Queens Book Festival 5/27/17

Hello friends,

I hope you will join me and many, many other authors at the Queens Book Festival on Saturday May 27.

The flyer below is just a small sample of the authors who will be attending.

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No Big Deal-itis

I’m beginning to see a pattern in the conversations I have with people. All people about all things. It’s very late of me to notice this, I know. And it’s not for a lack of people pointing it out my entire life, (see: any conversation with my mother), it’s just that I wasn’t listening. Sorry Mom!

Here’s an example of my self-diagnosed No Big Deal-itis :

Grover listening to all these conversations in utter disbelief...

Grover, on my office floor, listening to all these conversations in utter disbelief…

Agent: Here’s news about this really great thing!

Me: Meh.

Agent: Exciting right?

Me: Yeah.

LATER…

Me: Hey friend. My agent told me this nice thing.

Friend: Amazing! You worked so hard for that. You totally deserve it.

Me: I guess.

Friend: And how did your surgery go yesterday?

Me: *shrugs* I’m totally fine. Let’s do something strenuous that will not at all put me back in the hospital.

Friend: Umm…

Women tend to downplay their accomplishments (see: impostor syndrome). Women who are writers are probably the worst at this, because all (most?) writers have impostor syndrome. Women also tend to downplay their weaknesses. Like that time I was building an 8-foot tall dollhouse for my daughter WHILE going through chemo when what I should have done was my lie my behind down.

I’m not saying this to make any profound statement about women or even myself, other than: I’m going to try not to be so hard on myself. And since I have the opportunity right now, I’m going to take a nap. Or at least sit down and try not to think about all the things I have to do. For like, 10 minutes.

Baby steps.

What it’s like to be on deadline for a novel

I handed in the draft of the jumbies sequel a day early, and promptly scooped myself some ice cream and felt my shoulders relax. There were plenty of days I did not think I would make it. Back in November when we set the deadline, I thought I’d have the whole thing done by April 1st. Good thing my agent pushed it back to June. By February, when I thought I would have the first draft done (you know, the one where you get all the words on the page but not many of them make sense, or are in the right order, and there are lots of notes to yourself like “something better here” and “what???”) I was panicked and depressed. I thought, “I’ve never written a sequel before! What was I thinking?” Some wise writer friends advised me to talk to my agent or editor and get the deadline pushed back. But no, the Catholic schoolgirl in me DOES NOT MISS DEADLINES!!! So I decided to push on silently. It didn’t help that when people asked if I could do a guest blog post, or an hour-long keynote, or edit their entire novel, I didn’t say no. Those nuns really messed me up. Then I unexpectedly had to be in and out of doctor’s offices in April and May. Plus recovery time for all the poking and prodding, which forced me to cancel a couple of events.

About two weeks ago, I was nearly done, but putting in long hours editing, rewriting, doing the back-and-forth thing where when you change one word in chapter 15, you have to go back and tweak 10 other things in previous chapters to make that one word work. My back ached, I had a permanent headache, and I was crying. A LOT. But on Friday I sent the draft to my agent, with a long email note about all the things I was yet to fix, mainly because it would be the first time anyone read the entire thing. She returned it on Sunday with (mercifully brief) notes, and I sent it back on Tuesday morning. Then it went out. A day early. I felt so relieved.

With apologies for the curse word, this chart is DEAD ACCURATE.

With apologies for the curse word, this chart is DEAD ACCURATE.

This was my first experience being on deadline. Having gone through it, if there’s a next time, I’ll definitely plan my time better. I’ll try to say no to stuff. But the likelihood is that I will be struck with the same sense of panic, and feelings of being a fraud and a hack, and I’ll probably still say yes to doing a zillion things because CATHOLIC SCHOOLGIRL. But at least the next time I’ll know that I’ve done it before, and maybe that will help me trust that I can do it again.

 

The jumbie’s out of the bag!

I was planning to do a big reveal about the sequel to THE JUMBIES to coincide with the release of the paperback in two weeks, but the deal was announced in Publisher’s Marketplace last week!

Sequel announcement

The good news is, I don’t have to keep that a secret any more. I’m good at keeping secrets, but I really don’t like to. And now you know what I’ve been working on! But my big reveal plans aren’t totally foiled. I made a little teaser trailer that I will still post at the same time as the paperback release.

In the past few weeks, I’ve visited a few schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and I went to the Kweli Journal Children’s Book conference this weekend. That was an AMAZING day. I got to hang out with people I admire personally and professionally AND I got to meet two writing heroes of mine, Edwidge Danticat, and Joseph Bruchac.

