Behind the Scenes: A Trip to NYC

As you can tell from her Events page, Laurie’s been traveling all over tarnation doing school visits, conferences, conventions, you name it. She’s also been hard at work on writing the Wonder Woman graphic novel for DC, plus a few other Secret Projects I am not at liberty to discuss, or someone will revoke my author assistant card! But in there, she found time for a quick trip to NYC to visit her publishing team at Penguin and do some pre-pub work on SHOUT, and I thought y’all might enjoy a peek behind the scenes of Author Life.

First up was a media luncheon, at which she got to sit and chat with folks from the press about SHOUT, the #MeToo movement, the state of the world in general, and why she’s hopeful now of all times. Being an author is not nearly as glamorous as people thing, but this is one of the few times that authors live that Fancy Life — good food, good conversation, and a gorgeous display of her book!

a stack of galleys of SHOUT displayed next to a vase of white roses and ferns
Photo credit: Jenn Northington

 

Then it was off to a recording studio where she did a video interview, read from SHOUT, and recorded some special messages for booksellers and librarians. You’ll probably be seeing them online in the coming months, so keep an eye out!

Laurie, sitting in a chair and facing a recording team. Their backs are to us. On the left is a large light, then a young woman with dark hair seated talking to Laurie, then a man wearing headphones bent over a camera screen.
Photo credit: Jenn Northington
Laurie stands against a wall painted in stripes of dark beige and white, wearing a green sweater and gray pants. Several cameras are set up around her, and she's about to read from SHOUT.
Photo credit: Jenn Northington

 

She also got some new author photos taking, which you’ll also be seeing around in the coming months, but here’s an out-take just for you:

Laurie from the waste up. She's standing in front of trees and she's wearing her Got Consent? t-shirt, smiling at the camera.
Photo credit: Randy Fontanilla

 

Reminder: You can pre-order SHOUT from your local indie!

–Jenn

Can We Talk About Connecting Authors to Students?

(Note – this is a long and important post. But there is a chance to win books for your classroom at the end, so keep reading.)

Oh. My. Goodness.

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A couple of days ago I tweeted a photo of a letter I’d received.

In follow-up tweets I explained that it breaks my heart not to have the time to answer letters like this. I love engaging with readers, I love that they reach out to authors. But I’m on deadline, and won’t have time to write back until this student is halfway through 9th grade.

Plus, I’ve already provided many of the answers to these questions on my website; writing advice and interviews and general questions.

I always make time for correspondence (written letters, email, and private messages on social media) from readers who are victims of sexual violence, bullying, eating disorders, depression, etc. In addition to that, this year I have to write two books, spend months on the road giving presentations, hold Skype visits, do other author-business things, as well as hang out occasionally with my family. There are simply not enough hours in the day to do it all.

This makes me feel HORRIBLE.

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It was a hard thing to admit publicly, but I write a lot about hard things. My alternative would have been to keep ignoring the problem, which I’m sure frustrates the letter-writers who are waiting on a response, especially when their grade hinges on it.

I tweeted this because I wanted to interact with teachers to see if we could figure out a more practical solution. I did not expect my timeline to blow up.

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Most of the comments were kind and supportive. A number of my fellow authors retweeted the original post, and added their own frustration with this situation. One received 150 letters this week. Another had to remove all of her contact info from her website to stop the flood of mail that she has no way of answering. Every author has had the experience of getting letters which explain that hearing back from the author is a requirement for the student to get a good grade. Finding the time to answer student letters is a huge problem for many kidlit writers.

Some commenters were not supportive. I don’t think they like me very much.

“It makes you look like you’ve stopped feeling really lucky to have what you have and enjoy the acceptance and bridge you’ve forged between girls and their secrets. Seriously.”

“Young writers often have these questions and want a personal reply not info from a website.Take the time to give it instead of complaining. Nurture young writers!”

A few people responded defensively, angry that I had “blamed teachers.” Which was not my intention at all.

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The thing is, we all care about kids; kidlit authors and illustrators, educators, families – we dedicate most of our lives to creating and/or providing books to children and teens because we value literacy and care deeply about young people.

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The model of students writing to authors is several generations old now. It started long before social media, author websites, book festivals, or Skyping. It began when authors stayed home to write books, and publishers took care of marketing and publicity. The world of publishing has changed drastically since then. There are few authors who have the time or resources to answer every single letter that comes in.

What hasn’t changed is the need for students to connect with authors.

