On the Importance of School Visits

Many of us authors get to do something that complements our writing lives beautifully – we get to go on school visits, which are some of the best experiences I’ve had in the writing world.

Here in Austin, there’s a wonderful program through the Writer’s League of Texas called Project Wise. Project Wise enables authors to visit underprivileged schools. Each time I go on one of these visits, I see the passion and endless generosity of the librarians and the library staff – all committed to bringing children enriching creative experiences, and often doing so with limited resources. Children’s librarians are some of the greatest heroes you’ll meet. Anyone committed to enriching childrens’ imaginations, and therefore broadening their opportunities in the world, is doing exceptionally important work that too often goes unsung.

On my last school visit to a group of fourth graders in Austin, I was struck by the kindness and passion of the librarian and her staff. In my presentations I tend to interact a lot with the kids. They help me create a character and we put this character through as much of a story arc as time will allow. Essentially I storyboard in front of the classroom, drawing what the students suggest I draw. They get only a little guidance from me. The kids came up with the most brilliant ideas, and this school was no exception. Their character was Bob the mummy, who lives in Seattle and just wants to get out of the rain. The kids came up with several hilarious ways in which Bob might accomplish this, all of which fail spectacularly. Bob picks himself up again – what is a mummy if he isn’t resilient? – and eventually ends up in his native climate of Egypt, chilling out with his mummified puppy.

The kids were ecstatic to participate. They were also really, really creative, so much so that I assumed they had this kind of interaction regularly. However, the librarian informed me later that they definitely don’t. She told me several of the kids who’d been extra participatory are in fact reluctant readers who generally don’t say much in class. She was surprised and happy at how vocal they were during the presentation. I was surprised too, because these were some of the kids with the most sophisticated sense of story.

After the presentation, one boy came up and regaled me with his in-depth understanding of graphic novels. He showed me some of his own drawings and stories. He was the most charismatic, openhearted, engaging kid. My mind immediately fast-forwarded to his future book signings and convention appearances. He will shine in that kind of large, interactive, creative arena. After he left, the librarian told me he’s a reluctant/troubled reader but was always hungry to express himself, and that since he’s discovered graphic novels he’s burst out of his shell and has become obsessive about storytelling. She had no doubt about his future success either.

Stories are so important. The kids getting the chance to know that this is a skill worth cultivating is vital. It’s not just about getting words on paper. It’s about understanding that your own unique perspective is valuable, that the way you perceive the world will shape and inform your own and others’ lives, and that the playful, creative corner of your mind might be the biggest asset in your working and relationship life later on.

Which leads me to reiterate how very important it is that kids – all kids – have an opportunity for visits like this. Visits where they get to see someone creating stories professionally, where kids get to engage in their own process of storytelling and forming narrative. Where skills that are often considered distractions from learning become the most important qualities a person can have. Qualities like daydreaming, pulling pertinent and hilarious references from popular culture, expressing a harmlessly subversive sense of the absurd, and, of course, endlessly questioning the world.

An inherent sense of narrative is part of the human blueprint, and, of course, exists far outside the bounds of socioeconomic status. If anything, kids in underprivileged areas often have a deeper understanding of the need for story: because, often, they have had to hold a witness space for their own lives that translates well to storytelling.

I visited another elementary school in an underprivileged area last year, where the librarian told me the kids had never – and I mean never – had an English lesson that didn’t revolve around prep for standardized testing. As in, the kids had had no creative writing English lesson ever. And no author visit ever. The kids were in third grade. I couldn’t imagine it. And yet, these kids, when given the chance during a school visit, blossomed. All that creativity and critical thinking and ability to form narrative – and sophisticated narrative at that, complete with logic and a sense of the absurd – came out without a glitch. It was all in there already, it had just never had a place to be important.

So, yes. We need stories, and kids need to be able to tell the stories they carry around with them. Thanks to all the authors, teachers and librarians encouraging all the creative spaces that lead to storytelling. Thanks, Project Wise, for some of the wonderful schools I’ve had the honor of visiting. And most of all, thanks to the kids: I hope you’re writing away.

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Blog Hope Around the World!

Blog Hop Around the World!

A few weeks ago my lovely friend and fellow Austin artist Kali Parsons invited me to join the blog hop. I was thrilled to be part of it, as showcasing artists and their art is something I’m so excited to be able to do. I am surrounded by a wealth of incredible visual artists.