Joseph Cruchac, Edwidge Danticat, me, Ibi Zoboi, and Leah Henderson.

Joseph Bruchac, Edwidge Danticat, me, Ibi Zoboi, and Leah Henderson.

In February, I had the opportunity to sit in a room of extraordinary women including Rita Williams Garcia, Jacqueline Woodson, and the lovely and articulate Marley Dias, who started the hashtag #1000blackgirlbooks. We talked about what we were all reading, particularly what Marley and the two other young ladies in attendance were reading, and what kind of books they are hoping for. It was an illuminating afternoon.

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Ellen Oh, A.P., Renee Watson, me, Marley Dias, Jacqueline Woodson, Dhonielle Clayton, Rita Williams-Garcia, A.B., and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (not pictured: Marley’s mom Janice, Jennifer Baker, Nancy Paulsen, and Phoebe Yeh).

I’m hoping to be better about blogging and keeping everyone up to date on what’s going on, but I’m making NO promises. You know how it is. In the meantime, I still have some time in the schedule for a few more end of year school visits!

A return to teaching

On Friday, I head out to Boston, not to the ALA Midwinter conference, but to Lesley University, where I will be a new faculty member in the Writing for Young People MFA program. I began my career teaching, and other than writing, it’s the thing I feel most comfortable doing.

I have not talked about this new career move much. Not for lack of enthusiasm, but for an overabundance of feeling overwhelmed. 2015 was a stellar year. THE JUMBIES re-launched my writing career in ways I had not imagined one book could. I spent a lot of the spring through fall traveling to conferences, book events, and to schools (my favorite), talking to readers, teachers, and other writers. I met and befriended many authors who I admire and respect. I was asked to judge a Caribbean children’s literature award, did several blog posts and videos for other sites, saw my novel selected for Scholastic Reading Club, and now I’m gearing up for conference proposals for 2016. There hasn’t been a lot of time to talk or even think about residency at Lesley, other than preparing for my students.

But today, I’m packing. So I’m slightly panicked about being away from my family for a week and a half. My family is not so thrilled about me being away either, which makes it harder.

As I contemplate how little I can take for a 10-day trip (I am determined that everything fit in my usual carry-on), I’m going over what I have prepared for the next few days…meeting students, other faculty, teaching a seminar on how to begin a story, doing readings, working with students on their stories…and I realize I’m not worried about that part at all. I know how to do this. I know how to read a group and switch up a presentation if I have to. I know how to pull things out of students that they aren’t sure they have in them.

What I am worried about is overdoing it, getting totally drained, and not having my family to re-energize me at the end of the day. So perhaps a small talisman would help.

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Which one should I take?

 

When I return home, I go back to finishing up my next novel, working on freelance projects with publishers and individual clients through my Fairy Godauthor editing services, and doing school visits. (I still have plenty of spring slots open, btw.) But I will be more mindful of my personal time, which means I may refer some Fairy Godauthor clients to other editors or even to writing classes if I think that’s what they need. And there are lots of good ones, like “Mothering as a Creative Act” offered at The Loft and taught by one of the loveliest and smartest people I know–Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.

There’s one more big project I have in mind for 2016–working on a novel writing workshop aimed at late elementary-middle school students. This is where my MA in Education and years of working for educational publishers will come to bear. I hope it will be something I can do as a writer in residence, or provide to teachers to use on their own. Either way, I’m excited at the prospect of teaching again, and digging into more education work–this time on my own terms.

What freelancing is really like

This is a picture of books and one DVD on my bed.

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They represent some of the research for four different nonfiction projects I’m currently working on as an editor or author, for four different publishers.

It does not include the fiction that I’m also currently working on.

They are on my bed because my desk looks like this:

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This represents all the other stuff going on in my life:

  • Fabric for the trim of a dress for my daughter
  • A new Lego set we’re all itching to start, but can’t because of the other Lego sets we haven’t finished yet
  • Piles of papers of research, school forms, and things that need to be mailed
  • The laptop because sometimes I need to reference something on another screen
  • A copy of Essence that I will probably never get around to reading
  • Notice the phone over to one side for cold calling or following up on leads or rescheduling the dog’s vet appointment

Despite the bajillion projects on deck, I’m not stressed (not today anyway). Every day, my plan is the same: I work on two or three projects, and don’t think about the other ones. Fiction, of course, does not conform, so I wind up opening up notes documents to jot things down, or I use one of two notebooks for ideas that I may (and probably will) forget.

There are days I feel I’m not working fast enough, or I wish I could finish one thing and have it off my plate. Some days I really beat myself up over this. Some afternoons I feel burned out and watch reruns of Star Trek: TNG. Some mornings I sit in the back yard and read while the dog runs around.

