Author Archives: Elizabeth Duncan

Starting the Conversation: Using Picture Books to Talk to Children About Racism and Protest

We live in a time when we are confronted by the complexities of race and racial identity.

The deaths of Black men at the hands of police officers has challenged our collective consciousness. Recent events have left me simultaneously heartbroken for the tragedies the Black community has endured for so long, yet optimistic that we can change systems of injustice.

As teachers and parents, this moment presents an opportunity to have difficult conversations with our children about racism, discrimination, white privilege, and protest. To move to a more just society, our children must be part of the solution.  We must make sure they grow up equipped with the mindset and knowledge to create a better world.

Fortunately, we are not alone in this effort, because there are many notable children’s books that introduce readers (young and old) to these complicated and emotional topics. These books can be used as a springboard for discussion.

The following picture books about racism and protest—many of them by people of color— will help start the conversations in classrooms, in homes, and among individuals. Although many libraries are closed due to COVID-19, these resources are available at book stores or through your local library’s e-reader programs. Most are also available as videos on YouTube, read aloud by teachers and librarians. Consider buying a book or two to support the important work of these authors and illustrators.

Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazard; illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin; Magination Press, 2018. (ages 4-10)

When a Black man is shot by the police in their community, two families discuss the incident. The story helps children to identify and counter racial injustice in their own lives and includes extensive notes to adults, child-friendly definitions, and sample dialogues.

 

Mama, Did You Hear the News? by Sanya Wittaker Gragg; illustrated by Kim Holt; CreateSpace, 2017. (ages 8-12)

Written to talk to children about police violence, this book addresses how Black children, especially boys, can stay safe. Anyone who cares about an African-American boy should share this book with him. That such a book exists is testament to the need for radical change in our society.

 

Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester; illustrated by Karen Barbour; Harper Collins, 2008. (ages 4-8)

This beautifully illustrated book highlights that people are more than the color of their skin. It suggests ways to push past biases and stereotypes by focusing on individual stories and the gifts that each person brings to the world.

 

Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham; Dorris Press, 2018. (ages 8-12)

This book discusses how power and privilege factor into the lives of white children and how all children can help to seek justice for everyone. The book invites all children to be curious about racism, accept that it’s real, and to work toward justice.

 

Enough! 20 Protesters Who Changed America by Emily Easton; illustrated by Ziyue Chen; Crown Books, 2018. (ages 5-8)

This alphabet book highlights influential protesters, including contemporary ground breakers, like Colin Kaepernick and the Parkland students, who march in the footsteps of historical protesters like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King.

 

Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi; illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky; Kokila Press, 2020. (ages 3-8)

Featuring a really darling baby. this board book for toddlers and preschoolers outlines nine ways to build a more equitable world. It contains advanced concepts, so it is also appropriate as a conversation starter with older children.

 

Sometimes People March by Tessa Allen; Balzer and Bray, 2020. (ages 4-8)

People participating in recent and historical social movements are the subject of this  book, with poetic text and lovely water-color illustrations. It explains why people march and how people can act and show concern for the causes they care about.

 

All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We get Our Skin Color by Katie Kissinger; photos by Chris Bohnhoff; Red Leaf Press, 2014. (ages 3 and up)

This book describes the scientific reasons people have different skin colors and introduces the idea that skin color is just one part of any person. It is filled with colorful photographs that capture the variety of skin tones and encourages children to value our diverse world.

 

We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson; Crown Books, 2018. (ages 8-12)

Fifty luminaries of the children’s book writing community, including Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, and Rita Williams-Garcia, share their experiences and give advice to young people in this anthology of poems, letters, personal essays, and art. The beautiful art and prose work together to empower children to listen, learn, and to work toward a better tomorrow.

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Book Review: The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

“This is for the unforgettable…and the ones who survived…and the ones who didn’t.” …“This is for the undefeated. This is for you. And you. And you. This is for us.” (from The Undefeated)

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander with illustrations by Kadir Nelson, is a powerful reading experience that highlights for children the history of African-Americans and the promise of our hope for the future.

