Friday, March 25, 2011

Why all new writers should attend writing retreats

Well, aspiring writers shouldn't attend just any retreat. They should attend one
sponsored by a reputable college.

The University of Vermont School of Fine Arts in Montpelier, Vermont, was the first college to offer a degree in Children's Literature in the U. S., and they have a good reputation for having created authors like award winners Kathy Appelt and New York Times noted author Carrie Jones. The school's faculty are published authors, many of whom attended the college. After having gone through all the trials of making it in the real world of publishing, they then come back to teach others about all the steps to get "there" too. The school offers not only a winter weekend retreat, but a summer week long one, where newbies and returning authors exchange ideas and enjoy the sights and pleasures of Vermont's majestic mountains. The school offers a low residency MFA degree as well, where students communicate with professors online for a year and a half, and only come to Vermont for two one week stints.

At the retreat I attended last weekend, I was lucky enough to have my submission looked at by K. L. Going, author of Writing and Selling the YA Novel and Saint Iggy, as well as Fat Kid Rules the World. All three of these books have been highly praised, and as synchronicity would have it, Ms. Going's book was the last book I had read on the craft of writing. She was very gentle and encouraging with me, and spoke of the positive aspects of my partial manuscript before saying what I needed to work on. She left me feeling like there was no way I couldn't complete and sell my book some day. All budding authors know what it feels like to worry about if they are "kidding themselves". She dispelled that notion for me. I needed to hear someone who has published say I was OK.

Because this was a week long hiatus from the real world and all its responsibilities, aspiring authors are able to really take the time to examine and comment on each others' work. I have been at crit groups, where I felt my fellow learning curve students barely had time to skim my submissions. For this retreat, however, I know I spent hours just looking at my crit group's first twenty-five pages and tried to write something on every page. The group gave me the best ideas I've ever received in how to start my novel in a different way, and how to reorder events. It was also a learning curve to discover what others were writing about and how their styles differed. This seemed to be the year of gender identity issues in my group, and about bullying. It was a pleasure for me to discover that almost everyone, like myself, was interested in creating real literature, and not Wimpy Kid take offs, not to put down Jeff Kinney. I think the college atmosphere attracts the more literary writer.

Everything about the time spent for two days on campus was intensive, as well as fun. There was a launch party before registraton at Bear Pond Books, where Tim Wynne Jones from Canada signed off on his 20th novel, Blink and Caution. E. L. Goning also signed off on her latest. Did I mention cupcakes, chocolate and lots of red wine! Food for meals was provided by the culinary school.

There were great workshops on both character driven YA novels as well as those plot-driven. Ms. Goning, who considers herself a pantser, and who writes a book after she visualizes a unique character, spoke about voice, and about the importance of pace and style or rhythmn as well as the choice of words in dialogue to show the specialness of that character. She indicated that sometimes it is necessary to exaggerate a voice to get a point across.

Tim Wynne Jones put us through exercises and spoke about the mechanics of dialogue, including the necessity of adding body language and inserting pauses at crucial moments. An excellent workshop on the importance of plotting and creating an outline was conducted by Claudia Gable of Harper Collins, here below with workshop co-cordinator, Cindy Faughnan. Claudia is also a writer and the author of Romeo, Juliet, and Vampires. She told us that today publishing houses often spec a book, that is they need a certain kind of book to fill what they think would complete their offering for the year, and so they find someone either in or out of house to write that book.

Earlier in the Friday night session, authors had been aided in getting in touch with their child-like selves by being given play dough to work with, and paper and charcoal, to act out the emotions of their main character and feel those emotions as part of their own body.

I'd like to thank Sarah Aronson for being a great hostess, and Ann Cardinal, who handles registration, for ensuring that the best cupcakes in the world were served. I hope to attend the event again. I have been to conferences, dialogues, crit groups, but this weekend was the best money I've ever spent to learn about writing.

Other authors in attendance included Mitali Perkins, author of Bamboo People, Janet Fox, author of the historical novel set in Yellowstone Park, Faithful, Alisa M Libby author of The King's Rose about Henry VIII's fifth wife Catherine Howard. Alisa and I had a great talk in of all places, the girls' dorm bathroom!

If you loved college, and you love to write, you have to try this experience!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Young Adult Classics

Childhood flies by so fast. How does one ensure passing on to one's children one's values? Collecting the classics for them helps...encouraging young people to read them and then talking about them. Even better is reading with one's children. I had a friend who was a part time book critic; full time he was an Attorney General, but he loved to read; now he is a Juvenile Judge. He and his wife made it a point to read with their children every night. There is no better way of sharing one's thoughts and happy childhood moments together.

What to Read?

