Thursday, January 28, 2010

Early Poetry Friday: That's Right

I'm going to TEXAS!

Yup. I'm off to speak with my editor, Cheryl Klein, at the Austin SCBWI Destination Publication Conference; visit with my Poetry Sister, Liz Scanlon; check out the city of Austin (my first visit ever); and see if Texas barbecue is as yummy as North Carolina's (doubtful.)

And yes, I am packing my boots.

So, of course, today's Poetry Friday offering is from songwriter Lyle Lovett, who assures me that it's okay if my boots are more urban than cowgirl.

Lyle Lovett

That's Right

You say you're not from Texas
Man as if I couldn't tell
You think you pull your boots on right
And wear your hat so well

So pardon me my laughter
'Cause I sure do understand
Even Moses got excited
When he saw the promised land

That's right you're not from Texas
That's right you're not from Texas
That's right you're not from Texas
But Texas wants you anyway

Full lyrics here

Here's a video of Lyle playing an early version of the song in Austin. I love it because it's obvious the audience hasn't heard it a million times, and Lyle draws every last ounce of juice from the song, leading them along to the big-hearted chorus.

P.S. It's not too late to leave your comments in my post about Mythbusting the author/editor relationship. Cheryl and I will be having this discussion on Saturday, so share your thoughts and join the conversation.

Poetry Friday is hosted at Picture Book of the Day.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Myth Busting

Senior Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, Cheryl Klein, (that would be my editor, Cheryl Klein---we authors are so possessive) is interviewed by Shelli at Market My Words. Go say hello.

Cheryl and I will meet each other for the first time this weekend at the Austin SCBWI Destination Publication Conference. We'll be doing a myth-busting session on the author/editor relationship. We have at least three myths to bust, but I'm curious:

What do you want to know about the author/editor relationship?

Is there a myth you'd like to see busted---or confirmed?

If you have an editor you're working with, what surprised you about the process?

P.S. Are you a fan of the TV show, Mythbusters? If not, why not? aqua fortis and I agree that a series of Mythbuster-based YA fiction or non-fiction would be awesome. Here's a link to the only Mythbusters book I can find.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Poetry Friday: Liz Garton Scanlon

She's going to hate this.

 Liz Garton Scanlon is hosting Poetry Friday today---her first time---and I can't help doing what I'm about to do. I'm afraid every soul in the universe isn't reading her blog, Liz in Ink. Isn't collecting the exquisitely bundled gift of words she so casually leaves for her readers there---calling it a "post" but truly, they are unmarked poems.

For a taste, see her thoughts about the month she wrote daily haiku or her rumination "Is it Enough?" about motherhood or her frontline reports of authorial adventures during school visits.

And then there is her poetry. I hate describing a poet's work---it's like those goofy wine descriptions where everything is plummy or with hints of peppercorn or notes of sweet wheatgrass. Let's just drink a Liz poem, shall we?

by Liz Garton Scanlon
It is nearly impossible  -- impossible --
to recognize the difference
between dog and bear
in the transmuting dark
and the long croony whistle of a train
sounds so much like moo
as to be four-legged and lonesome

A sock looks like a hat
but doesn’t fit and isn’t
a pear looks like an apple
apple sounds like happy
and is

the rest is here, along with more loveliness than you can handle in one day.

Poke about her archives. Subscribe to her posts. If you wish, read my interview with her. Make a friend of Liz in Ink.

The gathering-in of Poetry Friday posts is here.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Of Watering Cans and Lightbulbs

Despite the watering can in my hand, I don't give gardening advice. But look at my face---don't I look like I'm harboring something worth telling?  Maybe it was where I found that rocking sailor dress.

Some days, though, I don't want to tell you what I know; I only want to be the signpost, pointing you to places where good things are growing.

If it's dreary where you are, pop over to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and visit illustrator Melissa Sweet's color-saturated studio. Everything is soaked with the most intense hues. Wallow awhile.

Caroline (of Caroline By Line) is hosting a commonplace book give-away. (Remember my post about these journals on Poetry Friday?) All you have to do is tell her what you might put in it.

