Ten writers for children. All with something to say.
When I was a young girl my family lived in Northern CA. At Christmastime we travelled over the Grapevine (a steep pass through the mountains from the Central Valley to the High Desert) to visit my favorite Grandma in Long Beach. Sometimes the wind was howling. Other times the pass was closed due to snow. But most of the time we made it through with no trouble.
The unpredictability of the weather stressed out my poor parents, but it excited me. It was Christmas, with the possibility of snow. It was the magic of the Polar Express in the safety of my own car, with my very capable parents at the helm.
When we arrived at Grandma's, she'd have the fire going and candles lit. Her dining room table would shimmer with her good china and silver. A feast would be awaiting us and afterwards, a good nap in my father's lap near the fire. I could hear the bell then. I wonder if I will hear it again someday.
Tonight is one of my favorites of the holiday season. We will go to our friend Kirsten and Drew's for the annual lighting of candles on their Christmas tree. Yes, they use real candles, and because they are real candles we all must sit around and watch them burn down. After a nice meal and homemade eggnog, the quiet of sitting and watching these beautiful lights is soothing.
At a time of the year when so many animals are slowing down, we are encouraged to speed up in a mad rush to finish end of the year activities and prepare for the holidays. I want to slow down now and reflect about this year and the one to come.
On Monday evening we will have another favorite activity when we go to Hidden Falls down by the Mississippi River for our annual solstice fire. People will bring wood for a fire, beverages to share, musical instruments, and paper to write down things they would like to let go of as well as hopes for the new year. These papers will be placed in the fire that will light up the darkest night of the year. We've got plenty of snow here now, but it is always warm around this fire. You are welcome to join us.
A few years ago, I discovered what has become my favorite children’s Christmas-themed novel: The Great Christmas Kidnapping Caper by Jean Van Leeuwen. The story follows the ongoing antics/adventures of a mouse named Marvin the Magnificent and his two cohorts, Raymond and Fats, who made their first appearance in The Great Cheese Conspiracy and who also appear in three other novels, all of which are fast-paced and funny and make great read-alouds. Good quality copies, reasonably priced, are hard to find (the book was published in the Seventies) but a full-cast audio edition came out a few years ago, so if nothing else you can always turn on the Christmas lights, snuggle under a warm comforter, and listen to a great Christmas story!
2. Favorite Christmas Song—“Lullay Thou Little Tiny Child,” also known as “The Coventry Carol.”
3. Favorite Christmas Picture Book—THE LITTLE FIR TREE by Margaret Wise Brown
4. Favorite Christmas Gift I’ve Given—For the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration, Good Housekeeping Magazine sponsored a contest for an embroidered picture that depicted something about our American Heritage. Since I loved to embroider, I decided to enter. However, I work slowly, so when the deadline passed, the picture became a Christmas gift for my grandmother, inspired by a cradle built back in 1864 for the birth of her mother, Edith Call (for whom I was named). The cradle was shared by her younger siblings and passed down through multiple generations. I myself slept in it. The picture included the first stanza of a narrative poem written by my great grandmother’s older sister (who did not get to sleep in the cradle) and entitled “Eda’s Cradle.” The gift brought tears to my grandmother’s eyes, and I remember her holding it in her lap all of Christmas Day. After she died, my grandfather returned it to me, and it now hangs in my guest room.
5. Favorite Christmas Gift I’ve Received—The Christmas I was ten or eleven, I received a Magic Designer, also known as a “Hoot Nanny.” That particular Christmas our entire family was sick with bad colds, so we spent all day in our pajamas, making elaborate hoot nanny designs and coloring them with my new set of colored pencils. I saved the hoot nanny, and my own children spent many happy hours creating their own designs.
6. Favorite Christmas Scene from a Children’s Book—The final chapter of THE GOOD MASTER by Kate Seredy
Several years later I did the same thing for my father and mailed it out to Colorado where he lived. His wife later told me that when he unwrapped the book and began reading, it was the only time she ever saw him cry.
Both of my parents have died now. I'm so glad I took the time to make these books for them while they were still alive. It's true that you don't need money to give a meaningful gift.
