Commitment: Upstream by Mary Oliver

 

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In her book Upstream the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver says of creative commitment, “There is a notion that creative people are absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social customs and obligations. It is, hopefully, true. …The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work.”

head-1745250_960_720Responsible not to the clock, the carrots to slice for dinner, or the clothes in the dryer, but to the writing, drawing, music, or whatever your particular talent is. That is an amazing state of mind, which may wreak havoc with the mundane practical elements of life, but which prioritizes that which is most eternal. Do you sometimes drive past your exit on the highway because you are tweaking a plot in your head? Have you forgotten an appointment to have your car’s oil changed or perhaps you’ve put the milk in the dish cabinet by mistake all because you were inventing something in your head? Congratulations. You are being faithful to your ultimate mission.

Does this commitment to nurturing creative thought make you feel guilty? It well might because you are a participant in a society, which comes with responsibilities. You have family, friends, a habitation to care for. Is it selfish to focus on your picture book, your novel? No. You owe it to the world – and to those close to you – to contribute what you do best. Your voice adds something unique to the world that no one else can.

You may be saying that there is not enough time for your creative work. That is a choice you make. Your life is your own, isn’t it? (Easy to say.) There are strategies to make it easier to give yourself to your work.

I’ve belonged to four critique groups, each of which has been a good motivator. Why? One reason is, deadlines. Those artificial demarcations of time allow you to push everyday trivialities aside in favor of the work you love most to do. They give you justification.

Goals can also help because they are targets of ambition. You are not allowing your mind to wander, you are directing your energy toward a higher achievement. If you expend sufficient creative drive, the outcome will enrich life.

A place is also key. Mary Oliver talks about building a small house for herself to write in. Wielding a hammer and nails for your art is one possible solution. Another is to find a space where you can be part of a community of artists, for example Paragraph in New York, where people rent space to write where others do the same. Whether solitary or in a community of like-minded souls, you must have a space in which to let your inspirations become realized.

w-pencilsThe bottom line is that the more time you devote to idea development and the execution of deeply inventive work the more you will be able to enhance the life around you. Dust may collect on your bookcases, but so what? Beauty, passion, and exquisite communication are more meaningful.

On the thought that your deepest commitment must be to your inner self, Mary Oliver says, “In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.”

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Grace Lin’s Story That Heals

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Grace Lin may not know it yet, but she can heal a tortured heart. This is a power that the best creators of books for children all have, however Ms. Lin’s work, and two books in particular, have stepped in at a moment when help is most needed. The world seems turned upside down, but escaping into Minli’s story brings hope and bits of wisdom.

Recently, some of us have found it difficult to sleep well. Daily news of wildly public insults and anger, hastily made decisions, and selfish pride are worse than disappointing. It has been difficult to concentrate and frankly, daily events are seriously worrying. A friend invited me to attend an event of the Society of Printers, in Boston, next week at which Grace Lin will be the guest speaker. So I read her Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. It was a Newbury Honor Book in 2010 and its companion novel, Starry River of the Sky, has also been given accolades. Ms. Lin’s books have flown to the rescue, thank goodness.

One of the secondary characters in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a powerful Magistrate. The villagers call him Magistrate Tiger and he is described as being so proud that villagers were to get down on their knees and bow to him as he passed at any time of day or night or face brutal punishment. He was a fiercely angry ruler. The story tells us that, “The magistrate was harsh with his subordinates, ruthless to his enemies, and pitiless to his people. All feared his wrath, and when he roared his orders the people trembled.” This kind of unjust leader makes it difficult for his people to feel contentment.

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However the protagonist, young Minli, who is so poor that the only meals she and her parents have to share are plain rice, is brave and daring. The reader identifies with this kind-hearted, quiet, polite girl who uses her natural wisdom and common sense to guide her. She sets off alone to find the Old Man of the Moon at Never-Ending Mountain to ask how she can improve her family’s situation. Along the way she meets a dragon who was born of an ink brush painting and becomes her accomplice along her mission. The reader is thrilled to ride Dragon with her, soaring toward a better destiny.

The many characters Minli and Dragon meet each share something useful. The Old Man of the Moon is guardian of a bag of red Strings of Destiny and the big Book of Fortune. The goldfish man and his wares bring an element of mysticism and the Green Tiger adds a touch of dark evil. Minli’s world is filled to brimming with challenges that make it seem impossible for her to achieve her goal. But in the end her journey across the red thread bridge to the sky brings her to an unselfish act that sheds light on her solution. By the time she returns home her travails are rewarded with a much better situation for her and her parents. In the end the selfless little peasant girl is better off than the powerful, but heartless, Magistrate Tiger.

For the reader, a sense of enormous relief accompanies this outcome. Throughout Minli’s long arduous journey she has been honest, thoughtful, and generous. She is rewarded with the riches of contentment and prosperity for her family and thereby herself. The wisdom within her story is a balm for the heart. It is exhilarating to know that goodness and wise choices can win out over the seemingly powerful.

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Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is decorated with chapter openers of lovely art which echo the traditional Chinese art of papercutting. Each is printed in a different solid color and the headline type is in gold. There are also pages illustrated with colorful paintings which enliven the book and make it a lovely package of Chinese culture. The painting of Dragon and Minli soaring across the book cover through clouds painted in the same style as ancient Chinese art extends the aura of these stories.

Starry River of the Sky, a sequel, is similarly designed with Ms. Lin’s deep palette and culturally infused art. And this story is also a blend of an original story arc tying together a series of myths strewn with pragmatic wisdom. The book begins with a runaway boy, Rendi, who seems to be the only one who notices that the moon is missing. He hears the sky crying over this loss and immediately the reader is mesmerized by the mystical world within these pages. Magistrate Tiger also has a role in this companion story.

The reader craves the sense of wisdom and destiny contained in these novels inspired by Chinese mythology. Grace Lin has done an amazing job of weaving traditional stories into one completely her own, and better still are the truths about dealing thoughtfully with the rigors of civic life that she has brought to her readers.

Grace Lin’s wisdom glows in these books. That is a healing gift to readers, which is particularly important at this moment.

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This article appeared first on WritersRumpus.com.

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Solidarity

I did not participate in any of the women’s rallies yesterday, but here is my small protest sign. Several months ago I worked on a modification to the women’s gender symbol. Well, today its meaning is enhanced.

Mr. Trump said yesterday that he will work for all Americans. That we the people will run this country. Good. I have some ideas about that.

  1. All people are created equal. Therefore people of all genders, races, and persuasions and all religious philosophies should be respected and empowered.
  2. Everyone should have health insurance. No one should touch one iota of the Affordable Care Act until there is a complete plan for a verifiably better law approved by congress and the senate.
  3.  No changes to the organization or benefits of Medicare, Medicaid, or our National Parks should be allowed except to make them more available to every American and more beneficial for their originally intended purpose.
  4. We must join with other countries of this world to clean our air, earth, and water and reduce human impact on the environment. Our survival depends on it.
  5. Lies will not be tolerated. We are not stupid.

 

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World of Books: Cuba

w-little-beautyRecently I traveled almost the length of Cuba on a people to people, educational tour, something only possible recently because I am an American. For nearly fifty years this was forbidden. I learned so much about the people and culture. I brought copies of one of my books as gifts and listened to children playing music, dancing, and singing.

These beautiful Cuban children will grow up in a land that in many ways is frozen in time; however glimmers of change bring hope for their future. Two books I bought from a used book vendor at an open air market a few weeks ago in Havana hint at the prospects for Cuban niñas and niños.

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In front of every school in Cuba there is a bust of the poet José Martí. Why? He is the country’s hero because he used his writing to promote liberty. In 1895 he gave his life to help free Cuba from the rule of imperialist Spain. Much later, he became Fidel Castro’s hero too. Fidel strayed from Martí’s idea of democratic freedom though, because he feared new imperialism from outside. Martí’s poems could not save his good people from the starvation of Cuba’s Rough Period, but life there is slowly getting better. Now Fidel Castro is gone and his brother Raúl continues to lead. While I was in Havana a new American President was chosen. Will life in Cuba continue to improve? Time will be the judge.

w-jose-marti-1The niña in the orange dress in Santiago de Cuba and this niño in the yellow pants in Trinidad will be taught about Martí’s hopes for all Cuban children.