This outstanding picture book won the 2020 Caldecott Medal, awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished picture book published for children in the United States. It was also given a Newbery Honor Medal for its distinguished contribution to American literature for children and the Coretta Scott King Award, given to an African-American author and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions. On all three levels, the illustrations, the text and the message, the book is an inspiring read that belongs in classrooms, homes and libraries homes across America.

A successful picture book for children balances words and illustrations, which work together to tell a story. The text is Kwame Alexander’s free-verse poem, spare and minimal, which was written in 2008 to celebrate the birth of his second daughter and the election of Barak Obama as president. He strove to highlight African-American history that had been forgotten and to embrace the “woes and wonders” of this American story.

The illustrations, photo-realistic oil paintings by Kadir Nelson, are the highlight of the book. He infuses the faces of people from history, both the famous and the nameless, with emotion and beauty. Their portraits speak to the viewer of the joy and suffering of the African-American people. The illustrations have a luminous, glowing quality that spread across the oversized pages, and illuminate the determination and grit of the subjects.

Alexander’s poem makes brilliant use of “un –words”: unforgettable, undeniable, unflappable, unafraid, unspeakable, unlimited, undiscovered, unbelievable, unbending, underdogs, uncertain, unspoken, and finally undefeated. The repetition of “un-words” builds to a climax, and Nelson’s final illustration of “undefeated” is a crowd of children of today, with bright smiles and sparkling eyes, inspired by the past and dreaming of the future.

Alexander and Nelson honor the achievements, courage and perseverance of prominent Black artists, athletes, and activists. The pictures are an assembly of famous Americans, from Jesse Owens to Ella Fitzgerald to Langston Hughes to Serena Williams. On one large spread, historical and contemporary musicians are pictured together, making past and present interrelated. Also highlighted are important moments in American history, which include the Civil War, highlighting Black soldiers who fought “to save an imperfect union” and the freedom marches of the Civil Rights Movement, with a diverse group of people singing “we shall not be moved.” Several pages are dedicated to ordinary people “who survived America by any means necessary,” followed by a haunting, blank, two page spread with the words “…and the ones who didn’t.” Joy and sadness intertwine together in this book, like the experiences of the people whose story is being told.

The book  addresses the horror of slavery, the violence of the civil rights movement and the police brutality of today. The most moving portion of the book involves three pages illustrating: “This is for the unspeakable.” The first of these three spreads, subtle and powerful, duplicates a drawing from the 1780s of the hold of a slave ship, and shows men’s bodies laying side-by-side, margin to margin, looking like patterned African cloth, until one looks closer. The second includes framed portraits of the four little girls murdered in the Birmingham Church bombing, with shattered glass covering their sweet faces. The last shows a spontaneous memorial to youth killed in recent police violence: teddy bears, burning candles, bouquets of flowers, and school pictures of the victims, superimposed over an American flag. The reality of these events cannot be denied and adds honesty and depth to the story, but ultimately does not detract from the overall positive message of the book.

One of the great assets of this book it that it can be accessed by children at different levels of understanding. It can be shared with children as young as preschoolers, as an introduction to both American and Black-American history. For older students it can serve as a springboard to understanding history through individuals or groups. The book’s back matter includes an annotated list of historical figures and events featured in the book. I can see the book being a treasured by parents and children, as well as being a powerful teaching tool for the elementary classroom.

Sometimes, I think the American Library Association, which awards the Caldecott Medal, does not always choose the best book. This year, however, they got it right. The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson is an extraordinary book that richly deserves the praise and honors that it has been given.

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Breaking Barriers; Inspiring Others: Author Julia Alvarez

In early November,  I had the opportunity to hear Dominican-American author Julia Alvarez (say Hoo-lia!) speak about her life and books. Julia was in Denver to celebrate her book In the Time of the Butterflies, which had been chosen as the “Big Read” for the Denver Community for 2019.

Since her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, was published in 1991, I have been an avid admirer of her writing. Her works are known for their vivid characters, multiple points of view, poetic language and her sharp insights into human nature.

Julia Alvarez signing her book, In the Time of the Butterflies.

Julia Alvarez is a powerful female voice in American and Hispanic literature. Her early novels became the first Latina works to find their way into the mainstream of American literature. Now, her books are regularly read as part of the American cannon in schools around the country. At 69-years old, she balances writing, teaching and public appearances with a calm grace.

