Writing Tough Topics

grrI’m one chapter away from a full draft of the race and racism book.  One chapter should be about 1850 words.  Unfortunately, I’m running short.  That’s no great surprise.  When I write for Abdo, I’m used to creating a 9 chapter outline.  This time around the outline was only 8 chapters.  Because I’ve more or less internalized the “proper chapter length,” assuming a 9 chapter outline, things are running short.  Fortunately, this is a fixable problem.  In truth it is a whole lot easier than distilling all of our problems with race and racism into a single 15,000 word book.

I’m also contemplating a complete fabrication.  Not within the book.  You know me — Ms. Nonfiction all the way.  But I’m getting a little prickly about the reactions I get when I tell people what I’m writing about.

If anyone challenged my right to write about this as a white woman, I’d understand it.  Not that I really consider racism a “black” topic.  A lot of groups have been subjected to racial discrimination. It’s never just one group.  And it doesn’t happen in isolation.  It isn’t black history.  It is US history.

That said, some people make it pretty obvious that they’re amazed I would write on race.  After all, I’m white.  Why should I care?


I care because it matters.  I care because it is a topic that impacts our schools and our lives every day.  I care because it is a topic that large numbers of people cannot choose to ignore.  Maybe, at least in part, I care because other people do ignore it.  That’s something I promised myself I would never do — ignore a situation where an adult needs to step in and tell someone to knock it off.

But, when I do tackle a tough topic, I reach this point.  I start to wonder why — why did I do this to myself?  Again?  Why not pick up something easier? Why not just right about bunny rabbits and sunshine?  I could tell people that’s what I’m doing.  “Oh, Abdo asked for a book on duckies and bunnies and fluff.”

Why not?  Oh, right.  Because no one would buy it.  Sunshine and cuteness may be warm and fuzzy but they aren’t me. So it’s time to just duck my chin down and get to work.  One more tough chapter to go.

Then, I get to do the rewrite.  Oh joy.

But it is a needed book.  It is a book that will benefit young readers.  And I’m just ornery enough to write it.


Top Nonfiction Picture Books

cup-1010916_1920Earlier this week, writing buddy Stephanie Bearce asked me for a list of the Top Nonfiction Picture Books in the last 5 years.  Where to start?  There are so many book lists out there — bestsellers, various ALA awards and more.  I decided to start with the top nonfiction as selected by School Library Journal.  Here’s the list I compiled based on their recommendations.  Note: These are not all of the picture books on their lists.  For example, I eliminated poetry because I’m a nonfiction author, not a poet. I also eliminated some of the ones I haven’t read or didn’t like. Yes.  I’m a fickle pickle.:

Don Brown’s Henry and the Cannons: An Extraordinary True Story of the American Revoluion. (Roaring Brook 2013)  Study this one if you want to write about a well-covered topic.

Jen Bryant’s The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus (Eerdman’s 2014).  The text, illustration and book design worked together really well on this one.

Jason Chin’s Island: A Story of the Galapagos (Roaring Brook 2012).

Lois Ehlert’s The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life (Beach Lane 2014).  An author/illustrator I adore but somehow missed this book.  I’ll have to pop by the library site.

David Elliot’s On the Wing (Candlewick 2014). Fantastic collection of “bird” poetry.

Bryan Floca’s Locomotive (Richard Jackson Book, 2013).

Gary Golio’s Bird and Diz (Candlewick 2015).  I love Golio’s books.  How did I miss this one? Popping over to the library to send in a request.

Steve Jenkin’s Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World (Houghton Harcout, 2014).  Love Jenkins books both for the illustrations and the fun animals I get to meet.

Angela Johnson’s All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom (S&S 2014).  This is illustrated by E.B. White.  After hearing him speak at a conference, I’m eager to see this book and how his illustrations demonstrate the points he made.

Sandra Markel’s The Long, Long Journey (Millbrook 2013).  This is about the godwit. The what?  Yep, study this one for how to write about a bird that isn’t a household name.

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Rhthym Ride: A Road Trip through Motown Sound (Roaring Brook 2015).  Another request.  I’m something like job security for the librarians.

Mara Rockliff’s  Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France (Candlewick, 2015).  Loved this book!  Loved it.  History and intrigue made a great combination.

Katherine Roy’s Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands (Roaring Brook 2014).

