Back in October, I received the news that my picture book manuscript, CUPINE’S PERFECT DANCE PARTNER, had been awarded an Honorable Mention in the 86th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. There were over 5100 entries across several categories, and I was over-the-moon excited that my porcupine story had been selected! Today, they sent me a little swag as a reminder:
I post this today as an encouragement to each of you to keep on keeping on. You never know when that next submission is going to bring you some happy publishing news!
Happy New Year, and Happy Writing!
Sensibility-Persistence always pays off, even if it seems like it’s taking forever!
Sense- Find new places to submit your writing this month. Contests, magazines, newsletters and publishing journals provide important credits and the motivation you need to keep going!
What are some contests or places outside of publishing houses or agents where you’ve submitted your work?
I’ve been doing some research about the lives of today’s children in my efforts to learn more about my audience, and I’ve come across some pretty startling statistics. For example:
1 in 6 people in America face hunger. That means more than 1 in 5 children is at risk for being hungry during a regular school day. Among African American and Latino American children, the risk is 1 in 3.
For every 100 school lunch programs, there are only 87 breakfast sites and 36 summer food programs.
Nearly half of the 1 in 7 people enrolled in SNAP programs are children.
Over 20 million children receive free or reduced-price lunches each day at school. Less than half of these kids get breakfast, and even less than that have access to a meal program in the summer.
40 percent of food is thrown out in the United States each year. That’s about $165 billion, and that amount could feed 25 million people.
Yep, you read that right…$165 billion…enough to feed 25 million hungry people; and a grotesquely large number of those are children. Pretty overwhelming stuff, considering we’re at the end of the season of thankfulness and just opening the door on the season of giving.
So what do these numbers have to do with writing for kids? Well, think about that for a minute. One in 5 children ARE hungry during the regular school day. That means when little Johnny or Susie picks up a book during library time, most days all he or she can think about is, “When’s lunch?” And I don’t know about you, but when I’m hungry, reading, thinking or any kind of concentrating is almost impossible. Now imagine if that same child picks up a book about making pancakes, or having a meal with family, or sitting down to a table laden with holiday goodness? I mean, don’t we all get a little bit hungry, even when we’re not if food flashes in front of our eyes?
Now let’s talk buying books. If more than 20 million children across America receive free or reduced-priced lunches, how many of them have ever or will ever hold a book in their hands that they’ve purchased with their very own money? And how does that figure into school book fairs where some families must choose between paying the rent or buying groceries, much less finding some extra cash so a child can be like his or her classmates and visit the book fair? Part of developing a life-long love of reading is the feeling that comes when you crack open a book of your very own. The smell. The sound of pages turning. The brightness of brand new pictures and paper that isn’t stained or torn. All of this creates memories that draw adults back to books. I know ebooks have their place, but for book lovers, there’s just nothing quite like it. If this love of books never develops because books aren’t accessible or kids are too hungry to read them, how is this impacting society as a whole?
When I was a teacher I wrote a different inspiring quote on the chalkboard each day (you know, that long green thing that used to hang in the front of the classroom:). One of my favorites was, “Readers are leaders.” But even the child with the absolute most potential for greatness in the world can’t lead when she’s hungry, because all she thinks about is, well, being hungry.
It would be great if the answer were as simple as putting hungry children in our stories so they can see themselves in what they read. Or don’t put hungry children in our stories so they won’t feel marginalized. Or don’t put food in our stories so we don’t create more hunger. Or put more food in our stories, or, or, or… you see the problem here, right? I guess, as with many other types of social injustice, writing in the most thoughtful way possible with the goal of shining some light on the problem without singling out children and making their lives more difficult is the best approach. Pretty tall order, but you’re a writer for children, remember? In your heart, you’ve taken a sacred oath to do just that. And if you haven’t you should, or find something else to do with your time.
The other thing you can do is put legs on your prayers for hungry children by seeking out ways to help. I read a really great suggestion on Facebook the other day about going to your local school and paying off outstanding lunch charges for children in need. You may not know this, but hungry kids fall through the cracks all the time, and not all families who need free and reduced-priced lunches get them for a variety of reasons. When these kids’ lunch charges exceed a certain amount, they can no longer get lunch and are forced to eat a dry cheese sandwich or a bowl of Cheerios. Yep. It’s the truth.
