Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Happy Book Birthday to Nora

Today is the pub date for my newest book child, The Trouble with Ants, the first title in my new three-book series from Knopf, The Nora Notebooks.Nora is a serious, scientific girl who is in love with the ants she studies in her ant farm. But she knows that even as she loves her ants, they don't return her love. That isn't what ants do. And it's hard to get her parents and her classmates at school to love her ants. Apparently that isn't what most other human beings do, either.

I've had a lot of book children now. I think Nora is my 52nd child. As families get bigger, the fuss made over each new arrival tends to get smaller. Few people would host a baby shower for their tenth child, not to mention their 52nd.

And yet. . . . each child, each book, is still special and precious.

This is why I was touched and thrilled when my writing group, The Writing Roosters, had a meeting earlier this month that turned out to be . . . a surprise party for Nora!

There were ant-themed snacks.

There was a splendid ant centerpiece.

There were glasses of wine raised to toast ants.

And my heart was filled with love for my writer friends, who do love ants. Or at least love my book about a girl who loves them.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Do You Want a Children's Book Writing Mentor?

One of the most satisfying experiences of my long and varied writing career has been participating in the Michelle Begley Mentor Program of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Editors. Michelle created the program a number of years ago to foster interaction between established and aspiring children's book authors. She died in a tragic car accident last year, and the program now bears her name.

Here's how the program works. It's for serious writers who have already completed a full-length book manuscript and now want to revise it into publishable form with one-on-one guidance from a professional in the field. If accepted, you work for several months closely with your mentor, who reads your work and gives extensive supportive but critical commentary on it, working with you through multiple drafts until it's as good as you can make it right now.

I've lost track of how many people I've worked with over the past four or five years: maybe a dozen? I've loved each one so much. I just spent four hours one day this past week giving extremely detailed comments on fifty pages of the second draft of one's hilarious middle-grade novel, commenting on everything from lack of clarity in the character arc to implausibilities in details of the classroom setting to comma errors - with tons of comments on every page like "Ha!"and "So great!" and "OMG!!"

I don't consider myself to be a great writing teacher. I don't really know how to tell someone how to write a book. But if someone has already written a book, and hands it to me, then I'm on fire to offer all I can, distilled from thirty-five years of experience, to make it better. I feel that I can instantly see what a book needs to move it to that next level of greatness. Well, sometimes instantly. Sometimes I need to ponder for a while. But, oh, the joy of seeing the stronger, clearer structure of the story emerge - to add missing scenes that were needed to give emotional depth - to cut superfluous scenes that were mere distraction - to fix up those commas!!

The application window for this year's program is NOW: September 15-October 15. Information on how to apply is available here. I know most of the other mentors: they're all wonderful.

So if you want a mentor to move forward in your writing, and you're an SCBWI member, apply! (And if you're not an SCBWI member, join and then apply!) Magic can happen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Falling in Love with Philosophy Again

In a life that has been spent falling in and out of love with philosophy, over and over again (see "Unleaving Philosophy"), I just spent a few days back at DePauw University falling in love once more.

I flew back to Indiana for the "Young Philosophers Lecture Series," created by Prindle Institute for Ethics director Andy Cullison when he was a faculty member at SUNY-Fredonia. It's a competitive lecture series, with four philosophers in the early years of their careers selected by blind review from a good-sized pool. The winners come to campus to give both an intro-level talk accessible to students and colleagues in other departments, and a research talk aimed at specialists in the field.

Last year when I attended my first Young Philosophers event, I was initially skeptical. I've spent so much of my own career sitting in the back of a room listening to incomprehensible, jargon-filled, needlessly technical, and frankly boring talks, just to be a good citizen of my academic community. I would avoid asking questions during the Q&A period for fear I'd look dumb in front of colleagues who excelled in dazzling thrust-and-parry argumentative sword play. (I did, however, get a lot of sonnets written as I tuned out and thought my own thoughts about other things.)

But Young Philosophers was fun. Tons of fun, actually. So I was pleased when Andy asked me to serve on the reviewers' panel this year: I could pick papers that I'd know in advance were NOT incomprehensible, jargon-filled, needlessly technical, and boring. I'd have an excuse to come back to my beloved DePauw, not that I needed an excuse, but still, it helps to have a reason to come some particular week rather than some other random time. And I could spend two days luxuriating in philosophy.

This year's four speakers were: Nina Emery, Brown University; John Pittard, Yale Divinity School; Jason D'Cruz, SUNY-Albany; and Samuel Kahn, IUPUI. Here are a few titles from the eight talks I heard over a period of two days:

"What's the Big Deal with Lethal Injection?"
"How Is It Possible to Deceive Yourself?"
"Two Very Different Reasons to Believe in Multiple Universes"
"A Scientific Realist's Guide to Objective Chance"

I listened, I learned, I asked questions as good as anybody else's questions, I ate delicious free Prindle Institute food and had wonderful wide-ranging conversations with fascinating visitors and colleagues.

I found myself thinking of the lyrics of my favorite Dolly Parton song, this time sung by me to philosophy: "Here you come again, lookin' better than a body has a right to, and shaking me up so, that I all I really know, is here you come again, and here I go..."

Monday, September 7, 2015

My Hobby: Judging Awards

One of my hobbies is judging awards. Over the past few decades I've judged so many. During my time at the University of Colorado I was a judge of the Graduate Student Teaching Excellence Award, which allowed me to observe classes by stellar nominees in dance, studio art, theater, French (I always tried to be the first judge to sign up so I would get dibs on all the classes that looked most delicious). As a writer, I've judged the Golden Kite Award for fiction from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (winner my year: The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw), a manuscript-in-progress grant from the Utah Arts Council, and in 2005 (the crowning glory of my judging career), the National Book Award in the category of Literature for Young People (winner: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall). 

Often the judging involves a huge amount of poorly paid and all but unrecognized work. So why do I love it so much? I just do. I love the power to be somebody's fairy godmother, giving them this lovely boost to help them achieve their dreams. I love visiting all those classes, reading all those books - after all, I loved being a student, sitting in class with my notebook open in front of me, and I love reading books, and having an excuse - nay, an obligation - to read so many. I love turning on the discerning part of my brain. I love it all.

Right now I have one of my most demanding judging gigs ever. I'm serving a three-year elected term as a judge of the Children's Literature Association's Phoenix Award: an award given each year to a children's book published 20 years previously which did not win a major award at the time but is now judged worthy of winning one. Our committee is currently working on the award for 2018, which means that I'm immersed in reading heaps and heaps of books published in 1998.

To make the task more manageable (there is no way we can read every children's or young adult book published in the English language in 1998!), we start by generating a list of contenders from books that received at least some critical acclaim at the time, from end-of -year best books lists to starred reviews. This year we ended up with a list of 170 titles which we now need to cull to a list of 20 or so, which will then receive extremely close reading and discussion. Oh, and we have two months to do this round of culling. Two months! To procure those 170 titles from various libraries (I'm lucky that CU has an excellent children's literature collection, and the Boulder Public Library is also outstanding) - and then to read them - or at least skim them - or otherwise form a basis for judging whether any given title is a contender.

I get up in the morning and read Phoenix books. I read them through the day. I read them before I go to bed at night. I am living my life in 1998. People in these books call each other on land lines (not under that name, of course). They fly on airplanes in a pre-9-11 security climate. But in other ways their world is all too much like ours: in Jacqueline Woodson's If You Come Softly a high-achieving black kid, son of a prominent filmmaker father and novelist mother, is gunned down by police as he is out jogging in the park).

There are other ways I could be spending my time. Writing my own books. Preparing my courses for the fall. Revising and expanding three scholarly articles into publishable form. But I'm a woman obsessed. I just want to read one more Phoenix book - and then another - and then another - and then another.

After all, this IS my hobby.