Revisiting the Classics

I was reading a message board the other day concerning classic picture books that make you wonder how they ever got published. Part of the discussion centered around how the children’s book market has changed over the years. The approach to children’s education and the state of the children’s book market was quite different seventy, fifty, or even twenty years ago. I wrote a previous blog post on some of the classics, and how they hold up.

Classic Books

What was most interesting to me about this discussion was not the different opinions about why classics are classics, and why some hold up throughout the years, and some do not. What I saw when I read each post was this: Everyone likes something different.

Several specific books were mentioned, especially Madeline. There were some pretty strong opinions on why they loved the book, or not.  Some loved it, some hated it. I myself don’t get the appeal of Madeline. The character strikes me as a spoiled brat who is put into a variety of unrealistic (but not fantasy) situations.

Regardless, I may not like it, but clearly others do. Some people may find several of my favorite books annoying or dated. But we all, as readers (children and adults alike) like something different.

Editors and publishers today may focus primarily on what will sell the most copies. They must analyze and assess the market of today, and what meets the needs of the bookstore, online, and school markets. I don’t envy them the challenge of trying to float a ship on the changing tides of pop culture and educational theory.

As I writer, I have had many arguments with myself (quietly, I promise) about whether to ditch the story I really love in favor of something more commercially viable. As I advance my craft, I strive to create stories that meet both my personal requirements and the needs of the current market.

But I must start at the beginning: writing what is in my heart. Perhaps what I write will be sellable someday (hopefully!). But if I don’t write what is in my heart, I believe it won’t speak the truth or touch my readers in any way. And if everyone likes something different, perhaps instead of trying to speak to everyone, I should strive to speak to someone.

So in the end, whether a story meets the technical requirements of today’s market or not, it must start in a personal place. And that’s good news.  The joy of writing down the stories that are begging me to be written, those that occupy a special place in my heart and mind, are why I write in the first place.

SCBWI NYC Conference Recap

I was fortunate to spend last Saturday and Sunday in New York at the SCBWI Winter Conference. I returned refreshed, re-energized, and ready to dive back into revision on my novels. I may even have a few new ideas for picture books!

The conference was a combination of keynote speeches, breakout workshops, and networking opportunities. Here are the highlights:

* First Speaker:  Meg Rosoff. I have not read her books, but I am compelled to check them out, after hearing her sassy, hyperbolic, and funny talk entitled, “So When Are You Going to Write a Real Book, You Know, For Adults?”

* Panel Discussion: A helpful and optimistic discussion about the state of the market, what is selling, and how it is selling (traditional publishing, self-publishing, multiple media, etc.)

* Breakout Sessions: We each participated in two breakout sessions with editors and art directors on what “hooks” them. I chose sessions with editors Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge, and Francoise Bui of Delacorte Press. Both were insightful, giving examples of books they loved that they had edited that demonstrated the different components that hooked them. I was thrilled to discover Jane Yolen sitting in the row in front of me in the first session.

* Day 2 Keynote: Margaret Peterson Haddix gave a talk entitled “Tell Me a Story.” She wove together personal stories with tips on how to tell a good story. She told us that “books help kids understand and make sense of the world.” Our important role as children’s writers in the tender early development years of life was a common thread among many of the speakers.

* Second Keynote: Julie Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton shared their learnings from writing several series (the Dumpy series, the Little Bo series, and The Very Fairy Princess series) together. It was a multilayered talk, and Julie Andrews was everything you would expect: graceful, classy, beautiful, and talented. I was pleased to see what a wonderful relationship mother and daughter have, and how their many years of writing together transcends the typical “celebrity” children’s book writing one might expect.

* Closing Keynote: Mo Willems had me in stitches from the moment he walked on the stage. I expected him to be funny (in a clean, child’s sort of way), but he was humorous in a real, adult way. He spoke directly to us as writers, and shared his take on the profession. He did, however, tell us that if we agreed with everything he said, something was wrong. Some key quotes from Mo:

“Be a filter, not a spigot.”

