Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Professional authors start out being good at writing; once their book is acquired, they realize they have to become good at publicity.  This means suddenly needing to be a specialist at a myriad of completely new (and sometimes uncomfortable) tasks: Public speaking.  Social networking.  An author suddenly has to become charming, personable.  Tech-savvy.  More adept in the visual arts, as they design web pages and posters.  They need to have a handle on advertising.

Publicity can feel like a daunting task, actually, whether it's your first book or your twentieth that's about to release...But I've also found that no one can truly be your book's best advocate quite like its author.  (It's your baby; you love it like no one else.  You understand its best assets like no one else.  So you can market it like no one else.)  And surprisingly, marketing can also be fun.  Rather than wishing for a marketing community to appear, you've got to just take the plunge, find what you're good at, what works for you...

Here's my latest fun marketing outing: a brand-new trailer for THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY (which releases February 6)!

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Smack Dab in the Classroom: The Gift of an Author Visit, by Dia Calhoun

At this holiday time of year, we’re all thinking of gifts. And the best way to connect middle grade books with kids is to bring an author SMACK DAB! into your classroom. What a gift that would be! Yes, I know what you’re thinking—no budget. But think fresh with the New Year. Brainstorm possibilities. Here are only a few.

· Fund raise for the author visit. Having a specific author in mind can inspire everyone at the school to get excited about the fundraising effort. For example: If we raise XX dollars, Gary Schmidt will visit our school! (Of course, you need to get a commitment on the fee from the author in advance.)

· Bring a LOCAL author in for a 30 minute assembly only, much less expensive than an all day author visit. No travel or hotel fees. And still very exciting for the kids.

· If you really have no budget, offer to do pre-sales of the local author’s books at your school in exchange for the assembly. Send home a book order form for the kids to fill out and return with payment. You would need to guarantee the author a minimum number of pre-sales, say 40-50, to make the visit worth their time. And give the author a stipend for gas.

· Do a SKYPE visit. Not quite as exciting as having the author live, but still exciting.

These are suggestions to get you started brainstorming. Bringing an author to your school is a tremendous gift to your students. I know. I remember an author coming to my 5th grade class. I remember feeling such a sense of awe and possibility . Here was someone who had written a book, one of the things I loved most in the world.

I ended up being an author. Who knows where a live author visit in your classroom might lead your students?

Happy Brainstorming. And Happy New Year.

Smack Dab in the Classroom by Dia Calhoun runs on this blog on the 23rd day of every month.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Writing Groups by Laurie Calkhoven

Writers tend to have strong feelings about writing groups—both for and against.   I’m definitely in the for column.

I’ve been in a writing group for as almost long as I’ve been writing.   It started in my first Writing for Children class.   New York City is full of writing classes, and I was lucky enough to land it a beginner’s class taught by the wonderful Miriam Cohen.

It was my introduction to the workshop method and I couldn’t have asked for a better guide into that world.   Miriam listened attentively to whoever was reading that week, launched into a discussions of the piece’s virtues with a big smile on her face, and then—gently—suggested ways to improve the piece.  The rest of the class followed her lead and did the same.

Like many beginners’ classes, it was filled with “dabblers,” but a few of us were more serious—had already finished novels and were revising, or were even working on second novels.  I was waiting for the crosstown bus after class one night about midway through our ten-week session when Josanne LaValley, one of those other “serious” writers, asked if I was interested in starting a group.  She had already talked to Shirley, the other serious middle grade writer in the room, and she was interested, too.   I was a little scared, but I said yes.

We picked up where class left off, meeting weekly at each other’s apartments.  We didn’t have snacks—too distracting—but at our first meeting Shirley served peppermint tea and that became a tradition.   And unlike class where only two people could read each week, we all had a chance.  

For most writers, it takes a long time to write a novel good enough to sell.   It takes a long time to read and write enough hone our craft.  I can say without doubt that if not for the support and encouragement from my group I would probably have given up writing long before I was published.   And I learned as much from their journeys and from critiquing their work as I did from my own.

People in our group have come and go.  We added a fourth person.   Then Shirley left New York, and we invited another someone new in.  That’s happened a few times now.   But Josanne and I are still showing up every week.   I love how that weekly deadline keeps me on track.   I love hearing other writers’ novels build chapter-by-chapter.   And I really love celebrating when one of us sells something.

