writing colleagues

Five Key Takeaways from National Conference for Kids Book Creators

The most exciting thing I learned at the recent national conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is that the evidence continues to mount that young readers crave high quality nonfiction — especially of the expository kind, which is the style of my most recent two books. Melissa Stewart, a friend and mentor who writes nonfiction, too, has spent months compiling research from various academic studies. I got to hear her talk about this firsthand, but she has also generously laid it all out on her blog Celebrate Science. I’ve linked to a post with a big bunch of research citations, but many of her posts are relevant, so plan to spend some time digging into it.

Spending time listening to the best practitioners of one’s craft is inspiring. The mainstage panel on nonfiction included Deborah Heiligman, Barbara Kerley, Jason Chin, and Candace Fleming. All talked about how much research they did just to get to the point where they had identified the “vital idea.” Having chosen a focus often meant that much research had to be set aside and new research had to be done to fill in around the vital idea. I had so many moments where I felt like I knew exactly what they were talking about that I tweeted this:  Nonfiction nirvana. Inspiring workshops by Asked why primary sources: “I want to meet people in their own words.” asked why NF, “The world is so interesting, I just want to learn as much as I can and share it.” My peeps, y’all.

People expect an author/illustrator of expository books about math to be … well, not like me. Several people who stopped by my signing table expressed surprise at the woman behind Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature. Apparently, I’m a little more outgoing and gregarious than they expect. And, if they probe a little deeper than the surface they discover that I am only good at writing about math because I am NOT a natural mathlete. I come by my understandings by reading lots of explanations written by better mathematicians than me. And then I read a lot more explanations. Eventually, I get to where I can explain it to someone who started where I did. Rather than “write what you know,” my mantra is “write what you want to understand.”

Every industry professional — agent, editor, art director — is swamped with submissions. Every single one has more material coming in than they can possibly handle. This means we must rely on the wider community of writers and artists to help us get our work into its best possible shape — before we submit. There is no shortcut for putting in the work — even for the well-published among us. As Kevin Lewis, an agent with Erin Murphy Agency, and Alexandra Penfold, an agent with Upstart Crow Literary, put it: “Don’t jump precipitously. Wait a beat.”  “You only get fresh eyes once.”

Finally, I spent a lunch hour with #kidlitwomen organizers strategizing about ways to push for equal treatment for women and for all people from marginalized groups in children’s publishing. If you want to get involved in or follow this important conversation, please check out the kidlitwomen group on Facebook. A first step we identified is to gather data documenting disparities. These include unequal pay for the same work; fewer marketing dollars put behind work by or about women/girls/other underrepresented people, etc.

My trip to Los Angeles for the SCBWI Summer Conference was paid for in part by a grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission. The MAC is funded by the Mississippi Legislature and by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is in turn funded by Congress. I am grateful for this public support of the arts. My thanks go in particular to my state representative, Christopher Bell; my state senator, David Blount; my U.S. House Rep. Gregg Harper; and my two U.S. Senators, Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith.

Guest Posting at Elizabeth Dulemba’s Blog

Today, I offer tips on finding and working with experts when you are writing nonfiction for children. My post appears on the blog of children’s author/illustrator Elizabeth Dulemba, a friend from SCBWI’s Southern Breeze region. I hope you’ll click here to read the post. You could win a free copy of Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature.

Elizabeth has a new novel out next month called A Bird on Water Street. I read an advance copy and I think she did a masterful job of exploring the environmental impacts of resource mining through the eyes of boy growing up in Appalachia.

Physically, I am in Boston for the annual convention of the National Science Teachers Association. I will present in a session titled, “A Real-Life Page Turner: Award-winning Trade Book Authors Share Their Research Strategies” and then Richard and I will sign copies of Mysterious Patterns. I’ll post pictures when I get back home.



Visit to Margaret Walker Alexander Center

My friend Carolyn Brown is writing a young adult biography of writer Margaret Walker Alexander, and I agreed to help her get some photographs. We met at the Margaret Walker Center, which is housed on the campus of Jackson State University, where Dr. Alexander taught for most of her career.

Carolyn with Angela

In this photograph, Carolyn and archivist Angela Stewart are looking through one of Alexander’s early journals, which are housed at the Center.
Rod at Alexander Center
Though Carolyn had asked me to take photographs for her, I am very busy right now with other projects so I recommended Roderick Red. Regular readers of the blog will know he and I have been working together for about a year and a half. Here he is taking photographs of Alexander’s journals.

