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A How-To Guide to Twitter Pitch Parties: Reflections by a Twitter Novice

Twitter pitch events provide a way to get the eyes of a potential agent on your work. The traditional submission process involves researching agents and sending off your manuscript— and can feel like a shot in the dark. At a Twitter pitch party, you put your precious manuscript out there, its essence squeezed into 280 characters, and agents come to you.

Sounds great— but daunting to a Twitter novice like myself. I decided to participate in the #PBPitch in February, a pitch party specifically for picture books. But I started my research into the process long before the date of the pitch party.

Years ago, I signed up for a Twitter account but never used it. I reactivated the account and started spending a few minutes a day exploring the platform. It has a lot of the same features as Facebook and Instagram, but with its own twists.

I wanted my Twitter account to focus on children’s book writing (although it was tempting to follow #CatsOfTwitter.) I began to follow children’s book authors and people I know in the writing community. I discovered Twitter soul-mates, published and pre-published picture book authors like myself, who are connecting to the writing community using this platform. As I became more familiar with Twitter, I liked, commented, and re-tweeted posts that I found interesting. Twitter, it turns out, is easy—and is a window into an active and supportive community.

I researched Twitter pitch parties on the internet. Many agents and others have blogs on the topic. It helped to take a free webinar (Julie Hedlund’s “How to Participate in a Twitter Pitch Party) to learn the basics.

Three of my picture book manuscripts were ready for submission. At a Twitter pitch party, you can pitch as many manuscripts as you want, but they need to be ready to send to an agent if you are lucky enough to get a “like” or a “heart” by an agent.

A Twitter pitch is its own writing genre. The 280-character limit on tweets presents a huge challenge. I already had log-lines and elevator pitches for my books. But those were much longer than 280-characters. I wrote and rewrote my tweets, trying to capture the story, voice, and heart of my stories in the limited space. (A helpful tool is a Twitter Character Counter available on the Internet.)

I had parsed my Twitter pitches down to their 280-character essence when I learned the hashtags (#) had to be included in the character count. #s are the way that Tweets are linked to all the other Tweets that include it. Essential to a Twitter pitch party is the name of the event, so I needed to make room for #PBPitch (8 characters). One can also include other hashtags like #NF (non-fiction), #L (lyrical), PB (picture book), DV (diverse voices) to help agents locate the kinds of work they are looking to represent. So I re-edited, making room for important hashtags.

I ran my pitches by my writing group and my family members. Then I posted them for feedback on the 12 x 12 Picture Book website (of which I am a member) and joined a #PBPitch Facebook group and posted them there too. These two forums were extraordinarily useful in seeing how others wrote their pitches and what worked or didn’t work for them. In addition to getting feedback, I also gave feedback to others, which made me really focus on the core elements of a Twitter pitch. I rethought, adjusted, and revised.

Ready or not, the big day arrived. I still was not entirely sure how a Twitter pitch party worked. For me, the best way to learn something is to actually do it, so I posted my pitches on #PBPitch, and waited to see how the day would unfold. I checked my Twitter feed constantly, even obsessively, throughout the day. I wrote comments on other pitches and reposted ones that I liked. I received complimentary comments from fellow writers and friends, who in turn reposted my tweets.

Agents and editors came to the party/Twitter feed throughout the day and reviewed the pitches. If a pitch caught their eye, they “liked or “hearted” the tweet, indicating an invitation to submit a query or manuscript to them. While this is no guarantee the agent will eventually represent you or your work, it is a step in the right direction.

Did I receive the dreamed of and longed for “like” or “heart” from an agent? I did not.

Am I glad I participated in a Twitter Pitch Party? I am.

Will I participate again? Absolutely yes.

After going through the process, I have insight and understanding of what a Twitter pitch party involves. These events provide another way to have access to agents and they could short-cut the submission process if your pitch catches the eye of an agent.

The next #PBPitch is on June 17th, 2021. Hope to see you there!

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SAVE YOUR DOCUMENTS!

