Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Women of Wednesday: Let’s Hear it For the (Pitch) Ladies

When you think of women who have been featured in advertisements, you might think of the “Where’s the Beef?” lady or the one who had “…fallen and can’t get up.” But other women successfully have lent their talents to product promotion. Their personalities not only helped to make particular products household names, we often enjoyed their commercial antics.

Josephine the Plumber, (for Comet cleanser) was one, as portrayed by popular comedic actress and former child star Jane Withers. She appeared on the heels of the Women’s movement, (pun intended) wearing a jaunty plumber’s cap, overalls, and just the right amount of makeup:

Today we have Flo the perky Progressive Insurance clerk portrayed by actress/comedian Stephanie Courtney. Flo is so well-liked she has over 3 million Facebook fans:!/flotheprogressivegirl

One of the first of the pitch ladies was Nancy Green, an African American woman who had been born into slavery in 1834.

In the late 1800s, the R.T Davis Milling Company bought a pancake recipe from the Pearl Milling Company. R.T. Davis wanted a warm, friendly-looking woman to represent his new product at the World Columbian Exposition to be held in Chicago in 1893.

Fifty-nine-year-old Nancy Green was just that person. At that time she was living in Chicago. And she was a first-rate cook, too. Nancy was hired to become the face of the new pancake recipe that was called “Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Mix.” R.T. Davis thought people would be more interested in buying his product if they thought there was a real Aunt Jemima behind the recipe.

Nancy’s debut as the real-life face of Davis’ pancake mix took place at the Columbian Exposition. (That world’s fair would launch the careers of many notable women but those are stories for another Wednesday).

Nancy was a hit! People loved her warmth and charm and also loved “her” pancakes. Thousands came through to meet “Aunt Jemima” and try her new recipe. It was said that police had to be hired to keep the crowds moving through her exhibit.

Over the years, many people felt the Aunt Jemima character was a poor choice because it could also be construed as a glorification of slavery. The term, an “Aunt Jemima” was often used as the female version of the “Uncle Tom” –a black person who remains submissive to any white authority figure. Others believed that Aunt Jemima represented anyone’s friendly, loving relative. In spite of the disagreement, the icon—now modernized—is still in use over 100 years after it was originated.

Nancy Green portrayed Aunt Jemima for over 30 years. As time went on, several other women took over the role of the woman that, like her pancakes, was warm and comforting. But Nancy was the first and today we recall the lady that made one product a success.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Mentor Monday: Who’s Your Audience—In 2011?

A couple of weeks ago I received a very nice cover letter and manuscript from a stay-at-home mom from the Seattle area. She sent a rhymed picture book story about a stuffed animal that, as you might have guessed, was her baby’s favorite toy.

Lots of writers for kids start out like this mom. We get interested in children’s books because we are in the process of parenting young children. Maybe we fall in love with the picture book genre and dream of seeing our name in print. We want to write books that will appeal to our children or will tell a story of something that happened in our child’s life.

I had no opinion one way or the other about the manuscript I’d received. It’s not the sort of book I’m interested in. But, as a publisher, I spend a lot of time thinking about who reads my books, who needs my books, and who buys my books. I have a definite audience in mind for the work I produce.

Do you ever wonder, as a writer for children, what kind of children make up today’s readership? How many are actually like that Seattle mother’s child, being raised by a stay-at-home mom in a middle-to-upper-class home, where books and favorite toys abound? If you haven’t thought about that question, I challenge you to try. Many successful writers have already done so.

Here’s just one type of statistic about today’s young readers. These numbers are from the Federal Interagency on Child and Family Statistics. The “Leave It to Beaver” family still exists, but there are lots of other family variations:

  • In 2010, there were about 75 million children in the United States ages 0–17.
    69% lived with two parents
    23 % lived with only their mothers,
    3% lived with only their fathers,
    4% lived with neither of their parents. (Harry Potter, anyone?)

  • About 5 percent of children who lived with two biological or adoptive parents had parents who were not married. (Brad and Angelina’s kids fit here.)

  • About 70 percent of children in stepparent families lived with their biological mother and stepfather. (Like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson).

  • The majority of children living with one parent lived with their single mother. (Like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.)