The poet wrote Ismaelillo in 1892 for his son of the same name. Martí was in exile and missed his little boy, so he reached out with this book. Here is I Dream Awake, one of the poems written for Ismaelillo.

I Dream Awake (Sueño Despierto)

Day and night
I always dream with open eyes
And on top of the foaming waves
Of the wide turbulent sea,
And on the rolling
Desert sands,
And merrily riding on the gentle neck
Of a mighty lion,
Monarch of my heart,
I always see a floating child
Who is calling me!

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Here is a newer story by Ivette Vian Altarriba whose books were a hit at the Havana International Book Fair this spring.

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The well-developed cast of hopeful characters include Marcolina, who has a magic yellow parasol which does not speak, but hears everything; her friends Enrique Chiquito, fun-loving Anita, Chele and Albertico (who loves rap music); along with Monchi the mailman, Juan the always traveling naturalist, and Dun Dun, her little white dog.

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This core cast hints at the fun within this picture book. The plot involves tongue twisters, instructions for making a paper duck, songs about Don Quixote and Ñeñeo the goose, and a recipe for fruit pudding intended for the gastronomic pleasure of an extraterrestrial named Worantitesiusinelodasconin from the planet Neueve-Nueve-Nueve (Nine-Nine-Nine). In case you are wondering why his name is so long, it’s because on his planet everyone lives for hundreds of years and for each hundred, a new syllable is added.

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La Sombrilla Amarilla by Ivette Vian Altarriba is actually the screenplay for an episode from a popular series on Televisión Cubana. This lively children’s show has a Facebook page  and some episodes are on YouTube.

The watercolor illustrations by Arístides Hernández (Ares) are lively and free-flowing with different perspectives and textures. His style relies on exaggeration and movement along with wildly changing scale, so the unpainted negative space helps keep the art from being overwhelmingly busy. Ares has illustrated more than 70 books and in 2002 received the National Cultural Medal from the Cuban Cultural Ministry. The artist includes characters of all races and colors to reflect the new pragmatism of his homeland. The story and pictures are open to the world and beyond and are filled with the music, creative problem solving, and love of life evident everywhere in a small island country with a big heart.wyellow-parasol4

Ismaelillo by Jose Marti and illustrated by Rosa Salgado Hurtado, Editorial Gente Nueva, Vedado, La Habana, Cuba, ©1977 (recent editions are available)

La Sombrilla Amarilla by Ivette Vian Altarriba and illustrated by Arístides Hernández (Ares), Instituto Cubano del Libro, Editorial Gente Nueva, Plaza de la Revolución, Ciudad de La Habana, Cuba. ©2005.

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Book People Bonding

Marianne and Lance. Author/Illustrator party. Oct. 16, 2016 - At home in Merrimac, Massachusetts.

Marianne and Lance.

This is a story about book people, a table, and some croc-a-mole.

Once upon a time Ron McCutchan, then Art Director for Cricket Magazine, had a couple of pot luck meetups at my house for authors and illustrators working for Cricket.

One reason was social

The whole Emberley clan came: Ed, Barbara, Michael, and Rebecca. Ed and Barbara, who had won a Caldecott and a Caldecott Honor passed on their love of making stories and art to both of their children. Impressive. Also along were Brian Lies, Anne Miranda, Teri Weidner, Lydia Dabcovich, Marilyn Haffner, and a slew of others. Old and new friends all.

And there was more

glad-monsterEd met Anne, then later they collaborated on a picture book called Glad Monster, Sad Monster. Brian compared notes with people about contracts. Conversations revolved around illustration techniques, contacts to share, studios, and life.

What’s important about this? 

As Maryann Cocca-Leffler said, “We work alone and only know others by their little photo attached to their emails!” Book people need to bond with peers. A sense of community is vital to people whose particular talents are solitary. Social media helps, but personal contact is the thing.

Meetups are vital because:

  • Work grows stronger when inspired by others.
  • Sharing ideas raises the bar.
  • New projects, and sometimes collaborations, can happen.
  • Building a network expands possibilities for everyone.

Tribe building feeds creativity too

One day Brian Lies reminisced wistfully about those long ago author/artist pot lucks. Time for another party!

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When a bunch of creative types get together, surprises can happen. Friends drew things for our table. Everyone brought delectables and many of the sixteen brought examples of their work. Brian, of Gator Dad fame, appeared with a huge platter of “croc-a-mole” he’d made. Yes, guacamole with lemon peel eyes and lily pads cut from cabbage leaves. Teri Weidner, whose recent book is Baby Bear’s Not Hibernating, made a bear footprint in snow using brownies, frosting, and coconut.

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Everyone gets inspired

Brian Lies' gatormobile.

Brian Lies’ gatormobile.

Book designer Lance Hidy showed a copy of his Losing Things at Mr. Mudd’s, written by Carolyn Coman, perhaps the first children’s book illustrated entirely digitally (1992). Rebecca got him to offer her a free PhotoShop lesson. Kathie Kelleher showed picture books and Jim Knowles, a poet, brought his. Maryann Cocca-Leffler, Acquisitions Director for Bab’l Books, encouraged new submissions, while Carol Schwartz showed gorgeous original gouache artwork from her upcoming book.

Perks of personal contact

Marianne Knowles reflected that, “Brian Lies and I had a brief but (for me anyway) very meaningful conversation… about the importance of art in life, and the value of pursuing art whether or not anything comes of it commercially, and he spoke about the joy of blasting through something in an intense push.” There’s nothing so motivating as a deadline.

“It’s so wonderful to be in a room with book people,” Brian commented. “We’re all fighting the same fights–trying to get our stories together so they’re not only good enough for us and our dreams for them, but good enough for the publishing world.  And trying to get SEEN in the publishing world, even as it changes so quickly under our feet, with changing business practices and the digital world.  Connecting on a face-to-face basis humanizes the whole thing again, brings it back to just being people making stories as earnestly as they can.”

Carol and Teri. Author/Illustrator party. Oct. 16, 2016 - At home in Merrimac, Massachusetts.

Carol and Teri.

And Teri Weidner found it useful to “finally put faces to names I’ve heard around or seen online. …I met two other people that I share a rep with… I’d seen their work online for ages! It was great fun catching up with some older friends and hearing about their new projects. I always enjoy learning about what inspires other people’s book ideas, or hearing about how they’ve overcome obstacles to get their book ideas into print. It’s helpful to have a reminder that everyone hits bumps in the road sometimes, and we all need to work past those rejections to get the books we believe in made.”

Ed and Barbara Emberley chatted up a retrospective, at the Worcester Art Museum, of Ed’s 60 year career. FYI, the opening reception is November seventeenth, five to eight.

Maryann Cocca-Leffler and Ed Emberly. Author/Illustrator party. Oct. 16, 2016 - At home in Merrimac, Massachusetts.

Maryann Cocca-Leffler and Ed Emberley.

“Reconnecting with Ed Emberley was the highlight of the evening for me,” said Maryann Cocca- Leffler. “After 38 years, I finally got to say thank you. I reminded Ed and his wife Barbara that they were kind enough to invite a group of Mass College of Art illustration students to their home in 1979. I was among them.  It was the first time that I visited a professional children’s book illustrator’s studio and it made quite an impact.  Ed actually remembered that visit…and jokingly asked me…”So- you still went into children’s books?” I did indeed. Ed’s inspiring artwork and his excitement about the industry cemented my plans to steer my work toward a career in children’s books.”

“Every single professional advancement in my life,” Susan Paradis said, “has come about through personal contacts that began at parties. Face to face follow-ups with work in hand sealed the deals.”

All the writing and illustration work done by each of these creatives is solitary. Sure, there are book signings and school visits, conferences, and other events. But every writer and artist needs informal time to savor a sense of community with peers. It’s good tribe building.

Maryann, Marianne, Teri, and Kathie.

