If you are writing for children, chances are you already know that January was “awards” month. That time of year similar to the Oscars and Emmy’s when people wait with bated breath to hear which of many thousands of books produced will get a nod from some corner of the world. This year I sat on an inaugural awards committee. That meant reading nearly forty young adult books then scoring and discussing with a committee. The previous year I served on a nonfiction committee for the Chicago based Society of Midland Awards. A number of colleagues have served on National Book Awards and American Library Association committees. I considered myself lucky that my pile of 40 or so novels paled in comparison to a colleague who received several hundred for his own committee.
One thing I've learned is that awards are only snapshots, not "bibles" for your own writing.
Judging awards is both daunting and subjective. Committees are made of human beings all with a passion for reading and all with their own taste and perspective. We’re all volunteers reading in the midst of work and family deadlines. We have our own deadlines to meet. But we do it because reading is a joy. In my own case, I have an alcove on the second floor that is wide enough for a large chair, a bookcase for submitted works, a table and not much else. The window looks out onto a park. When I’m in that chair the family knows to stay clear because I’m immersing. I tend not to rank books until I’ve read a large number of them because my opinions change as I compare the texts. Judging nonfiction would seem easy because I could look objectively at presentation of material, research quality, clarity, level of engagement. Either it is right, or it isn’t. Still the work was hard because we were judging works for younger readers with those for older readers. We had differing opinions and held discussions to narrow the choices. In the end, we were happy with the decision but regretted not having more space to recognize other strong works in the pile.
With novels the constraints changed. All books are within a general range of word count but now I was comparing speculative fiction against realistic fiction. Contemporary stories against Historical narratives. And everything in between. I love a good fantasy, but another judge might gravitate toward memoir. Judges bring something of themselves to the process which is why diversity of experience and interests matters. To have a balance in the discussion. As a starting point everyone tries to evaluate objective and subjective aspects of each work: writing quality, voice, mastery of the material. And yet, we all came to different conclusions about books submitted. Books I loved, some judges loved. Others didn’t. Books I thought were problematic, others loved and so forth and so on. Actually, awards committees are a lot like those brokered Presidential conventions you hear politicians talk about. There is rarely a clear consensus.
The process of eliminating books that don’t fit the criteria is easy. If the rules say the book has to be about oranges and your publisher submits a book about apples, then into the “donate to a library” pile it goes. Sometimes a publisher does not submit and we can't judge what we don't know exists. Also, there are sometimes books that start promising then lose site of the goal. But after the first pass there is still a pile of books remaining that are well written, beautifully illustrated, and clearly resonate. That is often the majority of the pile. Deciding a winner from those that passed the initial read is gut wrenching. So committees discuss, persuade, negotiate, debate, and debate some more. We often have personal favorites that are different from our colleague's choices. And for the most part, what could be a difficult discussion turns out to be civil, nuanced and respectful.
Still, I’m a writer. So I understand the sadness a writer will face when their own book is not chosen. But it passes quickly. Because I’ve been on both sides. I’ve also been the recipient of an award. I still had to take the garbage out on Monday and clean up after the cat who had wanted to make a statement about my absentee status. Life as book celebrity is a myth.
Here’s the deal in a nutshell. For the next year the world will rejoice about award winning authors as if they held the secret formula to writing a book. The other authors whose work was equally strong will get lost in the celebration. The natural tendency is to try to “read the tea leaves” and try to push your work in the direction of what was recognized.
Let me repeat. Don’t.
1. A different committee composed of different judges might come to a completely different conclusion and choose a different subset of work.
2. You are writing for a reader, not an awards committee. The chances of winning an award out of thousands of works produced each year is about the same as winning a lottery.
3. The reason there are thousands of books in a library or bookstore is to satisfy a wide and diverse set of preferences and interests. Write what you love and stay on your path.
4. Books that are published now were acquired several years ago. Preferences will be different by the time your book is published.
5. The job of the award winners just got harder. Think about the amount of time you spend carving out time in your day to day life to write. Writing is almost always best when you can take large chunks of time and immerse in the world of your character. Now imagine that you are the “go-to” person for every convention keynote, news article, etc. When do you write? Yes - sometimes obscurity is your friend.
