for women.  #8!  By 1940 it was #28. Frank was #693 for women in 1929.  Frankie peaked in 1933 at 246.

So Frankie was never incredibly popular but I’m okay with that.  My character’s name is Frankie (that’s the spelling I’m leaning toward), because it’s a family name.  My aunt’s name is Franky.  My Grandmother was Frank.  Neither Frank or Franky yielded a search at Social Security. My family is well known for names that aren’t exactly top 40 hits.  Modelle didn’t yield any results but, to my surprise, Beryl which was most popular in 1920, did.

Do you ever research a character’s name to see when it was most popular?


GoodReads Reading Challenge and Why I read so Much

marketstreet_bgDo you know about the annual Goodreads Reading Challenge?  I’m not using it as a reading challenge but I am using it as a way to keep track of what I read.

Here is how it works.  Goodreads members pop over to the reading challenge page and click the proper button and then state the number of books that they plan to read.  My goal?  100.  It may sound like a lot to you but it should be doable.  Why?

I review two books/week at The Bookshelf.  I read around 100 books a year for that alone.  Initially I reviewed for the Post-Dispatch. When that gig dried up, I wanted to keep reviewing in part because I like to introduce new books to readers.  But I also want to know the market and the best way to do that is read.  Writing reviews helps me organize my thoughts concerning what I do and do not like about a book. My most recent review is Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña.

I also belong to the Florissant Presbyterian Church Book Club.  That’s another book a month for a total of 12.  We just read The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton.  Next up is Lila by Marilyn Robinson.  The book club is my pathway to grown up books.  Otherwise I frequently don’t get around to them.

I also manage about a book a month just for fun. Very often these are the audio books that I listen to during lunch.  I work at home which means that lunch time is just me and that mooch of a cat.  It’s nice to have something to listen to while I nibble.  Right now I’m listening to The Favored Daughter by Fawzia Koofi.  It is about a woman who is a politician, like her father before her, in Afghanistan.  Very powerful stuff.  My audio books account for about two books a month during the school year.

Then there are the books that I read for research and research alone.  How many of those are there each year?  It depends on what I’m researching but I very seldom read the entire book.

Clearly, I don’t need any encouragement to read more even more.  That has nothing to do with why I signed up for the challenge.  I signed up to let Goodreads track the books for me.  After I read a book, I look that particular title up on Goodreads and add the book to my “Read” shelf.  I also rate it (1 through 5 stars) and add the “date completed” or some such.  With this date filled in it is added to my Reading Challenge list.

I can organize the list in two ways – date read or rating.  I’m after the ratings.  I want to know which books are the most popular and which are the least.  That’s the sort of goofy information that can help me as I select the topic for my next project.  It is also a way for me to see the difference between industry buzz and popularity with readers.

If you want to see which 15 books I’ve already completed this year, pop on over to my Goodreads listing.  If you’re also doing the challenge, please comment with a link to your listing.  With 85 books still to go for the year, I could use a few suggestions…



What Are You Writing?

Colorful books on shelfWhenever a new writer comes to critique group, I ask, “What do you write?”

Can I say, without giving offense, that it is off-putting if they can’t tell me?  Too often the answer is “children’s stories” or “books for children.”  That’s too broad and it makes me think that you don’t know the answer in contemporary publishing jargon.

Hey, wait!  Aren’t writers supposed to think outside of the box?

You are, but if you don’t know what the heck you’re writing, you don’t know what box to avoid. If you are just starting to write for children and teens, here are some categories to know.

Fiction vs nonfiction.  It’s basic but I understand some of the confusion.  If you are writing a story about growing a garden and framing it as the experience of fictional Adam, what is it?  Fiction or nonfiction?  Without reading it, my guess would be fact based fiction.

Picture book.  A picture book is an illustrated book in which the text and the art equally tell the story.  These books give readers the info they need to learn about the world in general. The recent Newbery Last Stop on Market Street is a picture book.   Adults read these books to young readers.
Audience: Toddler to early grade school.
Length: Up to 3 manuscript pages.

Beginning or early reader.  The purpose behind these books is for new readers to be able to read them independently.  That meanst that vocabulary and sentence structure are simple.  Illustrations don’t expand on the story but provide contextual clues for the reader.  Look at beginning readers and you’ll see lables like “level 1.” Levels vary from publisher to publisher.  Elephant and Piggy.
Audience: 1st and 2nd grade.
Length: Up to 20 manuscript pages.