“Think OF your audience, not FOR your audience.”

“The hook is not the story.”

On writing humor: “Keep writing, then take away whatever isn’t funny. If nothing is left, start over.”

“Childhood sucks, so your job is to be some child’s best friend.”

Joanna and I both love to “collect” rejection stories of successful writers… probably to inspire us to keep going. For Mo, he shared that over a 90 day period in his writing career, he got a rejection letter every day. Yes, 90 rejection letters. And look at him now!

Overall, it was a good conference, full of learnings and ideas. At the end of the conference I participated in the autograph party. I had an amazing opportunity to have 2 books autographed for my children: We Are In a Book! signed by Mom Willems (with a little piggie adorably drawn above his name) and The Very Fairy Princess Follows Her Heart signed by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton.

Not only was I able to obtain two great keepsakes for years to come, I was able to talk briefly with each of them. I had the opportunity to thank Mo Willems for his Elephant and Piggie Books, since they are the reason my son (an initial reluctant reader) now loves to read. I told Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton that my daughter thinks she is a princess like their character Gerry. Truth be told, I could have talked to Julie Andrews about the weather, and I would have been perfectly happy. She and her daughter were just lovely.

For more information on the conference, check out the SCBWI Blog.

Caldecott and Newbery Winners announced

This past Monday, two of the premier awards for children’s books were announced: the Caldecott and Newbery Medals. The Caldecott is awarded annually for distinction in picture book illustration. The Newbery is awarded for distinction in children’s book writing. You can learn more on the American Library Association’s website.

This year’s winners include:

Caldecott Medal: This Is Not My Hat, illustrated and written by Jon Klassen

Caldecott Honors:

  • Creepy Carrots!, illustrated by Peter Brown, written by Aaron Reynolds
  • Extra Yarn, illustrated by Jon Klassen, written by Mac Barnett
  • Green, illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
  • One Cool Friend, illustrated by David Small, written by Toni Buzzeo
  • Sleep Like a Tiger, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Mary Logue

Newbery Medal: The One and Only Ivan, written by Katherine Applegate

Newbery Honors:

Congratulations to all of the winners! Looks like this is an extra good year for Jon Klassen.

So my mission today was to venture into the smallish Barnes and Noble in my town with my daughter, and spend some time looking through the books listed above. The only two I have read previously are Extra Yarn, and One Cool Friend (which we own). Unfortunately, my bookstore had NONE of these award winners. Very disappointing. I could go on and on how our Barnes and Noble needs to move into the space vacated by Borders so that it can have a proper selection, cafe, and places to sit… but that could be a whole post in itself.

So I will have to share my impressions on these books at a later time. I can tell you that both Extra Yarn (a tale about a girl who finds a magic box of yarn and proceeds to knit sweaters for everyone and everything) and One Cool Friend (about a boy who sneaks a penguin home from the aquarium in his backpack) are lovely, and are made even more charming by their illustrations.

Tomorrow I’m off to the winter conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and I should have much to tell when I get back. Have a great weekend!

The Subjectivity of Art

Every writer who’s ever submitted a manuscript—of any kind—hopes that the receiving agent or editor will instantly fall in love the work.  And it happens. It must, we pre-published writers insist, because we know that the books we read were chosen. It just happens rarely.

A recent rejection letter I received—which BTW was kind, professional, and supportive, even without anything specific to my submission—claimed that the agent was very picky about the work he chooses to represent and will only select manuscripts he can support 100%. Sounds fair. Shoot, sounds like what I would want—either as a writer or an agent. He went on to say that the business is subjective, and that he hoped my project would find an agent who would love it 100%.  Not only fair, it also implied that an agent might currently exist who will love my manuscript, even as it had been rejected thus far.

This got me to thinking about subjectivity. And realizing that I am being unfair in directing my frustration at agents. Come on, I think. Won’t one of you just love my story already? This kind of thinking is unfair because as I reader I can be just as picky.

