Thursday, July 27, 2023

Children's Plays: The Middle Child of the Theatre

 By J.S. Puller

Captain Superlative Poster

Those of us who spell the word “theatre” in the correct way (and I have fought more than one editor about this) have a tendency to quote the great acting teacher Konstantin Sergeyevich Stanislavski liberally.  His name is sacred, said in a hushed whisper that others would reserve for prayer.  “Stanislavski says you should do it this way.”  “Oh, let’s do it the Stanislavski way.”  “You can’t argue with Stanislavski’s Method.”  While my feelings on method acting border on blasphemy, I have to give credit where it’s due; Stanislavski got one thing right when, in a possibly apocryphal anecdote, he commented to one of his students, “We act for children the same way we act for adults—only better.”  Would that every theatre practitioner saw things this way.


All too often, theatre for young audiences is treated as the forgotten middle child of the theatrical world.  It’s seen as a money-making addendum to the regular season, a throwaway matinee piece worked by second-tier actors, while the headliners memorize Ibsen and Shakespeare.  Visit the website of a theatre company that isn’t dedicated to theatre for young audiences.  Their children’s programming—if they have any—will be buried in a submenu somewhere, or down at the bottom of the homepage.

In some cities, it’s less desirable for a performer to even bother auditioning for children’s theatre.  Maybe theatre for young audiences isn’t even eligible for awards season.  In Chicago it’s not.  Sometimes, the cast don’t even get to have their bios in a Playbill, while the mainstage performers are featured and lauded and applauded.

Worse still, theatres are often afraid to take risks when it comes to what they present to young audiences.  My undergraduate mentor, Rives Collins, used to refer to this as the “tyranny of titles.”  You’re more likely to find a “name brand” form of entertainment—a variation of Cinderella or other famous fairy tale, a recognizable musical like You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, or an adaptation of a popular movie such as Shrek—than you are to find something ambitious, something new, something that tackles issues facing young audiences in the world we live in, rather than the world of “once upon a time.”

And what a pity that is, especially as theatre for young audiences can often serve as a gateway drug into the larger world for children.  As Whitney put it, “I believe the children are our future.”


Arts Ed Cover

 I have a whole soapbox diatribe that I often present when talking about the importance of arts education, and particularly theatre.  This largely stems from research I’ve done with the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and Ingenuity, Inc.  To summarize it quickly: “Exposure to arts opportunities allows students and teachers to engage with one another in a way that often stands in contrast to how they engage with each other in the context of regular academic instruction and that provides rich opportunities for social-emotional learning [and]…arts education can be a powerful force in supporting students’ social-emotional development.”  Social-emotional development includes skills such as self-discipline, interpersonal skills, and empathy.  Read more of the research here. 

But why would they bother with the theatre at all when they’re served a fare that’s mediocre, that isn’t given the same attention and dedication as the adult work?

Here sits a perfect opportunity to talk to children and reach them.  And it’s being wasted.


It has been an honor to serve as a guest blogger for SCBWI this month.  I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to experiment with a new medium and reach a new audience.  As my month comes to an end, I want to use my final post as a call to action.  I believe that children deserve the best of the best, in order to benefit from theatre for young audiences.  And I have the audacity to rewrite Stanislovski, making it “We write for children the same way we write for adults—only better.”

When I began the month posting to the SCBWI blog, I talked about how my experience writing for children’s theatre and how the advice I gave my writing students taught me how to give advice.  Now is the time I when I try to rally the troops, so to speak.  To energize and ignite you fabulous authors out there.  And give you a new avenue to consider.  Children’s theatre needs fresh perspectives and stories that matter.

So I say to you: Turn your novels into plays!

There is so much power in SCBWI.  We’re an organization of award-winning authors writing award-winning stories.  This is a new way to share your stories.  Write plays!  Not only will it spread your work, but I believe it can revive the wheezy and troubled children’s theatre scene.  We’re all in this business to help children; whether it’s to teach them, reach them, or just entertain for a little while.  Let’s use the power of the theatre to empower them in return.


