Most of what I write is for younger readers, but every so often I like to write the occasional creative non-fiction or travel piece. I'm thrilled that my essay "Always Pansies" has been published in the May 2017 edition of Skirt Magazine. You can see it online here. I hope you enjoy it!
Winter has been putting up a concerted effort but today when I walked the dogs, there was a chorus of different birds singing, the crocus, snowdrops and primroses have been joined by the first tulips and daffodils, and the first robotic law mower has emerged from its winter hibernation.
Later this spring I'll be in Belgium for the third Europolitan conference - the joint conference hosted by five SCBWI regions that is held every other year in one of the five countries. Since I didn't get to the SCBWI New York conference this year, I'm looking forward to the Europolitan with even more anticipation.
I love the Europolitan - its small size creates a very different experience than attending conferences with 10 times more attendees. It's a lot of work to plan, but tremendously rewarding to see that planning come to fruition in an weekend of inspiration and focus on the crafts of writing and illustration.
In the run-up to the conference in May, Cynsations will feature a series of interviews related to the Europolitan. In the past I've been the interviewer, but this time, in a first for me, I was one of the interviewees! Ever wonder what my writing desk looks like? You can check it out along with all the behind-the-scenes information about the Europolitan over on Cynsations.
Is it spring yet? The calendar says we’re well on our way to summer but the weather has been actively disagreeing with that for weeks now.
Whatever the season, it has been busy!
In February I spent a week in New York City. First I met my best friend who traveled up from Texas to join me for some awesome sightseeing - we packed as many museum visits, Broadway shows and fabulous meals into our days as possible. Then she flew home and I switched hotels to attend the SCBWI Winter Conference. This was my third conference so when I enter the Hyatt it feels like my home-away-from-home, complete with my creative family.
This year, in addition to working behind the scenes and attending wonderful breakout sessions and keynote addresses, I had another commitment on my calendar: a planning session with SCBWI’s Team Bologna.
SCBWI has a booth at the Bologna Children's Book Fair in even years (the next time SCBWI will be there is 2018) and this year the booth was double in size from past years, complete with fabulous new banners that showcased not only the organization, but the artwork of some of our members, including the winners of the SCBWI Bologna Illustration Gallery. (For many more pictures of the booth, including our duelling illustrator events, click here).
At the end of 2015 I decided to attend the Bologna Children’s Book Fair to experience for myself the world’s largest rights fair focused exclusively on books for children and young adults. I learned so much from attending and helping with the SCBWI booth. Patti Buff, Regional Advisor for SCBWI Germany-Austria, and I were joining the team for the first time and what a fun and rewarding experience that has been!
So what did I think of Bologna, both the city and the fair?
The gelato is amazing. The city is beautiful.
People tend to think about the Bologna book fair as an event primarily for artists, and there’s no question that the famous walls, covered with promotional postcards, as well as the portfolio review opportunities available at the booths of many publishers, are tremendous opportunities for artists. For writers, I think the value is in the programming. There are talks, panels, and discussions happening throughout the fair every day. My critique partner was visiting the fair with her artist partner, and she really enjoyed the programs that she visited.
While I didn’t visit any panels (but my critique partner is going to share her notes with me :-), on a few occasions I did walk around some of the buildings (I never did make it into all of them!) and I especially enjoyed networking with the publishers and agents based in Switzerland with the hope of bringing some of those professionals to future programs in our region.
I spent most of my time at the SCBWI booth, talking with booth visitors about SCBWI. Some of our visitors were already members and I know of at least two SCBWI members who visited the booth who have since been connected with critique opportunities with other members, thanks to their visits to the booth. Others were not familiar with SCBWI and we were able to tell them about how being a part of this professional organization could help them grow in their careers.
It was amazing to be at the booth as publishers stopped to talk to an artist or author and artist from SCBWI during their one hour personal showcases, and realize that deals were being made!
Publishers really do go to this fair looking for material that they can introduce into their market. Not everyone was able to travel to the fair to have a personal showcase, but many other authors and/or illustrators were part of the SCBWI showcase. It was a great feeling to gesture to the books on display and tell people that they represented just a fraction of SCBWI member books published in the last two years.
One day I was standing near the books and noticed two people very excitedly looking at a picture book. When I introduced myself and asked if they had any questions, one of them said “I am a translator. I am here on behalf of my friend who is a publisher, and I WANT THIS BOOK!” Each book in the showcase had a label on the back detailing the rights that were available, as well as contact information for those interested in the rights. I was able to direct her to another stand at the fair, with the names of the persons to ask for, so that she could talk to them about acquiring the rights for that book. As she walked away with one of our promotinal postcards that had information about and links to the online showcase where all the same rights information is listed for each book, I got a thrill from knowing that I might have just helped an SCBWI member’s book reach a wider audience.
And that’s what Bologna is all about.
