Great Big Thank You

Book signingI just wanted to say an enormous THANK YOU to everyone who has shown up to my launch parties, spread the word about my book, cheered me on when I’ve felt insecure (it turns out that publication doesn’t make that go away, but sometimes affirming readers do!), and been otherwise supportive in so many ways since my book came out this spring… and long before!

It really struck me when I was heading to my hometown after writing a book about a guy returning to his hometown after writing a book.  Thomas Wolfe was met with death threats and boycotts of his book and went on to write You Can’t Go Home Again.  Well, I can.

I got to go home to a book signing overflowing with my family, childhood neighbors, grade school teachers, and old friends.  And that was after my current home, Asheville, surrounded me with friends and fellow writers, co-workers, students and their families at my book signings here.

I’m touched and so grateful for you!

Photo Booth 09  Photo Booth 26  Photo Booth 31.jpg

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Feeling Writeous

I’m sitting in a coffee shop co-op, my elbow nearly touching a Black Lives Matter sign in the window, a donation jar for justice for Jerry Williams, a black man killed two weeks ago by a police officer in Asheville, replacing a tip jar on the counter, and feeling guilty about using my white middle class privilege to read SCBWI articles and brainstorm picture book ideas.

I’m always cautious about making my writing overly Peace Pencilspreachy and, because of my ethnicity and experiences, about being the wrong voice for the right cause.  So what good am I doing sitting here working on picture books if they are not directly speaking out about the injustices in the world?

I’m not telling you this just to alleviate my guilt or to justify my work, but because a poignant Teachers & Writers Magazine article arrived in my inbox on just this topic while I was sitting here, suggesting that I wasn’t the only writer out there feeling this way.  In case you’re struggling with the same, here are some reminders of a few of the many ways that children’s books can change the world.

  • Children’s book can encourage creative and imaginative ways of thinking.  Inspiring kids to think outside of the box can help them to become problem-solvers and world-changers.
  • Children’s books can impart knowledge and inspire a love of learning.
  • Children’s books can broaden kids’ worldview, which can foster tolerance and empathy.  Be conscious of the lens through which you are writing and make sure that your books are inclusive, tolerant, and caring.
  • Children’s books can create a soothing escape for kids experiencing turbulence in their own lives…
  • …or they can reflect that turbulence, give kids space to process difficult emotions and feel that they are not alone in them.
  • Children’s books can give kids a chance to see themselves as a hero and then give them the confidence to actually become one.
  • Children’s books can directly speak out against the injustices in the world.  They don’t need to be a security blanket or safe shelter for children.  Kids are often more curious about the world, intelligent, and mature than we give them credit for, and the very issues that adults think are too dark or difficult for kids are often the ones that motivate them.  If picture books only portray a perfect, peaceful world, kids won’t trust them when they learn that the world is not that way.  Kids need both – books that tell it like it is, and books that show the limitlessness of what can be.

The pen is still mightier than the sword (or maybe in today’s world, the keyboard mightier than the assault weapon).  Keep writing!

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Local KidLit Reading List: Part 2

And now, bringing you more awesome authors who double as awesome people… and who happen to live in my neck of the woods.  In case you missed it, here is Local KidLit Reading List: Part 1.

Middle Grade

Snakes and StonesSnakes & Stones

Why I’m excited to read it:

Another brilliant member of my critique group, Lisa Fowler has an incredible writing voice and sense of adventure.  While we got to see and give feedback on the first few chapters of this story, I still haven’t had a chance to see how it ends!

MaypopThe Maypop Kidnapping

Why I’m excited to read it:

Who doesn’t love a good kidnapping mystery?  C. M. Surrisi and I attend writers game nights together, and if her writing is anywhere near as clever as her Balderdash playing, then this book is well worth a read!

Saraswati

Saraswati’s Way

Why I’m excited to read it:

I love it when a book can transport me to a different part of the world.  And after hearing Monika Schroeder’s poignant keynote speech about when and how to authentically write about other cultures at last year’s SCBWI-Carolinas conference, I’m eager to see how she portrays culture in her own writing.

Diary from the EdgeMy Diary from the Edge of the World

Why I’m excited to read it:

The title alone is enough to make me want to pick this book up.  The fact that Jodi Lynn Anderson is so sweet and humble despite being a New York Times bestselling author and a killer pictionary player is just an added bonus.

Nine Pound HammerThe Nine Pound Hammer

Why I’m excited to read it:

Although this Hillsboro author is slightly less local than the others on this list, John Claude Bemis has a great regional presence, and his talks at Malaprop’s and SCBWI-Carolinas conferences have been lively and inspiring.  He just released the first book of his new series, Out of Abaton, but I have some catching up to do first.  Plus, I’m intrigued by the magical slant on this tall tale adventure.