I try to channel my inner Miriam Cohen every week, to smile while I delight in what’s working, and being gentle in my criticism.   I don’t always remember.   Sometimes I grumble around like an angry bear.  But we all know that at the bottom of every piece of criticism we’re giving or receiving is a dedication to story, and to making the work be the best it can be.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

WHAT THE HEART KNOWS: A Conversation with Joyce Sidman

Congratulations on your new book, WHAT THE HEART KNOWS, Chants, Charms and Blessings.  It’s a beautiful collection of poetry for young people, and one that should find its way into countless classrooms.  There’s so much here for readers, writers, and teachers.  Did you have that in mind when you wrote the book? 

Thanks so much, Sheila!  I sincerely hope that WHAT THE HEART KNOWS will find its way into classrooms.  As a poet-in-the-schools, I am always thinking of teaching when working on a book.  I’m always hoping to connect with those young poets: to inspire them to write, and to plant more poetry in their classrooms.

What was your inspiration for the collection? 

Chants have always entranced me, especially those (Inuit, Navajo, Dinka) that use words to call forth the beauty and power of nature.  I love the "Apache Dawn Song" that Kenneth Koch uses as a teaching model in his book Rose, Where Did You Get that Red? and have always by fascinated by the thought of “chanting” things into being.

The book opens with an epigraph by Mary Oliver: “If you say it right it helps the heart to bear it.”  Could you talk a little bit what that means to you as a writer? 

This phrase, for me, sums up the whole reason we write: that if we can only find the right words, we might be able to understand, endure, and even love this world.  The right words might capture the essence, the truth of life as we know it.

What are the challenges in writing poetry for young people? 

For WHAT THE HEART KNOWS, the challenge was to keep the focus on the mindset of a young adult.  The book became deeper and more serious as I was writing it.  I originally envisioned it for younger reader—a bit more light-hearted and magical.  But its themes became my themes, and I had to make sure, as I progressed, that I kept the focus on teens instead of 50-somethings.

So many of the poems in this book speak to the truth of young people’s experience, but they aren’t exclusive to the young—for example your poems about illness, or moving, or deep attachments and loss.  At the same time, the book feels intimate and personal—there’s a real sense of the poet on the page.   How much of your own experience did you bring to the poems?  Do you have an awareness of the book speaking to readers of all ages? 

I wasn’t intending for the book to be so personal, but it became a revisiting of past and present challenges: wrestling with bravery and body image and emotional fallout.  Some poems sprang from specific memories: places I loved, jobs I’d had, people who influenced my life.   In other poems, I had to reach outside myself.  For "Illness: A Conversation", I went to Minneapolis Children’s Hospital and interviewed Child Life specialists there to make sure I knew what teens worry about when they face serious illness.

One of my favorite poems in the book is TEACHER.  It’s an exquisitely written tribute to the power of a teacher in a young person’s life, and made me think immediately of the teachers I had loved, but also of the many teachers whose classrooms I’ve share over the last twenty years.  Was that poem inspired by your work in the schools or by a teacher in your own life?  

Both, I think.  As a child, I LOVED my teachers.  They meant SO much to me—opened worlds for me, taught me to think and feel, validated my yearnings.  I especially loved my English teachers, but there was one math teacher who really, really tried with me even though I hated math.  He almost got me believing I could do it!  In addition, as a visiting poet, I've been in the classrooms of some superbly dedicated teachers: teachers who hold their students in their hearts, every day.  And I remember being in your poetry classroom, Sheila, when I was just starting out--you were so wonderful with those young writers, so inspiring!

You’ve given us a wealth of wonderful poetry, Joyce.  Is there a reason you continue to return to the form?  What possibilities does poetry offer? 

I love the brevity and power of poetry, and the way, through metaphor, it connects everything to everything else. I love the way it can celebrate the humble things, the odd or overlooked things, and make them fresh and amazing.  I love the way it captures those moments of epiphany: when we suddenly realize something deep and powerful.  It's been my natural mode of expression since I was a teen, and I think at this point, it's the way I look at the world.

What do you hope for this book? 

I guess what one hopes for any book: that it delights, inspires, and comforts its readers.  That it makes those readers feel they are not alone.  That it somehow unlocks their hearts and lets them feel deep, important things to help them on their journey.