I met Kali at a picture book workshop we took at the The Writing Barn here in Austin, Texas. What I love about Kali’s art is that it’s so spontaneous and joyous, but also has a wonderful symmetry and structure to it. The color sense is incredible and reminds me of loosely painted stained glass. And most of it, amazingly, is created in under 24 hours. Kali’s been doing one painting EVERY SINGLE DAY since June 2011. So therefore what emerges from Kali’s stream-of-consciousness, ever-replenishing painting well is doubly amazing. There is such an explosion of color and jubilance that seeing her paintings makes me very happy. I know that’s something many people have expressed to her.

KaliBlue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KaliOwl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How joyful and gorgeous are those?? Click here to view Kali’s gallery.  Most of her paintings are for sale.

 

On to the questions about me.

1. What am I working on?

As usual, many things. Several picture books as well as two novels, one middle grade and one young adult. The plate is full. 🙂

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

What makes it different? Hmm, possibly that I blend psychology, sometimes very concretely, with fantasy and science fiction. Even if it isn’t straight psychology, I’m always playing with psychological concepts. That’s probably my vein of gold and where my joy lies.

3. Why do I create what I do?

Another hmm. I like thinking about this, because so much about art is concrete–so much is actually a teachable science–but this isn’t necessarily. I hate to say it, but my answer to this common question really hasn’t gotten any more articulate over the years. The short answer is that I need to draw, and I need to write. Absolutely need to, and always have, since I could hold a pen. The things I draw and write help me organize my sense of the world, and allow me to explore and creatively elaborate on the subjects I’m consumed by much, much more minutely than other professions might. The longer answer might involve a break-down of guesses as to how we hoard away influences and experiences in our subconscious and weave them into pictures and stories, often without even knowing that’s what we’re doing. Regardless, if there’s a complete answer to this question, it’s somewhere out in the ether. Part of it is, anyway.

4. How does my creating process work?

Yet another hmmm. I can’t think about this without including writing, since I do so much of that, too. I’m fascinating by very structured writers–people who adhere to a certain word or page count every day. My process is much more haphazard and loose than that. I just write every day, usually for hours, until I’m tired. As fas as visual art goes, drawing is actually an incredibly intense and consuming thing for me. It might be this way for most artists, I don’t know. I prefer to begin a picture and paint all the way through to the end in one stretch, if I can. So the best art days are ones in which I can spend at least seven to ten hours on a painting, and then be finished. If I can manage that–going from sketch to finished piece in one go–that’s usually when pictures turn out the best, and when my experience with a picture is most immersive and fulfilling. I hate having to stop and start again with pictures. If I do have to stop, I prefer that the painting is nearly all the way finished.

Continue the blog hop with the following amazing artist! 

Now to feature my friend Erin Holsonback, whose photography I adore. Erin’s a freelance graphic and web designer in South Austin who has spent the last few months diving even more into her longtime love of photography. She strives to capture sincere moments without the look of being overly posed or polished. Street photography when traveling has always been a particular passion and a way to more thoroughly enjoy new places.

ErinGazebo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, feast your eyes on even more of Erin’s incredible street photography. I love that she captures these small, poignant moments that are so intensely illustrative of, for lack of a better expression, the human experience. Some of these made me tear up. I also love the somber, muted tones of this NYC palette. Perfect.

 

ErinOldLady

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ErinDogs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you so much for reading and enjoying the blog hop, and for perusing some of my favorite artist’s work! Be sure to check out their websites!

 

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What Happens to Children When Someone Like John Grisham Defends Consumers of Child Pornography?

What happens to children, and girls especially, when a powerful, successful author like John Grisham minimizes child pornography, and is more or less allowed to walk away unscathed after a breezy publicist-issued apology?

Grisham defended the elderly white men imprisoned for consuming child pornography, stating, “They got online one night, started surfing around, probably had too much to drink whatever and pushed the wrong buttons, and went to far and went into child porn or whatever.” And, “And there is so many of them now. There is so many sex offenders – is what they are called – that they put them in the same prison. Like they are a bunch of perverts or something. Thousands of them. We’ve gone nuts with this incarceration.”

Full interview is here.

