Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Two Great Days In School

I recently finished two great days visiting in a couple of Connecticut elementary schools. I've never had a bad experience in a school, but there have been times when, let's say, the enthusiasm level of the teachers and students wasn't everything it might have been. At my two most recent "day jobs" it was everything a visiting author could hope for. There were signs made up in the media center to let students know I was coming, and teachers had obviously spent time reading my books with their students. Why does this make a difference? Kids who've read a visiting author's books ask more detailed questions and have more of them. They want to know where specific ideas came from, and they talk about characters. The experience is more pleasurable for the author (for this author, anyway), and the kids seem to get more out of it.

Teachers who prep the kids are able to use author books to generate writing, too. One teacher read her class the first chapter of My Life Among the Aliens and then had them write their own chapter. They included a book cover for their stories. At least three other classes did Alien illustrations.

PTO/PTA representatives, media specialists or anyone else preparing for an author visit to a school or library (as well as authors preparing for such a visit) should take a look at Terrific Connections With Authors, Illustrators, and Storytellers by Toni Buzzeo and Jane Kurtz. I attended one of their workshops at a New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrator's Conference a while back and hope some day to finish reading their book. Not that their book is difficult to read or anything. I'm just years and years behind in my reading.

Friday, April 26, 2002

The Secret Knowledge of Grown-ups

I wanted to come up with a clever headline for this entry, but nothing beat the title of the book I'm going to write about--The Secret Knowledge of Grown-ups by David Wisniewski. Wisniewski is a Caldecott winner who wrote as well as illustrated this clever top secret and confidential file of random information collected with what appears to have been great risk by his unnamed narrator. The basic premise of the book is that there are reasons for all the rules imposed by grown-ups. They just are very secretive about letting anyone know what those reasons are. For instance, the real reason we're not supposed to pick our noses is that it will make our brains deflate.

This book is so inviting that I caught an eighteen-year-old boy reading it in my living room.

Wisniewski has a follow-up book--The Secret Knowledge of Grown-ups: The Second File. You can read an interview with him as well as a write-up explaining how he creates his art.

Monday, April 22, 2002

And, Yes, Still More on Perspectives in Children's Literature

Last week I took you through lunch. That brings us to, yup, the afternoon when I went to see and hear Norton Juster, who was a big draw for the Conference as far as I'm concerned because I really did love The Phantom Tollbooth. Juster was everything you'd expect the author of that book to be--very witty, clever, and well-spoken. ("Well-spoken?" Is that a word?) As a young man, he shared an apartment with Jules Feiffer, Tollbooth's illustrator. Oh, I thought. Norton Juster lived with a Pulitzer Prize winner. Who did I live with when I was young? My sister. How lame is that.

Juster's day job for much of his life was as an architect, which I found interesting, though I can't say why. He loves the idea of math, he said, because there's so much humor in it. He mentioned the concept of negative numbers as being particularly funny. He believes humor is a way of liberating the mind, a notion I particularly liked.

You can read an interview with Norton Juster in Salon

Thursday, April 18, 2002

And Still More on Perspectives in Children's Literature

Now, authors and illustrators who attended this conference were given celebrity status, and their books were sold at the book sale. It is very interesting to be considered a celebrity by people who have never heard of you. There was assigned seating at lunch (which I absolutely love, by the way, but I won't go into that), and a celebrity was assigned to most of the tables. This immediately raised a question in my mind: How do you know if you are the celebrity at your table? What if you think you're the celebrity but then a really famous person comes down and sits next to you? Fortunately, there were only three of us at my table and we mostly talked about our kids so nothing embarrassing happened.

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Still More on Perspectives in Children's Literature

After hearing Eric Carle, I went off to listen to Jane Yolen give a talk on the importance of mythology. Ms. Yolen began by apologizing for not having prepared better because of an illness in her family. She then proceeded to give what I thought was a good, college-quality lecture. This is a compliment, since I like a good lecture.

There are so many things I could be reporting on here relating to her talk, but a blog should be brief, so I'll just tell you about a project she is working on with Robert Harris. They are writing what is known as the Young Heroes Series--novels on the teenage years of characters from Greek mythology. The first book was Odysseus in the Serpent Maze and the most recent is Hippolyta and the Curse of the Amazons. There are also plans for stories about Atalantis and Jason. There are two goals for the series: They will be historically accurate (as far as clothing, weapons, etc. are concerned; no traveling to countries that no one knew existed at the time) and the main characters will be developed in such a way that they can logically become the adult mythic figures we know of.