ABOUT JOYCE: Joyce Sidman is the winner of the 2013 NCTE Award for Excellence in Children's Poetry, which is given every two years to a living American poet in recognition of his or her aggregate work.  She is the author of many award-winning children’s poetry books, including the Newbery Honor-winning Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, and two Caldecott Honor books: Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems (also a Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award winner) and Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors (which won the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award).  She teaches poetry writing to school children and participates in many national poetry events.  Her recent book, Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature, has been critically acclaimed and is a Junior Library Guild Selection.  Joyce lives with her husband and dog near a large woodland in Wayzata, Minnesota.



Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Writing Group Rules by Claudia Mills (December theme)

           I’ve been in the same writing group in Boulder, Colorado, for twenty years. We began as a group of eight mostly not-yet-published children’s book writers; without any change in membership, we became a group of 100 percent published writers in multiple genres including adult mysteries, adult science fiction, adult women’s fiction, adult nonfiction – and lots and lots of children’s books, too. We’ve had our ups and downs. Sometimes I’ve come home from our every-other-Monday-night meeting and told my husband, “Remind me never to go to that critique group again.” But we must be doing something right, or we wouldn’t still be together two decades later, with well over a hundred published books to our credit.

            So what are we doing right?

            I think the answer lies partly in rules and practices we’ve developed that seem to work for us. So here they are.

1.      We are flexible in terms of what we bring for critique. We generally bring our books chapter by chapter, with printed copies for each person to read during the meeting. But when this becomes too slow (most of us can write a lot more than one chapter in two weeks), we ask the others if they are able to read an entire book-length manuscript at home (understanding that some members may need to say no). I find both approaches helpful. I have been saved from staggering amounts of subsequent rewriting by getting certain comments early in the process, even from the synopsis alone (“Izzy doesn’t solve her own problem; her friends solve it for her!”). But other times it’s crucial that readers see the completed work as a whole.
2.      We present our work in the order in which we arrive. This has worked wonders to get us to arrive on time, as latecomers know that they will get critiqued last, when we’re all getting tired (i.e., punchy and silly). So we don’t waste time. We get right to work and do our chitchat at the end of the evening, not at the start.
3.      We critique each work in an orderly way, starting with the person sitting to the right of the person being critiqued. We go around in a circle, clockwise, each person speaking in turn, nobody speaking twice until everybody has spoken once. In my view, this is our most important rule. It ensures that nobody dominates the discussion and nobody is allowed to disappear into silence. It is a concrete way of making manifest our equality and respect for one another as writers.
4.      We do repeat the same criticisms, briefly, even if they’ve been made by previous speakers. It’s important to note points of consensus, or else the writer will go home and think, “Well, Leslie didn’t like the ending, but hey, it seemed to work for everyone else.” No, it didn’t work for everyone else. So we all need to say, “I agree with Leslie about the problems with the ending.” I hate hearing that half a dozen times! But sometimes that’s what it takes to get me to change that problematic part of my story.
5.      We feel free to ask for what we need: “This is very rough, so all I want is big picture comments. No nits!” “I’m feeling fragile tonight, so I just want to share this without any critique at all.” “My editor wants me to change this, but frankly, I don’t know how. Help!”
6.      We try to start with comments that are positive and encouraging, but sometimes we just skip right to bluntness: “I’m sorry, but this didn’t work for me at all.” We’re all trying to meet high professional standards. We aren’t doing anybody any favors if we allow them to get too deep into a project that is doomed from the start.
7.      My favorite practice: we go away each summer for a weekend retreat at Lake Dillon in the Colorado Rockies. We rent a beautiful house with stunning views and preferably with a hot tub, too. We make meal assignments ahead of time and feast like queens. Each year we begin the retreat with a discussion of the most recent Newbery winner, followed by a shared read-aloud of the Newbery Medal acceptance speech in Horn Book. We get to critique our manuscripts in the daytime. We take long walks by the lake. We talk about our writing goals and dreams in the hot tub. Whatever tensions have accumulated throughout the year dissolve during that weekend of heart-to-heart conversations. Most of us use the retreat as a chance to share the start of a new book, or the conclusion of a book long in the making. We always return energized and inspired for another year of writing.

Another year of writing together.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

December Theme: For Joy (Sarah Dooley)

When I think of writers and community, there are a lot of things I want to talk about. I can tell you about the kids I work with at the public library on Wednesday evenings, kids who have been coming for a year, two years, three years now to write together once a week. They know each other's characters nearly as well as they know their own, and I am privileged to watch them grow together as writers.