Another great idea is to help your local school start a sharing table! Sharing tables are no-judgment zones in school cafeterias. They help reduce food waste by encouraging children to place the food they don’t like or don’t want to eat on the table and choose something they do like instead. At the end of the day, any extra food is donated to charity to help feed the hungry in the community. It’s a win-win because kids who didn’t get quite enough can feel free to pick something off the sharing table without feeling embarrassed, and food that otherwise would have gone in the trash gets eaten. Some schools even pack up the leftovers and send them home with needy kids so their families can have just a little more that night. You can read more about Sharing Tables here:
Writers are doers.We “do” every day without having to punch a time clock. As long as we meet our deadlines, it’s all good. Put that writer “do” into finding ways to help end childhood hunger.
Then what will we have? More kids with satisfied tummies and books in their hands (the ones with your name on them). More readers. More leaders who remember what it’s like to be “that kid” and who work to change their world.
Every time I write a new story, I think about the child that might read it. I think some about the current children’s book market, what’s new and what’s coming down the pike in a few years, but I think more about the child that might one day pick up a book that bears my name.
I think about her a lot.
Is she tall? Short? Plump? Thin? How does she see herself when she looks in the mirror? Are her jeans too tight or not the right style? Does she have a favorite doll? Stuffed animal? Game? Is she so smart it scares her sometimes and is she afraid to raise her hand in class and give the answer. . . again? Does she believe in magic and fairies and Santa Claus even though everyone else stopped believing long ago? Does she feel like she could fly if only she could just find a way to grow a pair of wings?
And what about him?
Is he skinny? Short? Fast? Slow? Does he hate baseball? Does he love football? Does he love hunting? Does he want to learn to cook or plant flowers or sing? Is he afraid of spiders just like his sister even though he isn’t supposed to be? And what if he never likes reading? So what? Will he ever be able to sit still in class, even for a minute? And what if he can’t? Will he still feel OK in his own skin? What if he likes wandering in the woods better than just about anything else? What if he feels he could fly if only he could just find a way to grow a pair of wings?
We hear an awful lot these days about what we should be writing about. What teachers want for their students, what parents want for their kids and what society says we should be giving them instead of something else. And all of those are very good things. But I didn’t start this very long journey for any other reason than to write for that girl or that boy. I truly believed, and still do, that simple stories with universal truths that meet kids where they are and take them where they need to be are the best kind for growing amazing little people into amazing big adults. Stories of compassion, kindness, goodness and love, woven with adventure, courage and fantasy about heroes kids can trust, believe in and identify with. Those are the kinds of stories I gave my own children, and all three of them have turned into amazing big adults ready to take on the world.
Having the big empty nest I mentioned in a previous post has given me time to think about the why of things. . . why we make the choices we make, why this world is the way it is; why children seem to be busier than ever, have more access to programs and experiences and opportunities than ever and are still killing themselves at an alarming rate with prescription opioids and heroin. Why? Why aren’t they satisfied and happy? I have a few theories, but that would take its own blog post.
So I’m going on a little journey to discover as much as I can about the children for whom I write, and I’m starting by reading C.S Lewis’s Letters to Children and Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. I’ll be sharing what I learn in a series of blog posts over the next few months, not every week, but as often as I can. I think it will be a fascinating journey. I hope you’ll join me.
Sensibility-For writers, not knowing your audience could find you producing stories something akin to a broccoli birthday cake or a Thanksgiving turkey made entirely of cheese.
Sense- Get to know your audience by reading both timeless books and what is trending now.
What are some of your favorite books on writing or writing for children?
Kristin is the author of YA novel, THE ART OF HOLDING ON AND LETTING GO (Elephant Rock Productions, September 2016). The book was a Junior Library Guild Fall 2016 Selection and chosen for the 2017-2018 Great Lakes Great Books statewide literature program. Kristin’s success led to lots of speaking engagements and a flurry of activity as the book gained popularity. But what’s a newly-minted author to do when the process of promoting a book zaps your energy and leaves you feeling unable to write anything new? Kristin answers this important questions and more in this fabulous post that provides an honest perspective. Hope you enjoy it!
Happy Friday everyone! I’m so excited to welcome my friend and newly-minted children’s author, Jodi McKay to Sensibility and Sense! Jodi’s debut picture book, WHERE ARE THE WORDS? (Albert Whitman and Company, December 2016), illustrated by Denise Holmes, is a fun and funny look at the ellusive world of the punctuation mark! When a period, an exclamation point and a question mark get together to write their own story, they find that something very important is missing. . .the WORDS! Enter some wise quotation marks, an opinionated parenthesis and a colon with a long list of ideas, and you’ve got an endearing tale that introduces kids to the important work end marks and their com padres do. And now, without further delay, here’s Jodi. . .
When a period, an exclamation point and a question mark get together to write their own story, they find that something very important is missing. . .the WORDS! Enter some wise quotation marks, an opinionated parenthesis and a colon with a long list of ideas, and you’ve got an endearing tale that introduces kids to the important work end marks and their com padres do. And now, without further delay, here’s Jodi. . .
Patti: Tell us a little bit about your journey as a writer. When did you first get the “bug” and how did you nurture the dream along the way?
Jodi: I’ve been a creative type my whole life, drawing, writing, playing music so I guess I was born with bugs-Ewwww. Regardless of what I was doing in life I always found time to draw or write. I honed my skills during mind numbing high school and college classes (some of my best doodles came from a statistics course), painted while I was supposed to be working, found a way to include writing in my job, and now I shut the door to my office and ignore reality so I can dive deep into the weird abyss of my creative process. Hmm, I’m making myself sound like a slacker. I promise I got things done, just with the occasional creativity break.
Patti: If you’re like me, you’ve been writing ever since you can remember. But some of us had other careers before we settled on writing. What did you do before you became a wordsmith?
Jodi: I have a graduate degree in Psychology and worked at an eating disorder center in South Florida as an aftercare manager/counselor for some time. I stayed home after I had my son and then we moved back to Michigan. I know what you’re thinking, that I’m crazy for leaving the tropics for the frozen tundra. You may be right.
I didn’t start writing until my son went to kindergarten and I felt like I had enough time to breathe let alone write.
Patti: Many people go to college or graduate school to study writing for children. How has your education, whether writing based or not, informed the work you’re doing today?
Jodi: Honestly, I don’t think much at all. It’s been said that people go into Psychology because they have their own issues and I guess if I tried to make a link between my education and my writing then I would say that my issues make me odd enough to think of the quirky, humorous stories that I like to write.
Patti: Now, let’s talk about WHERE ARE THE WORDS? It’s such a unique and special book. Punctuation marks trying to write a story!!! So perfect! Can you tell us where the idea came from?
Jodi: Thanks! It’s bizarre right? I mean, who thinks of talking punctuation marks? The concept came out of a bad case of writer’s block. I sat at my computer, questioning my ability as a writer and flat out asked my computer, “Where the !@#& are the words?” That was the spark I needed to then ask, “What if someone wants to write a story (me), but literally can’t find words for it?” Once I had the idea I knew I had to present it in a different way and that’s when those sneaky little punctuation marks elbowed their way into the picture. The rest flowed out and was quite fun to create.
Patti: How did your early drafts differ from the final product?
Jodi: I always had the punctuation marks speaking as they act in a sentence, but the way they went about finding the words changed. I think it’s funnier now, especially with Exclamation Point’s role. I also experimented with dialogue tags and some narration, but it just didn’t work.
Patti: Writers love to hear about other writers’ success stories! Can you talk about your journey to publication? How did you connect with your editor and agent, and how did the contract ultimately come together?
Jodi: I say it all the time, the planets aligned (which happens roughly every 500 years) and I was offered a book deal. It goes like this, I won a critique from an author who read my story, offered some feedback, and asked if I would send it to her editor. I sent it and waited 2 ½ months with only one email upfront to say that the editor had received it. Figuring that it was a no I started querying it and then wouldn’t you know it, I opened my email and there was an offer from Albert Whitman! I reached out to the agents I had queried to let them know about the recent development and Linda Epstein emailed me back asking for more work. I was lucky enough to sign with her and she went right to work negotiating the contract with Albert Whitman. I’m very grateful for all of her help in that process.
Patti: We all need great resources to help us along on our writing journey. What are some of your favorite resources- groups, classes, website, blogs- and how do they continue to help you now?
Jodi:SCBWI is probably the greatest resource out there for children’s book writers and illustrators. They are a one-stop shop for finding what you need to write for kids and I would not be the writer I am today if I had not joined. Other online resources I found to be helpful was 12×12 which is open for registration now, Kidlit College offers some great webinars as does Children’s Book Academy, and Facebook groups such as Kidlit 411, Sub it Club, ReFoReMo, StoryStorm, and Agent/Editor Discussion are great for connecting with your peers and having any questions answered. I think continuing education is key to writing for today and tomorrow’s market. What kids need and want evolves so it’s always good to be on top of that and these resources are the best place to stay up to date.
Patti: I like to leave my readers with a nugget or two to think about at the end of each post- a little Sensibility and Sense for the road if you will:) What two pieces of advice would you give to other writers no matter where they are on the path to publication?
Sensibility-Jodi says. . .Let your emotions out. I say this with two scenarios in mind: 1. When writing, access your feelings and use them in your story’s voice or your character’s personality. This will make it feel authentic, a story that only you can write. 2. Writing and submitting can be awfully frustrating. Let yourself be angry, sad, anxious because that’s part of the journey. Go outside and chuck ice cubes at a wall (not a window!), scream into a pillow, ugly cry for a bit and then pick yourself back up and keep writing. Don’t keep those emotions in or they may hold you back from experiencing how rewarding writing is.
Sense- Jodi says. . .Connect with other writers. No one else will understand what you are doing better than people who are doing the same thing. The kid lit community is filled with the most enthusiastic, empathetic, supportive people that I have ever come across and the collective wisdom of the group is invaluable. If being part of a large group is not your thing, then find a small group. By this I mean, join a critique group either in person or online. You should not send a manuscript to an agent or editor without having it looked at by at least three people who can offer feedback. A critique group will provide you with that, but more importantly they will become your champions and friends. At least mine did :0)
Patti- That’s some great writing wisdom, Jodi! It’s been a privilege to be part of your journey. Now, did you want to say something about a FREE critique?
Jodi- I am happy to offer a FREE critique for a picture book manuscript of less than 700 words. Looking forward to reading your work!
Patti: Wow, that’s a generous offer! Let’s do it this way. . .the first 10 picture book writers to comment on this post will get your name in a drawing for a FREE picture book critique from Jodi! Please include your name and the words…I WANT THAT CRITIQUE… in your comment to be eligible!
And don’t forget, I’m offering a BOGO Picture Book Critique Special through the end of January! That means today you have TWO great chances to polish your work and get it ready to submit! So start those comments rolling and check out my offer by clicking the PGWRites Critiques tab above.
Thanks again, Jodi! And be sure to get your copy of WHERE ARE THE WORDS at your local independent bookseller or on Amazon today!
Happy New Year! I hope this post finds you and your families well and off to a great start to 2017. Wow, 2017! Seems odd to see that number in print, but here we are. It’s time for setting both goals and boundaries as we each dive into projects that make our hearts sing! So, in the spirit of this brand-spanking New Year, I want to offer a brand-spanking-new picture book critique special.
For the entire month of January (OK, I’m a little behind since one week has already passed! LOL) I’m offering two PGWRites picture book critiques for the price of one! That’s right…it’s a buy-one-get-one-free opportunity that typically only happens once each year.
So, if you’re ready to start this writing year off with a bang, save those last few changes on that manuscript you’ve been working on and send it in! Then, when you’re ready, you can send in another picture book manuscript for a second critique absolutely free (a $50.00 value)!
