Writing KidLit: What I’m Learning on the Journey
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As a nonfiction author of four health and nutrition books, my foray into fiction writing for kids has been an uphill—but amazing—climb over the last two plus years. Even though I feel I’ve always been a writer, writing my nutrition books has been so, so different than writing fiction. Whereas for me, writing nonfiction was more about the technical (which I do love) and less about the creative, I find fiction writing to be highly technical (plot! structure! characters! povs! inciting incident! climax!) and creative. Because I never take the easiest route anywhere (not yet sure if this is an asset or a fatal flaw), looking back at my journey thus far, I realize how backward it has all been.
First, I had to beg to take an at-capacity Young Adult Novel Writing Workshop taught by the fabulous Jennifer Miller at Columbia University in the summer of 2014. (Thanks, Jen, for letting me be your number 16.) Back then, I had never even heard the expression, “Show, don’t tell.” In that class, I was surrounded by a group of bright, talented kids, most of whom were only a few years older than my older son. Despite the age difference between me and all but one of the students (and I won’t even mention that when we had a visitor one day, they mistook me for the instructor), it was in that class that I began to work on my first young adult novel. You read that right. Basically, I started to write a novel even though I had zero novel writing OR fiction writing experience. (If that’s not putting the cart in front of the horse, I’m not sure what is.)
Next, I did something VERY smart: I joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Best. Move. Ever. Through local events and national conferences (I’ve attended the last two conferences in Los Angeles), I’ve met fellow writers as well as agents, editors and some of the most wonderful—and now favorite—authors. SCBWI is an amazing resource for anyone who wants to write (or illustrate) for children and learn from the best of the best not only about the industry, but the craft of bringing a children’s book idea to fruition. I’ve also been to amazing writing retreats at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (I dream of getting my MFA from there someday). The mentors and attendees there are simply amazing, not only as writers, but as people.
Over the last two plus years, I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time perfecting the art of fangirling. Yes, I said fangirling. Apparently, it’s a thing. I’ve attended young adult book events like Yallwest (as a fan) and Yallfest (as press) and countless book signings. I’ve read scores of young adult books (that alone has been an amazing fiction writing education) and have had the pleasure of interviewing several of my favorite young adult authors. (Rainbow Rowell and Jandy Nelson are on my Bucket List.) And for the last eight or so months, I have been a Children’s Literature Fellow through Stony Brook Southampton, working on my novel with great mentors, and getting to know my lovely peers. Although I hope to have my manuscript completed and polished by graduation in mid-January, I’m not quite sure if I’ll be able to meet that goal. But I will take it day by day and give it my best.
One of the very useful things we are assigned to do as part of our fellowship is to read certain craft books. Of course doing so can, at times, be tedious. But each book has taught me so much about the craft and business of fiction. Since this is my second career, I know that learning the ins and outs can only be useful, especially since book writing for children is a highly competitive field. And from what I hear, it’s no easy task to get signed with an agent or to find a publisher for your work. So it’s prudent for me to learn as much as I can before jumping in. I know for sure that it’s far more important for me to first focus on getting my manuscript in the best possible shape before pitching it to an agent. That’s why I am taking the time to make my novel the best it can be. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.
So, back to reading craft books. Our latest assigned reading is the book Minders of Make Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature. Written in 2008 by Leonard S. Marcus, a historian, critic, author and writer, the book provides a rich history of children’s book publishing. Though dense and chock full of information, the book provides a good glimpse of the history of children’s book publishing and all that has influenced it over the years. It makes me realize how much I don’t know about this ever growing and always changing field.
One thing that I loved learning about from this book was the history of the Newbery Medal. Admittedly, I am not sure I had ever heard of (or paid much attention to) this award before seeing the fabulous Kwame Alexander give a keynote at the SCBWI summer conference after he won the 2015 Newbery Medal for his fantastic book, The Crossover. (Of course I spent the better part of my sons’ first decade of life reading to/with them, but I was reading with them only for pleasure and paid little attention to which book won which award). After seeing Alexander speak, and hearing he had won this major children’s book prize, I knew I had to read his book. (I also loved his latest middle grade book, Booked, so much that I wrote a poem called Get This about it. WARNING: I AM NOT A POET.)
In Minders of Make Believe, I learned that the idea for the Newbery came from Frederick G. Melcher. When he was coeditor of The Publishers’ Weekly and secretary of the National Association of Book Publishers, he urged a large group of librarians to create a sort of Pulitzer Prize for children’s literature “as a vehicle for encouraging—and publicizing—high achievement in writing for the young.” He told the librarians that since they had no stake in the fate of any particular book, they’d represent “the jury which could give value” to what was to become the first literary prize for a children’s book. The librarians replied enthusiastically, loving the idea of the award and the fact that they would be the ones to choose the winners. And that is how the John Newbery Medal—in honor of the 18th-century English bookseller-printer-publisher who made popular the idea that “children’s books should offer children delight and instruction in equal measure”—was born.
Although there are countless children’s books that have not won the Newbery Medal or other notable literary prizes, you can be sure that the ones that have earned this top honor—especially in the last few decades when more and more high quality children’s books have been published—are, indeed, terrific. Reading great books is not only joyful and enlightening, but it’s an excellent way to learn and to learn to truly appreciate the art of it all. A few books that have won a Newbery Medal or Honor that I have recently read and enjoyed include the following:
*The Crossover by Kwame Alexander – Newbery Medal Winner, 2015
*When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead –Newbery Medal Winner, 2010
*Out of the Dust (Scholastic) by Karen Hesse –Newbery Medal Winner, 1998
*Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodsen – Newbery Honor, 2015
Since I have only read a few of these books (and plan to read more when time permits), I asked a few of my well-read Facebook friends—many of whom are writers/authors—for their top picks from the Newbery Medal- and Honor-winning list. Here are some of their responses:
~Maureen Herman Morrison: The Crossover
~Eugenie Havermeyer: A Wrinkle in Time, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and Abel’s Island.
~Lauren LeBlanc: Walk Two Moons
~Alyssa Sadoff: Out of the Dust
~Mary Hartley and Rajani Narasimhan LaRocca: The Westing Game
~Hayley Barrett: The Midwife’s Apprentice and A String in the Harp
~Gillian Michelle*: The Graveyard Book, The Number of Stars, Maniac Magee, Hatchet, Bud Not Buddy, Old Yeller, A View from Saturday.
~Elaine Friedman: A Wrinkle in Time, Summer of Swans, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
What are your favorite Newbery Medal- or Honor-winning books?
* She also loves Eleanor Estees who has many books on the list.
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