I can tell you about the critique groups I belong to, about how each individual writer weaves in a thread to the colorful tapestry of Appalachian voices. I can tell you about writing camps and college classes, impromptu write-ins and even the NaNoWriMo forums, one of the most colorful writing communities I can think of.

But when I think about writers and community, I have to go back to the start. I have to tell you about Joy.

Joy started a writing group in my hometown when I was a kid, and my mother joined. The members of the group were kind enough to accept not just my mother but her three daughters into their writing community. They never treated me and my sisters like kids, only like fellow writers exploring the world through words and seeking their own individual voices. When I think of writers and community, I close my eyes and I am back in Joy's kitchen.

This is something I wrote in 2010 to mark Joy's passing:

Things you do when you're eleven tend to haze out in the remembering, get fuzzier like old socks or recycled paper. You know you wore jeans with holes in the knees, but you never remember them being too tight, or too short, or too anything except exactly what they are in your simplified image: jeans with holes in the knees, a sign of being eleven in autumn. And your hair. The truth was that you probably drove your mother crazy with the snarls and the tangles. But in your mind's eye? Your hair caught the sun, it flew on the breeze raised by biking.

When I was eleven, my mother answered an ad in the newspaper. I don't remember this. I don't remember the first writer's meeting or how awkward it must have felt, pulling up in front of a house in a neighborhood so different from our trailer park.

What I remember, in that haze of looking back on eleven, is feeling completely at home in that house. Curling down into wicker and pillows, or soft sofa, or a corner of the floor, and listening to a sweet southern voice warm the cold places that winter and drip down the insides of the windows like condensation. I was a flighty kid, couldn't sit still for more than a minute, but I remember that voice lulling me, hazing out my rough edges even then. It almost didn't matter what she read.

But what she read – what she read was so real and so honest it should already have been written, not dashed out in a ten-minute session during a writer's meeting. What she read, it was so obvious – of course that's the way of things – of course that's how things are – except that nobody else ever quite found the words for it, as sweet and unassuming and matter-of-fact as she did, and even when she didn't read it – even when you read it yourself – you could hear it in her voice, honest and truthful and warm.

Eleven hazes out. Twelve is a little more clear. Then thirteen. The years kept passing, but the voice was always there. Filling up the cold spaces and giving us all her straightforward but oh-so-rare version of the truth. That voice, it was as much a part of my childhood as bikes and torn jeans and tangled hair, as much a part of my childhood as books and paper. Looking back, I learned a lot of truth from that sweet warm voice that slipped around me half-distracted, as matter-of-fact as oxygen.

I miss you, Joy. I miss your sweet voice and your warm words and your truth. You were well loved.

(In memory of Joyce Herndon Lackey)

Monday, December 16, 2013

My First Critique Group by Ann Haywood Leal

It wasn't easy to get there, but when you work for something, the prize is so much more worth it, right?

You had to climb a very wobbly rope ladder, and thank goodness my PF Flyers had good traction, because I could only use one of my hands.  The other one was clutching my notebook, my folder, various loose pieces of colored notebook paper, and my favorite purple pen.

There were two of us up there in that treehouse, but that was all we needed.  We were serious writers, and couldn't be bothered with other neighborhood riffraff trying to bust into our fortress.  I often wonder if that is why I tend to stick with middle-grade now.  I was twelve and my best friend, Leslie, was eleven.

Most of those first pages were heavily influenced by what we were reading.  My work leaned toward Ramona the Pest, with a little E.L. Konigsburg plot line.  Leslie's was Ramona the Pest, with a little Harriet the Spy sprinkled throughout.

We read and even revised a little up in that treehouse.  But mainly we created.  For hours.  And we supported each other.  Especially when the Assistant Superintendent of Schools who drove our swimming lessons carpool laughed after I reported from the backseat that I was going to get my novel published. We did what any proper writers would do.  We wrote him into our novels.

Writing is such a solitary activity.  That is why I cherish my community of writers.  You always have someone to climb that rope ladder with you and share in the adventure.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Writing about a Community (December Theme) by Bob Krech

When I was thinking about this month's theme of writing and community, the first thing that came to mind was an experience my daughter had. Faith is a junior in college now and an English major. Her senior year of high school she had an English class where the teacher asked his students to think about what they envisioned themselves doing twenty years down the road. The class wrote about this and discussed it, but then the teacher mentioned that it was his experience that few people ended up actually doing what they anticipated doing at eighteen years old. Most of the students found this a bit of a surprise.

