Interview with Michael Bourret, agent

Michael Bourret is an agent with Dystel and Goderich, and recently opened their brand-new West Coast office. I’ve heard Michael speak at a few of the national SCBWI conferences, and it’s always a pleasure. Don’t miss him at the SCBWI Western Washington conference this weekend!

L: Welcome, Michael! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions for me! Your various bios and market listings say you accept all kinds of nonfiction, and I know you represent adult nonfiction, but I don’t see any nonfiction for kids among your titles. Why is that? Please give us some insight on the juvenile nonfiction market from an agent’s perspective.
M: Thanks for having me, Laurie! And I’m excited that you’re asking about juvenile nonfiction, and I’ll be really honest: I don’t know much about it. It isn’t a category that I’ve pursued, aside from the amazing picture books of Anne Rockwell’s. I think that juvenile nonfiction has mostly been left to the academic publishers, in part because it isn’t as glamorous as novels. But that may well be changing, as is the very definition of category. I’m seeing a lot more innovation and a new approach, including more memoir and other narrative nonfiction.
L: Several children’s nonfiction titles received quite a lot of attention this year, especially Phillip Hoose’s CLAUDETTE COLVIN and Deborah Heiligman’s CHARLES AND EMMA. Do you think this will have any effect on the market?
M: Any commercial success will have an effect on the market, and the critical and commercial response to both of these books certainly got my attention. I’m not sure we’ll see a flood of nonfiction, but I do think we’ll see some smart books coming from major publishers better known for their fiction.
L: You don’t represent picture books, either—is that a personal preference, a matter of industry knowledge and expertise, or a purely financial decision  (or one of the other reasons fellow agent Michael Stearns blogged about here)?
M: I do represent some picture books, actually, but it’s not an area in which I’m looking to grown. The market is difficult, especially for writers, and since they’re the ones I represent, it just doesn’t make sense for me to continue looking for new clients.
L: Is there anything you wish would show up your query pile that just hasn’t been there (be careful what you wish for!)?
M: As I said in another interview recently, with how many queries I get, it’s hard to say that there’s anything I haven’t seen! I’d rather not see books that chase trends, but that said, I love to see how people can approach well-worn ideas in a new way. I recently signed up a novel based on a Poe story that I’m very excited about, and I’d love to see more dark, psychological thrillers. Something that makes my skin crawl would be great!
L: Tell us about your agenting style: Are you very editorial? Phone or email? Hands-on throughout the whole process or mitts off until the final product?
M: All agents have to be editorial, but I’m not someone who’s going to line edit a manuscript. It’s just not where my skills lie. I do love to develop ideas with authors—helping them to turn a vague notion into something that supports a book-length narrative. I’m more of a phone than email person, but I spend much more time on email! I wish people utilized the phone more; a conversation has a certain give-and-take that can help get to the point more quickly. I’m pretty hands on, and as I say to new clients, I like to know everything. That way I can anticipate and preempt issues they may not even see arising.
L: What aspects do you like most about being an agent? Least? Pet peeves (please don’t say blog interviews, please don’t say blog interviews…)?
M: I like that every day is different. I like pitching to editors, I like discussing ideas with clients, I love finding new voices. I love building relationships and matching authors and editors. I like discussing big-picture ideas with my colleagues, both in-house at DGLM and with the publishing world at large on Twitter and through our blog. It’s hard to say that I don’t like a part of my job, but I don’t like how long things take. I’m really impatient. I don’t have any major publishing pet peeves, but I do wish we could all be more kind and respectful. It’s a challenging business, and emotions run high, but we need to remember that we’re all in it together.
L: Besides the manuscript itself, what other factors do you consider when deciding whether or not to offer representation (platform, online presence, productivity, specialization, recommendations, affiliations, etc.)?
M: The manuscript is what matters. If that doesn’t knock my socks off, nothing else matters. In a query, however, mentioning a large platform, and award win, or even membership in reputable organizations like SCBWI will make me pay more attention. But then it comes back to the manuscript again. It’s got to be great.
L: Besides carefully reading market guides, surfing the web and sending targeted queries, what can we authors do to ensure a good fit, both when submitting and when considering an offer of representation?
M: If you’re doing your homework and research in advance, the only other thing you need to do is interview the agent. It’s important for both writer and agent to chat and make sure that they get along and can have a conversation. If you’re afraid of your agent, the relationship isn’t going to work. If you don’t feel like your agent is enthusiastic about your submission, the relationship won’t work. I tell people all the time that they should wait for a good match and not just take the first offer. It’s hard to do, I know, but I think the advice is sound.
L: I think authors put so much time and effort into finding an agent, that then interviewing an interested agent feels a bit intimidating. What kinds of questions do you think authors should ask to determine if an agent will be a good match?
M: Authors should ask agents about the editorial vision for the book, how they work day-to-day and how the submission will work, how often they can expect to be in touch, and then they should discuss the future—what do both the author and agent see for the author’s career down the line? It’s important that you’re on the same page as your agent about these things.
L: Do you have any upcoming client titles you’d like to highlight for us?

