Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Frankfurt Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market)

I wanted to share a few photos from the Frankfurt Weihnachtsmarkt.

This Christmas market runs for about a month and is filled with stands that sell handicrafts and food and hot drinks. I tasted some of my daughter's hot kinderpunsch and it was flavored with Christmas spices and was very good. Frankfurt's market is large and crowded and has millions of visitors.

Here is the very tall Christmas tree in the Römerberg, the main square downtown.

And another view of this square.
Here is another section of the Christmas market, a few blocks away, right at dusk. It isn't crowded yet--an hour later it was hard to walk through the market.

A gingerbread stand. The heart shaped cookie says Frohe Weihnacht (Merry Christmas).

There are hundreds of Christmas markets throughout Germany and we hope to visit another market this coming weekend.
Have a wonderful holiday season.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Book Previews

Sometimes I get to read a manuscript for another writer. It is always fun to read a work in progress, as well as an honor to be asked to give feedback. Writers often have a few other writers (sometimes called beta readers) read their book before they send it to an agent or editor.

In the next few months some of manuscripts I’ve read will become published books. The books will likely be a little different from what I read because a lot can change during the editorial process. Follow the links to learn more about these books and authors.

All of these books have memorable characters, great plots, and are fun to read!

The Dark Divine by Bree Despain. Young adult paranormal. Available December 22nd. If you want to read the first few chapters you can go here. This is not the normal genre I read, but I loved this book.

Palace Beautiful by Sarah DeFord Williams. Middle grade fiction. Available April 15th. Her characters are still vivid in my mind and I read this book about 2 years ago.

Thief Eyes by Janni Lee Simner. Young Adult Fantasy. Available April 27th. This is set in modern day Iceland, yet uses some characters from the Icelandic sagas. Very authentic and a very cool book.

There is another book coming out super soon that I’m also looking forward to.

One fun part of Vermont College of Fine Arts' residencies is that faculty and graduating students give readings. Often the faculty read from works in process. There are a lot of books I’m excited to read, yet I need to wait a year or two. But Rita Williams-Garcia's book, One Crazy Summer is coming out January 26th. Rita was a National Book Award finalist this year for her incredible young adult book, Jumped.

Not a preview, but there is another book I want to recommend. Marion Dane Bauer read The Longest Night to us last July. It was released in August. This wonderful picture book, which has stunning illustrations, is a perfect book to read this winter.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Non-Fiction Books and Children’s Literature

It is a great year for non-fiction children’s books. Two of the finalists and the winner of the National Book Awards (Young People’s Literature category) are non-fiction books. This is the first time a non-fiction young adult book has won this award.

I just finished reading Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, the award winning book. It is well written, interesting, and tells such an important and incredible story. I love the way Hoose includes so many of Claudette’s own words from interviews that he had with her. It is an incredible book.

This weekend NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) has their annual convention. On Saturday, November 21st, Shelley Tanaka receives the Orbis Pictus Award for Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator.

Both Claudette Colvin and Amelia Earhart are interesting to read, are meticulously researched, and both tell the story in a way that creates additional meaning. Both use sidebars and photos to add information to the text.

What makes a great non-fiction book?

I’ve been thinking about this because one of the books I’m working on this semester with Shelley Tanaka is a non-fiction picture book. This book is unique. I can’t find any books on the subject, but it is one that will fascinate kids and I think it will fascinate adults.

I’ve had to choose the best way to approach my topic, find the voice for my book, figure out the structure, and decide what will most interest the child reader. My book is for children in lower grades. Because of this my book will be shorter (32 pages) and my main text will be simpler with fewer words. That way a child can read just the main text and look at the pictures. An older child can also read the sidebars and floating blocks that contain more information.

One of the fun things that a writer can do when writing a non-fiction picture book is design the book so it will appeal to several ages of readers. This way the book can be read on many levels. Two examples of picture books that do well this are An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long, and The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sís.

Not all great non-fiction picture books for children use sidebars. A wonderful example of one without sidebars is Ballet of the Elephants by Leda Schubert.

So, back to my question. What makes a great non-fiction book for kids?
The Orbis Pictus Award says a book needs to have accuracy, organization, design, and style. You can find their definition of these criteria here. Great illustrations or photos, an engaging authorial voice, and a topic that is made interesting to children and teens are also important. I'm looking forward to my next residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts. A discussion about several young adult non-fiction books, which we will all pre-read, is on the schedule.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Voice Hunting

I’ve been thinking about voice recently because I was searching for a voice for a non-fiction picture book I’m revising. This book needed more than a drastic revision. It needed a different voice. It needed a different approach to the subject. When I opened up a blank document I didn’t look at the previous two versions, which are as different from each other as bread is different from an apple. I played with words and sentences for days and days. Then it clicked. The writing flowed when I found the voice that felt “right” for this book.