Faith took the question and went out into our town and began to interview local business owners opening the dialogue with, "Are you doing today what you thought you would be doing when you were eighteen?" She took these interviews and started a blog on our local online Patch, focusing on community members and their businesses. It was very interesting reading. To her delight, some days her column had more views and comments than anything else on the Patch. It was fun for the rest of us to learn that our town barber had once been in the Coast Guard and then followed his father's wishes and became an accountant even though he was bored to death. He really wanted to be a barber like his father, but it took him a while to convince his dad to let him. Or the ice cream shop owner who had worked in the pharmaceutical industry all his life and was almost thankful to be let go during the economic downturn so he finally had the push he needed to start his own business. Of course there was also the deli owner who started working for his family in the deli at eight years old and hasn't stopped since.

Faith found that the owners were almost all very happy to tell their stories. I think it was fun for them as well as good advertising. For locals like us, it was great to get to know the local business folks since these days there doesn't seem to be much time to stand around and chat. It's usually just pick up your dry cleaning and go! The experience has lead Faith to take a course on interviewing and to doing more interviews, particularly with residents of an assisted living facility near her college, where she is helping preserve their memories while sharing this history and perspective with her college-age peers.

Faith's experience reminded me once again of how many great stories there are right in our local communities if only we manage to take the time, ask, and listen a little.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Writing Community in a Debut Year – December Theme by Tamera Will Wissinger

One of my favorite parts of being connected to the children’s literature world is the spirit of kinship that comes with this field. Whether your orientation is toward teaching, parenting, writing, editing, library science, reading, marketing, or selling, it seems to me that one of our common goals is to produce good stories and ensure that those stories find their way into the hands (and hearts) of children.

This has never been more evident to me than this year - the year my first children’s book debuted. As a result of my soon-to-slip-away debut author status, I have had the good fortune to be a member of two debut author groups – The Class of 2k13 and The Lucky 13s; groups whose members have eased the uncertainties of a debut year through collaboration around common goals. Many came into the groups with online, marketing, and publishing savvy that they willingly shared with members like me whose experiences in those areas were slight or, ahem – non existent. Our shared efforts reach far beyond what I could have achieved on my own, and my own efforts have become focused and more effective. Throughout the year we have been cheering for successes, quietly lamenting letdowns, and of course – wildly celebrating each debut book as it releases. Even though our debut year is winding down, our relationships aren’t. We’re connected and I believe we’ll always stay connected in some fashion by virtue of our common past experiences and those to come.

Moreover, there is an interlacing between the years. The 2013 groups formed in 2011, the 2014 groups formed in 2012 and early this year, and the 2015 debut groups are forming now and in the upcoming months – about the same lead time it takes to publish a book once it’s been accepted. My 2013 groups cheered for the 2012 debut authors as their books released, and they and the 2014 groups have been celebrating with us throughout this year. For example, The Class of 2k14 has been hosting a giveaway of our Class of 2k13 debut books. And recently the middle grade authors from the One-Four Kids Lit group posted reviews of all of the Lucky 13s middle grade debuts on their website. And in the New Year I’m looking forward to cheering for the authors whose debut books will release in 2014. It’s a perpetual celebration!

This debut year has been filled with many wonderful experiences and “aha moments.” One of the most enduring is that, while we may write alone, we don’t have to be alone. Every published author debuted at some point, and those who are pre-published will debut at some point. The 2016 groups will begin forming soon if that’s your debut year. If you haven’t found a home for your first story yet, there are many other ways to connect – both online and in real life – with other children’s writers who have things in common with you. And remember, when you get that call or email telling you that your story is fabulous and it will become a book that will find its way into the hands (and hearts) of children: Celebrate! Get that contract reviewed and signed! Start your edits! Then find your fellow debut authors who will share your journey! 

In the mean time, I welcome you to follow my 2013 debut author groups and the upcoming 2014 groups and beyond. Join the fun - there's always something new to celebrate - the party will go on and on!


Tamera Wissinger is the author of GONE FISHING: A Novel in Verse, which arrived last March from Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. Two of her picture books: THIS OLD BAND and THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO GOBBLED A SKINK from Sky Pony Press will arrive in 2014 and 2015 respectively.