As promised, this month I’ll share more about my weekend at Jane Yolen’s Picture Book Boot Camp, a magical weekend if ever there was one.
Arriving on Thursday, I was met by Jane’s extraordinary daughter, Heidi Stemple. Perhaps we should just start calling her Extraordinary Heidi. An excellent writer and editor in her own right, she was also our foundation for the weekend: chef, organizer, caregiver, chauffeur, and Renaissance woman.
Crossing the lovely Connecticut and Massachusetts landscape, we arrived at Jane’s Phoenix Farm, where stands her rambling farm house with Heidi’s home, Owl Cottage, next door. My room at Phoenix Farm was The Aerie, Jane’s third floor attic, where Jane penned many of her over 300 books. The house is near Owl Moon woods, the subject of Jane's Caldecott Medal book, Owl Moon; the woods where Jane's husband, David, first took their young children owling.
Each of the rooms in Jane’s home, with names like Oz, The Faerie Ring, and Emily Dickinson, holds a library. There are additional books at Heidi’s Owl Cottage. On the first floor of Phoenix Farm are seven rooms with books. The Music Room holds (what else?) music books, along with books about writers and the full first edition Jane Yolen Collection. One of the libraries in the Solatia room on the second floor holds books about toys and games, and on the third floor, in the Aerie, are folk and fairy lore, myth, and full collections of Jane’s short pieces. Together, these 17 plus libraries form a library like no other: Jane’s Library, tended with care by her and Heidi.
As part of the weekend, each of the nine attendees had two manuscripts critiqued by the woman herself. One of the questions Jane asked during my critique is where I would like to be in five years. This is a valuable question for all of us to ask. I have never seriously asked it. Now, the question resonates in my mind. Where would you like to be in five years?
Jane shared that one of the things that has kept her career going for 50 years is inventing and reinventing herself and her work. She spoke of the book market being like a shark. “If it doesn’t move, it dies.” She says we’re always chasing the shark, but the shark pays no attention to us. If we stay on its tail, we’ll never get to the front, yet we need to be at the head of the shark and let people chase us. We never know when that switch will happen, so “we just need to keep inventing and reinventing ourselves. Or we die.” No writer wants that, because when we die our stories die with us.
One of the manuscripts I shared with Jane has been rejected numerous times. Jane pulled that story up and gave me hope for it again. Several editors thought I was trying to tell a tall tale and had failed. Jane said, “Of course, it’s a tall tale.” “Hooray,” I whispered to myself. “I’m going with the folklorist expert.”
Jane honed in on one of my writing challenges when she said, “There’s much too much going on here.” I do tend to write the history of the Western World in my stories, so this is advice to heed. “Tighter. Tighter. Tighter.” was her mantra.
For my tall tale, (Yes. It’s a tall tale.) she suggested an author note, just a couple of paragraphs. Using author notes takes teachers and librarians immediately into common core ground, so when it makes sense to use them, do.
Being with Jane and Heidi for the weekend would have been more than ample fare. Jane chatted with us around the dining table at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, she critiqued two manuscripts for each of the nine attendees, she gave mini-lectures in the living room, and read us goodnight stories. There were conversations, contests, and a bit of whining was allowed. I imagined us a bit like Socrates’ followers circling around him, but, being a prolific writer, Jane is more like Aristotle.
Yes, that would have been ample fare, but Jane and Heidi always go above and beyond. Three guest speakers were brought to Phoenix Farm to learn from: author Lesléa Newman, Charlesbridge editorial director Yolanda Scott, and the brilliant Dr. Susannah Richards. Each one was a treat.
Besides this we had two wondrous excursions. One crisp evening we went outside to call down an owl just as the characters in Jane’s classic Owl Moon did. No owl was to be called down that evening, but good camaraderie was. As Jane says in Owl Moon “Sometimes there’s an owl and sometimes there isn’t.”
The other excursion was to The Eric Carle Museum of Picture book Art. The backstage tour, led by the brilliant curator Nick Clark, was a hit. When we walked into one room, we saw the dummy and original art of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble spread out on the table. That in itself was worth the price of my trip.
A few more tidbits for you:
1) How to choose? Many writers have questions on which of their hundreds of story ideas to focus on. How shall we choose? Jane thinks of this challenge a bit like triage. We must decide what is viable, what is possible, and what is DOA.
2) Shifting focus: Jane spoke of the importance of shifting focus. It’s not just for illustrators! Writers must think about doing short focus and long focus with their words, making close-ups and far-away pictures. This is what tells the reader what is important and less important, what the larger and smaller pictures are. Think of your story cinematically, adjusting the focus the way you would on a camera.
3) The important thing: Above the conversations, the rules, the market, the most important thing is to always tell a good story.
All this talk of being in a legend’s home and sitting down to meals with her brings up a question for you. If you could sit down at the dinner table with three children’s literature writers, living or dead, who would they be? If you feel like expanding, tell us why.
While I’m waiting for your response, I’ll share my advice for this month: if you have the opportunity to spend a long weekend in the home of a legend, take it.
The lucky first attendees of Jane's PBBC with Jane and guest Dr. Susannah Richards. Back Row - Stephen Swinburne, Ruth Bernstein Spiro, Jane, Susannah, Julie Foster Hedlund, Kyra Teis. Front Row - Fred Bortz, Debbie Bernstein LaCroix, Betsy Devany Macleod, Edna Cabcabin Moran, and moi - Marsha Diane Arnold.
The photos in this blog were taken by myself, Heidi, and other members of the inaugural class.
P.S. I didn’t know this when I promised this post, but the Picture Book Boot Camp will be happening again in October. Head on over to Jane Yolen’s Facebook page and check the April 8th post by Heidi. As I said, “when you have the opportunity.”
Marsha Diane Arnold is an award-winning picture book author with eleven traditional books, two digital apps, and an e-book to her credit. Represented by Red Fox Literary, in 2013 she sold four picture book manuscripts to Neal Porter Books, Kate O'Sullivan of Houghton Mifflin, and Tamarind, Random House UK. She grew up on a Kansas farm, but today creates imaginative worlds and wacky characters in northern California surrounded by her garden, deer, hummingbirds, turkeys, oaks, and redwoods. Marsha's course Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books has helped many published and aspiring writers to write stronger characters. You may read about her books, school visits, and life at www.marshadianearnold.com.
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First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
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