This has gotten me more upset than I can say, because there are hardly words for the damage something like this can do—an influential, successful white male with a huge platform—someone who also writes children’s books—dismissing and minimizing this crime. There are people listening. Many of those people are young and unable to think critically yet about what he is saying, may in fact look up to him to hear what he has to say. The fact that he is given a platform at all on which to say it might scream volumes in the mind of someone still trying to make sense of these things.

[…]

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On Robin Williams, and Depression, and Mind Over Matter

Robin_Williams_2011a_(2)Many people are talking about Robin Williams, and have already eloquently expressed what’s been welling up in my heart since he died. It’s led me to think on so many things, the first of which is that I couldn’t figure out why, at first, this death hit me like a train. Why it was one of very few celebrity deaths that left me absolutely gutted.

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Diversity in Children’s Literature

It’s time to chime in to the Diversity in Children’s Lit discussion.

For a long time, I underestimated the effect the lack of diversity in books and films had on me as a child. Now, it astounds me and makes me sad to know that growing up, I did not feel like part of the world. I felt on the outside, looking in. Some of this had to do with what I looked like. But curiously, the word “race” never entered my head—but words like “brown skin” vs. “blond” certainly did.

For one thing, I grew up in Northern Virginia, and it took trips to D.C. to get a feel for the kind of ethnic diversity you can truly celebrate and be grateful for. My classes in elementary school generally consisted of one African American child, one Hispanic child, one Asian child, me—the brown child that was neither completely one race or the other—and the rest of the class, which was Caucasian.

I never experienced outright racism except for the time the sixth-grade boys on the bus called me “camel jockey” when I was six years old. I didn’t understand what it meant, only that it was supposed to hurt my feelings, which it did. I think now with sadness about the ignorance these twelve-year-olds must have grown up with to call a little girl a camel jockey and think it was funny. […]

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On the Death of a Canine Friend

I don’t know that this is the appropriate place to blog about death, but I figure death involves all of us, and is often the stuff of stories, so why not.

So over the course of the last couple of days, we’ve been in the process of watching our twelve-year-old German Shepherd die. I’ve never watched anything die, not in real time, not from natural causes. It is surreal and horrible and reveals to you your own helplessness in a way you didn’t think possible. You watch your animal being so much nobler and more contained about it than you, you wonder what they’re thinking, you know there is so much more going on in them than you can conceive, that their relationship with death is so very different from ours. […]

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Austin Regional SCBWI Conference 2012 (and Why Donna Jo Napoli is Amazing)

Our regional Austin SCBWI conference was stunning as usual, and you can see coverage on Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s blog here. Our dazzling keynote speaker, Lisa Yee, also blogged about her conference experience here.

And every once in a while, someone’s presentation rocks the foundations of the stage they stand on, and finds its way so deeply into every audience member that there’s a palpable CHANGE going on, as if every single person in the audience’s cells are shifting and readjusting to (or deeply resonating with) the information being shared.

So I want to focus on the talk given by the incredible author/university professor Donna Jo Napoli, because I had the good fortune to remember much of what was said, and because much of the speech lies so close to my heart. […]

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A Bunch of Reasons To Love the Main Character of Maureen Johnson’s “The Name of the Star”

I have been a terrible blogger lately, for which there is no excuse, but I have been meaning to post this for a while, if that helps at all.

I have read many, many good YA books lately, but the one whose heroine made a sort of indelible impression on me is the female protagonist of Maureen Johnson’s recent thriller, “The Name of the Star.” The book itself is deliciously suspenseful and set in London, no less. But to me, the real greatness of the book lies with Rory’s character. […]

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Texas Book Festival 2011

I have been a terrible blogger lately, but will try to get back on track. This means that posts about some things, like the Teen Book Festival (which happened almost a month ago) and our trip to Europe (over two months ago) will be belated and out of order, but full of stuff worth mentioning. If you’re interested, I posted my personal Texas Book Festival schedule—the panels I intended to visit—here. I did not make it to all of them, sadly, but you can read about how fun and cool and worth a trip to Austin this Festival really is. And it will give you some idea of what I’m talking about if you weren’t there.

There was so much, so incredibly much, about the Festival that was awesome, inspiring, hilarious, encouraging. I will try to distill this colorful list down to my own personal highlights (things I shall file away in my writerly toolbox):

Amazing YA author Sarah Dessen talking about her outlining process. She claims it’s not really an outline, but that she’s always got the first scene, climax, last scene, and first line down before she starts the rest of the book. As someone who barreled blindly forward when I began my first YA manuscript, I can appreciate Sarah’s process as wonderfully structured.