  • Among the 3.0 million children 24 percent lived with non-relatives. Of children in non-relatives' homes, 27 percent (200,000) lived with foster parents. (Like Katherine Paterson’s Gilly Hopkins)

I’ve only touched on the one type of statistic describing America’s children, that of the family dynamic. This list doesn’t touch on some of the other factors that might tell us what our readers are like today. Do they live in a house, shelter, or car? Are their parents employed? Do they shop at the mall and grocery store, or Goodwill and the local food bank?

Maybe some of these statistics will inspire you because every one of those children needs their own story to be told.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Poetry Friday: Reluctance


Out through the fields and the woods
And over the hills I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone astor is gone;
The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question"Whither?"
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

                -- Robert Frost 

Heidi is hosting Poetry Friday over at My Juicy Little Universe, where she has a fabulous poem by one of my favorites -- Louis Untermeyer. You need some exercise after yesterday's feast, so trot on over.

Before you go, scroll down and read about Sarah Josepha Hale, who -- in a fashion -- brought you yesterday's feast . . .

Photo by Janet Buell

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Women of Wednesday: The Lady Behind Thanksgiving

If you've got time to read this blog, you're probably not hosting Thanksgiving this year. The rest of us are busy putting leaves on tables, getting out the good dishes or at least enough paper plates to feed the troops, and taking stock of the menu. If you’re waitstaff, you probably don’t have the day off. If you’re in retail, you’re stocking shelves before the Black Friday rush.

While we run around either preparing for or participating in the annual feast and everything that goes with it, let’s give a moment to thank the woman who was responsible. I don’t think Sarah Josepha Hale had restaurants and Christmas sales in mind when she devoted part of her life to the establishment of a national day of thanks. Her plans were more idealistic.

Sarah’s father, Gordon Buell, had fought in the American Revolution under George Washington. She grew up not only hearing stories about the famous hero, but admiring anything our first president stood for. He had proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving during his presidency and Sarah decided that his proclamation should one day be the law of the land.

Later, Sarah achieved a measure of fame herself as the first woman magazine editor in the United States, and as a well-known author. She used her fame to reach out to other presidents and urge them to follow Washington’s lead.

It was not until the Civil War, however, that she was successful. Abraham Lincoln agreed with Mrs. Hale and proclaimed a day of thanks in the middle of our national conflict. It would take nearly another century before Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the national holiday into law.

Young Talon Douglas does a fabulous job of summing up the story with the help of his siblings and some friends. Stop mashing the potatoes, make yourself a cup of tea, and take a minute to watch:

Monday, November 21, 2011

What Should I Write About?

I love magazines and subscribe to several. If you have a subscription that lasts long enough, you can almost predict what topics will be covered at certain times of the year.

October will have “Fun Halloween Recipes” and “How to Stay Sane During the Holidays.”

November will have “Best Gifts for Anyone for Under $25,” and “Don’t Blow Your Diet During the Holidays.”

January’s articles will tell you how to lose the weight you gained during the holidays in time for bathing suit season.

April magazines help you find the right bathing suit for the lumpy body you failed to get under control.

And so it goes.

Even if you favor fiction, writing non-fiction magazine pieces can be a good way to keep up your writing skills. Kids magazines constantly need new material.

Child-readers are a renewable resource. There will always be new six-year-olds learning about the life-cycles of butterflies. New fourth graders will learn about their state symbols. Pre-teens will want to know how to connect with their peers. Magazines geared to particular age groups must provide new ways of repeating information.

So what do you write about? First, head over to your local library or bookstore and check out the magazines that are currently available for kids. Or, check out the Children’s Magazine Guide:

Read through issues to get a sense of their style, readability levels, target age group, etc. Pay attention to the types of articles that have appeared before. If a magazine featured a story on the Bengal Tiger, for example, they might be interested in a story about ocelots. If they already did a story about ocelots, maybe they’d like a story on a jungle cat rescue facility, or a particular jungle cat that’s being brought back from extinction because of the work of a particular zoo.

What are kids learning about? You can find out by reading about state-wide or national curriculums such as:

Don’t limit yourself to stories about your chosen topics. Think puzzles, games, crafts, recipes, and so on. I sold a puzzle about the skeleton to one of the kid’s health magazines. Write Sister Kathy wrote a fall rebus story for Highlights and has sold a piece on making an easy bird feeder amongst other crafts.