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

I started working on this blog a few weeks ago. I picked a topic, made a list of what I wanted to say, did some research, and pounded out a first draft. Then, last Tuesday, I fleshed it out, cut it here and there, and added new content. At the end of my writing session, I saved it to my Desktop and put it in a file in Word. I planned on giving it another read-through on Thursday and posting it on Friday. Everything was right on schedule. Or so I thought.

That same Tuesday night, I took the laptop into our bedroom. Normally, I leave it in the kitchen to charge for the next day. But since I would be skiing on Wednesday with my older son and his friends, I wanted to clear out a few emails before going to bed. It seemed like a good idea. Except for one false move. I put the computer on the nightstand. 

The next morning at breakfast, I opened it up. It was Inauguration Day and I wanted to watch the early morning festivities. Only when I clicked on the start button, nothing happened. The screen was black. Had I really used up a full charge the night before? I didn’t think so. But we needed to get going so I plugged in the computer for another charge and headed to the slopes.

It was a perfect morning – blue sky, fluffy snow, and NO LIFT LINES! Skiing with my son  (who was visiting from New York) was a total delight. After a few hours of enjoying the fresh powder, I went back to the house for lunch. I couldn’t wait to see the swearing in of President Biden and Vice-President Harris. I made a salad, sat down at the kitchen counter, and flipped open the laptop. The screen was still dark. What???? I pressed the “On” button. Nothing. No flashing lights, no chiming boot-up sounds, no sign of life. I picked up my phone and googled “What do I do when my MacBook Air won’t start?” 

I clicked on a video and did everything the guy said: “Press Control/Option/Shift for 7 seconds, press the start button, plug in the charger for 10 more seconds, repeat.” No change. I was beginning to panic so I googled more articles. One stopped me in my tracks. “We’ve bought a baby humidifier for our daughter who lives in our room. And I have my desk with my MacBook nearby. Can this damage my computer?” The answer was a resounding YES!!!!! Alarms began going off in my head. The humidifier in our bedroom was extremely close to the nightstand. Colorado air can be dry, especially in  winter, and I love having hot steam waft around me while I sleep. Unfortunately, this has the opposite effect on a computer.

After blasting the MacBook with a hairdryer and leaving it overnight in an air-tight plastic bag with rice, the possibility of water damage was becoming a serious reality. The next morning, (Thursday) I called Apple Care. “Oh yes,” said Ariana, the cheerful tech-support person. “A humidifier could do that. But don’t worry, I pulled up your account and you have insurance. Would you like to bring it in today? I have an appointment near your zip code at 5:15.” Except the zip code she was referring to was attached to my Denver address. I was in the mountains. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll drive down.” That’s when I remembered the blog. I always back up my longer projects on the Cloud and save them to a flash drive. But this was a shorter piece and it was going to be posted and saved on the Internet in only a few days. I had NOT backed it up. It was most likely gone. 

I drove down to Denver for my appointment at the Park Meadows Mall. Whoa, talk about culture shock. I hadn’t been inside a mall in close to a year. And the Apple Store I remembered no longer existed. After waiting on a socially distanced circle in the hall, I was ushered into a narrow room of white counters with plexiglass coverings and assigned to counter #4. The guy behind the plexiglass had a microphone wrapped around his neck and spoke to me through the speaker on my side of the partition. He scanned the appointment barcode on my phone. “Water damage, right?”  I nodded, feeling like I was in a hospital emergency room. “Well, as you can see, this isn’t a typical store right now. I’ll need to send the laptop out to the diagnosticians. They’ll call you with their findings within 24 hours. Is that alright?” I nodded again, signed something, and left feeling like I had just dropped my child off at preschool for the first time.

The tech assigned to my case called the next morning. “There’s a lot of damage, but we can fix it. Should be ready in four or five days.” Five days? I took a deep breath. “Okay,” I said. “By the way, do you think any of my files can be saved?” There was  a brief silence on the other end. “Hmm, probably not. You could pay extra for a data retrieval, but that will take longer.” “Oh,” I said. “Never mind.”

Part of me was relieved. My beloved MacBook Air could be fixed. And I had insurance, although there is a somewhat substantial deductible with this amount of damage. Still, I could carry on for a week with my old computer, even if it only holds a charge for two hours and heats up like a stovetop. But it wasn’t as bad as I had originally thought. Still, I was unnerved. Finally, the truth dawned on me. I was, like most of us, emotionally and physically attached to my electronic devices. And the main source of this affection was that gorgeous rose-gold MacBook Air.

