RIP Mordecai Gerstein

Sad, sadder, saddest.  Children’s author and illustrator Mordecai Gerstein died almost a week ago, last Tuesday.  I first met Gerstein through his 2004 Caldecott Medal winner The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, a nonfiction picture book about the tightrope walk between the World Trade Towers.  But I also loved The Camping Trip that Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and our National Parks.  

Gerstein started out in television and moved into children’s publishing when he collaborated on the series “Something Queer is Going On,” mysteries for young readers that he worked on with Elizabeth Levy.

Writer and illustrator, he has left behind quite a body of work.  In just the last ten years, the books he has written and illustrated include:

  • The Boy and the Whale (2017)
  • I Am Pan! (2016)
  • The Sleeping Gypsy (2016)
  • The Night World (2015)
  • You Can’t Have Too Many Friends! (inspired by Drakestail; 2014)
  • The First Drawing (2013)
  • How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers (2013)
  • Dear Hot Dog (2011)

His work wasn’t hyper realistic but I always loved how expressive his illustrations are and how alive.  It was clear that he loved his work and his reades and wanted to bring them nothing but his best.

I hope that you’ll join be in celebrating his life and his work by reading something of his this week.  I want to experience something new so I’ve requested both The Boy and the Whale, a picture book, and I am Hermes!, a graphic novel.

For more on Gerstein and his work, check out this memorial piece in School Library Journal.





Punctuation: Put Away the Pitch Forks

Earlier this week, I read a Writer’s Digest post on using one space or two spaces after a period.  Way back when we used typewriters, a double space after a period was essential because not every letter took up the same amount of space.  Now your word processing program neatly spaces things so that this is no longer needed.

Yet some people insist on doing it the old way.  Insist.  No ground shall be given!

I had to laugh because the post reminded me of when I first started working with one of my editors.  This is a huge deal for her.  HUGE.  The first time I submitted my work to her, I had two spaces after the period.  My work was fantastic except for that period space space.  Um, okay.  No big deal I can just do a search and replace.  “Or you can learn to do it the right way.”  I can try and I do but, in all truth, I still key in period space space about 25% of the time. I suspect it is muscle memory at this point.  My ring finger hits a period and my thumb hits space space.

So before I send my work in, I search for space space dot and replace with space dot.  It just isn’t that big a deal.  It makes her happy and that’s good enough reason for me.

But I know writers who are just as adamant that the old way is the only way.  They set their word processor to Courier and they type period space space.  After all, it is traditional.  But so was underlining a word that should be italicized.  Oh, wait.  Some of these people underline the word although they could now just as easily italicize it.

I really don’t get people sometimes.  If my editor wants one space, she can have it.  The Oxford comma?  That’s where I draw the line.


Memoir Mistakes to Avoid

The house my dad grew up in. Alpine, Texas.

It started out as an essay about my father’s 12 hour day in the emergency room.  But as I reread my essay I saw that other bits and pieces of his story were essential to fully understand the impact of that day.  Thus, with the encouragement of several writing friends, I started writing memoir.  Thanks to Jane Friedman’s post, I have a better sense what common mistakes to avoid.

Many memoir include way too much information.  Sometimes this is because the person is mistakenly writing an autobiography.  Fortunately, I already knew the difference but if this distinction is new to you, remember that an autobiography tells your whole life from birth until present.  A memoir is a slice of life.  It can center on a theme, such as learning to stand up for yourself, or a portion of your life, your experiences in grad school.

What I hadn’t considered until I read Friedman’s post is that many people try to write one memoir when they should be writing three.  Not only do they write all about graduate school, they include politics and growing up in a rural community.  The themes and topics are just too far ranging to make a single solidly constructed memoir.

Friedman also warned people to make sure that they choose a unique focus.  Surviving cancer, overcoming alcoholism and living with depression are stories that have already been told.  Like any other type of writing, your memoir has to fill a gap.

A problem with much of the memoir that I’ve critiqued is that it is really a journal. Yes, journaling to work through things is a good idea.  Trying to sell this journaling as memoir?  Not so much.

Friedman covers several other points in her post.  Just remember that if you are writing your memoir to sell, it will have to be tight, flow logically and tell a story that no one has yet told.  Easy peasy, right?


Marketing: Stirring Up Interest in Your Book

There are a variety of ways that writers can stir up interest in their book.  One is to get it out there on social media.  The problem with this is that you can only post about it so often yourself.  No, really.  Do it too often and you start to look just a tiny bit self-absorbed.  Those are the writers and illustrators I unfollow.  But the good news is that if you tweet, post on Facebook and Instagram, and blog about other people’s books, they will return the favor and you have grass roots marketing.