There are many definitions of voice.

The most common one we think of is the author’s voice. For example, Jane Yolen’s voice is very different than E. B. White’s voice. Voice is hard to define, but it includes everything from word choice to syntax to the structure and approach to story.

A writer needs to be able to create an authentic voice for each character. An good example of this is demonstrated in Rita Williams-Garcia’s recent novel, Jumped (National Book Award finalist). This story is told in first person, with three points of view. The three characters take turns narrating. Each character has a unique voice.

A writer also needs to create a voice for each book--or type of book. Each voice gives a different perspective and a different feel. Basically, a writer needs to learn to control voice.

My “voice” is developing (maturing?) as I gain experience and as my writing skills improve. I found I developed a distinct picture book voice during my picture book semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I feel my best picture books were in this voice; I can of course alter this voice, or write a picture book in a different style. I find I naturally use different voices depending on what I’m writing and who the audience is.

Typically I don’t think about voice when writing. I just write. But this past week or so, I’ve consciously worked on voice. In essence, I'm learning to hone the tone and style of my words and sentences and stories. As I think about what I've written, it seems that in some cases voice has come naturally, while other times the voice evolved, or I had to purposely go out and find the right voice.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Frankfurt Book Fair 2009

I attended the Frankfurt Book Fair on Friday and Saturday. I live in town, quite close, so wanted to see it.

What it is--this is a rights fair. There were about 7000 exhibitors this year. Publishers and editors and agents and scouts meet and make deals, or buy and sell rights to publish a book in another country. The site of the trade show consists of many huge buildings, most with two or three floors. It is so big that shuttle buses run continuously. It is over a mile from one side to the other.

Here is a view (taken from the floor above) of part of the German children's book section-- Hall 3.0. You can see H and J. The depth is hard to see. This isn't the biggest hall, but it is still huge. It wasn't crowded at this time on Friday, but on Saturday I couldn't even shove through the crowds. I left and went to another hall.

Almost all the booths had books lining the walls. Some booths were small, about 8 by 12 feet, with a table in it. Other were massive, with over 50 tables. This is a not a fair where ARCs (advanced readers copies) are handed out.

I spent most of my time in the US, British and Canadian hall, and the hall with German children’s books. I also looked at publishers from all over the world, stopping at many booths with children’s books.

Most US publishers had their children’s books in a good location, near the front, to catch people’s eyes. Plus there were many publishers who specialize in children’s books, like Peachtree, Candlewick and Usborne.

The French children’s publishers, l'ecole des loisirs and Pastel, had the best designed booth that I saw. It caught my attention from the back side. See the paned windows, with books in each pane.

The front also looks great.

I fell in love with some books from a variety of publishers. (I hope they sold some rights to US publishers.)

Here are a few my favorite foreign publishers that I'd never heard of before-

Kalandraka is based in Spain and publishes award winning picture books. A Big Dream caught my eye, as well as several other books. (The book is translated into English but I could only find a photo of it in one spot on the internet, and that site is in Spanish.) I wanted to buy some of these books for myself to take home and read. Some of these titles would sell very well in the United States.

Mladinska knjiga Zalozba in Slovenia has lovely picture books. I wandered back to their booth several times, just to enjoy the book covers. They have some great illustrators.

Amarin Printing from Thailand. This company has some very nice books. I think some would fit very well in the US market. I particularly liked the Preecha Taothong's illustrations in The Brave Blue Crab. I actually bought a couple books on Saturday with gorgeous illustrations. (Sometimes the publishers don’t want to carry the books home with them so will sell them or give them away.) The books I bought are in Thai, but a translation was taped in.

I’m excited to attend the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in March, and look forward to the Frankfurt Book Fair 2010.

More photos are on Angela Cerrito's blog and on my livejournal blog.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Happy 175th Anniversary Vermont College

This Saturday, October 3rd, VCFA will celebrate the 175th anniversary of Vermont College.

VCFA is hosting a celebration this weekend in Montpelier.

This is a gorgeous time of year in Vermont.
I would love to see this view of College Hall with autumn colors flooding the landscape.
I'll try to use my imagination as I look at this photo.

Happy Anniversary Vermont College!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

ALA Banned Books Week

Today is the beginning of ALA's Banned Books Week, which runs from September 26th to October 3rd this year.

Their site has links with explanations of how books are challenged as well as lists of frequently challenged books, which includes books such as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (2007) and Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (2002-2003). Here is an interesting chart (scroll down) which shows "Challenges by Reason."

