Friday, February 25, 2011

Poetry Friday: A Little Shakespeare

Tomorrow I will be attending a bridal shower for my daughter. She’ll be getting married in two months. I feel blessed because both of my daughters have chosen some pretty great guys. So, in their honor, a little Shakespeare to wrap up this Valentine month:


Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

William Shakespeare

For more great poetry, head over to Read Write Believe where Sarah has graciously offered to host this week:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mentor Monday (on Tuesday!) Welcome to the World of Children’s Books (Part 2)

If you want to write for kids, the first rule is rid yourself of every preconception you have about what it takes to write children’s books. Here are a few things that you might have thought were true:

1) If [J.K. Rowling, R.L. Stine, Stephanie Meyers, etc] can become rich writing children’s books, so can I.
The truth: These people are the minority. The minority of the minority.

2) I’m a good writer. People tell me so all the time. I’ll just use easier words and write a kid’s book.
The truth: Writing for children has rules, just like writing poetry has rules. It’s not just about easy words.

3) I just picked up a picture book at the Barnes & Noble display. It was awful! I can do better than that!
The truth: Maybe—but have you tried?

Rule 2: Understand that most writers of any kind do not make a living at writing. They make a living by doing other stuff as well as writing. They might teach, edit, lecture, do school visits, or hold some other kind of job. While they would love to devote all their days to sitting in their writing nook, the truth is it takes a long time for a person to make a living by freelancing.

British novelist Martin Amis said recently in an interview that he would need to "have a serious brain injury" before he would even consider writing for kids. He might be on to something. A lot of children’s writers took offense at his comments but I get it. When I was teaching, I felt somewhat the same way about people who taught kindergarten. I couldn’t imagine expending the kind of energy required to keep 15 to 25 five-year-olds engaged and zipped into snow suits. Of course, I’d never tried teaching kindergarten so what did I know? Which leads me to…

Rule 3: don’t assume you can or can’t write for kids until you’ve actually tried.

Rule 4: cultivate patience.
Once you have committed to writing for kids, have the patience and humility to recognize that you need to rewrite. Understand that the brand new book you just bought left the writer’s desk some 12 to 24 months before. (Shorter for novels, longer for picture books that need to give the illustrator equal production time).

Rule 5: don’t give up. A rejection is not always a no. Sometimes it’s a “not right now.” Publishing goes in cycles. Notice how fantasy seems to sell when the economy’s off? Keep tinkering and revising. Send your work out again. Repeat.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Mentor Monday: Welcome to the World of Children’s Books

Some years ago, after I left teaching, I started a writers’ group for beginners. Lots of people had asked to join the Write Sisters but we had reached a point in our professional lives where we felt it was not advantageous for us to be constantly devoting meetings to starting over. This new group would be dedicated to newbies.

Several of the Sisters came along for the ride and we got to meet some great writers while keeping our own meetings focused on the sorts of things we needed as published authors. After about 10 years, I turned the group over to others.

I’d like to compare the experience I had with the beginner’s group to running a high school JV basketball team. When you’re the coach of the JV’s, you know that some of today’s team members are going to get to the varsity and some won’t. Some kids don’t have the talent. Some kids are there because their parents thought it was a good idea or because of peer pressure. Some kids want to see if they can do it. Other kids show up for a few practices and then drop out. Some kids are pretty good on their driveway hoop so they think playing with a team against another team shouldn’t be too hard. Others love to watch TV basketball and feel they know the rules well enough to play themselves.

Writers fall into similar categories. There are the “wannabes.” They think they want to write for kids. They dream of writing a kids book. But that’s all that happens, thoughts and dreams. They never put pen to paper or fingers on a keyboard. Or, like the kids that can’t ever learn to dribble a ball, these writers can’t seem to learn to write for modern kids.

There are the people who, like the driveway players, are pretty good writers. They might do other types of writing: technical writing, newsletters, journalism. How hard can it be to “write down?”

There are the people who have read lots of kids’ books: to their children, students, or grandchildren. They might be very familiar with children’s literature but have not really stopped to analyze the books they’ve read. Or, they are stuck reading their old favorites and have never moved on to contemporary titles.

One person who came to our group had taken a sabbatical from her job and had given herself a year to see if she could make it in kids’ publishing. How I wished she’d come to our group before she made such a life-altering decision! I did not have the heart to tell her that a year was not nearly enough. She did not even have a manuscript in progress. I foresaw 12 months of disappointment for this lady. She was looking to be on the varsity team and she had yet to come to a JV practice.