On the other hand, the best gift I ever received was not handmade.
As a child I was fascinated by balloons. I wanted to grow up to be a balloonman. Then one Christmas when I was a teenager I received only one small package beneath the tree. When I unwrapped it, it was a bag of balloons. "Go look in the garage," said my mother. Next to our car I found an industrial-sized tank of helium. For the next six months I was the balloonman I had always wanted to be, sending notes up into the sky, making a tiny gondola to carry the neighbor's hamster, and flying anything that was light and could be filled with helium (balloons, baggies, plastic gloves).
Sometimes the best gifts are free, and sometimes they're the result of creative thinking.
This little elf is busy! Each year I enjoy transforming odds and ends into gifts. Yesterday my husband came home to find candle stubs melting in a pot on the stove. Nearby I was peeling labels off pet food cans. After raising his eyebrows he remarked, “I’ve learned that at this time of year it’s better to keep my head low and not ask questions.”
Since moving to California I’ve harvested our trees to make gifts. You think this red and green is for Christmas? Think again! This concoction transports me to Scotland, thus the plaid. I developed a taste for marmalade my sophomore year while living with the Middleton family in Edinburgh.
These are just a couple of the many projects I’m cooking up. I'm never happier than when I'm making gifts.
Its title reflects the end of my first quarter in the English Composition Master's program at Cal State San Bernardino. I picked Cal State because I thought it might be an easier program than a UC or a private college (where I got my undergrad degree many many moons ago), and certainly because it was a whole lot cheaper. What I found, to my delight and horror, is that not only are the professors brilliant and intersting and funny, but their classes are ten times harder. (No, make that twenty, or thirty.) I haven't seen my husband in a couple of months and my friends, well, they know that I'll call them in the summer to check in. And of course, the bag of potatoes has been one potato lighter lately.
So, what am I grateful for? 1. Not getting the swine flu this quarter. 2. Not losing any papers in cyberspace. 3. The diversity in age, race and gender of my wonderful classmates. 4. The fact that they're suffering too. 5. Jenny, who brought five pies to class the night before Thanksgiving when I had to leave a family dinner to attend class from 6 - 8 p.m. 6. My parents' health, cuz God knows I haven't seen them much either. 7. My husband's patience. 8. The final words typed on my last paper this afternoon at 4 p.m. 9. My final class on Monday. 10. The chance to write with some really hot potatoes who remind me that I have so much to be thankful for!
I just got the news that The Compound is a finalist for the 2010-11 Missouri Truman Readers Award. Students in grades 6-8 across Missouri will read all twelve finalists during the 2010-11 school year, then vote for their favorite.
Wow, and I just had to edit to add The Compound is also a finalist for the Missouri Gateway Readers Award.
Fun fact: I lived in Missouri until I was three years old...
One of the things I'm thankful for is unexpected gifts. Three have come my way recently and I'm thankful for all of them. Last week I was notified that BOX OUT had been selected for the 2010 Tayshas High School Reading List for Texas students. I'm always pleased to have a book chosen for one of the Texas lists and am particularly pleased to have BOX OUT on the Tayshas list.
Today in the mail I received five letters from students at a charter school in Philadelphia who read Crackback and wanted to tell me what they thought, ask some questions, and offer suggestions for future books. The personalities of these students shine through in their letters.
And yesterday I received word that a picture book manuscript of mine has been acquired. This is a story I became interested in when my daughter started college in Massachusetts and I visited a nearby site of historical importance. That my daughter is long graduated and now married is beside the point. I'm thrilled to have a new picture book in the works. Each day we go to work without knowing where the stories or pictures will take us, and so often we receive unexpected gifts. Thank you.
- Creative minds.
- Past and current authors who have set and raised the standards.
- Editors and publishers who keep acquiring new books in an uncertain economy.
- The inventor of the bookcase.
- Independent bookstores whose inventories are not dictated by a central office.
- Librarians who help to spread the love of the written word.
- Teachers who instill the skill and love of reading in their students.
- Story characters who make good friends you can count on.
- My fellow spuds who come together from our far-flung homes to share thoughts on books and the writing process.
- My five grandchildren who love books.