It is a good thing I didn't read Black Beauty by Anna Sewell until I was an adult. I discovered it for the first time while teaching reading to a fourth grader one summer. It was such a sad story, about the lack of control animals, who live such short lives, have over their lives. From a life of happiness, to that of being a war horse and shot at, to having owners who abused him, Black Beauty's life was the life of many animals. I once heard from someone, that pets are really more our slaves than our friends; they are subject to our moods, our time constraints our lack of knowledge and poor judgment. Black Beauty is a book to be shared with one's children about our responsiblilities as animal owners and the joyto be shared by making animals happy.

If Black Beauty is a Classic, What is a Classic?

This was a topic hotly debated in all of the English classes I took for my degree , and a subject I always brought up in mine. Books are classics that have withstood the test of time because they remain relevant. They hold up a mirror to human nature, and human nature does not change that readily. They speak to people as well today as they did one hundred years ago.

Another Young Adult classic, and as refreshing today as it was when it was published in Civil War times, is Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Louisa's story is the story of every young girl who has wanted to write. It is the story of a girl who can't always control her own emotions, who doesn't always fit into gender stereotypes or family expectations. It is a story of how poverty, war, the absence of a parent effects a family. A feminist before her time, Louise was the breadwinner in her family when her extremely idealistic father still hadn't figured out how to make a go of it. The four Alcott girls could be the four girls in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, all wanting different things out of life. They're just all wearing hoop skirts. The book is timeless.

For the More Romantic Female Species

Young girls, it seems, much more than young boys, in junior high and later like to read about romance. They look for classics where the mating game is a theme. Maybe with life changing as it is, we shouldn't encourage our young women to read romantic novels. They have to prepare themselves for the working world today, just as much as the men. And won't romantic novels, kill young women's taste for real men, thereafter?

But what would life be like if young men and women didn't grow up with dreams? What books do young women like to dream on?

Ask most young females, who enjoy reading, and most of them become Jane Austen fans after reading Pride and Prejudice. It's the Cinderella story, isn't it? Even if the real Jane remained single all her life, after deciding not to run off with Tom LaFoy who later on became the top judge in Ireland; in her most famous novel, Jane's Lizzy Bennett, is more lucky. Poor but extremely level headed and sensitive, and with a sense of self, Lizzy does not just give herself away for the asking. Mr. Darcy, rich and handsome though he is, must prove that he is worthy of Lizzy by truely seeing her worth and respecting her. And respect her he does, for her intelligence and wit. Isn't this what we want for our girls?

I read Pride and Prejudice myself, for years every year, just like the Meg Ryan character in You've Got Mail. But my students read Romeo and Juliet each year, because of the curriculum When spring came around and alternative assessment projects were due, visitors could tell what my English class had read by the felt banners that encircled my room, and most of them were about Romeo and Juliet. Except for at first deciphering the language, what's not to love about the play? Two shy innocent young people fall instantly in love at first sight and stay that way. No words of boredom here; no nights out with the boys. It is a beautiful love story, where two people love each other more than themselves. Isn't this what we want for our children, too, though not the tragic end.

It is no wonder that Stephanie Meyers Twilight borrows from both of these books. Rich, debonair, eternally faithful lovers are what most girls dream of, and encouraging junior high school students to read Twilight, is good preparation for them to read the other books.

But if we want to give our children amazing memories, good role models as characters, is there any story more exciting and fascinating than Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities? Set in the France of the time of the guillotines, it is the story of a woman loved by two men who look exactly alike. Isn't that even better than a Edward Cullen and a Taylor Lautner? And the language...."It was the best of was the worst of times...." Isn't the author describing now?

Our children couldn't do much better, and they could definitely do much worse.

Books for Children with Aging or Dying Grandparents

These past two years have seen two really good books for children dealing with the topic of sick and dying grandparents. There wasn't a lot around about the subject of death and dying for a number of years. Leo Buscaglia's Freddie the Leaf and Judith Viorst's The Tenth Good Thing about Barnie were all that was available for awhile. The first was about the death of a leaf and the life cycle. The second was about a pet that had died...but about grandparents....there wasn't much. There still aren't a lot of memorable ones about grandmothers.

But Susan Jones from Connecticut, just recently won the Mom's Award for her beautifully illustrated book, Until We Meet Again. Shirly Antak painted the wonderful pencil and watercolor pages. It is the story of a grandfather who knows he won't be around forever and it is about how he makes everyday memories with his grandson and tells him he will always be in his grandson's heart if he looks for him. The grandson writes all his happy memories with his grandfather down and tries to remember all the wise words he said. Later, in a hospital room, it is the grandson who tells his grandfather it is OK to let go like the balloon they once let float up to heaven together. The boy promises him he will always remember him. It is a book of comfort for both old and young, and sensitively deals with a difficult subject.
Another beautifully illustrated book for older kids, grade four to sixth, and even adults, is Granddad's Prayers of the Earth by Douglas Wood, and illustrated by P. J. Lynch. The oils in this book are superb. It is a story, about dying and also about finding God in nature. An aging grandfather, painted in beautiful tones of orange and brown, takes his young grandson on walks in the woods, where he teaches him that like people, all things in nature pray and sing hymns at the same time, the tall grass, the sky, the flowers and the trees. He, too, knows he will not be around forever. The boy asks if the prayers of the earth and of people are ever answered. The grandfather responds by saying that people pray not to change the world, but to change themselves. After his grandfather dies, the boy experiences intense grief, but years later when walking in the woods, he experiences nature the way his grandfather did. For the boy his prayer has been answered, as he is no longer sad for his grandfather feels near.