Chapter books.  These books may contains some illustrations but they are for confident readers who aren’t intimidated by a lack of pictures.  That said, these are still newish readers and the books tend to have a main plot line and no subplots.  Often published in series. Magic Tree House.
Audience: 1st to 3rd grade.
Length: 40 – 60 manuscript pages.

Middle grade novels.  These readers can handle at least one subplot.  Characters are discovering their place in the world so stories are frequently about family, friends,  and school.  It is rare for these books to include extreme violence, drug use or sex. Some romance, very light, is okay. Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Audience: 3rd to 6th grade.
Length: 100 – 250 manuscript pages.

Young adult novels.  Middle schoolers read some of these books and these are the books with less extreme content.  Books for high schoolers can include, but don’t have to focus on sex, drugs, etc. These are kids who are challenging the world although they may still be looking for their place in it. Graceling.
Audience: 7th grade and up.
Length: 200 – 350 manuscript pages.


Picture Book Writing: How Much Detail

galoshesRecently I read a blog post by agent Heather Alexander on whether or not to include illustration notes in your picture book manuscript.  In short, her answer is NO.

Yes, there are times that it is okay but most often the answer is NO.  Why is this? Because for the most part illustration notes are the author’s attempt to take over the illustrator’s job.  What color is Becca’s dress?  Not your problem.  What type of shoes does she wear?  Not your problem.  Back pack?  Not your (can you fill in the blank?).

The reality is that these details fall under the control of the illustrator unless they somehow impact the story.  And the truth is that most often they don’t.

One of the biggest problems that writers have is writing too much into a story.  When we do this, we don’t leave room for the reader to explore and stretch and make the story her own.  For more on this, you can read my post today at the Muffin.

Picture books are a bit trickier than your average novel or short story because we also need to leave room for the illustrator.  That means that you don’t need to include visual details.  The beauty of this is that when you  are writing a picture book you can reserve your precious word count for the details that are truly up to you, the writer.

Don’t tell us that Becca’s galoshes are yellow.  Tell us about the sound they make when she stomps in a puddle. Tell us how they smelled new out of the box.

Tell us why they matter to the story.  I’m not telling you to write Becca loved her galoshes more than anything in the world. Instead, give us the kind of detail that helps us reach the conclusion ourselves.  Becca wore her galoshes to school.  She wore her galoshes to bed.  She even wore them in the shower.  

No illustrations notes required and you’ve left room for your reader to come to her own conclusions about Becca and her galoshes.




Creating Distance Between Your Reader and Your Character

Most often, we try to find ways to bring our readers closer to our characters.  We give the characters traits with which our readers can identify.  This might involve making the character slightly older than the reader, putting her in a similar circumstance or have her experience a similar emotion.

But sometimes we want to give our readers a little space.  Maybe you’re writing a book about bullying or tattling or something else negative.  Make it too personal and you are likely to scare your reader away, especially if she is familiar with your character’s emotions.  At times like this, it helps to create some distance between the reader and the character.

If you are writing a picture book, perhaps the best way to do this is to make your characters animals instead of children.  That’s what Jeanie Ransom did when she wrote Don’t Squeal Unless It’s a Big Deal.  Again and again, Mrs. McNeal explains to her students that they should be tattle tales.  “Don’t squeal,” she says, “unless it’s a big deal.”  Time and time again, her students need this lesson.  Then the day comes where Mrs. McNeal is hurt and the students have to decide if they should squeal.

If Jeanie had written a story about a group of child tattle tales, the characters would be super annoying.  The children most need to hear what Mrs. McNeal is saying would be deaf to the message because they wouldn’t want to identify with the child characters.

But Jeanie has a great sense of humor.  The students that are being told not to squeal are, as is obvious on the cover, piggies.  Pigs being told not to “squeal” is funny and Jeanie plays up the humor.  The animal characters give young readers the space they need to find the message funny and accessible.

Often helping our readers connect to our characters means bringing them as close as possible.  But there are times when maintaining a little distance makes the story much more appealing.



Edgar Nominees Announced

On Tuesday, the Edgar nominees were announced.  Each year, the Edgars are awarded by the Mystery Writers of America for the best mysteries.

I’d love to say that I’ve read all of these but the Edgars always take me by surprise.  Every stinking year.

The nominees for the two categories of interest to writers for children and teens are:

The Best Juvenile Category.  Note:  They don’t call this middle grade but its how I think of it.