Most days I feel pretty happy to be doing what I do.

Almost every day I have new ideas for things I want to write and almost every day I’m willing to consider taking on someone else’s project.

So if you’re not hearing from me lately, you know why.

Do you really need to write every day?

I’ve never been able to write every day. I’ve tried. And when I fell back into my pattern of writing only when I find the time, I’ve beaten myself up for lack of discipline, or commitment. Sigh. But after a year of working on a new story that just didn’t go anywhere, and then starting another, and my editor and agent gently asking when I’ll have something new, I knew that I had to buckle down.

Once again, I set out to write every day. Starting on day one, I wrote for anywhere from two to eight hours. There were moments when I’d feel jittery if I was away from the computer, as if writing had become intoxicating. It was both scary and exhilarating, because I was getting a lot done. At the beginning of week three though, I was beginning to feel drained. My husband expressed concern that I might be drifting into depression. I needed a break. That was Tuesday.

On Wednesday, I spent most of the day cleaning the house, and my office, which had begun to look like a garbage dump.

On Thursday, a photographer for The Record came to the house to take what I thought was just ONE picture for an article I’ll be in. Turns out he also wanted a video interview. No one told me! It took about an hour, then I spent the rest of the day panicking about it. No possibility to get any work done.

On Friday, my husband and I decided to do some repainting in the house. It was a pretty big job. We finished sometime on Saturday afternoon. No writing time.

This is what relaxation looks like!

This is what relaxation looks like!

Late Saturday afternoon we drove upstate to enjoy July 4th fireworks with friends. But on the drive back home I realized how relaxed I felt, how ideas about the story, and things that needed to be fixed came to me without my feeling jittery and need to sit in front of the computer, how I could make mental notes, and hold on to them days later. Today is Sunday. I am not working today. a) It’s Sunday. b) My body is still exhausted from painting for two days.

But tomorrow, I will get back to work, secure in the knowledge that the ideas that came to me during this relaxing week are still there for me to use, and feeling much better about writing and getting to the end of this story.

So all of that to say, you don’t have to write every day. At least I don’t. I can’t. And I can finally let go of the guilt of feeling like I should.

On launch day for The Jumbies, I’d like to thank…

Jumbies cover small-gifMy mother, who totally believed me when I said I was going to grow up and be a writer at the wise old age of 3, and whose unwavering support is just the most amazing thing I can ever imagine. I have no words for how grateful I am.

My father, who proofreads and gives notes, even while I’m eating. Even when I just get off the plane. Even if I’m like Dad, I’m asleep! Also, he will take me out for doubles and coconut water as soon as my foot touches T’dad soil.

My husband, who has to deal with all my emotional stuff (somebody give that guy a hug) and who is always positive about what will happen next, and who stocked up on my favorite candy bar so I would never run out, and who does so many little and amazing things, that I cannot possibly list them all.

My daughter, who gives the best hugs, and thinks it’s cool that I write, and is very curious about what I’m working on, but has become a very good literary critic, and is not afraid to give her opinion.

My son, who has declared I am his favorite author even though I don’t write about origami yodas and there are not enough battles in my books.

me elise marieMy agent, Marie Lamba (right), who believed in this story and in me, and gives really good advice, and excellent notes, and is really fun to hang out with, and can hold her liquor.

My editor, Elise Howard (left), who is so sharp and insightful and awesome, I can’t even believe she liked this book enough to buy it.

My editor, Emily Parliman, who loved this book from the beginning, and believed in my ability to make it excellent down to the very last word. She also wrote an excellent teacher’s guide.

The marketing/publicity team at Algonquin YR who were really behind this book and wanted to include my ideas in making it a success including Craig Popelars, Lauren Mosely, Kelly Bowen, Emma Bowen, Emma Boyer, Debra Linn, Michael Rockliff, Krestyna Lypen…

…and especially Eileen Lawrence, who is so much fun, and looks out for me, and retweets/favorites EVERYTHING! And Brooke Csuka, who basically pimped me out to every event this spring, and who has helped to generate so much buzz about this book, I am literally floored. I mean, Essence magazine? You guys!

Brunson Hoole, who reviewed page proofs and has most likely kept me from making a fool of myself (and is probably cringing at the grammar and mechanics errors in this thank you note).

Jumbies_cover_v2Vivienne To, who did the artwork for the cover, which is haunting and beautiful and exciting all at once.

Carla Wiese, who did the jacket design, which is fantastic not least because that font is pretty much perfect.

