Thursday, February 2, 2023

Multilingual Publishing Within the Children’s Book Industry in Africa - a Guest Post by Christian Elongué

photo of Christian Elongué
Christian Elongué

Africa is the second-largest continent in the world and the most multilingual. According to the African Language Program at Harvard, there are between 1000 and 2000 languages spoken on the continent, with possibly as many as 8000 dialects. These indigenous languages have been negatively affected as a result of colonization, which almost led to their extinction because of the impact of official languages (English, French, and Portuguese primarily) and their ascribed privileges. Today, African languages continue to be marginalized and remain under-used by most of the native speakers, who see them as being inferior to English and other colonial languages. 

Even when African indigenous languages like Arabic (in Somalia) or Swahili (in Kenya) are in a co-official role, the ex-colonial language still enjoys greater prestige than the local official language. In countries where the ex-colonial language is not official by law, de facto it often plays an important official role and enjoys significant prestige. Cameroon is unique as the only African country that has more than one ex-colonial language, English and French, as official languages.1 As a result, almost all of the existing stories and books for children are in English and European languages (98%). South Africa is one of the few African nations where more than 10% of books’ sales are directly in one of the nine indigenous languages: English-language publications accounted for 72% of sales across all sectors, while those in Afrikaans accounts for 16% and those in isiZulu, IsiXhosa, Sepedi and Setswana account for 12%. Thus, the interest for books published directly in African languages is extremely small.

This under-utilization of African languages affects the quality of education delivery, especially the foundational literacy programs for children: 130 million of children globally still did not achieve the minimum benchmarks in literacy and numeracy. The Global Book Fund Feasibility Study 2016 revealed that a significant contributing factor to this crisis is the lack of reading material available in languages familiar to children. This is further reinforcing the growing interest in bilingual education in sub-Saharan Africa, where there is an increased need to produce more children's books, textbooks and early readers in African languages. 

Conscious of this, the Global Book Alliance together with the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), advocated to increase production of high-quality textbooks and reading books, in children’s own languages, at the 2022 Transforming Education Summit (TES). At the TES, all education stakeholders agreed on the need for more children's books written in the children’s own languages, and with vocabulary and syntax that are within their competence. For these books to be culturally and linguistically relevant, and supportive of children’s sense of belonging, the content should be created and published by people who are grounded in the children’s own cultures. Academics Grassi and Barker recommend the use of students’ native language for content instruction as it increases students’ academic achievement. Researchers Doiron and Asselin confirmed that learning to read is most successful with mother tongue texts. Therefore, children’s sense of belonging is nurtured by books that are relevant to their environments, cultures, genders, and ability status. And ‘it is especially valuable to make the best books for young people written in any language available to them while they are the right age for them’ commented Anthea Bell, a famous translator of children’s books who was three times awarded the prestigious Marsh Award for Children’s Books in Translation.2

 “How many books about other countries or translated books did you read as a child?”

This question, though apparently simple, would generate different answers depending on the continent where it is asked. In Africa, the majority of response will refer to foreign books for children while in other continent, the answers will most likely refer to an indigenously produced children book. In my case, my favorite book as a child was Zembla and many in my generations also read Astérix, Babar, Pinocchio, Iliad and the Odyssey, which are all from Europe. So the question is, where were the stories from the rest of the world — Asia, Australia, Africa or the Americas?

The need for diversity in global children literature is increasing. Translation and bilingual publishing are two key ways of growing the existing body of children and young adult books from diverse continent, especially in African languages. But currently, they are few expert translators of children’s books from international languages (English, French, Portuguese, Spanish etc.) to African indigenous languages. Authors and publishers of children’s books in Africa have difficulty finding competent and trained translators of the books and stories. Moreover, the level of development and use of African indigenous languages is affecting the level of development of literary translation in Africa. 

This is part one of a four part series. Christian's next article explores key obstacles and opportunities to increase the continuous production, accessibility and use of children's books in African languages. 

***

1 There are countries like Algeria, Egypt, and Libya where Arabic, the official language is also a local medium; in Morocco and South Africa, more than one local language is constitutionally recognized as official in co-equal status with English.

