Monday, September 23, 2019

The Best of Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

“Why does imagination frighten me?” And why does it frighten our culture? I asked this question on this blog two years ago. Because the world has grown more frightening since then, I think it is time to consider this again.

Imagination can be frightening because:

1. Imagination breaks boundaries.

2. Imagination is lawless.

3. Imagination leads to places, ideas, images, and feelings we don’t understand.

4. Imagination can change the world. I’m talking revolution.

Consider Copernicus. His proposal that the universe was heliocentric rather than geocentric shook the foundations of the human psyche. The idea didn’t change much about day to day life. It threatened how we saw our place in the universe. Darwin and evolution kicked this up another notch.

Imagination can bring earthquakes of the psyche and soul. We do need containers and boundaries for the powerful archetypal forces within us. And imagination can be an arrow that pokes a hole in the vase and lets the unknown burst through. We aren’t educated about this process, so we don’t know how to handle the beauty and terror of  the “Tyger, tyger burning bright.”

We can imagine horrors. As our world has grown more dangerous and more out of our control, we’ve had to shy away from imagination just to get out of bed in the morning. We let imagination atrophy because we don’t want to face unimaginable horrors like WW3; nuclear winters; wars over water; mass migrations away from the deserts we’ve created in our bottomless hunger for energy.

But if we allow imagination to atrophy for fear of looking at the “unimaginable” that might come to pass, then we also diminish the possibility that imagination can save us. Because it can. Imagination can create alternatives, solutions we haven’t considered. Ways of solving problems, ways of thinking, images we might rally around.

So my answer to the question, why do we fear imagination is this: We fear imagination because it is powerful. It is one of the ultimate powers of the individual. Authorities have always known this (one reason artists are persecuted). Imagination cannot be taken away from us by any government, law, political leader, religion, or corporation. And in that lies our greatest hope against what faces us today.

So embrace imagination, and cultivate it with all your heart.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Teaching Vs. Speaking and How It Relates to Writing

I'm a teacher at heart. I've taught elementary school, middle school, and been a school librarian; so for me, teaching is kind of what I do.

Getting up in front of a group of students to teach them something? No problem. But "speaking" to a group of students? Now that's another story.

If I have to stand in front of adults or young people, large group or small, when I think of it as "speaking," or giving a speech, the task becomes nerve-wracking and daunting. I think about all the details of effective public speaking; and, because those aren't necessarily second nature for me, I become distracted by myself and my delivery. On the other hand, if I embrace the speaking opportunity as a time of teaching, since teaching is so much a part of me, I forget about myself, think more about the content that I'm excited to share with my audience; and as a result, I get lost in the moment, relax into it, and enjoy. It goes without saying that I do a much better job of teaching than "speaking."

In thinking about this post, I pondered over all this, and as often is the case, it reminded me of my writing life. When I'm creating a story and writing a rough draft, if I focus on things like the mechanics of writing, my plot points, and my characterization, I become distracted. My delivery becomes more important than the characters I'm trying to develop, and my story ends up becoming a slave to all those confining guidelines all of us have learned about writing. But, if I embrace the opportunity the page gives me to tell a story that's inside me, I forget all the confines of writing perfection, and I get lost in the moment, relax into it, and undoubtedly produce writing that is far superior. Then, once I've captured my story, and I have it down on paper, I can polish it toward perfection as I pay attention to all those writerly ways our English teachers taught us to make our writing shine.

For me, the transferrable truth in all this is that when we focus on our passion, no matter what that might be, we're likely to do our best work.

Happy Reading & Writing,
Nancy  

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Public speaking and writing

The two really shouldn't have to go together. I like to joke I went into writing so I could tuck myself away in a corner of my home and write by myself, just a cat on my lap and a cup of hot tea eternally going cold at my side. 

However, that is not the case when one enters publishing.

Life in general did not prepare me well enough for public speaking as an adult in publishing, though I suspect this is more of a personal character flaw than anything. In elementary school, for example, I recall my inaugural experiences with public speaking assignments. It was usually something simple, like the obligatory show-and-tell. 

Simple. Ha.

I lost sleep.

A shy kid without much socialization, and a crippling fear of anything attention-bringing to myself, the thought of having a classroom of my peers and teacher watch me stand there and talk brought me into fits of not eating or getting much rest. I’d agonize and worry, fuss and consider methods of which to feign sickness so my mother wouldn’t send me to school that day. 