Tomorrow I will continue this topic with a list of ways to get yourself ready (realistically) to become a writer for children. Will you make it to the varsity team?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Poetry Friday--Do You Remember?

I don't know of anyone in the Northeast who grew up without a parent or grandparent telling a tale of "when I was younger the snow was so deep..."

Have you found yourself exaggerating the weather conditions of your youth?

Our kids, growing up with climate change, won't have any reason to be doubted when they tell their grandchildren of the winter of 2010-2011--the time when it snowed every week and sometimes twice a week!

I have an anthology of poetry published in 1937. In it is a short poem by Anonymous called "As to the Weather":
I remember, I remember,
   Ere my childhood flitted by,
It was cold then in December,
   And was warmer in July.
In the winter there were freezings--
   In the summer there were thaws;
But the weather isn't now at all
   Like what it used to was!
Isn't it nice to know that some things never change!

Visit my personal blog, Random Noodling, to read my response to this year's winter. Then head over to Great Kid Books for the Poetry Friday Round-Up.


Image courtesy Library of Congress

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Women of Wednesday--H.R. 4925

Have you heard of H.R. 4925, known as the Healthy Media for Youth Act? Probably not, it never got out of committee last year, and when the 111th Congress ended, so did the resolution.

This is taken directly from the text in section 2 of H.R. 4925 (I've added links to most of the referenced reports/organizations):
Congress finds the following:

(1) Media has become an integral part of youths' lives. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation Study, Generation M 2 Media in Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds (2010), most 8- to 18-year-olds spend about 10 hours a day using just recreational media.

(2) Girls feel pressure from the mainstream media to have an ideal body type, and only 34 percent of girls report being very satisfied with their bodies, according to the Girl Scout Research Institute's, The New Normal? What Girls Say About Healthy Living (2006).

(3) Sixty percent of teenage girls compare their bodies to fashion models and almost 90 percent of girls say the fashion industry places a lot of pressure on teenage girls to be thin, according to the Girl Scout Research Institute survey, Girls and Body Image (2010).

(4) This same research finds that body dissatisfaction leads to unhealthy eating and dieting habits. More than half of girls (55 percent) admit they diet to lose weight, 42 percent of girls know someone their age who forced themselves to throw up after eating, 37 percent know someone who has been diagnosed with an eating disorder, and 31 percent admit to starving themselves or refusing to eat as a strategy to lose weight.

(5) Even young girls, 3rd through 5th grade, worry about their appearance (54 percent), and specifically their weight (37 percent) according to the Girls Inc. survey, The Supergirl Dilemma: Girls Grapple with the Mounting Pressure of Expectations (2006).

(6) The American Psychological Association's Report on the Sexualization of Girls (2007) found that three of the most common mental health problems among girls, eating disorders, depression or depressed mood, and low self-esteem, are linked to sexualization of girls and women in media.

(7) According to the same report, frequent exposure to sexualized media images of girls can have negative consequences on their sexual health and avoidance of sexual risk including the dangerous, new phenomena known as sexting, which means sending an explicit message or photo over a cell phone.

(8) The group AK Teens found that 30 percent of girls ages 9 to 15 have sent a sext. The Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found that 20 percent of youth ages 13 to 19 have texted partially or completely nude pictures of themselves or someone they knew.

(9) Competition over narrow beauty standards and attention from boys also damages girls' friendships, according to the American Psychological Association report. Damaging girls' friendships can have serious health consequences since their relationships are crucial to their social and emotional health, according to The New Normal? What Girls Say About Healthy Living (2006).

(10) Sexualized messages and images of girls and women also negatively impact boys. These negative effects include boys' developing unrealistic and unhealthy expectations of girls' and women's physical appearance, and may impair their ability to develop healthy relationships with girls and women, according to the American Psychological Association's report.

(11) Girls and women of color are disproportionately absent from mainstream media. The Girl Scout Research Institute survey, Girls and Body Image (2010), found that only 32 percent of African-American girls think the fashion industry does a good job of representing people of all races and ethnicities.

(12) Women and girls continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles in the media. Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media reports that less than one in three speaking characters in children's movies are female. One study found that only 10 percent of Sports Illustrated photographs were of women during a 3-year period, according to the American Psychological Association's Report on the Sexualization of Girls (2007). Fifty-seven percent of music videos feature a woman portrayed exclusively as a decorative, sexual object.