University of Virginia Libraries has an online exhibit titled, Censored: Wielding the Red Pen. One page shows picture books that have been challenged. These included The Amazing Bone by William Steig and Where the Wild Things are by Maurice Sendak. Interestingly, the Bible was one of the first books to be censored and burned--in 1536.

Each individual will have different views of what is appropriate for them and their family. We can express our opinions, but shouldn't impose our views on others. Also, each parent can make choices for their own children.

From what I've seen, kids won't choose to read books if they aren't ready or able to handle the material. Books which cover tough topics and which show how characters deal with issues, allow children to view these problems in a safe environment. Books can be a good discussion lead in, so parents or other adults can discuss things openly and express their views/values, which can actually protect children more than ignoring tough topics.

This map shows book bans and challenges from 2007-2009.
From what I could see, when enlarging the map, the only states without challenges were Vermont, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Delaware, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.

The last country I've lived in banned books. Many books and magazines were not allowed into the country, which is the right of that country and within their laws. Pages and lines had been blacked out in some textbooks at my kids' school, though not in books my kids used. There were many times I could not access information online because it was blocked.
Living in such an environment, after being used to greater freedoms, was troubling to me.

I am grateful for the freedom to read books which I want to read.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Translated from English

Foreign book covers are always fun to look at--often I like them better than the American cover.

Here are some photos of a few of my writing friends' books that I took in a couple bookstores in Frankfurt.

The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas
This was just released here in Germany--The Magic Thief got a special stand on a table full of middle grade books. Hardcover books are always encased in plastic.

Invisible Lives by Anjali Banarjee.
Face out!

Two of the Wicked Lovely series by Melissa Marr. There were stacks of these books.

Climate Change by Shelley Tanaka and Heck Superhero by Martine Leavitt. I had to hunt for these, but they were published here a year or two ago.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

How to tell this story?

I'm working on revisions of three very different stories (all in different genres) this week. One great thing about VCFA is it encourages me to explore and try all sorts of writing I might not have tried on my own.

Uma Krishnaswami taught me many things last semester and one thing (of several) that sticks with me is that asking questions is vital to my writing.

I ask myself " What is the best way to tell this story?" when I revise. This question leads me to other questions. Asking questions, even ones that might not be logical on the surface, help me explore the story and learn more about my characters. Questions help me see the story in a different way.

Writing is often a circular path. It involves experimenting, playing with possibilities. The longer I spend with a story, the better I know my characters. Then I can push deeper and learn more about my characters.

There are so many craft elements that effect the way the story will be told. At some point in the revising process I have to think about each choice I made and why I chose to craft that aspect of the story in the way I did.

I am fascinated by the process of writing and revising. I think of it as play. It is fun to play with words and characters and situations.

There are many ways to tell each story. Perhaps there isn't a "best" way to tell a particular story. Each possible approach will create a different effect and in some cases a very different story.

Shelley Tanaka wanted me to do a variety of things as I revised this month. She also wanted me to think about what is perhaps the most important question of all: "What do I love about this story?"

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The new Jacket Knack Blog

Check out Jacket Knack, a new blog that talks about covers on kids' books. Julie Larios and Carol Brendler post every Monday.

They are posting in depth and fascinating discussions, as well as many examples of book jackets. This week Brenda continues the discussion about the Liar cover controversy and interviews Nnedi Okorafor, an African-American author of young adult fantasy novels.

For those who aren't familiar with publishing, writers rarely have much input on the cover of their book. It is always an exciting day when my friends see their book cover for the first time.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Historical Treasures of Children’s Literature #2 -Struwwelpeter

An early picture book I just discovered is Struwwelpeter.
I found the Struwwelpeter statue in downtown Frankfurt. The man holds his gun in the statue--at the end of one of the stories the rabbit holds (and shoots) the gun. The girl on the left is the one who burns up in her story. Look at the water flowing from the cats' eyes!

About a week ago I took a walk close to where I live in Frankfurt and found this bench.

The writing on the placard states that Heinrich Hoffmann is a picture book writer.

I’d never heard of him. So I came home and learned more. Hoffmann was a doctor and lived most of his life in Frankfurt. He wrote his first picture book as a Christmas present for his children in 1844, supposedly because he didn’t like any existing children’s books.
There is information about him at the Struwwelpeter museum (which I plan to visit soon) in Frankfurt. (Site is in German.)
There is also information in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, a journal and of course on Wikipedia.

Hoffmann’s stories were very popular and translated in many languages. It seems that his books influenced later picture books, as in both the types of stories told and the illustrations.