Just visit the PGWRites Critiques page and follow the instructions for payment and submitting your manuscript. It’s that easy! Hope to see lots of amazing stories in my inbox very soon!
Here’s to the best writing year ever!
Sensibility– New years are for new beginnings. Dream big and take that important first step.
Sense– Set goals you can reach in a reasonable amount of time. Biting off too much in the first few weeks of the New Year can set you up for failure!
On deck for next week. . . an interview with newly-minted picture book author, Jodi McCay. She’s stopping by to tell us all about her new book, WHERE ARE THE WORDS. And she’s also offering a MS critique (double bonus!). You won’t want to miss it!
Looking for a way to jump-start a summer writing project or take your current work-in-progress to the next level? Then I have a deal for you!
Starting Monday, June 13 through Friday, June 24, purchase one PGWRites Critique and you’ll receive a second critique of a different manuscript absolutely free! Yep, you heard it. Absolutely free!
How to Submit
Simply click on the PGWRites Critiques tab above between June 13-24, follow the submission and payment instructions, and you’ll receive a second PB critique at no additional charge (a $50 value- good for up to one year).
!SHARING BONUS! !SHARING BONUS! !SHARING BONUS!
But wait, there’s more! Anyone who shares this post via Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Linked In by Noon on Friday (June 10) and sends me the link in an email with their PB submission gets a free “second look” on their paid picture book critique submission (a $25 value). So with the BOGO and the SHARE, you’ll receive two picture book critiques plus one “second look” all for the low price of $50! Wow!
What’s so Special about a PGWRites Critique?
A PGWRites Critique goes above and beyond many picture book critiques by providing line edits, in-MS notes, a one-page explanation of those notes as well as a list of guiding questions for revision, all for the low price of $50. I’m so sure you’ll love my services that I’m throwing in an extra critique for free and a second look just for sharing this information with a friend.
So what are you waiting for? (Besides Monday, of course:) You’ve got just a few days to dust off that manuscript and get it ready for a fresh set of eyes and a new perspective! I’m looking forward to reading some great stories and helping make them even better!
In an usual turn of events, the top U.S. prize in children’s literature, the Newbery Medal, recently went to a picture book! Unusual, because the Newbery focuses solely on the quality and message of a story and not the pictures. LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET, written by Matt De La Pena and illustrated by Christian Robinson (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers), is the story of a boy, CJ, and his Nana and the beauty, color and energy she helps him to see in the city around him. It’s a feast for the senses in both picture and story, as CJ’s eyes are opened to people and places he might not otherwise see if it weren’t for Nana’s wisdom and special way of looking at the world.
But how did this 760-word picture book (yes, I counted) manage to get the attention of the Newbery committee this year and come out on top? I would venture to say- not because I’m an expert, just a student of this genre who is always looking for reasons why to love a particular book- it’s the practically perfect and musical use of words and story-telling techniques that get the message of this piece across so clearly and vividly. Basically, you could hear this story read aloud with your eyes closed and still “see” what the author wanted you to see even without the pictures!
Now that’s not to say that the pictures are not equally as powerful to this piece as the words, but since we’re talking about the Newbery here, the story must work on its own.
But for those of us who write picture books, this honor sends somewhat of a mixed message (stay with me here, I’m getting to the point). In almost every workshop, class and seminar designed for picture book writers, we hear, “Leave room for the illustrator to tell the story through pictures,” “Don’t do the illustrator’s job,” “Don’t give away too much so the illustrator has room to create.” We hear it from editors, agents and even from other picture book authors. And all of those things are very true. However, in this case, Matt De La Pena writes a story that sings from beginning to end and does it so perfectly a reader might actually see exactly what the illustrator depicted even if he or she had never seen the pictures. That’s the power of his words and the magic that every writer/illustrator team hopes to achieve with a picture book.
