Please join us to discuss everything literary (especially kid literary): good books, the writing life, the people and businesses who create books, controversies in book world, what's good to snack on while reading and writing, and anything else bookish. We welcome your thoughts.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fairy tales, Scary tales! by Kitty Griffin

Mercer Mayer's illustration from
Beauty & the Beast
Trina Schart Hyman's illustration
from Snow White

Knock knock.

Who’s there?


Boo hoo?

Don’t cry little girl!

An oldie, but one that leads to a question I have for you. Why do we like things that scare us?

Let’s follow with this question, at what age can you read a scary story to a child?

I’ve noticed a resurgence of complaints against the fairy tale lately, so let’s talk about it. Let’s go back to the fire circle as the wooly mammoths lumbered about. As our ancestors made up stories, what do you bet they were scary stories? Of course they were! They didn’t want to talk about why Og picked flowers for Thog. They wanted to talk about the big booming noise that came when the skies turned black.

“Whoa, something is very very angry,” is how that went. "What could it be?"

We still have campfires and we still tell scary stories.

But what about children and picture books? How young is too young to hear about that silly Goldilocks breaking and entering into the bear’s house and stealing their food and vandalizing the house? Do kids need to hear about Jack’s thefts from the giant?

Of course they do. But, I’m also the first to admit that there’s a time and place for each and every tale. If a child has had a fright, perhaps gotten separated from you in a store, you certainly don’t want to add to their troubles by reading Hansel and Gretel. You are the best judge of what your child needs and wants. Always pay attention to that “mommy” sense (or daddy sense). (My daughter has a sixteen-month old little boy and she knows, if she gets that mommy tingle and doesn’t think he should have something. She’s learned the hard way to make sure to follow through, even if it means some tears).

Hearing the story is just part of the picture book experience. Looking at a scary picture gives a child the chance to study it. To say, “No, you can’t scare me!” And then if they want, close the book.

The debate over whether or not they’re for children began with the Brothers Grimm and continues today. One Grimm said, “Yes! Children can learn a lesson from these tales!” and the other said, “No, they are too frightening. They should only be for academic research.”

The debate isn't going to be settled with one post. But I urge parents not to be afraid of scary. Don't be afraid of fairy tales because your child needs them just like they need geography. Fairy tales are part of the human map. You can start with funny retellings and gradually add in the darker sides. For beautiful artwork look at the work of Trina Schart Hyman or Mercer Mayer. Go through the story and make up your own words the first time through.

You'll find what's right for your child. There are many retellings.

Here are two witches from two retellings of Hansel and Gretel.

Notice how the one on top by Paul O. Zelinsky is a kindly, sweet woman while the one on the bottom is terrifying. The scary one is from a German retelling and the illustrator is Dorothee Duntze. Your child, you decide which one they can handle. I like the German one. But then, I like a little fright now and then.

Every Thing On It

     Shel Silverstein's last(?) anthology is 194 pages of fun, fantasy and frivolity.  To paraphrase the title, it has 'everything in it' from poems and fanciful drawings of spiders, toilets, babies, and puppies to witches, giants, trampolines and lizards.  It even has a Zootch.  Silverstein was always the king of silly, and he showcases that perfectly with the hot dog with everything on it, including a wrist watch, a goldfish and a porch swing.  And who wouldn't love "28 Uses for Spaghetti"?  And the fun he has with language! Something as simple as this snippet from "The Kit-Eating Land Shark" made me smile from ear to ear :
'So let this be a lesson
to every shark and kid:
Just 'cause somethin' ain't been done
Don't mean it can't be did'

Silverstein throws in a few poems with a more serious tone for the adult reading along, such as "Wall Marks," "Dollhouse," and "Jake Says." He even makes a strong case for changing the Police Department to the Please Department.  There is something for everyone, particularly if you are a pelican lover, as no fewer than five poems showcased pelicans. Silverstein's pelicans play baseball, fall in love, take children for rides and lay eggs.  Or do they? 
His denouement "When I am Gone"  is the perfect call for the next generation of author-artists.  Shel's shoes will be hard to fill, but I am sure that thanks to this man, someone out there will be struck with an idea for a silly something-or-other "anywhere and anywhen..."
In the meantime, if you'd like to sample a hot dog with a different kind of everything on it, I highly recommend the "Junkyard Dog" at the Dune Dog in Jupiter, Florida.  Just tell them to hold the porch swing.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bored To Death by Judy Press

