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Cheryl Klein is an editor at Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic).
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I published eleven books this year -- my most ever! I did not write about those titles here so much, however, because I was spending much of my time readying my 2015 books. (Such is publishing.) But I'm very proud of them all, and as always it was a pleasure to have such a wide-ranging list . . . to be able to turn from the proofs on Divided We Fall, say -- a YA novel about the start of the second American civil war -- to figuring out what piece of classic artwork would match a particular stage of our heroine's journey in I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed A Dreidel. (You'd have to see the book to get it.) So yay for my 2014 list!
Divided We Fall
by Trent Reedy
Gold Medal Winter
by Donna Freitas
Amber House: Neverwas
by Kelly Moore, Tucker Reed, and Larkin Reed
The Good-Pie Party
by Liz Garton Scanlon
illustrated by Kady Macdonald Denton
Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii
by Vicky Alvear Shecter
The Great Greene Heist
by Varian Johnson
by Bethanie Murguia
What's New? The Zoo! A Zippy History of Zoos
by Kathy Krull, illustrated by Marcellus Hall
If You're Reading This
by Trent Reedy
Finding Ruby Starling
by Karen Rivers
I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel
by Caryn Yacowitz, illustrated by David Slonim
"A writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others." -- William Faulkner
A writer on my Facebook feed asked a question of his fellow writers recently: How much of writing success is talent, how much perseverance, how much conscious education in craft? I've thought about this a lot as well, so I'm going to ramble on about it for a bit. "Success" we're going to define here as "The ability to achieve the ends you want to achieve aesthetically for both yourself and a reader"; the elements of publishing/sales success are related, but much less in the writer's control.
First, talent. I actually don't think "talent" as a term is very useful, because what we mean when we talk about "talent" breaks down into a number of constituent elements that are more interesting and helpful to discuss. To wit, I believe "talent" is actually a combination of:
Imagination: The writer is capable of envisioning and creating on paper something new on this earth: a new human being, a new form of magic, a new planet, a new story. Of course this is what most writers do, but writers who are gifted in imagination take that a step beyond, to put together things no one else has thought to join before, and then render those inventions thrillingly real and meaningful: Ursula K. LeGuin with the genderless world of The Left Hand of Darkness, or Shaun Tan's faceless exterminators in one of the nightmare worlds of The Arrival, or Neil Gaiman relocating gods from all around the world to the United States in American Gods, or J. K. Rowling's conception of wands as indicators of personality. Or these gifted writers demonstrate great depth and breadth in what they imagine.... Half of Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, is set in a cramped, fluorescent-lit African hair-braiding shop shown in such well-chosen detail that readers can scent the oils in the air. Or Patrick O'Brian created Stephen Maturin, a short, half-Irish, half-Catalan doctor, naturalist, spy, violin player, Catholic, opium addict, faithful lover, terrible husband, worse housekeeper, excellent friend, awful seaman, who is more real to me than half of my acquaintance, because Mr. O'Brian imagined him that deeply and wonderfully. An original imagination, as with Ms. LeGuin or Mr. Gaiman, will attract readers for the chance to expand our minds beyond the familiar; a deep imagination, as with Ms. Adichie or Mr. O'Brian, will attract readers for the chance to delve farther into what we already know is real. Either way, they offer the pleasure of discovery to readers, who then feel they can confidently come to this writer to see something new.
Observational Skill, leading to Emotional and Philosophical Insight: The writers whom I admire most are ones who are capable of creating human beings whom I believe in as real people, and then using those characters to say something true and maybe new about the real world that is all around us. That requires these writers (1) to have observed human beings carefully, and remembered and thought about what they observed, so they could combine those thoughts with their imaginations, and create characters with the histories and personalities and all-around richness of real people. (That in turn requires writers to have an interest in human beings to start with, and the skill and patience to observe and remember and analyze. Not all people have those qualities.) And (2) the writers must have something to say about our world -- about race, or death, or politics, or war, or how love feels, or the pleasure of hating something. Some of this wisdom can come about through observation, but a lot more arrives via life experience -- especially pain, if you can use it well.
Dramatic Skill: The ability to make observed or imagined creations join together and move on the page in some emotionally compelling action. This usually involves a sense of timing on the writer's part -- knowing just how long to let the lovers stare into each others' faces before a kiss, or how to make a fight scene move at the proper speed. And it involves a sense of what is dramatically compelling to other people: Not just that you have two men sitting on a stage for hours, but giving them something to do or to talk about, even if it's the fact that they aren't going anywhere.
Writing Craft: The ability to put the results of all this imagination and insight down on the page in a manner that clearly communicates those thoughts and feelings to a reader. That simple, and that hard.
All of these things could be inborn, or they could germinate through the years before the writer starts to write, in combination with one other element that isn't exactly talent, but is absolutely essential to a writer's development:
Unconscious Reading: Thirty percent of writing well is getting good prose and story structures into your bloodstream -- or maybe forty or fifty percent, I don't know. The younger you start, the better; the more you read, the better. (I often read submissions with prose that I find just not very good, and I think "This writer hasn't read enough good prose" -- the Writing Craft part of their talent just isn't there yet.) Your reading forms your sense of sentence structure: I spent ages 13-21 more or less living in Jane Austen novels, and as a result of the way her work blossomed in my brain, I am close to incapable of writing a sentence with simple structure and fewer than five words. Your reading also defines your vocabulary, which in turn defines the store of words available to you to convey whatever you want to say. The content of what you read then determines what defines a good story for you -- whether it's giant wham-pow fights or witty banter or two characters having long philosophical dialogues. That often becomes the kind of story you will end up writing in fiction, because that is what makes you happy as a reader. Or it becomes what you react against, as you see a story created by someone else, and you want to tell it your way, or just better.
Your reading combines with all of the elements of talent identified above, especially dramatic skill and writing craft, to form the base level at which you work, the moment you decide to sit down in front of a blank page. And then you have to:
Practice: So. Much. Practice. "I know what I think when I see what I say," E. M. Forster said, and a writer's unique personality and the range of their abilities can emerge only through doing a lot of saying -- writing, and writing, and writing, and then revising, revising, revising. Practice is the only thing that can help you close the Taste Gap, as Ira Glass calls it: "Do a huge volume of work." It helps you develop confidence, as you see what you're good at and figure out how to fix the issues that come up in the Taste Gap. That confidence then frees you up to take risks and try new things. It doesn't matter how much talent you have, if all the skill and wisdom and imagination of Jhumpa Lahiri and Katherine Paterson and Ray Bradbury flows in your veins: You will never become a good writer without practice and then more practice.
Let's say you have talent and you're practicing regularly in order to get better. The following things can then help you improve and/or increase your odds of writerly success as well:
Conscious Reading: Separate from the Unconscious Reading above: This is the reading you do to study the techniques other writers use to achieve their effects. You can then imitate or steal those effects for your own ends. When I wrote "So. Much. Practice." above, I was stealing an effect I have seen in many, many places -- mostly online, but I think it's shown up in printed work as well -- where those ultra-short sentences (hey, fewer than five words!) give the point about the necessity of practice extra weight by virtue of their brevity. Studying books about writing and storycraft (like my own Second Sight) would also fall into this category.
Cultivating a Process: Write longhand first, then dictate that writing into a computer. Type 50,000 words in thirty days. Create a detailed outline of each scene and plot point, then flesh it out in prose. Be Anthony freaking Trollope and write precisely 250 words every fifteen minutes from 5:30 to 8:30 in the morning. Post all your writing on the Internet and get feedback from anonymous commenters. Never let any civilians see a word until your editor has reviewed the entire novel and approved of it. It doesn't matter what you do, and there is no wrong way to do it. Just find a writing and revising process that helps you do your best work.
Choosing the Right Material: In the fall of 1815, Jane Austen entered into a correspondence with James Stanier Clarke, a cleric who served as domestic chaplain and librarian to the Prince Regent of England. Mr. Clarke suggested several ideas for possible future novels Miss Austen might write, and she turned them down in a wise letter dated April 1, 1816:
You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in -- but I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way, and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.I love this letter partly for the personalities that shine through for both parties -- Mr. Clarke clearly thinking no writer could want anything more in life than to recommend themselves to the Prince Regent; Miss Austen clearly thinking how much he resembles her own Mr. Collins. But I love it more because it is such a wonderful example of writerly common sense and self-knowledge: She knows what her personal fictional strengths and limitations are, and what she enjoys writing in general, and she chooses to work within those boundaries. Or put another way, she knows what her fictional values are -- laughter and real people in country villages, not the highfalutin' pretentiousness of the serious romances of the time -- and she writes within and to satisfy those values. The result is six of the most enjoyable and wise novels in the English language, and I think I speak for most Austen fans in saying we are immensely grateful to have her Persuasion (the novel she wrote after this exchange) in place of any historical romance about the House of Saxe-Coburg.