(13) The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media found that the majority of female characters in children's movies are praised for their appearance or physical beauty rather than their personality, intelligence, or other talents, and are often short-sighted and narrowly fixated on romantic relationships that lack substantial connections or courtships. Girls and boys watching children's programming may vicariously learn that beauty is an essential part of being female and critical for gaining attention and acceptance.

(14) Girls' aspirations are limited as they begin to associate power, acceptance, and success with physical appearance rather than academic or extracurricular achievements, according to the American Psychological Association.

(15) Violence against women continues to be prevalent throughout media. The Parents Television Council reports that between 2004 and 2009, violence against women and teenage girls has increased on television programming at a rate of 120 percent compared to the 2 percent increase of overall violence in television content.

(16) The Parents Television Council warns that by depicting violence against women with increasing frequency on television, or as a trivial, even humorous matter, theses images may be contributing to an atmosphere in which young people view aggression and violence against women as normative, even acceptable.

(17) Due to the alarming side effects of youths' exposure to negative messages about girls and women in media, Congress supports efforts to ensure youth improve their media literacy skills and consume positive messages about girls and women in the media that promotes healthy and diverse body images, develops positive and active female role models, and portrays equal and healthy relationships between female and male characters.

Pretty disturbing isn't it? Do I need to explain why we, as writers for children, need to be aware of these findings, too? I didn't think so.

H.R. 4925 was introduced by Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. Baldwin's website tells us, "The voters in Wisconsin's Second Congressional District made history in 1998 when they elected Tammy Baldwin to Congress. The first woman from Wisconsin and the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to Congress..." I'd guess that Tammy is a fighter, and that's exactly what is needed to get a resolution like H.R. 4925 passed.

I hope the resolution will be introduced again in this new Congress. When Baldwin introduced it in March of 2010 she said, "Children are consuming more media than ever, but unfortunately, the images they see often reinforce gender stereotypes, emphasize unrealistic body images or show women in passive roles. The need for more positive images of girls in the media is clear."

Crystal clear!


Monday, February 14, 2011

Mentor Monday--Happy Valentine's Day!

Today is Valentine's Day! It's one of those holidays on which Americans overindulge--with cards, flowers, jewelry, and other gifts. It comes somewhere behind Halloween and Easter in the candy department, but still, the people at New England Confectionery Company (NECCO) are happy to see it roll around each year! They make tons of candy message hearts.

So does Brach's. But this year, someone there messed up! A report on the Business Insider website tells this story, "12-Year-Old Girl Finds An Obscene Message Printed On Candy Heart."

The word was "tits." Obscene? Hardly. In poor taste, yes, but not obscene.

Sometimes when you write you can get a little carried away. The person who wrote the headline obviously got a little carried away.

Let this be your Mentor Monday lesson for today--know when hyperbole is necessary and when it is not.

A tall tale is the place for hyperbole. A nonfiction piece is not!

Now for a Valentine's treat without any calories: click here and have fun!


Friday, February 11, 2011

Poetry Friday

Ah, Spring!
by Barbara J. Turner

I heard a bird today.
Just one.
It chirped three bright notes
then fluttered on,
perhaps wondering
about the cold and snow,
the hanging ice,
or did it know
its internal clock
was a bit askew, out of whack?
Did it fly away,
turn back
to warmer climes?
Or does it sit
at another window,
chirping just a bit
before moving on
yet again,
announcing spring,
and winter’s end?

Stop by Rasco From Rif for more great poetry

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Women of Wednesday - Sissieretta Jones

Her name was Matilda Sissieretta Joyner. Her family called her Sissy, and the world knew her as the Black Patti. She was a world renowned opera singer who sang for kings and queens and presidents, and yet few people today, even in the opera world, know her name.

Sissy was born in Virginia four years after the Civil War ended, so she never saw slavery. Her parents, who had been slaves, moved north to Rhode Island when she was seven years old hoping for better economic and educational opportunities. Rhode Island was pretty progressive for the time, and Sissy attended an integrated school with an integrated teaching staff.

Her father became Pastor in a church, and both she and her mother sang in the choir, and even then, her voice stood out from all the others. Her parents encouraged her to sing and by the time she was fourteen, she was enrolled in the Providence Academy of Music.

She was also married. That same year, she wed an older man named David Richard Jones who became her manager. Was it love, or did Jones see a longtime meal ticket in Sissy? I don’t know, but I do wonder.

In 1887, she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and, a year later, she made her professional debut at Wallack’s Theatre in New York. She was an immediate sensation. She hit the high notes and the low notes and every note in between. She was dubbed ‘the black Patti’ after a famous white soprano of the time, Adelina Patti.

