Monday, May 30, 2011

Mentor Monday--Writing War

Let me state right from the start that I'm a pacifist. I've marched against war from the Vietnam era through to our current conflicts.

War is a reality, and people die in war. Perhaps if children realized this from the start, they won't get caught up in the "glamor" or the "thrill" of war. War is not a video game. Not every soldier is a hero. The weapons of war are not playthings.

War in our contemporary world now includes children as combatants.
Throughout the last four thousand years of war as we know it, children were never an integral, essential part of any military forces in history. But the rules of war have changed. The participation of children is now not a rarity, but instead a growing feature of war.

The practice of child soldiers is far more widespread, and more important, than most realize. There are as many as 300,000 children under the age of 18 presently serving as combatants around the globe. Their average age is just over 12 years old.

P.W. Singer

This is a horrifying thought. What kind of world are we living in?

We've got to work toward change. We can start by eliminating the language of war that permeates our adult communications, for example, referring to something as a "war on"--war on crime, war on literacy, war on stupidity, etc., trivializes war. As children's writers we can try to eliminate children's book titles that have "war" in them--The War With Grandpa, The Lemonade War, The Boys Start the War. Yes, these books ultimately teach that it is better to get along, but again, it seems to trivialize war.

As parents, teachers, and librarians we can read books to kids, even the youngest, which promote nonviolence and peace. Here are four.

The Big Book for Peace. [Dutton, 1990, o.p.]

Parr, Todd. The Peace Book. [Little, Brown, 2005]

Popov, Nikolai. Why? [North-South, 2006, o.p.]

Seuss, Dr. The Butter Battle Book. [Random House, 1984]

Oddly, not once in The Peace Book is it mentioned that peace is the absence of war.

Available here.

We should let our kids know that "war is not healthy for children and other living things." Alice Walker's Why War Is Never a Good Idea [HarperCollins, 2007] comes closest to doing this, but I would recommend it for a slightly older audience.

Also for a slightly older audience is World War Won, by Dav Pilkey. Pilkey offers the book on his website as a free download. Although it's a bit heavy-handed with its message, and the characters are rather cartoonish, it could be a good conversation starter.

I'll issue a challenge to you to write good books with more subtle messages so that portrayals of cooperation become as accepted as portrayals of hate, violence, and war.

Take a few moments today, Memorial Day, to remember those who fought and died in the various wars in our short history. Make an effort too, to support non-violent ends to conflict. We owe it to our kids.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Poetry Friday

Lorraine Schneider 1966

At The Un-National Monument Along The Canadian Border

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed - or were killed - on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

William Stafford

Today's poetry roundup is at My Juicy Little Universe

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Women of Wednesday - She Sells Seashells

Most of us have heard this tongue twister before.

She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure.
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

It was written (they say) about an obscure, nineteenth-century woman from Lyme Regis on the southern English shore, a woman born at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder and into a family of religious dissenters, a woman with no more than a Sunday school education, who grew up to correspond and meet with professors, scientists, scholars and the nobility. But it wasn‘t seashells she was selling on the seashore. It was dinosaur bones.

Mary Anning was born on May 21, 1799, the fourth child in a family of ten. Two of her older siblings were already dead by the time she was born. The six who came after her would all die, too. Only she and her brother Joseph would survive to adulthood.

Mary had a hard life growing up. Her father - a cabinetmaker who should have been able to make a decent living - was a ‘dissenter,’ a man who refused to become part of the Church of England which, at that time, was the only recognized church in the country. The Annings were Congregationalists, which meant they were not allowed into university, the army, and many other professions, so they lived in poverty in a small cottage on the seashore.

Their poverty was made even worse by the Napoleonic wars raging on the continent. Bread was hard to find, and when it could be found, it wasn’t affordable. In order to supplement his income, Mary’s father went out to the cliffs and searched for fossils, but they weren’t called fossils then. There were known as ‘curiosities.‘ Mr. Anning dug them out, cleaned them up, and sold them to upper and middle-class tourists who, because of the wars, now took their vacations on the English seaside rather than in France. They bought these curiosities and brought them home to display on their mantels and show off to company.

Mary, and her older brother, Joseph, often went with their father on his fossil hunting expeditions. He showed them where to find fossils and bones and how to dig them up. But while her father and brother saw fossil hunting only as a way to put food on the table, Mary developed a genuine interest in it.