It's the title of a recently canceled HBO series that I had been enjoying. In it a frustrated New York writer whose character closely resembles Woody Allen reinvents himself as a bumbling Phillip Marlowe type detective. Naturally in the end he gets his man and his detective novel gets published. Last night I watched the first few minutes of the Oscars and the title of this HBO series came to mind. I was bored to death! Enough with botox-ed actors congratulating themselves! Talk about being bored, I used to enjoy reading books by Janet Evanovich. She has the uber-successful series about a jail bondswoman named Stephanie Plum who captures the criminals who missed their court date while trying to decide which of her two love interests she'll hop into bed with. Now that she's milked the series and is up to fifteen or more books, all of which are starting to sound the same, I'm bored to death! And while I'm on the subject, below are a few boredom busters for the kids in your life. Enjoy!

-Draw a face with markers on an old white sock and perform a puppet show
-Turn a large recycled cardboard box into a playhouse
-Draw a row of squares then draw a comic strip in the boxes
-Create a picture by gluing down paper shapes
-Go on a nature walk and collect leaves, stones or twigs
-Sort small objects and put them into the compartments of an empty egg carton
-Hold a "Dancing With The Stars" competition and dance to music
-Read a book and act out a scene
-Make homemade playdough with a recipe off the internet
-Plant a seed in a soil filled pot
-"Paint" outdoors with a brush and a pail of water
-Trace your hand and foot onto paper then cut them out
-Cut a magazine picture into puzzle shapes then put them back together

Friday, February 24, 2012

7 Steps To Critique Recovery

Carol Herder

As writers we depend on critiques to keep us on track. A critic can find blunders such as where we’ve inserted a full moon in the middle of the day, clues that never go anywhere, or discover where we’ve somehow changed a character’s name half-way through the story!

But even when we KNOW a critic is trying to help, it’s hard to contain a hard yelp upon spying our precious manuscript comment-splattered up and down its margins. A good critic will have added many positive comments as well as – well, not exactly negative comments, but places where the story can be improved.

Having worked with a very hands-on agent, where I received feedback weekly – many times NOT what I wanted to hear – has taught me the following.

1. Do your “yelping” silently. Keep the screams inside your bruised little heart. Upon first spying those annoying remarks all over your near-perfect manuscript, DO NOT react. Graciously thank your critic and scurry home to your writer’s cave to whimper alone.

2. Read the comments with an open mind. As you read you will be saying “NO, NO, NO, I can’t change THAT!” That’s OK. Say it and get it out of your system.

3. Put the manuscript aside and let the comments fester. Sigh. Yes, OF COURSE they will fester. So let them. It’s not like you can STOP them.

4. Continue to “stew” SILENTLY. Or to your spouse or children. They’re fair game. But NEVER whine to the critic. Or your friends. Really!

5. Let scenarios form and break apart at will. Like molecules in a volatile chemical mix, let your creative mind flow. Various ideas will tumble through your head. And tumble, and tumble, and tumble. . . . .

6. Trust in your creative self. After days, weeks, or even months (I sincerely hope not YEARS!) a plan will form. And to your surprise that nasty critique will have given you some really good ideas and you’re on the path to solving most of your sticky writing glitches.

7. Now you are ready to share. Bounce-off your conclusions with your colleagues and the critic. Listen to how SANE you sound. How calm and professional! AREN’T you glad you waited????


Writer’s Block Eye Pillow
(Use while employing above 7 steps)

1. Pretty 8X18 inch fabric
2. 1/8 to ¼ cup dried lavender
3. 1/2 to ¾ cup flax seeds or rice

Sew fabric on three sides, leaving one end open. Pour in the mixture of dried lavender and flax seed. Sew the end closed. Place pillow over eyes in times of stress, migraine, or writers block. Enjoy a speedy recovery!

*Variations. My rosemary plant passed away upon moving house this past summer so I added dried rosemary to my lavender mixture with fragrant results.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Women and the Caldecott, Part II: More Musings About the Gender Gap

By Carol Baicker-McKee
This post includes images of a few of the books illustrated by women and published in 2011 that were noted as distinguished for illustrations - only not by this year's Caldecott committee.
Illustrated by Pamela Dalton. Chronicle Books, 2011. Watercolored cut paper illustrations.
Note: This post is a follow-up to one I wrote recently: Why Don't Women Illustrators Win Caldecott Awards? and to last week's post by Cynthia Light Brown: Caldecott, CEOs and Confidence.

Bear with me for a few minutes: I'm opening with a story that at first glance may seem off-topic, but which I promise to connect.