Tomorrow, my editor, Cheryl Klein, is twitter chatting with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, author of Eighth-Grade Super Zero. Details are at Cheryl's blog, Brooklyn Arden. If you start now, you can figure out the Twitter thing by tomorrow. It's not hard---I promise---and the conversation will be worth listening to.

Finally, this post at BB-Blog about transforming lightbulbs into planters made me unreasonably happy. Am I wrong in seeing a metaphor for writing a novel in there?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Something from Nothing

To my friends who were recognized at the ALA Awards yesterday: I've sent you emails. You *know* how I feel about you and your work and how richly you deserve the cascade of love and attention pouring over you now. 

For my other writer/illustrator friends who pursue their creative work despite no public acclaim, I'm just as ecstatically proud of you. Your lives, your words, your art . . . it's always a choice to believe in and actively participate in making a Something from the looming chaos of Nothing. And I love you for making that choice each day.

Yesterday was also Martin Luther King Day, a day of service.  My husband and I were last-minute volunteers at a local project hosted by our community college in Northern Virginia. I want to share pictures so you'll see another way Something comes from Nothing. 

The Nothing: kids in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose classroom are often bare of essential supplies

The Something: folders, pencils, notebook paper, erasers, pencil sharpeners, rulers, pencil bags, scissors, colored pencils, composition books (all donated) 

And the missing link: the people who gathered and bagged the supplies to send to Operation International Child, which ships them overseas to . . . 

. . . be distributed by American troops to children. 

If you work with kids or need a fool-proof service project, I highly recommend Operation International Children.  You can view their "report card" here.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Poetry Friday: A Commonplace Book

A week or so ago, I frivolously declared my New Year's resolution to be "eat more cupcakes."

I'm not backpedaling on that. However, since I didn't record my cupcake consumption in 2009, it will be difficult to prove that I've eaten more cupcakes by the end of 2010.  So, in addition to this resolution, I'm also adding:

Keep a Commonplace Book.

Which will be easy, since I already do. You may remember that I blogged about it once and posted a picture:

What is a commonplace book? Simply a journal in which you stash poems, quotes, and generally anything else you wish to hold close. According to, people have been doing this since the Renaissance.  Also courtesy of is this Jonathan Swift quote, which I'm going to print out and paste it in my commonplace book:

"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that 'great wits have short memories:' and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day's reading or conversation.

There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there."

--from "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

I'm so relieved that "great wits have short memories." I'm going to use this as my standard excuse next time I forget your name two seconds after you tell it to me.

Anyhow, my resolution is to keep adding to my commonplace book, and to start a new one. My daughter gave me a planner for 2010, one of those lovely Moleskin ones, and instead of using it to plan, I'm going to use it to record one commonplace thing about each day of 2010. Not an essay, not a paragraph, just the few words I can squeeze into the rectangle allotted each day. Because part of being a writer is observing the commonplace.

Today's entry: My oversized coffee mug, heavy as a cereal bowl, presses into my cupped palm. The weight of it is comforting.

I invite you to join me. If you need an actual journal to begin, and don't want to use a datebook, consider this creation available on etsy which has a love poem by Tennyson on the cover.

I'm clipping the poem framed on its cover to post here:

Spring (from The Window)
by Alfred Tennyson

Birds' love and birds' song
Flying here and there,
Birds' song and birds' love
And you with gold for hair!
Birds' song and birds' love
Passing with the weather,
Men's song and men's love,
To love once and forever.

Men's love and birds' love,
And women's love and men's!
And you my wren with a crown of gold,
You my queen of the wrens!
You the queen of the wrens —
We'll be birds of a feather,
I'll be King of the Queen of the wrens,
And all in a nest together.

P.S. I love thinking of a commonplace book as a nest.

Poetry Friday is hosted  by Great Kid Books, which is featuring the Cybils Poetry finalists today.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What makes a good magazine?

One of my favorite Horn Book features is their recurring short feature, "What Makes a Good . . .?" in which they pose a question about children's literature. This inquisitive focus began in the Sept/Oct 2006 issue in which the question "What Makes a Good Book?" formed the spine of the entire issue, dealing with it both generally in long essays ("Finding Literary Goodness in a Pluralistic World") and in shorter pieces which defined good thrillers, beginnings, translated books, poems, holocaust books, second grade books, bookstore books, fantasies, and endings. On that last one, Virginia Euwer Wolff says "If I give myself over to a book and let it absorb me, I want its ending not to let me go back to the self I was before I read it." Think on that, writers!