But at the moment I am especially thankful for the work I get to do with elementary school children. I just finished a week of working with seven classes of fourth graders as a visiting author. I guided the students through the stages of creating a book, from writing a first draft to making revisions to drawing illustrations. I shared with them both past and current writing projects of mine. We talked about the joys, and frustrations, of writing.
Being able to visit each classroom multiple times allowed the students and me to make a strong connection. By the end of the week they were showing me books they had created at home and giving me illustrations they had sketched in their free time. What a delight it was for me to walk into a classroom and have the students cheer, or to receive a thank you letter saying "I never realized how much I liked writing until you came to our class."
As schools continue to tighten their financial belts even more and money for outside speakers becomes harder to find, I am thankful that I am still asked into the classroom. These experiences are rewarding to me on many levels, and for that I am extremely grateful.
As a freelancer, I struggle to contribute half to our financial mix. The last two years have been particularly tough ones in the publishing industry. Still, there was an “up” side to the economic downturn. With fewer assignments I had more time to develop personal projects. For years I claimed to be too busy to nurture my own ideas. This fall marked the realization of a lifelong dream with my debut as an author in The East-West House: Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan. It’s been two years since I had a book out, so my greatest hope was that this new one would put me back in circulation, give me the chance to keep going. Right away an editor I adore offered me an illustration contract. Two other personal author/illustrator projects may be close to acquisition! I have a comfortable amount of design and art direction work to hold me steady. Generally I have established a better balance in my work life between assignments and ideas I want to develop. I am grateful.
We lived in New York for 18 years. I am often nostalgic for that time. I miss the sense of community I had there, miss feeling part of the publishing world. But looking backward, just like looking forward keeps me from recognizing what is in front of me now. If I examine this moment I am reminded that I know many local colleagues in children’s books and have begun some rich friendships. I rely on these peers to help me critique my work and for an exchange of ideas. Our group blog has shown me that I can experience community independent of location—we do mash, don’t we spuds? I am grateful.
As Thanksgiving nears, it's time for the Potatoes to take stock of all the writing things we are thankful for. My list is long.
1. I'm thankful that, once again, I did not quit writing, although I threaten to every year...
2. I'm thankful for my agent, my editor and their role in my latest book deal with Feiwel and Friends that will keep me writing and see my novel The Raft make it to book shelves. ( And I will be thankful at this time, next year, when that book is done and I'm hard at work on the second book of the contract. Um, so I guess I will also be thankful when I figure out what that book will be.)
3. I'm thankful that my second novel is finished, almost ready to be released. The Gardener is out in galley form after a long journey. ( And I must thank fellow potato Mark, who gave me valuable feedback on an early draft.)
4. To show my thanks, I'm holding a giveaway of a shiny new ARC of The Gardener over on my personal blog http://latteya.livejournal.com/ The release date isn't until June, 2010, so you can be among the first to read it. Go, visit, win!
5. And finally, I'm thankful for my fellow Potatoes and the wisdom they impart in every post. I constantly learn from them, it has been so fun to learn more about each individual and celebrate their various successes, and I'm just thankful we have this forum to share our writing journeys.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
After finding their secret, and writing it down, they fold up the secret, and I pick them up in a big pottery bowl. After a bit of a display of tossing and mixing the secrets, I walk around the room and let each participant choose a secret (it cannot be their own). Then, the writers are asked to tell the story of the secret they have chosen.
It is a effective jumpstart into a story because it begins with a secret, and a secret many times implies shame which carries enormous emotion and tension. After writing their secret's story, the participants read and share what they have written. Many times in this process, the secret owner is greatly moved, and drawn in compassion toward the writer who adopted their secret; other times the stories elicit belly laughs from all involved.
I've used this with professional writers, writers-in-process (I hope we all are.), college students, high school students, and middle grade students. Most recently, I incorporated the exercise into a narrative therapy "Word" group at the Covenant House, a homeless shelter for young adults.