The publisher is HarperCollins and Ms. Yolen estimates the reading audience as starting at fourth or fifth grade (good readers) but no higher than eighth grade.

While crusing the Internet for info for this blurb I learned that Ms. Yolen's husband maintains her Web site. So does mine! I truly believe that computer skills are very important in a spouse.

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

More on Perspectives in Children's Literature

Okay, the first keynote speaker at the Perspectives in Children's Literature Conference was Eric Carle, who is famous for a little something called The Very Hungry Caterpiller, though, personally, I prefer Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, a book by Bill Martin, Jr. that Carle illustrated. He gave a fantastic talk on design, looking at art, and his mentors and how they influenced him. What I really loved about this guy was that he said right up front that he was a kid who didn't like school and wasn't a great student. Though he always had a passion for art and a talent that was recognized at an early age, he wasn't a child genius or prodigy, something I, for one, am seeing an awful lot of in fiction, movies, TV, etc. What about the rest of us who have trouble getting with the program before the age of 10? 16? 20? Is there no hope for us? Carle's speech was a message of hope for all the kids who are like young Eric.

Carle also spoke about something I knew nothing about, which is probably easy to do since there are so many things I know nothing about. In this case I mean The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. This museum is the work of Carle and his wife, whose name, I'm sorry to say, I've forgotten. After seven years of effort, it's expected to open in November, 2002 near Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Except for a gallery in Texas that sells picture book art, this museum is believed to be the first of its kind in this country. (There are supposed to be around 20, of various sizes, in Japan.) Carle envisions it as being a place where children can have their first experience visiting an art museum. It will have three galleries, an auditorium, a studio where kids can try their hand at art work, a gift shop, a library, and a cafe--an absolute must for kids. Oh, well, a must for me, too.

Monday, April 08, 2002

Doesn't This Woman Ever Stay Home?

At this time of year it seems as if anyone interested in children's literature can find a kidlit event to attend nearly every weekend, and I found one this past Saturday at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The Perspectives in Children's Literature Conference was cofounded by Jane Yolen thirty-two years ago. She served as co-director for eight years with Professor Marsha Rudman, who has been directing it ever since. (Kidlit people have incredible staying power.)

Over 450 people attended this conference, mainly teachers and librarians. I have never been to a children's literature event that was not well attended (well, there was one, but you get my point), which is extremely interesting to me since in my daily life within the general population not only do I not find that much interest in children's books among adults, kids' books are often looked down upon by anyone much over the age of fifteen. But within the subgroup of humanity that does have an interest, the interest is huge. Professor Rudman and her staff understand that interest and provided something to nurture every aspect of it.

A freebie table (I'm mentioning that first because isn't it the best part of every conference?) was overflowing with publishers' catalogs, cartons of beautiful book posters, illustrated postcards, bookmarks, and informative brochures. And new stuff kept coming out all day. Usually at these things books written and illustrated by the presenters are offered for sale. This conference offered a book sale that covered three rooms--one room for the presenters and authors/illustrators who were attending the conference and two other rooms of books covering all genres. College conference book sales are sometimes a little on the "improving" side--lots of non-fiction and beautiful books with multi-cultural themes, folktales, award-winners, etc. The Perspectives sale included books for all tastes. There was also a publishers' room, in which maybe fifteen or sixteen publishers had sent copies of books for inspection. Then I stumbled onto a room offering original illustrations for sale.

This was all in addition to the authors who spoke.

In case you haven't picked up on it, I'll be blunt--I had a great time. And for those of you who couldn't be there, I'll give you a report on the speakers I heard over the next week or so.

Thursday, April 04, 2002

What it's Like to be a Girl--I Mean a Writer

A friend from Illinois contacted me by e-mail a few weeks ago to say she was working on a "Books" badge for Girl Scouts and needed to ask an author what it is like to be a writer. Since I responded by e-mail and had my answer in writing and since I didn't have anything else to write about this week...Isn't it interesting how Weblog entries come about?