So what is the right material for your personal fictional values and range of practice, your strengths and limitations? What will you enjoy writing, and what are you good at writing? Finding a subject matter and style that brings all of that in line will vastly increase your odds of being successful as a writer -- especially if it's also material that uses the element of talent at which you're strongest to its utmost. (Jane Austen had a deep imagination, but perhaps not a hugely original one; enough dramatic skill to tell the domestic-village stories she wanted to tell, and then observational skill and insight out the wazoo. And then all of her teens and twenties were spent in reading and practice, most of it thoroughly delightful.)
Cultivating a Purpose: Why do you write? This is very useful to know, because it is what will keep you going, especially in finishing something: the need to see a story completed, or get paid, or receive other people's praise, or teach others a lesson, or make some noise, or think out loud. (The latter is mostly why I write, and why I write at such length; once I start getting my thoughts out through my fingers, I feel vaguely unsatisfied until those thoughts are out in full.)
Finding Congenial Sources of Feedback: People who understand what you're trying to do, and can tell you where you succeed and where you're falling short. Essential for course corrections when you lose sight of what you're trying to achieve, feedback for knowing whether you're getting there, and emotional support all around.
If you have talent of some kind and then all of the above working together, then the last thing you need is:
Perseverance: Sheer cussedness, frankly, to stick with the practice and the submissions, the slowness and the unfairness, the damned taste gap and the jealousy, the reviews that don't get it and the reviews that do and then correctly identify the places you failed (which are even worse). The lovely moments in writing are truly lovely, when you nail that thought down in words, when you change a reader's way of thinking and they write to tell you so. You need perseverance to pull you over the many moments in between.
Writers, readers, reviewers: Is there anything I'm missing here? What else do you think is necessary for becoming a great writer?
"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do." -- Thomas Jefferson
"The luck of having talent is not enough; one must also have a talent for luck." -- Hector Berlioz
"Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be a very silent place if no birds sang except the best." -- Henry van Dyke
"The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
"Talent develops in tranquillity, character in the full current of human life." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
"A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage." -- Sydney Smith
"Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential." -- Jessamyn West
"If you want to write anything that works, you have to go with the grain of your talent, not against it. If your imagination is inert and sullen in the face of business or politics...but takes fire at the thought of ghosts and vampires and witches and demons, then feed the flames, feed the flames." -- Philip Pullman
"Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living with him." -- Mel Brooks
"The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved." -- Marge Piercey
"Talent is cheap. What matters is discipline." -- Andre Dubus
"Any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so." -- Doris Lessing
"True education makes for inequality; the inequality of individuality, the inequality of success, the glorious inequality of talent, of genius." -- Felix E. Schelling
Guess what? Those two things in my subject line are one and the same thing! We have a new episode of the Narrative Breakdown up, which also happens to be a recording of a panel I mentioned many moons ago: me, fellow editor and publisher Stacy Whitman, and our authors Eric Gansworth and Joseph Bruchac, respectively, discussing their books If I Ever Get Out of Here and Killer of Enemies, respectively. It was a really great, meaty, interesting conversation (IMO) about how Stacy and I came to edit these books, editor-author relationships in general, writing YA, privilege, and cross-cultural publishing. And now you can see a writeup of it from Publishers Weekly at this link, and listen to the full recording here. Thanks for checking it out!
I'm delighted to say that I'll again be teaching a Book Editing Manuscript Workshop in Editing Children's and YA Novels at the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies, starting in mid-February 2015. I had a ton of fun putting the course together and working with my students this past year, and I'm looking forward to getting to know a new group of aspiring editors next spring.
(And I should say this course is very much intended for publishing professionals who want to know what goes into editorial work or get ideas for developing their own editorial work -- editorial assistants or aspiring assistants, agents, fellow practicing editors. Writers might get something out of it, but the focus is entirely on on how to be an effective editor for others, not on how to improve your own novelistic craft.)
Here's the course description in full:
Calibrating a characterization. Structuring a plot. Developing a theme. Polishing the prose. And bringing all of these elements into perfect balance to help a book become what it should be. In this eight-week course, we’ll learn how to practice these editorial skills, with special attention to the particular requirements of the child and young-adult audiences, and discuss the creation of the right public image for a book through its flap copy, cover, and editorial presentations.
If you're interested, you can see more details and register here
, and I'd be happy to answer any questions in the comments. Thank you!
I will read a portion of your manuscript or your synopsis, offer advice on agents or the market, critique a query letter, chat about plot or character or world-building. . . . In general, my brain will be at your service for pretty much anything literary- or publishing-related for an hour, and all for a good cause: my dear Park Slope United Methodist Church.
The auction runs through November 14. To bid, click here
In mid-August, I had the privilege of moderating a panel on diversity in children's literature with four wonderful authors: Lisa Yee, Sonia Manzano, Sharon Robinson, and Varian Johnson. There was one embarrassing slip-up from me that I'll let you all discover for yourselves, and otherwise, a lot of wise things said about reading and writing books in general -- not just books with diverse characters, or by diverse authors. Highly recommended!
One of the most thought-provoking plays I've seen this year was Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra, at Playwrights Horizons, by the playwright Kirk Lynn. The theatre distributed a printed Q&A with Mr. Lynn after the show, and I've kept it for several months because there's a lot in the following that really resonates with me about art and life:
Q: You recently started running the UT Austin Playwriting and Directing program. What’s your pedagogy? What’s required reading in your playwriting courses?
A: ... The most controversial thing about me as a teacher, which surprises me, is that I—trained by my wife, who’s a poet—have really come to believe in a catholic taste: you should like everything; you should read everything. And this ties back to the no-experts thing. If you see something and think it’s totally full of shit, then you probably haven’t studied it enough. And you should spend time in its presence. I say this sentence, which I borrow from this classical music scholar Charles Rosen, who’s now dead. He said, “Admirers are never wrong.” For example, I find Shaw to be really stuffy. But people who authentically like Shaw aren’t lying. They’re not idiots. They’re not wrong. And if I place myself in their proximity, I can learn to appreciate—you can learn to appreciate any kind of art. I say this to my students and, more than any other crazy shit I say, that’s the one where people just get outraged. They think the avant-garde is full of shit, or they think the Well-Made-Play is full of shit. They don’t want to task themselves with the possibility that they’re full of shit and they can learn something from all of these.
When I was first dating my wife, I would wake up and she’d be sitting up in a chair, with a little light on, reading poetry constantly, every morning. I would always ask her, “What are you reading?” She would tell me, and I’d be like, “Do you like it? Is it good?” And she’d be like, “No.” And, just, the discipline of reading everything in the world because you’re an artist, and to be in conversation with it, seemed so radical to me. It has since become a practice of mine, to try and place myself—as much as I want to be in the company of plays that speak to me about my life—to put myself in the company of Shaw because I do not understand what he’s doing or why, and I need to stretch those muscles.
If nothing else, it’s just a more interesting world to live in.
I believe in this Wittgensteinian philosophy that words don’t correspond to meaning. There’s not a thing called “love” that actually corresponds to the word, there’s a kind of cloud of understanding that is different for each of us. So if I say I love you, you understand it as you understand love, but you don’t understand it as I understand it, and there’s a Venn diagram of how we sort of overlap in understanding. And if every word works like that, then making meaning together as humans is very complicated and we have to agree that there’s some leeway, that there’s not a right understanding of those things. That there’s not a right way to live, even.
So you got a text from your wife last night after the preview, about how your daughter Olive has a crush—
—I don’t know if we should say his name! It’s Daniel.
We’ll just call him “D---.” And you were so excited about it. Can you talk about why?