I did not get many pics, but here is one of Sarah in our local graveyard. Don’t be afraid, the location will be explained later:

My new fangirlish love for author Martha Hall Foose, a delightful Southerner I was unfamiliar with. She knocked the socks off the audience at the Literary Death Match. All the authors involved did a wonderful job of reading their work aloud for seven minutes. Martha blew us away—the delivery, the content, the humor. I will be purchasing Martha’s books just to read the language over and over.

The “Convergence of Souls” panel, for which over a dozen prominent YA authors gathered in the Texas State Cemetery and made up stories for audience members. In the graveyard. In the dark. Seriously, how cool is Austin?

And last but not least, the amazing, incredible Kate DiCamillo mentioning that early drafts (the first through fourth, I believe) of her book “Because of Winn Dixie” are online. Kate said it’s a gift to other writers to be transparent about one’s own early drafts. I looked and was fascinated….wonderfully encouraging to see that everyone begins somewhere, especially this literary great with her fable-like language. I think the next time I’m on a school visit and a child is discouraged about writing because they want to get it right the first time, I will direct them to Kate’s drafts.

A pic of Kate DiCamillo’s and Rebecca Stead‘s signing table. Author/editor David Levithan is on the right:

And…for way more great festival pics and a general round-up of events, Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s has a wonderful blog post on it. So does Shelli Cornelison here, and Donna Bowman Bratton here.

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Texas Children’s Book Festival in Corpus Christi

So the first thing I noticed when I arrived in Corpus Christi is how very flat it is.

The only other place I’ve been that’s as flat is Kansas.

Both are so flat you forget the planet is round. You imagine setting a Greyhound loose and that the poor dog will eventually keel over not from scaling treacherous terrain, but from the sheer exhaustion of not having anything obstructing its path for, say, twelve thousand miles.

Anyway. Such a landscape is conducive to lovely and voracious winds. Winds that buffeted our festival tent to dangerous heights and literally PULLED THE TENT STAKES out of the earth. Strong men had to grab them while shouting manly things to each other like, “This ain’t good….the whole thing might blow.”  The entire time I was terribly excited, as though we were part of the Flying Dutchman’s crew.

The kids involved were troopers and ran with it. Four-year-olds are remarkably adaptable. (Note the suspicious child in the front. I love that guy.)

The festival committee was amazing. Librarians converged from everywhere to make the whole thing possible. So down-to-earth and go-with-the-flow and deeply concerned with kids and literacy, of course, and with the fate of such programs under the budget cuts.

But not to despair! With such hearts devoted to kids reading, we shall overcome. We shall.

On Thursday, I got to meet amazing author/illustrators Don Tate and Keith Graves. Both are super sweet, amicable, fascinating folksies. I tried to convince them to visit the beach with me after dinner but turns out they had the mature idea of getting to bed at a decent hour. I can’t blame myself for the impulsiveness though; lovely as Austin is, we are landlocked.

Keith Graves, me, Don Tate

Norma Puente, wonderful elementary literary coach, and me

Don Tate and me at Neyland Branch Library

Awesome children’s reading room at the library

View from my hotel room. Corpus is home to the first Whataburger, I believe.

On Friday I got to meet author Carmen Tafolla. Don, Keith and Carmen are great inspirations. I really love other author/illustrators. We are always slightly bewildered by the whirlwind of publishing, no matter how savvy we might be. Commiserating together is nourishing. Especially while ingesting vast quantities of bacon-wrapped shrimp.

On Friday the lovely Paige Dinn of the festval committee took me over to present to the kindergarten-through-second grade of Crockett Elementary School. Among the questions I was asked—and bear in mind these were questions posed by people under the age of seven—were:

“How do you FEEL while you’re writing a book?”

“What makes you pick those colors?”

“Do you like writing or illustrating more? Is it frustrating to do both?”

Can we say brilliant? Can we say I’m not worried about Crockett Elementary’s contribution to the future of our species? Can we assume this school is churning out people who will help us evade the zombie apocalypse?

Then the lovely librarian presented me with a bouquet of tissue flowers and a copy of Tomie DePaola’s “The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush,” a book I have long loved.

Anyway. It was a great festival put together by amazing people. I feel very lucky to have been a part of it.

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