Anyway, for all you Girl Scouts who need to know what it's like to be a writer:

Writing is a job. It's my work. It surprises a lot of people to hear that. They always think it's exciting to have books published. Well, it's certainly more exciting to have them published than not to have them published, but by the time a book comes out in the stores, we should be working on another one or on some other writing project. Like any other job, we always have to be working. And no matter how much you like your work, it is work.

Doctors, police officers, engineers, and, I'm sure, many other kinds of people have the regular work they do (taking care of the sick, fighting crime, designing things, whatever) and then another aspect of their jobs that is different and is usually referred to as paperwork. Doctors have insurance paperwork, police officers have reports, engineers have to apply for permits from state agencies for their projects. Authors, especially authors who aren't famous, have to publicize their work. For me that means planning author presentations for schools, creating materials to send to schools to let them know I'm available, talking with school representatives, and going to the schools. I also have a Web site that needs to be updated regularly. All these sorts of things take up time that I could use writing.

One of the good things about being a writer (besides being able to eat while you work and work in your night clothes) is that everything you do or read or see or experience can give you an idea or be used some way in your writing. So, in a way, we're working all the time. Another good thing is that we don't have bosses telling us what we should be doing all day every day. Unfortunately, that's also a bad thing, because it's a lot easier to concentrate and stick to your work when someone makes you do it.

Many writers only work part time because writing doesn't provide a very steady source of income. (You only get paychecks from your publisher a couple of times a year, and you never know when you'll make a sale to a magazine.) So they're holding down another job that may be full-time in business, education, medicine, law, or almost anything. A lot of writers are working extremely hard in order to be writers.

Now, I know that I haven't made writing sound like a whole lot of fun (except for the part about being able to eat while you work and work in your nightclothes). I'd just like to finish by saying that if you are a person who loves books and reading, who looks forward to going to libraries and bookstores, and who enjoys planning out the lives of imaginary people, writing is a way to live your life surrounded by and doing the things you love.

Monday, April 01, 2002

Just What are the Perks of Being a Wallflower?

I took on the task of reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky because I'd seen it on a number of teen favorite lists. So, here it is in a nutshell: Charlie, who has more than your average teen problems (he sees a psychiatrist instead of a dermatologist), tells his story through letters to an unnamed person. He is considered a wallflower in the sense of being a passive observer of life instead of the more traditional meaning of being on the outside of real social activities. As far as real social activities are concerned, Charlie really gets around. He falls in with a group of older students (seniors in high school--Charlie is just old enough to get his license) who are kind to him though they introduce him to a number of what are usually considered adult interests. Several times in the course of the story, Charlie asks "What's wrong with me?" I wondered what was wrong with him, too. At the end of the book, I found out.

Now, I know this is an old coot reaction, but all I could think while I read the last third of this book was, "Where are these kids' parents?" Not a single teenager in this story had parents who ever noticed that their kids had brought friends home while the house was empty or asked where they were going and if an adult would be there or objected because their kids were spending so much time in the apartments of college age kids who lived alone? Over the course of an entire school year no parents noticed anything, not even that their brandy was disappearing faster than it should have been? Charlie has a history of mental illness and ends up seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication. He also has caring parents. They had a child that fragile and never noticed that he'd started drinking and doing drugs? They never even smelled cigarettes on him and realized he was smoking?

The lack of parental interest was convenient for the story line but not very realistic. It gets back (see March 18th entry) to how to get parents out of the way so young characters can, in this case, do everything. In Wallflower the parents aren't eliminated in a logical way. The parent issue just isn't addressed at all. Their absence leaves a gaping hole in the story.

Now, after saying that I found the book unbelievable, it's only fair to add that teens really like this book. There are on-line fan sites and discussion groups in which teenagers talk about reading Wallflower in seven hours and reading it several times. I suspect that what they are attracted to is not the activity engaged in but...the lack of adults. Though Chbosky has created a world that is unrealistic and doesn't deal with one of teenagers' greatest problems--their parents--it's a world in which adolescents are autonomous in a way that they can only dream about in real life. It's a fantasy world for kids who are too old for Harry Potter.

Read a transcript of an online chat with Stephen Chbosky at LiveWorld, Inc.