Hoffmann’s most famous work is Struwwelpeter: Merry Stories and Funny Pictures, published in 1845. It was one of the best know picture books in the 1800’s. The first English translation was in 1848.

This book contains violent stories and images by today’s picture book standards: a girl burns up because she plays with matches, a tailor chops off a boy's thumbs because he sucks them, and a rabbits shoots a gun at a man.

Another photo of the Struwwelpeter
statue in downtown Frankfurt.

Mark Twain also translated this book (Slovenly Peter, 1891) when he was lived in Berlin, but it wasn’t published until 1935.

To read the book go to this link at Project Gutenberg which is a great place to find older, out of copyright books. Their main page is here.
Struwwelpeter can also be found here.

My previous Historical Treasures of Children’s Literature #1 blog post is here. It discusses The Tragical Death of an Apple Pie, (about 1840), an ABC picture book which doesn’t use the letters I, T and U.

Monday, July 27, 2009

VCFA residency--lectures, workshops, readings and more

VCFA residency was fast-paced, intense, incredible, as always. I love residency. It is so energizing to be with so many writers who are committed to children’s literature.

Julie Larios has wonderful information about many of the lectures on her blog--a great place to get a small taste of VCFA. Uma Krishnaswami gives a 60 second whirlwind synopsis of her lecture on her blog--go there and read it. I already used some of what she presented while revising a book this past week. Excellent info.

I learned so much from my workshop with Kathi Appelt and Uma Krishaswami. I submitted first drafts of three stories. One I submitted feeling it would be a good learning book. In my opinion the workshop is a place to learn how to improve my writing, as well as a place to get feedback on a story. But other writers felt this book has potential (and one writer had dreams about it); I still believe it is a learning book--it is a concept book--but will revise for fun and to figure out how to make the story work better. I like revising. Also, I now have some excellent ideas of how to revise another super fun book, which is one of those books where the characters got involved in the story creation. But the most important part of the workshop is learning how to look at everyone’s stories, both raw and more polished and learn how to find the heart of them, and what the possibilities are, so each story can be made the strongest possible and become a story that children will love.

One of my favorite parts of residency (well I love all of it: the workshop, the lectures, the discussions) is the readings. It is such fun to hear faculty read from works in progress, and often these are truly works in progress--as they revised them moments before, or even while reading. Then a few years later, we get to read the final text in the printed book.
The readings are open to the public, so if you are in Montpelier during a residency, come up to campus and enjoy.

My presentation went well and generated many questions. I discussed atypical arcs in picture books--these are more common than most readers or writers realize. I covered the eleven most common atypical arcs. Understanding the possible arcs (or structures) that can be used instead of (or in addition to) the standard Aristolean plot arc allows the writer more flexibility, and gives unity to our books. A point that I feel is very important is that we should layer arcs. The strongest picture books use more than one narrative arc. If anyone wants to read the essay I based my presentation on, send a message to my email which you can find under my profile, and I’ll forward you a copy.

For the next five months my advisor/mentor is VCFA faculty member Shelley Tanaka, who is also a Canadian editor at Groundwood books (which publishes Canadian, not American writers.) She won the Orbis Pictus award earlier this year for her book Amelia Earhart. I look forward to another incredible semester. I will learn so much from her about writing both fiction (novels) and non-fiction picture books.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Vermont College of Fine Arts Residency

I am in Montpelier, Vermont, ready for the start of my third residency at VCFA for the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Julie Larios, a faculty member and an incredible poet, will be posting each day about residency. Go visit her blog and read about it.
She posts awesome poems too--check out her Poetry Fridays. She also has written some great books of poetry for children and adults.

This residency I am on the picture book panel.
I wrote a long essay, "Finding Unity: Crafting a Spine in Pictures Books with Atypical Narrative Arcs" for a packet, and that is what my presentation is based on.

As I worked to put my presentation together, making it a presentation for an audience, rather than an academic essay, I came up with a catchy title: "deviant rule-flouting picture book narratives." (Yes, the title is all in lower case.)

It looks like the panel is scheduled for Wednesday morning next week. I'll post a little more about my topic afterwards.

Vermont College is such an incredible place. The next ten days will be intense, exciting. I look forward to my workshop group (with Uma Krishaswami and Kathi Appelt) and all the great lectures and readings and other activities.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Semester Break

Vermont College of Fine Arts has long semesters, about 20 weeks long. We have breaks, about three or four weeks long, during December/January and June/July.

So what do I do during the semester break?

Family things.
This break I moved from China to Germany. We are exploring our new city.
Last December I went to Beijing and Xi'an.