Reading the other posts on this topic has truly been an inspiration. Regretfully, I have little to add on the topic of “favorite writing exercises” – to the point that I am a day late in submitting my post! I took a few creative writing classes in college (over 20 years ago) and have participated in numerous writing conferences, especially the last few years. Rather than utilize any specific exercises to work on my craft or “jumpstart” my creative juices, however, I have relied on a few fundamental mantras gleaned over the course of my life, as follows:
READ: You always hear successful writers (not to mention editors and agents) tout the importance of reading, and, perhaps even more importantly, learning from what you read. This includes not only favorite/classic/successful fiction but books on writing craft as well. Some of the most helpful titles, for me, from the latter group include Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen and The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb. Also, I find inspiration in reading books about other books, such as Masterplots II, Juvenile and Young Adult Literature Series, a seven-volume series that covers “form and content,” “analysis,” and “critical context” for hundreds of titles; these entries help me study the nuts and bolts of successful fiction like no other resource (kind of like condensed Cliffnotes for children’s literature). In bygone years I would have spent hours at my local library reading Masterplots, but with the advent of the Internet I was able to purchase the entire set (which retails for literally hundreds of dollars) for $5!! It remains my personal favorite resource for inspiration and learning my craft.
WRITE: This one is rather self-evident if your goal is to be a writer. Still, finding time to write amidst life’s many requirements can be a challenge, as can sticking with a project on the not-so-good writing days. Rather than set a word or page-count goal each day, I just make sure I cloister inside my writing shack and “give it a go” every single day I am at home, for at least 3-4 hours.
BELONG TO A CRITIQUE GROUP: It took awhile, but after a few false starts, I have hooked up with two critique groups that provide me with valuable feedback and needed camaraderie. The groups have a mix of published and not-yet-published writers, as well as diverse personalities, that never fail to inspire me and definitely have improved my stories.
Read, write, critique and be critiqued – these are the primary tools I use in my own personal quest to work on my craft and improve my stories. Not the most groundbreaking strategies, I know, but tried-and-true nonetheless. Which isn't to say I won't try a few of the exercises generously shared by others on this blog -- in fact, I already have! I'm always open to new ideas and strategies, and when it all finally pays off with an acceptance letter, I’ll let you know!!
The topic of “writing exercises” was my idea for this round of blog posts, but now that it’s my turn, I’m having trouble narrowing down my choices of favorite exercises. When I began teaching my Misty Hill Lodge Writing Workshops four years ago, I discovered Pat Schneider’s book, WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS. What a treasure trove of ideas that book has become for me! I have countless pages highlighted and marked with colored paper clips.
Just last week I used one of her exercises when teaching a writing workshop at Clear View Academy in Cleveland, NC. I asked the students to write a 5-minute autobiography and to slip in one lie (or piece of fiction). It was a great way to get to know each other, and we had fun picking out the lies. I participated, too, and included these tidbits about my life:
1. My great uncle was Ernest Hemingway, and I remember sitting on his lap while he read to me.
2. When I was twelve, I swam with flipper in the Florida Keys.
3. I’ve done many things as an adult, including teaching school, owning and operating a frozen yogurt shop, and writing three books.
Which do you think was the lie? Believe it or not, none of the students even knew who Ernest Hemingway was, so did not guess correctly. But I found that they were very subtle about slipping in their own lies, making it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.
My middle grade novel ROAD TO TATER HILL began as an exercise to write about an event in my childhood that evoked strong emotion. I had no intention of turning that exercise into a fictional novel, but once I got to the core of those buried emotions, I could not stop writing. I did, of course, fictionalize much of it in order to make it a better story that people might want to read. I am pleased that I managed to blur those lines between fact and fiction well enough that my readers often ask me which characters are real and which are fiction.
In the writing of the book, I used two other exercises when I was stuck with where to go next. One was writing in response to music (a CD called “And The Band Played On: Music Played on the Titanic”), which turned into one of my favorite chapters in the book—Annie waltzing with Grandpa. The other exercise was putting two characters (my main character, Annie, and her best friend, Bobby) into a room together just to see what they would say the first time they meet again after an argument. The room was a barn, stacked with bales of fresh cut hay. I won’t tell you what happened, since I want you to read the book, but I will say the scene ended up as another chapter in ROAD TO TATER HILL.
