How it’s done: author James Howe presenting to Middle Schoolers

I had the privilege of watching author James Howe present to Nauset Regional Middle School today– the whole school. (I have an inside advantage: my wife Bonnie is a guidance counselor there!) He spoke at two different schools today, and will give an evening presentation, too.

THE MISFITS by James Howe
THE MISFITS by James Howe

I was taking in Jim’s presentation on three levels:

  1. Enjoying the ethnographic research of being in a middle school– the drastic differences between 6th, 7th, and 8th graders… the ways of dressing, the height differentials, the hair.
  2. As a writer, it was delightful to hear Jim Howe talking about his writing process, the way he develops character, and his motivations to write.
  3. As someone who does school presentations and writing workshops, watching the ease and charm with which Jim presented was inspiring.

Some observations:

**Jim read a few pages from THE MISFITS first, to set the scene for his conversation. Many of the students had read the book and were familiar with the others in the series.

**Jim showed slides– but not too many. His commentary was relaxed, conversational. He showed some pictures of his own childhood, pet pictures (a big hit), photos of his process (spreading out his manuscript pages on a large table, the three-ring binder approach, and more). He shared a picture of himself and his daughter when she was at middle school age, and said that her struggles in middle school inspired THE MISFITS. He demonstrated a real empathy for how difficult middle school is– something that must be so powerful for his young audience to hear!

Jim Howe and his daughter. "A seed for a book is very often a question."
Jim Howe and his daughter. “A seed for a book is very often a question.”

**Jim talked openly and easily about being gay, about being married to a woman earlier in his life, and why it took him so long to come out. It was disarming, simple, direct, and related to his books. His books are responsible for the creation of No Name Calling Day across the country, and he spoke about being very proud of that. I kept thinking about the kids in the audience who were out, or coming out– how powerful to have this author and role model up there, being himself in such a natural and comfortable way!

Howe GLSEN

**Jim spoke about “interviewing” one of the characters in his books in order to get to know to the character more deeply. He showed pages of his interview notes and how they ended up as backstory in the novel TOTALLY JOE. He finished with a Q&A.

Totally Joe

Finally some kid notes:

**The middle schoolers weren’t playing it too cool. “There he is!” a boy stage-whispered as he entered the auditorium. Another boy literally jumped up and down with excitement as he had his books signed by Jim.

**Blue hair. Purple hair. Green hair.

**Wedge high-top sneakers are apparently a thing.

**Best middle-schooler’s shirt, in my estimation: hand-lettered with a Sharpie, “May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor.”

Meeting Jim Howe was delightful!
Meeting Jim Howe was delightful!

All in all, a perfect experience of a great author visit!

 

 

 

 

 

When Stars Align: diversity, writing & pop culture

As a teacher on summer hiatus, I’m grabbing all of the free hours I can muster, running as far and fast as I can with my middle-grade novel-in-progress, Tomfoolery. And the other day, the stars aligned to tell me, “Yes! Keep going. You are moving in the right direction!”

You see, my main character Tom’s world is being rocked by taking part in an art class in beautiful Provincetown. Suddenly, as a gay/questioning, artsy kid, he doesn’t feel so alone– he has found his people.

 

Provincetown
Provincetown

I wrote a scene the other day in which the art teacher referenced ballerina Misty Copeland. In response to someone using the term “firebird,” the teacher shows an image of Copeland leaping mid-air in flaming red regalia. I wrote some dialog from the teacher:

“Misty Copeland,” Will pointed. “African American soloist  with the American Ballet Theater. Most famous role: Stravinsky’s Firebird.”

Misty Copeland
Misty Copeland

Finished with my writing time, I clicked on over to Facebook for some social interaction, and there on the headlines was Misty Copeland: newly-named as the first African American principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater. I immediately went back to my manuscript and made that change!

In the middle of my novel, where my gay/questioning character feels a bit at sea, a bit too “different,” I had introduced an example of another artist who has also had experiences of feeling at sea, and different. And then, there she was, like a Firebird, soaring. Inspiring my character, inspiring me.

The stars aligned, in a little way– but it was enough for me. To keep me going, when I feel a bit at sea in the writing process.

FIREBIRD, by Misty Copeland. Illustrated by Christopher Myers.
FIREBIRD, by Misty Copeland. Illustrated by Christopher Myers.

I’m going to keep soaring.

 

Up and Coming (Out): song for a budding lesbian

If we stare long enough, there are times when we swear we can see a budding flower actually bloom.

fun home logo 1

That’s the tender window of time portrayed in “Ring of Keys,” the signature song from the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Fun Home.”

Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name, “Fun Home” allows us to witness the moment when young Alison, a tomboyish girl, sees a grown-up lesbian and has a transcendent moment of recognition.

sydney lucas.fun home

Middle-grade writers will want to study the clip of Sydney Lucas singing “Ring of Keys.” It captures an emergence, a turning point, a discovery, that is found in all rich middle-grade novels. That’s why I used the clip in a recent workshop I presented, Developing Gay and Questioning Characters in Middle Grade Fiction.

In an interview in Variety, composer Jeanine Tesori said, “This is a song… that is a turning moment, when you think you’re an alien and you hear someone else say, ‘Oh, me too.’ It’s a game changer for Alison. And that’s just Musical Theater 101.”

In her Tony acceptance speech, Tesori said the song “…is not a song of love, it’s a song of identification, because for girls, you have to see it to be it.”

You have to see it to be it.

Those are words to remember for anyone writing for children and teens (boys and girls!). Let’s continue to give our readers a multitude of moments, of discoveries, of ways of being–
so that they can fully inhabit their world and more clearly see their place in it.

keys

 

Tips for writing gay/questioning characters in Middle-Grade!

What a delight to contribute a guest post on Lee Wind’s dynamic blog I’m Here, I’m Queer, What the Hell Do I Read?

I have tips for middle grade writers who want to create multi-dimensional gay/questioning characters in their stories.

Lee is an incredible resource on matters related to literature for children and teens that touch on all aspects of the GLBTQI spectrum. If this is the first time you have visited his blog, prepare to be wowed.

Lee Wind's blog banner

I’m honored to contribute a piece to the richness that Lee offers– here’s to more gay/questioning characters in middle-grade fiction. Our young readers need them!!

Gay and Questioning Characters in Middle Grade– planning our presentation!

The New England SCBWI* conference is coming in April, and I’ll be presenting, along with my wife, middle school guidance counselor extraordinaire Bonnie Jackman. Here is the description of our presentation:

Developing a Gay or Questioning Character in the Middle-Grade Context

Research indicates that kids who grow up to be gay may have an inkling by age 10 or earlier, but not self-identify until ages 14-16; there is a rich “middle” territory here for middle-grade writers. Some of our characters may indeed grow up and identify as gay, but what does that look like at the middle-grade level? How can we create space in our stories for those characters to be who they are (and for our readers to recognize themselves), before they are ready for romantic connections? We will consider family dynamics, school setting, and social relationships. Writer Mary E. Cronin and middle-school guidance counselor Bonnie Jackman will share age-appropriate character development tools, current research, and timely anecdotes to deepen your understanding of middle-graders, gender identity, and the characters in your work in progress.

**

The conference takes place in Springfield, MA (April 24-26, 2015), and registration opens February 4, 2015—more details here.

Bonnie Jackman and  Mary  E. Cronin, co-presenters
Bonnie Jackman and
Mary E. Cronin, co-presenters

Bonnie and I are using our snow day today (thanks, Big Blizzard!) to map out our presentation. What middle-grade books do you suggest for the reading list we’ll be giving to participants?

*Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators