Thursday, March 4, 2021

Nanette McGuinness Interviews Award-winner Helen Wang on the Translation of "Dragonfly Eyes" by Cao Wenxuan (Winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Children's Writing)

Helen Wang translates from Chinese to English. In 2017, she won a Chen Bochui Special Award for Children’s Literature in China and the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation in the U.K. for Bronze and Sunflower by 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing winner Cao Wenxuan. Her new translation of another Cao Wenxuan novel, Dragonfly Eyes, was just released in the U.K. by Walker Books, with Candlewick due to release it in the U.S. in 2022. A curator at the British Museum, Helen Wang earned a Ph.D. in archaeology and B.A. in Chinese.



Nanette McGuinness: Congratulations on yet another fabulous translation of a wonderful book! What was it like working with Cao Wenxuan a second time and returning to his vision and world view? Were you able to communicate directly with him at all or did you work through your editor?

Helen Wang:I didn’t communicate directly with Cao Wenxuan during the translation and editing of Bronze and Sunflower or Dragonfly Eyes (we don’t have each other’s contact details). As I was commissioned by Walker Books, I raised with my editor Emma Lidbury anything I couldn’t resolve myself. Otherwise, I did the translation independently, and at the end, checked a few things I wasn’t sure about with a friend.

Cao Wenxuan and I have met several times at public events (e.g., at the Bologna Children’s Bookfair, the Shanghai Children’s Bookfair) and a few other occasions. We always exchange a few words, but he has a big fan club and lots of people wanting to talk to him. He is a VIP in China and has a breath-taking schedule, and while he never seems rushed, he doesn’t hang about for long.

Nanette: Dragonfly Eyes was published in China in 2016. How long did you get to work on the translation? Is that typical for your book translations or different—and if so, in what way and why?

Helen: The translation and editing process took a long time! The Chinese publisher sent me a copy of Dragonfly Eyes in the summer of 2016, and asked if I’d write a reader’s report. Emma Lidbury at Walker Books then commissioned me to translate it, we set up a contract, and I submitted the translation at the end of 2017. The original schedule was to publish it in 2019, but the date was rescheduled first on the UK side, and then the Chinese publisher asked us to wait while the author made a few changes. It was eventually published in January 2021, over three years after I submitted the translation. That’s a long time, and it was difficult to hold the story in my head. At one point I got cold feet and asked a bilingual friend if she would read the Chinese and English versions at normal reading speed (not close editing) and highlight any areas that didn’t ring true. I paid her to do this from my fee. The delays meant going through the translation several more times than we might have, but however time-consuming that was, it was always enjoyable working with Emma towards the best we could achieve.

My experience is that the editorial process in China will almost always include a close checking of the translation against the original, whereas the English language side does not usually include this. There are more English readers at Chinese publishing houses than there are Chinese readers at English-language publishing houses, and the same is probably true for all non-European languages.

Nanette: Dragonfly Eyes rings very true, with a clear sense of character and history, a strong voice for all the characters, and a vividness to the settings and descriptions of physical details, such as food and clothing. Sometimes that kind of writing can be easier to translate, as there's a good “roadmap” in the original, but sometimes it can be very tricky. Did you need to do research on any of the book's 20th century locales, lingo, or the historical times you were translating about, in order to make sure you kept the vocabulary and voices true to their time and place? Or was it fairly clear from the original?

Helen: Cao Wenxuan is a wonderful storyteller, both in his books and in real life, so there was a clear “roadmap,” as you call it. When I’m translating, I spend a lot of time online, looking up all kinds of things—text, images, videos etc. When I knew I would be in Shanghai in November 2017, I planned to walk around the city centre and check out some of the locations in the novel. I asked Cao Wenxuan (indirectly) if there were any specific places I should check out. My intermediary responded in the most amazing way, and arranged for Yin Jianling, another much-loved children’s author, to meet me at my hotel two hours after I got off the plane from London. Yin Jianling is a lovely person, and Shanghai is her city. We spent the late afternoon walking around Shanghai, and took the bus to another part of the city for dinner in a place I would never have found on my own. I can’t thank her enough, because I’m sure some of the warmth of that afternoon and evening made it into the translation. I also talked to Paul Crook, who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, and whose own parents were accused of being spies.