2 The Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation is a biennial award, given from 1996 to 2017, that celebrated the best translation of a children’s book from a foreign language into English, published in the United Kingdom. Through these translations, children who are primarily English-speakers are able to be exposed to stories that are written and take place in another country. It important to note that no African language book has been awarded through this prize. 

***

Ngnaoussi Elongué Cédric Christian is an author in children literature and researcher on African video games. Dismayed by a lack of black characters in books available to African children, Elongué founded munakalati.org in 2017 with the goal of building international recognition for African children’s book authors and increasing access to African children’s books. In 2018, he started publishing Muna Kalati magazine, which is becoming a reference for writers, publishers and illustrators of children’s and Young Adult books. Christian has supported several researchers to undertake research on African Children literature. In 2019, he authored An Introduction to Children Literature in Cameroon, the first scientific book on children’s book industry in Cameroon. Prior to that, he worked with the French National Centre for Children’s Literature

He serves on the Executive Committee of the International Board on Books for Young People  (IBBY International), an international network of people from all over the world who are committed to bringing books and children together and is the founding member and Vice-President of IBBY-Cameroon. In 2021, he was one of the 30 Global literacy Champion and innovators by the International Literacy Association and his work on foundational learning and numeracy (FLN), which impacted at least 3032 African children, was covered by LeMonde, RFI, Askan etc.

A trained instructional designer, he is a pioneer in the field of mobile serious games in Africa and has regularly been invited by universities, UNESCO, eLearning Africa and MGIEP to speak on Gamification in Africa.  He excels at educational technologies research, strategic development communications, and capacity building. He is a highly approachable trainer, blending humor, applicable stories of best practice and high levels of audience involvement. As the president of the International Network for the Promotion of Arts of Speech in Africa and the Caribbean (RIPAO), he delivered uncommonly original and useful trainings and insights that lead to individuals doing their best work and teams providing superb results. As a trainer of Trainers for the WDI-World Debate Institute (USA) since 2013, he has coached and trained at least 700 managers in Africa and Europe, helping them to train more effectively, and tailored workshops around their needs.

He has mentored 36 young African leaders via his mentoring initiative and more via the Ashoka, Total  Energies, Future Africa Fellowship, YALI MWF, African Changemakers, Global Give Back Circle, Commonwealth Mentorship  Programme, etc. He has conducted over 80 presentations at state, regional, national, and international conferences, received grants from several international organisations and taught over 1000 Masters and Undergrate students of the University of Dschang through the APC Learning Center. 

An avid lifelong learner, he holds three master’s degrees in management of Cultural Industries (University Senghor, Alexandria), Instructional Design (University of Lille, France) and in African Studies (University of Dschang) with more than 46 international certifications from top global universities. He consult and publish regularly on knowledge management, eLearning, communication and innovation in education. Learn more about Christian and Muna Kalati here.


Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Is Your Bio "Voicey"?

Diana Urban did this piece for the BookBub Partners blog, Writing Your Author Bio? Here Are 20 Great Examples. (Plus a Checklist!)

screen shot of BookBub Partners blog article "Writing Your Author Bio? Here Are 20 Great Examples. (Plus a Checklist!)" by DIANA URBAN


The examples are fun to check out, and on their checklist they have the suggestion to:

Make it Voicey!
Once the info’s there, add a unique flair to your bio to convey your personality. Make it uniquely yours!

And I think it's not just about conveying YOUR personality, but also the tone of your book(s). 

It's probably a useful exercise to look at 10-20 recently published books in your category that you loved, and see what they did for the author bio (or illustrator or translator bio - this applies to all of us!)

I've seen illustrators and authors customize their author/illustrator photo for specific books, which is always fun - so the idea of making the voice of the bio match a specific book seems like an opportunity more of us could take.

One tip a book marketing pro taught me for my debut YA is if you don't have a lot of accolades (yet), you can use snippets from reader reviews in your bio. Here's what we came up with for that sentence: 

QUEER AS A FIVE-DOLLAR BILL is Lee's debut novel, and readers describe it as "a love letter for history geeks" that "perfectly captures teen angst," "had my heart racing," and helped them feel "less alone."