So, my friends. Can we talk about this?

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A number of educators provided solutions in my Twitter feed. Some have their students write notes to authors in which the students say what they felt about the book, but without questions, or the expectation of a response. Others tweet class projects – if the authors see the tweet and Like it, that’s a bonus. Still others take advantage of the resources on author websites and other places (for example if your students are researching Jacqueline Woodson, be sure to check out  Poetry Foundation  and CBC Books ).

A couple of years ago I made pre-printed postcards that thanked the student for writing, but explained I didn’t have time to answer questions… but honestly, it felt kind of cheesy to do that.

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Given that authors do not have time-turners (except possibly J.K. Rowling), how can we best engage with students? What kind of classroom model makes sense, given the changes in publishing and technology of the last decade?

I’d love to know what you think about this. Please leave suggestions and comments below. And thank you for listening!

PS – for those of you who read all the way through this, here’s your reward. I will give a book to the first 10 classes who post a comment to this blog with at least 10 good questions that I haven’t yet answered on my website. Teachers, if you respond to this, please include a mailing address.

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#KidlitWomen at the Crossroads of Rage and Hope

We have started speaking up. That’s the good news. Women in children’s literature – as in many other professional and social communities – are speaking up about sexual violence, harassment, pay inequities, and other areas where we’ve been overlooked, under-respected, and marginalized.

We’ve demanded fairness from conference and festival organizers. Started the conversation about who gets paid what and why promotional budgets and award committees favor men. Asked the women in educational communities to take a hard look at the way some of them fawn over our kidlit brothers at the expense of women. Talked about how we sometimes uphold patriarchal attitudes ourselves without realizing it, and pondered how to identify the places we need to improve.

Lots of important, private conversations have grown from out this public discussion. Conference and festival organizers seem to be responding to the call for gender- and racial diversity, though we’ll have to see if their actions reflect their promises. I know I’ve been chatting with the people at my publishers about these issues and more. I suspect many of you have, too.

I’ve been disappointed that the issues facing women of color continue to take a back seat in many of these conversations. Laurel Snyder’s No White Panels pledge was an overdue response to the problem, but we need to do much, much more to create a community that is equitable, accessible, and comfortable for everyone.

White feminism has a well-deserved shitty reputation for ignoring and harming women of color. I’d like my fellow white ladies of kidlit to recognize that women of color face all of the issues that white women face PLUS systemic institutional racism. As much as we want men to own their privilege and balance the scales of justice, we must recognize that white women have the same responsibility.

As more women gain enough confidence to speak up about being sexually assaulted or harassed, I’ve begun to see and hear some disdainful muttering from women my age. There seems to be a generational divide between what women in my cohort (older than 50) believed constitutes harassment and how younger women see it. Women of a certain age have been fighting these battles for a very, very long time. If you are 25 and angry about this, just imagine your rage level if you were 65.

But if you’re 65, imagine what it feels like to be 25 and have older women criticize you for complaining about harassment because it isn’t as physical or intense as what you endured.

It’s not a competition, my friends. Let’s not get sucked into the damaging game of comparing our wounds and ranking them.

The last three decades have brought change, thank goodness. But change doesn’t impact everyone the same way. The legal definition of consent and the notion that professional spaces like conferences and writing classes are not hunting grounds for sexual partners are new concepts for some. Not everyone is up-to-date on the evolving legal and ethical definitions of harassment.

People who are constantly marginalized sometimes absorb the disrespect and hatred aimed at them. They then turn it on others as a way to ease their own pain. If you feel yourself doing this, dig for the roots of that emotional violence. Give yourself the time and gentle care that you need to heal.

Our strength lies in our shared understanding of injustice and our common commitment to providing children with the best books possible. If you’re feeling ouchy about any aspect of the discussions this month, reach out and talk to someone about it. If someone reaches out to you, listen with love.

I am so grateful for all of you, for the women who have written about these topics, talked about them, reflected on how we can create change, marched, knitted, and somehow, in the middle of all this, continued to write and draw. I’m grateful for the men who are supporting us, too – we see you guys and are happy to have you walk beside us.

Let’s continue to speak up, to listen, to raise up each other’s work and to use this energy to change the world.

