Showing posts with label on writing for children. Show all posts
Showing posts with label on writing for children. Show all posts

Sunday, June 29, 2008

James McBride: listening for buffalo

Tonight I had the honor of hearing best-selling author James McBride speak at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Though I had fully intended to write a piece about what it has been like to be a part of the birth of the college, that will have to wait for next week as I was so deeply affected by what Mr. McBride shared with us that I felt the need to write about it.

The event was scheduled to be a reading, but other than the first sentence of his best-selling memoir, The Color of Water, he didn’t actually read. Rather it became more of an informal talk about his writing process, his philosophies on life, and his advice to the group of MFA writing students. He began, not surprisingly, with what it was like for him and his brother Hunter to arrive that afternoon, two tall handsome black men on motorcycles in overly white Vermont. As mis hermanas and colleagues Lisa Alvarado and Jane Alberdeston Coralin can tell you from personal experience, this is not always an easy experience, and yet the McBrides seemed to find working class people to connect with. The woman and her son raising money for the boy scouts by selling bologna sandwiches at the rest stop on interstate 89, the laundry attendant with bad teeth in downtown Montpelier who flirted with them.

I guess we all have fantasies of what a famous writer’s life might be like. Reading The Color of Water changed my life in many ways as I too write about being half one culture and half another. I have followed his career and was somewhat intimated by the fact that he was also a professional jazz musician (just how much talent can one man have? ) and plays with Stephen King’s band The Rock Bottom Remainders. That he just finished working with Spike Lee on a film of his first novel. But the man who stood before us was a guy. Okay, so a good-looking, successful and overly talented guy, but just a guy nonetheless. One who did his laundry in a public laundromat and looks for stories by riding on a New York City bus. One who is more comfortable in the kitchen with the cooks and dishwashers than in a room full of writers and academics. He talked about how rather than identifying himself as a black writer he preferred to think he writes about the commonality of all people, and though I think many writers would like to think they do too, he actually lives it. The reality of his life was better than my fantasy: he is proof that you can be famous and still be real.

As I listened I was reminded of a prestigious writers’ residency that Lisa and I were accepted to a few years ago. We were part of a group that included successful and well-respected writers from all over the world. During the day we would all peck away at our work in our hives and gather for dinner in the main house at night. Night after night the dining room would be filled with discussion of some obscure Russian filmmaker or German poet, the strains of intellectual conversation hovering above the room with the scent of brandy, but Lisa and I would gravitate towards the kitchen to talk with the local woman who did the cooking. We would sit and watch her work a knife like a Stradivarius, the bright colors of fresh summer vegetables flashing beneath the quick moving steel edge. We talked of our mothers and what cooking meant to us growing up, what it meant to us now. About our children and our husbands. About life. Like James McBride, we found that the story was not in the salon, but rather in the heat of the kitchen or the angry guy in the laundromat, or perhaps with the woman who sat across from you on the number ten bus, cradling a grungy baby doll in her wool-covered arms.

But mostly what I learned from James McBride had to do with fearlessness. This was a man who doesn’t care what critics think of his work, who, when he finishes a book, promotes it and then moves on, never looking back. He doesn’t fear rejection and never checks his books’ rankings on His advice to his audience was to fail, and fail often. That we should remember that the only ones who succeed in the business of writing are those that quell their fear. That like the Native Americans, we should put our ears to the ground and listen for buffalo. Sometimes we get lucky and we hear hoof beats. All we have to do then is pick up our pens.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

On Writing for Children

René Colato Laínez

Tips From Editors and Authors

A Writing Tip from Highlights and Calkins Creek Books Editor Carolyn Yoder

When kids are asked if they like history—or social studies—their answers tend to be a big flat "No." But if kids hear and understand that history involves them—their stories, their parents' stories, their ancestors' stories, the stories about where they live, the stories about what they do—history...becomes personal, and more importantly, relevant.

I strongly encourage authors to investigate their lives in order to discover these "little" (or "big") stories of history. I have met a mother from the Midwest whose mother sewed blankets in the Caribbean during World War II, a ninety-year-old writer who captured the story of her great-great-grandfather moving west to Indiana, and a young girl who discovered dinosaur bones in her backyard.

Think about writing your stories, the stories of your family or the stories about where you live. Capture the human element and the historical element. Together they will help to make your stories universal.

Carolyn P. Yoder is the senior editor of history and world cultures for Highlights and has written numerous articles on research and writing history for children. She spent a decade serving as the award-winning editor in chief of Cobblestone: The History Magazine for Young People; Calliope; Faces; and Odyssey, which led to her position as assistant publisher of Cobblestone Publishing, Inc., overseeing development of its book division.

Carolyn is currently editor of Calkins Creek Books—the history and historical fiction imprint of Boyds Mills Press, publisher of her book George Washington: The Writer and her most recent work, John Adams: The Writer, released in October 2007. She also reviews juvenile history books for the Civil War Book Review and has been a writer and editor for the New Jersey Historical Society.

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A Writing Tip from Philomel Editor Patricia Lee Gauch

Fiction, nonfiction, picture books, easy readers . . . the great books come alive. They breathe. They lament. They stand up and cheer. And, whether I had intended or not, they pull me as editor, as reader, into their living world, allowing me to breathe and lament and stand up with them. The heart of a really good book beats.

Okay then, you might ask, what makes a good book's heart beat? There are more answers to the question than anyone can give in one morning, but I believe you give yourself a leg up in discovering the heartbeat, if as a writer you dare to look at life on a slant.

Readers do not want what is straightforward, understandable, four square, typical, sturdy, easy, predictable. No, I believe character and plot and setting and language—on a slant—is what readers thirst for. They are intrigued with what is odd, aberrant, offbeat, strange—for goodness' sake. And praise be!

Patricia Lee Gauch is vice president and editor at large of Philomel Books as well as a respected author in her own right. She holds a doctorate in English literature, and has taught children's literature on the college level and reviewed for The New York Times. Patti has edited three Caldecott books, including Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr, and So You Want to Be President? by Judith St. George and David Small. She has worked with many well-known authors, including Jane Yolen, Andrew Clements, and Brian Jacques.

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A Writing Tip from Award-Winning Poet and Author Eileen Spinelli

Here's a beautiful quote that I love. Natalie Goldberg said, "If you love the work, it will love you back." How can you love the work if you're already a mile down the road worrying about whether it's going to be published? The publication will take care of itself. I hate to see writers just cringing and skipping ahead, and worrying about publication. I think it interferes with what you do. It makes you afraid to take risks, for one thing, because you are too afraid. "Is the publisher going to want this?" or "Is the editor going to like this?"—that's the adult in you.

Kids aren't afraid of risks. It's a wonder we're all here alive for all the risks we took when we were younger. You'll be more able to do what you need to do and take risks if you kind of let the other parts go. Let the marketing go. Make the marketing the lower rung on the ladder rather than the top rung. The top rung needs to be the writing and the joy that you derive from it, even if you never get published. Honest.

Eileen Spinelli is an award-winning author and poet whose work includes the 1991 Christopher Award winner Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch. Eileen has published more than thirty books for children. Some of her recent titles include Bathtime, Rise the Moon, Moe McTooth, Three Pebbles and a Song, The Perfect Thanksgiving, and City Angel.

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These tips come from workshops given by these authors and editors at the Highlights Foundation Writers Workshop at Chautauqua. If you'd like to learn from them in person, join them for the 2008 workshop. Find out more at

The Highlights Foundation
814 Court Street
Honesdale, PA 18431
Phone: (570) 253-1192