I read. We get a list of books that the faculty will use in their lectures so I am reading those as well as three other assigned books for a discussion at residency. I also read all the manuscripts for my workshop group--there are ten of us, so that is about 25 stories because I am in a picture book workshop this time.

Also for this coming residency--I will give a presentation as part of the picture book panel. I am fine tuning it, putting finishing touches on my power point, giving my presentation to a few friends (over the computer) so I can see what I need to adjust.

I revise. I already revised several picture books using Uma Krishnaswami's response to my last packet, which included editorial notes and line edits.
I am also revising a novel, the one I drafted first semester.

I read for friends. I get to read a novel for a writing friend. The first draft even. I always enjoy reading books at the various stages and giving feedback. This will be fun.

During break I don't have packet deadlines and the pace is different. It is a time to recharge and read and write--
and look forward to Vermont.
My next semester starts soon: residency begins July 11th.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Change seems to be constant. This summer means a lot of changes for me.

1. International move. I just moved from China to Germany. Even though I've moved 5 times internationally, it is always a complex challenge.
(I am now able to get on this blog again; it had been blocked for the past month.)

2. Another language. German is easier than Chinese, especially because I can read the words. I hope to be speaking within a month because I had German in high school. I already had an eye appointment, and communicated okay.

3. New climate. From tropical (hot and humid) to continental, which must be colder than normal. I'm wearing a jacket because it is only reaching the 60's during the days.

4. Summer always means kids home from school. It is fun, but alters my writing schedule immensely.

5. New advisor. A new semester means a new advisor. Uma Krishnaswami was incredibly wonderful and I'd love to work with her longer-- on both picture books and other creative writing besides picture books, but in a few weeks I'll turn in a list of several potential advisors and get paired up with another great VCFA advisor. Happily, they are all good.
(Vermont College of Fine Arts has a new website--check it out!)

6. My writing. I won't decide exactly what I'll work on next semester until I find out who my advisor is. I might work on the novel I drafted during my first semester. Or there are many other interesting projects that I could work on.

Learning to deal with change, learning to invite change, learning to embrace change, is so critical to the writing process.
Change of some sort was needed in one of my picture books, but it wasn't clear what to do; so I took what Uma told me, looked at the possibilities that could resolve the issue and decided to alter the setting. It only took three words, but the whole texture of the book is different and it is more vivid now.
Changing the setting or a character triggers a domino effect, and if the change is carefully thought out while revising, the story becomes stronger.

Change in life is kind of like revising stories. Both are challenging, and can be enjoyable if we don't resist the changes and are willing to take risks and explore.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Writing Backwards

I’ve created all sorts of writing exercises for myself in my search for more picture book stories. Next week I need to turn in a few for the workshop portion of my residency in July. I tried three different approaches last week and came up with three new stories. One of these involved a dictionary and random words. That was fun and I ended up with an interesting story.

Most recently I wrote backwards, as in opposite of the way I normally do. Typically I’ll write the story first, and then storyboard (or outline) it. But this time I printed out my storyboard template--essentially a page (designed on excel) with little boxes--before I wrote the story. Then I overlaid Uma Krishnaswami’s suggested picture book layout and wrote the basic elements of story (elements like turning points) into some squares. (By the way, I am first in line for a copy when Uma publishes a writing craft book.) Then I wrote a few words about each of the major story points in the squares.

After I filled out my sheet, I used what I came up with and wrote the story. Of course it needs revising if I choose to develop this story. (I don’t develop every story I write.) This was a very interesting process and helped me understand plot and story development in another way.

I still prefer to start with a character and see what happens as the story unfolds. But I enjoy experimenting.

I should try another backwards approach. I never know how my stories will end when I start them. I wonder what kind of story I’ll find if I start with the ending and work backwards, scene by scene.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Manuscript Critique Auction--benefits Hunger Mountain

Amazing authors who are also great teachers are donating manuscript critiques to raise money for the literary journal Hunger Mountain. (Vermont College of Fine Arts journal.)

Check it out.

A full manuscript critique with National Book Award finalist, Martine Leavitt!
A Picture book critique with Newbery Honor author, Marion Dane Bauer!
A full manuscript critique with Donna Jo Napoli!
A manuscript critique with Laura McGee Kvasnosky!
A YA or MG critique by Tim Wynne-Jones!
A YA or MG critique with Sarah Ellis!

A full manuscript critique by literary agent Mark McVeigh!!! No page limit!

YA or MG critique with Assistant Agent Tracy Marchini!

This is a great opportunity to get feedback from some amazing authors.

And more authors and poets are donating critiques. I only listed some of them.
Look for details at the auction site.