Nanette: One of the excellent choices you made in the translation—and there are many, as it reads beautifully—was to maintain the relationship names in Chinese (Nainai for grandmother, for example). For those of our readers who aren't translators, can you share anything about how you made that choice? For example, did you consult with the editor or Cao Wenxuan, or were you given free rein?

Helen: Thank you. English speakers have no problem reading and pronouncing Chinese relationship names, so I think it feels quite natural to use them, at least for the immediate family. It doesn’t always work, though, because Chinese relationship names are very specific: it’s not simply a case of brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins, but their exact position in the family in relation to the particular characters. It’s notoriously complicated, and I hear some people with extended families use apps to help work it all out! Sometimes in a story the same character can be referred to in many different ways, and it can be hard to keep track, especially if there’s a change of narrator or a switch in the point of view. In Dragonfly Eyes, we don’t know the names of all the members of the family, but we know the relationships. The original narrative explaining the family names is quite fun in Chinese but felt cumbersome and wrong in English. My initial suggestion was to draw up a family tree at the front of the book, but this didn’t work either, so in the end I created a very simple table, which I hope works for readers. Emma doesn’t read Chinese, so we did as we had done with Bronze and Sunflower: I translated the first chapter or so very directly, then the next one a little more freely, and so on until we found a balance we liked, and then I continued solo.

Nanette: Has winning the Marsh Award for translation or working with books written by an Andersen Award winner (an award also known as the "little Nobel")—that is, Cao Wenxuan—changed your life as a translator or the kinds of projects and books you're being offered? If so, how?

Helen: I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to translate Bronze and Sunflower (thank you, Anna Holmwood, translator of Jin Yong’s martial arts novels, for recommending me). Winning the Marsh Award was a public validation with a cash prize, which somehow made it much easier for my friends and colleagues to understand why I spend quite a lot of my spare time translating children’s books. Previously, they had asked if I translated to keep up my Chinese, or for money, or looked askance at me, or complained that I was always too busy. That changed after the Marsh Award. I spent some of that money treating neglected friends to lunch, which was lovely. I put the rest of it towards learning more about the international children’s book world: for example, I went to the IBBY Congress in Athens in 2018 and to the International Research Society for Children’s Literature (IRSCL) Conference in Stockholm in 2019. I do get approached and asked to translate books, but I tend to be selective—if a book is going to be part of my life for weeks, or months, or years, I’d prefer it to be something I’m going to enjoy reading over and over again.

Nanette: What's next for you? Any interesting books that you're working on now? Are there books that you wish would be translated from Chinese into English that haven't been yet?

Helen: At the moment I’m working on a wonderful new middle grade book by Qin Wenjun. It’s set in contemporary Shanghai, and each chapter left me wanting to know what would happen next. I have been commissioned by the Chinese publisher to translate this one, and the rights are available. I’ve recently translated some picture books and samples of middle grade books for Books from Taiwan, which you can browse on their website. I usually have a few books on the go that I would be very happy to recommend to publishers. There are many more Chinese children’s books that I would love to see translated! Since 2000, there has been a strong focus in China on developing children’s books - there are some stunning picture books coming out, and some very interesting middle grade and young adult books too. In 2016, I started the blog/website Chinese Books for Young Readers with Minjie Chen of the Cotsen Children’s Library, at Princeton, and Anna Gustafsson Chen, prolific translator of Chinese literature into Swedish. Between us, we write about things we find interesting, and hope our readers do too.

Nanette: Thank you very much and congratulations, once again!


Read more SCBWI: The Blog interviews with translators of Hans Christian Andersen authors:


Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of 60 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, German, and Spanish into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her recent translations, Luisa: Now and Then and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book. Her most recent translations are For Justice: The Serge and Beate Klarsfeld Story, The Sisters #7: Lucky Brat, Chloe & Cartoon, Brina the Cat #2: City Cat, and Alter Ego.

Thanks to Nanette and Helen for this wonderful interview!


Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,
Lee

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Kacen Callender Talks Social Media Expectations... And How It Unfairly Makes Authors Feel Responsible for How Well (or Not Well) Their Book Sells

This recent post by National Book Award Winner (for King and the Dragonflies) Kacen Callender, WIP: Social Media Expectations is important reading.