Books for Children with Aging or Dying Grandparents

Books for Children with Aging or Dying Grandparents

Grammar School Picture Books

Picture Books That Even Boys Will Like

As a literacy teacher/school librarian this year, I had the unique experience of trying to find books each week for a set of male triplets in the second grade. It was all they could do to sit still when they were together. What I discovered was that the books that entranced them, that they sat still for, and that they liked best, were books based on real stories about animals. Stories were more interesting to them, if they were "real".

Tara and Bella: the Elephant and Dog Who Became Best Friends, text and photography by Carol Buckley, is just such a book. Tarra, originally with a circus, was the first elephant resident at an elephant sanctuary established in Tennessee. Amiable and helpful by nature, she was the elephant who introduced all the other elephants, who soon joined her at the facilities, on the day to day workings of the sanctuary. Most of the elephants found another elephant to be a best friend, but only Tarra became best friends with a stray dog named Bella. When Bella was injured, Tarra's response may be surprising to some.

Another "true" story is Nubs: the True Story of a Mutt, a Marine and a Miracle, story by Major Brian Dennis, Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery. Thousands of wild dogs have recently been shot in Afghanistan, but Nubs' story, although at first harsh, has a happy ending. After living on desert rats and scraps thrown by Iraqi soldiers, Nubs traveled seventy miles to follow an American GI sent to train those soldiers, and the one who fed him his rations and bandaged his wounds. Marine Major Brian Dennis, so impressed with Nubs' determination to get himself adopted, started a collection to send Nubs home to the States, where they were finally joyfully united.

Two more true dog stories, illustrated in pastels and what looks to be watercolors, as opposed to photographs, are another book by Kirby Larson, The Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival and Beth Finke's story about her own seeing eye dog Hanni, Safe and Sound. These two are especial favorites of mine, winners of the Henry Bergh Award (ASPCA).

Readers will need kleenex when reading The Two Bobbies. It is the story of a cat and a dog left during the Hurricane in New Orleans, who refused to be separated and who walked the streets alone for days before finally being rescued. The fact that the cat was blind, that she found her way by following the sound of a chain around his neck, and that the dog saved her from drowning and then protected her, will break your heart.

I was lucky enough to meet both Hanni (the dog) and Beth Finke (the owner) journalist and writer of her book Safe and Sound at an American Library Association Convention. Their story of mutual dependence and love, and her realization of all that the dog has had to give up to be a part of her life, will also make you cry. The illustrations are so life-like as to almost be photographs. The illustrator lived with Beth and her dog for a few weeks to make the book as realistic as possible.
Fictional Dog Stories Based on Reality
Most authors write at least partly from their own experience. Maybe that is why, The Five-Dog Night written and illustrated by Eileen Christelow rings particularly true. Who hasn't been part of a sleeping dog pack if he/she is a dog owner? I am not sure about you, but I have the fuzzy clothing to prove it. This funny story is about a farmer in Vermont and what he considers a "busy body"female neighbor who is worried he isn't piling the blankets on enough on cold winters' nights. He has a lesson to teach her.

Talking about winter, I think most children need a Christmas book, that one book taken out every year, that means the season is finally here.

My favorite book for that is a recent publication with the most beautiful almost life-like illustrations I have ever seen of cats, kittens and barn animals, On This Special Night, written by Claire Freedman and illustrated by Simon Mendez. You'll almost believe cats must have been there in that stable at Bethlehem.

Another holiday picture book both younger and older students will love is Cynthia Rylant's In November. Cynthia Rylant illustrated her first books, but somehow has been lucky enough to have as her illustrators some of the best in the business. School librarians will tell you that this is one of their favorite books for Thanksgiving, as everyone, including the house mouse, gets ready to hunker in for cold. Jill Kastner's
watercolors make the best use I have ever seen of white space and her painting of the farm animals and dogs, trees and family around the Thanksgiving table lend a feeling of warmth and security even as the snow begins to settle in.