The online auction is here.

Additional details can be found on Cynsations.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Guzheng Music--yes, that is me playing

At risk of embarrassing myself, I am sharing some video clips of me playing the guzheng.
I uploaded them to my flickr--the only place I have available, so I have a time limit. Because of this, I filmed 2 parts of a song.

The camera angle is odd. I look down at my hands while playing and never saw them from the side before.
I used a Canon camera which is designed for photos, but the video and sound quality is okay.
(I didn't know where to upload my other option, which captures higher quality sound, but no video.)

I started lessons last September. So, I've not played this instrument for very long. I've had about 20 lessons. This piece is far from perfect, but does give you a sense of the guzheng.
Here is a post from last December which shows some pictures and gives additional info about the guzheng. There is also a photo of the music, which is very different from Western musical notation.

I was unable to upload the videos. Sorry, I need some major tech help here.

You can see them in on my flickr: beginning of song and end of song. Depending on your internet connection, you might need to hit pause, let the movie load and then hit play.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Narrative Arcs

I've been studying narrative arcs.
The goal--to tell the story in the best way for that story.

The plot theory most people are familiar with is Aristotle's. At the most fundamental level, a narrative arc is the arrangement of the events in a story.

Small changes such as the repositioning of a page turn, or switching the position of two sentences can change the meaning of picture book story and alter the narrative arc. "Small" changes have a big influence in a novel's arc too, such as changing the order of scenes, or altering a beginning or ending of a chapter.

Narrative arcs are created by a variety of techniques, including the order of events, how and where and if a climax occurs, point of view, setting, tone, repetition, and layering of thematic elements. All of these choices and more contribute to the narrative arc. The characters and their arcs can follow the same trajectory as the narrative arc, but sometimes follow a different pattern.

Narrativity theory, or the way the writer writes the story and the way the reader reads, should be considered when revising.

A few questions to consider.
Will the story be linear or non-linear?
How many characters tell the story? One, two, ten? Or is a storyteller narrator best?
Is an experimental form better than a traditional arc?
Can more than one arc be layered in the story?
What should be included and just as important, what should be left out?

The arc creates the rhythm of the story. In many stories this will show as the increase and decrease of tension. In other stories, the story carries the reader along at a constant rate and in others there is a steady increase of tension. Tensionless stories also exist.

Part of what I've been studying are atypical narrative arcs in picture books, and how these books engage the reader, even when some "essential" elements are removed. I'll give a 15 minute presentation on ways to craft a spine by using atypical narrative arcs at residency next July at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I started thinking about this last residency during workshop when Uma Krishnaswami mentioned a few ways to create narrative arcs. This is especially interesting with picture books, because there are so many available narrative approaches that are effective with picture book narration. It apears most of the theory and discussion focuses on other areas of literature. There is much to consider about narratology and literary theory within the picture book genre. From what I've explored so far, picture books seem to revel in the freedom of atypical arcs.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Vermont College of Fine Arts--mid-semester

My second packet is now with Uma, my advisor.

This pause time is always brief, but allows me to step away from my current stories. That is an important step because in a few days when I look at those stories again I will see them without the blurred vision that comes from working with a story so closely.

I write other stories while I wait. I am working on a couple new stories, plus I opened an old file and started revising a novel. I want to see if I could work on both picture book manuscripts and a young adult story at the same time. It is a good experiment to do for a few days.

The semester is fast paced. I am in a special picture book semester where I learn the craft of writing picture books. I'll turn in a lot of picture books (eight so far), revise some of these books (turned in four revisions so far), write several essays which focus on writing craft, and read many, many picture books and a few craft books. In addition, I'll prepare and give a presentation as part of the picture book panel during residency.

The online workshop with the other picture book students and Uma is incredible. It is a continuation of the residency workshop. That is the aspect that makes this special semester unique. We each turn in a picture book once a month (5 total in the semester) comment on each book, revise, then post our story again for additional comments.

I get asked a lot of questions about Vermont College of Fine Arts. I love to talk about Vermont College and what an incredible experience it is. Great information is available on a Wikipedia page and on Vermont College's website. Recently Cynthia Leitich Smith interviewed Sharon Darrow, the faculty chair, on Cynsations.

The Vermont College experience is incredible. The culture is wonderful. All involved--other students, faculty, administration--are committed to children's literature. I have made life-long friends. Residency is intense and amazing. The semester, the packets, and the one on one interaction with my advisor are stimulating and pushes my writing far beyond what I could have ever achieved on my own. It is exciting to see my writing stretch and grow and evolve each month.