Maybe the most important point is to recognize is that your bio can (and probably should) change over time. You'll have more books, more accolades, more experience, and if we see our bio as something that's iterative, it also takes some of the pressure off needing to get it "perfect."

Consider: What's your favorite author/illustrator/translator bio? And how can that inspire you to improve yours?

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,
Lee

Thursday, January 26, 2023

The Power (and Pitfalls) of Vulnerability in Writing


I told my teenager I was writing a post called "The Power of Vulnerability" and asked what I should include. They said, "Tell them to be careful!"

My kid reads a lot of new and young writers online. Much of what they read has emotional vulnerability and spark, but it can tend toward trauma dump rather than story. Emotion and vulnerability without shape can be therapeutic, but it’s often at the cost of reaching readers.

According to my astute teenager, vulnerability is very powerful, so be careful how you wield it.

Social researcher Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” She argues that it is one of the most important tools to enable us to connect to other human beings. But, she writes, “It's not oversharing, it's not purging, it's not indiscriminate disclosure, and it's not celebrity-style social media information dumps. Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them.” Part of our implied contract with a reader is that we will tell a story. Studying craft can teach you the tools to add shape to the emotional content of your stories.


With that in mind, let’s look at a few ways you can harness the power of vulnerability in your writing. 

Make Your Characters Vulnerable

While writerly vulnerability needs to be well placed, making your characters situationally vulnerable can encourage readers to empathize with them.

Harry Potter is an orphan, unloved by his aunt and uncle who serve as his guardians. He is alone–vulnerable. 

Katniss Everdeen is from the poorest district and worried about how to feed her family. When her sister is called as a tribute, that potential loss makes her even more vulnerable as she would risk everything to keep her sister safe. Then she is thrown into training for the Hunger Games, where she will be exposed to the elements and surrounded by enemies and traps. Each movement toward increased vulnerability heightens the stakes and tension.

A character’s emotional vulnerability may take time to reveal over the course of the story. Starting with their worst experience or the worst thing about them can backfire. In an early draft of an in-progress middle grade novel, I led with one of my character’s worst secret feelings, one she wouldn’t have said out loud to anyone. An award-winning author gave me feedback and said, on third line, “Oh, goodness. I already don’t like her very much.” I had led with her emotional vulnerability–showing the worst first–instead of leaving that deep layer until readers knew and loved my character.

In contrast, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s FIGHTING WORDS is a stellar example of the narrator walking the reader toward facing the most difficult situation. The narrator and her sister are more than their trauma, and we get to know them as three-dimensional people before we understand the full extent of what they’ve been through.

Remember the Range and Scope of Vulnerability

Vulnerability is not limited to trauma or dark feelings. It can be vulnerable to share what brings you joy, or to nerd out about an arcane subject you find fascinating. All of those parts of you are available to use in your work. Parceling them out in little bits can make your stories richer.

Author Lindsay Lackey used this trick to develop the character of Wanda in her middle grade novel All the Impossible Things, the story of Red, a girl in foster care. Wanda, Red’s mother, is unstable, has a drug addiction, has spent time in jail, and makes Red promises she can’t keep. In early drafts, Wanda wasn’t very likable, and Lindsay’s critique partners had trouble connecting with the character. Lindsay had trouble writing the character. So she used a favorite memory from her own childhood and gave that experience to Wanda. It opened up the character and made Lindsay and her readers more able to relate to her. (Lindsay speaks about this in a presentation she offers called Building a Book with Touchstone Moments.)

Balance your Vulnerability as an Artist

Many writers find themselves with the opposite of Lindsay’s challenge–they find too much of themselves in a character. It can be essential to your writerly health to separate yourself from your characters–to let them be their own people, rather than a mirror of you. 

In her writing memoir Thunder and Lightning, writing guru Natalie Goldberg talks about the moment her main character, who was based on herself, became her own person: “I made believe I was Nell telling Nell’s story. And then one day, lo and behold! . . . as I wrote, Natalie faded out. She was gone, disappeared, and this character Nell Schwartz was telling her own story through my hand. . . Even now I can remember the sensation of feeling unglued–I experienced a heady freedom. I no longer existed. I could lay down my burden and let the kid walk on her own two feet.” 