Duncan Tonatiuh’s Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (Abrams 2015).  Another great one.  Love the theme and the coverage is really thorough.

Duncan Tonatiuh’s Seperate is Never Equal: Syvlia Mendez and her Family’s Fight for Desegregation (Abrams 2014).  Powerful story but I especially loved his Maya-inspired illustrations.

I did notice that most of the books that made the list were from big name publishers.  That said there were a few that weren’t so that’s hopeful.  Remember that these are chosen by SLJ. These are books that are top notch for a the school market.  That means that there are doubtlessly a lot of books that are excellent but don’t meet that criteria.  Still, that’s the criteria I went with since I want to teach.  Yes, I want to do so in a fun way but I want my books in the schools.

Anyway, this is the list.  Ta-da!  Hope it is helpful and  Happy Reading!


Suitable for Young Readers?

surprise-one-handedMaybe this has been on my mind because this is Banned Book Week, but it seems like I’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately about what books are and are not suitable to their age level.  Most often it is because a broad topic is just “too much” for that age group.  And sometimes that may be the case.  Toddlers and preschoolers just aren’t ready for certain topics.

But for the most part it isn’t books for toddlers and preschooler that stir people up.  It is books for kids 8 and older.

Certainly it is easier to tailor some subjects to young adults.  I’m thinking especially topics that have to do with sex, gender, violence, and drugs.  But then I’m reminded about the surprises I’ve encountered as a book reviewer.

When I heard that Gary Golio had written a picture book biography about Jimi Hendrix, I just wasn’t sure.  How do you handle Jimi Hendrix for a picture book crowd?  Answer — you narrow the topic.  Golio wrote about his art, painting pictures with sound.  He led into this with Hendrix love of drawing as a boy.  His death and drug use are only mentioned in the author’s note.  The book is totally age appropriate and it works really well.

Because of this, I’m always a little hesitant to say NO that book is inappropriate.  That said, some topics are going to be harder to carry out than others.  Today, I was skimming MSWL posts on twitter.  Jennifer Azantian would love to see YA similar to the true story about the Netherlands teen who seduced and killed Nazi officers.  Lauren Spieller is on the lookout for MG that deals with sexual abuse.

I’m not saying that I’d want to write either of these books (okay, maybe the YA), but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be done.  And honestly tough books need to be written.  For various reasons, there are kids who need these books.  Neither of these topics would be easy to pull off but sometimes I think the difficult books are the ones most needed in this world.  After all, when it is easy, everyone is ready to give it a try.



Winter Reading List

 Are you an SCBWI Pal Member?  A Pal member is someone who has published a book with a recognized professional publisher. If so, take advantage of this Pal opportunity to promote one of your books.

The organization is pulling together a Winter Reading List for 2016.  Schools, libraries, bookstores and consumers will have access to the list via digital download. SCBWI will promote the list paid advertising, social media marketing and social media advertising.

I’ve already submitted my book for the list.  Have you?  If not, you have until September 30th to take advantage of this opportunity.  Send an e-mail to readinglist@scbwi.org with the following information for your book:

  • Title:
  • Author:
  • Illustrator:
  • Genre:
  • 25 Words (or Less) Book Description:
  • Your City and State of Residence:
  • Publisher:
  • Publication Date:
  • Grade Level (Choose the closest match from this list/PreK-K; 1-2; 3-5; 6-8; 9-12)
  • Also let them know if this is the same book you submitted for the Summer Reading List. That’s okay but they prefer that you take the opportunity to showcase another books.

Remember, this is due FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 30.  Take advantage of this free opportunity to showcase your book.


ESL: Writing for a Korean Market

first-birthdaySaturday I had the opportunity to have an early reader critiqued by two of my Missouri SCBWI buddies, Peggy Archer and Stephanie Bearce. As always, their feedback was helpful but then Stephanie hit me with a question I couldn’t answer.

“Are you sure that the power of three works in Korean stories?” Stephanie had recently heard a conference speaker who suggested that The Power of Three is a European/American “thing.”  Other cultures have different magic numbers.  “Just Google it.”

I’ve tried that and I’d love to say that I’ve found the answer.  I have not.  But I have found a lot of other information useful to anyone writing Korean ESL material.

The Korean language does not distinguish between singular and plural in the same way that English does.