Maryann, Marianne, Teri, and Kathie.

How can you build your in-the-flesh tribe?

  • Host a pot luck house party with aspiring authors and artists in your area
  • Join organized meetups. Kris Asselin arranges some for the SCBWI New England Region, for example. Look for ones near you.
  • Join SCBWI to find people and organize meet-ups in your region. Do it! There are regions all over the world.
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Review: Fear and Courage in Two Books

At the library I borrowed two middle grade/ YA books, both of which are astonishing. One deals with a realistic cultural issue frequently in the news, the other with nature rendered in a Gothic style. Each portrays a boy main character who is involved in something seriously scary, but who acts in courageous ways.

Imagine young Mateo Cortez, who lives in a makeshift blue house in Mexico with his Mami, Abuelita, younger brother Lucas, and big brother Julian. Like many Mexicans, Mateo’s older sibling Julian goes to el norte, the United States, in search of work. He is, unfortunately, undocumented. Julian writes letters home and sends money, but when these missives stop arriving, Mateo, who sounds to be perhaps between ten and twelve years old, decides to go and find Julian. And so begins Until I Find Julian by Patricia Reilly Giff, twice a recipient of the Newbery Honor Book award.

Mateo leaves home with almost nothing, merely a backpack and a notebook for his writing, and has to find his way through the dangerous border crossing. The hazards are many. He might drown in the river or be caught by la migra–the border police–or the coyotes, who are unscrupulous men who traffic in undocumented Mexicans. When he has trouble swimming against the current of the river, he might not have survived if a wily girl experienced in traversing this shady, dangerous borderland, hadn’t stumbled upon him. She calls herself Angel and has been living mostly with her grandfather. She takes on Mateo as her mission. The two make their way from one American state to another. They find an abandoned house  some Mexican workers had squatted in and Mateo discovers  evidence that Julian has been there. He is gone, however, and Mateo’s search continues. One night Angel and Mateo find a refuge, but they are soon threatened by a blaze. Just in time, someone important to Mateo arrives.

The staggering risks that undocumented immigrants face becomes the conflict that the young hero tackles in trying to hold on to the members of the family he loves. The travails that poorer people will endure to better themselves brings into clear focus the pitfalls of discussions we hear today. Building a huge wall to keep these people out of the U. S. would be a catastrophe for children like Mateo, though the author skirts this issue, focusing instead on Mateo’s concern for his brother. Mateo ignores major risks in his brave journey to find his brother Julian, who paints pictures of Mexico because: “he wants the world to know about our country.”

When I picked up The Nest by Kenneth Oppel and illustrated by Jon Klassen, it seemed to be a story about fictionalized nature told with magical realism and a touch of mystery. That impression arose in part because of the jacket design. The art is a sepia illustration of pale wasp-like insects against what seems to be a wooden wall with the art and the title typography dropped out in white. This sepia design is printed on translucent paper and the remaining text and the blurb on the back cover are printed on the layer beneath this translucent one, therefore it is hazy, mysterious. The blurb reads,

I thought, It’s just a dream anyway. I thought, It has no power over me. I thought, Why not? “Fine,” I whispered.

Certainly, a marvelously compelling hook.

The story begins with imagery as beautiful  and filmy as the paper of the cover: “The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels. What else could they be….” They who are surrounded by a subtle light and a kind of music.

Deep within the plot something much darker emerged, however. It was then I noticed that the classification information on the copyright page said 1. Wasps–Fiction. 2. Babies–Fiction. 3. Supernatural–Fiction. 4. Horror stories–Fiction. Horror? Yes, though beautiful horror in a truly satisfying story about a boy willing to risk his life for what he believes is right.

The main character Steve, whose age is not given, seems to be about nine or so. He has OCD, as evidenced by his frequent hand washing and other compulsions, and enough anxiety issues that he sees a therapist. But Steve’s dreams about the angelic-seeming white wasps lead us eventually into a darkly enigmatic state somewhere between reality and the imaginary in which Steve must make hard choices.

His family’s main difficulty is that his baby brother, who he is reluctant to refer to by name, has some kind of congenital abnormality that may take his life at any moment. Steve discovers that the angelic figure of his dreams is working to intervene in the baby’s fate. The presence of a mysterious knife-sharpener man missing a few fingers, Steve’s sister’s toy phone on which she has discussions with Mr. Nobody, and Steve’s severe allergic reaction when stung by a wasp all serve to crank up the tension. But the constant tug between what Steve experiences as real and what he sees in his dream world relating to the life and death struggles around him are what really drives the plot. Steve risks his life for his brother in a dramatic climax that is guaranteed to rivet readers.

Jon Klassen’s dark, richly textured, semi-abstract illustrations are a fitting counterpoint to this mysteriously gripping story of a boy’s courage. Like Mateo, Steve puts aside his fears to do what he believes is right.

Until I Find Julian by Patricia Reilly Giff, copyright 2015, Wendy Lamb Books / Penguin Random House LLC

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jon Klassen, copyright 2015, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

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Finding a Critique Group to Nurture Your Fire

Good crit groups give you perspective.

You’ve heard of Burning Man, right? The arty, fire-infused festival takes place each Labor Day week in the middle of the 400 square mile Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Disclaimer: It’s not kid rated, but does serve as a tantalizing analogy.

Imagine that you are there in 1996 when 8,000 people come to witness it all. There is no fence around the parched, absolutely flat alkali lakebed, no signs to direct you, but you follow instructions given in miles and by compass points.

Critique groups help you progress.
Critique groups help you progress.

You must bring everything you need: shelter, food, water, shade, and perhaps creative installations or artworks, the bigger the better. You see dozens of crazy art cars festooned with found objects and one car in the shape of a shark with a movable tail, stilt walkers and fire breathers, art pavilions and sculptures. There is the tinkling of many little bells and when you turn, a stilt-walker approaches wearing copper tubing wings, sixteen feet across, adorned like a carillon. A remote-controlled sofa with people chilling on it rolls by, then a few minutes later, a lone floor lamp follows. Oh, and the fire makers: sundry big devices, fabricated from farm equipment, pipes, or sheet metal, roam spewing fireballs or shooting flame. You’ve never seen such creative fire.

Good crit buddies help you edit.
Good crit buddies help you edit.

So what’s the connection with a critique group for writers or artists? Are you looking for a group of like-minded people to share creative ideas with who will give honest feedback on your work? A supportive community that will inspire amazing things? Do you want to have a range of groups to choose among, to find the right one for you?

If there is a fire burning within you to make your writing or art the best it can be, then you need input from good, creative, skilled people familiar with the genre you are invested in and who operate in the style that best suits you. They can help you be part of a community that goes all out to entertain and inspire.

Things to consider:

  1. As a writer or artist you are a part of a larger community than that Burning Man I went to. There are, for example, more than 22,000 SCBWI members worldwide, most of whom are working on getting their children’s books published. Among them are many who belong to, or organize, critique groups. You need to zero in on which are most compatible with the way you work.
  2. Just as Burning Man explores a panoply of artistic formats, you need to decide whether you want an on-line or face-to-face crit group and how intense you want it to be. On-line groups free you geographically and guarantee that all comments and discussions are in writing. In-person groups must be within commuting distance, but you might want to be able to interact with your crit buddies in this more physically direct way. And in both of these types of groups some are organized around a relaxed schedule while others are more time-intensive.
  3. The Burning Man festival often has a theme. You may want a crit group focused on the theme/genre you target. A group that specializes in picture books and other short works may have several crits of entire works discussed per session. Another that focuses on young adult novels may only cover a chapter or certain maximum number of words, that is, a fragment of the whole, each time. You will usually get the most productive feedback from people who work in a similar genre.
  4. The sense of community a critique group offers is strongest when it fits your needs. A small intense group will be right for some, or might seem too limited. A large crit group might either stimulate you or feel overwhelming. The size of the group will also determine how often it will be your turn to submit and how many crits you will be expected to do in each cycle.
  5. In the Black Rock Desert event there is a cashless economy. Bartering is the currency. One of the strengths of a good critique group is that everyone shares their valuable knowledge unselfishly. You gain and you give. This works best when group members have a roughly equivalent ability and experience level. The scope of value you can get from a well-chosen critique group can be truly immeasurable.
  6. And the fire aspect. Critique groups work best if everyone is passionate enough about their work to submit the best they are capable of. And to commit to a regular schedule of submissions and critiques of others’ works. Assuming everyone has the burning fire of passion about their writing or art, everyone can give valuable, empathetic crits and receive constructive criticism graciously. Everyone’s goal is to help each other grow, improve, and succeed in the publishing world.
Should you commute or go digital?
Should you commute or go digital?