My interview with the third judge of the SCBWI Bologna Illustration Gallery is up at Cynsations. I hope you'll take a few minutes to get to know Naomi Kojima. I love doing interviews because they give me the opportunity to get to know so many people I might not otherwise have talked with. Naomi is an author and illustrator of picture books as well as the Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI's Japan chapter and it was a delight to interview her..
You can find all of my interviews at Cynsations here.
The second in my series of interviews with the judges of the SCBWI Bologna Illustration Gallery has posted over at Cynsations. This one is with the fabulous Laurent Linn, who, in addition to being a great Art Director, and all-around wonderful guy, is going to add Author/Illustrator to his list of credits later this spring when his young adult book Draw the Line debuts.
In addition to discussing the importance of the Bologna Book Fair to Art Directors and other publishing professionals, we talked about the using illustration in books for readers of all ages - not just picture books. I hope you'll hop on over to check it out!
Today I got home from #NY16SCBWI - the annual Winter Conference of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) - and I can't wait to write a bit more about that later this week. Until then I wanted to share my recent interview with Illustrator Doug Cushman. Among other things, we talked about the qualities he feels are important for an artist to have in order to be a successful illustrator for children's books.
This interview is part of a series highlighting the SCBWI presence at the Bologna Children's Book Fair. You can check out the interview with Doug, as well as other interviews in the series, at the Cynsations Blog.
This post is a long one - if you want to get a cup of coffee or tea, I'll wait :-),
As a writer and creator of content for young readers, as well as in my role as Regional Advisor for SCBWI Switzerland, I try to stay up to date with the news in the world of publishing for children and young adults. Which books are winning awards, are well-reviewed and well-received, and which ones are people talking about.
As someone who writes for middle graders, I have the luxury of pages - many of them - in which I can explore the themes and topics that appear in my stories. Picture book writers and illustrators? They have (most of the time) just thirty-two (32!) pages. Telling a story in such a short format requires an economy of language that makes it especially challenging when that story that includes a complex topic such as slavery. In the past year, two picture books have come out tackling the tough topic of slavery in colonial America.
The first, A Fine Dessert, written by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, debuted to many positive reviews and award buzz.
"A Fine Dessert, a children's book published in January by author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall that was recently flagged by The Horn Book, considered a must-read for children's educators, as a contender for the prestigious Caldecott Award. This week, the New York Timesnamed A Fine Dessert one of the best illustrated children's books of 2015." (source)
But slowly, more voices joined the discussion, and the book was being served up with a side helping of controversy. Should this book have received the accolades it had been given?
Daniel José Older's thoughtful response to the book, when he sat on a panel with the illustrator in the wake of this controversy, can be seen here:
It's 5 minutes long. Check it out. I'll wait. :-)
In the wake of the growing discussion of the book, the author Emily Jenkins eventually issued the following statement:
"As the author of A Fine Dessert, I have read this discussion and the others with care and attention. I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive. I own that and am very sorry. For lack of a better way to make reparations, I donated the fee I earned for writing the book to We Need Diverse Books."
(Her apology appears in the comments of this blog post.)
The book remains in print and available for purchase..
Now another book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, written by Ramin Ganeshram and llustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, has also been accused of softening the realities of slavery within its pages, but with a dramatically different result: the publisher, Scholastic, has halted distribution of the book and issued the following statement:
"(January 17, 2016) Scholastic is announcing today that we are stopping the distribution of the book entitled A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and will accept all returns. While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.
Scholastic has a long history of explaining complex and controversial issues to children at all ages and grade levels. We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor, and illustrator.
Scholastic provides a wide variety of fiction and informational books and magazines which teachers, parents and children rely on, including many devoted to African American experience, history and culture. We are also committed to providing books, magazines, and educational materials that portray the experience of all children, including those from diverse communities and backgrounds, and we will continue to expand that commitment through our global publishing channels."
In an article that documents the realities of life as a slave under George Washington, Fusion.net notes that "The book’s author, Ramin Ganeshram, is a former journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, and Forbes. She describes A Birthday Cake for George Washington as a way for children to learn about the “bittersweet reality” of being kitchen slaves. Understandably, many people took issue with what they saw as an ahistorical depiction of slave life that downplayed the cruelty and horror that comes with being owned by another human being."
The Guardian notes that "The trade publication School Library Journal called the book “highly problematic” and recommended against its purchase. Another trade journal, Kirkus Reviews, labeled the book “an incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery”."
This is a stark contrast to the positive review that Kirkus gave A Fine Dessert in October 2014, prior to its January 2015 publication.