Young Adult

Watch that Ends the NightThe Watch that Ends the Night

Why I’m excited to read it:

I have the feeling this book will have a lot to teach me about perspective.  Allan Wolf tells the Titanic story from 24 different points of view – including the iceberg’s!  Allan also happens to be an awesome supporter of Asheville Writers in the Schools & Community and an all around upstanding guy.

The Way I Used To Be

Why I’m excited to read it:

Amber Smith piqued my interest as a writer and as a person when I saw her speak on a YA panel last month.  This novel addresses the controversial but unfortunately relevant topic of rape, possibly opening the door a little bit wider for teens to feel comfortable talking about the subject.

BONUS: Adult

Fresh WaterFresh Water from Old Wells

Why I’m excited to read it:

No, it’s not kidlit, but I wanted to include this book on my list because it’s been way at the top of my reading list for many months, I am just a tragically slow reader.  This memoir not only tells about a tumultuous family dynamic during an important era of Southern history, it also tells of the author’s experience in writing it.  And because Cindy Henry McMahon also happens to be my good friend’s aunt, her story is one that I feel a special connection to.

It’s a good thing it’s summer, because it looks like I’ve got a lot of reading to do!  Please let me know if I’ve missed any great local reads, and I will get started on a Part 3.  Happy reading!

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Local KidLit Reading List: Part 1

When my first story was published in Spider Magazine, it was on the opposite side of a two page spread from a drawing by Quentin Blake and a few pages down from a Kate di Camillo story.  I was totally star struck.  But you know what’s just as cool?  Seeing my book on a shelf of regional authors in a local indie bookstore and personally knowing nearly every author whose books share the shelf.

A writer friend recently said to me, “You can’t throw a stone in Asheville and not hit a writer.”  And not just any writer.  Incredibly talented writers.  Overwhelmingly supportive writers who share their knowledge, root for each other, and even play games together.   I can’t wait to read some of their latest stories, and I recommend that you do, too!

Picture Books, Easy Readers, and Comic Books

 

Three SleepsThree Sleeps

Why I’m excited to read it:

A family therapist wrote this story that addresses issues of separation anxiety, which I see some of my students experience.  It is also available in Spanish, and the beautiful illustrations were painted by my friend’s wife, Shannon Cappezzali.

Carlos and CarmenCarlos & Carmen

Why I’m excited to read it:

Carlos & Carmen are twins from a Latino-American family.  They have all the adventures and challenges of typical American kids, but with a little more laughter and Spanish sprinkled in.  Kirsten McDonald, the author of this easy reader series, is a children’s librarian, so she knows what she’s talking about.  She is also in my critique group, so I got a sneak preview and even had some input on a few of these!

RSP 1Robot Samurai Penguins

Why I’m excited to read it:

J. Rutland is another writer from my critique group (yes, we are a very talented bunch), and he also paints the beautiful and extremely imaginative artwork in his Robot (Samurai) Penguins comic series.  And I have a few students in particular who I know are going to fall in love with the main penguin, Waddul.

Middle Grade

SerafinaSerafina and the Black Cloak

Why I’m excited to read it:

No list of Asheville kidlit would be complete without Serafina.  And yes, I am a bad person for being a local children’s author who has not read it.  It is a dark, suspenseful story set at the Biltmore Estate, and my students eat it up.  I’ll have to read it soon since the second book in the series is already out and a movie is on its way.  And although this is the first author on the list that I haven’t met personally, I hear that he is a nice guy with an interesting story of his own.

Puffball

Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars

Why I’m excited to read it:

I cheated on this one.  I’m excited to have already read it.  But I recommend it to you because it’s full of clever puns, cute cat pictures, and heart.  Plus the author and illustrator, Constance Lombardo, is one of the coolest cats in town herself.

 

How to steal a dogHow to Steal a Dog

Why I’m excited to read it:

I love books about dogs.  And this one was adapted into a film in South Korea!  The author of this one, Barbara O’Connor, looked fabulous in a feather boa and monocle at my book launch party’s photo booth, and I can’t wait to discover that her writing is just as fun.

 

Yound Adult

InvincibleInvincible

Why I’m excited to read it:

This novel about a girl’s struggle to fight cancer and, later, addiction to medication, is the book that I’m smack dab in the middle of right now.  I keep reading it at night to help me fall asleep, but end up staying awake longer because I want to keep reading.  Fortunately, when I get through it, I get to read the new sequel, Unforgivable.  My friend and mother of a sweet girl at one of my schools, Amy Reed, wrote this one.