The answer to the posed question usually forms a short article, as the one below, "What Makes a Good Read Aloud for Middle Graders?"

I love author Christine McDonnell's choice of Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three as a stellar read aloud. As she says, "Alexander's Prydain series has language that flows like a song and characters whose speech is wonderfully idiosyncratic." Indeed.

But even if she hadn't riveted me by citing my favorite book of all time,  I would've read the entire article with attention, respect, and delight. Because if I had to answer the question, "What Makes a Good Magazine?" I would answer "The Horn Book"---while gleefully flinging open my closet doors to show you the stacks of back issues I've hoarded through the years.

But as Horn Book readers know, there is no assertion like the one I just made without backing it up with well-chosen, linguistically honed, and tightly woven reasons.  So here you go:

What Makes a Good Magazine?

1) It asks questions---continually---of itself and of its readers.

As Parker Palmer says: "Each of us has an inner teacher, a voice of truth, that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems. But that inner voice is often garbled by various kinds of inward and outward interference. The function of the Clearness Committee is not to give advice or "fix" people from the outside in but rather to help people remove the interference so that they can discover their own wisdom from the inside out." (Source)

I hesitate to call The Horn Book a "clearness committee" because it sounds creepily like Doublespeak, but I do think the questions posed in its pages help remove some of the fuzzy thinking that creeps into any group of people devoted to A Good Thing (even children's books.)

(Furthermore, occasionally, as in the current issue on color, The Horn Book models its own proposed answers:  "Color is not just decorative but elucidating." I agree. The full color interior of the refreshed Horn Book makes it much easier to read and enables readers to experience illustrations and cover art as they were meant to be.)

2)  It does not bore. Everything now seems to be blandly academic (if not frozen-cheeked, cheerily PC) or louder-than-thou personality driven without regard to reason or facts. (Think cable news. And yes, I do think raving without facts is boring.)

Rather, The Horn Book conducts the conversation about the topic at hand---be it "retro" picture-book art as considered by Leonard Marcus or an ode by artist Melissa Sweet to the particular shade of pink dubbed "Opera" or (to cite a piece from an older issue) a matter-of-fact discussion of "bad language" in “The Pottymouth Paradox,” by Patty Gauch --- with style and good manners. There is no dull writing here. But neither is there any hair-pulling.

3) It reviews books that I want to read.

I guess that's simplistic. And personal.  And it may even be a flaw, at least in relation to my book buying budget. But if I didn't consistently add to my To Be Read List after finishing each issue, I would be looking for a different review source.

From the current issue, I fell in love with Geraldine McCaughrean's new novel, The Death-Defying Pepper Roux, entirely upon the basis of one image-laden quote the reviewer cited from the book:  Pepper's mother and aunt "leaned in against [his] childhood like a pair of bookends---big, ponderous women, and so full of tragedy they could barely hook their corsets closed." (Okay, and because I loved McCaughrean's The White Darkness.)

I also noted the thoughtful review of the Hilary McKay sequel to A Little Princess ---still making up my mind as to whether to read it but the reviewer's perspective was clearly helpful---and the intriguing description (and full color, hot-pink book jacket) of How to Say Goodbye in Robot.

And that's it. Three good reasons why The Horn Book is a good magazine. And why, if you ever visit me, I might send a sample back issue home with you. (I have to clear out my closet somehow.)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Poetry Friday: Love Comes Hungry

Sometimes, all it takes is one stunning opening line to grab me...

Love Song
by Carol Muske-Dukes

Love comes hungry to anyone’s hand.
I found the newborn sparrow next to
the tumbled nest on the grass. Bravely

opening its beak. Cats circled, squirrels.
I tried to set the nest right but the wild
birds had fled. The knot of pin feathers

sat in my hand and spoke. Just because
I’ve raised it by touch, doesn’t mean it
follows. All day it pecks at the tin image of

the rest is here---along with fabulous daily poetry---at Poetry 180

Poetry Friday is hosted by Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Fat Cat: 2010, you have now been served!

I saved Robin Brande's new novel, Fat Cat, to read as my first book of the new year. Why? Because I knew she'd deliver. 2010, you have now been served! Only books as good as Robin's, please.

What is my standard then?

1) Books with perfect pacing.  I'm weary of the high-tension read----the ones where you skip pages because you HAVE TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS RIGHT NOW. But I don't want a book to poke along either, causing me to push against it, trying to hurry the plot along as if it were a wayward kitten. I want a smooth, engaging, well-told story that I can sink into and read with pleasure.

2) Dialog so natural and funny you forget you're reading and think you're listening. (Robin writes screenplays. It shows.) Cat's friendship with her best friend, Amanda, is particularly winning.

3) Kissing. If there is to be kissing, please consult with Robin first.  In Fat Cat alone, she gives us THREE kinds of romantic kissing, and not all are fluttering doves and slow-melting chocolate. Furthermore, she did not embarrass me. Triple literary green stamps for that.

4) Friendship? Yes. Romance? Yes. Lots of books have these elements. But an interesting scientific idea played out in a creative way? Not many authors can pull this off. Robin knows that science is about exploring, and adapting to circumstances; it's a creative endeavor that is often personal. In Fat Cat, the main character, Cat, is experimenting on herself---and that's precisely what made this story work for me. Cat embodies the scientific outlook---always observing, always tailoring her project to new data, always seeking to ask the right questions----without falling back on that worn stereotype of the robotic, unfeeling science nerd. Cat feels everything---and deeply---and therefore, so do we.

 5) I'm going to wrap up this post because really, don't you think my standard is getting rather intimidating? But I can't help it. I have to squeeze in that Fat Cat also has a realistic resolution, laugh aloud moments, AND I learned stuff.

Fat Cat on Goodreads

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Katherine Paterson: Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?

This is a picture of my desk. Ignore the clutter. Look at my "inspiration shelf" of books---the books I want to look at while I write. The book on the far right, just before the dragon bookmark, is Katherine Paterson's collection of essays, A Sense of Wonder.  (You might also be able to see her The Great Gilly Hopkins and Jacob Have I Loved, as well as a hardback (signed!) copy of Preacher Boy.

You can imagine how thrilled I am that Katherine Paterson---wise, funny, humble, profound, brilliant Katherine Paterson--- has been named as the next National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. I will always remember her slipping into another writer's talk at the L.A. SCBWI conference, and taking a seat two seats over from me in the back reaches of the cavernous main ballroom. She was dressed in plain black clothes and looked like the most ordinary of the ordinary, a woman with no makeup, practical shoes, and not a whiff of pretention about her. Thirty minutes later, she went to the podium in that huge ballroom and laid a spell on the thousands who listened, breathless, to her words. We laughed, we ached, we were opened up to things larger than ourselves. She was extraordinary.

Here is a taste of what we have in store for the next two years of Katherine's service:

(From Do I Dare Disturb the Universe, collected in A Sense of Wonder, first published in The Horn Book, September 1984)

"My primary task is not to disturb a complacent universe or to decry a chaotic one. My task is to see through the disturbance to the unity so marvelously built into the Creation---to somehow find my way though the cacophony of reality to the harmony of truth. I have said elsewhere that my task is to write the best, the truest, story I know how to write. Someone may find these two statements contradictory. I do not." ---Katherine Paterson

Welcome, Ambassador Paterson. I wonder, will you enjoy flashing your Ambassador Medal as much as the irrepressible Jon Scieszka did? Or will you tuck it inside your outfit and walk incognito into a room as you always have?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Most High Ambassador and Champion of Children's Literature, Jon Scieszka

Mary Lee and Franki at A Year of Reading have a roundup of posts devoted to the one and only Jon, who completes his two-year term as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature today. My contribution is here: There Should Be Laughter. But I wanted to say again: 

Thank you, Jon Scieszka, Most High Ambassador and Champion of Children's Literature. You fulfilled the obligations of your post with a fitting balance of serious dedication to reading and unrepentant tomfoolery. Kids (and book lovers) everywhere are grateful.