In the mid-1980s when I taught psychology at a community college, I began units on gender topics with a couple classroom surveys. First I asked my students 15 questions about their real or future/hypothetical daughters, ranging from "Would you dress your infant daughter in blue?" through "Would you support and encourage your eight-year-old daughter if she wanted to switch from ballet lessons to playing baseball ?" to "Would you feel proud of your adult daughter for pursuing a traditionally male career like physics teacher or police officer?"

The results of  my informal survey were remarkably consistent (if not rigorously scientific). Nearly all the students (who ranged in age from 18 to early 70s, with most in their 20s) thought it was good or at least acceptable for females to take on male gender roles.

After a short discussion in which my students generally agreed that attitudes about women's roles had improved, I gave the quiz again.

Only this time with a small twist.

I asked them to think about their real or future/hypothetical sons with questions ranging from "Would you dress your infant son in pink?" through "Would you support and encourage your eight-year-old son if he wanted to switch from playing baseball to taking ballet lessons?" to "Would you feel proud of your adult son for pursuing a traditionally female career like preschool teacher or social worker?"
The results were very different. Most (though not all) of my students were uncomfortable with the idea of allowing or encouraging their sons to adopt any traditionally feminine characteristics or activities.

When time permitted, I followed up by asking the questions one more time, in the gender-traditional way (e.g., would you dress your daughter in pink, son in blue, etc.) and few students ever balked at allowing/encouraging traditional roles.

In other words, my students felt it was okay for girls to act like girls, boys to act like boys and girls to act like boys - but not good for boys to act like girls. Got that?
Red Sled by Lita Judge (2011) Watercolor and pencil. A fun romp with minimal text and remarkable design as well as graphically strong illustrations
This classroom exercise came to mind recently as I've continued to mull over possible reasons for the gap in Caldecott Medals. I'll let you noodle its possible implications for a few minutes while I discuss some other thoughts. 

In addition to doing some wondering of my own, I've talked with a variety of interested parties, including other writers and illustrators I know, librarians, teachers, parents, kids, and folks who commented on my earlier post, seeking their guesses about what's going on. I also read a number of discussions about it around the internet. Some of the more active and lively discussions of this issue can be found in the following places:
Illustrated by Melissa Sweet in richly layered collage/assemblage and water color technique that is particularly appropriate for this subject. It received a Siebert Award for most distinguished informational book - but no Caldecott.

Here then, in no particular order, are some of the other thoughts on the issue that I've come across or considered.

Is there Really a Gender Gap?
Several bloggers or commenters have suggested that the basic premise is wrong: there isn't really a gender gap - just one of those statistical things that gives an illusion of a gap. For example, one commentor on the child_lit forums asserted that the problem was a small "n" - not enough data points since we only have 75 medals to consider.

Others said that the proportion of women winners has gone up and down and just because we are in a low point right now, doesn't mean that overall there's a real gender gap.

I'm confident, though, that there is a real gender gap. I think 75 data points is sufficient to discern a trend, especially one as unequivocal as this (not quite as unequivocable as the gender gap in U.S. presidents, but still...). Although the proportion of female winners has varied from decade to decade, in seven full decades women have never captured even half of the medals - 4 of the 10 is the best ever, and that has happened only twice and it's been a while (in the 1960s and 1970s). Plus things have been much worse recently - only 2 women winners in the 1990s and 1 in the 2000s. But you can draw your own conclusions: at the end of this post I have listed all the female Caldecott winners by decade.
Stunning illustrations in innovative retelling (by illustrator's son) of classic tale in soft watercolor. Reviewers also noted book's outstanding design and typography in starred reviews. Burkert earlier received a Caldecott Honor but has never won the medal despite consistent acclaim for her work. Makes a nice pairing with Pinkney's beautiful Caldecott Medal winner The Lion and the Mouse (2009) for different perspectives on the same tale.

Does the Gap Reflect Male-Female Differences in Self-Confidence?
If you haven't already, please read Cynthia Light Brown's thoughtful - and thought-provoking - post (here) about how males typically have an excess of confidence in their abilities while females underestimate their abilities. I find much of her thesis dovetails with my own personal experiences as well as with other research I've seen on gender gaps in many endeavors. 

My first thought was that it's great to think about this as a primary source of the problem, confidence is a changeable trait, and thus this gender gap is mutable. But then I remembered studies like this classic one by the organization Catalyst about the double-bind for women in leadership roles; if women are not assertive, they aren't rewarded as well as assertive men. Unfortunately, assertive women aren't rewarded either; they're just viewed as pushy. You know, in that witch-with-a-capital-B way. So it becomes a no-win situation.
I wonder if it works that way in children's publishing too. What do you think?