Another way to stir up interest in your book is to hold a contest.  That’s what my friend Sharon Mayhew is doing.  You can read about it on her blog here.  The social media response to the launch of Keep Calm and Carry On, Children was so great that she is thanking everyone with a contest.  And what is the result of that?  Not just happy people who hope to win marvelous snacks and a copy of the book but more social media.

It is also a good idea to have a website.  If you have a website, people can find you.  When I am looking for authors to interview when I am witing an article, I google their names.  It is amazing how many of them don’t have a web site.  If you have a site and have your e-mail addy listed on the site, someone might approach you for an interview.  An interview is free advertising.  They might also approach you to do a school visit.  That school visit? More free advertising.

In the Publisher’s Weekly article Author-Tested Middle Grade Marketing Tips, Kate Messner discusses school visits.  Her recommendation is that you develop in person and virtual visits that are more than just you trying to sell your book.  Offer something of value.  What is of value to a teacher?  I hope you said education.  What can you teach through your visit?

I have to admit that I find school visits intimidating.  Really intimidating.  I want to get over that problem so I am signing up for Margo Dill’s class on school visits and author talks.  Margo is a hands on teacher so I know I’ll come out of her class with something of value to share with my readers.


Banned Books Week 2019

I know, I know.  This is my second banned books post in a week.  What can I say?  If you are a writer, this topic is vitally important.  Heck, it is important if you are a librarian or reader or a parent.

You see, no one is telling parents that they have to give their children access to every single book in print.  A parent may have a very good reason for not wanting a young reader to access a specific book.  May have.

Besides, that isn’t banning.  That is parenting.

A parent or anyone who says that X book should not be on the curriculum or should be removed from the library?  Someone who says that a book should not be available?  That person is attempting to ban a book which is censorship.

Take the time to watch this video and you may hear an excerpt from a book that tempts you to read the whole.  I have to admit that one of my all time favorites is in this video.  To quote, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.”


New Class: Research Before You Write

I am putting together a class on the research you need to do before you start a new nonfiction writing project. For many new writers, one of the trickiest parts of writing nonfiction is getting the research done.  It can seem overwhelming if it is something you have never done before.

The class will be four weeks long:

Topics and Slants:  This will focus on doing the necessary research to see if your idea is already in print as well as how you can devise multiple slants to get the most out of your research and to adjust your idea if you do find something in print.

To Market:  How to find markets for your writing projects as well as how to make sure they are the kind of markets you want to approach.  Not everyone has the same goals but there are a variety of signs that can tell you if a market is legit.

Starting Your Research:  Some people think that they can’t use any secondary research in their work.  Secondary sources are among the best for finding the broad strokes on a topic.  This week will cover the difference between primary and secondary sources as well as how to find the most reliable information that has already been published.

Primary Sources:  This week will focus on why you want to include primary sources as well as where to find primary sources online and “in person.” There will also be information on how to do photo and map research and how to conduct interviews.

I am still fairly early in the planning process so this rough list of weekly topics may change as I take it to final.  Why am I posting about it now?  Because I want to make certain that I am covering the information that other people need.  You can help me by answering any of the following questions.

  • What information would you find helpful in a course on research?
  • What topics would you expect to see covered?
  • What aspect of research do you find difficult to master?
  • What am I forgetting?

I’ve been noodling this over for some time but always find it useful to get the opinions of other people.  Thank you!


Banned Books Week

Guess what starts on September 22, 2019?  Banned Books Week!

I always pick out a banned book to read in celebration.  What? That’s not how I’m supposed to react to someone telling me what to do?  Yeah, sorry about that.  It is the way I’ve reacted since I was a tot.

Anyway, let’s take a look at some of the books you might choose.  Want a book specifically for writers and other creative types?  The Artists Way by Julia Cameron has had to be defended.

If you are interested in novels, two of my favorites are on the list.  You can read Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Tree.  Hey, here’s one that is on my shelf waiting for me to get reacquainted with it before I read the sequel, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. 

Children’s novels, picture books, nonfiction and more can be found on the list of titles defended by the National Council of Teacher’s of English from 2002 to 2018.  You can find it here.

Want to make sure you are reading a book that has been recently challenged?  Then check out this video for the Top 11 Most Challenged Books in 2018.

Let me know what book you decide to read!