My younger son would call this a “first world problem.” He would also tell me that I should be using GoogleDocs (which I am using right now) for all my writing. It automatically saves everything. Granted, my three novels and assorted picture book manuscripts are saved on flash drives, the Cloud, Scrivener, and PRINTED OUT and stored in binders. They have also been emailed to critique partners. But I was still upset about the lost blog and began moaning to my always supportive husband. He smiled and said, “Why don’t you write something about not putting a computer near a humidifier?” I laughed. But after speaking with a fellow writer who said, “That’s a really important topic. I don’t back up everything.” I decided to go for it. So here’s my advice if you haven’t gotten it already … BACK EVERYTHING UP ALL THE TIME. Seriously, even your smallest documents. And although I know it goes without saying-   KEEP YOUR COMPUTER AWAY FROM A HUMIDIFIER! 

Update: The computer has been repaired and no files were lost. Whoop, Whoop!

 

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Mentor Texts and Comp Titles

By Susan Wroble

The Story Spinners critique group has a long tradition of having retreats. In 2020, when Covid-19 made meeting in person impossible, we weren’t willing to abandon the tradition. We each picked a topic to present to the others in our first (and perhaps only) virtual format. I choose a topic I needed to learn more about—mentor texts and comp titles.

Author Tara Luebbe defined the difference between mentor text and comp titles in her blogpost for SCBWI Southern California’s Kite Tails last January. The same book might be both a mentor text and a comp—the difference is in how you use it.

 

MENTOR TEXTS COMP TITLES
Are all about… Craft Sales
Can be in… Any genre Same genre as your work
Published… At any time Within the past five years
Serves as a… Template A way to “get” your story

 

Mentor texts are the books that you use to learn how to do something. Perhaps you need help on POV, or pacing, or story arc. Mentor texts are the books you use as guides to learn a writing skill. In contrast, comp titles are books that show where your story belongs in the market. They help identify the target audience and where your book will fit on the shelves.

How to Find Them: So now that you know the difference, how do you find mentor texts and comp titles? Hint: the answer is not to start by broadcasting for help on social media!

To start, spend some type analyzing what you need before you begin the search. For mentor texts, are you looking for help with the humor, with rhymes, with a character arc…? For comp titles, what are the identifying features of your manuscript—its genre, subject matter, formats, type of writing, and tone?

Now that you know what you are looking for, you can begin finding the books. While the way you use mentor texts and comp titles is very different, the process of finding them is similar. Some of the common ways to search include:

  • Children’s Librarians
  • Booksellers
  • Goodreads
  • Amazon, especially the features
    • “Customers who viewed this also viewed”
    • “Sponsored products related to this item”
  • Pinterest lists (these are surprisingly helpful), and
  • ReFoReMo lists (my favorite for picture book comps!)

Using the ReFoReMo Lists:

If you are writing picture books, I highly recommend the free “Reading for Research Month” held each year in March. This month-long picture book study was founded to help PB writers understand the form, market and craft of writing through the reading and study of current picture books. Registration for ReFoReMo typically opens in mid-to-late February, and one of the many benefits of ReFoReMo is their private Facebook group. Searchable lists—perfect for finding mentor texts and comp titles—are in the lists section of the ReFoReMo Facebook files.

Here’s an example of how to use the files: My work-in-progress WHAT’S IN YOUR CAULDRON? is a rhyming and lyrical nonfiction picture book with transformational change (witches to healers). Sometimes, the categories in mentor texts and comp titles will overlap. I might want to look at rhyming books for both mentor texts and comp titles.