Pay attention to theme lists. Some magazines—such as the Cobblestone Group—feature one theme throughout that month’s issue. A theme does not limit your creativity. Say the theme is women pilots. Amelia Earhart certainly comes to mind but what about a story about the first woman fighter pilot such as Colonel Martha McSally? What about a story that details the parts of a plane? What kind of food could an early pilot take along on a long flight? Can you duplicate a recipe for easy-to-carry food? Create a board game about a certain flight? Make up a puzzle about women pilots? These last few ideas may not seem like writing but they are. You are creating readable sentences, directions that can be followed by your target audience, and more importantly, stretching your own mind.

And, while you’re writing that magazine piece, you just might get an idea for a story about a woman pilot who lands on a desert island and befriends a wild ocelot.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Poetry Friday--"November"

Here's a little seasonal poem by William Dean Howells:

A weft of leafless spray
Woven fine against the gray
Of the autumnal day,
And blurred along those ghostly garden tops
Clusters of berries crimson as the drops
That my heart bleeds when I remember
How often, in how many a far November,
Of childhood and my children's childhood I was glad,
With the wild rapture of the Fall,
Of all the beauty, and of all
The ruin, now so intolerably sad.
Howells was born in Ohio in 1837, but as a young man he traveled to Massachusetts where he made the acquaintance of many New England writers such as Emerson and Thoreau. He was writer of novels, poetry, literary criticism, essays, and was an editor of The Atlantic Monthly.

Howells had a peripatetic life--traveling from place to place. He lived in England, Italy, New York, Maine, and Massachusetts. His final resting place is in Cambridge, MA, which I guess that makes him a New Englander by default, and, explains the melancholy tone of "November." New Englanders have a penchant for looking back to glad times.

Well, cheer up and head over to the Poetry Friday Round-Up, which is being hosted by Tabatha Yeatts.


Photo © Diane Mayr, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Women of Wednesday--Ida Lupino

I'm going to tell you about a unnerving dream I had a while back. Appearing in this dream was Ida Lupino. Who? If you're over 50, perhaps the name rings a bell? Ida Lupino was B movie (low-budget) actress back in the 40s and 50s. Why would I have a dream about Ida Lupino? Damned if I know. I hadn't seen any Ida Lupino movies in an eternity. Very strange. But, it made me want to look into who she was. I discovered that not only was she an actress, she was also one of the first women directors in Hollywood films. Who knew? I had heard about Mary Pickford, "America's Sweetheart," silent film actress and Hollywood business woman also directing early silent films, but I didn't know there were women film directors before, say, Barbra Streisand directed Yentl in 1983.

In the late 1940s Ida and her second husband started a production company so that she could have more control over content. Interestingly, as often happens with women, her rising to the position normally reserved for men was as a result of a man's becoming incapacitated! In 1949 her director became gravely ill and Ida stepped into the role of director. She went on to direct 6 films between 1949 and 1953, and one more in 1966. She also directed television shows!

Without further ado, here's Ida Lupino in a film that she directed and appeared in, The Bigamist, from 1953.

There's information about Ida as actress, producer, and director at the "official" Ida Lupino website. There's lots of video on the site, too, but the gallery of photos is a pain in the derriere to navigate!

Oh, and I still don't understand why I dreamed about Ida, except that I found out her birthday was the day on which I had the dream (cue the theme to The Twilight Zone).


Monday, November 14, 2011

Mentor Monday--A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That

I'm going to share several resources I've come across over the past few months. The first one is a newsletter that is issued every other month, The 4:00 Book Hook. It contains information for people who work with children, or who have a love of children's books. The latest issue has several book reviews, activities, and an interview with award-winning children's poet, Joyce Sidman. It can be accessed here in pdf form.

The next is a website that is especially of interest to librarians, but one which any person attempting to keep up with the latest technology should find fascinating: INFOdocket: Information Industry News + New Web Sites and Tools From Gary Price and Shirl Kennedy. On any given day you might come across information about a new search app, e-paper, cloud computing, copyright in the digital age, new archives, etc. Well worth checking out, if only for the wow factor.

While the World Memory Project may not be a resource just yet, with your help, it will become
the largest free online resource for information about victims and survivors of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution during World War II.
Children's writers--this may be an excellent project for you to work on since it is bound to stimulate ideas for future fiction and nonfiction writing projects. Check out the link above for details.

Another example of the great power for good that comes with the internet is This website not only allows for reuse of items rather than filling landfills, it also helps schools to obtain materials that would be relegated to wish-lists with ever-shrinking library budgets.