So, don’t discount those writing exercises that teachers use to “jumpstart” their students’ creative juices or that you may use to get yourself through a case of writer’s block. Some of them may end up as published books!
That's one reason I was drawn to Steve Moss' book THE WORLD'S SHORTEST STORIES. It's filled with winners from his Fifty-Five Fiction contest, which asked entrants to write an entire story in fifty-five words or less. Who knew such funny, touching, frightening, and surprising tales could be told in such few words!
Several years ago I was giving a workshop to middle school students titled "Becoming a Better Writer Through Contests." As part of the workshop I conducted my own Fifty-Five Fiction contest. The kids didn't have much time to write, perhaps fifteen minutes, but they created some wonderful stories. I gave modest prizes to the top winners, but even better was when the three winners had their stories published in an English textbook and received their own publishing contracts!
Below is one of the winners, written by a girl when she was a student at St. Anthony Middle School:
by Nellene Benhardus
Brushing back my golden hair, I approach the beach. I notice eyes staring as I stride across the sand. Laying my towel out, I sit, absorbing the sun.
I step out of the dressing room and show Mom the suit I've selected.
She sighs. "Man, you're slow!"
Nellene's story still makes me smile. In less than fifty-five words she's painted two distinct characters and given us a glimpse of how they relate to each other.
As I told my students, entering contests with specific word limits forces you to think carefully about each word you choose. All the jingle contests I've entered over the years have proven valuable training ground for writing picture books where there's no room for superfluous language. If you're up for a challenge, give yourself fifteen minutes and see if you can write your own fifty-five word story. If nothing else, it will make you appreciate not having a word limit the next time you sit down to write!
Seed of the stone
At the tiptop of our hill I planted corn. Stairs, built from railroad ties Daddy hauled in the Studebaker, zigzagged to an area he leveled mid-way up the slope. Flanking the stairs and bordering our half-acre were stonewalls he pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. No two stones were alike, and every last one of them came from the old quarry in Rockport on our weekly trips to Grammy’s. Tailgate down, Daddy would lift and bend, lift and bend, unloading his boyhood home to ours.
Up we went with a trowel, seeds, and a watering can. Hen-and-chicks peeked out between rocks on either side of the steps. The flowers, shrubs and trees Daddy planted were on the lower half of the hill. Everything above the flat grassy area was wild. There were no more stairs to make the climbing easy, so by the time we reached my spot we were out of breath.
From this height we could see every yard along Russell Street. The school bus driver said ours was his favorite. Across the street, to our left and right were woods. Behind us was bulldozed land, still undeveloped.
I chipped away at the dry earth making a small hole. My seeds were bright and hopeful against the dull brown dirt. I placed them carefully, covered them over and patted them. All tucked in! After watering we headed back down the hill. All summer long we repeated this climb. We must have forgotten a few times because the corn didn’t grow nearly as high as stalks by the roadside stands.
August was a good month to pick corn. That was when we made our harvest trip. A lone short stalk grew with one little ear. Silky threads hung like hair. Eagerly I peeled back the ribbed green husks. The corn was not like any I’d seen. No tidy rows of uniform kernels. Zigzagged and irregular, mine was a golden stonewall.
I am late with this blog because I let myself be bullied by fear. It sneaks up on me, and punches me in the belly. I catch my breath, and in the absolute frustration of not knowing, I take my hardest step: putting my work out there, taking the jabs of rejection consistently, and bouncing back to receive another hit.
Sometimes I think I must be good company for fear. Fear can find a willing ally in me, one that only too easily admits the lack in my work, the lack of timing, the lack of talent, the lack of marketing skills. I think of all these things. Fear has given me a black eye and I am just about tired of being bullied.
It is about time.
I find myself being aware of these fears and going ahead and doing the work. The moving forward isn't an absence of the fear so much as an acknowledgment of the fear and a decision to just do it. I've heard writers of over one hundred books describe the fear that they won't have anything to say or the work won't be any good so I don't expect the fear to disappear.
As others have said, the fear of a story not being good enough provides a motivation to make it better, and each piece can continue to be improved over and over. At some point, we let it go and when it becomes a book, we live with it in that form even though we know it could be better.
So over and over, I greet the fear, sit down and go to work.