I start by going to Facebook, and the ReFoReMo Page:

On the left, near the bottom of the list, you will see “Files.” Click on that. You get a (searchable!) long list, that includes things like:

  • How-to
  • Rule Breakers
  • Cumulative Structure
  • Unexpected Twists
  • Longer PBs
  • Universal Themes
  • Tough Topics
  • Wordless
  • Contradictions in Text vs Illustrations
  • Free Verse
  • Grief and Loss

From here, I will search for rhyming texts. “Rhyming” gets me nothing, but “Rhyme” leads me to this file: Rhymers

From this list, I might look at Elli Woollard’s THE DRAGON AND THE NIBBLESOME KNIGHT. The copyright date of 2016 means I could use this as a comp title, as it has been published within the past five years. Heading over to Amazon, I can use the “Look Inside” feature (it’s not on all books, but if it is there, it is just above the picture of the book cover). Like my work-in-progress, I can see that THE DRAGON AND THE NIBBLESOME KNIGHT is written in rhyming couplets. But the tone, the meter, and the arc are very too different; it is not a good mentor text in any of those areas. However, it might be a good comp.

A further search on THE DRAGON AND THE NIBBLESOME KNIGHT gets me a full reading via YouTube, and I can see that the dragon and knight go from being enemies to being friends. The combination of both a structural match (rhyming) and a thematic match (transformational change) makes this a potential comp title for my manuscript.

Success! And I hope that this post brings you some understanding and success in your search for mentor texts and comp titles as well.

 

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Great Lives in Colorado History Biography Series: Great on So Many Levels!

The “Great Lives in Colorado History Biography Series” offers Colorado’s 3rd and 4th grade students the opportunity to peek into the lives of some of Colorado’s most interesting personalities from the past. In a partnership among the Denver Public Schools Social Studies Department, the Colorado Humanities Organization, and publisher Filter Press, the 33 biographies were written by teachers who were inspired to provide resources to teach Colorado history to their elementary school students.

I was one of those teachers/authors who had the opportunity to participate in the Great Lives project. The three biographies I wrote for the series gave me a foundation for my future work as an author of both children’s books and encyclopedia articles. The experience ignited my passion for detailing the past through lives well lived and introduced me to the pleasure of delving into research that reveals information about a person in the context of their time.

The project was premised on the belief that viewing history through the lens of a person’s life is a meaningful experience for elementary school students. As the students read a biography, they are able to see that ordinary people can lead extraordinary lives. From the humble beginnings, these Colorado luminaries rose to make a difference in history.

Students gain knowledge and appreciation of the struggles and hardships that one person had to overcome, perhaps gaining insight and perspective into their own problems. Students can also be inspired to pursue their dreams or to act in more principled ways with insight from real lives. Understanding a person in the context of history can help students know a specific time and place, as well as stimulate a broader interest in history.

Each teacher wrote a biography of an interesting Colorado historic figure of their choice. The resulting set of books represent of a cross-section of people that include writers, politicians, activists, adventurers, explorers, dissenters, professional people, visionaries, and pioneers who were men and women of all ethnicities.

To write the biographies, we used the same skills we expect of our young students: to identify and locate reliable resources for research, to document those sources, to use appropriate information from the resources, and to convey the information we learned in an interesting and creative way. We adapted our writing to our upper-elementary audience, explaining difficult concepts and using student-centered vocabulary.

Being teachers, we made sure the books were resources that included all the elements of non-fiction that we teach to our students. The books are traditional biographies in the “cradle to grave” format. There are chapter headings, a table of contents, a glossary, an index, pictures with captions, a timeline, a bibliography, an “about the author” page, and a dedication. The books were published in English and Spanish, reflecting our student population.

The result is a full classroom set of age-appropriate, accessible biographies on truly notable and fascinating people from Colorado’s past. Students are able to read and research on their own, learning valuable reading and writing skills. In my elementary school, each student is given their own biography. They read about and study their person, then write a first-person account of the subject’s life. The students dress as their person and tell about “their” lives in a Great Lives in Colorado History event. It is the second-best day of the school year (the first always being the Denver Public Schools Shakespeare Festival.)

My three books in the series were Helen Hunt Jackson: Colorado’s Literary Lady; Ralph Carr: Defender of Japanese Americans; and Felipe and Dolores Baca: Hispanic Pioneers. To this day, four of the people I admire most in the world include Helen, Ralph, Felipe, and Dolores.