Keeping your characters too close to your own experience, personality, and quirks has a couple of pitfalls: it can make your characters flat, if you take out all your negative qualities, or can stifle the action, if you’re too protective of your character, and it opens you up as a writer to a particular kind of vulnerability. It becomes difficult to take feedback constructively when you are your writing. 

Vulnerability is Powerful

It is the nature of being an artist to be vulnerable–to open ourselves to risk as we show our art to others.

Brené Brown says, “To put our art, our writing, our photography, our ideas out into the world with no assurance of acceptance or appreciation—that’s also vulnerability.”

Yes, the act of writing and sharing our work is a risk. But there is great reward in this kind of vulnerability, because it connects us to others and allows our readers to connect with our characters, feel with them, and grow with them.


Anne-Marie Strohman writes stories for children of all ages, from picture books to YA. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has presented at SCBWI events in multiple regions, and she founded, co-edits, and writes for the blog KidLit Craft (kidlitcraft.com). She’s the current Scholar-in-Residence for the SCBWI San Francisco/South region.

If she’s not hiking, knitting, or reading, you’ll probably find her in a darkened space watching a concert, a play, or a Broadway musical.

You can read more of her essays in the KidLit Craft monthly newsletter.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

You Already Know Four People (So the SCBWI Winter 2023 Conference Won't Be So Scary/Unknown/Intimidating)

Conferences can be amazing, but they can also bring up a lot of emotions. 

Am I going to be the only one there like me?

Will I feel alone?

Will anyone talk to me?

Is it going to be scary? unknown? intimidating?

Well, it doesn't have to be!

graphic that includes the #scbwiNY23 winter conference graphic with the words "Meet your SCBWI Team Blog for #scbwiNY23" and photos of Jaime Temairik, Jolie Stekly, Justin Campbell, and Lee Wind


Part of the reason SCBWI has a team of bloggers cover the conferences is to take off that edge of nervousness.

You can check out previous posts on the Official SCBWI Conference Blog to get a taste of what conferences are like. 

You can read Jolie's post about first timers, and come to the first-timer socials. And learn more about Jolie and her writing and coaching at her website here.

You can check out Justin's post about the power of community, and finding your peeps at the conference and beyond. And discover Justin's illustrations here.

You can laugh with Jaime as she pitches the Piranha Pit - one of many highlights of the in-person conference to come. And see her illustration and books at Jaime's website here.

And you're welcome to learn more about me, Lee, and my books for kids and teens here.

See? You already know four people going to the New York conference. We hope you'll say “hello!”

Get all the details on the in-person #scbwiNY23 conference here.

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,
Lee

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Using Objects to Communicate Emotions

 Knuffle Bunny. Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Katniss’s Mockingjay pin. All of these objects show us something important about the main character and carry significance to them and to the story. 

Knuffle Bunny, in Mo Willems’s series, is an object that Trixie can’t live without. It is her comfort object, and only Knuffle Bunny itself will do. The invisibility cloak is useful to J.K. Rowling’s plot in practical ways, but it means something to Harry because it was given to him by Dumbledore and was once owned by his father. The mockingjay pin, given to Katniss by a friend before the games, is meant to remind her of her District and boost morale, but through the series it comes to symbolize the rebellion, and Katniss herself comes to be called the Mockingjay.

In each case, an object takes on significance because of how characters interact with it. They endow it with meaning. That meaning can grow and change over the course of the story. Used effectively, the presence or absence of the object can signal the emotions of the character or evoke emotions in the reader.


As you’re writing, consider adding objects and endowing them with meaning. Here are some writing exercises to help you find and leverage objects in your story. 

Exercise 1: The Gift

YA author David Macinnis Gill suggests an exercise to connect objects to character relationships (you can read his explanation of it here): 

Write a scene where a secondary character gives your main character a gift. Then write a scene where the main character loses the gift or loses access to the gift. How does the character feel about the loss?