 

 

 

 

 

25 Years of Scribbling – My Journey So Far

Twenty-five years ago, September 7, 1992, my youngest kid went to first grade. While I was a little sad to see her get on the bus, I was excited that she would be out of the house all day, like her older sister. I’d been working as a freelance journalist for years, mostly working nights for newspapers and whatever magazine or trade journal that didn’t write rubber checks. Suddenly I had a few more kidless hours a day.

The dream I had been harboring for years demanded that I pay attention.

I wrote an oath in my journal: I would focus on writing for children in the hours before the kids woke up and when they were at school. I gave myself five years, until September 1997, to get a children’s book published. If I couldn’t make the goal, I swore I would go to nursing school, which my mom had been bugging me about since forever.

I should have given myself 10 years.

I had no idea what I was setting out to do. I didn’t know how tough it was to get published. I didn’t even know how to get published. And I certainly did not know how to write. But I knew that I wanted to try.

If you’ve ever heard me present at a conference, you’ve heard about my years of failure. The fact that I honestly thought I was supposed to send in a first draft instead of revising. That I wrote the world’s worst 7000-word picture book manuscript. I made every mistake possible and invented a couple of new ones just for fun. Rejections piled up for years.

The point is not that I screwed up. Everyone does that. The point is not that I almost quit many, many times. The point is that I kept trying. I had an audacious dream – to write books that kids might like – and it (mostly) made me happy to pursue that dream. So that’s what I did.

And a funny thing happened. I learned.

I attended SCBWI conferences and found a critique group. I started analyzing what worked and didn’t work in books. I found that revision was even more fun than writing first drafts.

I got better. I worked harder. I dreamed bigger.

I had huge plans for today. I was going to write poetry at dawn, write a letter than I could open on September 7, 2042. Thought about sipping champagne.

Instead, I worked. I’ll be on the road for most of the next 8 months, so today was a Dealing With Travel Email day. I walked to my local indie and picked up a copy of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. I treated myself to Tandoori chicken and saag paneer, with blueberries for dessert.  I made a cup of chamomile tea, instead of opening champagne.

My first book (a picture book now long out of print) was published in 1996, one year before my deadline. Since then I’ve published 35 books that have collectively sold millions of copies. More importantly, I’ve been blessed with the chance to meet readers, their families, and their teachers and librarians across America and around the world. I’ve worked with incredibly talented people, become friends with my heroes, and had the chance to give voice to the causes that I care about.

I am a very lucky and grateful girl.

I decided that the best way to celebrate the last 25 years was to do the work that got me here – some creative writing, some book tour preparation, too many email, and a nice walk to the bookstore.

Tomorrow morning I shall write a paragraph or two in my journal with a couple of goals for the next twenty-five years.

Who knows what adventures they’ll bring?

 

Starting Over, Again

Well, hello there! It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

For all intents and purposes, I stopped blogging in the fall of 2013, after I posted the book tour details for The Impossible Knife of Memory. I didn’t talk about it too much, but that was when my father took a turn for the worse. He had enjoyed ridiculously robust health, but suddenly he suffered some strokes and started having terrifying delusions. In March of 2014, he fell and hit his head, and died two days later.

To say that I was devastated doesn’t begin to describe my state of mind.

My father was my hero; a WWII veteran who became a minister, marched for Civil Rights and faced down the Klan, wrote poetry, raged at injustice, and tried to make the world a better place. He was also plagued by PTSD, depression, and alcoholism.

When I was a kid, I adored him. As a teen I was afraid of him, angry, and terrified he was going to kill himself. After I left for college we entered the Cold War phase of our relationship.

One of the most delightful aspects of my adult life was moving my parents back North from Florida so we could take care of them.  I went to the gym and then breakfast with him a couple days a week, talked with him constantly, and basked in the good fortune that we had so much time together.

When he died, I needed to withdraw a bit. Blogging did not happen and updating my website was not a priority.

We tried to get on with the business of living. Our children started to have children. We hosted my oldest daughter’s wedding at our house. I finally finished Ashes, and went on adventures to China, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. I tried to write and threw out a lot of horrible pages.

But I finally learned how to walk with my father in my heart.

So I’m back. My website has been rebuilt from scratch thanks to my wonderful assistant, Jenn, and Deena Warner.  I have a lot of fun travel coming up, am working on several new books, and have Many Big Thoughts that require blogging again.

Do you have specific topics you’d like to see me blog about? Writing advice? American history? How to live out of a carry-on during book tour? Put your ideas in the Comments, or reach out to me on social media and I’ll see what I can do.

Thanks for your patience, my friends!