Yeah, this’ll probably make me cry more than anything else. Some of it’s just longing, because I miss my daughter and it’s fun to know about her life. It’s also such a great mystery. It’s interesting to have kids and realize that I’m not the central character in Olive’s life; Olive is the central character in her life. And [my son] Judah is the central character in his life. …I think there’s a little bit of fear in me that it will turn out that something like Christianity’s true, and I’ll become a crazy person who, like, wanders up and down the highway with a cross on my shoulder, shouting like, “Pleeeease repent.” Because if any of that is true, if what Christians believe is true, then everything you do is all wrong. There’s no sense in doing any of this. Making plays, being married. There’s just heaven and hell, and everyone’s fucking up really bad. I’m fucking up really bad. I don’t believe that’s true, thank goodness, but I do think placing yourself in service to people, there is a kind of—
You sort of make up for your narcissism by loving people. Does that make any sense? So knowing that my daughter is having this life, outside me, where she has her own friends at school, and she won’t tell me about any of them, and she has a crush at age three and a half, it just seems like a miracle. It seems like magic. And my job is to serve Olive so that she can have better and better crushes with crazier and crazier three-year-olds, and then four-year-olds, and then five-year-olds. That seems to me to be in the presence of the great mystery. It is insane that there’s a living being that I’m responsible for in some sense, and then that living being will jump ship and go off into the world and have the same experiences, both terribly traumatic and hard. And just the crushing sorrow and depression and, god forbid, addiction, anxiety, abuse, all those things. But then she’ll also have the experiences of friendship, and love—it’s insane. It’s a terrible system that we’re involved with! It seems poorly structured. My daughter’s life is this great thing that’s gonna unfold before me, and I get to watch it, and even participate a little bit. By recommending Daniel over, say, Ethan.
I think what I really appreciate and admire in this are Mr. Lynn's ideas that there is something to be learned from everything, even the things that don't resonate with you at all, about how art is made or how lives are lived. And how he decenters himself repeatedly, first from a universal absoluteness of meaning in language (meaning that all meanings would be dictated by him), and then from his daughter's life -- recognizing that she's her own person, doing her own thing, at age three, and finding that beautiful and sacred. To read the entire Q&A, click here
On Saturday, November 8, I'll be teaching my Plot Master Class as a one-day workshop to benefit Park Slope United Methodist Church in Brooklyn, New York. The Master Class forces you to take an in-depth look at the plot of your manuscript through the pre-class homework; then I dissect all of the elements of plot in the course of the workshop; and then we put everything back together again by the end, at which point you should have plenty of knowledge about making plots operate effectively, and a number of tools to strengthen your own. It's the most popular course I offer, as I've taught it both online and at multiple locations around the country, and while it's always an intense* day, it's always a lot of fun too.
And this edition is truly for a good cause, as all proceeds will go directly to Park Slope United Methodist, my lovely, progressive, inclusive, social justice-minded church in Brooklyn,** which will also host the event. As this is being independently organized, you do not have to be a member of SCBWI or any other writers' group to attend; all you have to have is a manuscript in mind, a curiosity about plot, the cost of the fee, and the ability to get to Brooklyn on Saturday the 8th. Please check out the registration page here, and if you have any other questions, feel free to e-mail me through that page or leave them in the comments below. Thank you!
Oh! And while I am here and talking publishing: The newest episode of The Narrative Breakdown features me and Katy Beebe -- also known as KTBB among commenters here, also known as my best friend -- talking about query letters. Katy wrote the original Query Letter from Hell that appears in Second Sight, and anyone who can parody something better know her subject inside and out. And indeed, Katy also wrote an impeccable query letter for her picture book Brother Hugo and the Bear, which was published by Eerdmans earlier this year.
We discuss both of these queries in the course of the episode, and throw in some advice on copyright, synopses, and effective summaries besides. Please check the show out!
_____________________________* Read: slightly brain-melting (but in an enjoyable way).
** If you want to take the Master Class but for some reason you object to the funds going to a church, let me know, and I'm sure we can work something out.
Earlier in this week of awful news out of Ferguson, in my home state of Missouri, my friend and colleague Rebecca Sherman commented on Twitter:
I do too. That speech remains the best speech I've ever heard a politician give in my lifetime, both honest and inspiring, both personal and national in its implications. It acknowledged the complexities of Mr. Obama's candidacy, of his relationship with the Reverend Wright, and indeed of the whole history of race in America after slavery. Rereading it now
, I was astonished to see these lines:
We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students. Legalized discrimination — where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments — meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families — a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods — parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement — all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.
. . . What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them. But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it — those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations — those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways.
This anticipates nearly everything in Ta-Nehisi Coates's brilliant article "The Case for Reparations"
in The Atlantic
earlier this summer -- except, of course, Mr. Coates's conclusion, which is that Congress should investigate the idea of reparations for African-Americans. Rather, Mr. Obama describes this legacy of pain as an opportunity for all Americans to come together, first to listen to and acknowledge each other's sufferings across racial lines, and then to work to address that suffering: the lost jobs, the lack of health care, the poverty and poor education that afflicts the 99% (to draw on another political metaphor). The speech received near-universal acclaim
, and while politics, being politics, quickly reverted to the usual game of sound bites and wins and losses, it did create a quiet moment in the hullaballoo of that 2008 campaign, a moment when most people heard what Mr. Obama said, and glimpsed that opportunity, even if we did not take it . . .
Like Rebecca, I wish very much that Mr. Obama had the time and courage and clarity and political daring to make another speech like this in the wake of events in Ferguson -- to be our storyteller-in-chief of sorts, to help one part of America listen to and understand the anger and fear of another, and to point the way toward dialogue among and a shared mission for all our citizens. I am sorry that he doesn't make this a priority, because I think perhaps he could do some good. But in his absence, we have to do that work.
I am moderating a panel this Tuesday for Scholastic's Teacher Week
-- a conversation with Varian Johnson (The Great Greene Heist
), Lisa Yee (Millicent Min, Girl Genius
), Sonia Manzano (The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano
), and Sharon Robinson (Under the Same Sun
) about diversity in children's literature and the need for all children to see themselves in books. There are a lot of dimensions to the diversity conversation, but the moral use of such books (and the moral necessity of publishing them) is fairly straightforward: More than any other media, a book allows a creator to control and tell their own story, to reveal the world they see in all its joys and sorrows, complexities and nuances, and to have that story be heard. For readers, books provide that opportunity to step into someone else's story and hear it -- to be affirmed by the story if some part of it speaks to your own experiences, emotionally or racially or religiously or emotionally, to know that you are not the first to go through this; to learn from it, both intellectually and emotionally, if it does not match your experience; to be challenged by and grow from it all around. (I wrote more about this, and the moral and sociological necessity for diverse books, in the opening of this talk
And I can't help thinking: How different might Ferguson have been if all the policemen had read Walter Dean Myers's Monster
? Or Fallen Angels
or Sunrise Over Fallujah,
for something closer to their own quasi-military experience? Or Ta-Nehisi Coates's article, or The Beautiful Struggle
? Or even listened to the "This American Life" stories on Harper High School
-- about a very different place than suburban St. Louis, certainly, but unforgettable in showing some of the pressures on young black men? Or best of all, if the policemen had heard the stories of the people of Ferguson as individuals? If they had shared their own?
Perhaps nothing would be different. These can be seen as highly naive and facile questions, given the money and history and societal factors that went into the making of this as-yet-ongoing tragedy, and I acknowledge my highly privileged role in asking them. But I also believe that books, stories, do what not-yet-President Obama did with his "More Perfect Union" speech: They reveal the complexities, allow us to see things as both individual and universal, make other people real, open up space for dialogue -- if we'll take the time to listen and talk and learn. I wish we could find more of that time and space.
“Life begets life. Energy becomes energy. It is by spending oneself that one becomes rich.” — Sarah Bernhardt
“I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.” — Duke Ellington
To many people artists seem
undisciplined and lawless.
Such laziness, with such great gifts,
seems little short of crime.
One mystery is how they make
the things they make so flawless;
another, what they're doing with
their energy and time.
— Piet Hein
“Judge the goodness of a book by the energy of the punches it has given you. I believe the greatest characteristic of genius, is, above all, force.” — Gustave Flaubert
“Genius is mainly an affair of energy.” — Matthew Arnold
“I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that's as unique as a fingerprint — and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you.” — Oprah Winfrey
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. “ — Martha Graham
We all need to look into the dark side of our nature — that's where the energy is, the passion. People are afraid of that because it holds pieces of us we're busy denying.” — Sue Grafton
"Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal." — Albert Camus
News! Later this month, on June 28, I'll be appearing in a great little mini-conference in my hometown of Belton, Mo. (about half an hour south of Kansas City). I'll give a talk on the five things editors want to see in every manuscript. Then the picture book author (and my best friend) Katy Beebe and I will discuss query letters, particularly the one that led to the publication of her lovely book Brother Hugo and the Bear. And finally, we'll do a first-pages session to round out the morning. Registration is $60, to benefit the Cass County Library Foundation (one of several library systems that made Katy and me the writers and readers we are today). For more information and to register, please click here.