When deciding which to join, consider the layout of the group, what its parameters are. This year 70,000 people attended the Burning Man festival in a wide open desert. Organizers mark out a circular arena where vehicles and tents radiate in rows. The space is well defined. To get an idea of the many formats a critique group may follow, here are the guidelines for two, through a Dropbox link. You don’t need to sign in to read this. One is for an on-line group. The other is a face-to-face group.

There are various ways to find a critique group that’s right for you. Start with SCBWI’s listserve and blueboards. Note: you must be an SCBWI member to access this feature. If you want a local, face-to-face one, ask at your local library – your children’s librarian should be your friend anyway. The SCBWI regional conferences often have a crit group sign-up area or a meet and greet event to help conference goers find a crit group. Professional writers’ organizations may have resources lists on their website where you can post what you are looking for.

They help you convey your message.
They help you convey your message.

In 2014 there was an article here on WR about Inked Voices, which is a cloud-based on-line critique and meet-up organization. The interview with Inked Voices originator Brooke McIntyre was conducted by Marianne Knowles, our critique group organizer extraordinaire and creator of Writers Rumpus.

Another way to gain valuable critiques of your work is during one-on-one sessions with an editor or agent at a conference or workshop. The SCBWI offers many regional and national conferences annually and many provide opportunities to link up with an agent or editor for feedback. Big Sur at Cape Cod, a small conference to be held May 13th to 15th, 2016, is comprised of small group mentoring workshops with industry professionals. Not only will participants get valuable critiques from professionals on their work, there will be time to revise and resubmit. This is like an uber critique group.

Harold Underdown, an independent children’s book editor, has posted a page of suggestions on finding critique groups. Writers Digest has input for you about this topic too, including ideas for where to look. And whenever you associate with other children’s book people, word of mouth can also lead you to a good group.

W the Burning ManOne way or another, keep that fire burning.

If you have found a great critique group in some other way, share it in the comments!

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Rick Riordan: Demigod Saving the World

One child at a time, or sometimes en masse, Rick Riordan uses his superstar power to transform kids into readers. In a previous article titled Rick Riordan is a Demigod! the author’s ability to shazaam! a boy like Matthew from being a reluctant reader to an avid one was written in stone as if by Magnus Chase’s glowing sword.

Well, there’s more to the story. This is about a tweet, some tickets, and an incredible bookstore.

After that first blog post, the demigod author saw our WR article and responded to Matthew. Previously, Matt felt the demigod’s aura only through the printed page. Suddenly, though, Mr. Riordan had addressed Matt directly, through Twitter. Whoa. And later, during his book signing, Rick told Matt, “It is nice to meet you in person, Matthew.” Double whoa.

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Matt’s parents discovered that there would soon be a book signing not too far away at a bookstore called An Unlikely Story in Plainville, MA. Matt was dying to meet the demigod in person. For him, the books were roaring to life.

Tickets were required. They cost $23.41, which would get you two seats and a copy of Thor’s Hammer ($19.99), the latest book in Riordan’s new Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series. Matt’s dad Carl went online at the moment the tickets went on sale. Busy. Carl refreshed. Busy. He refreshed. Busy. In less than one minute all tickets for this event with a seating capacity of 200 had already been sold.  Kym Havens, of An Unlikely Story, confirmed that three thousand people tried to get those tickets. Does that sound like trying to get into a Beyoncé concert? But this was at a bookstore! Fortunately, Carl did get Matt a spot on the wait list.

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When Matt and Carl arrived they stood in line at the back of the parking lot for 45 minutes and were given a number, which would determine what seat Matt would be given and his place in the book signing line. Good thing he’d been to Disney World for queuing practice!

An Unlikely Story has a function room on the second floor called The Second Story and that’s where Rick Riordan did his PowerPoint presentation and answered questions for the 200 luckiest kids, while Matt and the other ninety-nine wait-listers were on the third floor watching on video. It was brilliant of the bookstore to offer this additional possibility. Before the presentation, Rick Riordan made an appearance to the wait-list kids and fielded two questions. Matt asked, “Who is your favorite demigod?” The diplomatic answer, “It changes based on the day and my mood, but tonight it is Leo.” What can be better for a kid than a one-on-one with his favorite author?

Know who entertained the kids while they were waiting for Riordan to sign books? None other than Jeff Kinney of the Wimpy Kid series fame, who did his book presentation for them. Now that doesn’t feel at all like a consolation prize, does it. No, it was an incredible surprise! Wait. What? He and his wife own the bookstore? Oh, yes they do. No wonder it’s so cool.

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Matthew had met children’s book authors before, but he still hadn’t liked to read. One day his friend Sam told him about The Lightning Thief by a certain, now infamous, demigod author. Sam was not a reluctant reader. He was just spreading the gospel about a thrilling book series. Tons of kids like Sam love these 300-500 page books. The surprise is that kids with ADHD, dyslexia, and general malaise about reading will power through these hefty tomes too. How does this magic happen?

As Matt was waiting in line to get his books signed, he spoke with six or seven other enthusiasts. One boy was formerly a seriously reluctant reader like Matt had been until he encountered the Percy Jackson books. Carl spoke with the mother of a girl who had been reading the Harry Potter books, but got bored and stopped. Now she’s happily reading about mythical battles between Riordan’s demigods and monsters. Matt met two girls, sisters, who have both ADHD and dyslexia, but slog through the Riordan books even though they are difficult because the kids in the books have the same disabilities these girls do. The characters are exactly like the girls (well in some ways), which amazes them. They can relate. So out of six or seven kids Matt spoke to, four had some kind of reading difficulty.

Kym Havens, the bookstore’s Marketing and Events Manager, said, “Rick came up with these stories about gods and demigods for his son, who is dyslexic and had ADHD. So I think that comes through loud and clear to kids when they read his books. He was also a middle school teacher for years, and was obviously a very good one! He is so talented at reaching kids who are a little out of the mainstream. One girl thanked him for including LGTBQ characters in his stories. Another girl at the event told me she and her friends refer to him as “Uncle Rick”. I loved that!”

These are not short, simple books. The first of the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard books is set in contemporary Boston, which is also the Midgard of Norse mythology. That’s some mind-blowing cross-over. And Magnus Chase is a homeless teen with a reading disability who has done a bit of shady stuff, yet also a demigod with the power to defeat evil beings. There is we’ve-got-to-save-the-world drama throughout, offset by snappy humor, sometimes enough to make you laugh out loud. This recipe is converting kids of all reading abilities in droves. Like magic.

Cue the bookstore. An Unlikely Story is an amazing facility. This bookstore provides authors and kids a fabulous venue, including presentation space, movie-style posters, an in-house famous author (Jeff Kinney who also has a studio on the third floor) to keep things running smoothly, and swag. Each of the wait-list kids was given an @camphalfblood related tee shirt. The bookstore offers a packed schedule of programs and activities for kids, and sometimes for adults too. And if all of that makes you hungry, you can have breakfast or lunch in their café.

Mainly, though, they help authors like Rick Riordan cast good spells that encourage kids to read about ways to save this troubled world.

And Matt’s reaction to meeting his favorite author ever? He told Carl on the way home that he was, “110% honored.”

Thank you, Rick Riordan! And An Unlikely Story!

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Rick Riordan is a Demigod!

matt-reading

rick-riordan-headshotLook at a picture of Rick Riordan.  You can see his quirky sense of humor in those eyes. Although he might feel like he lives on Mount Olympus considering that his books have earned him thirty-five million dollars so far, he’s really just a regular guy, right? No glowing aura, no apparent ability to morph into something spectacular. Doesn’t look much like a demigod.