The past couple of months have seen the exciting releases of Eleventh Grade Burns by Heather Brewer and Gone by Lisa McMann, the release of which got both series onto the New York Times list. The coming months will see the release of Restoring Harmony by Joëlle Anthony and Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai, two debuts that I’m really proud of. In addition, the fantastic Suzanne Selfors’s fifth book Smells Like Dog is also out shortly, along with Dale Basye’s third book in the twisted “Heck” series, Blimpo. And that’s just through May!

L: Is there anything else you wished that I had asked, but didn’t? Feel free to write your own question here. =)
M: This has been a terrific and thorough interview. I’ve got nothing to add, but thanks so much for thinking of me!
L: Thank YOU, Michael! I really appreciate the time and thought you put into this, and we’re looking forward to hearing more at the conference this weekend.

Ah, sweet rejection

My goal for this year is to receive as many as rejections as possible. I can be a little—okay, a lot—perfectionistic about where and when I send out submissions, so the intention of this goal was to push me to accomplish the part of publishing that I can control, submitting, and let go of the part I can’t control, selling. Unfortunately, this hasn’t worked out so well, as it seems most places either aren’t even reading the work or are only replying if interested, and are thus denying me of the small satisfaction of the rejection letter as proof I did SOMETHING. So, I think I will have to revise my goal and tweak my process so that I can celebrate, and tangibly see, every submission, whether I receive an answer or not. How do you do that without wasting paper? I’d love to hear your ideas!
There’s some good news, though (well, kinda)! Yesterday I received a rejection letter for a very beginning-level easy reader I’d sent to Scholastic’s Cartwheel imprint. I suspected it was probably not perfectly right for them, but I love them so much I just had to try (fighting that perfection thing again). Well, it was a rejection, but it was personalized, friendly, and discussed my particular manuscript and why they decided to pass. In fact, I have to agree with their assessment, although I still believe there’s a place for this manuscript with a different list. So, yes, it’s a little disappointing, but I’ll still send out a big virtual thank you to Scholastic/Cartwheel. I finally have something for the rejection file, and can at least revel in the success of failing!

‘Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.’ —Winston Churchill

Interview with Sara Crowe, agent

Sara is an agent with Harvey Klinger, Inc. in New York City. I was lucky enough to be able to hang out with Sara last January prior to the 11th Annual SCBWI International Winter Conference. Yes, she is every bit as cute and friendly as she appears in the photo below, so if you’re going to attend our conference this April, be sure to tell her hello!


L: Welcome, Sara! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions for me! Let’s jump right in at the top of my list… with a rather tricky one. Your various bios and listings say you accept nonfiction, but I don’t see any nonfiction for kids among your titles. Am I missing it? If not, what do you suppose are the reasons? Do you just not get many nonfiction submissions, are they harder to sell, is it just harder to find one that grabs you personally, or some combination of those? Give us some insight on the juvenile nonfiction market from an agent’s perspective.