The language doesn’t have articles (a or the).

Korean lacks three sounds common in English — th, p and v.

As in European folklore, specific meanings can be assigned to various animals.

Turtle = Long life.  Can tell the future. Fortune tellers predict the future based on cracks in the turtles shell.

Tiger = courage and dignity but also cruelty.  Good luck.  Protection from disease.

Duck = wealth, happiness, loyalty and many children.

Butterfly = love and happiness.

The only reference that I found to numbers was in relation to important birthday.  We have “sweet sixteen.”  Korean culture emphasizes the first birthday at which the baby’s future is told and the sixty-first.

Suffice it to say that I still don’t know if the Power of Three will function in a story for Korean readers but I’m having fun searching for the answer!

If you want to read a bit more about Korean stories and ESL, check out these links.

Korean Myths and Folktales

Language Differences between English and Korean


Banned Book Week

banned-book-weekA public service out there for all you writer types.  Next week (September 25–October 1, 2016) is Banned Book Week.

Book banning isn’t when someone doesn’t want their child to read a book.  That’s called parenting.  Maybe not parenting well, but parenting.  Book banning is when someone doesn’t want my kid, your kid or any kid to read a book and they get it pulled from class or the library.  For my kid this wouldn’t be a huge deal.  We have more books than grains of rice (and I have two big bags of rice).  For some young readers school is the only access to books that they have.

Why not celebrate our right to choose what we read by reading a banned book next week?  Here is a list that might help you pick out a book.

The 10 Most Challenged Books of 2015 (from least challenged to most challenged).

10.  Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

9. Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter

8.  Habibi by Craig Thompson

7.  Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

6.  The Holy Bible

5.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

4. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin

3. I am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings

2. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

1. Looking for Alaska by John Green

Honestly, I’ve usually read more of them than I have this year.  This is almost embarrasing.  That said, I loved Looking for Alaska.  I’m not sure how I missed Nasreen’s Secret School since I’m a huge Winter fan but I’ve already requested that one from the library.  Habibi is a graphic novel about child slavery.  I’ve requested that, too.  Fun Home is both a graphic novel and a memoir.  Yep.  I have a request in for that too. I have to say that I wasn’t surprised to see I am Jazz on this list since it is a picture book about a trangender girl.  That said, I requested that too.  I want to see how the author explains it to this young audience.  50 Shades of Grey can stay on the list for a long, long time and I still won’t read it.  My mother-in-law and I have a pact.  I’d hate to disappoint her.

Joking aside, book banning is a huge issue because it is an attempt to control what we think.  Please take the time to read a banned book. As you read, think about who might benefit from picking up a copy.  When you realize who it is, you’ll know what book banning cannot be permitted.


No No NaNo or Am I In?

nanowrimoYesterday I spotted a blog post about NaNoWriMo.  “Sioux,” I thought.  “What is up?  NaNo isn’t until November!”

But Sioux is right.  If you are going to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), now is the time to plan.  Ugh.

For those of you who don’t recognize the abbreviation, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month.  What it amounts to is this — in the month of November, participants promise to draft a novel.  One of my problems with this is that I write for children.  The NaNoWriMo goal is 50,000 words.  By about the midpoint it becomes clear that I’m not going to make that word count so I just kind of drift away.

The other problem is that November always seems to sneak up on me.  If I decide to do NaNoWriMo, it is always a spur of the moment decision.  I don’t do any prep work and attempt to jump into my story.  It goes okay for a while but sooner or later I come to a stop, brought up short by something that might not have been a problem with a bit of prep work.

What that means is that if I’m going to do it, I need to start working in it now.  Maybe not writing but prewriting.  I want to finish drafting my middle grade fantasy, Iron Mountain.  I need to spend a bit more time with the characters.  I need to decide if I’m turning the stepfather into a true blue antagonist.  That had been my plan but then I softened him which meant that the last 3rd of my plot outline was off.  I need to think a bit more about the world and the culture.

Yep, I’ve got plenty to do before November.  If I’m going to NaNo.  Do I or don’t I?

My inclination is to say “do it,” because I want to have a finished draft.  So I guess I better get to work and start muddling through a few things.