Yet, somehow, I survived those years and the two to three minute public speaking endeavors that were sprinkled throughout. I can still recall, with startling clarity, my fifth grade book report of The Secret Garden. We were to speak on the book, why we enjoyed it or didn’t, and bring a brown paper sack including five items that brought to mind the book and its themes. I had an ornate key, a packet of seeds, a small plastic spade, a rose and a necklace. Apparently my items did not convey the book well. A boy in my class asked, “So, in general, what was the book about?” It was the first time I’d been asked a question during a public speaking event and I froze. I stumbled over my words, “It’s…it’s about a girl…who finds a garden.”

Frances Hodgson Burnett would be ashamed of me. 

In junior high and high school, we had entire classes dedicated to public speaking. It got easier. One course would follow in college. I recall making it past sophomore year and thinking I was finally in the clear of those graded speaking engagements. 

I was not. 

As part of my major - geology, if you’re wondering - regular public speaking reports were the norm. We would be in front of the classes several times per week. I actually got remotely good at it. Even in my job at the time, I was able to give speeches for a community awards banquet we hosted.

As graduation passed and I eased into a new job - publishing and small-time authorship, my world became smaller again, however. It wasn’t until my debut book release put on by the publisher that I’d have to speak in front of a crowd again - about my writing of all things - several years past those days in college. I recall getting to my book party and immediately bypassing the room to the bathroom where I dropped out of my heels and dry-heaved for a good 15 minutes. My best friend covered for me until I was ready to come out. I’d hold a reading that evening, and several more in the months to come. While I’d like to say it got easier, it was still hard. Talking about writing or my pathway to writing are still difficult subjects for me, albeit ones I love. 

The first book award I won, I recall sitting at the awards banquet, my lunch in front of me untouched, while I wrung my hands and swore I’d never publish another book again just so I could avoid the public speaking aspect. 

That did not hold true, thankfully. 

I’d like to say it’s gotten easier as I’ve gone - but I still have a hard time with public attention. There was a time, however, when it was okay, in college, as I mentioned. So it can be done! Practice makes perfect, and gaining confidence, and speaking with conviction on whatever topic it is at hand are all tips I think helped me at that time. And of course, pretty well being forced to. 

Every now and again, it is worth it to push our boundaries and step outside those comfort zones. Who knows. You may even find a secret garden. 

Happy reading!

A.M. Bostwick

Source: Literary Gardner

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Power of Saying Thank You by Claudia Mills

Today I'm saying thank you to this wonderful blog for giving me this opportunity to celebrate the importance of saying thank you.

It's such a small and easy thing to express our appreciation to others for all they do for us, and yet so often we (that is to say, I) fail to take that tiny bit of extra time to do so. My church has a new pastor who has stunned the congregation just by constantly sending notes to thank the ushers for their faithful service, the musicians for their beautiful music, the trustees for their care of our buildings. Wow! A handwritten note, sent by actual snail mail, to thank people who have never been thanked in this way before!

So here are some ways we as authors can say thank you to those who have helped bring our books to readers - and as readers, thank our fellow writers.

1. As you work on your books, keep a careful list of everyone who should be listed on the book's Acknowledgments page and get their addresses now if possible. For recent books, I was glad to be able to thank all the people who read earlier drafts, the friend who answered a Facebook plea for a saag paneer recipe that could be made by third graders, a classroom of kids who told me about their favorite comics and graphic novels, a coding teacher who let me sit in on her after-school workshop, and a sixth-grader who tutored me in how to choreograph a dance party. Then, when the book finally comes out, send each person a signed copy.

2. If you are lucky enough to have published a lot of books, dedicate a few of them to these helpers. I've been amazed at how thrilled people are to have a book dedicated to them. One librarian told me (jokingly, I'm sure) that she was going to tell her family to have the dedicated book buried with her!

3. Send grateful notes to anyone who invites you to speak, or who lets you sign at their bookstore, or talk to the kids at their school. (It's nice if they send you a thank you note, too. We can all thank one another!)

4. Also give shout-outs on social media to these folks.

5. Review other people's books on Amazon and other booksellers' sites, and on Goodreads and other review sites. NOTE: you don't have to spend hours crafting the most exquisitely worded review. It's better just to do it now before you forget. Just write a few sentences sharing what you loved about the book and send it off!

6. If you're in a bookstore or library and see friends' books on the shelves, take a picture and post it on social media.

7. Don't forget to thank editors for their revision letters, even as you're gnashing your teeth about how you can possibly do all the things they want you to do. Just send off an immediate email thanking them for their fabulously insightful suggestions, knowing that when you've calmed down and given yourself time to figure out how to address these challenging comments, you'll actually mean it.

8. Thank critique partners, even as you're gnashing your teeth here as well. Critique is a gift! Don't insult the givers by tossing the gift back at them, explaining why you prefer your book exactly the way you wrote it. You don't have to take all the advice given you. But you do have to thank the person giving it.