When she was eleven, her father died. He had been suffering from tuberculosis and injuries he had sustained after falling off a cliff. The Anning's financial situation went from bad to worse and they were forced onto parish relief. Fossil hunting began in earnest, and even Mrs. Anning got involved. Mary and Joseph scoured the cliffs and seaside for fossils and bones while Mrs. Anning sold their finds at a coach stop outside a local inn.

Mary made her first major find when she was only twelve years old. Her brother had discovered the four foot long head of an ichthyosaurus and told her where to find to the rest of it. The ‘rest of it’ turned out to be a 17 foot long skeleton. It took Mary almost a year to dig it out. Her mother sold it for 23 pounds.

It was about that time that scientists were beginning to question the time line of the Bible, to speak about an ‘age of reptiles,’ and of the world being more than 6,000 years old. Mary’s ichthyosaur, which had made its way to London, lent credence to these new theories. Now, it was not only tourists who came to the Annings for fossils. Scientists, professors and museum curators began to show up, too.

The Anning's little business grew, and so did Mary’s expertise. She began to draw meticulously accurate pictures of the bones and fossils she found. She made notes on where she had found them, and on the type of rock she had found them in. She became a self-taught geologist and paleontologist before there even was a science called paleontology.

“The extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved... It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour—that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.” - Lady Harriet Silvester describing Mary in her diary

They all acknowledged it, but none of them ever gave her credit for it. It was Mary who went out and found the fossils, who climbed the cliffs in her long skirts and bonnets, her dog Tray by her side (who died in a rockslide Mary survived.). The ‘clever men’ purchased what she had, they talked with her about what she knew and what she had learned, they examined her drawings, then they returned to London and wrote papers and gave lectures using her information and knowledge, and presented her fossils, without ever mentioning her name.

It was Mary (with her brother Joseph) who gave London it’s first look at an ichthyosaurus fossil.

It was Mary who discovered the world’s first plesiosaur.

It was Mary who discovered that the strange and mysterious bezoar was merely dinosaur dung.

And it was Mary who proved, with her discoveries, that there truly had been an age of reptiles.

And yet she received no credit for any of it in her lifetime. The strange thing was, the men she was dealing with respected her, as well as her knowledge and expertise. They did not go to Mary with the intent of taking advantage of her. They conversed with her as an equal, and many recognized she was even more knowledgeable than they were. When she developed breast cancer, they raised money to help her pay her expenses. One man, who had paid Mary very little for her fossils, auctioned them all off and gave Mary the proceeds. So it seems they not only respected Mary, they liked and cared about her, too. But they never thought to present a fossil or paper with her as a co-contributor. Was it because she was a woman? Was it her socio-economic status? Did it simply just never enter their minds? Maybe it was just too embarrassing to admit an uneducated woman knew more than they did.

Despite her finds and expertise, Mary never found her way out of poverty. When she died of breast cancer at 47, she was still unknown outside the small circle of men she dealt with. She died in the same poverty she had been born into. It wasn’t until years after her death when the science of paleontology was well established, that the men in the field began to acknowledge her contributions.

Mary was buried at St. Michaels church in the parish where she lived. The Geological Society put up money to have a stained glass window erected in the church in her honor. The inscription beneath it reads --

"This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, and also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life."

It’s a nice sentiment, but even there, they couldn’t admit publicly that she was anything more than ‘useful.’

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mentor Monday - And How Do You Feel About That? Creating Emotion.

Emotion is a powerful thing. People murder in the heat of rage and have nervous breakdowns in the pits of despair. Envy and greed can bring a man to ruin, or they can raise him to the heights of society. Hope has the power to lift the spirits of multitudes. Feeling emotions, and reacting to them, is part of being human. If we had no emotions, if we didn’t feel, we would be little more than robots. And if you want your characters to be more than robots, to be more than names on a page, they also have to experience emotions.

But writing emotion is a tricky thing. Not only does your character have to feel, but the reader must also feel those same emotions.

So how do you do that?


John was sad when his hamster died. He cried and cried.

Now did you feel sad for John? I might have gotten a two-second ‘awww’ from you, but I’ll bet nobody is wiping tears from their eyes. Why? Because you don’t know John yet. You don’t care about John. You don’t know how attached he was to his hamster. So the first step in writing emotion successfully is to prepare for it.

If you want to evoke some sadness when John’s hamster dies in chapter 10, make sure you’re showing the reader how much John loves his hamster in chapters 1-9. Show us why he picked that particular hamster from all the others at the store. Show him caring for the hamster and playing with it. Show us why the hamster is so important to him. Show us just how much he loves that hamster and then, when it dies and John cries, you’ll be pulling at heartstrings.