Dwarfed by the Newman Center stage, Julia reminded me of Yoda: diminutive, humble and infinitely wise. She spoke about her life and her writing, while encouraging and inspiring the packed house of writers who filled the seats.

Here are some highlights from Julia’s wisdom about writing, reading and life. These were culled from a several sources, the presentation that I attended and others I searched out on the internet:

On Inspiration: Where do I get inspired? By the pebble in my shoe, by the thing that unsettles me, by the story that takes me out of myself and makes me see things differently. It’s the story that won’t let me go… the story that I feel I must tell. Curiosity is the place I begin.

On being a “Real Writer:” I used to think real writers started at the beginning and went through to the end, maybe making a change here or there. So I thought I wasn’t a real writer because what I did was so messy. But I know now that writing is messy, but that, when it is all said and done, being a writer is a great blessing. It’s such an honor to be able to do what I was put on this earth to do.

On History: History is the story we tell ourselves about what really happened. What we remember is always filtered through a point of view. A novel is a lens to see a story and is the truth according to character. Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history. Just the facts can’t begin to tell the full human story.

On the Power of Stories: Stories have the ability to transform, encourage empathy and spur the imagination. Stories have the ability to show us our full humanity. I believe stories have the power to change the world.

On Books: I found, at the table of literature, a place where all were welcome. Here, I entered worlds, between the covers of books, that I longed to know more about. Being a reader is the beginning of being a writer. Once you become a reader, you realize that there is one story you haven’t read… it’s the story only you can tell.

On Revising: I am an endless reviser. When you begin, you write the best book you can write at that moment. Revision is part of the process of growing and improving as a writer. Through revision you read your book as your reader would and change your book for them. You become the best advocate for your reader through revision.

On Reading and Writing: Whether we are reading or writing a book, when we see with clarity all the complexity of another person, it is an amazing connection to humanity. When we walk in another’s shoes, it is a radical, transforming experience.

On Process: I am a person of ritual and I like structure. I write every single day. Sometimes the muse comes and sometimes it doesn’t. But writing is a muscle and needs to be exercised everyday. A dancer doesn’t just dance when she feels like it, she dances and practices everyday. This is the same of a writer.

On Characters: Give thanks to your characters and the stories they came to tell you. Honor them and put them to rest. The truth your characters speak is multifaceted, and what I love about a story is that it can hold all of the complexity that exists in that situation.

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Revisiting Misty of Chincoteague

This summer I went to a writing retreat (at the beach home of my friend and critique partner, Susan) on the pleasant shores of Delaware. The house was just north of Chincoteague and Assateague, the setting of my all-time favorite book from my elementary years, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. I hadn’t thought about the book in decades, but when I looked at a map and saw how close I would be, I knew I had to reread the book and to try to catch a glimpse of the famous wild ponies for myself.

A Newbery Honor book in 1947, Misty of Chincoteague was already considered a classic when I discovered the book. The book tells the story of wild ponies, who washed ashore from a the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon in the 1600s,* and lived on the island of Assateague “alone and forever part of the rocks and streams and wind and sky.”

Set in the 1940s, the nearby town conducts a yearly round-up of the wild ponies, swimming them across the narrow part of bay and selling the foals. Paul and his sister Maureen buy the sweetest little filly, who is named Misty, along with her mother, Phanotm, the most elusive, wild mare in the herd. Through heartwarming trials and tribulations, Phantom returns to the wild and Misty remains with Paul and Maureen.

It’s always interesting to reread books we loved as children as adults. Rereading Misty of Chincoteague, I was able to reflect on what was so delightful about the book to the 10-year-old me. But, rereading the book through the lens of adulthood, there were also some disappointments.

As an animal and nature loving girl growing up in suburban Denver, the wild ponies, the windblown island, and the adventures of the Paul and Maureen, siblings who live with their grandparents on a pony farm, captured my imagination.

As I reread the book, I could remember imagining myself as Paul or Maureen, galloping my horse through the ocean surf, riding a pony into town to do chores for the neighbors, and laboring on the pony farm where I mucked the stalls and gentled the mares. In my imagination, I raked clams and gathered oysters, halter-broke colts, rode in and won a big race, and hurled myself into the sea to save a colt from drowning.

It should be noted I have never done any of those things and I never will. But as a child I loved the idea  someone out there had. The book opened up my world and let me know there are many exciting and different ways that people live.

As an adult reader, I cringed at the underlying assumptions in the book. Paul, the brother, made all the decisions and experienced most of the excitement, while Maureen was stuck in the farmhouse doing chores. It was hard to read Paul’s constant belittling of his sister for being a girl. There were volatile social, economic, and environmental issues simmering beneath the text. The grandfather’s dialect was nearly impossible to read and his over-the-top adult moralizing set my teeth on edge. It wasn’t the exciting adventure story I remembered. In many ways it was just a flawed, old-fashioned children’s book.

But there I was… one hour away. Despite the summer traffic and tourist crowds we woke early and made the pilgrimage to Assateague Island National Seashore. We knew from our research the wild ponies are elusive and often visitors do not see them.

When we drove over the bridge onto the Assateague Island, there they were. The band of wild ponies grazed on the salt grass as the wind blew their manes and tails and the sunlit Atlantic sparkled behind them. The stallion imperiously watched his band, as a trio of juvenile males hung around looking wistful. A little foal with Misty’s coloring, gold and silver with a blaze down her forehead nuzzled and nursed as her mother, reminiscent of the wild mare Phantom, eyed me warily.

Just as my 10-year-old self knew, the wild ponies were special beyond belief. Seeing them was absolutely delightful. All my adult cynicism was suddenly gone and I was left with the magic of the moment. I was in a spectacular place, led by the power of a book, imagination and memory.

 

*This is a myth. Assateague National Seashore scientists have determined that the ponies are descendants of ponies grazed by colonial farmers on the island to avoid taxes.

 

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Hot Trend: Picture Book Biographies

Picture book biographies are one of the hottest trends in children’s book publishing. From mathematicians to ancient astronomers to obscure inventors, picture books are bringing inspiration and understanding about how real people impact the world in which they live.

My published works are early reader biographies, so I have experienced researching and writing about people with an inspiring story to tell. I admire the people I write about and enjoy the challenge of conveying their story, as well as their life and times, to young readers.

My next project is a picture book biography. To understand what publishers are looking for, I have read hundreds of picture book biographies, which has been an education in itself. I have been awed and inspired by the lives depicted in the books.

Over and over, I have learned about people whose stories are not well known, but who lived compelling lives. The new crop of picture book biographies contain stories of courageous people who overcame challenges, while others highlight someone who saw a problem in the world and dedicated their life to a solution. The books show how creativity and inventiveness led to inspired lives or how a person’s moral or intellectual strength gives a person direction and meaning. Such stories inspire readers to pursue their own passions with hope and determination.

A picture book biography is limited in scope- 32 or 40 pages, 1,000 or so words. It also must be written to appeal to a child’s understandings. A cradle to grave exploration of a person’s life is not possible given the format or the audience. These authors have winnowed down the stories to their essence in purposeful and imaginative ways.

As an author and not an illustrator, it has been interesting to me to study how the text and the pictures work together to tell the story in a picture book biography. The author does not need to expend words describing how their subject looks or the setting, because the pictures can surround the words with those details. The text is as carefully rendered as the pictures, with each of the words adding to the story.

After reading so many picture books biographies, I highly recommend them for children and adults. I’ve included the titles of twenty books that stood out for me… and left many more off this list.  I hope the intriguing titles will draw you in and make you want to read them or to share them with a child. Prepare to be inspired.

  • I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley
  • Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee
  • The Boo-Boo’s That Changed the World: A True Story About an Accidental Invention (Really!) by Barry Wittenstein and Chris Hsu
  • Pass Go and Collect $200: The Real Story of How Monopoly Was Invented by Tanya Lee Stone and Steven Salerno
  • Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood and Sally Wern Comport
  • Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid-Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World by Kim Tomsic and Brett Helquist
  • Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot’s World War II Story by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Melissa Iwai
  • The House That Jane Built: A Story About Jane Addams by Tanya Lee Stone and Kathryn Brown
  • The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanetter Winter
  • The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant
  • Away With Words” The Daring Story of Isabella Bird by Lori Mortensen and Kristy Caldwell
  • When Angels Sing: The Story of Rock Legend Carlos Santana by Michael Mahin and Jose Ramirez
  • Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing by Dean Robbins and Lucy Knisley
  • Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark and Katy Wu
  • The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman and LeUyen Pham
  • Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly and Laura Freeman
  • Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson
  • Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World by Laurie Lawlor and Laura Beingessner
  • Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Robert Burleigh and Raul Colon

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A Blizzard of Ideas: Storystorm, 2019

I was in the doldrums. It was the end of December and I had just completed my most recent writing project. My writing life stretched out in front of me. What, I wondered, would I write next? I had half-formed ideas for the picture books I wanted to write. The ideas were best when I roused in the middle of the night. “Brilliant! That’s it!” I would think, before drifting back to sleep. In the morning, I could only revive that feeling and not the idea itself—lost forever in the ether of dreamland.

Fortunately, like a blast of fresh air, I learned about the Storystorm Challenge. It’s a month-long brainstorming event held each January. Picture book writers are challenged to generate thirty story ideas in thirty days. For me, Storystorm was exactly what I needed to jump start the new year. It gave structure and purpose to my musings and a solid goal to work toward. By the end of January, come rain or shine, the 11,235 participants and I would have a list of at least thirty ideas to flesh out into concepts and premises in the coming year.

Started and coordinated by the esteemed picture book author Tara Lazar, the object is to heighten the idea-generating senses. Her January blog provides inspiration in the form of daily posts from published picture book authors and illustrators. They offer advice and insight into where they find their ideas and how they spark their creative process. Plus there are potential prizes! A “Winner” certificate! And it’s free!

My own list started off slowly, one idea per day. Then, one of the daily blogs would inspire me to imagine something new, and then that would morph into another idea altogether. I remembered books I had thought of writing years ago. I started to see picture book ideas everywhere and they would come to me when I was not expecting them. The act of writing down my ideas was transforming, and numbering them was surprisingly motivational. By mid-month, I had at least 30 ideas and their related iterations.

A blog by author Jess Keating described of the way an author for children must view the world. “Find everything inspiring,” she wrote. “When the whole world is interesting, you don’t need to hunt for ideas. They grow around you and wait for you to pick them.”

Another blog, by Andria Rosenbaum addressed how to tell difficult stories that I have sometimes considered writing. She wrote, “Hard stories … can’t change history but they have the ability to heal … and build empathy and understanding.” She continued, “If you have a tough story to tell, I hope you find a way to share it. You never know who may be waiting for your words.” That day, a variety of long-standing ideas that I had thought were too hard to write about for children found their way onto my list.

Other bloggers encouraged picture book writers to remember things they misunderstood as children, to imagine the world as a child might, to explore their own childhood memories, to listen to their own children, to play with words and puns, to explore historic events and their anniversaries, to celebrate the “weird stuff” and a flurry of other advice.

Author Shutta Crim wrote that Storystorm is about beginnings: first ideas, first notes and first drafts. That is exactly what Storystorm is for me—the perfect storm.

Ready with my ever-growing list of ideas, I’ll embark on another challenge to inspire me for the rest of the year. I’ve joined other picture book writers in the online group, “12 x 12.” This is a year-long writing challenge in which members write twelve complete picture books drafts, one per month.

After Storystorm, my only issue will be deciding on the lucky few (only twelve?) stories to take to completion and which ones I’ll have to save for a rainy day.

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The Journey from Idea to Publication: Writing “Explorations in Science”

I am pleased to announce the publication of Explorations in Science: Independent Extension Projects for Gifted and High Ability Students. The book will help teachers differentiate instruction in their classrooms for their advanced learners. A companion volume, Explorations in Social Studies,is due out in January.

Gifted education was my specialty during my teaching career. I worked directly with small groups of gifted and high-ability students, as well as functioned as a resource for teachers who taught in mixed-ability classrooms.

Gifted students have abilities that place them in the top 10% of the population and their needs are often overlooked in a one-size-fits-all educational climate. These students are expected to sit through the presentation and review of information that they already know or that they learn very quickly.

To address this problem, over the years I developed extensions of curriculum that advanced students could work on independentlyduring class, while the teacher and other students in the class were involved grade-level instruction or review. I found these worked well to keep advanced students engaged in school and excited about learning. These were the genesis of Explorations.

My colleague, friend and co-author Rae Harris and I thought these kinds of projects we had developed at our schools would be helpful to teachers and welcomed by students. After much thought, we started to call our projects “Explorations.” We knew there were few, if any, resources that were similar to what we wanted to write.

We contacted a publisher of gifted and talented resources and proposed our idea. We included some sample Explorations and the many reasons we were qualified to write thisbook. “Pieces of Learning Press,” a leading publisher of gifted and talented materials, wrote back saying, “We like it!” A contract, reviewed by our legal team (our husbands), was promptly signed. Then we went to work.

Consulting the NextGen Science standards, we determined the curricular topics we needed to cover. The science standards led us to divide the book into three sections: Earth Science, Life Science and Physical Science. We decided that ten Explorations per standard would allow teachers and students ample choice. Our Exploration topics would include topics like volcanoes and space, endangered animals and human body, and electromagnetism and light waves.

Rae and I designed a teacher and student-friendly, two-page format that focused on interesting topics that extend the science curriculum for 3rd-6thgrades. We wrote each Exploration with an educational focus, complex and rigorous important questions, several creative project options and a structured project completion tasks. We dreamed up all the extras we knew teachers would need, like student directions and evaluation rubrics, and created these as well.

Over the course of several months, we met weekly at our local library work on the book. We delved into topic areas and explored resources. I immersed myself in each topic, researching (for example) physical scientists and their theories, the newest missions in space or alternative energy sources. The best part was thinking up the creative projects that were challenging and interesting, as well as do-able by a student working independently in a classroom.

We did final edits on the book and it was submitted. We received and reviewed the proof and found a surprising number of errors. We corrected the proofs, got a second proof… it was getting there… more corrections, then it was finalized. We were excited to get a peek at the cover and back of the book in an email.

Finally, it was done and we held a copies of the finished product in our hands. And, it is ready for the publisher’s booth at the National Association of Gifted and Talented (NAG/T) annual conference, which starts today in Minneapolis.

I imagine my book, Explorations in Science,finding its way into the hands of teachers in a variety of settings- in a large urban classroom or a small rural school or a homeschool table. I picture students, like Trevon or Katie or  Maria or Edwin (real people I have taught) connecting with learning at a deep level while working through an Exploration. It is my great hope that my own creative work and ideas will make a difference in the education of a child.

 

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Lunch With Author Lois Lowry

Lois LowryI recently had the opportunity to have lunch with Lois Lowry … along with 1,184 other participants in the 2018 Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Summer Conference in Los Angeles. For me, it was the highlight of the conference.

For this lunchtime conversation, the 81 year-old author was seated in an oversized easy chair set on the stage and interviewed by Lin Oliver, founder of SCBWI. Their discussion was broadcast on two gigantic screens and Lois’s face filled the banquet room. With her pale blue eyes, short-cropped white hair and intelligent, no-nonsense demeanor, she commanded that attention of everyone in the room. Over mass-produced conference salads at large round tables, the experience was surprisingly intimate.

Lois, of course, is the beloved children’s book author of over 40 books, who won the coveted Newbery Award for Children’s Literature … twice! Those two books were ground-breaking and changed the landscape of children’s literature forever.

Number the Stars LowryNumber the Stars(1990) was one of the first novels for children about the Holocaust. Set in Denmark in 1943, an ordinary 10 year-old child, Annelise, finds her life transformed by Nazi occupation and rises to heroic heights when she helps to save the life of her Jewish friend.

The spare, simple language transports elementary school readers to imagine themselves in untenable situations and to dream that they too can be heros. As a teacher, it was one of my all-time favorite books to use in my classroom. I watched my young, gifted students read the book and connect with history and learn about the realities and consequences of war. “Number the Starsis about the role we humans play in the lives of others,” Lois said.

The Giver LowryThe Giver(1994) changed adult ideas about the topics that could be explored in children’s literature. The first dystopian future novel for children, it imagines the terrible underlying darkness of a seemingly perfect world in which there are no memories and emotions. Her character, Jonas, unveils the lies and manipulation, and escapes the community, while saving an “imperfect” baby.