Should Librarians on the Caldecott Make More of an Effort to Close the Gap?
Janice Haryda on her blog One Minute Book Reviews says YES!  Just to be clear, she isn't asserting a conscious effort to discriminate against women, just that there must be some institutionalized bias driving Caldecott committees to reward men at a much higher rate, given that most other award organizations are able to identify plenty of outstanding books by female illustrators each year. Nor is she saying that they should lower their standards; she cites outstanding books by female illustrators she feels have been unnecessarily passed over. What she wants to do is make the committees notice their biases so that they can overcome them when warranted.

Many of the librarians I spoke with were surprised at the gender discrepancy; they'd never conciously paid attention to the gender of the winners. But I sensed that they were uncomfortable to discover the trend.

I wonder if these discussions will prompt future committees to be more aware of gender. (Or perhaps of race and ethnic identity as well: see Janice's  post on the racial gap in Caldecott winners too.

Is It Condescending to Female Illustrators Who've Won or Mean-Spirited toward Male Winners and Caldecott Committees to Talk About This Gap?
I must confess this reaction (by the author-husband of a past female winner who commented on Janice's post, as well as another commentor) startled me. First I'm genuinely bewildered about how the discussion could be seen as condescending toward women who have won. Second, I don't think it's automatically mean-spirited to raise uncomfortable issues; indeed I think people involved in children's literature are obligated to consider them.

Personally, I also didn't consider Janice's language to be anything more than blunt and perhaps a shade tough. And given not only how long this gap has persisted but how it has worsened, perhaps some blunt, tough language is needed to capture people's attention and to motivate change.
Another gem by the talented and prolific Patricia Polacco. Her distinctive pencil and watercolor illustrations and creative texts have garnered her many awards, including a Caldecott Honor - but never the medal.

Does The Gap Matter to Anyone Except Female Illustrators?
I say yes. Ultimately the gap matters most not to the winners or losers of the awards, but to the audiences who read those books - and to the wider society.

And Finally, That Brings Me Back to My Original Story!
What my surveys showed me - and quite frankly I was shocked even then - is that in general, our society devalues feminine characteristics, strengths, interests. I hope that those attitudes have changed in the last 25 years or so, but I'm guessing they've changed less than I'd like.
I do suspect there are some actual differences in how male and female artists illustrate children's books. (If anyone out there knows about an analysis of content, style, etc., I'd love to review it). I also suspect that the differences are in reality smaller and harder to detect than the gender gap would lead us to believe (and I wonder what would happen to the gender gap if it were possible to carry out the illustration and award processes in a gender blind way). But at the same time, I would not be surprised to learn that men and women generally approached book illustration with different visions and different aims. 

In my searches the last couple weeks, I've seen/heard suppositions that in general, work by women is more domestic in theme and content, softer, quieter, more conventional and more often aimed at younger audiences, while work by men is more often ground-breaking, exciting, silly, engaging, and aimed at older audiences.

Does it strike you, as it did me, that these descriptions mirror the traits assigned to traditional parenting styles of mothers versus fathers?

Do these proposed differences seem accurate to you? And do you think the female approach is less good? Does it seem like female winners (especially recent ones) are more "male" in their approach?
More to Think About
  •  Should future Caldecott committees take the gender of the illustrator into account when making their selection(s)? If so, how?
  • Should there be a separate award for best illustration by a woman? (I reflexively don't like the idea, but...)
  • What makes book illustration distinguished?
  • What advice would you give an illustrator who wants to increase her chances of winning the Caldecott?
  • Should the Caldecott even award a medal for "best"? Many other illustration awards select a list of outstanding, with no one title singled out.
  • Should book buyers give so much weight to Caldecott winners?
Women Who Have Won the Caldecott (By Decade)
I have marked women who co-won with their illustrator husbands with an asterisk and counted each as 1/2 in my totals for the decades. Also, the first time  an illustrator is listed, clicking on her name will link either to her website or to a page about her.
A couple other notes: Marcia Brown has won the Medal three times, Barbara Cooney and Nonny Hogrogian have won twice on their own; Diane Dillon has won twice with her husband. In total in the 75 years of the Medal, 15 women solo illustrators have the award  and an additional 5 have one as part of husband-wife team. You can see the full list of Medal and Honor winners here.

2010s [Only 3 years so far]

2000s (1)
1990s (2)
1980s (3.5)
1970s (4)
  • *Diane Dillon [co-won with husband Leo Dillon] (1977 - Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions)
  • *Diane Dillon [co-won with husband Leo Dillon] (1976 - Why People Buzz in People's Ears)
  • Margot Zemach (1974 - Duffy and the Devil)
  • Nonny Hogrogian (1972 - One Fine Day)
  • Gail E. Haley (1971 - A Story, A Story)
1960s (4)
  • Evaline Ness (1967 - Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine)
  • Nonny Hogrogian (1966 - Always Room for One More)
  • Marcia Brown (1962 - Once a Mouse)
  • Marie Hall Ets (1960 - Nine Days to Christmas)
1950s (3)
  • Barbara Cooney (1959 - Chanticleer and the Fox)
  • Marcia Brown (1955 - Cinderella, or The Glass Slipper)
  • Katherine Milhous (1950 - The Egg Tree)
1940s (3.5)
1930s [only awarded 2 years - 1]
  • Dorothy P. Lathrop (1938 - The Animals of the Bible) This was the first Caldecott awarded.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Caldecott, CEOs and Confidence

by Cynthia Light Brown

Something that happened to me last week reminded me again of Carol’s post about the dearth of women who are Caldecott winners: Why Don't Women Illustrators Win Caldecott Awards? ; be sure to check out all of the great comments.

I went to a panel discussion put on by the Pittsburgh Tech Council called Venture Out 2012: How to Get Your Business Funded. It was about getting angel investors and venture capitalists interested in your business. Lots and lots of suits and ties; very few skirts. In fact it was much more heavily weighted towards men than most business venues. And I think the reasons are related to why there are many more men than women who win the Caldecott.

Carol gave some very interesting possible reasons in her blog post for this imbalance. But I want to explore one theme that I think permeates many of the other possible reasons: differences in self-confidence among men and women. I’m interested in this not so much as coming to a conclusion about why there are so many more men who win the Caldecott, as to where it might lead in thinking about success in the arts (and I mean success in a very broad sense).

About 7 years ago a good friend and colleague of mine, John, decided he was going to make the break from the consulting company we both worked for and start his own consulting company. He didn’t feel he was getting enough autonomy and pay with his employer. At that time, I was working 10 hours/wk at night writing reports so that I could be home with our kids. John asked me if I (and one other person) wanted to come along in starting a new venture, and I said sure. None of us had any money to invest, and we all had to work without pay for some time.

Soon after we had actual cash coming in the door, John proposed hiring in someone who could bring in a technology client. Did John have experience in this area? Nope. Did that faze him? Nope. Later, he pushed one of our software engineers to develop a management system that was quite different than what was out in the market. John didn’t have the knowledge to do the coding, but he kept pushing the (at first reluctant) engineer to do it. And if that weren’t enough, he then saw another application for it that breaks all kind of conventional “rules” and is in an entirely different business sector. Based on this new idea, he got angel investors, we’ve hired more software engineers and marketers, and things are hopping.

This past summer, a colleague (Nora) and I were at a lecture by David Brooks, and he talked about how in lots of studies of (I think I have this right, but I may be mis-remembering) IQ, aptitudes, attitudes, etc. men and women “score” similarly in nearly every area – including math and science and verbal abilities. The only big difference is that men have significantly more self-confidence than women. In general, women have less self-confidence than their abilities warrant, and men have more. Nora and I turned to each other, simultaneously said, “John,” and laughed.

John has formidable abilities. But he has even greater self-confidence. You could look at this as a flaw, but I think instead that having outsized self-confidence is a pre-requisite for being a good CEO, or for that matter, doing all kinds of things...including writing and illustrating.

Most women are reluctant to ask for a raise. It never occurs to most of us to branch out on our own and start a company, or if we do, to hire people to do the work instead of just doing it all ourselves. And going after investors, based on an idea? That never even enters our brains. Too much risk. Too much self-doubt.

But it should enter our brains. Our brains should be exploding with it.

I don’t think men should have less self-confidence (well, okay, a few of them should…), but I think women should have more. One of the commenters on Carol’s post, cathyjune, posted a link to an interesting article: The Trouble With Bright Girls. The main thrust is that for women, ability doesn’t always lead to self-confidence because “bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.” So girls (and women) are less likely to push through difficult challenges because they don’t have the self-confidence that they can learn what they need to.

The fact is, if we have ability, we can work and get even better. If we receive criticism, even harsh criticism, we can take it in, digest and absorb what is useful to us, and what isn’t useful can be…not absorbed. If we encounter difficulties, whether it’s rejections or a sagging middle, or a deadline that seems impossible, we can figure it out.

I’m not talking about the kind of false-confidence and self-delusion that might lead us to submit to a publisher or self-publish something that is – ahem - less than stellar. I’m talking about the kind of self-confidence and even over-confidence that leads us to believe that we can push through, that with hard work and perseverance we can master the craft, that we can get the revisions done in time, that we can get the plot problems figured out, that we’ll come up with the just-right illustration even if it takes dozens of sketches, and finally, that we can send our baby out into the world even if it isn’t perfect (because it NEVER will be, and yes, I’m talking to YOU).

And that’s good news for all of us, male or female.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

More indie ebooks for Eragon fans and dragon lovers

SC Poe's Indie Ebook Sampler, # 9

Scores of dragons fly the Internets. But few soar. Many are weighed down by excessive world-building or rambling internal monologue. Grammar and usage often hang in tatters. Crucial parts of the story engine (such as character development) may be missing. Even on some of the liveliest and fleetest, the scales need a good polish.

But dragon lovers seem willing to take a leap and ride whatever lumpish, slow steeds are available, for five-star reviews abound. Lured by this excess of glitter, Poe sampled more than three dozen dragon novels. The highest flyers were listed last December. Today Poe presents the runners up. Each comes with a caution, but (in Poe's view) still flies high enough to reward many readers.

A Dragon Forsaken
(The Enchanted Island Series)
By Krystal McLaughlin
Self-published March, 2011
Poe thinks this is upper YA urban fantasy

First sentence: I could hear my prey running.

This story is raw in several senses. Its shape-shifting MC prowls mean streets. There are several racy episodes. And the writing's rough around the edges. Steffanie Hobelman, credited as editor, has many blind spots. Yet Poe found the author's voice vigorous, direct, and compelling enough to overcome such snags. That's saying a lot, for Poe is touchy about niceties. (The past tense of drag is not drug.)

This is the second book in a series about the various young residents of "a sort of under-aged bed and breakfast" on a mysterious island off the coast of Mystic, CT. Most of the series' teenagers awaken gradually to their magical potential. Daphne's different—she always knew she was a dragon.

The MC's hot, reptilian nature is evident: as a girl, she's bold and seductive; as dragon, she breathes literal fire. (And her seductions are calculated. Daphne's heart is as hard as if it, too, were scale-plated.) The sample left Poe wanting to know who this dragon was battling—and why.

Rated S for Snapped Up.

The Dragon Whisperer
By Joyce Ware
Self-published November, 2011
Poe thinks this is older MG contemporary humor/fantasy
First sentence: The whole crazy business began after I collided with a New York City taxi cab.

Seventh-grader Ted narrates his adventure in a pitch-perfect voice not meant for adults to overhear. He's a voluble Manhattanite, sophisticated and snarky. After he's hit by that taxi, Ted's banished to an upstate farm to recuperate while his parents take off on a working tour of Europe. Craving a pet that he'll be allowed to keep, he spends his savings on eggs that are supposed to hatch into exotic tropical birds. But an extra egg arrives in the packing crate. . . . According to the blurb, Ted and the farm-girl next door will struggle to raise the hatchling from an "eternally hungry ugly baby to a feisty teen-aged pony-size silver-feathered dragon yearning to fly free."

Ted can take a while to get to his plot points, but the ramble is always entertaining. The setting is real, down to the stink of chicken droppings, so the magic should prove even more special, by contrast. (The sample ends while we're still waiting for the mystery egg to hatch. We're also still waiting to meet the farm-girl.)

NOTE: Some parents will object to a sprinkling of barnyard language and four-letter expletives (one in French).

Rated Q for Queued to read later.

Owen and the Dragon
By Carla Mooney
Soto Publishing, 2010
Poe thinks this is younger MG contemporary fantasy

First sentences: It's not fair. I didn't ask to move here.

Marooned in a new town, 10-year-old Owen will find adventure in the woods behind his house. Sentence by sentence, the writing is polished and professional. But the sample, at least, could use more dramatic tension. It opens with Owen ruminating on his woes and bored by a meeting with the garrulous girl-next-door. Owen does notice a light flickering in the woods, but waits a whole day (and a whole chapter) to find out what it might be. This gentle pace might not hook reluctant readers. But the cover promises a dragon, and more patient readers will be willing to wait for it.

NOTE: Soto appears to be a small indie press that provides a technical platform for self-publishing.

Rating: If your young middle-grader loves reading as well as dragons, then this story should please.

Dragon Stones
(The Dragon Stone Saga)
By Kristian Alva
Defiant Press, 2011
Poe thinks this is YA fantasy

First sentences: The mountain air was chilly, and the sun had already set. Rosy light filled the valley as dusk settled on the mountainside. Thirteen men crouched warily in the low brush.

The Prologue is splashed with the blood of dragon nestlings. In this story's world, dragons are hunted with the help of mages, and few survive.

In Chapter 1, oddly, the story slows down and reads like historical realism. 15-year-old Elias plods through medieval mud to deliver herb medicines, and makes nourishing soup for his failing grandmother. Bits of exposition often halt the action, and by sample end, we're still waiting for Elias to catch a whiff of dragon breath. But the writing is polished, the world is interesting, and we empathize with the loyal lad who takes up the family trade, even though healing is more properly women's work.

Rating: If you appreciate a character-driven fantasy, then this sample seems to promise one.

Born to be a Dragon
(Dragons Forever series)
By Eisley Jacobs
Self-published in 2011
Poe thinks this is MG contemporary fantasy

First sentence: Lightning jumped over the horizon and a tingle raced to the tip of my tail.

This series offers a nifty duel POV. Deglan's a shape-shifting dragon, afraid that he's the fulfillment of a prophecy that will endanger his whole family. Meia's an orphan worried that her current foster parents will reject her. How long can it be before these two become fast friends? (But don't expect a plain vanilla "girl and her dragon" story! Plot twists and surprises abound.)

Winningly, Jacobs incorporates illustrations of the characters contributed by young readers. In this and other aspects, we feel the presence of a teacherly Mom in this book. For despite the interesting premise and the fast pace, the narrators sound the way a book-loving fifth-grader might write, not speak. To Poe's ear, both MCs seem a bit remote, a bit formal, and the humor and figures of speech a bit shopworn. Nevertheless,

If a clever hook and action-filled plot matters most, then this series should please.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Writing Conferences, Workshops or Retreats. What Do You Expect from Them?


Dave Amaditz
If you're like me, I'm sure that at one time or another you've attended a professional writing conference, workshop or retreat. I'm sure as well that you've enjoyed some more than you've enjoyed others. I know I have. Because of that, I've listed a few things I believe that make attending a writing conference, workshop or retreat well worth it.
1.  Access to top-notch editors and agents, and preferably the ability to approach him/her to give a short pitch of your project. At the very least, you should have the option to meet with an editor or agent in a separate breakout session or one-on-one during a private critique.
2. Close to home if possible. Why travel long distances if you have a worthwhile event in your own backyard?
3. Well organized. It seems obvious, but you should expect to have a detailed plan of what services you'll receive for the duration of your time at the event. This should include but not be limited to:
a. The ability to attend many classes that will include a variety of discussion topics. They should be presented by professionals in the business…This could and should include the editors and agents listed above and published writers in your field.
b. Fantastic speakers to teach you something you did not know or enlighten you with a new technique for doing something you are already doing. A presenter or speaker who's speech will motivate you to continue working long after you've returned home from the event.
c. The ability to receive up-to-date knowledge about the business.
4. Expect to receive and to learn the latest information about the business. In part, it could include:
a. Who has moved to and/or from a particular publishing house?
b. What new literary agencies have been started?
c. What material a particular house is or is not accepting?
5. Access to other quality writers. Conferences, retreats and workshops are a perfect opportunity to network. Market yourself, but be receptive to others. Listen to what the other writers have been working on. Listen to their latest experiences with the industry.
Of course, this is not an all-encompassing list of what you might expect to receive at a conference, workshop or retreat.
Let me know if there is something I've missed or something you particularly look forward to accomplishing at a conference, workshop or retreat.
Let me know if there's a particular conference, workshop or retreat you would list as your favorite. Two of my favorites (I'll talk about why some other time): Rutgers One-On-One Plus Conference (follow link for more information here) http://www.ruccl.org/One-on-One_Plus_Conference.html  and Spring Writer's Retreat, Bethany, West Virginia (follow link for more information) http://www.wpascbwi.com/
I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Textbook Evolution?