In sad news, last month marked the first month in the nine-year history of this blog where I did not write a single post! Not a one! Part of it can be attributed to this fine fellow:
Mr. Bob Jacob Marley Monohan, who has come to dwell in our apartment and demand my time and attention, cat treats, things to gnaw on (currently a pair of James's cargo shorts that he unwisely left on the couch), etc. Part of it is that I have Twitter to accept all of my random thoughts. Much of it was simply work and life. But I miss writing here. I'm going to try to do a post a week for the rest of the summer, and I hope it will result in good energy all around.
- The Great Greene Challenge is still on! Have you gotten your copy yet? It's a great opportunity to support diverse books, an independent bookstore, and fantastic middle-grade in one fell swoop.
- As this blog has often served as my running results archive: My sister and I ran the Brooklyn Half-Marathon a couple weeks ago in 2:10. It was my slowest time for a half ever, but I didn't care, because I super-enjoyed running and chatting with her.
- We have a great new episode of the Narrative Breakdown up here, with Matt Bird and James and I talking character goals and philosophies. Our podcasting has fallen off a bit of late because we lost our sponsor.... If you'd be interested in donating to the cause or sponsoring an episode yourself (a great way to reach a wide audience of writers and other lovers of narrative), please contact us at narrativebreakdown at gmail dot com.
- And if you'd like to buy my book SECOND SIGHT, but not through Amazon, please e-mail me at chavela_que at yahoo dot com. I'd be happy to work out alternate means of payment and delivery with you.
- Happy summer!
There is all kinds of great and exciting stuff happening with diverse children's literature these days! By the time you're reading this, the #weneeddiversebooks campaign should be live on social media, May 1-3 -- follow it on Twitter and Tumblr and please share your own thoughts there. Kudos to the awesome team who put that together!
Closer to home, The Great Greene Heist
by Varian Johnson
-- a modern, middle-school, multicultural Ocean's 11
; a book I edited and am immensely proud of -- is getting a ton of awesome attention from indie booksellers and Varian's fellow authors, who are asking everyone to take the #greatgreenechallenge and help us get a diverse book on the bestseller lists. Kate Messner threw down the initial challenge
; Shannon Hale raised the bar
; and some guy named John Green sweetened the pot further
for bookstores. You can check out all the action at Varian's blog post here
. The book has received wide praise from many authors and a starred review from Kirkus,
and it was named a Publishers Weekly
Best Summer Book of 2014! If you still need more convincing, you can check out this wonderful little prequel
as a taster, or just join the challenge and preorder it now
. (I advise the latter.) Out officially on May 27, 2014.
Equally exciting: Sarwat Chadda
is going to be in New York for the PEN World Voices panel this coming weekend, and appearing at Books of Wonder
and a conversation on writing superheroes
on May 3, and a great panel on sex and violence in children's literature
on May 4. Good stuff!
Finally, I'm going to post this list here for anyone who might still need diverse book recommendations -- a list of books I've edited featuring diverse protagonists. Diversity has been a priority at Arthur A. Levine Books since the imprint was founded, and it's been a particular passion of mine for years, so I'm very proud of both this list and the many great books on our publishing lists to come.Books I've Edited Featuring Diverse Protagonists
- Millicent Min, Girl Genius and Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time by Lisa Yee (MG; Asian-American)
- Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally) and Bobby the Brave (Sometimes) by Lisa Yee (chapter book; biracial, Asian-American)
- Eighth-Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (MG: American of Black Jamaican descent)
- If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth (YA; Tuscarora Native American)
- The Path of Names by Ari Goelman (MG fantasy; Jewish)
- Marcelo in the Real World, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, and Irises by Francisco X. Stork (YA; Latin@)
- The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World's Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb (YA nonfiction; Jewish)
- The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman (YA; Chinese)
- Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg (YA; Gay)
- Gold Medal Winter by Donna Freitas (MG; Latina)
- The Savage Fortress and The City of Death by Sarwat Chadda (MG fantasy; British of Indian descent, Hindu(ish))
- Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy (MG; Afghan, Muslim)
- The Encyclopedia of Me by Karen Rivers (MG; biracial, of British-Caribbean descent)
- Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit and Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano (YA fantasy; Asian-inspired)
- Above by Leah Bobet (YA fantasy; differently abled cast -- which is putting it mildly -- and biracial protagonist of French and Indian descent)
Yay diverse books!
My Lenten calendar yesterday asked me to tell someone what I am grateful for. Why not you, Internet? The list could go on forever, so I will do one thing for each day of Lent. These are not in order of importance, but in order of my random brain.
1. My sweet husband, for whom I still have a serious case of newlywed mentionitis.
2. Plain chocolate McVitie's.
3. The air traffic control system.
4. The students in my NYU class.
5. My mom.
6. My dad.
7. My sister, who is awesome and always makes me laugh, & her husband and son.
8. Pigeons (except the ones nesting in the exterior heating grate of our apartment).
9. My apartment.
10. My best friend, Katy, who has a picture book coming out next month (about which more soon).
11-17. Melissa Anelli, Emily Clement, Donna Freitas, Rachel Griffiths, Mallory Kass, Ted Salk, Jill Santopolo.
18. My aunts, uncles, & cousins.
20. Good picture books in rhyme.
21. Marla Frazee's illustrations.
22. The chance to teach my class, & to teach at various workshops around the country.
23. My authors and illustrators, particularly at the moment Vicky Alvear Shecter, who took me to a Waffle House & an antiquities museum in Atlanta this weekend.
24. The ability to run distances.
25. Good health in general.
26. Pencils & their sharpeners.
28. NPR, particularly WNYC.
29. Park Slope United Methodist.
30. The New Yorker.
31. The miracle that is my iPhone -- a miniature supercomputer in my hand, on which I'm writing this whole post.
32. Fruit & nut chocolate bars.
33. A glass of wine at the end of a day.
34. The song "I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)"
35. The work of Jane Austen, Jennifer Crusie, Patrick O'Brian, Dorothy Sayers, J. K. Rowling, Rainbow Rowell, and Hilary McKay.
36-37. The novel Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, who introduced me to it.
38. Hotel breakfast buffets.
39. People who think before they speak and are capable of quiet.
40. Sweet potatoes, roasted, baked, and fried, in fries, tater tots, and sushi.
I like disciplines (cf. my half-marathon training going on now), but I also like where my life is now generally and don't feel a call to give anything up. Thus I'm going to adapt the House for All Sinners and Saints' 2012 Lenten Calendar for my own instead. Sharing my adapted version here (with dates for 2014) in case it interests you too:
March 5: Pray for your enemies
March 6: Buy a few $5 fast food gift cards to give to homeless people you encounter
March 7: Internet diet
March 8: Give $20 to a non-profit of your choosing
March 10: Take 5 minutes of silence at noon
March 11: Look out the window until you find something of beauty you had not noticed before
March 12: Give 5 items of clothing to Goodwill
March 13: No bitching day
March 14: Do someone else’s chore
March 15: Buy a few $5 fast food gift cards to give to homeless people you encounter
March 17: Call an old friend
March 18: Pray the Paper (pray for people and situations in today’s news)
March 19: Read Psalm 139 http://bible.oremus.org
March 20: Pay a few sincere compliments
March 21: Bring your own mug
March 22: Educate yourself about human trafficking www.praxus.org
March 24: Forgive someone
March 25: Internet diet
March 26: No sugar day – where else is there sweetness in your life?
March 27: Check out morning and evening prayer at http://dailyoffice.wordpress.com
March 28: Ask for help
March 29: Tell someone what you are grateful for
March 31: Introduce yourself to a neighbor
April 1: Read Psalm 121 http://bible.oremus.org
April 2: Bake a cake
April 3: No shopping day
April 4: Light a virtual candle http://rejesus.co.uk/spirituality/post_prayer/
April 5: Light an actual candle
April 7: Write a thank you note to your favorite teacher
April 8: No shopping day
April 9: Use Freecycle www.freecycle.org
April 10: Donate art supplies to your local elementary school
April 11: Read John 8:1-11 http://bible.oremus.org
April 12: Worship at a friend’s mosque, synogogue or church and look for the beauty
April 14: Confess a secret
April 15: No sugar day – where else is there sweetness in your life?