However, he has an incredible secret power that raises him above the level of mere mortals.

Okay, a little backstory.

matt-frustrated

Matthew was a typical, smart, nine-year-old kid. Nice family, cool friends, did well in school, etc. But Matt had a problem. A huge one. He hated reading. It was so FRUSTRATING! His sister Miranda had zoomed through Tolkien’s Hobbit, all of the Harry Potters, and a ton of other books by the age of ten or eleven. Everyone else in his family read to him, read on their own, bought him books and so on, but Matt was not particularly interested. He navigated through some of the Magic Treehouse books and some required reading, but for him reading was boring. Anything else was more fun.

Then Rick Riordan cast a spell.

shazam-lights-2

Matt was transformed forever.

The author’s first series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, washed over Matt like Poseidon’s breath. Suddenly this kid was poring through the first in that series, the 384-page The Lightning Thief, then reaching for the next volume. After the five Percy Jackson books, Matt started in on Riordan’s Kane Chronicles series.

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So, I asked Matt about this otherworldly phenomenon.

Me: How did you choose The Lightning Thief anyway?

Matt: Sam suggested it. He thought I’d like it. At the library when your table is called you have to choose your book relatively fast. So it helps to have a suggestion.

Me: Was Sam right?

Matt: Yep. I read The Lightning Thief in eight days. It’s an amazing book. I find that in a series the first book takes a while to get into because you have to learn all the characters. Also, not as much is happening.

Note: (I’ve read it and, um, lots happens. But it is one amazingly big book -384 pages- for a reluctant reader!)

Me: How long did it take you to read the second book?

Matt: Four days. The Sea of Monsters took less time because I knew it was going to be a good book, based on how much I liked the first one. Also, I spent more time reading because I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. It was also shorter. (note: 320 pages, so not much shorter. It did help that in the books Percy is Poseidon’s son and Matt LOVES swimming. Also, there are dolphins, Matt’s favorite animal. He rode one in Florida. He felt like he was Percy. )

Me: How does this compare with the way you read before?

Matt: A ton better. I liked the Magic Tree House books. I could read one in a day. But now I’m reading much bigger books and liking them more. Book 4, that I’m reading now, is 361 pages long.

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Me: So what about book 3?

Matt: Titan’s Curse took me about five days. It was very good. It was the first one where Thalia, the daughter of Zeus, was a character. She was about to reach her 16th birthday. The conflict in the story was whether she would destroy Olympus or save it.

Me: What’s next?

Matt: The second series, The Heroes of Olympus, is five books as well. In my mind they are all part of the same series. So there are ten books so far.

Me: What are the characteristics you like in Rick Riordan’s writing?

Matt: The books are more detailed. There is a good plot. The characters–and there are a lot of them–all have different personalities. I like how all the characters help each other out and are, in a way, all connected.

Me: What about the mythology?

Matt: I feel like Greek mythology in this kind of story is pretty cool. There are centaurs, satyrs, and demigods who make the story more interesting. Some of the characters–mainly the demigods–have special powers based on which god or goddess is their mother or father.

Me: This all started because Sam recommended the first book to you. Would you recommend Rick Riordan’s books to other kids?

Matt: Definitely. I’d recommend the series to lots of kids my age.

Me: What advice do you have for children’s book writers?

Matt: Think about the characters. Make them all have a different personality and they are creative, like demigods. Believable bad guys. There are also so many kinds of monsters in this world. And the world should be convincing.

That is the story of how Rick Riordan used his demigod powers to cast a spell, transforming Matt into an avid reader. Matt did not mention that these stories are set in contemporary time, and familiar places, as well as in mythical worlds. I’m on page 449 of The Sword of Summer, the first of a more recent Riordan series, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, in which Boston is the heart of Midgard, one of the nine Norse worlds. Magnus is a homeless kid, and a demigod chosen by a Valkyrie to go to Valhalla after a battle with his mythic sword goes awry and Magnus dies on the Longfellow Bridge. The bronze Make Way for Ducklings sculpture at Boston’s Public Garden is actually a portal to another world. And the humor is crazy fun. This summer we were on a long road trip, with Matt silent in the back seat. I thought he had fallen asleep, until he burst out laughing over something he’d just read. Example: The name of the rune-inscribed mythic and powerful Sword of Summer is . . . Jack. Not your typical Viking moniker. You were expecting something more like Snæbjartur, Þjođbjörn, or even Guðjón (Matt’s Icelandic cousin’s name)? No, it’s Jack.

Rick Riordan knows the formulas to transform someone’s world and thereby morph a reluctant reader into an avid one. Matt is eternally thankful for this miracle.

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*According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the origin and etymology of ‘shazam’ is an “incantation used by the comic-strip hero Captain Marvel, from Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury, on whom he called.”

Photo credits: Rick Riordan’s head shot is from his website. All other photographs are by Egils Zarins.

Update: Yesterday Rick Riordan posted a tweet in response to this article:

nhjemioldgopbplp

So, I called and told Matthew. He said, “I am honored!” Suddenly the Demigod is a real person to Matthew. The author will be doing a signing in our general area on October 4th with tickets made available today at 6:00pm. Matt’s dad tried to get a few of the 200 spots for the event, but they were gone in eight seconds! Waiting list time. Apparently that’s what happens when an author is a demigod!

This post appeared first on Writersrumpus.com, where I write a column once each month.

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September 11, 2001

 

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9/11 design by Dan Nadeau

One day, Jeb Dubus, Rob Blount, and I were in Jeb’s office at what was then the Amesbury Artworks building in Amesbury, MA. We were planning our response to the city’s RPF for the building next door, to work with artists and the city to convert it to artists’ studios. The phone rang.

It was Jeb’s brother Andre, the novelist. He told Jeb that something major had happened in New York and Jeb should go home. Jeb hung up and we continued our planning, not really understanding what Andre referred to. A little while later Andre called again. This was serious. We each immediately went home to televised scenes that will be burned in our memories forever.

The trauma in New York happened in spectacular tragedy. Later, two art events helped many people in our area deal with the emotional impact.

A few days after 9/11 I was to teach the second Drawing I class of the semester at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, MA. We were all crushed inside by our emotions, though. What should I say to these new  students? I decided to let art do its job.

Abstract mark making was the subject matter and charcoal was the medium for the day. I talked about additive mark making where everyone was to make  marks with charcoal in as wide a vocabulary of tones and textures as possible. I gave them each a tissue to help them with smudging, or they might use their hands. I explained about the reductive process where an eraser could  make marks by removing charcoal. I asked them to think abstractly. Each student worked on an 18″ x 24″ piece of paper for the entire  period. Here is a sample of what happened.

By David Makumbi

By David Makumbi

by Sonnet Stevquoah

by Sonnet Stevquoah

by Jaime Parada

by Jaime Parada

by Nadya Pankratova

by Nadya Pankratova

by Pholla Long

by Pholla Long

by Zhou (Lily) Xu

by Zhou (Lily) Xu

We hung all the drawings done by this class in the main building at the Lowell campus. Many people stopped to ask about the power within these emotional expressions before they were even all hung.

The following summer Jim Zingarelli had an idea to work with the public to make small pictogram-like artworks which could be sold, around the time of the one year anniversary, to show support and raise money for the family of a thirty-eight year old Amesbury man who was on American flight 11, one of the ill fated flights from Boston that crashed into the World Trade Center. Jeb Dubus volunteered that we could use what was then the Amesbury Artworks building and I agreed to coordinate what we called the Pictogram Project.

Everyone who wanted to – artists and townspeople – would make 3″ x 5″ artworks on paper and with materials we provided, or on their own. We would hang them on the walls in an effort to show the staggering number of victims, each of whom was a beautiful person. On September 7th, 2002we spent the day helping everyone who walked in to Amesbury Artworks to do these art works.

