Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Women of Wednesday--Let's Talk!

Andy has graciously allowed me to post during her week. I read a New York Times opinion piece that I must comment on. It's "The Boys Have Fallen Behind" by Nicholas D. Kristof. You really should read it before you continue with this post. So, click here and I'll wait.

Okay, you're back. So what did you think of this?
Some educators say that one remedy may be to encourage lowbrow, adventure or even gross-out books that disproportionately appeal to boys. (I confess that I was a huge fan of the Hardy Boys, and then used them to entice my own kids into becoming avid readers as well.)

Indeed, the more books make parents flinch, the more they seem to suck boys in. A Web site,, offers useful lists of books to coax boys into reading, and they are helpfully sorted into categories like "ghosts," "boxers, wrestlers, ultimate fighters," and "at least one explosion."
I'll tell you what it means to me--it means publishers who already give short shrift to girls' nonfiction interests, are going to be paying even less attention to their interests now that the boys have fallen behind.

I once proposed a book on hair--history, care, all aspects of it--and was told that there wasn't an audience for it--boys wouldn't read it. Have you seen many nonfiction series books on fashion for young girls? Have you seen any? Or series on dancing? How about fairies? It's so easy for people to dismiss this as stereotypical "dumb girl stuff," but guess what, girls like it. We dismiss "gross-out" books too, but we will rush to publish them to attract the boy reader. Is this fair? Am I wrong?

"Girls will read anything" we're told. So, we reward them by slapping them in the face? You're not a boy, so your interests don't count! Nearly every school/library publisher has series on topics that are primarily of interest to boys--vehicles, extreme anything, military. Not to pick on any one publisher, but just look at this page. Where's the corresponding page for girls?

I agree we should support reading amongst both girls and boys, but let's not benefit one half of our population at the expense of the other half. I'll just close with this from the last paragraph of "The Boys Have Fallen Behind" (emphasis mine):
At a time when men are still hugely overrepresented in Congress, on executive boards, and in the corridors of power, does it matter that boys are struggling in schools? Of course it does: our future depends on making the best use of human capital we can, whether it belongs to girls or boys. If that means nurturing boys with explosions, that’s a price worth paying.
And while we're busy nurturing the boys, the girls will be getting all they need to get them into Congress and the boardrooms? Highly unlikely--it's a man's world, afterall.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Putting the 4-Year Old In Your 4-Year Old

Muriel wrote a terrific post last Monday entitled Perception is Based on Experience. In order for your reader to connect with your words, you need to understand what your reader understands. In other words, you need to know where your reader falls on the developmental spectrum.

Who are you writing for? Preschoolers? School-agers? Tweens? Teens? Quite obviously, they are not the same beast. Do you know any actual children currently dwelling within the age range for which you're writing? Don't rely solely on your own memories of what you were like at 4 or 14-years old. I guarantee you're misremembering some things and not remembering most things about the age.

And don't rely on knowing only one or two children. You may know the exceptions to the developmental rules. I have a 4-year old in class this year who is a whiz at history. Keegan has meaningful knowledge of historical events way beyond his years. He's fascinated with World War II, and his current passion is the H.M.S. Hood. The other day, he organized two of his classmates to reenact the sinking of the Hood by the Bismark. He only wanted two people to play with him because only three men survived the sinking.

Am I going to write a book aimed at 4-year olds with a gifted 4-year old character who reenacts great battles of World War II? Nope. I'm pretty sure that Keegan is one of the few 4-year olds on the planet who could appreciate such a book. I know he's the only 4-year old I've had in 30 years of teaching who wanted me to find Johnny Horton on the internet so he could listen to him sing The Battle of New Orleans.

If Keegan was older, say 11 or 12, and I was writing a book for 11 or 12 year olds, I could certainly put him in that book as a gifted character. These older kids, even if they don't have firsthand knowledge of the sinking of the Hood, have been in life long enough to have gained enough understanding of the world that they could appreciate such a story. (Not that the 11-year old is playacting the sinking of the Hood, but that the 11-year old is a history whiz kid.)

All this doesn't mean you can't create a gifted or precocious 4-year old character for a story aimed at 4-year olds. Of course you can. You just have to be sure that there is enough 4-year old in your 4-year old for your readers to relate to.

How do you do that? Learn everything you can about the ages you are writing about and for. What can you do if you aren't able to access large numbers of kids in your target age group? Read within your genre. (You should be doing this anyway!) If you write picture books, read picture books. If you write young adult, read young adult.