Just recently at #NY21SCBWI the evaluation of an author's social media presence as a marker of a submission's potential -- something considered in the acquisitions process -- reinforced this industry advice: that we, as creators, have to be on social media, have to drive interest in our titles, for them to succeed.

Kacen describes that pressure in this way:

There’s an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) suggestion from publishing companies and professionals that, if the book doesn’t do as well as the author might’ve hoped, then it’s actually the author’s fault. They should have found a “street” team ("fans" paid to hype the book up online in a way that seems organic and natural), created their own pre-order campaigns (paying for swag, artists to draw their characters, etc.), pitched themselves to different media outlets, learned Photoshop to create graphics, paid someone to create a book trailer, hyped themselves up in a constant competition for attention online… the list goes on and on.

Kacen calls this out as gaslighting:

The gaslighting is this: the publishing companies and industry professionals know that the authors don’t actually control how well their book is going to do. They put that responsibility on the authors, when the responsibility is really meant to be on the publishing companies. That’s why we go with traditional publishing, isn’t it? That’s why so many of us don’t self-publish. We don’t have the necessary marketing skills. (I certainly don’t, anyway.) The marketing/publicity is ultimately publishing’s responsibility. The publishing companies have their budgets, and they spend those limited budgets on the books they expect will earn back a specific amount of money. Authors really don’t need to do anything to find that financial success. Case study A: Suzanne Collins. Where? Nowhere, that’s where. She doesn't do any publicity or marketing, from what I can see. Yet the Hunger Games series is—well, you already know. Clearly there isn’t actually a correlation between authors needing to do marketing and publicity and a book’s financial success.

There's so much more in the piece, and I encourage you to read it. And then, consider your relationship to the social media you do, and how much pressure you're putting on yourself to sell books via your engagement on social media. The math of social media effort to book sales, as Kacen points out, doesn't really move the needle.

I'll note that much of this centers on book sales, which is just one marker of a book's success. Connecting with an individual reader, making them see their own life, and maybe others, in a new way, is a huge part of why many of us create works for kids and teens. And maybe sharing that passion for crafting stories that help kids and teens find themselves and their place in the world is something that social media can help with. Maybe it's not all or nothing.

Everyone will find their own balance with creation and promotion -- and it's worth considering the pressure we put on ourselves and how much leverage our efforts may really have in each realm. Including our presence with and activity on social media.

Applause to Kacen for the courage to stand up and share their take on social media expectations.

What do you think? Share here in comments.

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,
Lee


Thursday, February 25, 2021

The SCBWI Spark Award (for Best Books Published Non-Traditionally in 2020) Goes To...



The Spark Award is an annual award that recognizes excellence in a children’s book published through a non-traditional publishing route.

This year's winners and honorees were announced at #NY21SCBWI. The winner of the SCBWI Spark Award for Picture Books is Mama's Waves by Chandra Ghosh Ippen, illustrated by Erich Ippen Jr.



The winner of the SCBWI Spark Award for Books for Older Readers is Sometimes Brave by Trista Wilson.


Two honor winners were announced as well, for Picture Books, "My Friend" written and illustrated by Estrela Lourenco, and for Books for Older Readers, "I Wish My Words Tasted Better" by Kris Abel-Helwig.



Congratulations to the winners and honorees!

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,
Lee


P.S. If you're interested in submitting your 2021 published book to the SCBWI Spark Award, you can find out all the details here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Social Media Highlights of #NY21SCBWI

 If you search #NY21SCBWI, you'll be able to sift through some of the posts of the past weekend. There's a lot of great stuff to discover, remember, and enjoy, including...

















Thanks to everyone who contributed their moments on Twitter, Instagram, etc...

What will you discover with #NY21SCBWI?

Here's hoping it inspires you to Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,
Lee

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The SCBWI Winter 2021 Conference Starts Tomorrow (Friday February 19, 2021)

With over 4,000 attendees, the all-virtual #NY21SCBWI conference is more accessible than ever! 


