At the school where I work, the vast majority of children qualify for free and reduced lunch. A quarter of our K-3 students are English Language Learners, many from Brazil. Most of the children had never met an author, or had a book signed… until author Ana Crespo rolled into town! The author of eight picture books with more on the way, Ana is Brazilian-American. She lives in Colorado, and because of the wonders of Zoom and the support of the Amber Brown Grant from SCBWI, she made a virtual visit to our school in October 2022. That’s when she decided she liked our school and district so much that she would travel from Colorado to Cape Cod to celebrate the publication of her latest book, Lia and Luis: Puzzled from Charlesbridge.
Ana visited all three K-3 schools in our district this week. Her easy-going manner, warmth, and focus on her young readers were wonderful to behold. She even came to an evening event at our school to meet families and sign books. (Thank you to Brewster Bookstore for selling books at our evening event!) There were certain newcomer students, still learning their new language, who talked a blue streak to Ana in Portuguese. They asked insightful questions, sharing their experiences, wonderings, and feelings. She captivated the entire range of our K-3 students, and our Brazilian students were glowing!
When author Ana Crespo made an author visit via Zoom to the school where I work as a Literacy Coach on Cape Cod, the joy in classrooms was palpable. Most children in our K-3 school had never met an author before, and they were excited to meet Ana.
Crespo, a native of Brazil who lives in Colorado, is the author of several picture books, including The Sock Thief,Hello, Tree, and Lia and Luis: Who Has More? She made four presentations over the course of two days, presenting individually to each grade level at the M.E. Small School.
Crespo’s author visit was provided by SCBWI’s Amber Brown Grant, which funds author visits to deserving schools. In my application for the grant, I wrote of the M.E. Small School, “The students at M.E. Small are an enthusiastic bunch. Give them a rich and layered read-aloud experience, and they hang on every page turn. Give them a place to dance, and they dance their hearts out. Provide them with art materials and their creations burst with color. They are ‘all in,’ ready to embrace any new experience given to them.”
More than half of the students at M.E. Small School are English Language Learners, and a significant portion of those students are from Portuguese-speaking Brazilian families. That’s what made Ana’s visit so special. An author of more than seven books for young readers, she began to learn English at the age of 12. She was an embodiment of Rudine Sims Bishop’s windows and mirrors for our students at M.E. Small. Crespo personalized her presentation to each grade, greeting students in Portuguese and calling out special details about children in each grade level.
“I loved your book,” one student named Laura wrote to Crespo after the presentation. “I’m Brasilian too. I read Lia and Luis. Me and my brother are just like them. Obrigado.”
Another student named Cyrus wrote, “Thank you for teaching us a little bit about you and Brazil! I love your books!”
Funding from the Amber Brown Grant allowed each classroom in the school to receive a copy of two of Crespo’s books, The Sock Thief and Lia and Luis: Who Has More? I want to give a special shout-out to SCBWI’s Kim Turrisi, who coordinated all aspects of the grant and made the process so smooth! The impact of the grant goes much deeper than one day’s joy, however. When I think about our young students, I believe the ripples of Ana’s visit will be felt for years to come.
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.
Lively conversation and great questions added rocket fuel to our presentation yesterday on Writing about Characters with LGBT Parents.
The New England SCBWI* Conference is broad and deep– 700 attendees, many workshops on all aspects of the writing life, and powerful keynote addresses. I co-presented with my wife Bonnie Jackman, an LICSW and middle school counselor.
Here are a few points from our presentation:
**In a diverse country such as ours, with LGBT rights and protections shifting in real time, SETTING is critical to any story with LGBT characters. Setting can be an antagonist, a support, a mix of the two– think about where your character/family lives and consider the political/social climate for LGBT people there.
**LGBT adults have had to make their peace with living outside the margins of dominant culture/mainstream paradigms of relationships. Where are their children in this process? Age is critical here– a kindergartener may love having her two moms come in to the classroom for a celebration; an older kid might ask to be dropped off two blocks from school.
**Kids of LGBT parents have to explain their existence all the time. Who’s your real mom? Where’s your dad? What do you mean you don’t have a dad? Wait, what? There are many dissonant moments our kids just deal with as a matter of course. How does this affect their character, their quest, their relationships, their school experience? This is rich material for character development.
I’ll post more soon… in the meantime, I’m enjoying the post-conference glow. A few people have asked if we’d consider presenting with workshop elsewhere– the answer is yes!
“Please bring these permission slips home to your moms and dads.”
Life is just different for kids of LGBTQ parents. They navigate awkward questions, tricky social situations, and heteronormative language on a daily basis.