Rod at Gallery
After the Center, we went to Gallery 1, where an exhibit of Elizabeth Catlett prints was just coming down. Here’s Rod, looking at a print by Catlett that was inspired by Alexander’s poem, For My People.

On the other wall at Gallery 1, I found these quilts by my quilting friends Gustina Atlas, Geraldine Nash, Hystercine Rankin, and Lorraine Harrington. I love coming across the work of Crossroads Quilters out in the wider world.

Favorite from the Awards Ceremony

It seems our kids spend most of their May school days taking tests. When they’re not testing, they’re presenting final projects, papers, and performances. Today, I went to Murrah High School for the Sophomore Awards Ceremony. Here’s my favorite photograph from the event. The 10th grade guidance counselor, Mr. Sayles, had just asked the students to guess which of the high achievers in the bunch had the current highest average. Who’s No. 1? This is what they did.
who is No. 1
All fingers pointed to Matthew Sarpong. And then, Mr. Sayles refused to say.

I’ve been neglecting the blog lately — mainly because we’ve been working hard on the fractal project.

taking QAL

Here Richard is shooting Queen Anne’s Lace with help from our friend and collaborator, Julie Owen. She brought the Queen Anne’s Lace to us, having found it along the highway between Baton Rouge and here.
This is one of our favorites from the shoot.

Some very exciting things are happening right now with the fractal manuscript! Through hard work, perseverance, and just plain good luck, we are going to be able to include some amazing stuff! I love it when a book comes together!

Writing and Illustrating for Kids 2012

All children — those who live sheltered, protected lives and those who face hunger, cruelty, and neglect — need to read about terrible things, according to children’s book author Donna Jo Napoli. If you visit her website’s page listing interviews, you can listen to her TEDx talk on the topic.

Donna Jo NapoliHere are some quotes I noted down: “I don’t think there’s anyone lonelier than a child who thinks they are the worst person alive.”

“It is very consoling to see that other people have problems. It gives you perspective. … When we write about terrible things, we look for the strand of strength in our characters.”

“From reading books, she (an unprotected child) can learn that with hard work and a good spirit, she can see that she can live decently in her own world — even if just inside her own head.”

“In reading, you step inside someone else’s skin. You live their life. You develop empathy. And empathy is the cornerstone of civilization.”

“There’s no better, no safer place to develop that empathy than in a book.”

“When it comes to trying to be the writer you want to be, I urge you not to be afraid of the things that bring high emotion to you. … We need to embrace our misery and learn how to use it.”

Napoli delivered the keynote address at this year’s Writing and Illustrating for Kids conference. Put on by the Southern Breeze region of the SCBWI and held each year just outside Birmingham, WIK offers workshops, critiques, and opportunities to meet and learn from other writers, editors, and agents.

Sarah at signing table

I presented two workshops: Stories + Photos = Winning Nonfiction and You Mean I’m Not Finished? Developing Marketing and Educational Materials. I uploaded two handouts for the Stories + Photos workshop on my website. Click here to see them. I created a Pinterest Board to gather examples for the Not Finished workshop. Click here.

I love sharing my stories in my own workshops, but the downside of being on the faculty is that it limits the number of workshops I can attend. I chose What Educators Can Teach Writers by Jodi Wheeler-Toppen and Trends in Award Winning Nonfiction by Julie Ham, associate editor at Charlesbridge.

Julie Ham

Ham led a fascinating workshop. We read excerpts from 10 Sibert Medal winning books and 4 Sibert Honor books. Based on these short snippets of writing (and, our own background knowledge of the books), we rated them on a continuum between traditional, safe writing to expressive, edgy writing. Making these judgments forced us to look carefully at the writing.

pegram and lewis

 Here are Sharon Pegram, the conference coordinator, and Keri Lewis, my angel during the conference.

Jane Yolen Headlines 2012 Children’s Book Festival

Jane Yolen was this year’s Medallion recipient and she gave a very nice speech about the importance of story.

Jane YolenAs all of us struggle to figure out how stories will find their audiences in our digital world, it is surely important to remember that story matters most.

This is my fifth Kaigler festival; each one seems better than the last.

This year Julie Owen came along and co-presented with me. Our newest workshop is “Read a Book, Make a Book!” We had more than 50 librarians (and a few writers and illustrators) in the room. We were so busy with the hands-on bookmaking that we didn’t get a single photograph. Errrrgh!

We had good suggestions from Micha Archer, an honor winner in this year’s Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Contest.

 Meg Medina and Micha Archer

Meg Medina, winner of the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award for her book, Tia Isa Wants a Car, with Micha Archer, who illustrated Lola’s Fandango.

Jenny Sue's familyPatrick and T, the husband and daughter of Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw, who won the Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award for her illustrations of Same, Same But Different. She also was an honor winner of the EJK new writer award for Same Same But Different. One of my favorite bits of the signing time at Barnes and Noble was my tea party with T, while her mom signed books.

Margery Cuyler
Margery Cuyler

Rebecca Kai Dotlich
Rebecca Kai Dotlich

Matt de la Pena

Matt de la Pena signing We Were Here, which he gave (GAVE!) to Julie after his speech, which was very inspiring!
Denise FlemingDenise Fleming, leading librarians in a dance.

Sarah with Floyd Dickman

I spent some time visiting with Floyd Dickman, learning about the curriculum work he’s done with quilts and children’s books in Ohio.

Sarah with meridian librarians

During my signing time, I met some librarians from Meridian.

Claudia Pearson

I spent time with my SCBWI friends at the Southern Breeze table. Claudia Pearson and Jo Kittinger worked hard to spread the word among librarians about homegrown writers and illustrators and to encourage would-be writers and illustrators among the librarians to join us at SCBWI.

Hester Bass

Hester Bass, author of The Secret World of Walter Anderson, hosts the Southern Breeze table.

Diane ButlerDiane Butler, librarian at Magee Middle School, wins the Kaigler-Lamont Award, which is given to a librarian who has done outstanding work in turning kids on to books.

Valerie Nye and Kathy Barco, who were signing their book, True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries.

Thanks, Julie, for coming along, and for taking the pictures that include me.

Mississippi Library Association Annual Conference

I spent a few hours at the Mississippi Library Association Annual Conference last week. I went to hear my friend, Hester Bass, talk about her book, The Secret World of Walter Anderson, at lunch. Then, I went back for the Awards Dinner, where Hester won a Special Award for The Secret World of Walter Anderson. I had my little camera so the images don’t have the crisp look I’d like, but there worth sharing anyway.


Nancy Opalko, youth services librarian at Oxford Public Library, introducing Hester.


Hester Bass delivering a singing telegram to the lunch crowd.

Bass signing

Hester siging copies of her book after the luncheon speech.

Cynthia Wetzel

Cynthia Wetzel, a librarian at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, introducing Ellis Anderson.

Ellis Anderson

Ellis Anderson, author of Under Surge, Under Siege, winner of the nonfiction award.

Read more about Under Surge, Under Siege here.

Anderson 2

Donna  P. Fite

Donna Fite, librarian at Purvis Public Library, introduces Mary Anna Evans.


Mary Anna Evans, author of Floodgates, won the fiction award.

Read more about Mary Anna Evans and her books here.

coleman gives bass award

Marty Coleman, librarian at First Regional Library and chair of the Author Awards Committee, giving Hester her award.

You can read more about Hester and her books here.
Also, if you have read this far and are still interested, you can see last year’s award winners.

Writing and Illustrating for Kids 2011

I spent the weekend in Birmingham for Writing and Illustrating for Kids, the fall conference of the Southern Breeze region of the Society of Book Writers and Illustrators. We had a fabulous line-up of speakers and I got to see many of my writer and illustrator friends. My volunteer job this year did not involve photography so I have very few photos to share. These are ones I took in the library during the final session of the day: formal critiques.

dulemba prepping
Elizabeth Dulemba preparing for her critique.
manlove critique
A member being critiqued by Melissa Manlove, editor at Chronicle Books. See more about Chronicle Books here.
pratt critique
A member being critiqued by Linda Pratt, an agent with Wernick & Pratt Agency.
kaplan critique
Elizabeth Dulemba showing her portfolio to Deborah Kaplan, art director at Penguin Group USA.
Kaplan critique 2
cooper critique
A member discussing her work with Alexandra Cooper, editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
oliver critiqueLin Oliver, author and executive director of SCBWI, discussing work with a member.
Yee critiqueA member discussing work with Author Lisa Yee.

Civil Rights History From the Ground Up

Come see my sister, Dr. Emilye Crosby, at Lemuria this evening at 5:30 p.m. for a discussion of her new book, Civil Rights History From the Ground Up: Local Struggles, a National Movement. Dr. Charles M. Payne, who contributed an essay to the book, will also be there. Payne taught me at Northwestern University 24 years ago, but he is now teaching at the University of Chicago. His essay is titled “Sexism is a Helluva Thing.”

Read a review of the book on Lemuria’s website here. There are lots of nice pictures, too.

Listening to “Blind” Reviewers

mac logoEarlier this year, I submitted three applications to the Mississippi Arts Commission. One was for a fellowship in the literary arts. This year’s literary fellowship categories were creative nonfiction, playwriting and screenwriting. My submission was in the creative nonfiction category.

Last week, I sat in the room while an independent review panel discussed this year’s eight fellowship applications. Before the meeting, each panelist had read for each application a 15-20 page work sample and an artist’s statement (with all identifying information removed).

Besides me, two other applicants came to listen to the panel.

The panelists were identified by name cards on the conference table. I knew two of them from their work in the arts community. Two others were new to me.

It was very strange to listen to my writing being talked about in that setting. Because my work-in-progress is a memoir, the panelists did at least have the luxury of using the pronoun “she” when they wanted to speak about the author, namely, me. From the discussion, I learned that other applicants’ work samples ranged from a literary cookbook to a play to newspaper column-style family reminiscences.

I kept imagining that the panelists could tell it was my work they were discussing. I was sure it showed on my face. All three of us observers took notes during the entire discussion, but I wrote more assiduously when they were discussing my work.

It was interesting to hear how the opinions of the panelists were in some cases diametrically opposed. “Unique and interesting” versus “Didn’t see the originality.”

Though it was a strange experience, I think all artists should take any opportunity to listen in on this kind of discussion. Perhaps most importantly, the process allows you to see how effective (or not) you are at conveying your goals and at displaying the expertise to carry out those goals. For example, in at least one case, a writer, in his/her artistic statement, proposed a biography, but the work samples were unrelated to the biography project.

At the end of a brief discussion, panelists were asked to give each application a series of numerical scores, based on certain criteria (originality and vision of the work; technical skill and mastery of the artistic discipline).

Observers were not allowed to see scores. We were asked to leave before the panel had its final discussion. In my past experience with arts commission panels (when I wrote project grants for schools and nonprofit organizations), this final discussion is where the panel’s ultimate preferences are revealed. (Observers used to be able to stay in the room for these discussions. I’m not sure when/why the change was made.)

I will have to wait until July to learn whether I will get a fellowship. The panel’s recommendations go to the Mississsippi Arts Commission‘s governing board, which meets in June.

The Not-Blind Part

The other two applications I submitted to the arts commission this year were for its artist rosters. I have been on the artist roster for the literary arts for three years and it was time for me to re-apply. In addition, I applied for the first time to join the teaching artist roster.

My application to be included on the artist roster for the literary arts went for review to the same panel that reviewed the fellowship applications. In this case, however, the panelists knew my name, saw my resume, my marketing materials, my work samples, and a list of the presentations and signings I’ve done in the last three years. I could tell from the comments by panelists that all of them supported my application to be on the roster.

The story was largely the same for the teaching artist application, though it went before a different panel. During the discussion, several panelists said they wished they had more information on which to base their recommendation. Some suggested the application requirements should be amended to include examples of student work. I would have loved to have shared my students’ work. You can see some of it here and here.

Another interesting aspect of the discussion was something I’ve struggled with over my years of trying to make the most of the resources available from the Mississippi Arts Commission. In order to apply for individual support (fellowship or grant) or to appear on rosters, an applicant must chose a particular art form. So, though I am equal parts writer and photographer in the creation of nonfiction picture books for children, I must choose for the purposes of each application whether to apply as a literary artist (writer) or as a visual artist (photographer). The rules about work samples make it hard to show my picture book work — because I am limited to typed manuscript pages on the literary arts side and photographs on the visual arts side.

I wonder if the panelists are allowed to and/or encouraged to look at the online materials of the applicants for rosters. I have so much information available on my website and on this blog that could have filled in some of the information panelists seemed to be seeking.

Have any of you blog readers experienced a similar “blind” review process? What was it like?