All of these are things I need to work on more myself, which is why I am writing this.

Mystic Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying that if the only prayer you ever said in your life was "thank you," that would be enough.

If the only piece of professional etiquette we ever followed was to to say "thank you," that might be enough, too.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Harvest Moon, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

This fall marks the first year that I haven't had a child go back to school. After twenty-one years of unpacking school supply kits, helping with homework, washing smelly P.E. clothes, and going to parent-teacher conferences, not to mention moving my kids in and out of college dorms and apartments, it feels strange not to be shepherding someone back to school. It feels bittersweet, and a little empty, like some necessary tasks are missing from my day. Shouldn't I be sharpening some pencils and making lunches? Answering their texts about class scheduling issues and roommate problems?

My youngest graduated from college this past May, and I now have three adult children, all of them employed, and all living on their own. I admit that feels a little strange too. Definitely good, but strange.

See, there's that September moon to contend with. A full butter-cookie yellow one; the soft, melancholy kind that signals the change of season -- the end of long, lazy summer afternoons and the beginning of crisp, cool nights.

The passage of time kind of moon.


There's an ancient name for every month's full moon, and in September, it's the Harvest Moon, or the Full Corn Moon -- related, of course, to the corn being ready to harvest. I remember my parents singing an old tune: Shine On, Harvest Moon.

So shine on
Shine on harvest moon
Up in the sky
I ain't had no lovin' since January, February, June or July...
At this point, my parents would stop for a kiss (much to my preteen embarrassment), to give each other some lovin' apparently. They didn't sing any more, and that was all I ever knew of the song. 

To this day, when I see the September moon, I can still hear them singing "shine on harvest moon" over and over.

Some things just stay with you about this time of year -- my parents' smiles and off-key voices, the perfect points on that box of new pencils, or when I was in elementary school, the smell of worksheets fresh from the mimeograph machine.

To reference another song -- Earth Wind and Fire's "September" -- in which the opening line asks: Do you remember? evoking a yearning feeling of days gone by.

I hope you find some moments this month to sit back, look at the moon, and remember.

Visit Michele online at micheleweberhurwitz.com. Her fifth middle grade novel, Hello From Renn Lake, publishes next May from Wendy Lamb Books/Penguin Random House.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

For the Love of Aunt Pearl



This month, we are discussing good manners. I offer that good manners are a function of empathy: when we engage in good manners, we are thinking beyond ourselves to consider our companion (our child, our teacher, our supervisor).

Building an understanding of what others are feeling, how our own actions impact others is a valuable life skill. Learning to empathize helps to build a sense of security and stronger relationships with others. It encourages tolerance and acceptance of others. And in so doing, it reduces the likelihood of bullying.

And while studies suggest there are different strategies in teaching empathy, such as talking about feelings, one of the best ways of all to help children develop a sense of empathy is by reading books. Children (and adults) learn to associate feelings and actions with their favorite characters. Remember when Atticus Finch, said to Scout , “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

 Stories are the closest thing we have to “Walking around in someone else’s skin.” They make us more human. Stories allow a child to navigate complex emotions, looking at diverse perspectives, and learning to leverage relationships for collaboration and progress.

We are homo narratus, story animals, suggests Kendall Haven (Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, 2007). We have told our stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture has developed codified laws or written language, but every culture in the history of the world has created stories.

A recent book that epitomizes empathetic engagement is Monica Kulling’s exquisite new book, Aunt Pearl. This powerful and poignant story brings a welcomed sensitivity to themes of homelessness and family, beautifully illustrated by the incomparable Irene Luxbacher.

When Aunt Pearl arrives pushing a shopping cart full of her worldly goods, siblings Dan and Marta discover a creative, if troubled, free-spirit in their aunty. “Normal people scare me,” reads one of Aunt Pearl’s buttons. Aunt Pearl teaches the siblings about second chances, about accepting others on the own terms, even as they learn to accept themselves. As with life itself, the book doesn’t offer answers to a challenging question. As the narrative implies, sometimes some things can’t be fixed. But everyone deserves second chances, understanding and acceptance, and everyone deserves love. 

What were your favorite books that taught you to climb inside another's skin, to peek into a life that is different from yours, that allowed you to reach a new, deeper understanding of the other’s experience?