That’s just some of the territory we’ll be covering in our presentation at the New England SCBWI conference at the end of the month in Springfield, MA. My wife Bonnie Jackman and I will be discussing sparks for inspiration as well as seeds of conflict in Re-imagining Families: Writing about characters with LGBTQ parents – a morning workshop on Sunday, May 1.
We’ll offer insights and strategies for writing about families with same-sex and single parents, focusing on gay and lesbian-led families as well as those with bisexual and transgender parents. How can writers realistically portray characters with parents who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender? How will these various family structures affect our characters (from early childhood to middle grade through adolescence)?
Bonnie is a seasoned therapist and school counselor, with lots of anecdotes, developmental info, and insights to share. I’ll bring the craft perspective to the conversation. It should be a fun and lively session. Hope to see you there!
“Don’t be self-deprecating. Come at me with some confidence.”
That was the bracing advice on queries from agent Heather Alexander yesterday at the Whispering Pines writing retreat in Rhode Island, hosted by the New England SCBWI.
If “Whispering Pines” sounds bucolic and restful… well, it is a beautiful setting. (It’s touted as one of the best children’s lit. writing retreats by Betsy Bird in School Library Journal.) But inside the conference rooms, all brain synapses were firing as children’s publishing professionals shared their wisdom and insights.
I was a one-day participant, dipping into the retreat on Sunday. In addition to Heather Alexander, I got to hear Simon & Schuster Executive Editor Christian Trimmer speak about what he looks for in picture book acquisitions.
First, Heather: An agent at Pippin Properties, she spoke about the querying process, dispensing wisdom such as “Keep it simple… query letters get over-thought all the time.”
“A query letter should have some of your voice in it. Show off your writing skills. It’s a business letter, but keep it conversational.”
“Avoid the wall of text,” Heather stated (a big block of text). Keep paragraphs and the letter brief. “Hit the main points and get out.”
She stated the query letter should have three main components (paragraphs):
What is the book (genre, title, word count) and why are you sending it to that particular agent?
What the book is about
A bit about you, the writer
Heather was funny, disarming, and direct. Her advice about querying was extremely helpful! You can find her on Twitter at @HeatherAlexand and her blog here.
Promotional opportunities: When we think of big shopping times for children’s books, we generally think of larger holidays like Christmas or Halloween. But Christian also mentioned several other times in the year when book stores are looking to provide topical children’s books. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Earth Day, Black History Month, Chinese New Year, and Back to School were a few options he mentioned that may spark an idea for a picture book.
“Perennials with a twist.” There are certain topics that are perennial favorites in picture books: new baby, bedtime, mommy, daddy, dragons, grandparents, construction site, dinosaurs. Christian encouraged us to think about creating stories that incorporate these perennial favorites in a fresh and exciting way.
Christian talked about how these factors and more were present in recent books he has acquired. So many of his presentation points applied to middle grade and beyond, in addition to picture books. He is attuned to aspects of diversity such as biracial identity and addressing GLBTQ bullying. He was warm, funny, and insightful. You can find Christian on Twitter at @MisterTrimmer.
I drove home from Whispering Pines full of inspiration and the fellowship of the children’s lit. writing community. If you are looking for a small conference with stellar people– this is it!
It’s taken me a while to come down from the clouds after the NESCBWI Conference in Springfield a little over a week ago. The theme of diversity, “Think Outside the Crayon Box,” was delivered in multi-layered and invigorating ways all weekend long.
Being on the faculty of the conference was an honor and delight!
It was my first time presenting, and everything went so well. My wife Bonnie (a middle school guidance counselor) and I presented “Developing Gay & Questioning Characters for Middle-Grade Fiction.” The workshop went smoothly, our participants asked great questions, and we received wonderful feedback. We have even been approached about offering the workshop in other locations! To be continued…
The keynotes were inspiring and affirming. Jo Knowles spoke about the importance of diversity in middle grade in a powerful and personal speech. Dan Santat had me thinking about the sources of inspiration, and considering ways to stretch myself creatively. Kwame Alexander held an entire banquet room in thrall as he read from his picture book Acoustic Rooster— something I told my teachers in training about. Talk about holding the attention of your audience!
I used The Crossover in my Children’s Lit course this semester, and in a poetry presentation I gave in February to St. Luke’s School in the South Bronx. For those reasons and more, meeting Kwame Alexander ever so briefly, and basking in his mega-watt interpersonal energy, was a total delight!
Finally, the workshop on giving effective school presentations, offered by Marcia Wells and Kwame Alexander, was phenomenal. It was chock full of great examples, strategies, facts, and humor– practical and inspiring. And Marvin Terban, a towering presence in SCBWI, had us rolling in the aisles at his keynote on humor in children’s books.
I floated home, full of inspiration, the warmth of fellowship with other writers, and lots of notes and resources to keep me going. Congratulations to the organizers for a wonderful conference!