Finally here's a video that was shown at a recent library conference. The topic of the workshop was social media and the law (as pertains to public libraries). The speaker, a lawyer, wanted to make the point that social media (Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, YouTube, etc.) is more prevalent in the lives of the world's citizens than one may have imagined. These 4 minutes more than make that point:

Those of you whose only participation is as a reader of blogs, it's time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Feel free to share resources that you have discovered, use the comments below.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Poetry Friday

I've always been fascinated by Alice and her trip down the rabbit hole, although I do prefer her travels across the chessboard better. Of all the fantasy worlds I've encountered, Wonderland is the only place where truly anything can happen. In all those other worlds, there is a certain logic that has to be followed. Wonderland, on the other hand, is a dreamworld, and we all know dreams don't necessarily have to make sense, so anything can happen in Wonderland. And if you write fantasy, it opens up a lot of possibilities. I have been dabbling with an Alice on the psychiatrist's couch story for several months. The following poem imagines her being born in China. I'm already thinking what a great story that could be.

If Alice. . .
By Alexandra Seidel

If Alice had been born in China
her feet would have been bound
(so much easier to stumble
down rabbit holes with these.)

The Rabbit (fourth of the zodiac,
followed by Dragon, preceded
by Tiger) in his compassion
and serene sincerity
would have waited for her,
tumbled with her,
chatted all the way.

The Cheshire Cat
of course, would have been a tiger
stripes at least as piercing as the smile
quiet and yet
always ready to leap.
It would have said to Alice
in her blue and gold embroidered silk gown
much the same things--
tigers, after all, are also cats
if less docile, less tame.

The caterpillar might well have been
a dragon
as of yet unhatched
sleeping in a hot fuming egg
but waking often
to speak through the iridescent shell,
speak strangely, but never quite untrue.

The Hatter
mad and drinking tea
would have been a hairdresser
no doubt
with fabulous black tresses
rising like winding towers from his head
scissors poised behind his back.

Then there is the Red Queen who
would have been an empress. She
would still wear red
but also gold and white jade
and with her long pinky fingernails
she would have snatched eyes
before she ever took heads.

Her roses
are peonies in the East
not red but almost so, with their dark pink
that is painted on ink here
because in truth
those oriental peonies bloomed ebony white.

And then
the thing that would pluck
the Chinese Alice from her daydream
would be mahjongg stones
falling heavy
and waking her
to the shadows of living temples
the sound of honking cars
the smell and sound of people all around her
and to a different life
that would be not that different
at all.

Tread carefully through the rabbit hole and, hopefully, you'll find yourself at Teaching Authors where you'll discover a wondrous world of poetry to explore.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I Know It's Only Rock 'n Roll, But I like It, I Like It, Yes I do!

The other day, I was searching for some allen wrenches and found an old box of records in the closet. Feeling nostalgic, I pulled them out to play on my stereo. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a needle in the arm. Major bummer. (The youngsters are going ‘Huh? What?’) But it did get me thinking about the women of Rock ‘n Roll and who all was around today to carry on the tradition.

Alas and alack, I could think of no one. Avril Lavigne was suggested to me. I did not even try to hide my laughter. It seems the female rocker, not to be confused with the female pop artist, is a dying breed. So I have created a sort of mini-concert in honor of the women who took me through my teens. I couldn’t include them all. This is a blog, after all. So I included my favorites. And hats off to the women I didn’t include - Stevie Nicks, Pat Benetar, Heart, Melissa Etheridge, and the Vixens, to name a few. Rock on!

Joan Jett

Who's tougher than Joan? She recently made a come-back when the movie, The Runaways, came out last year, which followed the rise of her all girl band (pre Blackhearts) to stardom. Now a new generation has ‘discovered’ her.

Grace Slick

Grace is alive and well and making a living as a commercial artist. She paints a lot of rabbits.

Janis Joplin

What can you say about Janis? Nobody does Summertime better than her, IMO.

Tina Turner

Simply the best. The Queen of Rock ‘n Roll. Take a look at that crowd. Thousands and thousands of people paid good money to watch a seventy year-old woman in a mini dress sing and dance and shake her booty on stage. Is there another person in the world, male or female, who could do this? She sings, she dances, she puts on one heck of a show, and she does it without lip-synching or having a recording playing in her ear. And she’s seventy here!

