Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

Last week I visited Country Parkway Elementary School in Williamsville, NY. Mrs. Gayle Kerman made me feel very welcome by sharing my books with her students a head of time. We started the morning dancing the Snow Dance with the Kindergarteners and First Graders. Then we talked about how many people it takes to create a book. Third and Fourth Grade classes were in to nonfiction, so we discussed research, and brainstormed more than a dozen different ways we could write about a boring subject like sneakers. But since this is Halloween, I thought I would share with you the Halloween story the Second Graders wrote with me after we read Joshua the Giant Frog.

One of my favorite activities is to help the children create a new tall tale using their ideas while I write on a large pad of paper. We use their school and hometown as the setting and Joshua as the main character. We have to have a great descriptive lead (not “Once upon a time” or “It was Halloween night…”), a conflict, characters, and dialogue. Because it is a tall tale we also have to stretch the truth – use analogies that are larger than life. In less than 20 minutes, this is what we came up with --

Joshua’s Trick or Treat

The Queen of Hearts ran up to the giant Ipod and said, "That's a great costume." The jack-o-lanterns glowed on the porch as the kids rang the doorbell. "Trick or treat."

From behind them they heard, "AAHHHHHH! Help me!" Sofia, dressed as a giant butterfly, raced down the street.

Then the earth shook. "Thump... THUMP.... THUMP!" Joshua the Giant Frog hopped into view. His tongue flicked as fast as a bullet at Sofia's wings.

"Oh no. Joshua thinks Sofia is a real butterfly."

Jacob, dressed as Darth Vader brandished his light saber, and a Bumblebee waved her stinger. But Joshua kept chasing Sofia.

"Quick, get all of your candy in a pile," said Ipod.

All the kids dumped their candy in the middle of the street. The pile grew taller than a sky scraper. "Joshua!" they called.

Joshua turned to see the mountain of chocolate and sugar, and his tongue lapped it up.

Poor Sofia dragged her broken wings back to town.

Joshua handed her a Hershey candy bar to say he was sorry.

"Thank you," she said. "Happy Halloween everybody!"

The End

With this 'sloppy copy', the children and their teachers can smooth out problems, like who said, “Oh, no. Joshua thinks Sofia is a real butterfly,” and add more detail. But the basics are there, and hopefully the seed -- that writing is fun and doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around -- has been planted.

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 24, 2011

This Blog is For The Birds

The second best moment of being a writer (first is making the sale) is opening the box to reveal for the first time the book that you have labored over for years. That moment happened last week when I came home to find an unexpected box sitting on the kitchen table. Before I even took off my coat or put the groceries away, I grabbed a scissors and sliced the box open. My book, For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson, was finally here!

I am proud to say that it is absolutely beautiful! Award-winning illustrator Laura Jacques captured young Roger's enthusiasm, sharp blue eyes, and thatch of blonde hair as beautifully as she paints the feathers of a flying flicker. And after immersing myself in Roger's story, it still inspires me. Roger grew up in Jamestown, New York where he spent every spare minute out in the fields with binoculars or camera and taught himself how to identify birds on the wing at a time when even trained ornithologists had to shoot the birds before identification. Roger was also a natural artist, sketching birds in the margins of his text books, and later going to art school in New York City. At the naive age of 23 years old, Roger created a little bird identification field guide that, in the middle of the Depression, sold out in weeks and turned a nation on to bird-watching. He became a world reknowned naturalist and leader in the conservation movement. 

Holding this book, I hope it will follow in the footsteps of other amazing bird books like Kathryn Lasky's picture book, She's Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head! (Hyperion, 1995) about Minna Hall and Harriet Hemenway who created the Massachusetts Audubon Society to protect birds from the millinery industry. I love David Catrow's quirky illustrations of Minna's steely scowl and Harriet's pinched indignation as they pushed for legislation and education about endangered bird species.
Rebecca Bond wrote and illustrated the story of Richard and Cherry Kearton in her picture book, In the Belly of an Ox: The Unexpected Photographic Adventures of Richard and Cherry Kearton. The brothers were nature photographers who created the first photographic bird book, and the way they did it is mind boggling. When you look at Bond’s illustrations, you may not believe it, but her illustrations reflect accurately how they teetered on top of a ladder placed on a high tree branch to photograph a nest, and of course, how they used the hide of an ox as a ‘living blind’ so they could get as close as possible to shy species.

The history of the conservation movement and natural history studies is filled with fascinating characters, and now that For The Birds has landed, I can turn my attention to poking around for yet another great story that might inspire a new generation of readers and conservationists in the future.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Everyone Needs a Slap on the Hand

I love my critique group.  I have come to need it, like some people need a vacation after visiting their in-laws (well, I'm in that category, too).  We only meet once a month and I can tell when that third week rolls around without looking at the calendar. I get buggy. I need my fix to be with other writers, to share, to bitch, and on some occasions, to get my hand slapped (you know who you are) for being too negative. 

I suffer from an affliction that plagues many writers - lack of confidence.  I love what I'm writing when I write it, but I start to second guess myself the moment I think it might be ready for public viewing. I don't want to bother anyone or make them endure ten minutes of me reading something awful. But, as my posse reminds me, that's what the critique group is for, right?  To help you avoid making the worst mistake a writer can make, which is sending a story to an editor before it is ready.

Combating the doubt for space in my brain is a sense of urgency.  I need to get this story out.  An agent is waiting.  If I don't get something out soon, I'll have another year without a new release. If I don't get a new book out, librarians and teachers will forget who I am.  I will be surpassed by all those debut authors who are younger than my laptop.

That's usually when I get a slap. 

And I have to remind myself of the advice I give to others. "The publishing business is not a race of the swift.  It is a pursuit for the persistent."  I am my only competition.  No one else is writing the book I am writing.  An editor or agent would rather wait for a polished piece than get a hastily revised manuscript they would have to reject.  My writing doesn't stink. And I'm only 51.  I'm not dead yet.

Thanks guys! See you in a few weeks.

Monday, October 3, 2011

158 Years Ago Today

One hundred and fifty-eight years ago today, Abraham Lincoln declared the 4th Thursday of November to be a National Holiday of Thanksgiving. It wasn't his big idea, but that of Sarah Joshepha Hale's and you can read about it in Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving (Simon & Schuster, 2002) written by Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrated by Matt Faulkner.  This 40 page picture book celebrates Hale's 38 year letter writing campaign for a national holiday of Thanksgiving with humor and historic accuracy.  Faulkner's caricatures show Sarah and other ladies storming the State House doors with a quill pen battering ram, and Presidents Taylor and Fillmore passing the buck to Pierce before Lincoln got a hold of it. It is a perfect book to show kids that perseverance pays off.

Sarah Joshepha Hale
1788 - 1879

I appreciate Sarah's story, too, because she was not just a Thanksgiving fanatic, but a writer who became the editor of the first American woman's magazine.  In 1822, when her husband died, she found herself having to support her family of five children.  She wrote and sold a book of poetry, then wrote stories for popular periodicals.  In 1828 she was asked to edit Ladies Magazine which turned into Godey's Lady's Book, the leading woman's mag for 40 years.

Although she claimed not to be political and was against women suffrage, she promoted property rights for women, education and woman's health.  But more importantly, she led by example and reminded everyone that a woman with a pen can do anything!