These scenes may not end up in your final product, but they can teach you a lot about your character(s) and give you ideas for possible endowed objects.

Exercise 2: Endow an Existing Object

Look at your work in progress and notice what objects are already there. Are there any that stand out as meaningful or possibly meaningful? Pick an object and write more about it. How did the character get the object? What memories surround the object?

Hint: Use the Object Throughout the Story

You can also show us the character’s emotions by how they interact with the object. In my work-in-progress, the main character gives her mom a necklace for Christmas. Later, when her mom is in the hospital, the main character starts wearing the necklace herself. At some point she loses it in the bottom of her backpack. Near the end, she gives it back to her mom.

The main character’s process of choosing the necklace and the mom’s reaction endow it with meaning–it is something that shows they care about each other in the midst of a tumultuous relationship. When the main character puts on the necklace, we can infer that she wants to feel closer to her mom while they’re separated. Losing it could signal that she is discouraged or mad at her mom or that their relationship is on the rocks. Giving it back shows a return to closeness, or at least a desire for connection.

(For a full analysis of how objects can effectively create emotion over the course of a story,  check out this post on the animated film The Mitchells vs. The Machines.)

Objects and Emotion

The object becomes a tool for show, don’t tell. You can show readers your character’s emotions by endowing an object with meaning and then showing the character’s interaction with that object at various points in the story. Not only will you communicate how your character is feeling, you’ll evoke emotion in your readers as well.



Anne-Marie Strohman writes stories for children of all ages, from picture books to YA. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has presented at SCBWI events in multiple regions, and she founded, co-edits, and writes for the blog KidLit Craft (kidlitcraft.com). She’s the current Scholar-in-Residence for the SCBWI San Francisco/South region. She has a little plastic goat figurine on her desk that’s endowed with creativity; she found it at a kids’ shop in Northampton, Massachusetts, on an artist’s date nearly two decades ago, and it still provides inspiration.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

What It's Really Like to Have Your Book Banned as an Author

Highest Highs: Lee and a room full of middle schoolers at a school visit in November 2022, organized by We Need Diverse Books and Writers and Artists Across the Country. Every student in the photo is holding their own copy of Lee's nonfiction book for readers age 11 and up, No Way, They Were Gay? Hidden Lives and Secret Loves.


I recently fell down the rabbit hole of searching for my book title, “No Way, They Were Gay?” along with the word “ban.” I don’t generally interview the universe for pain, but my nonfiction book for readers age 11 and up was mentioned in the August 2022 BookRiot article that listed 300 books that had been pulled from a Tennessee school district, and then ranked on how Queer their content was.

So for the first time since my book’s publication over a year and a half ago, last month I did that search and suddenly found out that there have been at least three instances where No Way, They Were Gay? was challenged, or banned, or included on a website’s list of books that were “obscene in nature.” It brought up a lot of emotions, which hit me in stages. I thought it might be helpful (for myself and others) to share:

Stage 1:

Relieved: Thank you!

For gosh sakes, there have been lists of over 800 books put out by conservative politicians and no one’s included mine! I felt kind of invisible, like the book I’d poured so much loving care into didn’t matter – even though I know the impact for the good it would have had on me if I’d gotten to read it when I was a kid. So finally, it was like my book was on the radar. Maybe not on the radar of the people it was awesome to be on the radar of, but at least my book was no longer ignored.

Stage 2:

Isolated: Shouldn’t someone have told me?

You kind of imagine there’s some sort of club, and that the moment your book gets banned, you get a membership card in the mail, saying “welcome, we know how shitty this is, and we’re here to help you get through it.” But that didn’t happen. Everyone’s so busy, and there’s so much book banning and challenging to fight. So, even though this is happening to many, many authors, having it happen to me felt kind of isolating. Maybe it’s part of not being in the top ten most banned lists – the rest of us aren’t seeing huge sales bumps, or press coverage. In fact, with the chilling effect these grandstanding bans have, it’s actually hurting sales of books like mine to libraries and schools. Because teachers and librarians now have to consider – is bringing in a book about Queer history worth the personal risk to their careers? Rather than just being able to bring in a book they know will help their students. (These days, 1 in 5 young people are identifying as part of the LGBTQIA2+ community. And while we’re on this subject, knowing Queer people have a history isn’t just helpful to Queer people. Just like knowing women had a role in history is pretty important for those of us who aren’t women to know.)