S: Hi Laurie! Thanks for having me! What my website says about what I represent is this: I am an agent with Harvey Klinger, Inc., a full service boutique literary agency in New York where I represent both adult and children’s titles. On the adult side, I represent commercial and literary fiction and a range of nonfiction. On the children’s side, my list includes YA and middle grade fiction, as well as picture books.
S: So, I am upfront about my lack of nonfiction on the children’s side. However, I am very open to queries for children’s nonfiction, and do hope to find more. Many of my favorite books as a child were nonfiction, and it is something I remain interested in reading. My client Erin Vincent‘s debut YA, GRIEF GIRL (Delacorte, 2007) is a memoir, and I would love to see more YA memoir. I am also working on two nonfiction projects at the moment—one picture book and one biography for children.
S: I do represent a lot more fiction, though, so when it comes down to it, I am not as familiar with the juvenile nonfiction market, and the chances are slimmer that I will be the right fit for a nonfiction book. If it does grab me personally, and if I can come up with a great list of editors to send it to and am 100% sure there is a market for it, I will take it on!

 

L: Okay, that was sort of a doozy—thanks for playing along and giving such a candid answer! Unfortunately, this one is probably even worse. I see you’re not taking picture book submissions at this time, which seems to be a trend among agents. Can you tell us why? What do you think about the current state of the picture-book industry? What can picture-book authors do to help them break in?
S: I probably should take that off my site and the agency’s site. I get many picture book queries, whatever it says online, and they did not seem to slow at all when I posted that notice. (Incidentally, it says everywhere online that I do not like to receive snail mail queries, but those keep coming too, and I respond to them!)
S: I sold a debut picture book recently, by Matthea Harvey, to Schwartz & Wade, and one of my current picture books, on submission now, is nonfiction. I just took on a picture book from a query that really grabbed me. So like with nonfiction, I will take on the right picture book project for me—but I will take on much fewer picture books than novels, and so it’s less likely I will be the right fit.

 

L: Okay, you made that one seem easy, so this one should be a piece of cake… Tell us about your agenting style: Are you very editorial? Phone or email? Hands-on throughout the whole process or mitts off until the final product? It’s clear your clients LOVE you, so whatever it is, it’s working!
S: Thank you! I am an editorial agent and do think I am very hands-on. I edit everything I take on before it goes out to editors. If I see any sweeping changes that I think need to be made before submission, I talk to the writer about that when we discuss representation. And the editing does not stop with the first sale. I continue to edit my authors’ books, and to discuss their new book ideas with them. I usually read major revisions before we send to the editor, and I read and discuss synopses and partials, or sometimes just ideas, about what the author should do next. I am always on email, but sometimes a phone call is the best thing for the situation, and I am always happy to be on the phone.

 

L: What aspects do you like most about being an agent? Least? Pet peeves?
S: I truly feel lucky everyday to have a job that is never boring, always challenging, and that involves reading books that I love and talking them up to anyone who will listen. I love finding a new client, a new book to be excited about. Calling an author, especially a debut author, to tell them their book will be published never gets old. I love all of my agent roles: editing, matchmaking, making deals, negotiating contracts. Its the kind of job that doesn’t end at the end of a day or week, though, and agents are always working, even when they are trying to read for pleasure. It is a job without boundaries. That applies to everyone in publishing, I think, writers, too. I wish there were time to read when I am actually at work! Really, I just need there to be more time in a day.

 

L: Oh, I think we all could use some of that! Besides the manuscript itself, what other factors do you consider when deciding whether or not to offer representation (platform, online presence, productivity, specialization, recommendations, affiliations, etc.)?
S: Unless it is adult nonfiction, where platform truly matters, I am only looking at the book first—and if I love it and feel confident I can sell it, I am not concerned about a platform or an online presence. I think for the most part, those things can wait until after the sale of the book to the publisher. Once we have sold it, I do think all authors should get online. Of course a blurb or recommendation from a well known author is appealing, as it might make the book easier to sell, but its not necessary.

 

L: Besides carefully reading market guides, surfing the web and sending targeted queries, what can we authors do to ensure a good fit, both when submitting and when considering an offer of representation?
S: I think that what you want to find is an agent who is passionate about your book and your writing, who has knowledge of the marketplace, experience with your type of book and whose list is a place you think you belong and where you want to be. You can find much of this out with research, talking with his or her other clients, and by asking the right questions when you speak to the agent on the phone. As for queries, make them count! Spend the most time on your book description as its the most important thing. And do not make it all about the query—make sure the manuscript is in great shape before you start querying.

