What happens when a dispirited writer decides to change things up and go in a new direction?
I wrote about the writing retreat that turned things around for me on the Project Mayhem Middle Grade blog:
The twists and turns of the writer’s life had drained all the joy out of my writing practice. Part of my brain (the novel writing part) felt over-worked, stale, and burned out. I needed badly to play, to have fun with writing. Returning to picture books, which is what drew me into the world of children’s writing in the first place, was just what I needed.
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.
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.
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!
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.
All of it lit a fire that warmed the room, that connected us, that dared us to keep going, to do better.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One student sat on a table, reading one of my favorite lines of the day.
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!
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.
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.