Read about child development. Most children develop predictably, and there is a ton of information on the internet and at the library on developmental norms. You can get started by checking out these articles on child development at


Friday, March 26, 2010

Poetry Friday: Marchin' Along

So, in the last week we’ve experienced a change back to Daylight Savings Time, it’s officially spring again, and March is Women’s History Month. Let’s try to cover all those bases by re-reading one of Emily Dickinson’s poems.

This week, I’m especially attuned to last line of the first stanza and the first line of the second stanza. (I can't seem to get them to separate. So, I'm talking about " 'That must have been the sun!' But how he set I know not.")Every time we “spring forward” my sleep patterns get discombobulated.

A Day

I'll tell you how the sun rose,
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.
The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
"That must have been the sun!"
But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while

Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars,
And led the flock away.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Women of Wednesday: Two Newbery Winners

“Madeleine L’Engle throws her hands up in the gesture that says ‘Who knows?’ when a visitor asks how many rejections she received for her award-winning book, A Wrinkle in Time.
‘There were over 30,’ she says, ‘It almost never got published. People think it was my first book, but it was the 11th to be written. I call it my “Cinderella book.” You name any major publisher in New York, and they rejected it.’
No on really expected it to sell, she confesses but ‘it really took off.’ It won a Newbery medal in1963, is in its 39th printing…and has come to be considered a children’s classic.” Jean Caldwell, p. 74, On Being a Writer, Writer’s Digest Books, 1989.

This is the story many children’s book writers cling to when the latest rejection letter comes in. A Wrinkle in Time is a wonderful book, and like all of our wonderful books, it just needed to find that special editor who would recognize its wonderfulness.

The most recent Newbery winner is Rebecca Stead who pays homage to L’Engle’s book in her own When You Reach Me. Stead’s book is also a fantasy and a time travel book. The main character, Mira, clings to A Wrinkle in Time. It’s her favorite book and she reads it over and over.

Both L’Engle and Stead wait awhile to let their readers in on the fact that the books are fantasy. L’Engle starts out with enough creepy description that one thinks they may have stumbled onto a ghost story. Those who love pop culture will get the joke in the L’Engle’s opening line as either the one often used by Snoopy in the Peanuts © cartoon strip or as the basis for San Jose State Univeristy’s annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest that seeks examples of overly dramatic fiction:

“It was a dark and stormy night.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them creating wraith-like shadows that raced along the ground.”

Stead’s novel, set in the 70’s, opens like any typical pre-teen story with a girl, a single mom, a challenge, and soon, we learn, a friendship that is ending:

“So Mom got the postcard today. It says Congratulations in big curly letters, and at the very top is the address of Studio TV-15 on West 58th Street. After three years of trying, she has actually made it. She’s going to be a contestant on the $20,00 Pyramid, which is hosted by Dick Clark.”
Both stories quickly lead us into the bigger problems faced by the main characters. Meg’s father is missing. Mira’s been getting mysterious and cryptic notes: “I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own…” Time travel will solve both problems.

Both authors have created flawed, believable characters. The impossibilities that create the plots become possible in our minds. Good writers can do that. If you don’t usually make a habit of reading the Newbery authors, start with these two. Get to know a couple of good writers.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Writing for children is like writing for adults—only harder.

People who have never tried to write for kids don’t “get” that statement. In fact, many children’s writers will tell you that they have been asked, at one time or another, if they think they will ever write a real (read adult) book.

Like adult literature, a good children’s book is marked by an interesting plot, fascinating characters, and enough tension to keep the pages turning. However, a writer for children must also pay attention to extra aspects when creating a story. We think about our intended audience in order to determine how easily they will absorb the tale. This ability is going to be based on the child’s level of reading skill and more importantly, his or her age. For most children, their age will tell us a little bit about their life experiences and their life experiences will color their perception of a story.

Here’s an example from my own life:

I'm about age four or five. I’m standing in the kitchen with my mother. She leans down to tuck my t-shirt into my pants. As she does so, the scoop neckline of her dress opens enough so that I can see something terrible: a hole! My mother has a long, dark hole in her chest! I experience an onslaught of emotions such as fear, curiosity, and amazingly, sympathy. I feel so bad for my mom. She has to live with that hole in her chest! It’s no wonder that she’s never mentioned it. She’s probably embarrassed. Well, I decide, I’m not going to make it worse for her. I will NEVER mention the terrible chest hole to anyone. I will keep her secret. I will not even ask her about it, because I don’t want to hurt her feelings. I am old enough to understand about hurt feelings.

