Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Good-bye Poetry Month!

With the end of April, comes the end of National Poetry Month. That, however, does not mean giving up poetry for the rest of the year! There is poetry enough to engage you every day between now and next April 1st. Head on down to your local public library and browse the 800s. American poetry is 811, English poetry is 821. German poetry 831, French 841, Italian 851, Spanish 861, Latin 871, Greek 881. ALL the other languages of the world are squeezed into the numbers between 890 and 899. (Don't blame me, I'm not Melville Dewey!) In the library, the children's room numbers roughly correspond to the numbers in the adult section, perhaps slightly abridged.

I'd like to round out the month by recommending a book of children's poetry from my public library: Fold Me a Poem by Kristine O'Connell George, illustrated by Lauren Stringer (Harcourt, 2005). This is a book I wish I had written. Each of the 31 poems are short and succinct and evoke a boy and his origami menagerie.

The illustrations, too, are marvelous! Imagine trying to paint pictures of hands folding paper--Stringer does it masterfully. After seeing how well the illustrations complement the poems I wondered if the author and illustrator worked together. I found my answer on Kristine O'Connell George's website: "I was startled when I first saw Lauren Stringer's sketches for FOLD ME A POEM: She had painted what was inside my head! I've never met Lauren and we didn't communicate while she was working on the book."

Lauren Stringer's website tells the story of how she felt she must learn how to fold origami animals prior to starting to illustrate. Read about it here.

Here's a sample poem from the book:

Of Course

Of course you're real,
Don't you see
your wide


Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse's popular novel in verse (Scholastic, 1997), provided the impetus for a future plethora of poetic tomes by children's authors. (How's that for using alliteration and consonance during National Poetry Month?)

I generally enjoy reading novels-in-verse. They are quick reads for a person who has difficulty finding time to read for pleasure and, I believe, the added white space is encouraging to the child who experiences reading difficulties. For many kids, reading a page is an accomplishment. Being able to read many pages in a short amount of time is a triumph.

I also like the tightness of the form. Poet/novelists describe emotion, setting, and character in the fewest words possible--and, they are usually the perfect words. Writing a novel in verse--even free verse--is intellectually challenging, sweaty work.

Some books have succeeded more easily than others. Ron Koertge's The Brimstone Journals, (Candlewick, 2001) for example, takes us quickly and efficiently into the minds and lives of high school students. Their complicated assumptions about how life's problems must be solved break our hearts.

I had a bit more difficulty with the Newbery Honor book by poet Marilyn Nelson: Carver a Life in Poems (Front Street, 2001). This is a biography in verse and as such, must not only give us a sense of a George Washington Carver's world but include enough facts to allow the reader to march across the timeline of the famous teacher/scientist's life. I found this part lacking. Like many people, I knew only the very basic elements of why Carver's name is familiar. He is the man who found multiple uses for the peanut. Nelson helps us realize that he was so much more. Biographical footnotes are included in some of the pages and I found them to be extremely helpful. I sometimes felt lost when references were omitted. I wasn't always sure what event the poem depicted. If I was confused, I wondered how children read these sections.

The best part of the novel-in-verse is the way it combines both sides of the writer's brain. True, writers are generally thought to be creative, right-brained types. But there is also a logical, left-brained method to the sequencing of a novel. The reader sometimes has to work a little harder to read a novel written in verse. That's part of the fun.


More from the Cobblestone Group

I promised more quotes from the fine people at Cobblestone Publishing.
Faces. Assistant Editor: Peg Lopata

“What sets Faces apart is that we cover contemporary issues. We're focused on people, places, and culture. We're looking for authentic voices, and try to include a growing-up story in each issue.”

“We'd like to publish more activities, word puzzles, and games.”

“Writers for us have to not only think like a kid, but have to think like today's kids.”

"For obscure topics, if I can't find photos to go with your article, then we might have to drop the article. Give me high quality, high resolution images or great prints. Second best, give me lots of leads where I might find photos to go with your article. Please look at our photos. They are very high quality. If your photos are as good or better, please send them to us. If not, don't bother.”

and Dig. Lou Waryncia , editorial director for Cobblestone Publishing, speaking for editor Rosalie Baker, who was unable to attend Writers Day.

“These magazines are the hardest to break into. Rosalie is very persnickety.”

“Rosalie does accept queries and does publish new writers.”

“Rosalie's biggest pet peeve is getting queries from people who have never read the magazine. Knowing the magazine helps you tailor your query to a specific department. She also likes unique language and subject matter.”

“Rosalie likes to know the back story. For example, for an issue on Joan of Arc, Joan herself is important, but so are the people who were around her.”

“If you're a new writer, Rosalie likes to know your back story, too. It helps to include something you've written, even if it hasn't been published.”

Odyssey. Editor: Beth Lindstrom

Odyssey is an edgy magazine with a bit of attitude. We push the envelope on subject matter and content. We want to attract all kids, not just kids interested in science. We publish issues on general science, technology, and the future, and we also cover the softer sciences like psychology and anthropology.”