Stage 3:

Concerned: Is there something wrong with my book?

And then there’s the moment where you question yourself. Is there something dangerous for kids in what I wrote? It was very brief, but there was a moment of worry I experienced. Could my book hurt someone? And as quickly as this emotion rose up, I tossed it away. The whole point of my book is to help, to empower young people to be their authentic selves. It’s not dangerous for kids, it’s dangerous for the world-view of the banners.

Stage 4:

Indignant: What’s obscene is the effort to hide the truth of Queer people’s lives and loves.

A dear friend who has since passed away, Claudia Harrington authored a series of books about kids in kindergarten with different kinds of families. Seeing her My Two Dads and My Two Moms books listed on another banned list along with my book just pissed me off. There’s nothing “obscene” about her very age-appropriate straightforward stories featuring young children with families where the parents are like me – Queer. Those books aren’t about sex, they’re about love being what holds a family together. And similarly, there’s nothing obscene about my using primary sources to explore the lives and loves of 24 notable people in history. The fact that people like Abraham Lincoln may have been in love with another guy isn’t obscene. It’s mind-blowing, yes, but what’s obscene are the ongoing efforts to hide the true stories of men who loved men, women who loved women, people who loved without regard to gender, and people who lived outside gender boundaries.

Stage 5:

Determined: I will not be silenced.

Finding out my book’s been called out in this way – in Texas, in Tennessee, and online, makes me more determined than ever to get it out into the hands of young people for whom it can be truly life-changing. Knowing that Mohandas Gandhi was in love with the German-Jewish Hermann Kallenbach – that the love of his life was another man – may be more than a footnote. It may be an important part of why Gandhi was able to see that, “Let people’s religions be different…. You worship facing one way and I worship facing the other. Why should I become your enemy for that reason? We all belong to the human race…” And Eleanor Roosevelt’s decades-long love affair with Lorena Hickok – another woman – might have been an important part of Eleanor’s determination to lead the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations. And knowing that Hatshepshut ruled over ancient Egypt for 22 years (from 1479-1458 BCE) while transitioning from a female, to an in-between gender, to a male public presentation is incredible. We Queer people have shaped history, and knowing that is important, and empowering.

I want to add a little context: My book came out in April 2021 from Zest Books (an imprint of Lerner) and was a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection, got enthusiastic trade reviews, and won a few lovely awards, including being one of the Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year, The Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best Books, and it won the International Literacy Association’s best Young Adult nonfiction award.

The three instances I discovered online weren’t the first time “No Way, They Were Gay?” faced opposition – the nonfiction project had originally been sold to an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and I worked with their team for over a year as we prepped for its intended 2017 publication… But then, two weeks after the November 2016 election of former US President Trump, I was informed that they were cancelling publication. (The idea of publishing a book that laid out the evidence that, among other historical surprises, Abraham Lincoln was in love with another man was suddenly terrifying to them.) It was devastating, and cowardly, but eventually the project found the right publishing home with the brave team at Lerner.

Fast forward to the last year and a half of books for kids and teens being challenged and banned in schools, public libraries, and even in one notable case a bookstore, pretty much just for having characters who are Black or Queer. It’s a politicization of empathy – because in a lot of ways, access to knowing about Black or Queer people existing is a train that has left the station. The people banning books can’t pull that information back – most of the kids in their school districts have the internet on their smart phones after all. 

Books, though, stay with you – they give you access inside the mind and heart of a character who on the outside may seem so different, and then your shared humanity resonates, and changes how you see the world. Books are empathy machines, and books that include Queer stories threaten the demonization of my community. If we Queer people are seen as human, too, that could disrupt the politics of scapegoating with its long and sad history of success.

Laurie Halse Anderson, whose groundbreaking YA Speak was in the top ten of the ALA’s banned books list for years, very wisely summed it up: “Censorship is most often a reflection of the fears of the censors, their fears that they are not up to the task of having conversations about these hard things.”