National Book Award: Long List for 2019 Award for Young People’s Literature Released

If you write for teens and you often find yourself inspired by what is making headline news, you need to check out the National Book Awards.  In my experience, the National Book Foundation gravitates towards books that could be ripped from today’s headlines.  The long list for 2019 has just been announced.  These are the books from which the finalists and ultimately the winner will be chosen.  They are:

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrations by Kadir Nelson (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Originally a poem, this title is an ode to the strength of Black Americans in the past and today.

SHOUTby Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking Books for Young Readers/Penguin Random House). A memoir in verse.

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (Make Me a World/Penguin Random House). A fantasy story about about what the world is like after the school shooting, police brutality and prison crazy modern age.

A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata (With illustrations by Julia Kuo Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/Simon & Schuster). The story of a Japanese American family repatriated to Japan after World War II.

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/Simon & Schuster). A collection of short stories about the after school activities of a group of middle school students.

Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay (Kokila/Penguin Random House). When Jay’s drug addicted cousin, Jun, is murdered, he journeys to the Philippines where he was born to find out what happened.

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins Publishers) is based on the author’s mother-in-law’s experience growing up in a World War II era Chicago orphanage.

1919: The Year That Changed America by Martin W. Sandler (Bloomsbury Children’s Books/Bloomsbury Publishing). Each chapter deals with a different pivotal event from the Great Molasses Flood to the onset of Prohibition.

Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve (Triangle Square/Seven Stories Press). A fantasy about a gender-queer character who becomes a zombie in a fatal car accident.

Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw (First Second Books/Macmillan Publishers). A graphic novel that deals with transphobia and sexuality and well as hypocrisy as the main character grows up in a conservative household and school.

Admittedly, I only have one of these books, Patron Saints of Nothing, on my shelf at the moment but I’m eager to request others.  So many fascinating stories, many of which combine history with today’s headlines, to explore.


Reading Like a Writer: What I’m Reading Right Now

Recently a friend asked about my current reading.  I rattled off the titles of these five books.  She looked perplexed.  “Don’t most people read one book at a time?”

I generally read two or three books at a time so five is a bit much even for me.

A Better Man by Louise Penny is my current audio book.  I do a lot of handwork and this is when I listen to a variety of novels.

The Who is part of a work related project and then I got sucked into it and had to read the whole massive book.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is my current book club book (Hi, Ladies!).

Conflict Resolutions for Holy Beings is poetry.  I do NOT just sit and read poetry.  I read one or two poems and then put the book down.  It takes me a while to mentally and emotionally process poetry so this book is hanging out on the coffee table for me to pick up when I walk past.

My Lobotomy is a memoir that was recommended by a friend.  At the time, I didn’t have a Kindle read going on and I only read Kindle while on the treadmill.

So five books is a little more than usual but the part that is really shocking?  No books for young readers.  Not one.  Usually my current reading is more young people’s books than grown up books. Yes, grown up books.  Adult brings a different connotation so I use the goofy term grown up.

But there is also a lot of history in The Who and Joy Harjo writes about social justice.  In my opinion, medical history especially horrible medical history is also a social justice issue which means that My Lobotomy, Conflict Resolution and The Who will likely end up feeding my reading in some way.

What are you reading?


Novelty Books: To Make a Sale, You Need More than a Manuscript

“Do not try to illustrate your work if you aren’t an illustrator.”  In my opinion, and it is NOT a humble opinion, this is one of the hardest ideas to get across to would-be picture book authors. Imagine my surprise when I read Salina Yoon’s post on Tara Lazar’s blog, “If You Build It, It Can Sell! A Novelty Book Primer.”

I lead a public critique group so I read up on a wide variety of writing.  After all, I tell myself, I never know what someone is going to bring with them.  But when you market an idea for a novelty book, you are going to have to create a mock-up.  Yes, that may mean doing some basic paper engineering and even some illustration.  As you can see in the video below, Yoon’s mock-up is pretty fantastic.

Yoon also emphasized that novelty books are sold as series.  That other piece of advice, write one book and if it sells they may want your series?  For a novelty book, never mind.  If they want one, they will want several.  Below left is her first book in the series.

I didn’t notice any other long held bits of wisdom that get tossed aside for novelty books but perhaps something even more disturbing has happened.  I’ve found myself playing around with an idea.  My first thought was a book about archaeology, removing soil layer by layer.  But novelty book readers are going to be too young for that kind of an idea.  But layers . . . that is something I can probably play with.  I’ll have to noodle over how to do it in a series format.

And I’ll have to figure out some paper engineering.

And how to use Photoshop or Illustrator well enough to create my mock up.

Is my jar of rubber cement still good?  I better check.

And where is my favorite x-acto knife?

Hmm.  When you show an author a great piece on novelty books, she’s going to want to make one of her very own.