“Science doesn't have to be dry and boring. I suggest reading The Best American Science Writing 2007 (Gina Kolata, and Jesse Cohen, editors). It shows how creative science writing can be.

“I look for a good lead – a grease spot – that helps the reader slide into the story.”

“I need more fiction – science fiction, science-related short stories, legends, and tales.”

. Editorial Assistant: Marcia Lusted

“I'm in charge of writing rejection letters. It's really obvious when someone hasn't read the magazine.”

“We don't try to be comprehensive. We can't be. Instead, we try to entice the young reader, but not tell them everything.”

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

It's Still National Poetry Month!

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening written by Robert Frost and illustrated by Susan Jeffers has been a part of my 5-year old curriculum for 28 years. I had to memorize the poem in 6th grade back in the day when teachers forced students to do such things. I never forgot the poem, and blame Sister Genevieve Saint Joseph for every rhyming picture book I've written.

When I started teaching, I vowed to be the kind of teacher Sister Genevieve Saint Joseph was. Minus the vows she took to achieve "Sister" status. I always, always, always think of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening when the first snow falls. I had no choice but to share it with all my students, preschoolers and kindergartners. It's the kindergartners who get the works, however. They talk about this poem all winter.

We name the horse and imagine what this man might be doing out on such a day. Where did he go? Why? Is anybody waiting for him? (Not once in 28 years has anybody imagined the guy might be Death, or a man contemplating his death. Kids are funny like that.)

We talk about Robert Frost, and how we could drive to his farm if we really wanted to because we live in New Hampshire and so did he. (Kids love that fact. There's that funny-kid-thing again.) We talk about what a fantastic place New Hampshire is in which to live, which is why a smart guy like Robert Frost chose to live here.

We always decide we are very lucky to live in New Hampshire, which has great woods in which to stop.

Cobblestone Publishing

Beginning children's writers are often told that the best way to break into print is to write for magazines. Even for established writers, the magazine market can offer many interesting opportunities. I first broke into print in 1982 with Cobblestone Magazine, an American history magazine for readers 9 and up. I went on to write a few more articles for them. One article was included in a desktop calendar published by the company. Several others were reprinted in individual state tests. Very cool.

Cobblestone Publishing has come along way since then. The group now publishes several magazines. At the 2008 Writers Day, sponsored by New Hampshire Writers Project, the editors from the Cobblestone Publishing group presented a workshop called The Inside Story on Cobblestone. This is a description of the workshop:

Meg Chorlian, Elizabeth Carpentiere, Beth Lindstrom, Peg Lopata, Marcia Lusted, and Lou Waryncia

If your goal is publication, then it’s time to think seriously about writing nonfiction for children’s magazines. Even if you have never written for young readers, you should know that opportunities abound to write fresh, kid-appealing articles about a range of topics, from science to history to world cultures, and more. The editorial staff from Cobblestone Publishing will introduce you to the company’s magazines, share the inside story on writing magazine nonfiction, and answer your questions.

Today and tomorrow, I'll post some of the quotes I harvested from their talk, which will also be featured in the New Hampshire Writers Project New Hampshire Writer:

Editorial Director of Cobblestone Publishing, Lou Waryncia had these general comments:

“Each of our magazines is published nine times a year, which means fifty-four issues a year. With 10 – 15 feature stories for each magazine, along with sidebars and activities, it's fertile ground for writers. It's also a good way for beginning or unpublished writers to break into print.”

Cobblestone. Editor: Meg Chorlian

On what she's looking for in a good query:

“What would make a child want to read your article? I'm looking for articles that
make famous people seem more human and real to our readers, for example, articles that show how they were real people before they were famous. And I want our readers to understand why an event is important, not just the facts of what happened."

“I like to see a hook that makes the query stand out from the others”

She then went on to cite an example for an issue she was putting together on the World Columbia Exposition. The author started his query by mentioning the amount of horse poop that was generated by horse drawn vehicles. The query showed the author (new to the editor) understands kids, and can write well.

“We ask for a complete bibliography with the query. If I see a couple of encyclopedia entries or websites, I usually don't use that writer. I go with someone who has cited more primary sources or experts in the field.”

Sunday, April 20, 2008

NH Writers' Day

Yesterday, I spent the day at New Hampshire Writers' Project's annual "Writers' Day." I love seeing the increasing number of writers, most who live in NH, that turn up each year. Writing is sometimes a lonely occupation or avocation, and it is nice to commune with like-minded individuals.

The keynote speaker was the award-winning poet, Wesley McNair. I enjoyed his keynote, which included slides. After listening to his description of his childhood where his mother was a single parent who raised three boys, I was once again reminded that poetry often springs from hardship and adversity.