And in case you are shedding a tear at this point, thinking the female rocker will soon become extinct, take heart, and take a listen to six year-old Zoe (at the time the video was made.) She plays a mean Metallica (listen to her Enter Sandman) and her Pirates of the Carribean is pretty good, too. Here, she does Linkin Park, and she is clearly enjoying herself. The ending is priceless.


Hey, hey, my, my.
Rock ‘n Roll will never die.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Writing Steampunk

Steampunk has been around for more than twenty years, but it is just now beginning to make its way into the mainstream. You can now find it in art, music, and fashion, and there's a whole world of steampunk costume play out there. In children’s literature, books like Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld and The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare have helped bring it to the fore. It’s a speculative fiction sub-genre that is gaining ground every day, so if you like writing adventure stories, or historical fiction, or fantasy, or even all three, (which would be ideal) steampunk may be right up your alley.

What, exactly, is steampunk?

Think H. G. Wells’ Time Machine or Jules Verne’s Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Steampunk generally takes place in the Victorian age - the late nineteenth century, before electricity and the internal combustion engine - and on an alternate Earth. Much of the time, the setting is either London or the American west and the technology is based on machines and the steam to power them, thus the steam. The punk is the subversive attitude of the characters who aren’t prepared to sit around and accept the status quo. They have issues and agendas and generally don’t like the establishment very much.

Gadgets and Gizmos

These are a part of every steampunk novel. Your setting may be Victorian, but it will also be a futuristic Victorian - what might have been if we followed the path of steam and clockworks rather than that of electricity. That means your characters will have all sorts of new goodies to play with. Generally, there is a mechanic or a tinkerer on the side of the good guys, and/or an evil scientist on the side of the bad guys who make these cool toys. Anything you can imagine is fair game as long as you can make it believable. It doesn't have to be real science, it just has to sound like it is.

And don't worry about the anachronisms. That's all part of the genre. While some folks in your novel are riding around in horse-drawn carriages, others may be driving steam powered bicycles and cars, or flying around on blimps and airships. You may have a clockwork computer or a robot that is wound with a key and, if some character is unlucky enough to have his arm sliced off with a sword in a duel, it just may be replaced with a brand new mechanical arm that can fire mini balls or mustard gas.

The Plot

Steampunk is also, more often than not, all about the plot. It is fast paced and action packed. Characters often travel the world searching for something or someone, a la Indiana Jones. The baddies tend to be bad, and the good guys are basically good, but not beyond indulging in some mischief and mayhem themselves. If you’re doing YA, you might throw in a romance as a subplot. MG’s often revolve around a mystery of some sort. And if you're into graphic novels, steampunk suits that form nicely. Like any other genre, the problems and plot you create should be appropriate for your audience.

The Rules

Now, having said all that, keep in mind that the rules of writing, no matter what the genre, are pretty much like the rules aboard the Black Pearl. They're more like guidelines. For instance, Leviathan doesn't take place in the Victorian age. It takes place during WW I. You'll find steampunk novels with angels and vampires in them. You'll come across some that are all about the characters rather than the plot. The point is, if you don't want to end up with a very cliche story, you have to find your own, unique twist, even if means breaking the rules.

To give you a taste, here’s a bit about Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan. World War I has just broken out and the sides are not the axis and the allies. It’s the Clankers - those who have spent their time building enormous iron airships loaded with great guns and cannons, against the Darwinists - who have taken survival of the fittest to a point where they create genetically altered animals to serve their purposes. The Leviathan - a whaleship - is their largest air ship. So as you can see, almost anything goes.

If you need help with ideas or in getting started, check out which will give you a list of all kinds of things you’ll find in a steampunk novel. You can also turn to the The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature by Jeff VanderMeer.

If you've ever wanted to let your imagination run wild, this is the perfect genre to do it in. What could be more fun?

Airship by brownfinger
Gunblades by darzeth

Friday, November 4, 2011

Poetry Friday: Reflections on the Need for Art

Today I would like to offer, not a poem, but a reflection on the necessity of poetry in a civilized society. These are excerpts from a speech in honor of Robert Frost given by President Kennedy in 1963, less than a month before his death. It seems very timely.  You can read the speech, and hear JFK’s presentation, here: 

“Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much.”

“. . . it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”

“If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.”

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth”

“I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.”

This week Poetry Friday is hosted by Laura Purdy Salas: