Taking Risks: NESCBWI ’17 Conference Recap

Take risks: that was the most powerful message I took away from the New England SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) regional conference, I’ve been home a week, and I’m still reflecting on moments and messages from the conference.

Lunch with writer friends!

It’s a powerful feeling to be in a conference room full of people who all care about kids, from toddlers to teens. Because that’s why we write, isn’t it? I reveled in that. In this current moment in our history, there were over 700 people gathered together who want to make the world a better place for kids. With their words.

Leading on workshop on the power of setting for LGBTQ+ characters

I took my own risks during the weekend. I gave two workshop presentations, filled with enthusiastic writers who want to write stories about LGBTQ+  kids and families.

I took part in a panel (my first!) in which we discussed the state of children’s publishing and LGBTQ+ books for kids. It was well received and many people told me it was a highlight of their conference!

Panel with Lisa Bunker, Linda Camacho, Mary Cronin, and Kevin Lewis

Jane Yolen cheered on our efforts. Nova Ren Suma urged us to be our true selves. Melissa Sweet inspired us with her artistry. Mr. Schu illuminated the room with his enthusiasm for children and their books.

Mr. Schu, ambassador to school libraries!

All of it lit a fire that warmed the room, that connected us, that dared us to keep going, to do better.

Nova Ren Suma inspires us!

No matter what stage of my career I’m in, I find a home in the SCBWI community. The conference inspired me and emboldened me, and I know there were seeds planted during that conference that will indeed make the world a better place for our readers. I’m sure of that.

Next up: I’ll be presenting at the New Jersey SCBWI Conference in early June about writing about characters with LGBTQ parents, and writing about gay and questioning middle graders. More info here.

3 Poems by Mary E. Cronin: Remembrance

Three of my poems are featured on the YARN online journal today! YARN (Young Adult Review Network) features short fiction, creative essays, poetry, and author interviews.

My initial contact with YARN was entering their annual poetry contest last year. The theme was Enchanted Places, for which I wrote my villanelle poem “Grand Central Terminal.” Although I did not win the contest, I was invited to submit more of my poems for publication on YARN. I’m delighted to be part of this dynamic and important online journal.

Looking at the poems all these months later, one of the major themes of my writing rings out clearly: remembrance.

You can read the poems here.

When a Poetry Workshop becomes a Slam

It started out with a curve ball. And that was before the table flipped.

When I head to the South Bronx each year to lead a poetry workshop at St. Luke School, I expect that I’ll teach the 7th and then 8th grades. The classrooms are right next to each other, I know both teachers, and it just flows.

This year, the kids were combined. That meant 50-60 kids, in one room, in chairs (no desks). On a Friday afternoon. They did have notebooks. Maybe it was a scheduling glitch. Who knows? I rolled with it.

I told them a little about my background and my connection to the school. (My mother went there as a child.) I did a quick book talk and make a small display of the books I had brought to them as gifts to the classroom.

I brought books by Sharon Flake, RJ Palacio, Jackie Woodson, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Varian Johnson, Judith Robbins Rose, and Marcia Wells.

We talked about poetry, about word choice and sensory details. And they started writing. They wrote most powerfully about family members… cousins, parents, unnamed objects of wrath and affection. And then they started reading.

The first few were tentative. Then the performance level got more dramatic. There was laughter; there were moments you could hear a pin drop.

There was pacing and labored delivery.

Don’t be fooled. He brought the house down.

One student sat on a table, reading one of my favorite lines of the day.

Amazing line: “Her insecurity shines like the light of a thousand suns.”

And then the table flipped.

The laughter nearly blew the windows out. The rowdy factor was up to ten. But we rode the waves, the poet righted the table and kept on reading.

She ended with a flourish.

You can start a fire with poetry, and you don’t always know where it’s going to go. It was wild, it was uproarious.

It warmed us but didn’t burn.

It was amazing.

Wishing you a wild and wonderful National Poetry Month!

For Middle Grade Writers: 5 Gems from a School Counselor

If you write middle grade fiction, it can be difficult to keep track of the ebbs and flows of a middle schooler’s daily life if you are not the parent or teacher of kids this age.

I interviewed a middle school guidance counselor (I’ll call her Ms. Counselor) for insights—some granular details ranging from school day schedules to substance use to gender, sexual orientation, and the beginnings of romance.

…Read more here in my blog post on the Project Mayhem Middle Grade blog, a treasure trove of information about writing for this complex and often-misunderstood age group!

And remember: be kind to porcupines.

Fighting the Good Fight with Children’s Books

Can children’s books fight prejudice, oppression, and injustice? Absolutely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday I presented a teacher training about structuring the read-aloud experience for maximum benefit to young children. This gave me the chance to weave together two strands I am passionate about: early literacy and social justice.

It’s hard to keep my focus as an educator and writer when so much of what I love about this country is under assault: freedom, diversity, a value on the arts and sciences. I could go on. There was a bright spot this week, something that helped me to gather my strength: Mirah Curzer’s recent article on Medium, “How to Stay #Outraged Without Losing Your Mind.”

Curzer wrote about the various ways we can counter the intolerance and injustice we are seeing in the new administration:

“Don’t forget to play to your strengths… If you’re a writer, write articles shedding light on important issues, convincing the other side or rallying your allies to action. If you’re an artist, make art with a conscience. Teachers can bring social justice into your curriculum. Lawyers can volunteer at free legal clinics, write amicus briefs, do pro bono work. Like to argue? …Love to bake? Bring cookies to activist meetings and homeless shelters. No matter what your passion is, there’s a way to use it for good and have a great time doing it.”

So that’s what I did yesterday, which also happened to be Multicultural Children’s Book Day. I presented about the read-aloud experience to a group of passionate Head Start teachers, educators who spend their careers working with children from low-income circumstances. Many of the children in their classrooms have experienced trauma and major challenges. We talked about windows and mirrors and how vocabulary equals power.

We examined beautiful books and how to use them in the Head Start classrooms. I left feeling a little less bleak, a little more energized. We can each wage this fight in our own way, with the tools we have at hand.

My tools are books.

From Brandon Stanton’s Little Humans

Let’s keep fighting.

Mommy, Why Are They Marching? Six Picture Books for kids

Our children are asking.

How do we respond when a man about to be inaugurated as President of the United States would flunk the behavior guidelines of every kindergarten in the country: no name-calling, no touching someone else’s private parts? When the election was tainted by scandal and voter suppression?

We march.

For many young children, protest marching may be a new concept. They may not be aware of Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the past year; they have not known a country led by a white president who disrespects women, who lashes out at Muslims, Mexicans and civil rights icons, who threatens mass deportations.

As parents, we explain that as citizens, we can demonstrate, we can march, we can protest.  And we can use books to teach our children about these tools of democracy.

Here are some titles perfect for young children:

“The sun rises and we prepare to march.”

The message is spare and powerful in We March, written and illustrated by Shane W. Evans (Roaring Brook Press, 2012).  In direct, rhythmic language, Evans portrays children awakened by their parents to join in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  We see  African American families paint signs, travel on buses to Washington, and march with Martin Luther King, Jr. The illustrations show the participation of children in the march and some white citizens marching shoulder to shoulder with black protesters; it ends on a note of hope.

“You cannot pretend that we do not exist.”

Peaceful demonstration in a march for migrant workers’ rights is the focus of Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Harcourt, 2003).  Krull shows us Chavez’s childhood and his rise as a champion for migrant workers in the fields and farms of California, highlighting his dedication to non-violence and the 300-mile march to Sacramento in 1966. Inspiring, positive, with luminous illustrations by Morales.

“One newspaper calls it an army. Others call it a revolt. It’s a revolt of girls, for some are only twelve years old.”

Child labor, immigrant rights, and girl power are entwined in the picture book Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, 2013). Young immigrant Clara “knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong.” When she goes to work in a garment factory in New York City and experiences its crushing working conditions, she becomes an advocate for the thousands of girls working in factories across the city. Spurred by Clara’s words, the factory girls stage a strike, marching on the streets of New York, sparking protests in other cities and calls for reform. An inspiring picture book with beautiful language and intricate, artful illustrations.

“When you fight for justice, others will follow.”

The Trump campaign started with a wholesale assault on Mexican and Mexican-American people; the book Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation does not shy away from the history of this discrimination.  While there is no literal protest march portrayed in Duncan Tonatiuh’s award-winning picture book, it is timely in its depiction of the struggle for rights (seeing a “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed” sign in an illustration is painful) and in its portrayal of the Mendez family’s bravery in being part of a lawsuit that fought for equal education for all children in California, regardless of race, ethnicity, or language. Their courage in showing up in court each day, in testifying for their rights, is clearly conveyed in the illustrations; they exemplify the word resist. (Abrams, 2014)

“This story begins with shoes… We fought with our feet.”

Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation is a “story told with steps” by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. It recounts the resistance of Rosa Parks in the face of Jim Crow laws, and the ensuing bus boycott that lasted over a year. This was a different kind of march: the grueling 300+ days of black citizens refusing to use the city bus service in protest, walking to work, schools and elsewhere in punishing weather, day and night. It ends on a triumphant note, as the boycott was successful: “now you see the power of won’t –stop shoes.” (Amistad/Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2008)

“Clutching a protest sign in one hand…Audrey marched out the door.”

Cynthia Levinson’s The Youngest Marcher tells the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, who participated in the 1963 Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama, where she was arrested at age nine along with thousands of other kids and teens.  Gorgeous illustrations by Vanessa Brantley Newton capture the dynamism and heart of this Civil Rights era story. (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2017)

Whether or not you are marching in or attending a Women’s March, these books beautifully lay out the concept of resist for young children. Buy them. Read them to your kids. We’re going to need them.