J.S. Puller

J. S. Puller is a playwright and author from the Windy City, Chicago. She has a master’s degree in elementary education and a bachelor’s degree in theatre from Northwestern University. She is an award-winning member of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education. When not writing, she can usually be found in the theatre. She is the author of two novels, CAPTAIN SUPERLATIVE and THE LOST THINGS CLUB. She also has several published plays, including: WOMEN WHO WEAVE (Playscripts, Inc.), PERSEUS AND MEDUSA - IT'S ALL GREEK TO ME! (Lazybee Scripts), and THE DEATH OF ROBIN HOOD (Stage Rights).




Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Getting Permission To Write About Others - Jacqui Lipton Explains It for Our Friends at the Highlights Foundation Blog

Over at the Highlights Foundation blog, lawyer and Senior Agent at The Tobias Literary Agency Jacqui Lipton shares a guest post, (When) Do I Need Permission to Write About Real People and Events?

graphic from the Highlights Foundation Blog with the title of the blog post "(When) Do I Need Permission..." and four highlighted points, shared in text below

Jacqui starts off with this overview:

If you plan to write about real people and events, you may face questions about when you need permission to reproduce text, imagery (photographs, maps, charts) or anything else you’ve uncovered in your research. The main body of law relevant here is copyright which basically prohibits reproducing and distributing other people’s work without permission. Note that the law applies to the actual expression of the work—e.g. the actual words the creator has used—and not the idea behind the work. Ideas and facts can’t be copyrighted so you only have to worry about copyright law, and permissions, if you plan to actually copy someone else’s protected expression. 

And then breaks down the information into four sections, 

1. Public Domain

2. Creative Commons

3. Specific Permissions—Licenses

4. Fair Use

The blog post is helpful and well-worth reading. (And if you want to dive in deeper, Jacqui also wrote the book Law and Authors: A Legal Handbook for Writers.)

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Top 10 Weirdest Student Questions I've Gotten...and How I Turned Them Around


By J.S. Puller


Captain Superlative and Me

I'm going to start with the advice portion of our program right off the bat.  If you plan to be a children's book author and visit schools and libraries, the most important thing you can do to ensure success isn't finding a killer publicist or designing the world's greatest PowerPoint presentation. No, here's what you need to do: Sign up for an improv class.

Yes, I'm serious and, no, that's not an improv-style joke.  Truthfully, jokes aren't even the point of improv.  You aren't going to come out of the class a stand-up comedian, but you will come out of it better able to think on your feet.  And thinking on your feet is a critical skill when it comes to presenting to students.  It's true what they tell us, "Kids say the darndest things."  And here's just a small sampling of the questions that I've had to tackle--on the fly--in the early days of my writing career.

Consider this post a cautionary tale.  Once you publish a book, then the real hard work begins.


This question is surprisingly inevitable.  Children don't have a good concept of age.  It probably doesn't help that I still get carded trying to get into R-rated movies.  I used to answer the question honestly, telling the students my age.  Ultimately, though, it meant nothing to them and opened the door up to allowing them to ask other questions about me and my life, instead of my work.  Nowadays, my standard answer to the question is "I'm one thousand, seven hundred, and one years old."  It gets a laugh and discourages follow-up questions about me, hopefully focusing back on the writing.


It's always tempting to reply "I wish."  Because I do wish it, but don't think it's likely.  Rather than say that though, I usually explain that it's an extremely complicated process, taking a book to a movie.  There are a lot of players involved and relationships needed.  I like to end by joking, "But if any of you know someone who works in Hollywood, please tell them you'd like to see a movie of my book."  It gets a laugh and avoids delving into the intricate details of adaptation.