Use the hashtag #NY21SCBWI to follow and share moments that resonate for you, and follow the Official SCBWI Conference Blog at https://scbwiconference.blogspot.com/ for live blogging from the team, including Debbie Ohi, Lakita Wilson, Jolie Stekly, Jamie Temairik, Don Tate, and myself (Lee Wind.)

Here's to an incredible conference ahead!

Illustrate and Write and Translate On,
Lee

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

It's the Golden Kite Award Finalists!



There will be one winner per category and one honor book chosen. The Golden Kites serve as the kickoff event to SCBWI’s virtual conference on Friday, February 19 at 7:30pm ET/4:30pm PT. The awards are open to the public via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SCBWI The 2021 SCBWI Winter conference is an all virtual event that will run from February 19-21. You can find out more about the conference here.

Each winner will receive a $2,500 award along with $1,000 to contribute to a nonprofit of their choice. Each honor winner will receive a $500 award along with $250 to a nonprofit of their choice. The finalists for this year’s awards are:

Middle Grade/Young Reader Fiction
Phil Bildner: A High Five for Glen Burke, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: Fighting Words, published by Dial Books for Young Readers
Leah Henderson: The Magic in Changing Your Stars, published by Sterling Children’s Books
Pam Muñoz Ryan: Mañanaland, published by Scholastic Press
Renée Watson: Ways to Make Sunshine, published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Picture Book Text
Marsha Diane Arnold: Lights Out, illustrated by Susan Reagan, published by Creative Editions
Derrick Barnes: I Am Every Good Thing, illustrated by Gordon C. James, published by Nancy Paulsen Books
Tami Charles: All Because You Matter, illustrated by Bryan Collier, published by Orchard Books
Carole Lindstrom: We Are Water Protectors, illustrated by Michaela Goade, published by Roaring Brook Press
Phoebe Wahl: The Blue House, published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Nonfiction Text for Younger Readers
Gary Golio: Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, published by Nancy Paulsen Books
Mary Beth Leatherdale: Terry Fox and Me, illustrated by Milan Pavlovic, published by Lee & Low" Sandra Nickel: Nacho’s Nachos: The Story Behind the World’s Favorite Snack, illustrated by Oliver Dominguez, published by Tundra Books
Meeg Pincus: Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery, illustrated by Yas Imamura, published by Sleeping Bear Press
Don Tate: William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad, published by Peachtree Publishing

Picture Book Illustration
Catia Chien: The Bear and the Moon, published by Chronicle Books
Cindy Derby: Outside In, written by Deborah Underwood, published by Abrams Books for Young Readers
Susan Gal: Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail written by Leslea Newman, published by Charlesbridge
Vincent X. Kirsch: From Archie to Zack, published by Abrams Books for Young Readers
Jennifer K. Mann: The Camping Trip, published by Candlewick Press

Nonfiction Text for Older Readers
Paul Fleischman: Alphamaniacs: Builders of 26 Wonders of the Word, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, published by Candlewick Studio
Candace Fleming: The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindberg, published by Schwartz & Wade
Cindy L. Otis: True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News, published by Feiwel & Friends
Christina Soontornvat: All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team published by Candlewick Press
Christine Virnig: Dung for Dinner published by Henry Holt Books for Young Readers

Illustrated Book for Older Readers
Lauren Castillo: Our Friend Hedgehog published by Knopf Books for Young Readers
Mike Curato: Flamer, published by Henry Holt Books for Young Readers
John Rocco: How We Got to the Moon, published by Crown Books for Young Readers
Uri Shulevitz: Chance: Escape from the Holocaust: Memories of a Refugee Childhood, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers
Peter Van Den Ende: The Wanderer, published by Levine Querido

Young Adult Fiction
Margarita Engle: With a Star in My Hand, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Darcie Little Badger: Elatsoe, published by Levine Querido
Kelly McWilliams: Agnes at the End of the World, published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Sherri L. Smith: The Blossom and the Firefly, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Nic Stone: Dear Justyce, published by Crown Books for Young Readers

Sid Fleischman Award
Donna Barba Higuera: Lupe Wong Won’t Dance published by Levine Querido
Remy Lai: Fly on the Wall, published by Henry Holt Books for Young Readers
Amy Timberlake: Skunk and Badger illustrated by Jon Klassen, published by Algonquin Young Readers
Kristin O’Donnell Tubb: Zeus, Dog of Chaos, published by Katherine Tegen Books
Renée Watson: Ways to Make Sunshine, published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Good luck to all the finalists (and that's a pretty awesome reading list for the rest of us!)
Illustrate and Write On,
Lee

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Kekla Magoon Interviews Carole Boston Weatherford About the Need to Write “Untold” Stories - On the Cynsations Blog

Cynthia Leitich-Smith's amazing Cynsations blog hosts this wonderful interview between Kekla Magoon and Carole Boston Weatherford.