Stay tuned… Local KidLit Reading List: Part 2 is coming soon!  I told you there were a lot of talented authors here.

 

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Bring “Writing Home” Home!

Well, I suppose I ought to mention that my book got published!  It’s very exciting, by which I also mean sort of horrifying, especially that self-promotion piece.  Thanks for letting me practice it with you!

If you live in the area, I would love for you to come celebrate with me.  I am having a book launch at Firestorm Cafe & Books this Saturday, May 14th from 6:30 to 8:30pm.  There will be tasty treats and kid-friendly activities.  I will also be signing books at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial on Saturday, May 21st from 1:00 to 3:00pm.

Oh, and you can get a copy of Writing Home at Malaprop’s Bookstore, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial gift shop, the Rowman & Littlefield website, or Amazon.  Thanks for all the kindness and support!

And while I’m on a roll with this self-promotion bit, there is still some room in my summer camps!  If you know of any creative kids who enjoy writing, art, acting, or even mystery-solving, please spread the word.  You can find more info about these True Ink camps here.

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Thomas Wolfe is Law

As it turns out, Writing Home: The Story of Author Thomas Wolfe, my picture book coming out in May, is not the only Wolfian biography stepping onto the scene.   Probably inspired by my book and riding on the coattails of its success, a major film starring Jude Law, Colin Firth, and Nicole Kidman is debuting this summer depicting the fiery relationship between Wolfe and his publisher, Maxwell Perkins.

So basically, post-apocalyptic is out and Thomas Wolfe is in.  Get it while it’s hot.  Really though, the movie looks great.  Check out the trailer for Genius here:

http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1953674521/imdb/embed?autoplay=false&width=640

 

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Cover Reveal! Pre-Order!

Have I mentioned that my picture book is now available to pre-order from Taylor Trade Publishing?  No, you won’t get it in time for Christmas, but it will be a nice surprise when you forget that you’ve ordered it and it arrives in the mail for you in May!

https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781630761332/Writing-Home-The-Story-of-Author-Thomas-Wolfe

Even if you’d rather wait until it hits the shelves of a local bookstore, you can still get a sneak peak of the cover… one of my very own illustrations!

 

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Mountain of Words to help kids climb

mountainofwordslogo (2)On November 14th and 15th I’m going to write as much as I can, not just because it will be great for my own writing, but because it will also give kids around Asheville a chance to experience the power and pleasure of creative writing.

It’s time for the 3rd annual Mountain of Words Write-a-thon to support Asheville Writers in the Schools and Community. Last year’s event helped to fund “Family Voices” at two schools, a program that is very close to my heart.  It places writers in classrooms to give students a chance to share their stories and to bring families together over dinner and creative writing.  Here are some lines of metaphor poems that students wrote with their families during my residency at Hall Fletcher last spring:

We are a neon sweatband because we are unique.

We are suspenders because we hold each other up.

We are like an old, shining piece of valuable jewelry because we have something to give.

Here are some different ways you can participate and support support our work:

  • You can sponsor me here!  Or any of our amazing featured writers participating this year, like Ron Rash, Lamar Giles, Constance Lombardo, Cindy McMahon, or Alexandra Duncan, to name a few.
  • You can join us at our write in at West End Bakery on Sunday, November 15 from 1-3pm.  You can write to fun and inspirational prompts or work on your personal writing in the company of local authors. It’s family- friendly and free to attend with favors and activities for kids.
  • Spread the word!  By reblogging, reposting, or telling your friends, you can make a big difference.

anthologiesI was lucky to be so encouraged with my creativity growing up, and I really believe that everyone should know how valuable their voice is.  Thank you for your support!

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Writing Diverse Children’s Books: the 2015 SCBWI-Carolinas Conference

I came away from yet another SCBWI conference with inspiration, helpful information, new writer friends and idols, and writing momentum, but without much time to process it or actually write.  But even though I’m late, I especially wanted to share what I learned this year since the conference’s “Your Story, Your World” theme is one that I feel a special passion for but don’t always know what I can do about: diversity in children’s books.

Check out the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign!

An incredible faculty of Pat Cummings, Lamar Giles, Minju Chang, Daniel Nayeri, Kelly Starling Lyons, Monika Schroeder, Alan Gratz, and many others shared how important it is for all children to be able to see themselves in the heroes of children’s books.  Not only that, but books should show children that are already well represented the diverse world they live in. As this article in The Guardian explains, reading helps people to develop empathy, and so diverse books can also help children empathize with those who are different than themselves.

