What a dynamic conversation touching on race, LGBTQ+ people, native stories, and windows and mirrors. I was able to share rich conversations I’ve had with my students at Cape Cod Community College. We received great comments and suggestions from listeners, too. Thank you, WCAI, for hosting this important conversation!
When Lori and I talked on Zoom, I could tell she was excited about my work. She said one of my picture books gave her goosebumps! As a writer, having someone in my corner who is enthusiastic about my work is just what I need.
“In today’s market, probably 80 percent of books published by New York houses get sold by literary agents. Agents are experts in the publishing industry and represent the interests of their author-clients. They have inside contacts with specific publishers and know which editors are most likely to buy a particular work…
The best agents are career-long advisers and managers.”
Because writing can be a lonely business with a lot of waiting and rejection, it’s the role of adviser and manager that I am most excited about. What manuscript should go out next on submission? How can I improve this piece before we send it out to editors for their consideration? Those are things that Lori can help me figure out.
This represents a new chapter in my writing life, and in the midst of all the other stressful things going on in our world, it’s given me a gust of hope.
I don’t think it’s an accident that I received a strange note in the mail recently. It was postmarked on the day after my article appeared in the Cape Cod Times.The headline in the print edition was “Black Lives Matter: does your child’s bookshelf reflect the world?”
I like to think that my appeal to teachers and parents to think critically about what books we offer our children might have rattled someone’s defenses a bit. Might have perforated their comfort zone or upended their sense of order or privilege. Apparently my essay advocating that we place stories with Black characters front and center was a bit too much for someone, prompting them to take pen to paper (nice stationery, though!).
The letter, mailed to my workplace, isn’t threatening, exactly– just unsettling in an off-kilter way. It made me think of the quote by activist Maggie Kuhn:
“Leave safety behind…Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind–even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.” –Maggie Kuhn
I know there are authors and artists, political leaders and journalists who receive hate mail and threats every day. This isn’t that. To me, it’s simply a reminder of how important this work is– educating the rising generation to be actively engaged in a multi-racial and just society. That’s what I do, as a community college educator who teaches about children’s literature, about early education, about writing.
It might unsettle me, but it won’t keep me from the joyful intersection of social justice and children’s literature.
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
The article also led the owner of a new bookstore (about to open) to contact me, and ask if I would consult with her about making rich and diverse choices for their children’s section. I’m excited to collaborate in the birth of a new bookstore on Cape Cod. More on that soon!
Being part of an anthology is an honor—being part of an LGBTQ+ anthology is a party! My poem, “Studying Rachel Maddow in Provincetown” is included in the new anthology Hashtag Queer vol. 2, published by Qommunity Press.
“Studying Rachel Maddow in Provincetown” was inspired by an incredible portrait of Rachel, displayed last year in Jo Hay Open Studio, a Provincetown gallery.
When I saw the vivid portrait by artist Jo Hay, I began imagining the impact this work would have on LGBTQ+ kids… seeing a role model like Rachel in a larger than life scale.
“Studying Rachel Maddow in Provincetown” is a tribute to the striking portrait, to out role models like Rachel, and to parents who do the right thing for their queer kids. I’m so delighted that it’s part of Hashtag Queer vol. 2! The anthology features short stories, poetry, and essays, and you can order it online or ask for it in local bookshops like WomenCrafts and East End Books.
Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) are becoming more and more common in high schools; they’re less frequently seen in middle schools. Yesterday I had the chance to visit a local middle school as a visitor to the GSA. The students (mostly ages 12 and 13) were articulate, lively, and engaging.
Moving at lightning speed, the conversation jumped all over the place after the kids made their introductions, saying their names and pronouns. Within the first five minutes of the meeting, they brought up this week’s Supreme Court ruling, the “This is America” video by Childish Gambino, trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, and Stonewall. Then we got down to talking about books!
I asked them what books they would like to see, or see more of. Here is a good sampling of their responses:
Stories where being queer is not the central problem.
Stories where kids cross social groupings: a jock falls for an artist, two kids from very different points in the social order join together in some kind of venture.
Stories about younger kids coming out…. in elementary school, middle school.
They are looking for stories that defy stereotypes; ie not all gay kids are artists or theater kids, for example. Gay guys do not necessarily have to be very feminine, or queer girls very masculine.
They criticized stories where the overly defining characteristic of the kid is that they are gay; give them other strong interests and characteristics.
They want books in which the main character is a “regular person who’s not in love with anyone”—not in a romance at all. (We discussed the challenge this may face if editors want to see a “romance” to validate that it’s a queer character.) They are looking for stories that are not romance-centered.
A book for parents about kids coming out. This was poignant, as it was clear that a lot of kids are facing this issue. It was a reminder that “coming out stories” are still relevant, necessary, and desired by this age group!
One idea offered: two different people, coming out in two different time periods, providing a contrast about coming out, being out.
One kid said, “Give me ‘Earl and the Dying Girl’ and ‘Heathers’ in middle school, but it’s gay.”
A trans boy talked about what it feels like to inspire others to be themselves; a girl told him that “you being free to be yourself” helped in her coming out process. He would love to see that dynamic represented in stories, placing the trans kid as a leader.
Stories with parental friction… a kid who is not out yet. Several kids nodded their heads in agreement. Stories of kids who are scared to come out; family dynamics or cultural context adds complications and layers to the coming out process.
Stories where a kid is living in a tolerant, liberal community and then moves to one that is not so accepting.
They want more middle school stories, not all high school stories… not all romance.
Stories that show that “you’re never too old to change,” ie coming out later, changing one’s identity.
A friendship based on contrast…. one queer kid has lived in a very accepting family and community, and one has not. How do they reach each other?
Friends who keep being told they would be a good couple… awkward!! (There was lots of laughter on that one!)
I left the meeting brimming with inspiration and blown away by the intelligence, depth, and clarity of their comments. I’m happy to share this with my fellow writers and educators during Pride Month. These articulate students give us both hope for the future as well as a challenge: how do we make sure they get the stories they are seeking?
There is no denying that the writer’s life can be one of ups and downs. Having the provisions to go the distance, to weather the hard knocks and enjoy the triumphs, takes a variety of resources. One of my go-to resources is podcasts.
I can listen to them when I’m driving, cleaning, cooking, or walking; they fill my brain and keep me motivated and stimulated. I’m going to share a few of my favorites—sustenance for the writing journey!
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.