A few highlights:

"I mine the past for family stories, fading traditions and forgotten struggles. Like Harlem Renaissance bibliophile Arturo Schomburg to document the history of African descendants, I aim to construct a truer, more complete history. That is affirming for me and for our children." —Carole Boston Weatherford


On Carole's picture book about the Tulsa Race Massacre, Unspeakable:

Kekla: It must have been a challenge to tell this difficult and painful story about Tulsa in a style that works for young readers, and you do an amazing job of making the information relatable. How did you approach that challenge, and why did you feel it was important to share this story with even the very youngest children?

Carole: I told this story for the same reason that I wrote the elegy Birmingham, 1963 (WordSong, 2007) about the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Past sacrifices should not be forgotten. But they will be unless we pass our history down to our children.

I do not believe that children are too tender for tough topics. Children deserve and demand the truth—a complete history that had not been whitewashed or candy-coated. Children were victimized by slavery and segregation and suffer under systemic racism. Given the adultification of Black children and the criminalization and police and vigilante murders of Black people, we cannot afford to condescend to children.

Read the full interview here!

Illustrate and Write On,
Lee 

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

'The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing' Revisited - Two POC Industry Professionals Take Stock of the Progress Made in the Past 25 Years and How Far We Still Have To Go

Shelly Romero is a children’s book editor and writes Ghoul Gal, a horror pop-culture newsletter on Substack. Adriana M. Martínez Figueroa is a Puerto Rican writer, editor, and sensitivity reader. Together they unpack a 1995 Village Voice feature by James Ledbetter titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing,” looking at the numbers, barriers to entry, and the extra burdens that fall on the few people of color who are inside traditional publishing. They discuss progress made, and the systemic nature of the ongoing issues.

The article is 'The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing' Revisited, and it ran in the Feb 1, 2021 issue of Publishers Weekly.



It's well worth reading. 

Illustrate and Write On,
Lee

Friday, February 5, 2021

Graphic Novel Manuscript Formatting

Graphic novels are seeing increased readership, recognition, and editorial interest - which is wonderful! Check out all the graphic novels honored in the 2021 ALA Youth Media Awards.

For author/illustrators who are writing and drawing their own works, they have the opportunity to craft as they go, using whatever format suits their style best.

But for authors who want to submit a manuscript for someone else to illustrate, formatting the manuscript still seems to be a question with no definitive answer. Having said that, these resources for formatting a graphic novel manuscript might be helpful:

1) Dark Horse Comics offers a free "script guide" PDF here.

A screen shot of the first page of Dark Horse Comics' script guide


2) Check out this post from author/illustrator Matthew Holm (who with his sister Jenni does the Baby Mouse graphic novels), Graphic novel manuscript formatting

3) Scrivener has a "comic script format" - developed by Anthony Johnston, who writes about it here. Thanks to Maria for the heads-up on this one!

Do you have a graphic novel manuscript format resource to share? Add in in comments. 

Thanks!

Illustrate and Write On,
Lee

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

25 Essential Notes on Craft - LitHub/Catapult publishes an excerpt from Matthew Salesses's "Craft in the Real World"

This piece was brought up in the recent #DVcon2021 panel on "Finding Your Voice" with Amy Bishop, Jemiscoe Chambers-Black, Alvina Ling, Norma Perez-Hernandez, and Angeline Rodriguez.



25 Essential Notes on Craft from Matthew Salesses: Rethinking Popular Assumptions of Fiction Writing compares non-western and non-dominant culture storytelling to what we've come to believe (and have been taught) is "good" writing and "good" craft. The piece covers so much - even the perils of translating from other cultures - and is both fascinating and thought-provoking. 

A few points that resonated for me:

9. Expectations belong to an audience. To use craft is to engage with an audience’s bias. Like freedom, craft is always craft for someone. Whose expectations does a writer prioritize? Craft says something about who deserves their story told. Who has agency and who does not. What is worthy of action and what description. Whose bodies are on display. Who changes and who stays the same. Who controls time. Whose world it is. Who holds meaning and who gives it.
11. We have come to teach plot as a string of causation in which the protagonist’s desires move the action forward. ... In contrast, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese stories have developed from a four-act, rather than a three- or five-act structure: in Japanese it is called kishotenketsu (ki: introduction; sho: development; ten: twist; ketsu: reconciliation). Western fiction can often be boiled down to A wants B and C gets in the way of it....In East Asian fiction, the twist (ten) is not confrontation but surprise, something that reconfigures what its audience thinks the story is “about.” For example, a man puts up a flyer of a missing dog, he hands out flyers to everyone on the street, a woman appears and asks whether her dog has been found, they look for the dog together. The change in this kind of story is in the audience’s understanding or attention rather than what happens. Like African storytellers, Asian storytellers are often criticized for what basically amounts to addressing a different audience’s different expectations—Asian fiction gets labeled “undramatic” or “plotless” by Western critics.
18. There are many crafts, and one way the teaching of craft fails is to teach craft as if it is one.
Go read the whole piece. It's well worth it. I
llustrate, and Translate, and Write On,
Lee

Thursday, January 28, 2021

The SCBWI 2021 Winter Conference Manuscript Gallery Offers Writers An Opportunity To Be Discovered!

 


Illustrators have the Portfolio Showcase, putting their illustrations in front of the top publishing professionals working today. And the winners of that portfolio showcase have gone on to have significant careers as illustrators!

Now, on a scale the SCBWI hasn't done before, there's a parallel opportunity for writers:

Registered Winter 2021 conference attendees who are SCBWI members can post up to 500 words of ONE children’s book manuscript, PB text, PB dummy or manuscript synopsis to our online manuscript gallery. Over a hundred editors and agents will be invited to peruse the gallery starting on February 19, 2021. These agents and editors will then reach out to authors whose work is a good fit for their lists. This is a fantastic opportunity to get your work in front of industry professionals!

The deadline to submit your manuscript is February 12, 2021. Find out all the details here.

The full conference information is here - it's going to amazing!

Illustrate and Write On,
Lee

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: An Exclusive Interview with editor and project creator Melissa Stewart



Here's the brand-new book trailer:

And here's the interview...

Lee: Hi Melissa, thanks for talking about this new nonfiction book you've conceptualized, edited, and championed!

Let's jump into the first question. Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-Winning Children's Book Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing seems all about breaking down the myths about nonfiction, and what it takes to write it well. Is that where the inspiration came from?

Melissa: Yes, many people seem to think that writing nonfiction is simple and straightforward—just do some research and then cobbling together a bunch of facts. But nothing could be further from the truth.

To craft high-quality prose, nonfiction writers have to dig deep. We have to be personally invested. We have to get in touch with our passions and our vulnerabilities and use them to fuel our work.

The topics we choose, the approaches we take, and the concepts and themes we explore are closely linked to who we are as people—our personalities, our beliefs, and our experiences in the world.

As far as we’re concerned, putting the information we collect through our own personal filters and making our own meaning is the secret to creating engaging nonfiction.

We wanted to bring this message to teachers and students—and also aspiring children’s book authors. It’s a critical part of our writing process that often goes unseen and unappreciated.

Lee: I'll just say now that I'm completely honored to be one of the contributing nonfiction writers! But 50 contributors is a lot of coordinating - and selecting! Tell us about the process of putting this all together.

Melissa: Thank you for contributing, Lee. Your essay is SO powerful!

The idea for the book traces back to a panel I did with authors Candace Fleming and Deborah Heiligman at the 2017 NCTE conference.

During our discussion, we dove deeply into what fuels our work and why we routinely dedicate years of our lives to a single manuscript.

As we compared our thoughts and experiences, we came to realize that each of our books has a piece of us at its heart. And that personal connection is what drives us to keep working despite the inevitable obstacles and setbacks.