 

L: Do you have any clients or titles you’d like to highlight for us?
S: Two children’s books out in March: a middle grade and a YA. IT’S RAINING CUPCAKES (Aladdin), Lisa Schroeder‘s middle grade debut, is about Isabel, who dreams of seeing the world but she’s never left Oregon. When her best friend, Sophie, tells her of a baking contest whose winners travel to New York City, she eagerly enters despite concerns about her mother, who is opening a cupcake bakery. And SAVING MADDIE by Varian Johnson, just out with Delacorte, about Josh, a preacher’s son, whose best childhood friend, Maddie has come back home a new person—gorgeous and troubled and without her faith. Can you save someone who doesn’t want to be saved? And more importantly, how do you save someone without losing yourself?

 

S: In April, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER by Dan Wells is out with Tor Books. It is about a boy who is concerned he might be a serial killer, and so makes rules for himself to avoid becoming one — but then a real one comes into town and starts killing people, and he has to break some of his rules to find the killer. Its a definite crossover title–a horror novel with a lovable teen protagonist and a great YA voice, though will be published here as an adult book. Its already out in Germany where its a bestseller, and is also out in the UK– where it was published as YA. Kirkus just gave it a starred review and wrote: “(An) unabashedly gory gem…. Buy multiples where it won’t be banned.”

S: Finally, Holly Nicole Hoxter‘s YA debut, THE SNOWBALL EFFECT will be out from Harper in April! It’s about Lainey Pike, who is trying to make peace with her dead mother (not easy), take care of her five-year old brother who is now an orphan, and to learn to love with her estranged older sister who is now back in her life as her guardian until she turns 18.

 

L: Is there anything else you wished that I had asked, but didn’t?
S: I have too much reading to do to come up with another question—but I loved answering all of yours. Thanks so much, Laurie! I am really looking forward to the conference!
L: Thank YOU, Sara, for being so open, honest, and approachable! I’m looking forward to seeing you again in April and showing you around our neck of the woods.

Interview with Deborah Hopkinson

I became a fan of Deborah Hopkinson in 2007, when I started Anastasia Suen’s Easy Readers and Chapter Books course. For the first assignment, we had to read five chapter books then choose one to analyze. I chose PIONEER SUMMER because it was my favorite. Years later, when I became co-regional advisor for SCBWI Western Washington, I knew I had to bring Deborah up to talk to us. I’m thrilled that she’ll be coming to our conference this April, and that I’ll finally get to meet her in person! I’m going to try not to go all fan-girl on her, but you never know.
I thought I’d take this opportunity to ask her a few questions that have been on my mind and share them with you, so we can all get to know her a little better…



L: From other sources I found online, it sounds like you started writing for children when your own children were young, just like I did. Is that right? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Tell us how you got started.
D: I wanted to be a writer from the time I was in the fourth grade, but it wasn’t until my daughter, Rebekah, was born that I realized I wanted to write for children.  As a young mother with a full time job, picture books seemed short enough to be doable with my busy schedule. It took me about two years to sell my first magazine story, and another couple of years to sell my first picture book.


L: Whenever I’m not writing, I feel like I should be, but whenever I am writing, I feeling like I’m taking valuable time away from other things. What tricks have you learned for finding a balance between your own creative pursuits and the demands of keeping up with the industry, working full time, taking care of your home and family, etc.?
D: Well, I don’t listen to or worry about people who have firm guidelines about how one must write every day.  But I once read a great article where the author recommended two kinds of writing goals: output and process.  I use a combination of those strategies to balance my life.  Output goals might be expressed as: “I am going to submit a manuscript this month.”  And then you do whatever it takes to meet that deadline.  Process goals are: “I am going to write for three hours every weekend.”  It also just works to put your energies in the direction you want to go as much as you can.


L: Many of your books are historical and obviously heavily researched, yet they end up in the fiction section. How and when do you decide when to go straight nonfiction versus when to fictionalize?
D: Whether a book is historical fiction or nonfiction often is determined by how the story is progressing, I think.  Many times the demands of a dramatic arc make it a bit difficult to tell a compelling story for young readers in a nonfiction format.