Sissy was noticed at that performance by a musical director who immediately telegraphed a theatrical manager he knew, and before she knew it, she was touring the West Indies. By the time she returned to America, she had built up enough of a reputation to begin getting bookings. She toured all the major cities, playing in music halls and expositions. She even sang at the White House for President Harrison. Day by day she became more and more famous, but it wasn’t until she sang at the Grand Negro Jubilee at Madison Square Garden that she became a household name. “I woke up famous after singing at the Garden, and didn’t know it,” she said.

She got herself an agent, the same man who represented Mark Twain. He got her more money than any black performer had ever been paid before. She was making $2,000 a week, a huge sum of money at that time, but Adelina Patti, her white contemporary, was making $4,000 for a single performance.

Still, it was enough for Sissy and David to live well. The traveled in a $35,000 private railroad car, and at David’s insistence, took many trips to London, where he subjected Sissy to arsenic treatments to lighten her skin.

And then came talk of her starring in an opera. In Aida. At the Metropolitan Opera House. Sissy couldn’t have been happier. It was what she had been working for all her life.

But as we all know, African-Americans at that time, no matter how talented, were only allowed to go so far. It was one thing for black performers to sing and dance for white people. It was another to be given a starring role. The talk and the opportunity quickly faded away.

How must she have felt? Crushed? Disappointed? Angry? Resentful? Maybe all of them. But she didn’t stop singing. She went to Europe and sang for kings and queens and princes. She sang in Asia and Africa and South America, and no matter where she went, her color was never an obstacle, except in her own country.

Still, she came back. America was her home. But by now, she knew there would only be certain places for her to sing. She formed her own group of singers and actors, comedians and jugglers, and called it the Black Patti Troubadours. She didn’t care for being known as the Black Patti. She preferred to be called Madame Jones, but she kept the name because that was how everyone knew her.

As leader of the Troubadours, it was Sissy who gave so many black performers of the time their start in show business. They played all over America to black and white audiences, and at the end of every performance, Sissy sang selections from operas. Things were going very well for her, and then she learned she was almost broke. Her husband, it seems, had gambling and drinking problems and spent most of their money. Sissy filed for divorce.

The Black Patti Troubadours stayed together for twenty years, but Sissy never recouped all the money she had lost. The money the Troubadours made went to pay expenses and keep her performers employed. By the time she retired, she had to sell her homes and her jewels to make ends meet. Still, she cared for her aging mother and raised two homeless children, all the while working at odd jobs to support them. Toward the end of her life, an acquaintance from the local NAACP paid her water bills and bought her fuel to heat her home. When she died of cancer in 1933, she was penniless.

It's sad to think that the only thing that stopped Sissy from achieving her dream was that white people had a problem with her skin color. I imagine she must have thought often of what might have been, but I doubt it was something she dwelt on. She didn't have the time. She was too busy living her life, meeting its challenges head on, and never giving up despite the pitfalls. She was too busy helping others even when she had little herself. I'm glad I got to know her.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mentor Monday - How to Eat an Artichoke, or Revealing Layers of Character

When we meet someone for the first time, we often make certain assumptions about them right off the bat. They’re funny or crude, fascinating or lackluster, we could talk to them all night, or we can’t get away from them fast enough. But first impressions are often wrong, and even when they’re not, there is always far more to an individual than we originally see. The longer we know someone, the more we learn about them.

Fictional characters are no different. As readers, we open a book and meet a main character. We immediately decide whether or not we like this person and if we want to spend a whole novel with them, so the first impression our character makes is important. Something about her has to grab and entice the reader.

On the other hand, we don’t want to bog the reader down with so many character details that there is nothing more to learn. If our characters come whole and complete at the beginning of the story, the ability to surprise the reader as the story progresses is lost.

And that is where the artichoke comes in. We present it, in the form of a main character, to our readers. See it, so perfect and pretty and green! Then we allow them to pick off a leaf here, pull another from there, scrape a bit of meat off with their teeth and discover a few brown spots. That funny, overachieving girl they first met has a fear of failing, which is why she is an overachiever. They learn she is funny because she is afraid of being laughed at. She is not the perfect person we first presented her to be.

Now we allow the reader to pull a few more leaves, to find there is a bit more meat to be had, meat that is softer, more tender. The reader learns our heroine has a secret desire to dance, and when the people she wants to impress most find her in the gym practicing dance moves none too gracefully, and she doesn’t run away in tears, the reader learns her desire is far stronger than her fear of failing. They learn she has strength and tenacity, and maybe she learns that, too. As the reader pulls back more and more leaves, and we reveal more and more of our character’s character, she becomes as real as a living person.