In my Graphic Design class at Middlesex I had earlier assigned my students to do a simple 9 /11 logo. All of the designs were intriguing, but Dan Nadeau came up with the amazing design at the top of this page using Roman numerals. I had it made into a rubber stamp.

On day one of the Pictogram Project volunteers (including my mother, Marie Audy!) would stamp the back of each Pictogram artwork when it was complete, and write in the name of one of the victims from a  list that had been published in the newspaper. In this way, we made an effort to honor those who died. Then we hung them on the wall. Here are a few of them.

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On the reverse, each was personalized.

a few of the Pictograms

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A few more. They were in many media and styles.

On day two of the Pictogram Project, anyone could buy one or more of these little artworks loaded with meaning for $1 each. The money raised was a symbolic gift to the widow and children of Robert Hayes.

Jeb Dubus, me, Debbie Hayes, and Jim Zingarelli

Jeb Dubus, me, Debbie Hayes, and Jim Zingarelli

 

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First experiences at ALA

ALA conf 2016

The American Library Association (ALA) annual conference, a ginormous offering for ALA’s 68,000 member librarians, was held this past weekend in Orlando at the newly refurbished Convention Center. Why should that matter to you? According to the ALA convention website, approximately 16,000 people who are decision makers concerning which books are purchased for their libraries were expected to attend. Roughly eighty-six percent of them purchase books at this annual conference. This is a huge marketing outreach for new books for kids.

Here is an impressive bit of trivia – the ALA is the oldest and largest library association in the world. How’s that for clout?

Maryann Cocca-Leffler and Jair Hernandez int he Diversity Pavilion.

Maryann Cocca-Leffler and Jair Hernandez in the Diversity Pavilion.

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Newly available in hardcover too!

I am especially keyed into this 2016 event since Babl Books, Inc. brought my book, Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar, in its brand new, hard cover, printed in the USA, Spanish translation. This was the first time Babl Books has participated and it was a productive move for all of their authors and illustrators.

Jair Hernandez, President of Babl Books, Inc., continues to promote his mission to publish much-needed quality bilingual picture books that deal with universal themes. Babl Books exhibited in the Diversity Pavilion, in good company with We Need Diverse Books nearby, who also exhibited there for the first time.

W Nancy Cote JBMaryann Cocca-Leffler, Acquisitions Director for Babl, is also an Author-Illustrator of Children’s books. She joined Jair in promoting Babl Books and their 20+ distinguished Authors & Illustrators (current and upcoming lists), including Nancy Cote, David McPhail and Michael Garland.

Jair reports: We met with a lot of enthusiastic librarians, publishers, and vendors who want to see more bilingual books. Our hard work leading up to the conference definitely paid off, as we were able to showcase our books and speak of a literacy need that resonated with many of the people we spoke with.

The road to ALA 2016 wasn’t without its hiccups, which included me dropping all my catalogs in the parking lot. 

ALA catalogs

We felt ALA was a great success for Babl Books and our Author Partners. Maryann and I were able to cap off the weekend  with some local flavor at Cafe Tu Tu Tango, where Maryann tried her first gator!

Maryann adds: All our books are available in hardcovers for Libraries through Babl Books and through Ingram and hopefully soon through Baker & Taylor.

Librarians at ALA were actively on the look-out for bilingual books. Though Spanish seems to be the most sought after, we got enthusiastic response for our bilingual offerings in our other 7 core languages including Portuguese, Chinese and Vietnamese. There was lots of talk about “Family Literacy” and many found our dual text particularly helpful when a child shares their books at home. Many librarians asked for Arabic, which we currently don’t offer, but may look into that possibility.

I think people were most surprised by our innovative translation platform and our POD ability to print quality hardcovers, which truly gives us the ability to add many language offerings. We are actively growing our line and are gaining interest from authors, illustrators and agents.

Our booth was in the Diversity Pavilion. We not only connected with Librarians but other valuable industry professionals. Many Librarians brought along their families. It is nice to hear that as parents they want to bring up their children in a bilingual household. (I slipped some paperbacks books to the kids!)

David McPhail coverSwag – book related freebies – is often available at conferences, book launch parties, and conventions. Jair and Maryann held raffles each day to give away themed packets. On Friday it was a Celebrating the Child pack including Something Special, Jackson’s Blanket, Fatuma, and I Like Buttons. Saturday’s was a Nighttime pack featuring Caroline Dreams, Before You Go to Bed, Time to Say Bye-Bye, and Mouse Counting. On Sunday they gave away a Summer Kick-off pack including Hermit Crab, Whale-snail, Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar, and Clams All Year.

A conference like ALA Orlando has enormous power to connect people with books for children. This first experience for Babl Books as an exhibitor at a major event like this one proved to be gratifying.

To find out more about Babl Books please visit www.bablbooks.com

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Babl Books at ALA

I am excited that Babl Books, whose mission is to offer bilingual picture books, including mine, to kids everywhere,  will be at ALA this weekend. They are sharing a booth with We Need Diverse Books. Check them out if you go!
BABL BOOKS will exhibiting at the 
ALA Conference in Orlando – Jun 24-27
Find us at the DIVERSITY PAVILION  # 1067F 
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Author – Artist Residency Tips

by Joyce Audy Zarins

If someone from a school overseas invited you to do an author or artist residency in connection with your picture book what would you do? I said yes even before I knew the particulars. If that would be your reaction, there are a few things you may want to consider to maximize this opportunity.

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Part of the ACS Cobham International School’s Early Childhood area.

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The Kindergarten building.

I had never been to England, where the ACS International School in Cobham, Surrey, UK has students from all over the world. This would be different from the artist residency I had done last May in Akyreyri, Iceland where I helped the students in grades one through ten paint murals. The ACS school was interested in my picture book Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar, originally published a while ago in New York by Lippincott (and subsequently Harper & Row) in a hardcover English-only version. The book was reissued this past November in six languages, which fit with the school’s international community of students. Would I come and talk to kids in pre K to grade two? I formulated a list of options for the teachers to choose from and started collecting what would be needed. By the time I headed for the airport last week the plan had morphed into a week of presentations for 300 kids in groups of 12-15, including a few classes of 2 year olds. Actually they were closer to three, because it’s nearing the end of the school year. The plan for them was a simple story time.

The entire week-long experience was completely amazing, partly because of the planning that was done ahead. Edori and Helen, the two art faculty I interacted with, came up with excellent projects relating to the art in my book, Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar.

Kindergardeners made mixed media collages incorporating white negative space, like in the book.

Kindergardeners made mixed media collages incorporating white negative space, like in the book. Art teacher Edori Fertig came up with this excellent plan.

This shark attack mixed media was a surprise. Poor crabs!

This shark attack mixed media was a surprise. Poor crabs!

I must say that I had an angel. My friend Stephanie Hurlbatt was the children’s librarian in my town when my kids were young and a friend who helped my son with his magic shows. She moved to England long ago, married, and has been teaching at the ACS school since then. She was the mover and shaker for this residency and even organized the reception the school put on for me. She deserves a medal.

First graders made Styrofoam prints, drawing with a pencil what printed as the white lines. The sand dollar book originals were silk screens.

First graders made Styrofoam prints, drawing with a pencil what printed as the white lines. The sand dollar book originals were silk screens. Art teacher Helen decided on this print method.

If you find yourself an angel, here are a few things that might ensure that your experience is as good as mine was.

  1. Arrive two days early, if possible, to avoid jetlag due to the time difference and the slog that travel is. I was expected to present to five groups on Monday, and I was introduced to lots of staff and teachers. You need to be at your best. I arrived on Saturday and left the following Sunday, at the school’s suggestion. A brilliant idea.
  2. Communicate as closely with the different grade level teachers and tailor presentations to fit their curricula as much as possible. I brought four different PowerPoint slide shows and a few demonstration materials geared to different targets and age levels. Also, copies of my book in all six languages, which I donated to the school library at the end of the week even though the school had purchased one copy for each class.
  3. PreK made sand dollars of self hardening clay.

    PreK children made sand dollars of self hardening clay.