--Bobbi Miller


Friday, September 13, 2019

Turkey Talk, by Chris Tebbetts

My husband is a terrific cook. 99% of the time, the meals he puts on the table are restaurant quality. Lucky me. But the point is, once in a while, he misses. And the point there is, per his advice, it’s not always something you need to advertise to the people at the table before they’ve even begun to eat.
In our house, the shorthand for this idea—one that we apply elsewhere—is to avoid telling people “The turkey’s dry” just as you set said turkey on the table. 
What’s the point, really? I mean, I know what the point is. It helps to make sure that everyone else knows that you know what’s wrong with the thing you're giving them. It’s also a kind of apology. It releases the tension.
Fair enough. But on the other hand, there’s an argument that it’s best to simply set the turkey down and  let everyone decide for themselves what they think about it. Quite often—maybe not always, but often—we are our own worst critics, and what seems like a dry turkey to us (literally or figuratively) is just fine to someone else. Or maybe to everyone else but you. 
I’ve been working hard for a while now at not similarly disclaiming my own manuscripts and other pieces of writing that I submit to my editor, agent, or critique group. It used to be nearly impossible for me not to point out  my work's (supposedly) glaring flaws ahead of time, so whoever read it wouldn’t think that I thought it was perfectly okay. It’s a strange compulsion, and also a hard habit to break.
But again, as with the turkey analogy, how many times have I sent in a manuscript with a note to the effect of, “I know the beginning is rushed and the dialogue feels stilted in chapter 2. I’m working on it,” only to have my editor reply that the beginning feels just fine and that the dialogue reads perfectly well? In which case, all I’m doing is predisposing my audience to seeing flaws they might not otherwise see—and also making myself seem a bit neurotic, or even needy, if these disclaimers become a discernible habit over time. 
Same thing with public speaking. One of the things I have done in the past several years is to stop telling audiences how nervous I am just as soon as I get up to speak. The urge to say these kinds of things comes, for me,  again, from the not-crazy idea that talking about anxiety can help alleviate it. But at the same time, it's also started to feel as though that initially valuable crutch had turned into something that was holding me back. (Although, for the record, I was sorry to give up this slide that I used to always put at the beginning of presentations, only because I like it and it feels so humorously true….)



If I find myself in a particularly nerve-wracking public speaking situation, or lose my place in the middle of a gig, or whatnot, there’s nothing to stop me from more spontaneously (and organically) stopping to comment on that situation. But why plan on it? Why anticipate the nervousness and memorialize it right into my prepared comments? 
Every situation is going to be different, so I'm not keen to make any sweeping generalizations about this one. But for what it's worth, my advice to myself is this: Present your best self. Don’t sweat the small stuff. And I’d even say that “fake it till you make it” can be a valuable piece of guidance here—not because I want to go through life as a faker, but because sometimes that confidence I want to have starts as an outside job.  
Meanwhile, if the turkey (or my speech) is dry in the end, so be it. The audience will figure that out soon enough on their own.
But, pssst….guess what? It’s probably just fine.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Are Etiquette and Good Manners a Lost Art?

In keeping with this month's theme of good manners, especially as it applies to young people, I decided to post some of the norms of etiquette and manners that were taught to children in the early Twentieth Century. Children were often taught manners at the dinner table. Are we less mannerly than previous generations? If so, is it because we struggle to even sit down at the dinner table as a family because of our busy lifestyles?



Here are some of the “Rules of Etiquette” young people were expected to follow at the turn of the Twentieth Century.
General Rules of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen

13 Mannerisms to be avoided by all: 
1.     Whispering or pointing in company.
2.    Giving attention to only one person when more are present.
3.    Contradicting parents, friends, or strangers.
4.   Laughing loudly.
5.    Making noise with hands and feet.
6.   Leaning on the shoulder or chair of another.
7.    Throwing things instead of handing them.
8.    Crowding or bumping elbows.
9.   Contempt in looks, words, or actions.
10.  Drawing attention to self with dress.
11.   Lending a borrowed book.
12.  Reading when there is company, or when others are speaking.
13.  Laughing at the mistakes of others.

Manners appropriate for all:
1.     To be gentle and patient with others.
2.    To remember that while speech is wonderful, it is sometimes better to be silent.
3.    Speak with a gentle tone and never in anger.
4.   Learn to deny yourself and put others first.
5.    Give applause only by clapping hands – not by kicking or stamping feet.
6.   Rise to one’s feet when an older person or dignitary enters the room.

All this makes me wonder: How many of these rules do any of us consider important today?
Perhaps there is a case to be made for bringing some of them back? I'll leave that decision to you.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

In Which We're Blogging, this Month, About Good Manners or Public Speaking, and in Which I Tackle Both ... by Jody Feldman

This may or may not be the kiddos I'm talking about.
What I love best about being an author is talking to the kiddos. And what I love best about talking to the kiddos is the Q&A at the end. You never know what they'll ask. I've had teachers and librarians tell me that they're plan to have their students submit their questions in advance, but I ask them not to. What if one young reader wants to ask something directly related to a point I just made? Truly, that happens more often than not. 