One thing that McNair commented on was the idea that people get ideas while driving. He went on to say, "that's what checkbooks are for!" He showed a slide of poems crisscrossing a checkbook. I can relate since I keep an Altoids tin with a post-it pad, and a stub of a pencil, in my car door pocket! Fortunately, I write haiku! My friend, Marnie Brooks keeps a notebook, and she referred to her being struck with the muse, while in the car, as "poem driving." Disclaimer: please, please, please, give all your attention to the road and your driving! Pull over when the pesky muse whispers in your ear! You don't want to be known as, as Marnie says, an "accidental poet." Here's a senryu inspired by the topic of poem driving:

poem on
a post-it note
--evening commute

One of the Write Sisters, Muriel, and her business partner, Lisa Greenleaf, gave a workshop called It’s Not Vanity: The Decision to Self-Publish. Here's the description:
When Muriel Dubois couldn’t find a home for a biography she believed in, she teamed up with book designer/illustrator Lisa Greenleaf to self-publish To My Countrywomen: The Life of Sarah Josepha Hale. Technology has made self-publishing a viable option for today’s writers, yet it is not a decision to be made lightly. Dubois and Greenleaf will take participants through the process of self-publishing a book and present examples of self-published books, as well as the reasons for and against going this route. Recommended for intermediate to advanced writers.
I'll leave it to Mur to talk about the workshop if she wishes. Both she and Lisa told me, though, that they were pleased with the participants' questions and discussion.

I attended a workshop a little out of my comfort range, The Art of Evocation in the Single-Image Poem. The workshop was led by poet and editor, Maggie Dietz. Dietz is currently assistant poetry editor for the online magazine Slate, and for several years directed the national Favorite Poem Project, so she knows her stuff. From the workshop description:
Some of the most vivid and memorable short lyrics—from Dickinson’s "There’s a Certain Slant of Light" to Stevens’s "A Jar in Tennessee"-—are built upon the description of a single powerful image. We’ll begin this workshop by looking at a few poems in this tradition; then, through a guided exercise, we’ll write short, evocative poems and share them with the group.
I felt totally at sea. The writing exercises were fun, but I have problems thinking metaphorically. I'm a literal type of girl! I also found that I need some instruction on line breaks and enjambment! One thing Dietz showed us may hold out some hope for me regarding line breaks--she took a William Carlos Williams poem and rewrote it using the exact same words and punctuation, but laid out on the page differently from the way Williams did. We discussed the differences. It was an "aha" moment for me. I thought, if I can get someone to type up a poem in paragraph form without any breaks, other than normal punctuation, I could then retype it myself with breaks where I think they should be, and then compare it to the poet's original and see where I differed. It might work...Anyone feel like typing up a poem and sending it to me?


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Technology Doesn't Guarantee the User Has a Brain!

On Sunday the Sisters appeared as presenters at the NE-SCBWI Conference held at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Nashua, NH. It was our first program with all SEVEN of us presenting in turn. I think we did a FABULOUS job!

I had planned on documenting the workshop and brought along my digital camera to take some candid shots to put up here, and on our website, but, a camera doesn't work if the user forgets to recharge the battery and, I forgot! Mea culpa! You'll have to take us at our word--we were there, and we done good!


Saturday, April 5, 2008

Rereading an old favorite, part one

My first surprise was to discover that The Pink Motel is by Carol Ryrie Brink, author of the much better known Caddie Woodlawn, a Newbery Award book I must confess I have never read (but will, now). Caddie Woodlawn was published in 1936, but The Pink Motel was published in 1959 so the copy I kept taking home from the library must have been fairly new when I was in grade school. I wondered how dated the story would be.

“Six Weather Vanes for Seven Houses” is the title of the first chapter. (I love chapter titles. When did they go out of style?) I don’t think I noticed in 1964 that the adult characters all have names that more-or-less tell you who they are. There’s Mrs. Ferry, who surprises the children with occasional bits of unexplained magic. Eventually you figure out that she is – a fairy. Her friend Marvello the magician is more obvious. The snobby family who are only interested in achieving perfect suntans are named Brown. The children discover that Jimmy Locke and Jack Black are gangsters. The cast is rounded out with a complement of dopey parents, mysterious visitors, gators and dogs.

One character in particular caught my interest. The children are quickly befriended by a local boy who knows all about coconuts, alligators and other Florida surprises, as he has grown up down the road from the motel and always helped out there in the summer. Although only 10, he becomes their mentor and defacto babysitter as they explore their new home. He is, as we are first introduced to him on page 21, “a little colored boy named Big.”

Bam. We’re instantly back in the 1950s. No chance this book is going back into school libraries today. And yet, I was pleased to discover as I read, that Ms. Brink’s development of the character of Big was not at all demeaning. In fact, although Big’s speech reflects his lack of formal education, his innate intelligence and common sense are essential to the tale (this might be considered stereotypical, although it certainly did not seem so to me as a child reader). And the relationship among the four children (as the daughter of the snobby Brown family is inevitably drawn in to the adventure) is completely untainted by any hint of racial tension. Since this would have seemed unusual in 1959, I think it likely that it was Ms. Brink’s intention to suggest, without preaching, that children (and by extension, anyone) can be friends regardless of race or class. I think I absorbed that lesson from my hours at The Pink Motel. Looking back, I hope I also learned that an author can teach without preaching, by simply weaving a story that represents life as she knows it is, or can be.