And yet, that’s precisely why books are so powerful. They let us experience hard things in the safest way possible. They let us see reflections of ourselves, and others. They let us know we’re not alone. And that fuels me in my passion – to write the books that, had I read them as a young gay kid, would have changed my life. Stories to empower kids and teens to be their authentic selves and change the world. Because I really do believe that’s how we change the world – one book, and one heart, at a time.

***

Lee Wind (he/him) writes stories to empower kids and teens to be their authentic selves and change the world – the same books that would have changed his life as a young gay, Jewish kid. His debut picture book, RED AND GREEN AND BLUE AND WHITE was illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky and received five starred trade reviews, and The New York Times praised it as “Beautiful… It’s a message the world can use, throughout the year.” He is the author of the nonfiction Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection NO WAY, THEY WERE GAY? HIDDEN LIVES AND SECRET LOVES and the novel Publishers Weekly named a Top Five Independently Published Young Adult Book of 2018, QUEER AS A FIVE-DOLLAR BILL. He also runs the popular blog I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? – words his teenage self only dreamed of saying. He’s the official blogger for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and the organizer of the Queer Kid Lit Creators community. Lee lives in Los Angeles with his husband of more than 25 years, and they have a grown daughter. Visit Lee online at leewind.org.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

7 Rules of Book Club: Best Practices for a Writers' Book Club Focused on Craft

 

One of the best ways to hone your writing skills is to study mentor texts. And it can be even more enlightening to study mentor texts with other writers, whether it’s in person or over Zoom. (I recommend Delia Ruiz's post from last month on how to start an in-person book group.) For a number of years, I’ve co-lead two craft book groups, and in the process, we’ve discovered some best practices for making the most of a writers’ book club.


1. Read with an open mind

It can be very tempting to react only as a reader. We all have immediate and visceral responses to books, whether we love them or hate them. But you can learn from any text by examining sections that worked for you and sections that didn’t work for you. Some elements give you new tools for your writing toolbox. Others show you what you might want to avoid. So even if a book isn’t a favorite, be open to learning from it.


2. Focus on craft. 

In your discussion, try to stay away from “I loved it!” and “I hated it!” responses. Even groaning, “I couldn’t get through it!” isn’t helpful. Dig deeper and get to the WHY. Why did you give up on the book when you did? What made you struggle as you were reading? What elements worked for you? Which parts made you feel things? Answering these questions, and looking at elements like setting, plot, pacing, characterization, or chapter endings, for example, can keep your discussion focused productively.


3. Remember the author. 

We’re writers, which means we’re people. And we of all people should remember that every book was written by a person who loves it. It also might be that someone in your group knows the author. Discuss each book as if the author is a close friend. Be respectful. That doesn’t mean you can’t express criticism, just do so in a way that doesn’t denigrate the author.


4. Check for genre. 

As you approach a book, identify what kind of book it is. What is the author setting out to do? Evaluating a thriller based on romance conventions is unfair to the book. They’re trying to do different things. Also, call back Rule 1: be open to learning from genres other than those you write in. I’m working on contemporary realistic fiction, but I’ve learned a ton about worldbuilding from studying fantasy, for instance.


5. Writing is "effective" or "ineffective" not "good" and "bad." 

In your discussion, evaluate the craft based on whether it was effective for you or ineffective. “Good” and “bad” are so general as to be useless, and those words assume universal standards where there may not be any. (“Good” and “bad” also tend to raise the temperature in the room, and the goal is to discuss rather than attack and defend.) 


In our SF/South SCBWI middle grade book group, we often start with each person in the group sharing two things that they found especially effective and one thing they found ineffective. It gives each person a chance to participate up front, and opens a number of directions to take the discussion.


6. The power of "for me." 

When you respond to and analyze a text, you are starting with your own experience as a reader, and then analyzing according to your experience as a reader and a writer. Individual books have readers who love them, and if a book isn’t doing it for you, it might be that the book is just not for you. Couch your criticisms with “for me” or “I found” to leave the discussion open to different perspectives.