L: What do you think about the current state of the picture book industry?
D: Well, I am not sure I know enough to be an expert on that!  I feel fortunate to still be able to occasionally sell picture books.  I also try to have some curriculum tie-in so that my books are appropriate to schools and libraries.



L: I noticed the warm dedication in STAGECOACH SAL to your amazing superagent, Steven Malk at Writers House (who was at our conference last year—thanks, Steven!). Tell us how you snagged him, and if you can, give us a peek inside your author-agent relationship!
D: I called Steven up some years ago at the recommendation of a fellow writer, and feel very fortunate to be able to work with him.  Steven is wonderful.  I have had many doors opened thanks to his hard work, and I also make an effort to work hard on my own to understand what my editors need and want.


L: My husband once asked me what I would consider success in this industry. I told him I will know I’ve made it when I receive one letter from one child saying that something I wrote made a positive difference in his or her life. (Of course, I’d love truckloads of letters like that, but if I can get at least one, I’ll die happy.) You’ve got a long and varied book list, with an impressive list of awards to go with it. So, how do you define success? Do you feel like you’ve achieved your dream? If not, what’s left on your to-do list?
D: Well, I try to be very grateful for the luck and success that I have had.  Right now I am vice president for Advancement at the Pacific Northwest College of Art.  I have seven people reporting to me, and it is certainly one of those “big jobs.”  I do feel fortunate to have had, in a way, two careers.  However, that doesn’t mean I still don’t dream of becoming a full time writer!  But with a kid in college and one in graduate school, that may not ever happen.


L: What tips would you like to share with aspiring children’s book writers, especially those of us writing nonfiction or fiction based on facts for grades preK-5?
D: Well, I think it is very important to understand as much as possible about how publishing works as early in one’s career as possible. Also it helps to understand the crucial role of teachers and librarians in children’s literature.  And I would give writers the same advice I give students during author visits: Read!


L: What’s coming up next for you?

My newest book is The Humblebee Hunter, illustrated by Jen Corace. It’s based on the family life of Charles Darwin and his children at Down House. It was recently reviewed in the New York Times, which was exciting.  My other forthcoming books include Annie and Helen, to be illustrated by Raul Colon, and A Boy Called Dickens, illustrated by John Hendrix, who also did the artwork for Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek.

L: Those sound wonderful! I can’t wait to see them. Thanks so much for chatting with me, Deborah. See you in April!

Congratulations Cybils 2009 winners!

A few special shout-outs for a few special Cybils 2009 winners:


Non-Fiction For Young Adults
The Frog Scientist
by Pamela S. Turner; illustrated by Andy Comins
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Nominated by: Laurie Thompson (YAY, that’s me!)
Again, what a field. Each of the books in this category blew me away. It’s thrilling to see these exciting topics being covered in depth in such interesting formats for upper middle grade and young adult readers. I was shopping a teen nonfiction book awhile back, and an agent told me, “Nobody buys teen nonfiction.” Look at this list (and any other awards list this year!), and it’s obvious that is so not true. I think each of these books will leave an important and lasting impression on their readers, but special congratulations to Pamela!


Picture Book (Non-Fiction)
The Day-Glo Brothers
by Chris Barton; illustrated by Tony Persiani
Charlesbridge
Nominated by: Cynthia Leitich Smith
As soon as I heard Chris was working on this, I figured it would be a slam dunk. What a great topic idea! Chris and Tony REALLY pulled it off, though. Chris’ insane research adds so much depth (reminding me to always do my homework, because you never know what you’ll find), and what kid (or adult) could resist Tony’s Day-Glo cartoon-style illustrations? (Not me!)


Fantasy & Science Fiction (Middle-Grade)
Dreamdark: Silksinger (Faeries of Dreamdark)
by Laini Taylor
Putnam Juvenile
Nominated by: Melissa
Wow, this was a tough category for me–so many great finalists! I know (and love) Joni, Laini, and Grace, so I was cheering for all three (if that’s possible). I bet it was even harder for the judges, though, don’t you think? It’s got to be a win for all just to be going up against the likes of Neil Gaiman, I guess. But, huge congratulations are due to the dear, sweet, ridiculously talented, and super hardworking Laini Taylor. Both Dreamdark books are true masterpieces.