What I don’t understand at that age is cleavage. Women in those days did not flaunt it. My mom is a pretty small woman. I’ve never paid attention to the shape of her body. My grandmothers—who were full-figured ladies—had big bosoms. But I don’t know bosoms. I know fat people. Some were fat on top (like my grandmas) and some were fat in the middle (like my grandpas). At that age, my life experience was limited to my ability to be observant. At age four or five, all you care to observe is what impacts you directly: toys, friends, food, love, comfort, feeling safe.

While such an example probably wouldn’t occur in today’s more open society, it serves to show that kids’ stories need to start where they are in life experience. Innocence has to do with the lack of life experience.

Books help kids to grow intellectually, too, but they are not going to succeed if stories start beyond the young reader’s ability to relate. There’s a reason the only kisses in a toddler book are from mommy or daddy. There’s a reason today’s 12-and-13-year olds consider phone texting as “going out” with someone. There’s a reason no book incorporating the U.S. tax code will ever win a Newbery Medal. Reality for a child Is not the same as adult reality.

As you write your story, think about the reader’s perception. Who is your audience? What will they get out of the story?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Poetry Friday--Knock on Wood

Knock on Wood: Poems about Superstitions by Janet S. Wong, illustrated by Julie Paschkis (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2003) is an interesting volume. The poems and superstitions cover cats, garlic, hats, potatoes, salt and wood and 11 more. At the end, Wong includes brief explanations of each of the superstitions, and her author's note explains how her interest in the subject developed. She also mentions a reference work for anyone who is interested in further study of superstition.

Here's her poem called "Hair":
Eat the crust of fresh baked bread
for curly hair upon your head--

brush, don't comb, your hair at night,
and you won't hear a nasty fight--

Tuesday is your haircut day
if you want your luck to stay--

stand bareheaded in the rain
to cure a baldness in the brain.

Julie Paschkis's watercolor magical illustrations include people of many races and ethnicities. This would be a fabulous book for classroom use--for example, as a creative writing exercise, have the child pick a couplet from the poem above and write a story or poem inspired by that aspect of hair superstition.

This week's Poetry Friday Round-Up is found at Some Novel Ideas.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Women of Wednesday--Long Live(d) New Hampshire Women

Last week Barbara wrote a tribute to Granny D who passed away at 100 years of age. On March 7, New Hampshire also lost Mary Josephine Ray. At the time of her death, Mrs. Ray was 114 years old! Actually she was closer to 115 since her birthday was coming up in two months. Mary Josephine Ray was born May 17, 1895 on Prince Edward Island in Canada and later moved in New Hampshire.

A brief news report states that Ray "was born before Henry Ford built his first car or Marconi patented the radio." To be specific, Mrs. Ray was born one year before Marconi patented his radio and Henry Ford built his "Quadricycle" in 1896. It would be another 12 years before Ford produced the Model T and revolutionized the automobile industry.

On the day of her birth, The New York Times had on its front page this headline: "FATE OF THE INCOME TAX; Believed in Washington that It Will Be Killed Monday." Income tax is one of those things that people propose eliminating. It ain't happened yet! But, think about this--how much would a person have contributed in taxes over 114 years?

In 1895 there were 44 states in the U.S. The 45th, Utah, was admitted when Mrs. Ray was not quite 8 months old. At the time of her birth, Hawaii was in the midst of political upheaval, and its citizenry opposed its annexation to the U.S. When Ray was 64, Hawaii became our 50th state and the birthplace of a future president--our first black president!

I wonder if anyone in 1895, or even 1959, thought that a black man would ever be president. Certainly in 1895 areas of the U.S. was vehemently against that coming to pass. The New York Times reported in May 1895 of a proclamation issued by the governor of South Carolina. In it Gov. Evans called for a state Constitutional convention in which "a Constitution is to be made guaranteeing white supremacy once and forever." I'm sure Evans thought white supremacy should have been guaranteed everywhere in the U.S., not just S.C. This way of thinking still exists today in the minds of some people. We've come a long way in 114 years, but we need to keep moving toward equality for all.

It was fun to read that Mary Josephine Ray was a Boston Red Sox fan, and it's amazing to think that from the time she was 17 to the time she was 23, the Sox won the World Series 4 times. Ray had to go 86 years before the Sox won again. She was 99!

The 1912 World Series winning Red Sox

In 1890, the life expectancy for a white woman was 44.46 years. By 1900 it had increased to 51.08. In 2000 it was 80.0 years. Against all odds, Mary Josephine Ray lived for 114 years. Was it something in the New Hampshire air? I don't know, but I do know that I'm breathing deeply and looking forward to what happens if I live another 54 years!