Several years ago, I attended a lecture given by Janet Stevens at the Kerlan Collection, an incredible collection of children's book manuscripts and illustrations at the University of Minnesota. http://special.lib.umn.edu/clrc/. Her first slide was a photo of the book: Art and Fear, Observation on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles & Ted Orland. Her talk revealed her own personal fears and dreams of making "real" art, beyond the picture book. She showed courage in revealing her vulnerability and ended up touching everyone in the room in some way that was very moving. Personally, I disagreed with her about the idea of making "real" art outside of picture books, since I consider what I do as an illustrator of picture books as extremely real, but that is another topic.
Beyond the fear of not producing more work or not even making the time to write, my greatest fear in the writing process is not being able to come up with a plot. I have no shortage of characters and settings and rough ideas, but can I incorporate them into a believable story with a beginning, middle, climax, and resolution? Can I pull it all together?
Once I've worked through that process successfully enough to please myself and an editor, I must face the fear of releasing my work to the world. I venture to say that the majority of serious writers are introverts because writing is such a private and lonely process. The thought of sudden exposure can be exhilarating and paralyzing at the same time--especially in this age of the internet. Even though I tell my students time and again that they can never please everyone and they must focus on pleasing themselves and their particular audience, I still wear my own heart on my sleeve. It's a scary process--putting your heart and soul out for the general public to read and comment upon.
Like Christy, I am afraid of not writing. I look at the great accomplishments of my author friends and I fear that I am letting time slip past me without being productive myself. My passion is creating children's books; why do I then struggle so when I sit down to write? How come I haven't accomplished as much as other people I know? Why aren't I using my time better?
And like Stephanie, I'm afraid that when I do write, I won't be able to write anything good. I've been fortunate enough to have a couple of successful books, but maybe I've run out of clever ideas. My mind doesn't feel as nimble as it once was. Whenever words don't come easily, I immediately fear that I'm in the early stages of Alzheimer's, the disease that overtook my father. Maybe I've lost the ability to write at all.
How sad and ironic that the fears themselves are often what stop me. Roosevelt made a pretty good point when he said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
I want it all. I am eagerness personified. Overly responsive. My eyes are bigger than my stomach. My hands are in too many pots. Overextended. My biggest fear about writing, is NOT writing. Ideas I have in abundance. Time to develop the ideas is lacking because I am scrambling to fulfill all my commitments. I alone can control this, but I will always give you lists of excuses why I must do everything I do—everything that prevents me from doing this important thing I WANT to do—write.
Okay, I’m going to practice saying the word that causes me fear, “No, no, NO!”
Then comes the biggest fear is: Is this any good? There is never an easy answer there, or any way to know that until I've sent it to a reader or my editor. Scary.
Once that fear has been dealt with, and we've determined that yes, this story is pretty good, the next fear is Will the review be any good? Waiting to see the first reviews is so stressful, because they can determine so much, like will libraries buy the book, etc. ( Although, I must say, I don't base either my movie-going or book-reading on reviews I see. If I want to see a movie or read a book, I'll do it.) And then, when the book is out, is reviewed well, gets some cool honors and makes a couple nifty lists, another fear creeps into my world.
Will I ever sell another book? This one has been going on for a while with me. It has been a couple years since I got my two book deal for The Compound and the second book of the deal The Gardener is out in ARCs now, so essentially it's done. I was soooooooo relieved to have that fear abated this week when my editor at Feiwel and Friends acquired my next novel The Raft in a two book deal.
Which means it is about time to look at that blank computer screen and start the fear cycle all over again...........
This is the room in which I work and this is the maple tree I look out on.
October glows gold here even when it snows, of which we've had four so far.
I also sometimes rent a studio downtown at the Loft Literary Center, particularly when I'm working on a first draft.
I feel fortunate to do the hard work I love in this place.
I built my writing shack in the woods on our property, within sight of our house but a world away in terms of privacy since the standing rule around these parts is: “Don’t bug Daddy when he’s in the shack!” In this “world within the world,” I escape the demands and routines of my life and just focus on writing, or stare out the window and watch the weather, awaiting inspiration . . .