April 16: Give $20 to a local non-profit
April 17: Educate yourself about a saint www.catholic.org/saints
April 18: Pray for peace
April 19: Pray for your enemies (you probably have new ones by now) then decide which of these exercises you’ll keep for good
Also known as, "I was tired of seeing the stalker post first on my blog."
- But good news on that front! Melissa was interviewed by both a New Zealand reporter and NPR regarding the situation, and we're hopeful this attention has created some new movement on the case. At the very least, she has appreciated all the support.
- Nice awards news: The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb DID win the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award back in January, as well as the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Teens! Yay Neal!
- And just yesterday, Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight won the SCBWI's Sid Fleischman Award for Humor! As a friend of mine observed, it's terrific to see this book getting recognized for something awesome about it (its sense of humor) that is not the obvious thing that's awesome about it (its thought-provoking take on being a gay teenager in the present time). Or, in the book's own terms, it's great that it's being seen for something beyond its label. Yay Bill!
- (If there are any other kids/YA book awards named for Sidneys, please let me know, as my books seem to be having luck with them at present.)
- The lovely Jill Santopolo -- Philomel executive editor and author of the wonderful new Sparkle Spa chapter-book series -- came on the Narrative Breakdown to talk middle-grade fiction with me recently.
- I will be speaking at the SCBWI Southern Breeze Springmingle conference in Atlanta at the end of the month, giving my Plot Master Class, a talk on character, and a new talk. You can still register for all of it!
Trigger warnings for stalking, violence, and anti-Semitic language in the post below; also rage. Sorry.
My friend Melissa Anelli is an awesome person, for many, many reasons. She runs the Harry Potter megasite the Leaky Cauldron and its spinoff, LeakyNews. She wrote the definitive guide to the Harry Potter phenomenon, Harry, A History, a wonderful read (in which I am a supporting character) that taught ME new things about Harry Potter. She co-created LeakyCon, an amazing fan convention, with over 4,000 attendees and counting. She hosted my bachelorette party last year and took some of the best pictures of my wedding. She is a great aunt, sister, daughter, and friend, and her warmth, passion, creativity, and energy inspire me every day.
And for the past FIVE AND A HALF years, she has been stalked online and through the mail by a crazy woman in New Zealand, who sends her messages like this:
Someone forgets I pay attention, sweetheart. As I've said a few times before, you're going to have to wait until July for anything further. If NZ does extradite Dotcom, they can do the same to me when and if the Feds ask. Too bad they've had to wait two and a half years, kike bitch.
That is very, very far from the worst of it. Maureen Johnson has more context in her excellent Tumblr post here
. The general theory with regard to stalkers seems to be that you should not acknowledge them directly, because they get off on being acknowledged directly, on that demonstration of their power over you, and if they can't get that recognition, eventually they will go away. That has not worked with this crazy woman, to the extent that Melissa still gets multiple messages a day, frequently violent or sexual in nature. The FBI and New Zealand law enforcement have been involved for years as well, and the woman still
hasn't given up, or been incarcerated for good. Melissa went public with her Tumblr post today to bring attention to the length of time this has been going on, and to ask for help in getting the situation resolved.
I don't hate many people. I hate this woman.
I want her to be stopped. I want her to get help most of all, to be treated and recover from whatever mental illness she has that has fixated her on my friend; but if that's not possible -- and this stalker has checked herself out of treatment centers before -- I want her in jail, away from phones and computers and with no chance of getting out of the country, where she can entertain her twisted thoughts in her own sick mind and nowhere else. But the law hasn't yet caught up with all of the ramifications of our new online worlds and forms of communication, and New Zealand law enforcement seems to think that online stalking isn't as serious and insidious as in-person stalking could be. It is, and it should be prosecuted on an equal basis, so this woman can be put away.
If you are on Tumblr, please reblog Maureen's or Melissa's posts. If you know someone in New Zealand, particularly someone in authority, please pass those posts on to them and say "HEY. Would you do something here already?" If you know someone who is being stalked, point them to the stories on Melissa's Tumblr so they know they aren't the only ones in that situation and they aren't just imagining things, and listen, support, be there for them as much as you can.
And if you are the stalker and you're reading this: You are sick. You know it. I hate you, it's true; but it's possible for you to be forgiven if you end this -- if you say you want help, you get it, and you give this up. You don't have to be so miserable; you don't have to make other people miserable. Please get the help or restraints you need, and stop.
"It's a very baffling act, writing. Flaubert looked at the skies and spent three weeks trying to describe one. I mean, the sky exists anyhow; why should one want to put it down on paper?...It is as if the life lived has not been lived until it is set down in...words." – Edna O’Brien
Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.
The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.
It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.
It is so easy to chatter about the Beautiful. But it takes more genius to say, in proper style, “close the door,” or “he wanted to sleep,” than to give all the literature courses in the world.
Prose is like hair; it shines with combing.
Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything.
The author, in his work, must be like God in the Universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.
Style is as much under the words as in the words. It is as much the soul as it is the flesh of a work.
One mustn't always believe that feeling is everything. In the arts, it is nothing without form.
Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.
Exuberance is better than taste.
The most glorious moments in your life are not the so-called days of success, but rather those days when out of dejection and despair you feel rise in you a challenge to life, and the promise of future accomplishments.
Success is a consequence and must not be a goal.
Nothing is more humiliating than to see idiots succeed in enterprises we have failed in.
The better a work is, the more it attracts criticism; it is like the fleas who rush to jump on white linens.
Judge the goodness of a book by the energy of the punches it has given you. I believe the greatest characteristic of genius, is, above all, force.
There is no truth. There is only perception.
Of all lies, art is the least untrue.
To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.
[The CCBC-Net listserv is currently debating the state of multiculturalism/diversity in children's and YA books in 2014. I'm posting this e-mail I sent to the listserv about a year ago here for reference in this discussion. I also encourage readers to check out the great posts at the CBC Diversity Tumblr, particularly the recent Industry Q&A with Donna Bray.]
February 16, 2013
I am a co-founding former member of the CBC Diversity Committee, and an editor at a large publishing house here in New York; and as such, I’d like to write and correct some misconceptions both about the committee and about publishing diverse books in general. (I am a former member of the committee because I chose to rotate off of it at the end of 2012 to let fresh voices come on; I do not speak for CBC Diversity officially here, but I support it 100%. And while I’m doing disclaimers, I’m not speaking for my company here either; these are strictly my views as an editor who has long published diverse books and authors and thus has been thinking and talking about these issues for years.)
The CBC Diversity Committee was originally founded by a small group of editors after conversations at a writers’ conference in, I believe, early 2009. We were all passionate about publishing books by and about people of varying races, ethnicities, religions, and sexualities, and we all had a number of these books already on our lists; and for a couple years, we met to discuss many of the issues that have been raised in this CCBC-Net discussion. However, we were also all editors, with time-consuming responsibilities to our beloved authors and illustrators and publishing houses, and it was difficult for us to get much momentum going as a group. In 2011, one of our members met with someone from the CBC, which had been thinking about diversity as well, and the CBC invited our group to become an official committee working on these questions.
In the year or so since, with the organizational support of the CBC and the truly wonderful people there, we’ve started a blog to foster discussions of the many facets of publishing diverse books and raise awareness of these books among the public; hosted an event for agents to introduce them to editors interested in publishing diverse books (beyond the committee members), a panel on creating covers and the awareness panel at ALA (which was not sponsored by ALA), and private discussions for publishers; launched a “Diversity 101” series on the blog to help educate children’s book professionals and general readers about the basics of various kinds of diversity (check out Cris Beam’s terrific post on transgenderism: http://www.cbcdiversity.com/2013/02/diversity-101-transgender-perspective.html); and reached out to high schools and Career Days around New York City to try to educate a more diverse population of students about the career opportunities available in publishing. We also created booklists featuring diverse authors and topics on our website; the books suggested come directly from CBC member publishers, so if the publisher of a particular book hasn’t included it on the list it sent along, then it’s not included on the CBC list.
