Monday, August 21, 2017

Whispering Woods Recap: Why You'll Want to Go - by Kathy Halsey

Summer's over for many of us and kids going back to school may still receive that perennial writing assignment, "What Did You Do This Summer?" Here's my answer.
Our Lady of  the Prairie (AKA Anne of Green Gables House)

I flew to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had a weekend-long "slumber party" with 8 other writers, including author/teachers Jill Esbaum and Linda Skeers. I played charades, stayed in an Anne of Green Gables house, and revised one pesky manuscript and began another that I feel has promise. I had homework - read 30 picture books and did a one sentence synopsis of each book. I amassed 17 handouts and 3 pages of typed notes. Wanna know more? Come along.

Out-of-Sight Insight
  • I had never been in such an intimate setting to work on my writing. Going to a serene retreat center helped center me. Being with writers who didn't know me or my work opened up new ways for me to see my stories.
  • "Show not Tell" can be unpacked by playing "emotional" charades. Jill gave us cards with one word emotions: confusion, joy, scared, sad, surprised. We acted them out and the rest of us tried to guess the emotion. Body language is useful for show emotion, and will engage our readers, too. As Jill said, "Make the readers do the work." They're smart enough to grasp the author's intent. (Try this w/a face-to-face critique group. It's fun.) 
    Here writers act out silliness!
  • Openings are so crucial, but hear this. Editors and agents typically read only the first six words. If you give them a reason to pass on the work, they will. Your first lines are the foundation of the house (story) you build. 
  • With opening in mind and  armed with a Character-driven Picture Book Analysis handout,  we scan recent books, noting by which page we identify the main character and her/his internal and external conflicts. Then we look at our own work. If either element isn't there by the third spread, it's time to fortify our story foundation.
  • Linda encouraged us to really amp up our main character's defining characteristic. She stresses that one can't go overboard with this. We should be able to pull our character out of the situation and know how he/she would respond in any new set of circumstances. Two mentor texts that show determination  as a trait include  CINDY MOO by Lori Mortensen and PRUDENCE WANTS A PET by Cathleen Daly.  
  •  When creating characters and story, keep in mind the three Fs found in a child's life: family, friends, and frustration.
  • Finally a huge "aha" moment for me came via my manuscript critique...there's still major work to be done. I had a hard time seeing that since I was so invested in it. I've dusted myself off, made a list of how and where I can revise, and this knowledge will make my WIP stronger.
  •  Linda Skeers & Jill Esbaum
The Dynamic Duo - Linda & Jill
Using our discretionary income for craft development is important to us writers. I have attended an LA SCBWI annual, NESCBWI twice, as well as workshops in my region for almost four years.. As a former educator with my M. Ed. in Curriculum, I can vouch for the value of Whispering Woods for me. Why?
  • Jill and Linda are professional, easy-going, and fun. They've presented this weekend retreat enough that it is a well-orchestrated mix of work, rest, writing, and application of craft. 
  • The Friday-Sunday summer retreats include home cooked meals - locally grown and organic whenever possible. We were even feted with a festive dinner out on Saturday. 
  •  The grounds include nature paths and wildlife, private rooms w/shared bathrooms, fields of prairie grass, a nature pond, and a labyrinth.
  • Our instructors offered very detailed written critiques for each of us as well as oral critiques with our small group. Attendees are friendly and at an intermediate+ level in their craft. I received written critiques from all of them, too.  
  • Jill and Linda left room on Sunday for an open discussion on anything we wished to discuss. Our conversation included agents, editors, queries, and their recommendations for next steps on our path to publication.
  • Slots fill up quickly and this year there were two summer sessions. Contact Linda here. Due to the housing restrictions, the center can only accommodate 10 guests. 
  • After seasoned writers attend state, regional, and national conferences, I feel a small retreat focused on manuscripts/craft is the next best step. I'm also considering Whispering Pines next spring. See information here.

Please share your professional development favorites for us in the comments, and check out Linda & Jill's newest books, too. 

WOMEN WHO DARED by Linda Skeers is a very accessible nonfiction anthology that I'm ready to read NOW. FRANKENBUNNY is a fun mash-up that Jill Esbaum shared with us at the retreat. Ready to hop on it, too. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Interview with Every Cowgirl Series Author: Rebecca Janni with Tina Cho

During summer I was able to visit my family in Iowa, and I got to meet a picture book author I had been online friends with--Rebecca Janni (pronounced Yahni). Rebecca is author of the Every Cowgirl Series (Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse, Every Cowgirl Needs Dancing Shoes…), Jammy Dance, and her latest picture book Spin. What’s even neater is that Rebecca’s younger sister and I used to take piano lessons at college together from the same instructor. So when I found out Rebecca wrote these books, I knew I had to personally meet her. Our children are pretty much the same ages, and so we had a wonderful afternoon together.
Tina Cho-left, Rebecca Janni-right
Welcome, Rebecca!