I've been asked if my MFA is worth it.
Besides marrying my awesome husband and having great kids, it is the best thing I've done for myself.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Historical Treasures in Children's Literature #1

In my exploration of picture books I've found some treasures.

This is perhaps my favorite:
The Tragical Death of an Apple Pie

A was an Apple-Pie.
B Bit it.
C Cut it.
D Divided it.
E Eat it.
F Fought for it
G Got it
H Had it
J Joined for it
K Kept it
L Longed for it
M Mourned for it
N Nodded at it
O Opened it
P Peeped into it
Q Quartered it
R Run for it
S Snatched it
V View'd it
W Won it
X, Y, Z, and &,
they wished for a piece in hand.

I kept the punctuation as it appears in the book. Also, the "and &," is exactly how it reads.
The letters are, in essence, characters. This is a nice touch.

Are you as surprised as I am at which letters are missing from this ABC book?

The couple present tense verbs thrown in are an interesting choice. Actually the use of verbs for alphabet letters is a bit uncommon.

This book was written about 1840, unknown author, unknown publisher. It can be accessed at the Internet Archive American Libraries. The woodcut illustrations are charming. A later version (with different illustrations) which appears in Uncle Charlie's Book of Nursery Rhymes (London, 1897), still omits some letters.

Monday, March 2, 2009

School lunches in China

I love reading the elementary school lunch menu my youngest brings home.

We packed school lunches in the past, but because bread, cheese, peanut butter, and the other mainstays of packed lunches are uncommon and expensive here, we now buy school lunches. My youngest has to pre-choose Western Menu or Asian menu for each day of the month.

One interesting thing is that in this area of China (Guangzhou) soup is necessary for a meal to be complete. Soup is served with every lunch option. Also--Lotus is water lily. It actually tastes pretty good.

She attends an international school.

Here are a few examples of meals from the Asian menu:
  1. Lotus Root soup, Grilled chicken breast with Ginger and Lemon, Thai Fried Rice, Spinach
  2. Sea Weed with Egg Soup, Chicken Satay, Vegetable Udon Noodles, Bok Choy and Black Mushroom
  3. Steamed Rice in Lotus Leave [sic], Winter Melon Soup, Stir Fried Bean Sprouts.
  4. Lotus Root Soup, Char Kway Teow (Malaysian Fried Noodles), Spring Roll, Chinese Cabbage
  5. Water Cress Soup, Beef w/Broccoli, Spring Onion Chinese Pancake, Cauliflower
These dishes also looked interesting: Chicken and Bean Sprout Soup, Braised Tofu.

Here are a few meals from the American menu:
  1. Cream Mushroom Soup, Grilled Duck Breast, Hash Brown, Broccoli and Sweet Corn
  2. Grilled polenta, pumpkin soup, Mexican fajita, Fish fingers, Snow peas and Cherry tomato
  3. Russian Soup, Sauteed Beef Cubes, Crispy Potato Ball, Ratatouille
  4. Broccoli Soup, Mixed Peppers w/Beef Potatoes, Rissoles, Mixed Diced Veggies w/Butter
  5. French Onion Soup, Roast Pork, Loin Pasta w/Garlic Ratatouille
This sounds good to me: Pan-fried Fish fillet with Tomato.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Finding Story

Sometimes my stories find me. The characters appear and want me to tell their story.

Other times I need to find the story.

This semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts I’m in a program with a special picture book emphasis. This means I will write and turn in A LOT of picture books! I will turn in between four and five picture books this month.

Stories come from lots of places. Some come in dreams. Some are found in real life: an object, a comment, a situation. Others appear halfway between conscious and subconscious thought--early morning is a prime time to access this part of the brain. So is meditation.

Picture books are so different than novels and because of this my discovery of story and characters is different. With novels, I start with characters in a situation and they create the story as they make choices. With a picture book I have to find an idea or a place or a character and know more before I begin writing.

Catching a story is like finding butterflies. A butterfly might appear, just like some stories appear. These stories are gifts. But most of the time we need to go and look for the butterfly or if we really want lots of butterflies around we can plant a garden that invites butterflies to not only visit, but live near us. In a similar way we look for stories. Finding stories can be hard. Sometimes we might look and not find anything. Or we look and look and finally sit down and start typing in hopes some sort of story will emerge.

I am trying something different. After I returned from Vermont I knew I needed to find more stories. Now almost every day I create my own writing prompt. Somewhere, anywhere--perhaps in my mind or outside during a walk--I find an idea or an object and I write some words of a picture book. I don’t worry about writing great words or a great story. I don’t worry about writing a complete story. I just write--something, from any idea. These partial stories are a fertile garden, a garden for finding butterflies. I’ve developed some of what I’ve written into picture books. Reading through what I’ve written also triggers story ideas. In essence I’m creating a place where my stories can live.