"Blackall’s illustrations are as graceful and historically accurate as she can make them, as she and Jenkins take readers to 1710 Lyme, England, where a mother and daughter pick wild blackberries; 1810 Charleston, South Carolina, where an enslaved mother and daughter pick them in the plantation garden; 1910 Boston, where a mother and daughter buy their berries at the market; and finally 2010 San Diego… There is no other word but delicious." (source)
In Smiling Slaves in a Post–A Fine Dessert World, at Kirkus Reviews website, Vicky Smith says A Birthday Cake for George Washington "shares much of what A Fine Dessert’s critics found so objectionable: it’s an incomplete, even dishonest treatment of slavery. The back jacket's tailpiece vignette is a picture of a smiling George Washington, his arm around Hercules' shoulders. Hercules and Delia are likewise smiling; it's like a family picture—except it isn't."
As writers and illustrators, we inhabit worlds of our own creation. Inevitably those worlds are shaped and framed by our personal experiences. Whenever we attempt to write or illustrate something outside our own experiences, that which is "other" to us, it's important that we have as many eyes on our project as possible, and some of those eyes should belong to people who have experience of the other we are trying to portray.
Ms. Smith goes on to point out that "Blogger Edi Campbell, an African-American librarian at Indiana State University and advocate for diversity in children's books, wrote of A Fine Dessert, "I knew I’d never buy this book for my children or grandchildren. And, when I wondered how an African American would have done this book, I know they wouldn’t have." Indeed, many voices echoed this sentiment, using A Fine Dessert as an exemplar of the cultural cluelessness of our white-dominated industry. But Ganeshram's mother is Iranian, and her father is Trinidadian. Brantley-Newton is African-American. And the book's editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney, is also African-American—and a winner of the Coretta Scott King Award."
She concludes: "That a white creative team and a creative team of color, each working separately, came up with two books so similar in so many ways proves only one thing: intelligent people can disagree."
Diversity was the theme of the SCBWI Europolitan conference in 2015 and it is an ongoing topic of discussion within the greater community of publishing for children and young adults.
There is pain on both sides of these discussions, for the authors and illustrators of these books are well-intentioned. Their projects are ambitious. They have attempted to tackle the tough and complex issue of slavery in 32 pages. Their intentions and efforts are laudable.
But the positive intentions of the creators cannot overwrite the pain of those who have experience with the issues we raise in our stories.
Once a project makes its way into the wider world, we as creators have no control over its reception, and it may be that we miss the mark, that our sincere intentions are not considered to be enough to offset issues that may be raised by those with a stake in that story. And if that's the case, like Emily Jenkins and Scholastic, we need to own that. Publicly.
I hope more authors and illustrators will continue to tackle these important topics for children of all ages.
I hope these discussions will continue.
Every book represents the best work of everyone involved: author, illustrator, editor and publisher.
Hopefully these discussions will mean that "our best" becomes better.
Normally after a conference I like to summarize my thoughts fairly soon after I get home. But in the case of Europolitan, life in the form of the school holidays kept me from doing that. What I've found is that this additional time has allowed me to synthesize my thoughts, feelings and experiences from the conference into one word:
The weekend was jam packed with an amazing program of panel discussions and breakout sessions (you can see the program here). But the program is only part of the experience - it doesn't capture the conversations at lunch, on the coffee breaks, or over dinner with the faculty and participants who all have one thing in common: their passion for creating quality books for children and young adults, and getting those books into the hands of readers.
I came home tired, but inspired by the passionate involvement of so many people in the world of children's publishing.
People like literary agent Marietta Zacker, who is passionate about helping her clients make their projects the best they can be.
People like Creative Director Martha Rago, who likens her role in publishing to that of a mid-wife, helping to bring books into the world.
People like Esther Hershenhorn, writer and coach, who is passionate about helping writers and illustrators dig deeper to better understand their characters in order to make the best work possible.
People like Marieke Nijkamp, author and VP of Finance for We Need Diverse Books, who inspired and challenged us to go to the edges of the map of our known world, and beyond.
People like Greet Pauwelijn of Book Island who is passionate about getting broader exposure in the English publishing world for beautiful books from other cultures.
People like Majo de Saedeleer, who recognized a need to make books available to children in their native languages, and created the wonderful O Mundo program to meet that need.
And people like the participants, every one of which made the commitment to travel to Amsterdam and spend a weekend focused on honing their craft. To becoming a better writer or illustrator (or both).
One of those participants, Pia Drent, has written a wonderful post over at the website for the SCBWI host region, The Netherlands. I hope you'll hop over there next to check it out.
My interview with Europolitan 2015 faculty member Brooks Sherman is up today at Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog Cynsations. I hope you'll hop over to check out his thoughts about effective social media use for creators.
On Character Development, Diversity & More: my interview with Literary Agent Marietta Zacker at Cynsations
As part of our series of interviews with Europolitan faculty on the Cynsations blog, I talked to Literary Agent Marietta Zacker about our conference theme of Diveristy in Children's Literature. You can check out the interview here.