  1. How long have you been writing?
I always loved to write since I was a young child. I kept a journal, played with short stories, and wrote poems.

2. How did you get into writing?
I read lots of picture books to my kids, and I wrote my own story, Jammy Dance, for them. It was one of my first manuscripts. After bathtime, we used to have a “di-dee dance,” and that is how this story was born. I met a local author, plugged into SCBWI and a local writers’ group, and attended some conferences. The writers and illustrators I met have become lifelong friends.

3. How did you create your character, Nellie Sue, the cowgirl?
At age four, my daughter was learning to ride her bike without training wheels. She wore long brown braids, cowboy boots, and a vest. I would say things like:  “How’s my bicycle cowgirl? Get back in the saddle. Hit the trail.” I brainstormed how bikes and horses were alike with my aunt. I was inspired by a Mark Twain piece called “Taming the Bicycle.” My story, Bicycle Cowgirl, eventually became Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse.

4. How did you make the Cowgirl books into a series?
Credit for the series goes entirely to my editor Steve Meltzer and agent Jamie Weiss Chilton. I had endless ideas for Nellie Sue’s adventures, but I never would have presumed they would become a series! I was thrilled when my editor asked for a sequel, and Nellie Sue Gets Back in Line became Every Cowgirl Needs Dancing Boots.

5. How did your latest book, SPIN, come about?
My seven-year-old daughter and I rode one day of RAGBRAI, an annual great bicycle ride across Iowa. As we encountered the highest hill of our 44 mile ride, she said, “It’s not as big as it looks.” I loved her perspective and hoped that she would see the hills of life in the same way. With God, mountains can be moved. So SPIN is about a simple bike ride, a life ride, and even our spiritual journeys.

6. What types of marketing activities have you done?
My release parties have been tied into book fairs so that sales benefited schools. My advice is to live the book at each release party.

For the first book, Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse, my publisher, Penguin, made stickers and activity pages for school visits and bookstore signings. For Every Cowgirl Needs Dancing Boots, we held a square dance at a historic barn in our town. When the fourth book came out, my publisher sent me on a book tour. Every night I boarded a plane to visit schools and bookstores in cities I'd never visited before.

story time

7. What are you working on now?
I’m working on the launch party for SPIN, picture book manuscripts about adoption, a garden party, a new character, and a refugee story.

Thank you so much, Rebecca, for letting me interview you! She is such a sweet person with whom I could talk for hours! She and her family have gone through a lot, both good and bittersweet. She gave her first picture book signed to her father, who was in hospice with brain cancer. When she signed her second contract, she dedicated Every Cowgirl Needs Dancing Boots, to him, with whom she had had the first dance.

Rebecca and her husband also adopted a boy from China, one who fit in with their other three children perfectly. His description was that he, too, had lost a father and liked picture books! Rebecca is fluent in sign language and was the perfect mom for Joshua, who was deaf. Since then, he has had surgery and received hearing devices to help him.

Growing up in Iowa, Rebecca Janni learned that biking was the best way to get around the neighborhood and reading was the best way to get around the world.
Author of Spin, Jammy Dance and the Every Cowgirl series, Rebecca divides her time between teaching at Grand View University, visiting schools and libraries, volunteering, and writing for children—all of which take a back seat to motherhood. She loves the joyful chaos of life with her family—her much-loved husband James, their four children, Andrew (17), Anna (15), Jacob (11), Joshua (10), and Mickey Dog. Through it all, she believes God has a plan, and it is good.
Rebecca's office

Monday, August 14, 2017

nErDcampMI by Marcie Flinchum Atkins

While the Grog was on vacation, I've had a really packed summer. Out of four big trips I took, the first was nErDcampMI.

I don’t know about you, but as a writer, I keep a “bucket list” of conferences I’d like to attend some day. I made the bucket list a few years ago because I realized I wanted to do so many conferences but I couldn’t afford to do them all right away both financially and in time away from work and family.

I put Highlights Foundation on my Vision Board next to my computer. Within a few months, I’d made enough money on freelance work to pay for a workshop. Nerdcamp Michigan (also known as nErDcampMI) was also on the list. I knew it would be packed with book-loving authors, librarians, and teachers just like me who loved readers and books as much as I do.

For those of you who don’t know what nErDcampMI is, it’s an ED camp that has become a conference that draws people from all over the US and Canada to a little town in Michigan where Colby Sharp, teacher and book lover extraordinaire (and one of the Nerdy Book Club blog founders), gives teachers, librarians, and authors a place to mingle and share. And did I mention it’s FREE?

We Need Diverse Books panel moderated by Tracey Baptiste

Day 1 involves panels, NerdTalks (a 7 minute long “Ted Talk”), and dozens and dozens of conference-style sessions to attend. 
Mr. Schu talks to R.J. Palacio before her "NerdTalk."

Sarah Albee and Jess Keating talk about writing nonfiction

Day 2 is ED campstyle. The attendees propose sessions and we take off to different rooms to have conversations about different topics of interest to us. It's more of an impromptu session.