Don’t second guess your own work. Many of the books you read now or as a child likely never received an award. And yet they are loved and endure because they resonated with their target audience. Stay on course. Awards are just a single snapshot of a much wider industry. Not winning an award is not an statement about the quality of the other books, or even your own abilities.
Writing for children is about immersing them in a world, holding their attention and awakening their hunger for another book. It is about being part of a community that creates lifelong passionate readers.
If you can achieve that, then you’ve found the true reward. Keep your eye on that prize.
Christine Taylor-Butler is the author of more than 70 books for children. Her current passion is her contemporary sci-fi/fantasy The Lost Tribes about five children who learn they play a role in saving the world. When not writing, she is a freelance editor, and community volunteer. She's also a closet ballroom dancer, artist and personal servant of a cat and tank of fish. You can find her on Twitter: @ChristineTB , Facebook: ChristineTaylorButler.ChildrensAuthor, or www.ChristineTaylorButler.com.
May you have many happy hours of writing ahead of you!
A Diverse Caldecott Winner
Last weekend, I attended the national SCBWI conference in New York. It was a great way to meet illustrators and writers, as well as to get my own illustrations noticed.
However, one of the highlights of the conference was to hear and meet Sophie Blackall, whose recent illustrations for "Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear" won her the 2016 Caldecott Medal. Not only was Sophie an amazing speaker, her story to fame is truly inspiring.
One of the most important things I took away from her speech, though, was just how diverse her illustrations are. From "Ruby's Wish" to "Pecan Pie Baby", to her illustrated New York subway poster Sophie shows characters from all races, cultures, and disabilities. Some are more culturally based stories, like "Red Butterfly" but in most cases the characters are just there, in everyday situations.
That's a real reflection of the real world.
In addition, I was completely impressed with Sophie talking about her trip to Rwanda. She traveled there and brought rolls of paper and markers for kids to draw on in a school that was made up of cement walls and a few benches for all the kids to cram into. She spoke about programs that were introducing books to children for the first time, where kids would travel two hours on foot - including one child who was missing a foot - just to hear a story and hold a book in their hands.
It was pretty powerful and heartwarming.
So I highly recommend studying Sophie Blackall's work. You could not only learn a lot about writing and illustrating children's books, but about life as well.
Angela Padron is a published illustrator of two books, including "The Hero in You" by Ellis Paul, as well as a Star Wars geek and chocolate chip cookie connoisseur. She also writes and illustrates her own picture books, board books, and chapter books. When she's not teaching, Angela works as a freelance writer and editor for educational publishers and spends weekends enjoying walks along the beach with her family. View her online portfolio at www.angelapadron.com. You can also "like" her facebook page, follow her on Twitter @angela_padron, and follow her own blog called "Show and Tell" with weekly posts about teaching, writing and illustrating books for children.
It all started when Angie Karcher invited me to the RhyPiBo 2015 awards in New York City last December. Sadly, I wasn’t able to attend, but just getting the invitation had me speaking in rhyme for days.
I’ve only written two rhyming picture books and some might not qualify them as true rhyme. Roar of a Snore is an accumulative rhyming book; the letters Prancing Dancing Lily writes home from her travels around the world are also in rhyme. I’ve never really been a poet or a rhymer, though. Prancing Dancing Lily nearly drove me batty. Roar of a Snore almost sent me off the cliff. What was I thinking? Looking back I realize that I started writing in rhyme after the most difficult health challenge of my life. I needed to laugh. Writing in rhyme made me laugh. And reading and writing rhyme makes kids laugh too. That’s why we writers continue to struggle with it.
1) What are your top suggestions for those who wish to master rhyme?
Read the Masters: clearly Lewis Carroll's Alice poems. But modern masters, like J. Patrick Lewis, Shel Silverstein, Doug Florian, Alice Shertle, Maryann Hoberman, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Marilyn Singer, David Harrison. Then set yourself a goal of writing a rhymed poem a day for a month, even six months. Read and practice.