Monday, March 15, 2010

Mentor Monday--In the Mood

"In the Mood" was one of the songs I listened to when I was working on a World War II project. Several of the other songs I grew fond of while researching and writing that book were "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," "We'll Meet Again," and "The Last Call for Love."

Listening to music being played during the period I was writing about not only helped to put me in the mood to write, it also gave me a connection to the people who lived then. I could imagine how the words to a song like "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," reminded a young woman of the promises her soldier boy had made to her before shipping off. And, the ache she must have felt was, for me, nearly tangible.

You can find music all over the internet--I'm sure I don't have to tell you about YouTube!

The Internet Archive's Audio Archive is a treasure trove with hundreds of thousands of items!Duke University has a vast collection of sheet music that'll take you back to the early 1900s (and further) if that's the era you're writing about. Or, go to your local public library and browse through its collection of CDs. Look at the music section for books covering the time period you are writing about, even if you can't read music, you can get a feeling for the time by reading the lyrics and absorbing the language. In the library I work in, we have books such as Civil War Songs, and Singing the New Nation: How Music Shaped the Confederacy, 1861-1865 that would be useful with a Civil War project.

Have fun!


Friday, March 12, 2010

Poetry Friday - Top 'O The Mornin' To Ya!

Or in my case, afternoon. St. Patrick’s Day is coming up on March 17th, and if you’re from South Boston, it’s a pretty big holiday. Everyone in town is suddenly Irish, the world turns green, and beer - also green for the day - takes on extraordinary importance. So in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’d like to offer up a poem about beer by an Irish author and poet, James Stephens.


The lanky hank of a she in the inn over there
Nearly killed me for asking the loan of a glass of beer;
May the devil grip the whey-faced slut by the hair,
And beat bad manners out of her skin for a year.

That parboiled ape, with the toughest jaw you will see
On virtue’s path, and a voice that would rasp the dead,
Came roaring and raging the minute she looked at me,
And threw me out of the house on the back of my head!

If I asked her master, he’d give me a cask a day;
But she, with the beer at hand, not a gill would arrange!
May she marry a ghost and bear him a kitten, and may
The High King of Glory permit her to get the mange.

James Stephens

For more poetry by James Stephens, click here.
For more poetry of all sorts, visit today’s host of Poetry Friday, Becky’s Book Reviews

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Women of Wednesday - We'll Miss you, Granny!

Doris Haddock, also known as Granny D., died last night at the age of 100. She was an ordinary woman when the times called for it. She went to school, fell in love, married and had children.

But there were times when she felt something had to be done about particular issues, and at those times, she was a most extraordinary woman.

Granny D. took part in efforts to save an Innuit village from being bombed by it's own government, and she walked across the country, beginning at age 88 and finishing at the age of 90, in an effort to bring attention to campaign finance reform. It couldn't have been easy because she suffered from arthritis and emphysema, but she did it anyway.

She was a woman who did more than talk. She went out and she acted. To learn more about her, see a previous blog, written almost one year ago.

You'll be missed, Granny!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Mentor Monday - Reaction

For every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction.

I learned that in fifth grade Science. It was one of those things that went in one ear and out the other because I was never going to use it in real life. Little did I know it would apply to writing, as well as the working of the entire universe.

Most of us use this formula without even thinking about it. In an action scene, if Dick throws a ball to Jane, we know enough to have it bean Jane in the head. Or she could catch it, I suppose. But something has to happen to the thrown ball, and someone should react to that event. Dick can’t simply throw the ball and walk away. The reader will want to know what happened to the ball.

Reaction also comes second nature in dialogue. If Lassie barks, Mother responds with, “What’s that, girl? Timmy’s in the well?” And of course, Lassie barks her acknowledgement. If someone speaks to someone else, they should reply, or ignore, or react in some way.

But maybe you don’t want the speaker to know the other person’s reaction. Maybe Mary says, “I hate you, Tom,” and does walk away. In that case, we need to see the effect Mary’s words have on herself. Is she glad she said it? Is she wondering how Tom took it? Does she regret saying it? How do her words affect her?

Even description needs reaction. Let’s say Jack wakes up and looks out his window.

The sky was the bluest sky he had ever seen, with not a cloud in sight. He put on his baseball uniform and headed for the game.

That description tells us what kind of day it is. But that’s all it does. It’s nice, but it’s not relevant. If we cut it, nobody would miss it. Jack would simply wake up, put on his uniform, and head for the game. But if we add Jack’s reaction to the description --

The sky was the bluest sky he had ever seen, with not a cloud in sight. Jack sighed. He had hoped for rain. He put on his baseball uniform and headed for the game.