What a joy to see what my fellow potatoes' work spaces look like. I no longer feel guilty for all the inspirations/distractions that surround my writing area, which is in an extra bedroom of our house. It is also where the cats sleep, thus I sometimes find my stories chewed apart in the morning. They are my fiercest critics!!
I did neaten it up a bit for the photo. Usually I have piles of paper surrounding the computer, which means that I'm being productive. It is actually way too clean for my taste right now.
Favorite stories sit on the bookshelves, as well as family photos, a ceramic dragon who protects my work (obviously not from wild cats), and my own books sit up there as well reminding me that I have had some success in the past and hopefully will have some success in the future. Below the bookshelves are a poster from Pike's Place in Seattle, a framed newspaper article about my six year old neighbor, who stars in my latest book, and a photo of my son's graduation from college. Every once in awhile I take everything off the wall and shelves and keep the space sparse and open, then I have the joy of filling it up again.
So I guess I better get busy creating a new mess. Happy writing!
However, when I need to free myself of technology and resort to a simple pencil and pad of paper, I climb to the top of my rocks and settle on this bench.
This is one side of my office. The whole basement is really mine, because my husband has decided to work upstairs. I have two big desks and many more books, most signed by their authors. I read and reread these books, study them, and teach writing with them. They are my treasure.
It may be cluttered, but this is where I work.
My studio is a compact 6 x 9 feet, but it is a great improvement from working at my kitchen table, which I had to do in my previous apartment. The walls are covered with a wide variety of "stuff": postcards from places I've traveled, group photos of the campers at the writing camp where I teach, a signed book jacket from fellow Potato Lauren Stringer, my list of lifetime goals, a candy bar wrapper from Alaska. Plenty of things to inspire - or distract - me, depending on the day.
Unlike Christy, I don't have a view of orange and grapefruit trees out my window. Directly out my window is my neighbor's apple tree, covered with snow. The photo was taken on Monday.
I write many, many drafts longhand before I transfer them to my computer (you can see piles of drafts on the chair and below the window) which I keep in my bedroom.
This has been rather nice, inviting people to my studio via the Internet; I didn't have to vacuum or dust! You are welcome to stop by any time!
By contrast my California studio is situated at the end of the house, and I can close the door. Look what a mess I’m making! I decided to swallow my pride and give it to you straight. I’m in the midst of preparing for my launch party this weekend. I have bags of Japanese rice crackers, candies, sake bottles, and even disposable sake cups in the middle of my floor. My desk and drawing table are strewn with components of promotional keepsake packages I will assemble and then give out at my event. The tide is in; the waves are swelling and stormy! Outside it is dark and pouring rain. Usually I look out to sunshine, an orange and a grapefruit tree, and the occasional humming bird. Next week is clean up time. The tide will pull out again.
Watch me at work in my video trailer for my new book:
The Tower View estate in Red Wing has been a familiar Minnesota landmark for almost a century. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Tower View, along with 330 acres of farm and forest land, comprises a legacy to the region from Dr. and Mrs. Alexander P. Anderson and their heirs. Dr. Anderson gained worldwide renown for developing the American breakfast cereals known as “Quaker Puffed Wheat” and “Quaker Puffed Rice.”
Since 1995, Tower View has been the home of the Anderson Center, the largest residential arts facility in the Upper Midwest. Along with its unique residency program, the Center hosts a variety of artistic, educational, and cultural activities throughout the year, including art celebrations, exhibitions, book fairs, performances, and other community-related events. The Center provides year-round studio space to more than a dozen working artists, including sculptors, glassblowers, painters, potters, poets, and print makers. It is also the home of several organizations whose related missions add to the synergy among disciplines—Red Wing Environmental Learning Center, Tower View Alternative High School, Red Dragonfly Press, among others. Add to this, southeastern Minnesota’s largest sculpture garden and a permanent art collection that is considered one of the finest in rural Minnesota, and the result is a vibrant and dynamic place dedicated to the arts.
Would you describe the Residency Program?
