In the month of February, I feel noticed. Noticed by bookstores, publishers, educators, and the country at large. It’s Black History Month and for 28 days I can confidently take my children to our local Barnes & Nobel and know that they will see reflections of themselves featured in promotional displays. The reflections that they see will be of Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, and Rosa Parks to name a few. All critically important figures whose life stories and accomplishments I want my kids to identify with and internalize.
However, children and families of color should not have to wait for February to come around each year to be noticed and valued. Unfortunately, authentically written contemporary stories about the everyday lives of black children and their families are still sorely lacking on store bookshelves. Furthermore, the few stories that clear the publication hurdle are seldom turned face-out in bookstores at any other time of the year.
I’m not saying anything new. This issue has been around for a very long time. But, diversity in children’s books is again becoming a hot topic on and offline. Now is the time for even more frank discussions and action. Children of color of all ages deserve to see the many dimensions of their lives told in great stories. The need seems even more pressing in the light of the recent breakdown in race relations in the multiple police shootings of unarmed black boys and men across the country.
With Kwame Alexander's The Crossover recently winning the Newbery Medal for Best Children's Book, it feels like change is a comin’. But, I wish it would speed up!
In the meantime, I’ll continue to write stories that give voice to the everyday experiences in the lives of not so infamous children and families of color. I’ll keep hope alive that my stories and the stories told by many other writers of color will be published and reach the open hands and hearts of all children for future generations.
In the meantime, my children and I will re-read all of the stories we’ve come to love until there are new ones to add to our collections. Until then, we’ll continue to search for our reflections.
Carol Higgins-Lawrence wrote her first story at the age of five. Her father paid her a quarter for it and she's been writing ever since. She's taken a variety of courses in writing for children. Multicultural perspectives are of particular interest to her. Carol is of Jamaican descent and was born and raised in Canada. She has a BA in Communications and Sociology and she has completed coursework towards a MA in TESOL. She has worked as a literacy educator for the past 15 years. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two young children. You can visit her website at carolhl.weebly.com
Going to the New York SCBWI conference (Picture taken by Debbie Ridpath Ohi) made me want to sing. The atmosphere crackled with creativity, and I came home overflowing with inspiration and blissful melodies. Connecting with my tribe motivated me to get my manuscripts ready to submit. The conference reminded me of these 3 ways to make my story sing!
1. Read (or sing!) your manuscript out loud.
If you write picture books, this will be easy. Emma Walton Hamilton says you should read your picture book aloud 10 times! Even if you write middle grade or YA, Jordan Brown insists that your manuscript is not ready unless you have read your entire manuscript out loud. Reading our stories aloud helps us notice problems with plot, pacing, tension, and grammar. If we read our stories aloud to our target audience, we can also learn when the manuscript works (or doesn't) by paying attention to our audience.
2. Confirm that your story shows the most important event (or melody!) in your main character's life.
If the stakes aren't high for your character, the story won't be interesting to read or write! If you write about the most important event in your main character's life, your book is much more likely to resonate with people. Kami Garcia says that that finding the right book at the right time changes lives.
3. Know about recently published books that sing and compare to your manuscript. Know how your story's melody is different.
Jessica Garrison and Jordan Brown both said that publishers want to see something that is current, yet different from other things that are already published. Knowing the market helps you know if your story is something that people will want to read. And that's what it's all about, isn't it?
Kirsti Call is a homeschooling mom of five. Her debut picture book, The Raindrop Who Couldn't Fall, came out December 2013. Her family band, Calling Out, plays songs written by her children. She contributes to Writer's Rumpus, and Kids are Writers. If you visit her house, you’ll likely find her singing and getting ready to submit stories that sing. You can find out more about her at www.kirsticall.com.
As everyone who is associated with the KidLit world probably already knows, the ALA announced the two biggest awards in KidLit last week:
The Caldecott and The Newbery.
The Newbery Award went to The Crossover,
written by Kwame Alexander and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
The Caldecott went to The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, illustrated and written by Dan Santat and published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
While huge congratulations are in order for both of those books what I thought was interesting was
This book is a graphic novel and it received a Newbery Honor Award.
When you combine that with Kate DiCamillo's 2014 Newbery--winning book, Flora and Ulysses, which contained bits of graphic novel pieces sprinkled throughout, you have to wonder if the popularity of graphic novels is about to soar!
What is a graphic novel?
According to the website www.GetGraphic.org
"Graphic Novel" is a format, not a genre. Graphic novels can be fiction, non-fiction, history, fantasy, or anything in-between.
Graphic novels are similar to comic books because they use sequential art to tell a story. Unlike comic books, graphic novels are generally stand-alone stories with more complex plots. Collections of short stories that have been previously published as individual comic books are also considered graphic novels.
The key to this is that the story line is more complex in a graphic novel than in a comic, and it takes place all within a single book.
Going to school and making new friends can be tough. But going to school and making new friends while wearing a bulky hearing aid strapped to your chest? That requires superpowers! In this funny, poignant graphic novel memoir, author/illustrator Cece Bell chronicles her hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences with the Phonic Ear, a very powerful—and very awkward—hearing aid.
The Phonic Ear gives Cece the ability to hear—sometimes things she shouldn’t—but also isolates her from her classmates. She really just wants to fit in and find a true friend, someone who appreciates her as she is. After some trouble, she is finally able to harness the power of the Phonic Ear and become “El Deafo, Listener for All.” And more importantly, declare a place for herself in the world and find the friend she’s longed for.
This plot is something you might read in any mid-grade novel. In this case, however, since author, Cece Bell, is also an illustrator, she chose to tell her story with pictures. Clearly this works!
But it is also good to note that this book has a very solid plot line and would probably have done very well as a "regular" mid-grade novel with just several illustrations spread throughout.
Or would it? Is it the images that bring more life and poingancy to the story? Does seeing the pictures touch us just that little deeper inside?
Each reader needs to decide that question for themselves.
As for the rest of us writers, the popularity of graphic novels should make us stop and think. Would the words we use in our stories be more powerful with images attached? Is that why picturebooks are so popular? Or does it have to do with the video-obsessed society that we now live in. Whatever the answer, graphic novels are a fun way to expand our writing and perhaps something that may require a much closer look.
Other graphic novels to check out:
43 Old Cemetery Road series by Sarah and Kate Klise (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Dori Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon (Dial BFYR)
Max Axiom Science Series by Graphic Science
Jennifer is the award-winning author of over 20 nonfiction and fiction books for kids. A self-professed science geek, she is always on the hunt to learn something new. How do submarines stay submerged? How do satellites work? Why do bedbugs live in beds? She has learned it all in the many nonfiction books she has authored. Like any good scientist and author, Jennifer is rarely without a notebook and she writes down her observations throughout the day. It is a practice she encourages many young readers and writers. You can visit Jennifer at her website www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com, her special place to explore the world around her.
Scene is defined as the action that occurs in one more or less continuous time or place in the course of the story. Ideally a scene is an event; one that significantly alters some aspect of the story, singly or in combination: the emotional tone, some part of a given character’s understanding, the direction of the action, the meaning of an event.
It’s easy to see the shift of scene if the location changes, or if we leave our characters watching nighttime TV, then the timeline skips to some part of the next day. But we can watch two characters walk down the street or move from room to room, and the scene hasn’t necessarily ended. A more extreme example can be seen in Back to the Future: it might be argued that the scene hasn’t quite ended even though there’s clearly a change of environment at each end of a time travel passage. We’re following that character from time to time, as well as place to place.
I think it’s worth looking at a picture book to see how this definition applies to the form.
Let's look at Saving Sweetness by Diane Stanley, illus. by Brian Karas. it's worthwhile to pick up the book at the library, but i think you can follow along without all the pictures.
Story line:The facing page gives us a brief background, or at least an explanation of the spread, in a monologue by someone other than the characters we’re shown, establishing the voice that will tell us this story. He tells us conditions at the orphanage are grim, and he finishes off by telling us, “Sweetness hit the road.”
First spread: the orphanage is pictured, it's a photo dimmed down with a watercolor wash, i think. Good choice, since a brightly colored illustration of even a rundown shack would have somehow made the place look halfway cute. This simply radiates depressing. There are colorwashed photos used in spots throughout the story. the orphans and Mrs. Sump look like they just stepped out of an Edward Gorey dream sequence.
Fifth spread: they have a dialogue about her returning to town, and she runs off and leaves him there. This is the same scene, although it’s a different page, because time and place are not different from the fourth spread.
Sixth spread: we’re in the same place, where she left the sheriff, but now night has fallen, and this is a new scene, with a new objective. The sheriff is cold and hungry. He falls asleep, only to wake to a campfire and toasted marshmallows. Guess who is taking care of him?
Seventh spread: same scene, another dialogue in which he tells her she has to come back to town. And she cries. He suggests she get herself adopted if she doesn’t like it at the orphanage.
Eighth spread: same scene, they’re at an impasse and Sweetness takes off again.
Ninth spread: new scene, it’s the next morning, and the sheriff is on the move, looking for Sweetness. But Coyote Pete sees him coming and gets the drop on him.
Tenth spread: the sheriff tries to reason with this varmint with no more success than he had with Sweetness. There is no scene change from spreads nine through twelve. (This is the part I love best: we see Sweetness’s skinny arms coming in off the edge of the page, about to drop a rock on C.P.)
Eleventh spread: the sheriff informs us that he scared C.P so bad he made a noise and fell over backwards, out cold. He gives some credit to Sweetness for tying up that varmint with her hair ribbons.
The second page of the spread renews the discussion about Sweetness coming back to town.
Twelfth spread: this spread settles matters between Sweetness and the sheriff, who gets the idea to adopt her. (At last! Woulda been too bad if she had to drop a rock on him.)
Thirteenth spread: together, they roll C.P. back to town. Fresh scene.
Fourteenth spread: signing the adoption papers. No spoiler here! Fresh scene.
End page finishes the story with a little business about how things finished up for Miss Sump and C.P.
By itself, taking a look at how scene shapes a story, even a picture book story, can seem like an exercise in “You don’t say.” But if you go through a lot of picture books, taking a look at how the first few pages are delivered as one scene or as several, you get a feel for how the story is set up to create a kind of suspense over three spreads (or a first page and two spreads) that might be termed a first act.
Some books will even start the story on the end pages, the title page, and the copyright page, using small spot illustrations to build tension. Of course, tension is relative in a picture book. They aren’t all Bootsie Barker Bites, which is one of my all time favorites, and it’s worth looking at those spot illustrations in that book. No, some stories don’t deliver tension so much as other story information in those spots. Say, quick pix of a lost dog in a story where children will find that dog and eventually rescue him. If not tension, then story information.
You’ll find a lot of picture books have a fourth spread ‘save,’ where the build of story tension eases momentarily. Right before a bigger story movement is revealed.
In Sweetness you’re being introduced to the series of exchanges between the orphan and the sheriff that carry the middle or the second act of the book. Even though C.P. might be considered an event outside that range, he’s really an interruption of the main story line.
The final two and a half spreads tie up threads of the story, finishing the third act.
Here's the "scene" at my house these days. I'm working on a book on writing, still untitled, and sitting just close enough to the wood fire to keep the pages from getting singed. Hope you're all having a lovely winter. Signed, Audrey Couloumbis
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