Your Main Character: What Do Your Readers Need to Know?

cat-as-lionUp until about a week ago, I had a fast and firm list of things that the reader needs to know about the main character.  That list included:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Name
  • Story goal

Leave any one of those out and I’d have something to say about it.  But then I read a piece of flash fiction, Fear of the Sentry by Tracy Maxwell, that made me question all of this.


The entire story is 5 paragraphs long.  For the first three, you follow the main character who is seeking out the enemy sentry.  And then if paragraph #4 you discover that this is a child sneaking up on fighting parents. The goal, the only thing that you thought you knew was figurative.

That’s right.  You don’t know the character’s gender, age, or name.  You think you know the story goal only to discover that you really don’t.

Yet, the story works and works to great effect.

Wow.  That’s all I can say is WOW.

Now I’m wondering, how would an editor react if you didn’t divulge your child character’s age?  Or name?  I’m guessing that if it works, no questions will be asked, no comments will be made.  But the story still needs to work.

In this case, Maxwell knew the writing rules and set out very deliberately to break them.  Age, name and gender are traits that serve to orient the reader in relation to the character.  If you leave one or more of these things out, you still need to orient your reader but you need to do it in a way that reveals something even more important.  In this case, we discover what the reader fears.  We learn that in spite of this fear, there is no choice but to move forward.  And we aren’t told these things.  They are shown to us.

For every support that you cut, you need to provide another.  Anyone else up for the challenge?


Characters: Make them interesting

runner-1544448_1920Recently I was reading a fantasy tale and just could not connect with the character.  I tried.  After all, I love fantasy.  But there just wasn’t any attraction.  About four chapters in it hit me.  The character wasn’t specifically unlikable.  The problem was that he wasn’t interesting.  Here are three tips to create interesting characters.

Interesting Characters Have to Do Something
Whether or not your character is good or bad, to be really and truly interesting they have to be active.  This generally isn’t a problem when a story is plot driven but it is a different story when a piece is character driven.  All to often the character spends a great deal of time in her head or talking to someone.  SNORE.  To hold your reader’s attention, your character needs to do, working toward a goal whether that goal is figuring out an unsolvable puzzle or winning a race.

Interesting Characters Have Pasts
To be really and truly interesting, your character needs to have a past. Their past is what drives them and fuels their need to meet that goal.  This doesn’t mean that you have to reveal it all to the reader in a great-big info dump, but you need to know what it is because the past shapes the present.  As choices and actions are driven forward by what went before, you can reveal bits and pieces of it as needed.

Interesting Characters Aren’t All Good or All Bad
Another way to lose reader interest is to create a character who is always good.  No matter what the antagonist throws in her path, she is good and kind and sweet and . . . ugh.  saccharine.  The same is true of a character who is unrelentingly evil.  These kinds of characters just aren’t realistic so they don’t hold the reader’s attention.  Instead you need to create a good person who has a flaw or a bad person who has a redeeming quality.  These characters will then by more like real people and better able to hold the reader’s attention.

Runner, robber, regent, or robber, the biggest crime your character can commit is to bore your reader.


MSWL Day: The Best Thing About Twitter

twitter-848528_1920-croppedYes, I participate in social media.  Yes, I get why it is important.  But I also see it as a great big, gigantic time suck.  That’s not someone with a straw that you hear.  That’s social media sucking down your time.

But, like I said, there are also pluses and one of the big ones for Twitter is #MSWL Day.  For those of you who aren’t twitter savy, MSWL stands for Manuscript Wish List. On manuscript wish list day, editors and agents post about the dream manuscripts they would love to receive.

Here are some of the tweets I spotted on the last #MSWL Day (9/13) that are relevent to children’s writers.  I’ll provide a link to each complete post.

Hannah Fergesen Amelia Peabody-esque YA series brimming over with archaeology and murder (Tweet).

Moe Ferrara is on the lookout for MG and YA fantasy and science fiction (Tweet).

Stephanie Stein wants YA and MG fantasy where the magic is 100% essential to the story (Tweet).

She is also on the look out for YA and MG with snarky, sassy characters (Tweet).

Jill Corcoran wants picture books, MG and YA. She wants story and voice that leave her with a feeling of peace and love.  And yes, she got that all into one tweet!  See it here (Tweet).


There were more but these were the ones that caught my attention.  Read the tweet.  Read up on the agent.  Maybe one of them will be right for you and your work.