Catch You Later, Traitor by Avi (Algonquin Young Readers – Workman)
If You Find This by Matthew Baker (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head by Lauren Oliver & H.C.Chester (HarperCollins Publishers – HarperCollins Children’s Books)
The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands  (Simon & Schuster – Aladdin)
Footer Davis Probably is Crazy by Susan Vaught (Simon & Schuster – Paula Wiseman Books)

I tried to request If You Find This and Curiosity House before my library had them available so I’ll have to request them now.

Then there is the Young Adult category.  Again, the nominees are:

Endangered by Lamar Giles (HarperCollins Children’s Books – HarperTeen)
A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis (HarperCollins Publishers – Katherine Tegen Books)
The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury (Scholastic – Scholastic Press)
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma (Algonquin Young Readers – Workman)
Ask the Dark by Henry Turner (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – Clarion Books)

Have you read any of these books?  If so, what did you think of them?


Why You Need an Online Presence

web presence eyesI haven’t been doing as many author interviews since I no longer write for Children’s Writer, but a new project has my creating questions and looking for information on a handful of authors.  I know I’ve said it before but I have to say it again – I am truly amazed by the number of authors who have no web presence.  None.

I am astonished by the number of authors that I Google and find . . . nothing.  Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch.  If they have books, I generally find their books on Amazon, Goodreads or their publisher’s website.  That’s it.

I don’t find anything about the author.  Not a web page.  Or a blog.  Or a Facebook page.  Nada.  The only way that I would be able to contact the author is through the publisher and right now, in the age of E-mail Easyness, I’m not going to do that.  I’m going to simply contact someone else.

Okay, I know that having me not be able to find you is only a minor hardship.  You won’t be interviewed.  But an interview in a publication that caters to writers is free advertising for your work.

And if I can’t find easy contact information, neither can a teacher or librarian.  What?  You aren’t interested in school visits?

What about a conference or Con organizer? They can’t easily find you either.  Sure, some of them might go through the trouble of contacting your publisher, but there’s a very real chance that they won’t.

If you write for teens and adults, your fans can’t find you either.

Now I’m not saying that your web presence should take precedence.  Your writing is still more important.  But a web presence is a great way to market that writing.  Think about it.



My New Book: Trench Warfare

trench warfareHip, hip, hooray!   Both of my 2016 books are out as of January 1.  I’ve already posted about 12 Incredible Facts about the Cuban Missile Crisis (12-story), so today I’m going to focus on Trench Warfare (Abdo).

It seems like each and every time I write one of these books, I learn a thing or twenty. This time I learned a lot about World War I and Great Britain.  I already knew a little something about the war from the US perspective but my focus this time around was the fighting in the trenches.  For the most part, that was over before the US got involved.

I learned how to dig a proper trench and how to lay them out so that a single enemy soldier can’t conquer a whole trench system. I learned about the health problems (rats and lice) and trench medicine.  On the brighter side, I even got to write about trench art — most often carvings made from shell casings.

I learned that an annoying number of sources about this topic are in French.  That’s a huge problem because I only read about 20 words of French — 3 numbers, an assortment of body parts learned from children’s songs, a few to do with food and one cuss word.

Writing buddy Shannon Moore wrote a book in the series as well, Harlem Hellfighters.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to request her book through the library. That’s my way of making sure they buy it!


Martin Luther King Day

Black Lives MatterFirst things first, my apologies for not getting this up last night.  I was just heading to bed when I realized I didn’t have everything ready to go.  My apologies.

This time last year, I had just finished working on Black Lives Matter.  I had turned in the full manuscript and done the rewrites under the advice of Duchess Harris.  As the topic expert, Duchess read through the manuscript and pointed out places that I needed to add more information.  More often than not, her expansions involved how the experiences of black women differed from those of black men.

That makes sense but Duchess also pointed out that the experiences of black women are often ignored when we write about Civil Rights and black history.  I saw this for myself as Duchess and I started work on our next project.  It involves NASA and black women in the 1940s through the 1970s.

First I read about the black experience at NASA.  The author wrote about black men.  Okay.  Feminist writers would surely set the record straight.

So next I read about women at NASA.  I read about the jobs that the women Duchess and I are writing about actually did.  There is one, One, ONE piece that discusses the black women.  It doesn’t discuss them exclusively but they are a part of the manuscript.  Get that — manuscript. It is an unpublished scholarly paper.  The published works addressed what white women doing the same jobs had done. It completely ignored the black women.

Duchess and I are working to correct that oversight.  Our goal is to have a marketable manuscript by summer.  Until then, I’ll be reading and looking for the blank spots that other researchers have left unfilled.