Forget Abstractions

Fear coursed through her body. She was frightened to her core.

What do those two sentences mean? She was really, really frightened? What images do they bring to mind? Nothing that I can see. And that’s the thing about abstractions. They’re abstract. You can’t see them. You can’t touch them. They’re sort of like emotions.

Fear is intangible and being fearful is a state of mind. Fear cannot race around someone’s body. The body can, however, react to the emotion, and that’s what you need to show--how fear physically affects your character. What happens when you are afraid? Does your heart race? Does your mind go blank? Does your body become numb? Are you unable to move or speak? Use your own emotional reactions to show the affects that same emotion has on your character. Allow your readers to see whatever emotion she is experiencing.

Show–Don’t Tell

We all know this, but we don’t always do it. So when John’s hamster dies, don’t tell us he was sad and that he cried and cried. Don’t even mention sadness. Show him having no interest in his favorite snack or toy. Show tears running down his face. Show him sniffling. Show his body heaving. Maybe he stutters when he tries to speak because he’s crying so hard. Maybe he hides out in his room and doesn’t want to talk to anybody. But regardless of how he reacts, write it in a way that it can be seen.

Remember who your character is

People are individuals and we don’t all experience emotion the same way. Your characters shouldn’t either. While one person may break down and cry when a loved one dies, another person may become angry and start to throw things. While some people have no problem being loud and boisterous when they’re happy, a more reserved or shy person may just simply smile. How your character reacts will depend on the type of person you have made them. And if you have prepared for that moment of joy, the reader will know that the character with the small smile is really jumping for joy on the inside. They will feel it. That little smile will be enormous in the readers’ minds and they will be just as happy for your character as she is for herself.

It may seem daunting, trying to evoke emotions from thousands of strangers, but it’s not as hard as it seems if you just remember that we all feel the same things. It may be in a different way, or for different reasons, but everyone knows what it’s like to be scared or lonely, to be excited or joyous. If you show your readers that fear or joy, if you make them see it, you will also make them feel.

And now, two minutes from a master storyteller.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Poetry Friday: Bone

Found this in the pauper' section at the old Irish Cemetery where I walk Cooper. 

Is it a heart?

  It is indeed -- as porous as old bone.


It was first dark when the plow turned it up.
Unsown, it came fleshless, mud-ruddled, nothing
but itself, the tendon's bored eye threading
a ponderous needle. And yet the pocked fist
of one end dared what was undone
in the strewing, defied the mouth of the hound
that dropped it.
                The whippoorwill began
again its dusk-borne mourning. I had never
seen what urgent wing disembodied
the voice, would fail to recognize its broken
shell or shadow or its feathers strewn
before me. As if afraid of forgetting,
it repeated itself, mindlessly certain.
I threw the bone toward that incessant claiming,
and watched it turned by rote, end over end over end.

                                -- Claudia Emerson

I have been told that sometimes the earth pushes out old bones, but never thought I'd see it for myself. Woman or man or child? It is so much of a size like my own kneecap, I think it must be that of a woman.

I am curious about the mechanics of soil, and the reasons the earth chose this particular bone to return to daylight. 

I thought about reburying it, but no. This is what I would want for one of my bones -- to rise up on its own, to rest prettily on moss and pine needles, to feel again the gray fox trotting past as dusk settles onto my deeply shaded hillside.  

*            *              *           *           *

You can read more by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Claudia Emerson here at Poetry Mountain.

And you can read more poems from today's round up over at The Drift Record. Julie's hosting today, so take a walk over there and check out today's offerings.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Women of Wednesday: A Celebration of Women Writers

This morning I’d like to turn your attention to an amazing collection I’ve just discovered.  A Celebration of Women Writers is an ambitious project, proposing to compile a comprehensive list of women writers from all parts of the world and throughout recorded time, with links to sources of information and a growing collection of online editions of women’s works that are in the public domain.

Statement of Purpose:
The Celebration of Women Writers recognizes the contributions of women writers throughout history. Women have written almost every imaginable type of work: novels, poems, letters, biographies, travel books, religious commentaries, histories, economic and scientific works. Our goal is to promote awareness of the breadth and variety of women's writing.
All too often, works by women, and resources about women writers, are hard to find. We attempt to provide easy access to available on-line information. The Celebration provides a comprehensive listing of links to biographical and bibliographical information about women writers, and complete published books written by women.
We are also actively involved in extending those resources. A major focus of the Celebration is the development of on-line editions of older, often rare, out-of-copyright works. We choose works from a range of areas to indicate the variety of interests of women writers. 