Each year, from May through October, the Center makes available private time and space to some 45 artists, writers, and scholars from the United States and abroad. Residencies, which include meals and lodging at the Center, are for two weeks to one month, during which time resident-fellows are expected to work on a clearly defined project and to make a substantive contribution to the community in the form of a talk, class, or performance of their work.
Since the Center opened, over 500 artists, writers, and scholars from more than 40 states and 26 foreign countries have come to stay at the Center. The Center also engages in artist exchange programs with artist communities in Europe and China and has scholarship programs with the University of Notre Dame, Pacific Lutheran University, and the University of Minnesota.
What is the application process like?
The application process is quite simple, with each applicant asked to fill out a brief application form and to provide a resume, work plan, and samples of work. The application deadline for May, June, and July is February 1; the deadline for August, September, and October is March 1.
Do you have some numbers for the Center’s annual Celebration of Minnesota Children’s Authors and Illustrators?
This wonderful event is hosted by the Anderson Center, Red Wing Public Library, and the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul. Since it began in 1999, the celebration has attracted more than 13,000 people from the five-state area, with over 130 of Minnesota’s finest children’s writers and illustrators having participated. It has always been one of my favorite Anderson Center events, and I look forward to it every year.
Do you have a website?
Yes, it’s www.andersoncenter.org. Or, call: 651-388-2009.
Why the alias, 'Professor Watermelon'?
When I decided that I wanted to teach creative writing to children, I wondered how I could inspire them best. I figured that becoming a character would certainly be the best place to start. After all, one of the major components of creative writing is creating memorable characters. My students see my example from the beginning and are inspired to create their own characters from day one.
What classes do you offer to children?
What is your favorite part of working with kids on their writing?
Can you tell us a bit about the 'I Chronicles'?
How can kids get their stories published in The Watermelon Press?
Your website says you offer students 'melon money.' What the heck is that?
1. Mona, I know you and your husband used to own a bookstore in Texas. Can you tell us your pathway to your current position at McDaniel College?
I earned my Ph.D. while I was a school librarian, but liked my job so much, I stayed for a long time. After I had learned as much as I could, I saw an advertisement that McDaniel College (formerly Western Maryland College) was looking for a Coordinator of the Graduate School Library Media Program, so I applied and got the job. Maryland was an adventure for us, and it turned out great.
2. School librarians are now called Media Specialists. How have their positions and duties changed over the years?
Not all states use the term media specialists. In Texas and Pennsylvania, for example, they are school librarians. Another term that is now being used is teacher librarian. That is probably my favorite term. Nowadays, school librarians should be among the best teachers in the building. They need to teach the teachers and all the children. They are in charge of reading guidance and promoting reading for pleasure. They show everyone the latest in technology and how to use it intellectually and creatively. They help students with the learning process--how best to learn.
3. Hundreds of new children's books are published every year. When teaching children's literature, do you concentrate on classics and award-winning books, or do you try to include some recent releases, as well?
In my children's literature class, we don't really read the classics. We read books that appear on ALA book lists, including the Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpre, and the Notable Books lists. We read current titles that appear on the Maryland and Pennsylvania State Reading Awards lists. We read books--fiction and nonfiction--that are likely to be found on library shelves. We read books by some of my favorite authors.
4. What is the best way for new authors to get their books into the hands of school media specialists and students?
The best way is for that book to receive multiple positive reviews in professional selection sources.
5. How are books chosen for awards and state recommended reading lists, and must these recommendations be made during the year the book is released?
Each award has its own criteria. For state lists, books are typically chosen by a committee of librarians (or in some states by reading teachers). Some states will consider a book that has been published within a three year period; other states will only consider that year of publication.
Thank you, Mona, for your insight into the field of School Library Media Specialists! In addition to her position at McDaniel College, Mona is the author of thirteen books, two of those for school librarians. For children, ranging in age from 4 to 14, she has written biographies, science, history, and fiction. Owney, The Mail-Pouch Pooch, edited by Frances Foster of Farrar, Straus & Giroux is her latest. It's a true story about a mutt that rode the mail trains and became one of the most famous dogs in the world. If wishes come true, Mona wishes "the book stays in print for a long time and is read and loved by children all over the world." You can read more about Ramona (Mona) Kerby at http://www.monakerby.com.