2) What are your favorite websites for learning the skill of poetry writing?
I am huge fan of David Harrison's blog and Miss Rumphius Effect and read them every day.
3) How do you feel about inexact rhyme? (resist/missed) Some editors refuse it, but I see lots of books where it seems to work.
Baby steps. Don't start with those. Make yourself a master of the rhymed poem. (Not just ditties, but sophisticated rhyme schemes, too.) Be prepared to fail and rewrite and rewrite again. Before you do inexact rhymes, master true rhymes. Not resist/missed, but resist/enlist or missed/kissed. Not slant rhymes like find/rescind. And for goodness sakes, don't do occasional rhymes and jerked lines with the excuse that Seuss did it all the time. Dr. Seuss was sui generis and a genius. He was one of a kind. You are one of your own kind.
Jane’s advice will definitely keep us on the road to rhyming. You might want to join her “Jane Yolen Poem A Day” email, to keep poetry and rhyme in your day. http://eepurl.com/bs28ab Jane has not missed sharing a daily poem for three years straight! Talk about inspiring!
Below are Jane’s notes and requests if you join the group. I have and it's been a pleasure.
“These are mostly adult poems, so don’t automatically let kids see them. And they are early drafts.
Please don't share the poems or post them without asking permission. And always include the © notice when you do. Since I try to get many of the poems published in magazines or journals or in anthologies or collections, I need to protect my copyright.
All I ask in return is that you promise at month’s end --in exchange for the poems--that you will either buy one of my books (for yourself, a child, a friend, your local library) or borrow one from the library. Or possibly buy one for the library one month, borrow it the next. Double dip!
And do tell me what book you have gotten. If you joined past the month's halfway point, you get that first month free of this promise.
I always love to hear reactions, annotations, mention of typos, etc.”
If you want more inspiration, check out the top rhyming picture books that RhyPiBoMo selected for 2015. My granddaughter’s personal favorite is Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry, a fresh take on friendship...yep, between a stick and a stone.
Remember that children’s poetry and rhyme is not only about fun, though that’s a big part of it. It can also tackle information, serious subjects, and bring insights. I’d end here with a rhyme, but I think I’ll go practice Jane’s advice first.
But if the rhyming gods grab you, comments are welcome in prose or poetry.
As the author of the web comic Box O' Robotics, I am always on the look out for the next best selling graphic novel, classic comics, web comics and top market Japanese manga. Sometimes I'll spend a few hours in the bookstore browsing the shelves and studying what makes this type of literature so great on the market. Today I'm going to be recommending graphic novels and web comics that your tweens and teens will love, and talk about how I'm going to be assisting the upcoming Middle Grade Mastery Course for the Children's Book Academy.
TWEEN & TEEN GRAPHIC NOVEL RECOMMENDATIONS:
TWEEN & TEEN WEB COMICS:
MEET WITH ME AT THE MIDDLE GRADE MASTERY COURSE:
This year I will be assisting the CBA with its upcoming Middle Grade Mastery Course. This course has so much to offer you. You'll not only learn the basics of how to write the perfect middle grade novel, but you'll also learn about the inside scoop of what makes middle grade novels, and graphic novels stand out in the market. There are also many offers and golden ticket opportunities that only the CBA can offer you, such as being taught by agents and editors and submitting your work to them at the end of the course.
What are some of your favorite tween and teen graphic novels? I'd love to hear your recommendations!
Meet the Friday Blogonauts
First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
Second Fridays will feature awesome multi-award winning author Marsha Diane Arnold who will be writing about character-driven and/or nature-based books and/or anything she likes :)
Third Fridays will feature independent Aladdin/Simon & Shuster editor Emma Sector who has helped bring many books into the world.
Fourth Fridays will feature the great Christine Taylor-Butler who has published over 70 award-winning fiction and non-fiction and nonfiction books including the acclaimed new middle grade series - The Lost Tribes.
Fifth Fridays will feature the fabulous Carl Angel award-winning multi-published Illustrator and graphic designer.
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