Contrary to an earlier assertion, the committee does not think of itself as the one and only ”place to go” for books with diverse characters; but it is doing its best, with entirely volunteer efforts, to highlight those books and issues and get them more widely known. And very little of this industry action was happening before the committee existed! So the CBC Diversity Committee is on the side of everyone fighting to create more authentic and diverse books, and I am puzzled and grieved by commenters here who are treating the committee as if it’s the enemy, simply because it has not 100% matched their ideological standards of publishing purity, or solved all of the complexities of publishing diverse books.
And there are complexities! I could write an essay on each of these topics, but briefly:
The pipeline issue: We editors don’t see enormous numbers of manuscripts from writers of color, certainly not in percentages proportionate to the population, and we can’t publish manuscripts that don’t come to us.
The suitability issue: It’s a publishing fact of life that we must turn down 97% (guesstimate) of the manuscripts we see from writers of ANY race or ethnic background, because we can only take on so many books, and because many titles simply aren’t unique enough for publication, or right for our house or a particular editor’s list (as every editor has a slightly different definition of “good,” just as every reader does).
The staffing issue: It’s true that publishing houses and publishing staffs are overwhelmingly Caucasian in complexion — which is again partly a pipeline issue, as we see far more white applicants for jobs than we do people of color. (Which in turn ties into many larger socioeconomic factors: Publishing does not pay a great deal compared to being a lawyer or doctor or financier, say, so those industries siphon off a lot of prospective talent.) That’s one of the things the CBC Diversity Committee is designed to address, with our outreach to colleges and Career Days.
-- How CCBC-Net Readers Can Help --: If you know a smart young reader of color, particularly one in high school or college, tell them how books are made! Tell them it takes not just authors, but editors and publicity staff and salespeople, and they can be one of them. Take them to ALA or BEA so they can see these people in action. Tell them internships are available. Tell them about my blog post here about how to get into publishing: http://chavelaque.blogspot.com/2006/08/faq-2-how-do-i-become-book-editor.html, the blog posts linked at the bottom, and the “How I Got Into Publishing” Posts on the CBC Diversity blog. If there’s more awareness of these jobs among people of color, hopefully more of them will get into the industry.
The editorial issue: All editorial relationships require careful conversation, honesty, and sensitivity on both sides. When an editor is working cross-culturally, that necessitates an added layer of sensitivity, humility, and listening regarding these cultural issues, which might then require balance with the narrative and aesthetic needs of the book. This is another thing the CBC Diversity Committee is designed to do, is to help make editors aware of cultural sensitivities and mentor them in working cross-culturally.
Authors have responsibilities here too: to speak up for what’s important to them in the text; to do as much research and reading and listening and vetting as possible if they’re writing cross-culturally; to educate editors, sometimes, as a book’s editor will usually not be able to go into as much depth on a topic as the author will, simply because the editor has to monitor a large number of books and authors. Every editor-author relationship is different; every book is different. But contrary to the impression prior commenters here might have made, it is totally possible for an editor and an author with different ethnic backgrounds to publish books successfully and happily on both sides. (You can ask Francisco X. Stork and Lisa Yee on my own list, or Rita Williams-Garcia, Sherman Alexie, Kadir Nelson, Jacqueline Woodson, Joe Cepeda, Allen Say, Yuyi Morales . . .)
The sales issue: In thinking about the diversity question a few years back, I reviewed a decade of Publishers Weekly end-of-year sales roundups (the top 100 titles sold each year), and if you took out award winners and Dora the Explorer, there were very, very few faces of color on those lists. (The PW Top 100 numbers are not a very good measure, granted, but it was the best I could do in trying to consider sales across all houses, as sales figures are proprietary information.) Bestseller lists are not the be-all and end-all of publishing; we know full well that not every book can become a bestseller. But it is a Publishing Law that strong sales of one title encourage publishers and booksellers to take on similar titles.
-- How CCBC-Net Readers Can Help --: BUY BOOKS BY AND ABOUT PEOPLE OF COLOR. Oh my goodness, I can’t say this enough. Buy them, and then put them out on displays year-round, and handsell them to your customers, even those who are resistant. (Bonus points if the book features a person of color on the cover.) Show a strong pattern of support for these authors and books, even make a bestseller here, and that will change publishing more than all of our talk can.
And all of this plays into the marketing issue — how publishers and book creators reach “mirror” audiences (to use Rudine Simms Bishop’s excellent phrase; please read http://www.rif.org/us/literacy-resources/multicultural/mirrors-windows-and-sliding-glass-doors.htm if you’re unfamiliar with it); how we communicate with window audiences; how we can maximize our resources to maximize sales for the book. We talked about this a lot at the CBC Diversity Committee when I was on it, and we publishers are always trying to do better at it. No publisher WANTS to see any of its books fail — we all want to keep our jobs, for one thing! And those jobs are predicated on the success of our business and our books.
-- How CCBC-Net Readers Can Help --: Do indeed look for books by and about people of color in catalogs and at conferences and bookstores; and then TALK ABOUT THEM — not just in the “I could only find X number of authors” way (though it’s important to make those figures known), but in the “Look at these X number of awesome books I found at ALA and I’m so excited to read the ARCs!” way. Name those titles! Blog about them! Invite the author to speak or to Skype with your class! Retweet links about them! Bring them up here at CCBC-Net -- right now, in fact: If everyone on the list wrote in with their favorite Latino picture book of the last few years, it would increase awareness of those titles tenfold. (Here's mine, with an editorial bias alert: Welcome to My Neighborhood: A Barrio ABC, by Quiara Alegria Hudes, illustrated by Shino Arihara. Runner up: Tia Isa Wants a Car by Meg Medina, illustrated by Claudio Munoz.)
E-mail publishers to say you're glad to see them taking on diverse books and you’d like to see more. E-mail your local public library to encourage him or her to buy the book, and your kid’s teacher or school librarian (if you’re lucky) or school district to make them aware that it’s a title you’d love to see read more widely. I LOVE the idea raised here earlier about getting even a fraction of Chicago schools to buy a book — let’s figure out a way to make that happen! Positive reinforcement tends to be much more effective than shaming, with children and with children’s publishers.
And if you have ideas about where and how we publishers should be finding diverse authors, or marketing and promoting these diverse books in a way that we aren’t already — please, share that here! Our resources go only so far, but if there’s an opportunity we’re missing and a market we can grab, we’d love to know about it.
Books break through with support from not just publishing houses but readers – librarians, booksellers, book buyers, book bloggers. To say this louder: READERS MAKE BOOKS “HAPPEN,” not publishers. Every publisher can cite an incident in which they threw their entire marketing weight behind a book and it disappeared – and then that one book that nobody expected to break through at acquisition or even publication, that took off like a shot once that one librarian on a committee raved about it, or that one blogger, or just one kid talking to another kid talking to another on the playground. When publishers DO make books succeed, it’s most often because we people who work at publishing houses are readers too, and WE talk passionately about a book and get other people to read it. But the power is in readers’ hands foremost.
I’m sorry to have written at such length, and to have made authors and books of color an “issue” here when so many of the books are just great books in and of themselves. But I wanted to raise some of the practical complexities we editors face on the ground in trying to publish more diverse books — complexities that are real facts in our lives, and that I haven’t often seen raised in the discussion so far here or elsewhere. Editors and publishers and the CBC Diversity Committee are operating with limited resources, just like authors and librarians and everyone else on this list, but like you, we also work with the very best of intentions and hopes for creating great books for all readers. Thanks to all of you who support these books in whatever way you can.
With best wishes,
For Christmas in 2007, about a year and a half after we met, I gave James this Lonely Planet guide to India, which we both very much wanted to visit. The book was an investment and a promise, a pledge and a challenge. But through the next five years, as other journeys and interests took up our lives, it sat on a shelf, quietly waiting.
Then it came time to plan our honeymoon, and there was never any doubt where we were going.
A screen at the Qutb Minar complex in south Delhi
James did nearly all of the planning here, and deserves all of the credit. We started in Delhi, in the "Mughal North" -- so called because many of the ancient buildings were built by the Mughal emperors . . .
. . . including this one, built by Shah Jahan as a tomb for his wife, Mumtaz, near Agra (where we went next). Twenty-two thousand people labored for twenty-one years on the Taj. Shah Jahan intended to build a black mausoleum that was otherwise identical to the Taj Mahal across the river from it, but his son Aurangzeb felt that he was spending too much time and money on buildings, so he imprisoned his father until his death here . . .
. . . in the Agra Fort, in an apartment with a view of the Taj. We learned incredible history like this over and over again in India -- of Akbar, Shah Jahan's grandfather, who established tolerance between Muslims and Hindus (before Aurangzeb threw it away), and the process of Independence and Partition, so very human and complicated -- and it made me angry with my world history classes in school, because why were we so big on Europeans when Indian history was just as awesome? Why didn't we learn about this too?
These forts are astonishing structures -- huge castles that outdo any European fortresses I know of in scale and impact. The Agra Fort here was specially designed to withstand attack by an enemy who would be riding elephants, including a sloped, walled entranceway where defenders could pour boiling oil on invaders, and then roll boulders down the ramp if the oil didn't work.
From Agra, we went to Jaipur, stopping along the way at the Chand Baori stepwell, which movie-loving readers might recognize from The Dark Knight Rises.
We splurged on the services of several drivers for most of our time in India -- a true luxury, as we didn't have to worry about catching trains or hauling baggage. (On the other hand, we often felt a little isolated from daily life, and Indian highways are the closest thing to a living game of Super Mario Kart I ever hope to experience in real life.) Nearly all of the trucks were painted with wonderful colors and designs.
I asked one of our drivers why they were so decorated, and he said basically, "Why not?" -- and indeed, our solid American trucks and buses feel very boring and impersonal by comparison.
Outside Jaipur, we visited the Amber and Jaigarh Forts, finding our way from one to the other through an open tunnel with monkeys watching us from overhead. (I told James, "This is what a honeymoon should be! Adventure plus monkeys!") In the city, we marveled at the decoration of the City Palace, including these peacocks.
We spent a lovely night at the Deogarh Mahal
-- a former maharaja's palace, now converted into a luxury hotel straight out of a fantasy novel. We scrambled over the flat roofs taking pictures, saw a Rajasthani dance performance in the courtyard here, and walked the narrow, twisting streets outside, purchasing a number of shawls from a kind shopkeeper who promised to feed us dinner the next time we came to town.
One of our most unexpected and delightful excursions was a two-hour train ride through the Rajasthani mountains, which our driver arranged for us. A little wizened man with a kettle poured us tiny disposable cups of chai (hot, delicious, sweet Indian spiced milk tea that I could happily drink at every meal for the rest of my life), for the grand price of ten rupee each (about twenty cents).
More monkeys at a train stop. I never got tired of seeing them.
From there, we went to Udaipur, the "Venice of the East" for its location on the banks of Lake Pichola. (The Lake Palace Hotel here appeared in the film Octopussy
, which played every night at half the restaurants in town.) This was likely our favorite city in India, as we loved the winding streets and views of the lake, and a wonderful vegan restaurant called Millets of Mewar
, where we went for breakfast, lunch, and
dinner over the three days we were in town.
In the city garden, this group of tourists stopped James and me and asked us to pose for pictures with them. This happened over and over again in India, pretty much everywhere we went, and especially with groups of schoolchildren or teenagers. (It is weird to think how many people's vacation photos I appear in.) I asked these ladies if I could take a picture of them minus me, because I was madly jealous of all the gorgeous saris, shalwar kameezes, tunics, and other clothes I saw on women throughout the country, but I rarely had the opportunity to take photos of said clothing with permission. As with the trucks, the brightness puts our Western neutrals to shame.
From Udaipur, we flew to Mumbai, which I also really liked.... While we did not see a great deal of the enormous city, what we did see felt like New York to me, crowded and cosmopolitan, a mix of old architecture and new structures, tradition and the cutting edge, and as everywhere in India, the enormous contrast between rich and poor. This is the city's laundry center, where (according to our tour guide, whose hand you can see here) nearly all the laundry that is sent out for washing is still hand-scrubbed, hung, and ironed. Note the skyscrapers standing just beyond.
The ironies of this contrast are further explored in Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
, a nonfiction book I read on the trip, which I cannot recommend highly enough as a portrait of a community, an exploration of the causes and effects of poverty, and an extraordinary work of reportage and writing. It is set in a slum near the Mumbai airport in 2008, and I found myself constantly thinking of the people in the book while we were in the city -- wishing almost that I might run into them and find out what happened next in their lives.
The other book about India I would recommend enormously, both as historical context and just as a wonderful read, is Indian Summer
: The Secret History of the End of an Empire
, by Alex von Tunzelmann. It traces the causes of the British withdrawal, the thrill of Independence, and the disaster of Partition through five fascinating figures: Dickie Mountbatten, the British envoy; his wife Edwina, who was arguably more competent; Jawaharlal Nehru, who had an intense affair with Edwina in the midst of becoming India's first prime minister; Mohandas Gandhi, who comes off terribly
; and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. I kept leaning over to James to tell him fascinating facts I was learning -- such as the fact that Pakistan is a made-up name, as before Partition, there were no people called "Pakis." Rather, it was an acronym for the northwestern, mostly Muslim regions of India selected for the country: Punjab, Afghania Province, Kashmir, Sindh, and Baluchistan. Illuminating, no? And it reminded me how much the history we take as settled fact is in fact made of people's choices, like the ones our leaders decide every day...
After our tour of Mumbai, we went to see a delightfully ridiculous Bollywood film called Dhoom 3,
which was Moulin Rouge
meets The Prestige
via Bad Boys.
We couldn't understand any of the Hindi dialogue, but this mostly wasn't a problem. (Sample dialogue for the Americans: EVIL BANKER: "Who's robbing my bank?" BLONDE FEMALE COP: "It's a thief, sir.")
This was taken at Elephanta Island -- a historic site about six miles off the coast of Mumbai (with no elephants, for the record) -- and the litter was unfortunately very typical of everywhere we went in India. . . .
But then, so was the wonder I felt on seeing this, also on Elephanta -- a relief sculpture of the god Shiva, deep in a cave, radiating peace, and carved in the sixth century A.D. -- easily one of the oldest, most awe-inspiring places I've ever been. If we ever return to India, as we hope to do someday, I want to visit more sculpture caves like this.
Always good advice.
From Mumbai, we flew to Kerala, the state at the southwestern tip of the subcontinent known as "God's Own Country" -- and if you told me the Garden of Eden was located there, I would believe you. We stayed for three nights at a cardamom plantation in the mountains near Thekkady.
One day we took a three-hour nature trek through the Periyar Nature Reserve, where we saw this mama and baby elephant feeding in the wild. We also saw an awesome demonstration of kalaripayattu
, which thrilled me especially, as it's the martial art that Ash Mistry learns in The Savage Fortress
and The City of Death.
Then we descended to the coast, where we spent a delicious night on a houseboat in the backwaters. I got up at six a.m. and watched the sun rise from our deck, along with thousands of talkative waterbirds.
On our last leg of the trip, we went to Mysore, where we visited the palace and zoo, and stayed in another palace, the Lalitha Mahal
Yeah, I could eat breakfast here every morning.
And our last activity of the journey was visiting a friend's digital animation company in Bangalore -- on the nineteenth floor of an anonymous office building, the lights off and the windows covered in shades, three hundred animators at rows of flatscreen computers carefully sculpting a nose here, a gesture there. That, too, is India.
As a honeymoon, it was not the easiest: I have never been on a trip that thrust my extreme privilege as a white American, and how easy I do
have it, and how intractable the world's problems are, so much in my face over and over again. I keep turning those issues over back in my New York bubble -- where we have so little history, comparatively; where I can drink the water -- and I am not sure where to start. But as a personal experience, I learned so much, and did so much, and rested and read so much, and saw so much, so that I felt sometimes like nothing but a pair of eyes -- and ate so much, as oh my goodness, the food
, the FOOD -- we have no sense of how to cook vegetables here, really, and I could also happily eat Indian food (especially Southern) at every meal for the rest of my life. And I haven't mentioned the tea plantations or the security, the cement advertisements or the languages, the milk scammers in Mumbai or James's obsession with Shantaram
, the ways in which their environmental adaptations are ahead of ours, our wonderful friends in Delhi or the boat ride in Udaipur or praying in a temple and all the other monkeys we saw . . .
It was everything I hoped it would be -- a wonderful, challenging trip that stretched my mind in the best ways. And I am so very grateful for it, and for the husband who planned it; and everything goes on.
I'm pleased to report that The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World's Most Notorious Nazi, by Neal Bascomb, is one of five finalists for YALSA's Excellence in Nonfiction Award!