Committing myself to writing an aspect of a story almost every day is a way of playing. Playing with words. Playing with ideas. Playing with stories. As I play I find stories with meaning and stories that are fun to write.

I want to write one more story to turn in with my first packet to Uma. (Uma Krishnaswami writes such marvelous books. You are missing out if you've not experienced her stories.)

I need to go play in my story garden. Maybe my next butterfly will be huge and colorful, resting on a flower waiting to be caught, or maybe it will be small, fluttering anxiously from flower to flower, almost out of reach.

I won’t know what story I’ll find until I enter the garden.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Photos from my trip to Northern China

I uploaded some photos from my trip to Beijing, the Great Wall and Xi'an to my flickr. You can see them here.

I'll post a few of my favorites below.

These two pictures were taken at the Great Wall at Ju Yong Guan near Badaling

The following picture is a detail of the roof at the Lama Temple in Beijing.

Fried Scorpions, anyone? What about silk worm larva? And more delicacies?
I wasn't brave enough to chomp into one of these. And yes, you eat the whole thing!

The Temple of Heaven. The first photo is a detail of roof tiles and the next picture is taken from a sacrificial mound looking toward the northern part of the temple complex.

This next photo was taken at the Ming tombs. It is the top of an outdoor balustrade.

The following pictures were taken in/near Xi'an.The first photo was taken on the Goose Pagoda grounds in Xi'an. The next photo is of of bricks that are part of the huge, absolutely huge, ancient wall of Xi'an. They are signed. If a brick broke the maker would be executed. Now that is extreme quality control! (I think if you click on the photo it will be larger.) The last picture is a closeup of some of the Terra Cotta Warriors.

The train ride to Xi'an was quite interesting. We took the night train. There is no privacy because there are no doors to the sleeping compartments--luckily there were 6 of us and 6 bunks arranged 3 high on a side are in one compartment, or we'd have had to share with strangers. The squat toilets open to the track which flies by underneath.

I also enjoyed the Beijing Capital Museum. I'd suggest visiting this museum to anyone who visits Beijing.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bookstores are wonderful places

I love visiting bookstores in every country where I live. A bookstore (Eymundsson's) in Iceland was convenient for me--it was downtown, just a short walk from my home. There was a coffee shop upstairs. Here in China there are many bookstores. Of interest--most books in the US are printed in the region where I live. The bookstores tend to be either small or tinier than one could imagine.

A tiny book store which is about 4 feet wide and 6 feet deep.

I've seen smaller stores here in Guangzhou.
I'm also amazed when I see a bike loaded up with books and magazines. I've even seen bikes used as movable newstands.

I visited a large bookstore when I was in Beijing. Of course I wandered over to the children’s section, which is comparatively small compared to children's sections in US stores, and spent a long time looking at all the titles. There are several children’s books from the US that are translated into Chinese. I didn’t find the Chinese young adult section, even though I’ve seen one in a much smaller bookstore. I exercised little constraint and bought 9 picture books.

These are dual language books (Chinese and English) and are traditional tales. The cost was reasonable, about $3 for each 46 to 64 page long paperback picture book. (About 6 by 9 inches.) I was excited to find Chang’e Flying to the Moon. There are several versions of the story: The book I bought is closest to version 1, with some notable differences.

I always like to buy a few picture books in each country. These books tend to be folktales. Since a picture book I’m working on is an adaptation of an American tale (a story I’ve always wished was available in a picture book) I’ve been paying more attention to how writers adapt stories, how they stay true to the story while making it accessible to young children. I adapted this story and two other picture books for my workshop at Vermont College Residency later this month.

This next semester I am taking the picture book concentration. The picture book program is by application (and is also open to non-students for a semester certificate).
Because I will focus on picture books, I will let my latest novel sit and keep my first novel (which is also calling me) company. I finished my first draft of River last semester and over my semester break I cut chapters, divided chapters, moved chapters and did other necessary structural revisions. I'd love to work on it, but letting it rest will allow me to see it with fresh eyes.

I love picture books which is why I wanted to want to explore and learn about the craft of this wonderful genre of children’s books. Because I was accepted to the picture program I already know who my advisor is.

I get to work with Uma Krishnaswami!!!!

She blogs here and Cynthia Leitich Smith (who also teaches at Vermont) has an interview with her here. I am very excited to work with Uma.

I fly to Vermont next week.
I've already made arrangements to buy several books from The Flying Pig Bookstore when they visit campus.
Did I ever mention I love bookstores.