Tuesday, March 22, 2011


The other day I spoke to kids in grades K-6 at the Elmwood Village Charter School.  It was wonderful to get out of my office, get dressed up (at least in something other than jeans and sneakers) and remind myself why I write and who my audience is. The first group of Kindergartners and First graders came in excited that something new was happening.  One girl had a pink tutu skirt on, another wore Dorothy's sparkly pumps, and yet another wore a hijab. All the boys wore the basic jeans and t-shirt although the images on their chests ranged from Sponge-Bob to a rock guitar.  The older boys and girls were as tall as I am, which always surprises me, yet just as willing to do the Snow Dance as the Kindergartners.  My favorite time is between presentations when kids are filing in and out.  Then I get to talk to them and find out what makes them tick.  Each one has a story to tell if I just listen closely.

I love the kids who make the teachers nervous. I can always tell which boys are considered the troublemakers.  The teacher keeps them close or is constantly shushing or gesturing to them.  They may be trouble in class, but I find that they are good for me if I get them up in front of the group to participate. I treat them just like any other child.  They stand alongside the know-it-all girl, the super shy boy, the straight A student. For me, they are all on a level playing field, and they seem to appreciate it.

I also love the kids who celebrate their uniqueness.  When I mentioned my new book about Roger Tory Peterson and his passion for birds, one boy nodded enthusiastically.  He knew exactly what I meant and was not afraid to say that he'd been to the Roger Tory Peterson Institute and loved birds just as madly. God bless all the others, too, for accepting his passion so casually and agreeing that, yup, he's the bird nut.

There are the daydreamers who stand at the back of the line totally unaware that the class has moved on without them;  the first one to realize that I will sign their bookmark if they ask politely; the ones who have just one more question to ask even though their class is already half way down the hall; the kids who raise their hand with no clue as to why; and the ones who already know they are writers. 

And then there is the child who manages to say something wonderfully unexpected.  One time it was a girl who, amid a discussion of books and writing, said, "I have a duck." At another school, I pointed to a boy who looked like he'd fly away if he flapped his raised arm any harder.  It was the last question of the day, and I later found out that all the teachers inwardly groaned when I picked on him. He said, "I know who created Lincoln."
I had to take the bait. "Who?" 
The girl next to him shook her head. "Nuh Uh. God did." 
But the boy stood firm. "No, it was Disney. WALT Disney."

This time it was a little girl who sat in the second  row right in front of me.  She had been eyeing my books displayed on the table and seemed pretty quiet throughout the presentation. Then, as the group was leaving, she looked at me and said, "I like your words." 
A writer can 't get a better compliment.

Monday, March 14, 2011

How Not to Write a Picture Book

While waiting with my mother in the ER, I happened to catch parts of Celebrity Apprentice. Their task was to write a picture book. I had to see this. Then they announced that Margery Cuyler was going to be the judge. I worked with her on my Medicines from Nature book when she was at 21st Century Books. She wasn't on the show much, but she looked great in a lemon yellow jacket.

Between the whirring of the blood pressure cuff and an EKG, I watched the two teams of famous people I don't know try to do in an afternoon what takes me and most authors years to do. This exercise in embarrassing ill manners seemed to illustrate how not to write a picture book.
1. Ignore the advice of editors -- I was impressed with the team of guys who sat down and asked Margery what she thought about rhyme. Like most editors in the world, she said to avoid rhyme because it has to be perfect, which is difficult to accomplish. The next clip is some cowboy saying that he took it as a challenge! Yeah, that's just how she meant it, too.

2. Decide on a theme first -- The team of women, who looked a mite more familiar to me, were acting like asses. They stood around an easel trying to decide if they wanted a funny, feel-good story or one that taught a lesson about diversity. Is there a character involved?

3. Write in a passive voice - was-was-was --The only little snippet of text I heard was -- It was a sunny day. Latoya was a lion... Doctor Cooper to room 8, stat. Or something like that. And these women all claimed to have written children's books before. Yikes!

4. Stand Over the Illustrator's Shoulder -- I hope the illustrators got paid handsomely for having professional celebrities standing behind them commenting on their work. Half of a picture book is the picture part and that means the illustrator has to have his voice. A writer has to commit their words to someone else's interpretation. A picture book is a unique art form that is a collaboration of two artists working separately.

5. Underestimate Children -- They questioned whether kids would know what shy was, and if the word 'nobody' gave the wrong impression. Although I appreciate carefully considered words, over-thinking it can get you into lots of trouble. Get your story down first. Futz with the details later. And trust your readers.

Then it was time for a CAT scan. I didn't get to see the end, so I don't know which book 'won', and I hope I never see it. It would be a slap in the face to all children's writers if that book showed up at Barnes & Nobles.

Oh, yeah. Mom is fine.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

National Read Aloud Day

Happy Read Aloud Day! 

I know this day is meant to celebrate the written world of stories with children, but for me everyday is read aloud day.  It is a huge part of my revision process.  I think most authors will agree that after working on a story over and over again, the words become ingrained yet blurry.  You don't see mistakes on the page or computer screen because you have it perfectly written in your head.  But reading your work aloud refreshes the text so you can hear repetition, clunky phrases and boring bits.  So haul out your manuscript and read it out loud.  Celebrate your written words and make them better.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Writer's Revision Response Disorder (*WRRD)

Wow, did I really zone out for a couple of weeks and forget that this blog even existed?  Apparently.  But that is what editorial revisions can do to a writer.  I got the last bunch of revisions for a book project and went through the levels of grief that go with it, known by the medical community as WRRD.  The first typical revision response is the RANT.  I read through my editor's notes and erupted with, "A WEEK?  YOU HAD THIS FOR 6 MONTHS AND YOU WANT ME TO DO ALL THIS IN A WEEK????" 

The next level of response is acknowledgement that the revisions are really here on on my desk. I talk myself down:  "Okay, no problem.  Just read through the editor's notes carefully. Look, no biggy. You can already cross that one off  'cause you caught that error yourself.  Look how good you are."  

Convinced that the revisions will only take me ten minutes, I slip into denial where upon I call my sister-in-law and we go out to lunch.

Acceptance finally comes after I have checked off every other chore on my to-do list.  I zip through the easiest revision notes (the ones I can just answer with okay or no), cutting the list by more than half.  Now I can prioritize the rest of the list to tackle the bigger changes first.  This move inevitably leads me to pull out my manuscript when I sink into Annoyance. "Wait a minute.  What's wrong with that sentence? He didn't think it was misleading the last 50 times he read it???"  A brief recycling through the early levels of revision response - RANT, acknowledgement, denial  -  that lasts a minute and a half and I am back to acceptance and settle in to work on the revisions. 

As I cross off the last of my editor's notes, I settle comfortably into the final response - Gratitude.  Not only am I grateful that I got through the revision process without killing someone, I am grateful for my editor's thoughtful questions and suggestions that will make the book better. 

* (All medical information on WRRD and its variations pending acceptance in the American Psychiatric Association's DSM. They are currently out to lunch at Cafe DeNile.)