On my Goodreads account, I rate the novels I’ve read, though I rarely give a review (just not enough time right now). I went back and checked the novels I’d given 5 stars to. 12 out of 165. That’s just 7%. Not very many.

Ratings are a funny thing. For example, I enjoy Cassandra Clare’s books—they often get 4 stars—but find her overuse of semicolons can be tedious at times. Still, she’s got enigmatic characters and great plot twists. I also lovelovelove John Green’s books, all of which have also gotten at least 4 stars (The only one to get 5 was his latest, and a must read, The Fault in Our Stars). Green’s books are intelligent, provocative, and hilarious. Very different from Clare’s (who writes fantasy). How do they both get the same rating? I guess I’m reading them for different reasons, and enjoying them for an even different set reasons. So I’m not sure I can compare them on the same plane. Or at the very least, it is a hard thing to do.

Recently, Katie recommended a book to me. I read it, and found it hard to get into. I ended up skimmed a lot towards the end. Just a week ago, I returned The Book Thief, by Markus Zuzak to the library. Unread. Just couldn’t finish it. Yes, it seemed original and the subject matter interesting. But I just didn’t like it. <Shrug.> I’m just as picky as the agents are.

Now I want to get published like the rest of you (so agents, pick me!), but I now have  a deeper appreciation for what agents are facing when the onslaught of manuscripts downloads into their email system.

Art is a personal, subjective thing. This quality can make it emotional, vulnerable and terrifying. But the same quality is what makes it beautiful. And that’s why I’m still writing.

The Lesson of Mulberry Street

27. Maybe 28.

That’s how many times Theodor Geisel’s first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected before ultimately being picked up by Vanguard. Geisel is better known as Dr. Seuss.

My childhood memories long gone, I have read Seuss’s books countless times as an adult. The Lorax was a staple in my work as an environmental educator. And now my son has started to enjoy Seuss’s early wordplay books such as Hop on Pop and Green Eggs and Ham. It’s hard to imagine that at one point his brilliance was rejected. 27 times. At least.

Rejection is on my mind these days. Or perhaps a better word to use is declination. That was recommended to me as a kinder word for what amounts to someone saying, “You’re not good enough.”

Yes, that’s harsh. But who among you hasn’t felt exactly that?

Try as I might, a tiny voice—negative and persistent—whispers in my ear each time I’ve sent my manuscript out. Of course, another voice—encouraging and hopeful—is also whispering, but you can guess which one maintains a slight edge.

As a writer, I’m a neophyte. I started writing two years ago, am pre-published—another nicety I learned at a conference—and have only sent out my manuscript 15 times, all within the past four months. I’ve gotten 10 rejections. Dr. Seuss claims he almost burned that first manuscript, and I can relate to the urge. But I’m holding on.

At the NYC conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), Jane Yolen admitted that she herself had a desk full of manuscripts that had been repeatedly rejected. If you’re not familiar with her work, rectify that immediately! She’s written over 300 books, including the popular picture books Owl Moon and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? As with Seuss, it’s hard to imagine someone that prolific and successful ever having their work rejected. On her webpage, Yolen admits, “A writer never gets used to rejections.” I suppose that’s true, though I’ll have to stick with this much longer to appreciate Yolen’s experience.

I’m not sure how she deals with it. As for me, my current critique group is one of the main reasons I’m still writing. (If not, THE.) Sure, my parents and husband are ardent supporters, but that’s kind of written into their contracts, isn’t it? For now, I trust that my critiquers will tell me to shelve a project when I’ve worked it as much as I can or when more opportunities to keep revising remain. Luckily, I still have a bank of stories that I’m yearning to write and share.  I am learning to write just for me, and oh how slow the learning curve is, but if I can allow my love of storytelling to drive my writing, then I will write until my story bank is dried up.

And so I carrying on, like Dr. Seuss did, not fully trusting that I’ll find that right agent, but hoping, deeply hoping to find a match for my manuscript and my career.

How do you keep going in the face of rejection? What are your criteria for putting a project aside? How do know when to make a work extinct versus dormant?

-Joanna