Lois explained the genesis of the book was her own father’s struggle with memory loss. “I began to think about writing a book about people who have found a way to manipulate human memory, so they don’t have to remember anything bad.”

The Giverhas become a classic, selling millions of copies worldwide and placed on the required reading list of schools. It also remains high on the list of most challenged or banned books, although Lois mused, “I still wonder what they are so upset about.” She believes The Giverspeaks to readers of the fundamental interdependence of people with each other, their world and its environment.

So how did a college dropout and 1950’s housewife end up being the agent of tremendous change in the publishing world? Lois was enrolled in the writing program at Brown University, but she quit, like so many other women of the era, to get married at age 19. By the time she was 26, she was the mother of four children. She started writing again at age 40, when her marriage ended. “I started writing for children because I needed a job,” she explained.

Lois is known for writing about difficult subject matter in her work for children. Her first book, A Summer to Die(1977), was a semi-autobiographical novel about the death of a child. Her own older sister died of cancer at a young age. Many other books followed, written for children of all ages and with varying degrees of seriousness.

When asked if she ever planned to write an adult novel, Lois quipped, “That’s like me asking a pediatrician, “When are you going to get a real job and become an internist?”

Lois spoke about her next book, Gripped,due out in 2020. Focusing on the connections between people, the book is about how she and fellow Newbery winner Allen Say crossed paths as children in post-war Japan. Always the storyteller, Lois mesmerized the audience with her dramatic retelling of part of the book, which ended with a collective gasp from the audience. “This new book is more about human connection than any other I have ever written,” she said.

Lois believes all her writing is about “connection” and that is the key to her success as a children’s author. “If I had to choose one word, it would be intimacy… me flowing through the character and connecting with the reader.”

At its heart, Lois Lowry’s writing is about kids making sense of a complicated world. It is what all writers of children’s books aspire to do. She is a master of creating intimacy, whether in her writing or at lunch with me and 1,184 other writers.

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Plug-Ins, Widgets and Jet Packs

Okay. I get it now. There’s more to being a writer in the 21st century than just writing. If you really wanna make it, you gotta have your “online presence,” your “author platform,” a fancy-schmancy website and up-to-date, clever blog. You need to identify your “target market” and “target audience” and be “discoverable” by current and potential “readers” and “industry figures.” Through your web presence, you need to create “connections” and be “accessible,” as well as be “a source of inspiration and motivation.” You need to “create,” “grow” and “maintain” your “fresh and engaging” author platform.

Oh dear. I just wanted to write children’s books. I thought that my wonderful books would speak for themselves. I believed that my focus should be on my creative process and telling the stories that have floated in my head for years. I wanted to be discovered by a publishing company who would nurture my image and take care of all those tiresome details. It could happen… right?

Nope. Not anymore. In today’s publishing landscape writers apparently need to be on top of their online presence almost as much as they need to be on top of their writing. Or so I am told. So what’s a writer to do?

I did what anyone else would do. I went on the internet. Just like my “target audience.” I learned what current and potential readers, agents and publishers expect from an author in this digital age. I acquired a whole new vocabulary related to creating a web presence. I consulted a website developer to help me get oriented and begin. Exploring and analyzing the author platforms of both successful and unknown children’s writers helped me see possibilities and what works for them. I registered for a class on website design. My own tech-friendly children and colleagues gave me advice and I started to figure it out.

As I involved myself in the process, I started to believe that this might even be a good idea. Surprisingly useful. Kind of interesting. Possibly even … exciting?

So, I am now in the process of creating that all-important author website. I am finally putting to good use a domain name that I claimed years ago. I have a “theme” and an outline for my “pages” and the draft content for each page and sub-page. I’m learning about “plug-ins” and “widgets” and “jetpacks.” Yes, jetpacks!

Soon, I’ll move onto mastering social media. Facebook (no problem), Instagram and Pinterest (sure, why not?), YouTube (well, maybe), and Twitter (maybe not!).