    Bring extra copies of your media. Redundancy is a good practice. I checked to be sure the school’s equipment was compatible with what I brought, and then I made two thumb drives with everything on them. This helped when, in the flurry of moving from one class to another, the first stick was left behind in the computer. I also had saved everything on Google Drive, just in case.

  4. Print out a schedule for the week, coded to your list of which presentations are for each grade. Stephanie provided an Excel grid once the schedule was set. Each block listed the grade. I added numbers coded to the list of my offerings which the school had chosen for each grade. For each class, I could easily tell the teacher which number presentation to select on his/her computer.

    A true angel - Stephanie Hurlbatt.

    A true angel – Stephanie Hurlbatt.

  5. I was fortunate that Stephanie, who teaches PreK at the school, was my sidekick for the week, assuring the logistics like where to be, where to have lunch, and so on. For PreK she sang a fun sea-themed song complete with cute gestures with the kids to fill a time gap. Yes, time slots must be conformed to. Stephanie is an amazing liaison.
  6. Managing your reimbursement is necessary. Keep all receipts for your meals, materials, and flight in one place to facilitate the payment process. Amounts for things purchased before your arrival will be in US Dollars while expenses during your trip will be in local currency. Do note that up front on your invoice so there is no confusion. When the school e-mailed me the reimbursement form after I returned home, I discovered that the bank information they needed was unfamiliar. I went to the credit union where my checking and savings are and found that they had an awkward way to handle foreign transactions. I went to a bigger local bank, but they too could have completed the transaction only by going through an intermediary bank first. So I opened an account at a local branch of Santander Bank, since they are based in Spain and have branches in England. I gave the school that bank’s information. However, I learned that all US banks have a different system than European ones. Bank of America might have been a better choice because of their scope.
  7. Keep a list of teachers’ and administrators’ names for thank you emails later. They reached out to you and spent quite a bit to bring you to their school. Mention what you provided and that you tried to tailor your programs to the curriculum for each group. For example I made rubber stamps of ocean organisms and provided books, bookmarks and stickers, and boxes with sea shells, some of which I mailed ahead. I donated these materials. And the second grade classes had all written out similes and metaphors and some classes included onomatopoeia. In addition to talking about these with the kids, I emailed a short response to each class later using the childrens’ names when possible. Showing administrators that you tried to fit your presentation into the school’s educational paradigm reinforces your value to the school.

My experience with this second overseas school residency was awesome. I was even given a gift of bunting – a charming British decorative thing – with pictures of British birds on it, as a memento. Dozens of kids gave me hugs – no such thing as too many of those! One group sang the chant from the book, which they had memorized. And one little girl told me she wished I was her mother! How cute is that.

I hope that your author-artist residency experience will be equally rewarding.

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This article also appears at WritersRumpus.com, a blog for authors and illustrators of children’s books.

Posted in Art, children's books, Diverse books, process, Residencies, the world | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Big Sur on Cape Cod

W beach at Sea Crest Beach Hotel

I’ve just returned home from Big Sur on Cape Cod, a wonderful mentoring weekend for children’s book authors and illustrators organized by Andrea Brown and her most-successful-in-the-US literary agency, in coordination with Lisa Rehfuss. This event is held annually in California, and for the first time was offered here in New England (lucky us). The program and venue were fantastic. The food too, especially those lobster sliders!

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Box lunches on the deck.

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Littleneck clam chowder.

The ratio of mentors – meaning agents, editors, and established authors – to attendees was one to five. Of the fifty attendees at least two had their work requested by agents present during the weekend. Editors Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge and Christine Krones of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will be open to queries from attendees for the next three months. Yolanda Scott also revealed that Charlesbridge will release YA books in 2017. All fifty registrants received fabulous feedback, business pointers, and camaraderie.

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David Elliott with four of his five acolytes.

My two mentors were Kelly Sonnack, a seriously perceptive and business minded Senior Agent at Andrea Brown, Inc. and David Elliott, a New York Times best-selling children’s author and almost opera singer. I am so grateful for the wisdom they and my workshop peers shared. Brandi Hand not only has beautiful red hair, but cleverly volunteered to set up a Big Sur Facebook page for post event sharing.

An added bonus was an impromptu illustration critique session by Anne Sibley O’Brien, a well-known author/illustrator of wonderful books focused on diversity. Workshop attendees from picture book people to YA authors came from the Midwest, New Orleans, and even Stockholm, Sweden.

No time for this!

No time for this!

This weekend was a convergence of fertile minds and eloquent hearts all striving towards compelling writing and art for children’s books.

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Interview: Totally Talented Brian Lies

I recently did an interview for WritersRumpus.com with Brian Lies, successful author and illustrator of gorgeous books for children. It was posted to coincide with the release of Brian’s latest picture book, Gator Dad. You can see his glorious artwork and read about him here.

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Two May Residencies

W-Teens-on-the-Wall-4Iceland, 2015

Being invited for an artist or author residency is such an honor. Last May I went to northern Iceland for a week long artist residency to help seventy kids in grades one to ten paint murals. The school was Valsárskóli in Svalbarðsströnd, which is across the fjord from where my son Eric and his wife Inga live. Inga, whose full name is Inga Sigrún Atladóttir, is the Principal of the school and was kind enough to hire me. It was only the second time that I’ve needed a translator to communicate with students. The youngest kids are beginning to learn English, but the eighth to tenth graders are fluent. All of them painted with enthusiasm and flair. The younger artists worked from sketches they had done of things important to them, from sheep to trees with little people living in them. The middle group did rainbows, Minecraft, and even police cars with lights flashing. Within this rainbow is a red, fire-breathing dragon wearing a nice hat with a flower on it!W-Teens-on-the-Wall-6

The older kids did conceptual self portraits within tracings of their own shadows. We used a powerful light borrowed from their auditorium and drew the shadows on paper first so we could arrange them well on the wall.

Hrafntinna, who was shy, was the last to decide on a pose. She was sprawled on the sofa where the kids were hanging out watching the painting unfold and for the longest time wasn’t sure what position she wanted to be in.

W-Teens-on-the-Wall-3One girl had done a yoga tree pose, some kids were leaning on their closest friends, three buddies were arm in arm, and so on. But she was undecided. So I suggested that she use the horizontal pose she was in right then. She agreed, we traced her, then floated her above everyone else. What color did she choose to paint herself? Sky blue. And when she added her conceptual imagery, it consisted of tiny birds flying within her form.

 

W-Teens-on-the-Wall-2W-Teens-on-the-Wall

In the video, the adults (Ásrún, Elizabet, Hrafndís, and Belgie), are teachers who helped enormously with communicating with students (Kristján, Rakel, Hrafntinna, Alda, Alida, Ásdis, Kristbjord, Orri, Ragnar, Stefán, Sævar, Telmar, and Þorri) and with keeping the paint under control. Through the window you can see a bit of the fjord and the snow-covered mountains on the other side.

Working with these teens and  younger people on their artistic visions was an awesome experience.

 

England, 2016

Sand Dollar bookmark2Now this May I will be heading to Cobham, Sussex, England for another week-long residency, this time at an international school.  The kids will be in preK to 2nd grade classes and we will spend time thinking about art, writing, and nature. My first picturebook, Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar (originally published by Lippincott, then Harper & Row in 1980), was reissued last year, in a paperback version, translated into six languages, which is the connection to this international school. Each book also includes the story in English and so these translations are ideal for kids, in the U.S.A. and everywhere, who are bilingual or hope to be.

Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar was inspired by my love of the beach at Plum Island in Massachusetts. It is about Peter and his dog Urchin making a sand castle, then dealing with the sea washing the castle away. He wants the waves to go away, and thinks his sand dollar does make it recede. But when he finds a little flounder, who needs the sea, he says, “What have I done?” And what do you think he does next? This story is about a fine day at the beach, but also about our responsibility toward the environment we love.

I will be bringing sand dollars and other shells, slide shows relating to the beach, giant insects, and steel and mixed media sculpture. And we will make things that show how we feel about the natural world.