This is a relatively new phenomenon, with the advent of the Zoom school visit.  I could almost see the librarian's eyes fill with horror, absolutely sure that I was going to launch into a Ted talk about the nuances of gender.  I didn't.  While I have thoughts on the subject, that's not what I was there to discuss and it wasn't the subject of my book.  I decided to be simple and straightforward.  "Because you can't always tell what someone is.  Sometimes the name isn't obvious.  Or their image on Zoom is too small.  It's easier just to tell people what you want to be called."


Yes, a sixth-grader actually asked me that one.  A lot of kids chime in just because they want to talk into the mic.  Questions like these are actually easy to pivot.  "Well, I have ten.  But you know, I think you're here to ask me questions about my book.  And if you don't have any, then your teachers will probably decide it's time to go back to class.  So let's try to stay on topic, so we can be together as long as possible."


Like the question above, for this student, it was more about having the spotlight than asking about my work (which is not about socialism).  Not wanting to get off topic or start sharing my personal politics, I pivoted to the book.  "Well, a lot of people believe that socialism is rooted in people trying to help others.  And [Main Character of My Book] believed in helping others.  So I suspect she would have a lot to say on the subject."

Hero Shot


I always want to shout, "Because literature is not Noah's Ark and we don't need to march off two-by-two."  That wouldn't play well.  Instead, my answer is usually along the lines of "Because this story isn't about romantic love.  It's about other kinds of love."  Interestingly, it's usually the adults in the room, rather than the students, who ask me this one.


It's tempting to simply say "no."  It's the truth and that's that.  But when I get this question--and I get it a lot--I like to use it to give kids a better glimpse into the world of children's lit.  Something I've learned entirely through diffusion and conversation, is that many authors and illustrators never meet.  I love to tell them the story of seeing an author and illustrator meet for the first time at an award ceremony.  It often fascinates them and drives them to work on their own covers for my novel, which can be a great lesson for teachers.


"I don't know!  Why don't you write it and tell me?"  My presentations always have a heavy emphasis on story creation and encouraging kids to write and use their imaginations.  Unlike some authors, I encourage fanfiction.  I think it's a wonderful entry into writing, because it allows kids to skip worldbuilding and character creation, instead focusing on plot and dialogue.  I'm always quick to add that I used to write fanfiction and some of my work is still out there on the internet...somewhere.  Under another name.  One I will never share.  Ever.


This seemingly simple question is a trap.  The wrong answer can turn some kids against you.  Since my debut novel, CAPTAIN SUPERLATIVE, is about superheroes, I've developed the perfect answer: "Marvel for movies, DC for TV."  Everyone's favorite is best at something.  And it proves I'm savvy enough to know the different products out there, earning respect.  Often, before I start my presentation, I'll walk through the audience and comment on Spider-man tee shirts or Batman sneakers, just to hint to them that I know my stuff.  While I hate the idea of an "us-vs-them" mentality, it never hurts to get the kids on your side.  Or prove you're on theirs.


Sometimes, you just sing along.


My beta reader for this particular essay scolded me for sounding too hard on children.  This was certainly not my intention in the least.  Talking to student groups is one of my favorite things to do as an author.  I can't get enough of it!  And I love some of the surprising and fascinating things that come out of their mouths.

And lest you think it's only children who ask me some bizarre questions, I want to close out with one of the more hilariously odd questions that an adult once asked.  Shortly after I sent an ARC copy of CAPTAIN SUPERLATIVE to my grandmother, she called me up.  She told me she'd finished the novel and wanted to know something.  "Who wrote all of the poems in the story?"

...I did, Grandma.  I'm the author.  I did.


J.S. Puller Headshot


J. S. Puller is a playwright and author from the Windy City, Chicago. She has a master’s degree in elementary education and a bachelor’s degree in theatre from Northwestern University. She is an award-winning member of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education. When not writing, she can usually be found in the theatre. She is the author of two novels, CAPTAIN SUPERLATIVE and THE LOST THINGS CLUB. She also has several published plays, including: WOMEN WHO WEAVE (Playscripts, Inc.), PERSEUS AND MEDUSA - IT'S ALL GREEK TO ME! (Lazybee Scripts), and THE DEATH OF ROBIN HOOD (Stage Rights).





Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Maureen Johnson Shares a "Rough and Ready Alarm" About AI and Publishing...

Check out this Maureen Johnson Instagram post from Thursday Jul 13, 2023. In it, she shares that a well-known author working with a big publisher reached out to tell her that their contract currently in negotiation is hung up over AI. 

As Maureen tells us that author said:

"because they're trying to put AI in my contract that says my work can be taken and fed to a program... to basically spit out more of this person's stuff -- without that person being involved."

Then, Maureen says,

"Authors, it's here. We knew it was coming, but it's actually here. And this is the moment."

Maureen connects this to the SAG Actors Union strike, as one of the issues they're fighting is the use of their "forever image" even though they're just getting paid for just one day's work... As SAG Actor Billy Minshall put it on his Instagram

"...If I accept a job as a background performer for a single day, the powers that be want to pay me for that one day (less than $200), scan my face and use my likeness in perpetuity without additional compensation. Come on now. You can do better than that."

As Maureen says, we authors need to talk - to our agents, to our editors, and to each other. We need to know what it means if AI is in our contracts, and what it means if it's not in our contracts.

And what's really telling is that an author with a lot of clout, and their agent, can push back -- but what about creators who aren't in that position? Like the actors, and writers of Hollywood, we need to come to solutions about this together. 

Illustrate and Translate and Write On,

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Dungeons & Dragons & Dollmakers in Writing


By J.S. Puller


Captain Superlative

When I say “Dungeons & Dragons,” I suspect one of two images comes to your mind:  Either, you picture Chris Pine looking dashing and debonair, as in the recent movie Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, or else you imagine a cluster of pimply-faced, socially-inept teenagers, sitting around a table wearing capes and funny hats.  Neither correctly encapsulates the world of Dungeons & Dragons—or the larger world of role-playing available.  Write this down: NEITHER IS CORRECT.  Despite the myopic rep they sometimes get, role-playing games are tools with an incredible power to bring people together, forging lifelong friendships and bonds.  More importantly, for the purposes of this essay at least, they are tools to bring people together for the act of creation.  Players and dungeon masters (those are the players running the game) alike are engaged in populating a rich and vibrant world.  As a lifelong role-player myself, I’ve participated in exciting and emotional gaming over the years that has stuck with me, resonating through my life and shaping my writing.

And that’s how we get to the good part: Writing.  Role-playing games provide some extremely helpful tools that can quickly be adapted to suit an author’s needs.  Here, I’ll share just a couple of them.


Character Sheet

Most role-playing games can’t even begin until the players fill out their character sheets.  These are more or less worksheets, individualized to different games and players in those games, that define who a character is and what they’re capable of doing.  More than that, though, character sheets often serve as helpful cheat sheets to outline character personalities and interests.  For example, take a look at the Dark Ages: Vampire character sheet above.  It describes a character named Scarlet.  As you can see, Scarlet doesn’t have much Charisma, as indicated by the single dot beside the word.  She does, however, possess a great deal of Stamina, with four dots beside the word.  Scarlet’s going to be much likely to run away from the evil sheriff, rather than flirting her way out of danger.

And now for the plot twist.  Perhaps you’ve already spotted it, since I’m no M. Night Shyamalan.  A writer or illustrator can use character sheets like this to assist with the planning and development of the characters in their stories.  Our friend Scarlet is actually a character from a play that I wrote a couple of years ago (see Ellen in THE DEATH OF ROBIN HOOD).  I created similar sheets for each character in the story, which helped me to shape their actions and dialogue, which helped me to make choices about how they would respond to the situations coming at them.