Picture Book (Fiction)
All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon; illustrated by Marla Frazee
Beach Lane Books
Nominated by: Cynthia Leitich Smith
I LOVE this book, and I can’t decide which I love more, the words or the illustrations. This is a perfect example of a picture book, standing equally on both legs. It’s a beautiful message for today and always–sure to become a classic.


Middle Grade Fiction
Chains
by Laurie Halse Anderson
Simon & Schuster
Nominated by: melissa
This is historical fiction at its best, and a book that needed to be written. The only thing missing is book two. I can’t wait! Exellent choice, judges!


Easy Reader
Watch Me Throw the Ball! (An Elephant and Piggie Book)
by Mo Willems
Hyperion
Nominated by: Melissa
You just gotta love Elephant and Piggie. ‘Nuf said. Although I think THERE’S A BIRD ON YOUR HEAD will always be my favorite.

Sunday Scribblings #194: People Who Dared

The prompt over at Sunday Scribblings today is dare. My first instinct was to write a spontaneous short fiction vignette—that is what prompts are all about, right? But, while I consider writing fiction a useful practice to improve my skills as well as a rewarding creative endeavor in its own right, my real passion is nonfiction. So, today I’ll share the true stories oftwo people who dared.

First up: Florence Nightingale. We all know her as the “lady with the lamp,” the heroic nurse who tended British soldiers during the Crimean War. But her story is so much more interesting than that. Even as a child, she nursed her dolls, pets, and even the local poor. As a young woman from a wealthy family, she did not have to work. She was attractive, and had many marriage proposals, one from a man she truly loved. Yet she turned them all down to do the work she felt compelled to do. In Victorian England, nurses were considered to be among the lowest levels of society: ignorant, dirty, and often drunk. Florence dedicated her life to changing this perception, not only caring for her patients with tender dedication, but also by lobbying for and making system-wide improvements in hygiene, administration and record-keeping, statistical analysis, reporting, and hospital construction. She dared to defy the expectations of everyone around her, and initiated a new order in health care.

Second: Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah. He was born in 1977 in Ghana, West Africa, with only one leg. At the time, disability was considered to be a curse. His father left, and friends urged his mother to kill him. She did not, and instead raised him the same as able-bodied children, doing chores and going to school. As a young man, he was disturbed by how many disabled people were forced to beg to survive. He decided to show his country that people with disabilities could do useful things. In 2001, he dared to pedal a bicycle almost 400 miles across Ghana, with one leg. He drew the attention of the people, the media, and the government officials. In 2006, Ghana’s Parliament finally passed the Persons with Disability bill, which stated that people with physical disabilities are entitled to all of the same rights as the rest of the country’s citizens. “I want to spread a message to change perceptions,” he said, “and the only way to do that is to lead by example.”

These are two of the true stories that give me the courage I need to continue to dare to make my own mark on the world by writing about and sharing them with others. How about you—will you dare to make a difference in the world? Come on—I dare you!

Magical realism assignment: garden prompt

In the interests of pushing myself out of my comfort zone, I recently finished a class in magical realism. It was drastically different from anything I’ve done (or even read, really) before, and the results were, well, interesting. The final assignment was this: “For this assignment, take the notion of a garden (well tended or neglected, your choice) and play with its realities. Find the most mundane aspects of it and elevate them to magical heights. Take the miracle of a seed and turn it into something ordinary and bland. Juxtapose ideas to rebel against expectation. A garden, after all, is not what you see above the surface, but what builds it from beneath.” And here’s what I came up with:

Invasive Species

She doesn’t even know I’m here, in her beautiful garden. But I’ve been hiding in plain sight for years. At first, she could not have noticed, no matter how hard she tried, how carefully she tended her plants and flowers, turning the soil and pulling weeds. I once was but a seed, deep under the ground, waiting.