Also unique is Cynthia Rylant's An Angel for Solomon Singer, with illustrated paintings by Peter Catalanotto. The story is a different one than those Ms. Rylant usually tells. It is the story of an old man, down on his luck. Forced to live in an old apartment in a city, he remembers the cornstalks of his boyhood home. He is desperately lonely, until he happens to walk into a restaurant with a waiter named Angel who makes him feel at home. Solomon Singer is a man who dreams of what once was, and who still has some simple dreams of the future, like of owning a cat. It is a story of kindness and community and love.

In my next blog, I will talk about books for children whose grandparents have died, or who may soon die. They are quiet and elegant books also about memory and the old and ensuring comfort for those who have to leave this life and those who are left behind.

Best Children's Books- Book Walks and Early Readers

As a school librarian/ literacy teacher, I have been lucky enough to work with students of all ages. During that time, I have seen which books children really like, and I have developed my own favorites.

First Books

Children love to be read to, and for parents, reading to their pre-school children can be both an enjoyable experience, a chance to be young again and remember the times their own childhood memories when their own parents read to them.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown is a book most parents and children love. It is a comforting book,where as the colors on the pages gradually fade, and the bunny child says good night to the familiar objects in his room and all the activity of his day, the reader is reminded of what remains unchanging and "right" in the world..."two little kittens and a pair of mittens" ..." "a comb and a brush and a bowl of mush"... Anyone who has ever studied the life of Margaret Wise Brown will experience the book on an even deeper level. She was one of the first authors to test her books on young children, and she did so at the Bank Street School. Childless herself, she studied what children were concerned with, what sounds they liked to hear. She was also lucky enough to collaborate with an editor who hired the latest modern art illustrators to create flat high contrast color paintings. Brown was a genius in her field; she was also one of the first to experiment with textures as in her book The Fur Family. Her early death was a loss for all.

Early readers have to be charmed at an early age. Librarians are taught that the way to hook in an early reader is to find a "just right" book, one that the child can experience success reading. For those too young to read, a picture book walk is just the thing, and Kindergarten teachers usually make their first reading of a book (most of the time they read a book to students three times) just that. Perfect for "book walking" are the Good Dog Carl books by Alexandra Day.

Text only appears on the first page of Carl's Christmas, as mother and father leave their black lab in charge of the baby as they go off to church. The fantasy adventures the dog and baby experience as the parents are away are enough to charm the most rambunctious reader. The book is a page turner, and children who can narrate the story from the pictures alone, can't wait to predict and then see what happens. Of course, there is a visit from Santa Claus.

First Chapter Books

Anyone who knows me, knows that my favorite early reading author is Cynthia Rylant.

Drawing from her own experience with her son and his dog, this Oregonian author shares her gentle world view in a number of series, most notably Henry and Mudge . I imagine that the author has spent a lot of time on her porch sipping lemonade with her neighbors, because that simpler lifestyle appears in both her Poppleton and her Mr. Putter and Tabby series. My personal favorite characters of hers are Mr. Putter and Tabby and their eccentric neighbors Mrs. Teabury and her "good dog" Zeke.

Mr. Putter is an old bachelor or widower, lucky enough to have retired before the Stock Market crashed. He has time on his hands, and is a bit lonely, so he goes to a shelter to find a pet as old and comfort-seeking as himself. Tabby, the gold cat who sleeps on his stomach, the refrigerator, and other strange spots, and who is just the listener he needs to listen to stories of his boyhood, shares his daily adventures. In Mr. Putter and Tabby Write the Book, like all of us, Mr. Putter has a hard time putting words on paper, and spends most of his time making snacks in the kitchen. Mr. Putter and Tabby Cook the Tea, Get the Cold, Stir the Soup and Walk the Dog, are so hilarious I am in stitches every time I read them. Arthur Howard's watercolors are perfect.

More autobiographical appears to be her Henry and Mudge series. Mudge, an enormous Mastiff, almost gets lost in the first book, and which young first grader hasn't worried about that. But, In the Sparkle Days , is a favorite. Set around the fall and winter holidays, it is the story of waiting for the first snow, making snow angels, firelight and the family all together for their feasts, including the
dog. As one of my students once said, "It's magic!"

I didn't think I could get into a story about a pig, but if Poppleton, like Harry Potter doesn't represent everything's that's good about being an Anglophile, then nothing does. Poppleton, like the hobbits in Lord of the Rings and Mr. Putter and Tabby likes his creature comforts, good food, the arts and most importantly, as in all of Cynthia Rylant's books, good friends. When winter gives him too many icicles he makes an icicle fence, and just when he thought his friends have forgotten him, they give him just the winter experience he always wanted in Poppleton in Winter.

So, before spring finally arrives, and while the weather is still raw, to kill the end of winter blahs and cabin fever, curl up with your children and a good book. It's just what the doctor ordered.
In my next blog, I will write about books for older grammar school students.