The books are available through Filter Press. They are great gifts for elementary students and are a bargain at $8.95 each. The entire set of 33 can be purchased for only $237.00 and would be welcome in any Colorado classroom.

Here is the link to access the series on the Filter Press Website: https://www.filterpressbooks.com/shop/greatlivescolorado/3 

The “Great Lives in Colorado History” Series includes the following bilingual titles:
Augusta Tabor: Enterprising Pioneer
Barney Ford: Pioneer Businessman
Benjamin Lindsey: Father of the Juvenile Courts
Bill Hosokawa: Journalist
Charles Boettcher: Colorado Businessman
Chief Ouray: Ute Chief and Man of Peace
Chin Lin Sou: Chinese-American Leader
Clara Brown: African-American Pioneer
Doc Susie: Mountain Doctor
Elbridge Gerry: The Paul Revere of Colorado
Emily Griffith: Educational Opportunity for All
Enos Mills: Rocky Mountain Conservationist
Fannie Mae Duncan: Entrepreneur
Felipe and Dolores Baca: Hispanic Pioneers
Florence Sabin: Scientist and Teacher
Francis Wisebart Jacobs: Denver’s Mother of Charities
Hazel Schmoll: Colorado Botanist
Helen Hunt Jackson: Colorado’s Literary Lady
Kate Slaughterback: Legendary Rattlesnake Kate
Katharine Lee Bates: Author of “America the Beautiful”
John Dyer: Snowshoe Preacher
John Routt: Colorado’s First Governor
John Wesley Powell: American Hero
Josephine Aspinwall Roche: Humanitarian 
Justina Ford: Baby Doctor
Little Raven: Chief of the Southern Arapaho
Otto Mears: Pathfinder of the San Juans
Ralph Carr: Defender of Japanese Americans
Richard Russell: City Leader
Robert Speer: Denver’s Building Mayor
Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales: Chicano Activist
William Bent: Frontiersman
Zebulon Montgomery Pike: Explorer and Military Officer

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I WRITE, BECAUSE…

I write because it’s my

rock,

church,

wrinkles,

pain,

loudest laugh,

amid deep doubt

on mornings when I’m convinced the birds are singing,

“scrap it, stick with vacuuming.”

Second chance,

even when revision and I aren’t getting along.

Need for risks,

such fun to throw terrible twists at my characters.

Addiction to curiousity

and what, where, when, why,

by the way, how the heck did my research lead to the story of the chef who made the world’s largest dumpling,

and then on to 10 synonyms for said

that I’ll delight in using way too many times.

Decisions,

as complex as Colorado weather

and a one word sentence.

Seeing through lotsa lenses,

each a chance to make metaphors,

as like

and like as.

One what if after what if,

navigating the creative mess I’ve made.

Commitment to writing The End.

Reminder to trust

and hope,

oh, please, may my 10 years of revising

90,000 words make some sense!

I admit, it’s often my desperate attempt to whittle, whittle away at a chunk of wood

seeking the perfect knot

that I want to sand, buff, stain,

repeat;

and often, it’s a return to my rebellious teen,

sneaking up the stairs after curfew

with secrets of my doings deep in my Levi’s pocket;

and often, it’s my science lab,

experimenting with wit,

but, ending up with the same result,

me laughing at my same corny ideas.

Raw truth,

much, much better than any mirror.

Every wee fear,

including those I haven’t met.

Pillow and blanket,

especially when I want to hide from characters that I can’t bear to inform:

“I don’t know if you would laugh or cry over this matter.”

Giddy childhood,

when my four brothers and I wrapped towels around our necks

and raced our bikes two miles to the public pool,

competing all day for the biggest cannon ball splash

and finding enough coins on the concrete to buy Baby Ruth’s and lemon drops.

Freedom,

flying down a mountain on my bicycle at 40 mph,

hearing only air,

only!

Tuner,

honing in on how-to’s,

like my character’s nervous habit,

or, whether she should whine, sigh or snicker.

Adrenaline rush,

when rarely, oh so rarely,

six sentences in a row,

flow,

flow,

as if my character is in charge.

Admission

to the humbling fact,

yes, my characters will lead,

if you would listen,

they’d love to whisper:

“Get your ego out of the way, god damnit!”