This site, in itself a tremendous contribution to recording "herstory," is not only valuable for learning more about these women writers – some famous, some obscure. It’s valuable because much of the material written by these women provides insights into their lives and their times. Since history typically records the big public events, it’s difficult to learn about the ordinary, day-to-day activities and thoughts of individuals. So I’ll be bookmarking Celebration for future perusal, and I hope you will, too!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mentor Monday : Reflections on the 25th NESCBWI conference - what does it take to be a children's book writer? Part I

I’m fresh off the annual SCBWI-New England conference, and thank you again to all the hard-working volunteers who made it happen. This year’s conference theme was Celebrating Milestones, in honor of it being the 25th consecutive year of the conference (there was a several-year-long gap when Jane Yolen passed it off to U Mass, where it became the very-successful Perspectives on Children’s Literature Conference, necessitating the re-institution of a regional conferences for those who create that literature).

The keynotes and chattering was all about retrospect, stories of the beginnings of the SCBW (and the history of the adding of the “I”), wonderfully described by Lin Oliver, Steve Mooser, Jane Yolen and Tomie Di Paola. This, of course, got me thinking back to my first conferences (I have thus far resisted the urge to try and figure out when I first attended). It is probably also one reason I went through the weekend keenly aware of the stages of a writing career, and particularly thinking about those among the 590 participants who are just beginning theirs.

The great vision of SCBWI is to provide a structure for instructing, encouraging and mentoring those who create children’s books. It began, in fact, when Lin and Steve landed a job creating children’s books, went looking for courses or workshops to learn how, and found – nothing.

Today, of course, SCBWI is a huge, international organization, with dozens of regional chapters hosting dozens of regional conferences, workshops, retreats and critique groups. And while the New England conference has evolved to include lots and lots of workshops that are designed to be useful for established writers, the majority of those who attend these conferences are, in fact, beginners. Which is a GOOD THING. Because like every other career, writing (and illustrating) for children is a skill to be learned; and while it is not impossible to learn it entirely on your own, it is much better to learn from others who have been practicing the craft.

So in this retrospective mood (or mode), I’m going to take my next few Mentor Monday posts to consider the question: What does it take to be a children’s writer?

It has been observed that there are few other professions which people expect to begin without training and with immediate success. Writing for children is deceptively simple-looking. What could be easier than to tell a simple story using simple words in a simple way? Prospective children’s book writers are generally shocked to learn that most published writers worked for years before their first manuscript was accepted for publication. They’re also surprised to learn that even after that first sale, the publishing industry is a difficult place, and more manuscripts and ideas are rejected than published. Jane Yolen told us Friday evening that, in addition to having sold her 300-and-somethingish title last week, she also received 3 rejection letters.

I would submit that the most important thing you need to be a children’s writer is a clear understanding of that fact. Success in this career takes time, it takes effort, it takes perseverance. It is not a get-rich-quick scheme (in fact, very few children’s writers get rich). It is not something one does on an impulse, or does “someday when I get a chance,” and you’ll have to forgive us if we want to kill you when you say that to us as soon as you find out what we do. To cite Lin’s keynote address, the single most important moral or lesson we learn from successful children’s book writers is: Do the Work.

The next most important thing you need to become a children’s writer is a willingness to learn. Just because you were a child (or had a child) doesn’t qualify you to write for children any more than it qualifies you to be a teacher, a bus driver or a pediatrician. The learning necessary to becoming a children’s writer is on-going, and comes in several areas.

First, of course, it is necessary to learn to write. This means not only knowing parts of speech and punctuation, although those are helpful. It means learning to capture ideas and emotions and landscapes and voices and characters and actions and reactions and distill them into words. It means learning to choose and shape words and phrases and sentences and paragraphs to represent all those things on paper – and then learning to tear up the paper and do it again, using fewer words, or stronger ones, and different phrases and paragraphs, and repeating as necessary until it is perfect. And then letting someone else read it and listening, really listening, when they tell you it isn’t perfect, that in fact it is far from perfect, and needs to be ripped up and done again. One of the very best things about attending an SCBWI conference is meeting with and learning from other people who understand, and live, this reality.