For example, if you look on the very first pages you’ll read, “The outside air smelled like freedom, but it also smelled like rain, which freckled CJ’s shirt and dripped down his nose.” Did the author need to say the rain freckled CJ’s shirt and dripped down his nose? I mean, the illustrator could have just shown that instead. But having those words there, in my opinion, gave the illustrator complete freedom to set the rest of the stage. To put in the tree and the buildings and CJ and Nana walking down the steps of the church. To give the reader a true sense of place so that Nana and CJ’s story could continue, completely unhampered by the need to say more.
And each page does the same work. We read about Nana’s umbrella, and water pooling on flower petals and the bus creaking to a stop in front of them and sighing and sagging as the doors opened…absolutely beautiful and necessary words even though the pictures are also there to create an even richer environment in which the story can unfold.
Why does this excite me? Because I’m a lover of words. I love the music they make when they string together in just-right ways. I love the emotions they convey and the power they have to heal and hurt, teach and tease. I love the laughter they evoke and even the tears, because those things are real and in everyone and for everyone, no matter how young or old. Nana teaches these things to CJ while on their journey, and without her powerful words, guiding him at every step, he would not be able to draw the conclusions he draws about the world around him and the people in it. I want the stories I write to sing in this way, and the fact that this picture book received this well-deserved honor means there’s still room for people like me who like a story that works. Stories that work make room for pictures that make the story sing even louder and more beautifully.
So here’s to perfect picture books! LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET fits that description in every way.
Sensibility-Words have power. Use them to inform, enlighten and uplift rather than to tear down and destroy.
Sense- Take an honest look at your stories. Ask yourself if they work even without pictures, and make revisions accordingly.
What are some practically-perfect picture books you enjoy reading?
So I hit a bit of a milestone last week- OK, I don’t know when I actually hit it, but let’s say I noticed it last week. After a little more than five years with one particular company, I’ve written 161,468 words. Wow! That’s a pretty big number! At any given moment, though, I’m working for at least three companies at a time, so the actual number of words I’ve written in the past five years is most-likely three to four times that number; and that’s just my work-for-hire writing. And what did I get for reaching that milestone you might ask? (Begin drumroll) A water bottle with the name of the company printed on the side. Yep! A water bottle! But hey, in an occupation where even an “atta-girl” is difficult to come by, I’ll take it, and proudly drink from it.
But here’s the thing. . . when I saw that number, I immediately began beating myself up, and the misery lasted for almost 24 hours.
Here’s a sample of the voice in my head (steady, she can be brutal at times):
That’s almost three middle-grade novels. Can you believe that? That’s 161 picture books. How many chapter books did you leave unwritten and for what? You’re so behind all the other writers you know. No wonder an agent hasn’t picked you up yet. You’re 50, and you’ve only sold one book. That’s pathetic.
My husband was finally able to break into my internal dialogue (he’s one of my biggest cheerleaders) and said, “Yes, but think of all those words PLUS everything else you’ve written! Since you started, you’ve written two novels, one chapter book, a poetry collection and who knows how many picture books. And that’s on top of all those other words.”
Hearing that helped a little, but we writers are hard on ourselves by nature. So it wasn’t until breakfast at the end of my 24-hour beat-me-up marathon, that it hit me. Those 161,000-plus words represent piano lessons, violin lessons, trumpet lessons and cello lessons for three kids. They mean bills got paid and music trips to New York and Chicago happened, and field trips happened, and homecoming dances and proms happened and yearbooks happened and college tests and all the other little things that are very big things happened. And all because of words (and the strength from God to write them). When I looked at my youngest daughter across the table, now 17 and heading to college in a year, I realized again what those words had helped to accomplish, and I was thankful. So thankful. . .
So here’s to words, and the things they make happen that are the real stuff of life. They’ve let me be part of the three best stories I’ll ever help to write, and those are Wesley, Julia and Olivia. I love you guys! My three big kids!
Sensibility-Look at your writing in honest ways and celebrate all that you’ve accomplished since you got started. Then eat something chocolate. Chocolate is always good.
Sense- Even when you feel sidetracked by life’s responsibilities, be they writing or otherwise, find a few minutes each day to write something you love (like a blog post;).
What have your words helped you accomplish in the past few years?