Shower,

making sure I scrub deep, bid farewell to the filth and start all over.

Challenge

that wakes, sparks and jests me,

like when I hide dark chocolate in the freezer,

yet, keep avoiding, avoiding

till I must have a bite,

and then, you know what happens next,

I eat the whole bar!

Shovel,

reminding me: dig up, dig up, dig up the muck,

more,

more,

because, beneath is the real stuff, THE story,

arriving at an unexpected reality sign:

“welcome to the story you never knew you were telling!”

My rescue crew,

always ready with a

hug,

wisdom,

feedback,

nudge,

prayer,

a plethora of ideas,

edits,

commas,

periods.

Fresh baked paper

just out of the oven,

ready for my pen to

dabble,

let go,

forgive,

say hello,

how are ya,

goodbye

to mom, dad, brothers, best buds.

Stories

I write,

because,

I always have.

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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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ACCOUNTABILITY: A WRITER’S BEST FRIEND

“I have to get back to work. Goodbye.”

That’s what I say if I’m talking to someone, and it’s time to show up in my studio and write. The time is blocked out on my calendar, like any meeting or appointment. I got the idea from a writer friend while sharing our routines – and how we show up to our writer job.

Oh, the tricks I play on myself! But, they work. Well, okay, not always – especially during this pandemic, when my teaching and personal schedule are topsy-turvy, and my self-motivation is wavering. But, I keep trying. While sipping morning coffee, I turn on my studio light and open the curtains, so my office shouts, “I’m ready and waiting”. I set my alarm for writing sessions. I put my cell phone in another room, so I can’t hear the buzz of incoming texts or calls (which are perfect distractions when I’m stuck on a scene that I’ve re-written a dozen times!).

Unfortunately, the demons of distraction and procrastination still like to hang out in my office. Ugh! Good news is, I know my own worst enemies really well. Gradually, I’m learning to negotiate with them, so, my favorite co-worker, accountability, can kick them out and pull up a chair!

Here’s what accountability and I have been up to – and what’s really working:

Setting a timer. I try to follow a rigid routine during my scheduled writing time: For writing, I set a timer for one hour, take a 10-15 minute break, repeat. For research, I set a timer for a maximum of 30 minutes.

Monday accountability group. Every Monday, I do an email check-in with a group of kid-lit writers. We submit our goals for the week and report briefly on progress made the previous week. Wow! Keeps me honest and realistic! In our brief format, we manage to celebrate, challenge, and remind each other to keep plugging away, and that it’s okay to take a break.

Text-writing. Once a week, I have a writing “date” with another children’s writer. We text a few minutes before our start time to share what we’re working on or what we want to accomplish. Usually, we do two 45-minute rounds. Then, we briefly check in. We’re always amazed at how much we get accomplished in such a short time.

SCBWI Rocky Mountain Chapter critique group. Once a month, my SCBWI critique group meets in person. We’re the Story Spinners and we’ve been meeting monthly for 20 years. We email our work in advance, then, when we meet, each writer has 20 minutes for their work to be critiqued. When members don’t submit work, they can use their time to update the group on projects, invite brainstorming or advice on a project, share notes from workshops/classes, or etc. They’ve helped me think through SO many critical bits and pieces, such as how to end a pb or write a hook for a YA synopsis, a book title, an angle for a nonfiction article, and the list goes on. We hold separate meetings, as needed, to critique a member’s full manuscript.

Story Spinners are my rocks! Without their passion, drive, support, professionalism, desire to learn, confidence, nudges, wisdom and wit, I would have given up on my projects a long time ago.

SCBWI British Isles North East critique group. While living short term in England (twice), I met weekly with the same critique group. Through email, we continue to: exchange same genre manuscripts for overall feedback, check in bimonthly on current projects. We’re considering holding FaceTime meetings, as needed. They, too, are my rocks, my support group!

Oops! My alarm is going off. I have to get back to work on revising my YA. Goodbye!

 

Writing is hard, hard, messy work. Going out and doing talks and signing books is all wonderful, but a writer has to return home and go back to work.   

