Sampling of Archived Blog Posts
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Several years ago, I was invited to speak at the Plum Creek Literacy Festival in Nebraska. Dylan Teut runs this festival, and I had a great weekend talking books to both adults and young readers.
A couple of weeks ago, as part of its fundraising, Plum Creek held an art auction. I wanted to support the festival by purchasing one of the pieces of illustrator art. When I went through the art on offer, I knew immediately which one I wanted. It was this wonderful piece by Anna Kim:
I bid on it twice–and then I forgot to check back on the day the auction ended. Someone else won it. I was very disappointed and berated myself for not keeping track better.
Meanwhile…freelance publicist Lisa Nadel (https://www.lonnilanemarketing.com/) reached out asking if I would be interested in a copy of a picture book called DANBI LEADS THE SCHOOL PARADE by–you guessed it, right?–Anna Kim. What a happy coincidence, I thought, and of course I wanted a copy of the book.
It arrived today. It’s wonderful. Danbi is a new kid at school, so it’s a familiar story refreshed and revitalized by the simple clarity of Kim’s words, and especially by her amazing illustrations. Funny, warmhearted, generous. Energetic and delicate at the same time. Now I have pages and pages of Kim’s art to enjoy….
But it doesn’t end there. Because included in the parcel was a piece of art, and a stunning card. They are the endpapers and title-page illustration of the book–heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.
I’ve been teary ever since I opened the parcel a few hours ago–tears of joy, during a time when joy is hard to find. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to thank Anna enough for this incredible surprise…but I can try, by urging everyone I know to buy DANBI. For yourself and as gifts: Danbi will light up the bookshelves of any home.
Of childhood reading and salad
I can’t find my (ancient, battered) copy of SPIDERWEB FOR TWO, by Elizabeth Enright, which is frustrating, because I want to quote from it. I’ll have to settle for summary instead. I think it’s from the chapter titled “A Pocketful of Gold.” Oliver and Randy are trying to solve one of the story’s mysterious clues; Randy is sick in bed, so Oliver is on his own. Along the way, he meets Miss Bishop, and they have a conversation about, among other things, gardening. Miss Bishop says, “Purslane is delicious in a salad,” and Oliver is stunned to hear this, because to him, purslane has always been just a bothersome weed.
The second I read that passage, I wanted to taste purslane. It wasn’t until I was an adult–in fact, just a few years ago–that I finally got my chance when I spotted some at a farmer’s market. Miss Bishop was right. It was delicious, with a faint lemon flavor and a wonderful crisp texture due to the thickness of its leaves. (It’s also full of nutrients, if you like that sort of thing.)
A few weeks ago, I spotted some tiny weedy sprouts of purslane in the flower bed. About a dozen of them, barely bigger than my thumb.
They were dug up and given their own little bed, and now, three weeks later–WOW, are they happy!
My lovely crop of purslane wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t read that passage in SPIDERWEB FOR TWO (some fifty years ago!). For me, the connection is about more than just a plant. It’s about curiosity, and being open to new experiences, and paying attention, and maybe even a weed by any other name….
A good children’s book has that kind of power: to make connections that last a lifetime.
With salad on the side.
Standing on shoulders
Here’s something I often hear from diverse creators: “I’m writing books for kids because when I was little, I never saw myself in books. I want to make sure every child has the chance to see themselves in a book.”
Sound familiar? The inspiration is a noble one, and I couldn’t be more excited about the work being produced these days by writers from marginalized communities. It’s a challenging, tumultous, and EXCITING time in the world of children’s books.
When I hear something like the above, I can certainly relate. There were so few books featuring Asian or Asian-American characters when I was growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s.
BUT. And this is important.
There WERE people doing that work. There were creators battling conditions a thousand times less woke than today, overcoming the obstacles, publishing one book at a time into what must have seemed like a void. No marketing, No WNDB, no social media communities.
If you were born after about 1970, and you tell audiences that you are writing books because you never saw yourself in a book, I believe you. But the books were there, AND THEIR CREATORS DESERVE TO BE ACKNOWLEDGED.
It was not the fault of the creators that their books weren’t/aren’t better known. Their books got close to ZERO support at every level–from the publishing process right on through to the educational system and the general zeitgeist of the time.
It follows, therefore, that it was also not the fault of readers in marginalized communities that they were unaware of these books. (With thanks to Namrata Tripathi, Jamar Perry, David Bowles, KT Horning, and others, for helping me clarify this point.) How could they find books that were absent from bookstores, libraries, classrooms?
I think today’s creators need to be careful not to inadvertently perpetuate the erasure of that seminal work. Saying something like, “I never saw myself in a book,” could easily be misapprehended as meaning, “There were no books about kids like me out there.”