Perhaps filling out the whole sheet for every single character is a little much to ask.  At the very least, I would draw some attention to the top of the sheet, where you can read the words “Nature” and “Demeanor.”  Nature is who someone is on the inside, the core of their personality that guides their choices.  Demeanor, meanwhile, is the face they present the world.  Scarlet pretends to be a tough-as-nails survivor who will meet challenges with stoicism and determination.  But secretly, she has the nature of a caregiver.  So, every action she takes is driven by her desire to protect others.  And that's how I wrote her.

An activity as simple as filling out a character sheet is the perfect way to start figuring out who populates the world of your book.


A little-known, yet highly-valuable world on the internet is the Dreamwidth Role-Playing community.  This collective of imaginative writers engages in daily interactions between fictional characters.  Often, players try to tackle writing from the point of view of established pop culture icons, such as Elphaba from Wicked or Captain America from the Marvel movies.  Increasingly, though, the player base is flirting with using Dreamwidth as a way to test out original characters.

Dreamwidth journals are free.  Once you create a journal for your character, you can engage with other characters, through communities of memes and PSLs and games (I know many are scratching their heads at these vocab words, but it's all spelled out neatly and better than I could possibly explain, here).  This is a fantastic place to discover a character voice, hear what they sound like and hear how their voices differ from those of other characters.  Not only is it a great writing exercise, but it can be loads of fun.  You never know what could happen or what situation you could find your character facing.  The weirder, the better I think.  It really shows you how they respond to stress.  What would your character do if they were trapped on in an elevator with Darth Vader?  Or Captain Kirk?  Or Sailor Mars?


If you’ve ever seen any media depicting a game of Dungeons & Dragons, you know that much of the action is acted out by moving little figurines that represent characters on a gridded map.  There are a lot of websites available to create and personalize a figurine for your game.  I myself recently purchased my first-ever figurine for my first-ever game of Dungeons & Dragons.  The website I used is called Hero Forge and it’s available to anyone.  In the process of creating my bard, however, I had something of an epiphany.  Websites like Hero Forge (and other dollmakers) are excellent tools for writing.

If you take a look at the top of this post, you'll see a reproduction I made of the title character from CAPTAIN SUPERLATIVE.  Great for me, as a keepsake of my debut novel, but how does a dollmaker help you?  Let’s say you’re creating characters that inhabit a slightly fantastical world.  There aren’t easy reference pictures available to you if you're making up a whole new species, flipping through a magazine or book of photography.  Well, now you can use Hero Forge to, quite literally, build your characters from the ground up.

Hero Forge

The novel that's been taking up a lot of my writing time these last few months has been one set in a supernatural world, with a distinct villain.  One whose features are so "out there" that I found I kept having to reread his introduction over and over again to remember all the details.  Then I got wise.  I built him in Hero Forge and saved the image (see above).  Now when I need to describe him in a scene, I simply pull up that image and have it sitting on my desktop, reminding me that his jeans are ripped, that the cuffs around his wrists are yellow, that he wears his green hair in a gravity-defying ‘do.

Don’t worry if Hero Forge isn’t right for you.  There are hundreds of dollmakers out there.  You can always find the one that you like best.

All you need to do is Google the term "dollmaker" and roll the dice.

(That was also a Dungeons & Dragons joke.)


J.S. Puller Headshot

J. S. Puller is a playwright and author from the Windy City, Chicago. She has a master’s degree in elementary education and a bachelor’s degree in theatre from Northwestern University. She is an award-winning member of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education. When not writing, she can usually be found in the theatre. She is the author of two novels, CAPTAIN SUPERLATIVE and THE LOST THINGS CLUB. She also has several published plays, including: WOMEN WHO WEAVE (Playscripts, Inc.), PERSEUS AND MEDUSA - IT'S ALL GREEK TO ME! (Lazybee Scripts), and THE DEATH OF ROBIN HOOD (Stage Rights).