The development of this book can be directly traced back to an SCBWI conference I attended -- Whispering Pines 2011 in Rhode Island (which was an excellent conference all around). During an off hour, I wandered into the conference center's library, and someone had left a copy of an adult book called Hunting Eichmann
I started skimming the book and immediately grew intrigued:
I'd been thinking about how much I loved the narrative nonfiction in The New Yorker
and how interesting and fun it would be to publish for a younger audience, and the hunt for Adolf Eichmann combined history, mystery, spywork, and Nazis in one terrific, suspenseful, high-stakes story. When I got back to New York, I reached out to Neal, proposing a YA edition of Hunting Eichmann
. We embarked on a very enjoyable collaboration where we both learned a lot (me about photo research, especially -- a topic worthy of a whole blog post all its own), and the resulting book, with a awesome foiled cover by Phil Falco, came out in September. You can read the opening pages here
While I'm posting: I'm also pleased to announce I've ordered a third printing of Second Sight
, which should be available for sale in early January. (The book is out of stock until then.) Thanks to all of you who've supported it thus far!
Finally, a quick look back at all of my 2013 books, with plenty of time left to order for Christmas (hint hint):
- The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman: Pride & Prejudice in 1923 Chinatown!
- The Path of Names by Ari Goelman: Math, mysteries, mazes, magic, & even murder at a summer camp! This was named to Booklist's rolls of both Top Ten First Novels and Top Ten Religious & Spirituality Novels for Youth.
- Zoe's Room (No Sisters Allowed) by Bethanie Deeney Murguia: Two sisters. One room. Stuff just got real.
- Openly Straight by Bill Konigsburg: A gay book for the "Glee" generation, about being out, being proud, and being ready for something else.
- If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth: A "brohemian rhapsody" (Eric's phrase) about a Tuscarora Native American boy and a white Air Force kid discovering their shared love of rock music, and the complications that ensue.
- The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb: Hey, did you hear it was nominated for YALSA's Excellence in Nonfiction Award?
- The City of Death by Sarwat Chadda (sequel to his excellent The Savage Fortress): Ash Mistry, weapon of the goddess Kali, goes to Kolkata, and the city will never be the same.
And I'm excited about all the equally great things on the docket for the new year. This will probably be my last post for 2013, as I'm leaving for my belated honeymoon (in India, in fact!) on Saturday . . . so I wish you all the very best for the holidays, and a happy new beginning to 2014!
My phone said the temperature was 35 degrees as I was preparing for my run in Prospect Park yesterday, so I dressed in my usual cold-weather running gear: my thickest running socks, tights, a camisole, a running top that zipped up my neck, a windbreaker, a hat and gloves. About twenty-five minutes into the run, as I was cruising steadily down the lower drive with Beyonce lilting in my ears, a guy ran past me going the other direction, wearing only a stocking cap, a long-sleeved cotton t-shirt, and shorts. He had the wiry physique and spindly calves of someone who runs every day, who probably did the New York marathon a few weeks ago and will run it again next year (one of my fondest ambitions), and I thought Wow, that guy's a real runner.
And then I thought: Dammit, I'm out here running in 35 degree weather too. Am I imaginary? No! I'm a real runner as well!
And this got me thinking about the way we use the word "real" to connote -- what? Physical existence? Identity? Membership in a group? People talk a lot about whether or not they're "real" writers if they haven't been published, or if they don't do it every day, or if they're not writing a specific thing (books = good, blog posts = your existence is doubtful). Fandoms are riven by arguments about whether you can be a "real" fan if you haven't read all the back issues, if you only got into it after the movie, even (noxiously) if you are female. When I saw that guy in the park, I doubted my worth as a runner because I don't have the physical ability to run in shorts at 35 degrees without getting frostbite -- meaning, really, I haven't put in the time to gain that muscle tone and metabolism. But my legs pumping in their tights, my heart pounding in my chest, my hand clutching my water bottle were all as present and powerful as that young man dashing by; and I resolved then and there that I will stop dissing myself about this in future and give myself credit -- that my effort, at the least, was real and deserved respect.
Of course, since I live in children's books, I also thought of this:
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."
I don't think Reality in terms of activities can or should be conferred by someone else: It's something you claim for yourself, and you become Real partly by claiming it. But I do find the ideas of love, effort, and endurance useful here: that while your activity or fandom is not always easy, and may in fact be quite messy or hurtful, you stay with it because you love it, because it does something good for you or the world or brings something good out of you for the world. And in the end, that love and patience, along with doing the work, are what make you Real.
(I should add that I don't think what I'm saying holds entirely true for racial/ethnic/sexuality group identities, which have complexities and histories, and costs and benefits, far beyond mere participation in an activity or fandom. Nor is it true for anything that requires a specific accomplishment.... No matter how much I may love cheering at marathons, I can't say I'm a Real marathoner, because I haven't done one! But for activities and fandoms, this is my new standard for Real.)
And if you have all of those qualifications, and then some people tell you you aren't
a Real __________, then they
are the actual frauds; because part of love is generosity, the desire to see this good thing grow, and they don't have enough love in them to be a Real ________ themselves. Ignore them and go on.
By this measure, I am a Real runner, knitter, cook, yogi, writer, and editor. I do remain objectively not very good at the running, knitting, and yoga. But there is something about merely being Real that makes me feel better connected and more committed to my chosen activities--that I know I belong to them and they to me, that no one can take my Realness away from me. As Beyonce gave way to Bonnie Tyler and the sun set over the lake, the wind died down. My speed picked up. I felt again the exhilaration I discovered years ago, that I can
run, that I am
a runner, that this is a superpower I carry in my own two feet. And I ran out of the park, as Real as I wanted to be.
I'm pleased to announce that registration is now open for "Book Manuscript Editing Workshop: Editing Children's and YA Novels," the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies course I'll be teaching next spring. (This is an in-person course, not online.) You can find the listing here.
The course description seems to have gotten a bit smushed in the system, so here it is in full:
I'm finalizing the syllabus now and just having a heck of a great time thinking about all the things I want the students to read and do. I am going to have everyone read Second Sight, which, on the one hand, I feel vaguely abashed about -- isn't that the classic egotistical-professor move, making everyone read your book? On the other -- well, most of the grand principles of my editorial philosophy and knowledge are right there,
Calibrating a characterization. Structuring a plot. Developing a theme. Polishing the prose. And bringing all of these elements into perfect balance to help a book become what it should be. In this six-week course, we’ll learn how to practice these editorial skills, with special attention to the particular requirements of the child and young-adult audiences, and discuss how to create the right public image for a book through its flap copy, cover image, and editorial presentations.
so if we can cover those theories in the reading, we can get down to the practicalities in class. And the practicalities and particularities of an individual manuscript are where the fun is, always.
So, a couple of months ago, I started a Tumblr. I did it mostly because I see neat things on Tumblr and I wanted a place to keep them -- hence the lack of announcement here, because it felt sort of private. But I also like reblogging and commenting on them, which makes me public, which means I might as well make it official! Voila:
It's the Brooklyn Arden Companionway ("a stairway on a ship that connects one deck to another," per Merriam-Webster) because I think of it as a companion and waystation to this blog much more than as my new deck. (I like longform writing too much and I have too much history here to commit to such a visual and new platform. Blogger Forever!*)
* This seems like a dangerous declaration in tech terms....
While I am talking Tumblr, you should also check out:
- Trent Reedy, author of the forthcoming kickass DIVIDED WE FALL
- Penbitten, by my dear friend and HP fan extraordinaire Melissa Anelli
- Scattershotsilly, by a wonderful former AALB intern
- Super_Christina, by Christina McTighe, another wonderful ex-intern (and now an awesome librarian-in-training)
- The excellent-in-all-media Cleolinda Jones.
View Next 25 Posts
I'm proud to have edited three great novels that span ALL OF TIME in the Scholastic Spring Librarian Preview, which you can see here:
- The Great Greene Heist, by Varian Johnson, at 6:48 in the middle-grade section: A contemporary Ocean's 11 set in a middle school, with a sweet romance, a sharp sense of humor, and a wonderful diverse cast.
- Divided We Fall, by Trent Reedy, at 5:54 in the YA presentation: In this novel set in the not-too-distant future, Danny Wright finds himself caught between his state and his country, his governor and his president -- and soon enough, in a second American civil war.
- Curses and Smoke, by Vicky Alvear Shecter, at 6:54 in YA: In 79 AD, a rich girl and a rebellious slave fall in love in the shadows of Pompeii.
If you're a book blogger, a teacher, or a librarian, please look out for galleys of all of these at upcoming conferences or on NetGalley. Thanks!