Now the description affects the story. It affects Jack. It becomes relevant. Jack’s reaction lets us know he isn’t looking forward to this baseball game. It also makes the baseball game a bit more interesting because we now want to know why Jack doesn’t want to play, whereas, the first version didn’t make us wonder at all.

Reaction is what keeps a story moving. If you’re writing a story and suddenly find yourself stuck and don’t know what to write next, chances are, your characters haven’t reacted to anything for a while. One or another of them may have gone on a thinking binge, or maybe you got caught up in the back story. Whatever the reason, the solution is often as easy as going back to the last point where someone did react and carry on from there. Let another character react to the previous action/reaction and you’ll be up and running in no time.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Women of Wednesday: National Women's History Month

March is National Women’s History Month, and according to the National Women’s History Project, the theme for 2010 is “Writing Women Back into History.” Which, I would like to think, is part of what the America’s Notable Women series is about.

If you want to encourage observance of National Women’s History Month in your state or school district, here’s a link to the brochure.

There’s a great website, hosted by the Library of Congress and supported by several other institutions including the Smithsonian and the National Park Service. Exhibits feature women from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Mary Cassatt to women astronauts and women in the military. Worth exploring.

The National Women’s History Museum, although still striving to establish themselves in the physical world, have some very interesting cyberexhibits to explore and a lovely collection of brief biographies.

The American Association of University Women is promoting a host of activities in cyberspace, tapping pretty much every social media forum to spread the word and raise consciousness.

Scholastic has a lot of nice material up, designed for use in classrooms but quite interesting for anyone, although you do need to have Powerpoint to watch them.

In a semi-related thought, I had several occasions over the last two weeks to think “we HAVE come a long way – who would have guessed, just a few short years ago, that the Olympics would focus rapt attention on women’s alpine skiing and hockey and the costume gossip would be about men’s figure skating?

Happy Women's History Month to all!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Mentor Monday: Thoughts on habits, routines, and the (occasional) value of disruption.

(Nashua Telegraph photo)
Along with nearly half of the households in New Hampshire, most of the Sisters lost their electricity in last Thursday’s storm: and along with it, of course, such necessities of daily living as internet, cable tv and phone service (not to mention water and heat, of course . . .)

An extended power-outage can be many things. A pain in the neck, obviously. A massive obstacle to productivity, if you’re in the middle of researching a new topic or trying to get in touch with editors in far-flung cities or sources in other states. But the challenge of a major disruption can also provide a push to try something new – or old – that may just be the jumpstart your writing has been looking for.

It is, of course, completely true that there is tremendous value in developing a writing routine. Not only is there the fabled discipline of “write every day,” but most writers will tell you that they have developed certain steps that they repeat at the beginning of a writing session – cues that tell the brain it’s time to get to work. Putting on a specific piece of music, pouring coffee into a certain cup, laying out a particular number of sheets of paper or re-reading the last three paragraphs from the day before are common cues. Sharpening a handful of pencils used to be a favorite, although today that might be utterly useless—unless you’ve had a power outage!

If you always work at a keyboard, writing longhand is a completely different experience. It’s tactile, it’s silent, it’s slower than typing. You cross out things instead of erasing them, which means they linger on the page and may reassert themselves later. (Many people who write poetry will tell you that they ALWAYS start out in longhand for just these reasons.) Writing longhand is inefficient, but it triggers different parts of your brain than typing does. And that can be stimulating.

If you are also accustomed to being interrupted by all the connectivity your computer offers – whether noticing incoming emails or stopping to double-check facts or spellings as you go along, the forced disconnect may push you into longer uninterrupted trains of thought. You may arrive at a destination you would never have reached had you kept getting off that train. Or, to abuse the metaphor, you may find that the train is derailed and the ensuing detour takes you to someplace you hadn’t intended to go at all, and it may turn out to be better than your original destination.

Inefficiency can have its own rewards. I spent Thursday (or was it Friday? Being disconnected is rather disorienting) reading through a stack of biographies I had been fortunate enough to have collected from several libraries earlier in the week. The fact that virtually every obligation I had was cancelled made this a much more indulgent, luxurious experience than it might have been: rather than just flipping through, taking notes on my subject, I actually read the narratives as their authors had intended. In the process, I was reminded why we do this after all!

As a non-fiction writer, I would never complain about either the computer or the internet. Most of what I’ve written in the last 15 years would have been impossible for me to research without them. But the trade-off for efficiency can be costly. We can lose the sound of the inner voice that leads us. We can forget the richness of immersion in our subject. We can even become immune to the joy of creating something new. So thank you, Mother Nature, for the reminder. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll make it a point to pull the plug myself once in a while!