Next time, we’ll look at a few of the different ways we learn to write.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Women of Wednesday: Gold Star Mothers

I was trying to decide who might make an interesting topic for our Notable Wednesday women when my local newspaper featured this picture:

The statue, by sculptor Andrew Chernak, was dedicated over the weekend in my hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire. It is a representation of the Gold Star Mother, a woman who has given her country a gift more precious to her than her own life.

In Manchester, this statue faces Veterans’ Memorial Park. According to the artist, it “…captures the moment after she receives the dreaded Western Union telegram informing her of the loss of her son while in service to our country.

The statue portrays a mother during World War II. She steadies herself on a plant stand bearing a photograph of her son and a toppled plant, symbolizing her world falling around her. Her face streaming with tears, bears a look of grief and shock. In her far off gaze, she is recalling her precious son's life and all that it held, now forever gone from her.”

May is the month to remember Mothers and May is the month to remember our fallen. It seemed appropriate to dedicate this space to both.

While the statue portrays the Second World War, the term “Gold Star Mother” actually began in 1918 when President Woodrow Wilson approved a suggestion from the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defenses:

“The Service Flag displayed from homes, places of business, churches, schools, etc., to indicate the number of members of the family or organizations who are serving in the Armed Forces or who have died from such service. Service flags have a deep Blue Star for each living member in the service and a Gold Star for each member who has died.”

The practice continued from that time on and, unfortunately, continues today. It has become the social practice to thank men and women in uniform when we see them. It’s a bit more difficult to notice the mothers (and fathers) of those who gave their lives. A statue on the main street of a small New England city isn’t the best way to say thank you, but it’s a start.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Mentor Monday: A Personal Check-off List

Belonging to the same writing group for a long period of time causes one to become a bit schizophrenic. As we write, we hear voices, the voices of our writer’s group, whispering in our ears:

“Write tighter,” says one.

“Add some dialogue,” says another.

“Why all the adverbs?” asks a third.

I don’t mind the voices in my head while I write. They’re a form of self-editing. Each of us has particular strengths. I like a story with tension and find that it’s the thing I make the most comments about when we critique. (“Gimme those page turns!”)

Over the years, I’ve also collected a list of other traits I want to appear in my writing. When I’m all out of voices in my head and it’s time to rewrite, I check my list. The questions I ask myself give me a starting point for revisiting my work with a fresh eye.

Here’s my list. Feel free to adapt it:

1) Have I appealed to the reader’s aesthetic sensibilities?
Example: “[The land] …resembled a giant’s quilt—white, of course, because of the several feet of snow—spread out over an enormous bed. Here and there were the bumps made by the giant’s toes or keens. In the distance, his covered head raised up a larger bump in the bedding.” Kirby Larson, Hattie Big Sky.

2) Have I used appropriate analogies, similes, methaphors?
“She tore a book from the suitcase, hurled it at him…The book came flapping like a wounded duck and fell at Jeffrey’s feet.” Jerry Spinelli, Maniac Magee.

3) Have I created any neoligisms?
(Examples: the name Wendy, Pollyanna’s The Glad Game, and the non-wizard folk, Muggles).

4) Does the use of alliterative words help set the mood?
(I’ve mentioned before how I love the name Ssseverus Sssnape).

5) Have I provided enough conflict between my characters?
No conflict, no story.

6) Have I alerted the reader to this conflict?
In The Watsons go to Birmingham—1963Christopher Paul Curtis uses chapter titles: “Chapter 1. And You Wonder Why We Get Called the Weird Watsons.”

7) Have I used anecdotes to show, rather than tell?
“All of my family sat real close together on the couch under a blanket. Dad said this would generate some heat…Byron had just turned thirteen so he was officially a teenage juvenile delinquent and didn’t think it was ‘cool’ to touch anybody or let anyone touch him, even if it meant he froze to death. Byron had tucked the blanket between him and Dad down into the cushion of the couch to make sure he couldn’t be touched.” The Watsons go to Birmingham—1963.

8) Have I developed my characters through speech, action, or thought?
(Think Charlotte Doyle vs. Charlotte the Spider. Same name, similar intrepid spirit, but two VERY different characters)

9) Have I controlled the dialogue so it serves to move the story?
(“So, I’m like, uh, don’t, uh, write like people really talk, okay?”)

10) Have I kept my scenes short and snappy but with good transitions?

Pick a favorite movie. As you watch, count the number of seconds a character’s face appears in each scene. Surprised? A well-edited movie, however, appears seamless. Do the same with your writing.