And yet, I understand why the educators want the questions in advance. There are always those students who ask the same question I just answered. There are always the hand-raisers who can't remember what they'd planned to ask. And often, there's the one who asks which is my favorite shopping mall or what grades I made in school or whether or not I'm famous.
 
But there was one question -- and I've been asked this a number of times -- that once elicited a comment I'll never forget. I was in Georgia at an elementary school, where the drawls were as thick as the hospitality. I called on the 4th grader in the first row, slightly off to my right. He'd been waving his arm, and the two young men to either side were pointing at him. I looked the kiddo in the eye. "What do you three want to know?"

"How old are you?"

I actually like this question. I turn it into a math-based guessing game and I make jokes, and in the end, we all have a good laugh.

But this time, before I was able to open my mouth, the girl behind the boys gasped. "It's bad manners to ask a lady her age," she in a slow Georgia drawl.

I wanted to laugh, but she was so serious, and her sentiment was backed by the murmurs of the teachers in the room. However, I didn't want to embarrass the student who'd asked the question. Of course, he already appeared beyond mortified. 

I smiled at him, though. "It's okay," I said. "I told you that you could ask me anything. That's just what you did." And I answered him. Then he smiled.

And I went away that day, knowing I'd struck just the right mannerly note.

I'm still booking school visits for later this fall and especially this coming winter and spring. We have a lot of fun, and I answer everything. I'd love to come talk to the kiddos in your life! Click here for more info or contact me: jody@jodyfeldman.com 

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Speaking to Kids --- by Jane Kelley

I was a performer before I became a writer. I enjoy standing in front of people and acting the part of the professional, charming, witty novelist. I don't even worry that technology will once again refuse to be my friend.


Here I am, right before giving a speech at my library. I'm smiling, despite the knowledge that I can't show the amazing power point I spent days preparing. The library's projector, for reasons only it understands, refuses to speak to my laptop.

That's okay! No one really needed to see those photos. Pictures of Blackberry are always crowd-pleasers, but I managed fine without them.


I must confess that I am anxious about something when I speak.

It's impossible to predict what kids will ask.

That's why we love them. Their thinking has not been constrained. They are not polite. They are not filtered. They don't know that it isn't good manners to ask someone how old she is. Or how much money she makes. Or if any of her books are bestsellers.

I've learned the hard way to be ready to answer these questions. (I'm old. Not much money. Once my book was a best seller in a particular book store. And even on Amazon, if the category is narrow enough. Nature Girl is #1 among all books written by people named Jane Kelley!)

I gladly accept those tough questions, because kids have also asked me other unfiltered things that I was happy to have the opportunity to ponder.

What do you do when a book gets rejected?
What's your least favorite part about writing a story?
And, perhaps most poignant of all, are you ever lonely?

Yes, dear reader, sometimes I am.

There was one question that totally stumped me. At an appearance in Brooklyn, a boy held up a copy of Octo-Man and the Headless Monster.

"Did you really write this book?" he said.

"Yes," I said, blushing slightly, still feeling delighted that something I had created was out in the world.

"Then what's the first word on page 53?"

I couldn't answer that--not even after he gave me a hint. "It starts with the letter G."


Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Because Good Manners Can Change the World



When CharlesWaters and I created the words for CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship, we had no idea that we would eventually collaborate on other books as well. Next up, an ambitious middle grade difficult-to-categorize book: DICTIONARY FOR A BETTER WORLD: Poems, Quotes and Anecdotes from A to Z coming February 4, 2020, from Lerner, with illustrations by Mehrdokht Amini. The heart of this book is a list of words – like ally, compassion, empathy, zest – that we think can help us all make improvements to ourselves and to our spaces.
What Charles and I discovered, and what kept coming back to us while we wrote and revised this book, was how the most basic thing anyone can do to improve the world is to use good manners. Be polite, respectful. Say thank you. It's that simple.
One of the entries in our DICTIONARY is “Netiquette,” because where else in the world do we see people of all ages NOT using good manners? Where do things so easily go terribly wrong? Yep, on ye ol' internet.

We are so excited to deliver this book to the world... and wow, wait until you see the art... A-MA-ZING! For those of you who will be at NCTE, Lerner will be offering free copies, and we will be signing... hope to see you there!
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Irene Latham lives on a lake in rural Alabama where she tries to live her poem each and every day. She is the author of a wide variety of books for kids, including fiction and nonfiction picture books, poetry and novels.