Finally, the time was right. I split my shell silently, sending my tendrils out into the garden, urging them to take root wherever they would. I knew she would not see me then, either. She loved her garden, but she cared for it sporadically at best. Once a year she would give it a good look, fixing the most obvious problems, and making a note to watch the rest. But the rest of the time, she took its bounty completely for granted, playing with her young daughter on the patio or rocking with her husband on the swing. By the time she noticed me, I was sure, it would be too late. The garden would be mine.

My tendrils continued to spread, silent thieves in the night. Some found fallow soil, withered, and died. But others took root in her fertile ground. I could feel them winding their way through the flowers, stealing their nourishment, choking them out. It fed me, and I grew.

Eventually, feeling among the flowers, she noticed me—a small lump that did not belong there, had not been there last time she looked. Had it? I could see the recognition on her face, the brief wave of panic. I was afraid too, it was too soon, too soon. My roots were not deep enough yet. They could still be pulled if one knew how.

Denial. Best friend to all that is evil. She had looked me in the eye, and decided to ignore what she knew to be true. “I am too young, too busy, to have to deal with this,” she told herself, and she pushed my existence to the back of her mind. She was not yet brave enough to face me.

“Grow, grow!” I urged the tendrils, just beginning to bloom into full-grown plants in their own right. “The garden is almost ours.”

Any idea what I’m talking about? Think it needs an ending, or is it better left right here?

Nonfiction Monday: Emotion and Passion in Writing Nonfiction for Kids (#nfforkids)

I loved this recent post by Cheryl Harness over at I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids). My favorite part comes right at the end:

As for me, here’s the “Boston Massacre,” March 5, 1770, in The Revolutionary John Adams: “Noisy men and boys were throwing snowballs and oyster shells at a British sentry …The scene exploded with more soldiers, an alarm bell, and a mob of men running from the town and the docks, shouting “Kill ’em! Knock ’em down!” Shots rang out in the frosty air and five Americans fell…” For me, a sense of what the moment was like is what I want and what young readers need in historical nonfiction. Story, snappy description, humanity, and immediacy: these are the sugar that help the medicine, i.e. the need-to-know facts, go down, With these things, You Are There.

What makes for extraordinary nonfiction is often the same as what makes for extraordinary fiction, and this sense of humanity and immediacy–the You Are There effect–is definitely a key ingredient. If the reader doesn’t FEEL what it was like to be there in the moment, they probably won’t really care about or remember the facts or the story, no matter how interesting they might be. I’m adding it to my revision checklist–thanks, Cheryl!
Ink1-copyAnother recent post that stuck with me is this one by Deborah Heiligman, again over at I.N.K. Deborah shares the story–both useful and touching–behind her first book, FROM CATERPILLAR TO BUTTERFLY. She also gives some good practical advice about how to increase sales by finding ways to tie your book into the curriculum.

I tell children in school visits that whenever they read a book they should know that the author was thinking of them when she wrote the book. I would like to tell teachers the same thing: we think of you, too.

What I really loved about this post, though, was that you can tell how passionate she is about writing nonfiction for kids. Not coincidentally, I’m sure, Deborah is a 2009 National Book Award Finalist with CHARLES AND EMMA: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith.Congratulations, Deborah!

Literature to Change the World

Many thanks to Mitali Perkins for her recent post entitled “How Kids Can Change the World.” It was a short post, but it touched many lives. Personally, I discovered a wonderful website about books for young readers (now defunct), read some powerful essays by Mitali and Hazel Rochman, and found a list of wonderful new books to read.

This Thursday, I was Mystery Reader in my daughter’s second-grade classroom. Thanks to Mitali’s essay, I read Amadi’s Snowman, Amelia’s Road, and Beatrice’s Goat to the class. The kids, from fairly homogenous, well-to-do backgrounds and used to complaining about homework, were spellbound. I think they definitely “got” it, and I believe they will be thinking about and affected by those stories for a long time.

I also recently read Eve Bunting’s Fly Away Home and Katie Smith Milway’s One Hen to my own children. My son, the sensitive one, thinks we should let people who don’t have homes live in airports (and really, why not?). My daughter, the entrepreneur, wants a hen (just one, Mom!) to keep in the backyard.

I love how literature can open our eyes and minds to worlds so very different from our own and spark ideas and dreams we never knew were there. What are your favorites?

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