So a humble suggestion: When you say, “I never saw myself in a book,” perhaps you might add a line or two acknowledging the shoulders we all stand on. How about something like, “My education did not include being introduced to the wonderful books by authors like Eloise Greenfield or Donald Crews.”
Dr. Debbie Reese offers this language: “Societal marginalization of writers that were creating mirrors for me meant that I didn’t see those mirrors until I was an adult.”
Eloise Greenfield. Donald Crews. Lawrence Yep. John Donovan. Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve. Pura Belpré. Alma Flor Ada. Those are a few creators that came to mind immediately. There are more. They are not household names, and they should be.
Honor our forebears. And then make them proud.
In 2017, Ashley Bryan won a Newbery Honor for his book FREEDOM OVER ME. At the time, he was 93 years old. I have known and loved him long enough that I cannot remember where or when we met.
Ashley accepted that Newbery Honor (and the Coretta Scott King Author Honor award as well) at the ALA conference in June of 2017. I wanted to give him a small token of appreciation and celebration, so I knitted him a hat. The pattern uses a simple cable design that looks like owls:
Can you see them? I added embroidered eyes to three of the owls. (One is sleepy.)
And this is how the hat came out:
Throughout ALA, Ashley was positively SWAMPED with admirers and well-wishers. I said a quick hello to him, but I didn’t want to add to the crush. So I gave the gift bag containing the hat to his editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, and asked her to give it to Ashley. In the end, though, I was never quite certain that he received it.
Ashley is now 95, and I got to see him last month–the first time I had seen him since that ALA. (Huge thanks to Sarah Corson and Ashley’s family for helping to arrange the meeting.) During our visit, I casually asked him if he had ever gotten the hat.
He looked stricken. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “I’m going to look for it when I get home.” (Our meeting took place in Houston, where Ashley was staying with family. The rest of the year, he lives on an island off the coast of Maine.) I felt terrible about asking, because it was clear that he was dismayed by the question.
But we went on to much more pleasant conversation; I got to see the F&Gs for his next book, BLOOMING BENEATH THE SUN (April 2019), with remarkable cut-paper collage illustrations. “I think it’s the strongest collage work I’ve ever done,” Ashley told me.
Which left me breathless. Imagine doing your strongest work ever at age 95….
A little while later, we got ready to go out to lunch. Ashley put on his parka, then pulled a hat from the pocket and began to put it on.
“Ashley!” I exclaimed. “That’s it–that’s the hat I made for you!”
Hard to say which of us was more delighted. And here he is, wearing the hat.
My encounters with Ashley, although much too infrequent, are always memorable.
A writing strategy
Back in the day, major-league baseball franchises occasionally had a team member whose title was ‘player-manager’. Just like it sounds, a player-manager played regularly on the field AND made the managerial decisions. The last such player-manager was Pete Rose, for the Cincinnati Reds back in the 1980s.
When I’m at a conference, I’m usually on the faculty, and I’ve often wished there were a designation similar to ‘player-manager’. Something like ‘faculty-colleague’, maybe?
Because in my conversations with attendees, I do as much learning as I do teaching.
Here’s the latest example. I was fortunate to be a faculty special guest at the Highlights Foundation Summer Camp last week. I gave one presentation, and participated in the final faculty Q&A session. Otherwise, I used my four days there as a mini-retreat, to work on the revision of a middle-grade manuscript.
It’s been a difficult project. I’m making progress, but it’s slo-o-o-o-w.
Then one of the attendees–hi, Neda!–told me about a writing session she and a few other campers had done together. Among her companions was Alex Villasante. Alex kept the group on task by setting her phone timer, and they worked in 15-minute focused bursts.
I had learned about this tip long ago (Elizabeth Gilbert, for example, says 30 minutes), but had forgotten about it. Well, I’ve been using it ever since Neda reminded me of it–and finding it VERY helpful.
I’m doing 10 or 12 minutes. For that length of time, I stay on my manuscript, no cheating, step away from the phone, ma’am. When the beep sounds, I get a little reward–a peek at Twitter, a round of Toy Blast, a quick stretch. Then another session, and another after that.
Whether it’s the luxury of a days-long writing retreat, an afternoon with no other commitments, an hour when the grandchild takes a nap (RAISES HAND)–the writing time available to us is always precious. To me, it’s incredibly frustrating and confidence-sapping to carve out time like that–and then sit staring blankly at the screen, or else fritter away those valuable minutes.
Short, focused bursts + little rewards are working for me. Maybe you’d like to try it as well.
And a big thank you to writing colleagues Neda and Alex. 🙂