Julia Alvarez, author of AFTERLIFE, BEFORE WE WERE FREE, ALREADY A BUTTERFLY

 

 

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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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Characters Who Need Some Love

When you think of February and Valentine’s Day, you may think of love and friendship. While I was visiting my local bookstore, I ran across a few characters who may need an extra dose.

One of my favorite characters of all time is Bruce from Mother Bruce. He is the unsuspecting bear that becomes the mother to some “geese” when they hatch. He doesn’t quite seem up for the challenge because he’s lacking the necessary nurturing skills. Bruce is the same old sour puss of a bear in Bruce’s Big Storm, but this time he reluctantly opens his home to the forest animals during a big storm. This helps him in the end when his house needs some fixing up after the storm.

Pig the Pug is another character that is notorious for his bad attitude and crazy shenanigans. Good thing, he has a good dog friend to help him out of trouble. But in the end, nothing calms Pig down more than a full body cast. Poor Pig doesn’t learn his lesson though. He’d back at his antics in Pug the Tourist. Will Pig ever learn to behave? He gets some time to think things over again when he winds up back in a full body cast.

I can relate to Grumpy Monkey’s protagonist, Jim. Sometimes, you just wake up grumpy. And who REALY wants to admit that is how you feel? It took Jim up until the end to come to terms with his feelings. But lucky for him he has a best friend that loves him regardless. Grumpy Monkey Party Time! Is a fun sequel that focuses on Jim’s fear of dancing at a party. When dance lessons from his friends don’t make him feel comfortable dancing at the party, everyone slowly admits dancing isn’t their favorite thing to do either. No fear, porcupine has the perfect crowd pleaser for the party, food!

What other characters have you run across that could use some extra love?

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REVISING TEDIOUSLY, ONE TINY TWIG AT TIME

by Karen Deger McChesney

I’m still pinching myself! I recently witnessed a bird building its nest. A dream come true! I was enjoying my morning ritual of sipping coffee and bird watching…and, there he was! A brownish finch with a one-inch twig in its cone-shaped beak, standing outside a birdhouse. I watched my fine-feathered friend retrieve twigs from the tall course grass and turn them this way and that to get them through the birdhouse hole. Incredibly tedious. Impossible. But, he did it. Magical! The most amazing moment was when he hopped out of the birdhouse with a different twig in his bill, laid it on the railing, flew off and retrieved a new one.

Re-decorating? I pictured him inside re-arranging twigs, over and over again. Good heaven, it’s like revising! One tiny twig at a time. Ironically, I arrived late to my revising that morning, because I was so enamored with the finch. I have been revising my first YA for what feels like forever. It’s one huge over-and-over-again. I don’t know what revision I am on. I don’t count anymore. I only countdown to my next self-imposed deadline, psych myself up, and mark the calendar with my next deadline, again and again.

Oh, it’s a grind. Some days, it’s the thickest, darkest molasses and feels like I am merely mucking around. Currently, I am deep in re-arranging – moving entire chapters from end to beginning and all over. It’s a messy experiment! But, alas, I am cutting paragraphs and entire pages that no longer move the story forward – and probably never did. I discovered that I was just in love with the words. Geesh!

Occasionally, I long for the adrenalin rush of writing, especially my first draft. But then, I am caught off guard. Suddenly, something jumps out and looks completely different or new, as if someone else wrote it. Odd. Exciting! I dive into re-building an entire scene, layer by layer, and uncover pieces that need a good polish. It’s fun, but very different than writing; it’s hard to explain. Lately, I think it’s me that is different. I come to the page differently. Maybe, maybe, I am learning the patience of the finch and finally, letting my characters spread their wings and fly higher. I hope. But, of course, I want to be done, already. Fiddlesticks! Enough of this nesting!

I keep wondering why the finch removed twigs. I suppose they didn’t fit the shape of his nest anymore. Hmmm… all I know is, thank you, little bird, for inspiring me to keep on building and re-shaping my story. I want to revise like a finch – slowly, relentlessly, routinely – and be okay with all the unraveling.

It’s work. It’s my job. And, as Elizabeth Gilbert says in The Big Magic, “…90 percent of the work is quite tedious…”

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