Eventually, the reader comes to the heart, to the true essence of who our character really is. They know her strengths and weaknesses, her likes and dislikes, what she will sacrifice for and what she will fight to the death for. She has become the friend they’ve known for twenty years. And just when they think they know all there is to know about her, we surprise them one last time by showing them that last spiny little bit of the artichoke hidden inside with the heart, that hidden strength or virtue or attribute that allows our heroine to overcome that final obstacle or achieve that longed for goal.

Revealing a character’s character in stages can be as messy and time consuming as eating an artichoke, and while it won’t lower cholesterol or improve liver functions and digestive systems, it will keep your readers reading and, more importantly, you’ll have given them a character they will care about and remember.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Poetry Friday: Storm Fear

 4 below this morning, and another storm brewing - this lesser-known poem by Robert Frost seems terribly appropriate:

Storm Fear

When the wind works against us in the dark,
And pelts with snow
The lower chamber window on the east,
And whispers with a sort of stifled bark,
The beast,
"Come out! Come out!" --
It costs no inward struggle not to go,
Ah, no!

I count our strength,

So glad my dooryard is not ungraded!
Two and a child,
Those of us not asleep subdued to mark
How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length, --
How drifts are piled,
Dooryard and road ungraded,
Till even the comforting barn grows far away
And my heart owns a doubt
Whether 'tis in us to arise with day

And save ourselves unaided.

This week Poetry Friday is at Dori Reads

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Women of Wednesday: Marguerite De Angeli

I had one of those light bulb moments over the weekend at Kindling Words. I was talking at lunch with Michelle Edwards and Jo-Ellen Bosson, and the subject was collecting old books, and especially tracking down books we loved as children. Jo-Ellen’s husband is a bookseller. So far, nothing unusual, a favorite topic and a conversation I’ve had many times. And then – someone mentioned Marguerite De Angeli. And I had the blinding realization of what a huge influence she is on my writing, and especially on my long-term Anglo-Saxon project. So I’ve pulled The Door in the Wall off my shelf for a lovely snow-day read, and I’ve ordered her autobiography from a used bookseller, and I’m off to rediscover this huge figure in children’s literature. (Mur, can I have dibs on her for the Pennsylvania book?)

Marguerite was born in Michigan, her family moved to Philadelphia when she was a young teen. Her father was an illustrator, and as a child she loved to draw and also to write stories. However Marguerite studied, not art or even literature but music. She was studying to be a concert singer when John De Angeli persuaded her that the traditional role of wife-and-mother should be her path. They went on to raise five children, moving frequently (John was a violinist.) Her creativity found its voice in storytelling, and what a legacy she left us!

Marguerite began her publishing career doing illustrations for Sunday School papers, moving on to magazines and to illustrating books by other authors, including Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Cornelia Meigs and Charlotte Yonge. Encouraged by an editor, she began to explore her own writing. Her first book (Ted and Nina go to the Grocery Store) was published when her youngest child was just seven, and her last, a collection of favorite poems, came out when she was 92!

De Angeli’s work gave voice to children from many different backgrounds, particularly minority and immigrant children, and of course the hero of The Door in the Wall is lame. In our day she would be heralded for the “diversity” of her books. She was meticulous in her research and her books stand the test of time.

Speaking of Bright April, perhaps the first American picture book to explore racial prejudice, De Angeli noted that she encountered a great deal of opposition when she began the work, and in fact that African-Americans were reluctant to talk with her, no doubt suspicious of this “outsider” presuming to write from that perspective. This is a conversation we have had over and over during my years in the children’s writing world: can (and should) a writer tell a story from the perspective of a group other than her own? De Angeli’s canon seems to answer that question with a resounding YES. She does this successfully both because of her research and because she believed that children are children, regardless of where and when they live. Her middle-American child readers could immediately identify with an Amish child’s school days, a shipwrecked Scottish boy’s quest for survival, the struggle of a Quaker child as an “outsider” in Philadelphia, and an African-American girl in a mostly-white Brownie troop.

Marguerite said that she generally started a story with an image, and would draw for a while and then write for a while as the story unfolded. I don’t draw but I recognize the sense that the characters gradually reveal themselves, rather than being invented and walked through a story. That’s also a common theme of writers’ discussions.
So thank you, KW, for reminding me of Marguerite De Angeli. And thank you, Marguerite, for so many hours of happy reading in my childhood; and for showing us how authentic research-based historical fiction can be.