While I would rather be spending my time just writing, I have come to appreciate the creativity and purpose of this process too. It has forced me to think deeply and differently about my writing. I am beginning to know how I want to present myself to the wide, wide world that can be accessed with the touch of a button. The idea of such immediate access is challenging and important. I’m focusing on the ways I can reach and interact with my readers and am considering what they might want from me. I want agents and publishers to know that I can contribute to my own success. Embracing the idea of a web-presence will enable me to connect to the world ways that would have been impossible a generation ago.

And using a jet-pack, even a digital one, is really, really cool.

 

 

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Writer’s Block…

It is a perfect day for writing.

I have characters impatient to move forward, ready to endure things getting a little worse before they get better. My plot is waiting to advance and my characters are growing and changing, all according to the outline that I hammered out months ago. Two people I created are literally trapped in a tree and the person they are hiding from is striding toward them. They need me.

So why can’t I write?

I keep trying, but every time I sit down to write, I come up blank. I write a sentence or two and it seems so… wrong somehow. I think back to the way the story flowed out of me in the beginning, the characters putting on their personalities like layers of clothes, filling out and surprising me with their actions and words. It was fun and exciting. I anticipated my writing time, eager to watch how the story I wanted to tell would find its way into the world.

But now, my frightened characters hide in the branches. I need to write the words get them out of this chapter and into the next. But there they wait, feeling confused and abandoned. I know them and they are very, very disappointed in me.

It turns out that I am not the first writer to experience a phenomenon known as writer’s block. Merriam-Webster defines writer’s block as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.”

Looking for answers, I decided to survey what some of my favorite authors had to say about writer’s block. They provided interesting and sometimes contradictory advice, but I was buoyed by the wisdom that their words spoke to me.

  •  Hilary Mantel: “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”
    • Lesson from Hilary: It’s okay to take a break and to wait for the right way to tell the story to come to me. Plus, it’s fine to find some time to bake that pie. Oh… and scowling does not help.
  • Orson Scott Card: “Writer’s block is my unconscious mind telling me that something I’ve just written is either unbelievable or unimportant to me, and I solve it by going back and reinventing some part of what I’ve already written so that when I write it again, it is believable and interesting to me. … [If] you haven’t solved the problem that caused your unconscious mind to rebel against the story, it still won’t work – for you or for the reader.”
    • Lesson from Orson Scott: I need to pay attention to what I have written and analyze if it feels true. If not, I’ll need to change it and make it both believable and interesting in order to move forward. My unconscious mind will be telling me things my conscious mind does not know.
  • Margaret Atwood: “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
    • Lesson from Margaret: My book is not going to arrive perfectly, so obsessing about each word or sentence is counterproductive. I can revise a bit as I go, but I can always go back and change everything if I wish. My first draft is just one part of the process and I need to get it down from beginning to end, then see about moving it closer to perfect.
  • Maya Angelou: “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”
    • Lesson from Maya: Some of what I write will be boring and awful. But that “the muse” is waiting and inspiration will come when I am ready for it…or when it is ready for me.
  • Jeffrey Deaver: “I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as writer’s block; the problem is idea block. When I find myself frozen… it’s usually because I’m trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place.”
    • Lesson from Jeff: I need to trust the story and allow myself to veer from my plan if something isn’t quite right. I need to let go of some things, things that seemed important and essential at one time, and leave it out if it doesn’t belong any more.
  • Barbara Kingsolver: “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”
    • Lesson from Barbara: I need to make sure that the book is my own, not what I think other people want the book to be. My book is historical fiction for children; I worry about making it marketable, politically correct, and always age appropriate. I need to set aside those worries for now and just tell the story.
  •  Mark Twain: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
    • Lesson from Samuel: I shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the entirety of the book, but just move forward one incident at a time. If that is how he got that fence whitewashed and Huck to his own funeral, I can get those characters out of the tree.
  • Warren Ellis: “Writer’s block? This is when a writer cannot write? Then that person isn’t a writer anymore. I’m sorry, but the job is getting up in the fucking morning and writing.”
    • Lesson from Warren Ellis: I’ve never read anything by Warren Ellis, in fact I’ve never heard of Warren Ellis, but I appreciated what he had to say. I probably just need to get over myself and just write the @#$%$#ing book.

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