Have you ever leafed through your child’s textbook and sympathized with them? I’m sure the experience varies from student to student, but for those of us to who don’t find it easy to stay focused, textbooks can represent a black hole of frustration. In short, they message something contrary to excitement in learning.
They’ve improved since my days in school. And I’m not really faulting the textbook industry. After all, they’ve been limited by a one dimensional format, didactic and inert. I’ve always been endlessly distracted by sound and movement. Put me in a quiet room with no other living thing and I might have a chance at success in comprehending. But that isn’t the nature of the classroom, or even home. We live with other people who move around, talk on the phone, watch television. To many, that movement and those noises are invariably more interesting than the static black print before them that is supposed to teach.
My interest was pricked when the announcement was made last month introducing Apples iBook Author application, a program for designing multimedia, interactive textbooks. You can drag and drop almost anything you have access to. One of the major limitations--you need a MAC (OS X), and only iPad users have access to the textbooks. But I happen to own a MAC, and allegedly 25 million or so iPads have sold, so my curiosity has potential. They’ve partnered with the three biggies in the industry, Pearson, Houghton Mifflin and McGraw Hill. This is no small potatoes. I can imagine the process of building a textbook to be quite exciting and creative with the ability to utilize videos, photos, and 3 D diagrams. The user can highlight, take notes and generate flashcards. After building it, you simply upload to the iBookstore. Somehow, it goes through a review process. (hmmmm, I’m curious as to how this works and who performs them) And then, like mainstream publishing, the company gets a cut of sales and has exclusivity to the product.
Audrey Watters, in a Mind/Shift article regarding the Apple announcement, stated “Considering the involvement of the three largest education publishers — a group that currently controls 90% of the textbook market — I don’t think we can pronounce the textbook industry “digitally disrupted.” Maybe not, for the time being. But it’s just the beginning. We will keep moving toward a major shift in teaching techniques. We have to. We can’t go backwards with technology.
I submitted to McGraw Hill in 2006. They replied that my approach had merit and would maybe fit into their line in “the future” Well, this is that future, and I don’t need to wait for their acceptance any longer. That’s pretty exciting. And if we just imagine that of the 25 million iPads sold, 20% is for use by children (I think I'm being conservative), and of those 5,000,000 children, a mere 1% would purchase my iBook, that’s 50,000 books sold. I would say that’s a better chance than waiting for “the future”.

Submitted by Fran McDowell

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Walter Dean Meyer asks "Do You Read With the Kids"

by Jenny Ramaley

Author Walter Dean Myers, right, and
son Christopher Myers, an illustrator, will speak
in Pittsburgh on Sunday at Hill House.

Author Walter Dean Myers is currently serving as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a position created by Congress in 2008. Mr. Meyers will visit schools and libraries across the country for the next two years to discuss reading and literacy. I wanted to share a few of his words from an article in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“Fifty percent of all meaningful education takes place in the home. What do you share with your child?” he asks. He feels that adults need to change children’s attitudes toward education, and one way to do that is by spending much more time with youngsters. “So many organizations . . . idea of mentoring a kid is giving them general advice. But what they need to do is read with children.” When he speaks to groups of professional men, Mr. Meyers often asks them if they read with kids. Often their response is, “No, we encourage them to read.” But his response to them is “That’s like encouraging adults to exercise. . . . You need to show them, and you need to do it with them.”

For the next two years, children’s books and childhood literacy will have a much needed advocate. Thank you, Mr. Meyers.

To read the entire article, go to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Feb 8 2012

Friday, February 3, 2012

In the Conference Mood

courtesy of: wiki/New_York_City

I know many of you are still recovering from the New York SCBWI conference last weekend. The writers who I’ve talked to that attended said the conference was both informative and inspirational. Publishers Weekly published an interesting article about the current view of the industry with thoughts from four industry professionals: Nancy Paulsen, Jean Feiwel, Barbara Marcus, and Ruben Pfeffer. See the link below: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/50487-four-industry-veterans-lay-out-advice-at

In the article written by Diane Roback, panelists were asked to give the audience one piece of advice regarding writing. “Your content should touch the ear, the soul, or the funnybone, however you write it,” Pfeffer said. Marcus advised, “Stick with your network first. Keep getting feedback and keep talking to people. It’s the person that I never expect who gives me the best advice.” Their advice was right on, and I thought worth mentioning in this post.

You can find highlights from the New York SCBWI conference at: http://scbwiconference.blogspot.com/.

If you weren’t able to make it to the conference, don’t fret. Registration is now open for the annual New Jersey SCBWI conference. Kitty and I attended it last year, and we were blown away. It was that awesome. Check out our article from last year. http://www.rt19writers.blogspot.com/2011/06/hot-hot-hot.html.

Regional advisors Kathy Temean and Laurie Wallmark work endless hours with their team of volunteers to put together one of the best conferences on the east coast. Early bird registration is through March 1st. Click here for details: http://www.newjerseyscbwi.com/allevents.shtml. They have 32 editors, agents, and art directors, plus 27 authors doing workshops and critiques. And best of all, our very own Kitty Griffin is on faculty this year. Yipee!

We hope to see you in New Jersey June 8-10th!