It can be helpful, too, to discuss who the book is for. What kinds of readers would love this book? What would they love about it? These questions can expand your view of a book beyond your own reading experience.


7. Apply what you've learned.

One of the most powerful questions to ask is “How will this discussion affect your work in progress?” or, rephrased, “What techniques will you take away from this discussion into your future writing?” I like to end discussions with this question. It helps summarize what the group has learned from the book, and it gives each person a concrete craft tool to take with them.


I love the camaraderie of reading with others, and I always learn something from another’s perspective on a given book. I hope these seven rules guide you to richer discussions and deeper craft.


Anne-Marie Strohman writes stories for children of all ages, from picture books to YA. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s presented at SCBWI events in multiple regions, and she founded, co-edits, and writes for the blog KidLit Craft (kidlitcraft.com). She’s the current Scholar-in-Residence for the SCBWI San Francisco/South region. She’s a member of three different book clubs and has gotten really good at listening to audiobooks at 1.4x speed.


Tuesday, January 10, 2023

#scbwiNY23 - Two Amazing Options for the SCBWI Winter Conference this February 2023

 It's a new year, and the in-person SCBWI Winter Conference is back, February 10-12, 2023! 

logo for In-Person 2023 SCBWI Conference, showing children playing in park with cityscape behind them

There's a brand-new format, with really in-depth craft workshops for authors and illustrators (7.5 hours over two days!) so check out all twelve "Creative Lab" options here

And of course there are inspiring keynotes (Marla Frazee, Caldecott Honor winning author/illustrator and Aisha Saeed, New York Times bestselling author), an agent, editor, and art director panel (with Regina Brooks, Founder and President, Serendipity Literary Agency; Linda Camacho, Agent, Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency; Kate Egan, Executive Editor, Pixel + Ink Books; Arthur A. Levine, Founder and Publisher, Levine Querido, and Patricia Ocampo, Senior Editor, Kids Can Press.)

There's a live marketing plan pitch-off, socials, portfolio showcase, and much more!

We hope you'll join us in-person! Get all the details and register here.

There's also a one-day virtual online version of the conference on February 25, 2023, if traveling to New York isn't something you can do.

the virtual New York Winter 2023 SCBWI conference logo, showing children playing in a snowy park with a skyline of buildings behind them

Check out all the virtual conference offers, along with the Golden Kite Awards presentation here.

Get inspired, improve your skills, lean into the opportunities, and be with your community.
Stay safe,

Lee


Thursday, January 5, 2023

Change One Thing

 When I moved about a year ago, I wasn’t sure how I would use my office, so I just kind of shoved things into it. Within a month, it became a multi-purpose space, housing my gym equipment and my son's gaming computer (long story). My haphazard office had become unwieldy.


My complaints were many. I didn’t like my desk. I didn’t have a regular writing surface, only the computer desk. The lighting wasn’t right. My Zoom background stank. I just didn’t like working in the space.

So last month, I decided to make some changes.

I didn’t really know what to do, so I picked one thing I thought I could manage. I moved my desk to give myself a better Zoom background. The room was even messier–my recliner was now in the center of the room. But once I moved the desk, I realized I could also set up a 4’ folding table to give myself a place to write long-hand and use my laptop.

Everything flowed from there. That one move allowed me to think about how to move other furniture and where it might fit best, and what furniture I could replace to make the room feel more inviting. With a few days of work, I was able to transform the room into a space I love.

It's like that with writing sometimes, too. There can be something that’s not working in a manuscript, and I don’t really know how to fix it. It might be overloaded with things that aren’t in the right places. Or I identify a number of things I don’t like about it. Or I read it and feel a "that's not quite right" feeling.

Focusing on one part and trying to make it more like what I envisioned can open my eyes to other possibilities for the piece.

Changing the location of a scene can create more tension for the characters and that can cascade into deeper character growth. Switching the ending of a picture book might reveal what the opening should be. Starting a story in a different place can give the whole story a new shape and emphasize different themes.

I hope you try this strategy with something you’re working on. Just pick one thing you know you want to be different and give it a shot. See what else it reveals about your manuscript. You might find revision opportunities you didn’t know existed.