The amazing authors also stay the evening after the conference to do a nErDcamp Jr. which hosts 1,000 kids for FREE! They get to hear authors speak, get free books, and learn to be nerdy just like the rest of us.

I attended sessions on diverse books, how to host an author visit, nonfiction writing tips for kids, a Mr. Schu interview with R.J. Palacio and a mini-book talk and giveaway. On the ED camp day, I attended sessions by Jack Gantos about writing instruction, tough topics in middle grade, and doing your own Sibert Smackdown. I left with a to-do list of things to try for next year.

Jack Gantos talking about his many journals

One of the best parts of nErDcampMI is meeting author, teacher, and librarian friends I’ve known on Twitter in real life.  The internet has made our networking so much easier, but nothing beats the energy you get when you put a bunch of people together in real life who love, love, love books and have the desire to share that love with kids.  

If you are like me, and live far away from Michigan, the cool thing is that nErDcamps are popping up all over the country. 

Do you have a bucket list of conferences? What's on your list?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Down the Road w/THE ROAD THAT TRUCKS BUILT - By Kathy Halsey

Trucking down the road with Susanna Leonard Hill this summer has been a barrel of fun. Just this stop and one more to go on August 15 over at A Penny and Her Jots. With such an inclusive tour, a total of 15 stops, what can a blogger say at this point? Along with my review, I've decided to focus on the art and physicality of the book. And, there's a prize for one lucky reader at the end.

THE ROAD THAT TRUCKS BUILT by Susanna Leonard Hill roared into the world near the end of July, 2017. From the fun, interactive cover that reveals all sorts of "movers," to bright, upbeat rhyme, young readers and their parents will enjoy this picture book again and again. We're introduced to all sorts of trucks: bull dozers, scrapers, graders, and even the paint marker. The cumulative tale and guide to the featured trucks add another layer to Susanna's newest. Writers, take note, this picture book puts s spin on the classic rhyme THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT. What other nursery rhymes can benefit from a twist or retelling? Put on your thinking caps.

Q & A with Susanna w/An Art Emphasis 

Kathy:  I love the entire package design of THE ROAD THAT TRUCKS BUILT. Can you talk a bit about the look and feel of the book?
Susanna: The cover is sturdily constructed to look like a tire.  The book binding is striped black and yellow like construction zone caution tape.  The part of the tire where the hubcap would be in an interactive wheel which young readers can spin, showing all the different vehicles in the story.  It’s tons of fun!

Kathy: Did you make any suggestions about the interactive cover?
Susanna: I did not! J  That was the brainchild and work of the editor, and possibly the book designer.  I know a few different ideas were considered – they wanted to get exactly the right cover for the book. 

Kathy: As you wrote this picture book, did you consciously think about make "room" for illustrations?
Susanna: I tend to think visually when I write.  So I guess the answer to that question is yes, although kind of subconsciously.  I do consciously think about what words I need, what illustrations the illustrator might potentially draw, and how the words and the art could work together.  I know when I write that sometimes I’m putting in words to get ideas across that will later be cut because once the art exists they won’t be necessary.  But in the case of this story, the text was not changed.

Kathy: What are your feelings on art notes for authors? Do you ever include them with your submissions to editors?
Susanna:I trust that if I write a strong story, the editor will be able to envision the art.   And I trust illustrators to have the vision and creativity to make the art.  I have no wish to interfere or dictate – it would be unwelcome and hamper the illustrator’s freedom of expression.  That said, there are some cases where the text is quite spare, or where humor or surprise or something else depends on something different being shown in the illustration than is suggested by the text.  Although I try to keep art notes to a minimum, I do use them occasionally in situations like that because they are necessary to a proper understanding of the text.  THE 
ROAD THAT TRUCKS BUILT was straightforward in that sense, though, so no art notes were included. 

Kathy: Many of us know you not only as an author, but as a wonderful writing instructor. What was your biggest challenge and biggest joy in writing TRUCKS?

Susanna:My biggest challenge was definitely figuring out how to get all the trucks to fit into the rhyme scheme and meter.  I’ve said it before, but it’s kind of like a puzzle – choosing words, then arranging and rearranging them until you get meaning, rhythm and story balanced in rhyme.  My biggest joy was probably when I finally thought I’d gotten it right J  But it was also a joy to write this story on another level because I wrote it for my son, so it was something I could do for him and share with him even before it was published.

Prize Patrol
One lucky reader will win a copy of THE ROAD THAT TRUCKS BUILT by being the first one to do two simple things:
1. Leave a comment on this blog and
2. Using the hashtag #trucksontour link to this blog on either Facebook or Twitter and make sure to tag me. (I'm Kathy Halsey on FB and my twitter handle is @infowoman1.) Good luck. I'll write down the names and have Wiley Corgi choose one by tomorrow morning. Baroo!