 

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Meet Viðar

ViðarMeet our newest family member, Viðar, who is Dagbjört and Erlingur’s baby. He was born February 2. In line with Icelandic custom, his name was not used until he was christened this past Sunday, Easter. Isn’t he beautiful? The photo was taken by Eric, who is now a grandfather! Viðar and his parents live in Reykjavík.

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World of Books: France, Belgium and Czech Republic

by Joyce Audy Zarins

Les Mammouths

In my small collection of children’s books from around the world, some help explain ways of thinking to the young. The world can be a scary and sometimes puzzling place, so clues are always useful.

In Les Mammouths, Les Ogres, Les Extraterrestres, et ma petite soeur, as the title suggests, creatures of the past and future meet and the question of what is real and what is imaginary is raised. It is also self-referential. This Tom’poche publication originated in Nice, France and is written by Alex Cousseau and illustrated by Nathalie Choux with whimsical decorations that include many references to folk tales and other children’s stories. The colors are warm and bright and blend the possible with the impossible.

Les Mammouths4The existentialism begins with the first sentence, “Papa says that mammoths do not exist.” Well, considering that Papa appears to be that very species, albeit with a bow tie, the fun begins. Papa says that ogres don’t exist either. Mama adds that mammoths only existed a long, long time ago. So what about this nice family with their wide open eyes? The little mammoth asks, “Do you exist or not?”

Papa explains as they walk out on the street and into the world that they only exist when the author of the book writes their story and the illustrator draws it so. In spite of appearances, they are not really on the street or in the world. If the author wants to show on the street an ogre on top of a sheep, he will ask the artist to draw that. Little mammoth notes that the result looks more like a green extraterrestrial than an ogre. Papa concurs. That is because the artist lady is not so good at drawing ogres. She is very good at drawing sheep, though.

Les Mammouths6The little guy with the red pants turns out to be the ogre and imagine his surprise when he is riding in the pannier of Papa Mammoth’s doughnut-wheeled motorcycle and overhears that he doesn’t exist either! Imaginative adventures happen. Past, present, and future collide and there is a lovely mix of realistic artichoke roofs on buildings and doll-faced characters (one of whom is reading the very book we’re discussing) dancing across the pages with the Seven Dwarfs, a blind mouse, and lots of other improbables.

At the end of this philosophical day, the little mammoth mentions something else suggested by the book’s title. “I would love to have a little sister.” But that won’t happen unless the author thinks of it and writes her into the book and the artist draws her, right? No, Papa explains. The little sister will only exist when Papa and Mama wink to each other. This is the way it always begins.

This is a completely delightful book, and I know for a fact that it does actually exist.

TrouwenB

In Trouwen met Tanja (Married with Tanja) by Bart Van Nuffelen and Klaas Verplancke there is also a huge emphasis on the written word, but in a different way. For example, the endpapers are covered with a child’s cursive writing that repeats endlessly, “I will not marry Tanja.” The typography throughout the book uses scale and color changes to emphasize the action and meaning of the story using Clarendon type. And the underlying message regards keeping your word, though maybe not when your promise has been coerced.

Trouwen2BOn Marc’s last day of kindergarten before a vacation he and the other kids are doing foolish things, running in circles until they see stars and so on. Along comes Stief, who is grosser than most, especially about bodily functions. He also knows more about the female anatomy than anyone. He imitates a robot making everyone laugh and Marc falls to the ground with the hilarity of it all.

He feels someone grab him – first by his neck, then in other places. It is Tanja. She is silent, then she gently asks him, “Will you marry me?”

She looks weird to Mark because she’s so close. He can only see a bit of her at a time. Her freckles remind him of countries on the globe and he feels like a fly caught in a spiderweb. She asks again and he says no. She squeezes his fingers. Her sharp teeth remind him of the Ural mountains, the Central Massif…even Mount Saint Helen. Steif yells at him to answer her and under pressure he caves in and squeaks out a “yes.” Oh no. What did he do?

Trouwen3During vacation Marc tries outlandish ways to change his bad luck, because he does not want to marry Tanja. When he asks Mom and Dad what happens if you promise… Mom interrupts and says he must keep his promise. Marc feels doomed. He decides to hold his breath until it isn’t true anymore. That doesn’t work. He tries other tricks. Nothing. Zorro, who is Stief in disguise, appears and gives him a clue. And the saga continues. This goes on through the entire vacation, then once back at school, there she is again, the inescapable Tanja. Amid kids chanting and other chaos, The chant from the beginning of the book is repeated and Marc flies head over heels off toward America to escape.

The mixed media images are large-scale madcap exaggerations which makes them completely engaging, especially Tanja as a global entity. And everyone’s eyes are the same bugging-out-of-their-heads type as those in the previously described book – round white circles with expressive black pupils. The illustration colors used are deep tones that make the compositions pop.

The drama is clear and the characters certainly emote.

Jako by

Jako by se tu nekdo snazil nevydat ani hlasku (A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound) by John Irving, illustrated by Tatjana Hauptmannova, was translated from the original English by Meander publishers, Czech Republic. It was originally published by Bloomsbury Publishing, London.

This picture book was first told within Mr. Irvings’ novel A Widow for One Year, which was made into the movie The Door in The Floor. In it, the main character is a children’s book writer named Ted Cole. According to an interview with Mr. Irving, he did not set out to write a children’s book until he needed some examples to attribute to the main character of his novel. Does this suggest similarities with the Les Mammouths version of reality?

Jako by3In the picture book story, Tom is awakened in the middle of the night by a sound. He sits bolt upright in bed, eyes wide and bulging. What was that? We can imagine the pounding of his heart. He can’t identify what the sound is because it isn’t like anything he’s heard before. To him it evokes  the movement of a monster with no arms or legs dragging itself along the ground, among other imaginative responses. How creepy is that? Tom’s dad (who wisely does not actually appear in the pictures) explains that it’s just the scurrying of mice in the walls, which comforts Tom. But his little brother Tim can’t sleep for worrying because he doesn’t know what the word “mouse” means. Here again is a reference to the power of really understanding what words mean.

Jako by4This small format book is illustrated with wonderful, semi-disheveled drawings that vividly evoke Tom’s humanity, the shadowy setting, the dim moonlight, and the bulges in the wall. One clue to the mystery of the noises is an image in which a mouse, dramatized by its long shadow, crosses a room in the foreground.

In the end, all three of these books say, in different evocative ways, that reality is what you believe it to be.

 

This article also appears on WritersRumpus.com.

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Young-Deok Seo

Young-Deok SeoHere is the work of Young-Deok Seo, a South Korean artist who wisely uses bicycle chain as his medium. This is a smart move aesthetically because the chain is beautiful and gives texture and a perforated pattern to these large scale visages. And perhaps more importantly because of its connections to global society and to motion. Here are some examples.

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Female Power Symbol

Today we walked among snow-encrusted trees at Maudslay State Park and an idea came to me. Now that I have drawn it, let me explain.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cb/First_peace_badge.jpgSymbols can be powerful. Consider Gerald Holtom’s peace symbol, which he designed for the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War in the fifties. It is now widely used and is a universally known symbol for peace.

During the Renaissance symbols were created to represent the male and female genders, which we still use today. The female design refers to the planet Venus and suggests a distaff used for hand spinning yarn. The male symbol represents Mars and the wielding of a spear.

I wanted to design a new symbol for female power, without aggression. The universal female symbol suggests to me a figure with arms outstretched as if welcoming or showing support. Adjusting the position of the horizontal line could imply other meanings. Bent arms did not work very well, nor did curved ones. A simple vee configuration can represent upraised arms, an active pose that implies victory and empowerment. A surrounding circle uses the other female shape and suggests the globe.Female Power origin

This symbol would be visually strongest in black and white due to the nature of those two colors as providing the widest possible contrast. And black and white is beautiful. But it would also be emotionally strong in one color plus white. That color must be purple, a blend of a warm color and a cool one, suggesting both passion and restraint. Purple also represents a union between red and blue, which has additional meaning.

Female Power symbol 1 B&WFemale Power symbol 2 B&W

Female Power symbol 1 PurpleFemale Power symbol 2 P

 

 

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