Several other nonfiction authors were in the audience, and afterward, they praised our insights. That conversation helped us all understand our creative process in a new and exciting way.

I wanted to explore this idea further, so during the 2018-2019 school year, I invited 38 colleagues to write essays for my blog. After the first few appeared, teachers began asking if all the essays could be compiled in one place. That’s when I began thinking about a book.

Once a publisher accepted my proposal (and there were a lot of rejections), I thought carefully about creating a sense of balance.

I wanted to include contributions from roughly equal numbers of science writers, history writers, and biographers. I thought a lot about equity and inclusion, and about balancing picture books and long-form nonfiction. Before I knew it, I was so close to fifty contributors that I decided to go for that nice round number.

Plenty of people warned me that editing an anthology with 50 contributors was an act of insanity, but my colleagues never let me down. Despite their busy schedules, they met all their deadlines. The nonfiction community is a tight-knit, supportive group, and everyone was committed to making this a great book.

Lee: It seems there are multiple audiences for the book - teachers, students, adult writers of nonfiction... How do you see the book impacting each of those audiences? (And, if I've missed one, let me know!)

Melissa:I’d add librarians too. School librarians play an important role in helping students with the nonfiction writing process.

While the essays in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep can be used by educators in many ways, from serving as mentor texts for writing personal narratives to enriching author studies, our fondest hope is that this book will transform the way nonfiction writing is taught in schools.

The best nonfiction writing happens when students (or adults) choose a topic they’re excited about and then spend time synthesizing their research and viewing the information through their own personal lens. But right now, most students jump straight from research to writing.

Because every instructional minute is precious, teachers may be reluctant for students to take more time at the beginning of the process. But it’s time well spent because it will reduce time spent revising later on.

For adult writers, we hope that reading the essays will be like sitting down to have a cup of coffee with a good friend. As each author opens up about their process, their craft, their truth, readers will develop the ability to identify their own truth and their own voice. They will feel empowered to craft the book that only they can write.

Lee: The book also includes "a wide range of tips, tools, teaching strategies, and activity ideas from editor Melissa Stewart to help students (1) choose a topic, (2) focus that topic by identifying a core idea, theme, or concept, and (3) analyze their research to find a personal connection. By adding a piece of themselves to their drafts, students will learn to craft rich, unique prose." Tell us more about those, and how they're integrated with the rest.

Melissa: The book is divided into three chapters—Choosing a Topic, Finding a Focus, and Making It Personal. These are the three steps nonfiction writers struggle with most as they conceptualize a piece.

Each chapter begins with an overview that introduces key ideas and provides tips and tools for navigating the author essays. Following 16 or 17 essays, each chapter concludes with an In the Classroom section. It provides strategies and writing activities that help student writers as well as adult writers apply the ideas in the essays to their own writing.

Lee: Proceeds from sales of the book will be split between SCBWI, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and We Need Diverse Books. That's amazing, and generous, and very cool. Can you tell us what's behind that decision?

Melissa: Financing a book like this was tricky. Educational publishers like NCTE Books don’t pay an advance, just royalties. But it’s not possible to split a royalty among fifty people.

Because I feel strongly that writers should always be compensated for their work, I paid each contributing author $200 out of my own pocket. After I’ve earned back that money through royalties, I’ll donate the rest of the proceeds to non-profit organizations that support all children’s book authors and the young readers we serve. For me, this book is a labor of love, and I want it to help as many people as possible.

Lee: Is there anything else about the book you'd like to share with the SCBWI audience?

Melissa: It’s worth mentioning that SCBWI played an important role in the creation of this book. The money I paid the contributing authors came from an unexpected special sale that occurred because one of my books was on display at the SCBWI booth at the Bologna Book Fair a few years ago. Without SCBWI, this anthology probably wouldn’t exist.

This organization has made my writing life richer in so many ways. I really can’t thank Lin Oliver, Sarah Baker, Tammy Brown, Kim Turrisi, and the whole SCBWI team enough.

Thanks, Melissa!

You can learn more about Melissa Stewart and her nonfiction books for kids at her website here and about Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-Winning Children's Book Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing here.

Illustrate and Write On,
Lee