So, as a white, middle class, able-bodied, heterosexual writer that believes children should have access to books with diverse characters, what can I do?

This is the insight I gained from this year’s conference:

  • Keep a broad definition of “diversity.”  Think in terms of race, religion, gender, geography, sexuality, class, physical and mental abilities, and age.
  • Write stories with diverse characters.  While this seems like the simplest solution, it is actually the most difficult and comes with a lot of disclaimers.  If you write about a culture (use a broad definition when considering culture, too!) other than your own, write from the heart and not because it is a market trend.  Make sure to empower children through your characters rather than victimize them, and be cautious of stereotypes.

Be aware that it may be uncomfortable and you may be accused of “voice appropriation.”  Monika Schroeder’s response to this is that no one owns a culture, but that if you are going to write about a culture other than your own, get it right.  Do your research, including making authentic connections with people from that culture.  Immerse yourself in it if you can!

Also be aware that some publishers have limited spots for these diverse books and that your story about another culture could crowd out someone from that culture’s stories.

  • Biographies are a great way to depict diverse heroes.  Because they fit in with the common core curriculum, this is also a great way to get diverse books into classrooms.  But, as mentioned above, write them from the heart about people whose stories you connect with, research to portray the culture and perspective authentically, and don’t write them just because they are trendy.
  • Bring existing stories from other cultures to your own.  Research international stories and folklore.  Explore diverse storytelling and illustrating styles.  If you have translation skills, use them to bring in international perspectives.  Very few children’s books are translated into English from other languages.
  • Explore your own diversity.  What part of your own story is under represented?  Although my own race, class, and geography may be well represented, I come from a family of Italian immigrants and we carry on their traditions.  My own family is non-standard, with half-siblings on both sides who are much older than me.  I have a Brazilian exchange student “sister.”  What part of you is not often reflected in children’s books?
  • Illustrate or make illustration notes for pictures with diverse characters.  
  • Buy, read, and tell booksellers about books by and about people from other cultures.  There is not only a need for more diverse children’s book characters, but also for people from diverse cultures to be creating these books.  So what can you do if you are from an over represented culture like me?

As Kelly Starling Lyons eloquently put it, “Lift people up as you climb.”

 

 

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Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken

Wild thingsLast spring, a children’s librarian that I regard very highly recommended a book, whose author happened to be giving a talk at a local bookstore that week.  I went to the talk and read the book, and it is hands down my favorite book I’ve ever read about children’s literature.  The book is Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.

The book defies “fluffy bunnies,” or the misconception that all books for young readers are simple and sugary-sweet.  It is packed with examples, anecdotes, and author interviews that show instead the subversive side of kidlit.

The illustration, later published with a blank tombstone.

The illustration, later published with a blank tombstone.

For example, illustrator Trina Schart Hyman, who had recently been knocked in a Kirkus review, painted a graveyard scene for the picture book Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? that snuck in a headstone with an epitaph for Virginia Kirk.

Or how about when librarians, teachers, and parents objected to Charlotte’s Web including death, and the author, E.B. White, responded by telling his editor, “I am working on a new book about a boa constrictor and a littler of hyenas.  The boa constrictor swallows the babies one by one, and the mother hyena dies laughing.”

The book delves into many other controversial topics addressed in children’s books as well as some behind the scenes mischief in the lives of the writers themselves, and even a media uproar fondly referred to as “Scrotumgate.”  Needless to say, I recommend the book wholeheartedly.

The best thing about the book is that, while many of the stories are shocking, it’s not a book advocating for shock value.  Julie Danielson, one of the book’s three authors, said that when she gives talks on the book, audience members will sometimes remark that they should write more subversively.  “Don’t be subversive just to be subversive,” she said.  After all, there is a time and a place for fluffy bunnies, too.

“Don’t be subversive just to be subversive.”

Instead, the book advocates for children’s writers to be genuine.  It shows that children’s literature must adapt to the times, and that often it is even at the forefront of helping the times to adapt.  It shows that the most successful writers were not condescending, that they were good writers who wrote from the heart whose audience just happened to be children.

That takeaway was a good reminder for me when I received feedback from an editor on a picture book that I entered into a contest this summer.  It was a story based on an experience that was important to me, and he gave me high marks on my writing style and even compared me to *blush* a young Oliver Jeffers!  Yet he told me that the story was essentially unmarketable.

Should I scrap the story and write to the market? I wondered.  But with Wild Things! in mind, I determined to persevere writing from the heart and then trying to find my market, or tweaking my stories to make them marketable, but making sure never to lose the heart in them.

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