Harold Underdown and Eileen Robinson, who saw a very early, and very rough draft, and gave notes, and were encouraging, and have been great friends throughout this journey.

Karen Halpenny, who read a later draft, and had excellent notes as well, and who also brings me cookies, and hot chocolate, and bike locks.

@moonb2 who read and enjoyed The Jumbies, and was one of the first people who reached out to me about it online.

@mrschureads who made The Jumbies first ever Vine! And wore a Jumbies sticker on his shirt to school one day.

Summer Edward who has supported my work through Anansasem and who got me in a twitter chat with one of my favorite ever Trini authors, Lynn Joseph!

Laura Pegram of Kweli journal, who along with Aurora Anaya-Cerda are hosting one of The Jumbies launch parties at La Casa Azul this Thursday

Everyone at Watchung Booksellers for hosting the first launch party today and for being supportive since my first novel, Angel’s Grace.

swag picMary White of Mary White Studios who made the douen dolls that I’ll be giving away today and Thursday, and the reading owls with the covers of both my books on them.

Janel Livingston, who assisted me professionally this spring, and helped ordering swag, reaching out to schools and bloggers, doing all the episodes of the jumbies video field guide, and basically doing all the things I just didn’t have time for.

The cutie pies in the video field guides: Alyssa, Adam, Junior, Maciré, Kevin, Khephren, and Kobie, and their moms Tricia, and Natasha.

All the SJC women, the MMH Krewe, and my local librarians (including Arlene Saharaie and the entire BooksNJ team) for your friendship and support.

JLG sticker pinThe Junior Library Guild for honoring The Jumbies as a Junior Library Guild Selection. I will wear that pin everywhere!

And of course, all the kids who are reading and enjoying The Jumbies.

I am surely forgetting some other people, who I hope will forgive me.

Thanks all. You can go back to reading now.

kid reading jumbies

Let them read what they want to read

Yesterday on the way to a violin lesson, my daughter told me that she was in the school library and found a book called “The Mozart Problem.” She then proceeded to tell me the whole story, the whole time demurring about her ability to do it justice. I assured her that she was doing a very good job of telling the story. At the end, she said that she wanted to read it again, but the librarian didn’t really let the middle school kids check out picture books, just chapter books.

What. The. …?

Of course I sent an email to the librarian asking for clarification. No response yet. (For those of you who know me and the kind of turns of phrase I’m prone to, I assure you, it was a polite email. Not just Tracey polite. Actual polite.)

Me: It's meant for high school kids Him: *shrug*

Me: It’s meant for high school kids
Him: *shrug*

This morning, when I woke up sleepy boy for breakfast, he was rolled over a copy of “Dark Matter,” one of the first books I edited for Rosen last season. When the book arrived at the house, he immediately grabbed it up, and I hadn’t seen it since. This is a book from Rosen’s “Scientist’s Guide to Physics” series, so the readability is much higher than his 3rd grade level. I know. I ran the readability myself. I asked him if he was reading it, and he said he’d already read “about half.” Then I asked if he understood what he was reading, and he admitted that there were a lot of words he didn’t understand–science words–but that he was continuing to read it anyway.

You can imagine how this makes me happy. I took a picture to send it to the author.

Now, obviously I’m not the kind of parent who’s hung up on age suggestions on the backs of book covers. If my kids want to read something, they can go right ahead. Well, mostly. I do take some parental license. For e.g. I made my daughter wait to read the last couple of Harry Potters until she was ten. Actually, I think she still hasn’t read the final one, and is unlikely to now that she’s moved on to the likes of The Hunger Games. My son is still hoarding board books. To be fair, I think my daughter might still be hoarding a couple herself.

I still have some of my fairy tales from when I was a kid. They are tattered and gross, and I still read those bad boys every now and then. And when the kids borrow them, I make them swear on pain of no dessert that they will return them in the same tatters they found them with.

Isn’t that how it should be? Does it even matter what the book is so long as it’s a good one?

During the kerfuffle last year over some ridiculous adult saying that it was pathetic for other adults to be reading children’s books–specifically YA, my mother asserted that she loved picture books. Who was going to read them to the children? How were they going to learn to read? And how would you have a conversation with them about it afterward? All reasonable questions, Mom. Of course children’s book writers countered with, “So we can write the books, but we’re not allowed to read them?” I mean it is the rare 3 year old who gets a publishing deal for board books, right? There are way too many “supposed tos” and “can’ts” in the world. Can we just leave that out of what people–especially small people–should be reading?

 

The American family album

A few weeks ago, a friend and I saw the independent film Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People. It was about African American photographers, and more importantly, the images of black Americans that have been left out of the “family photo album” as the film’s narrator put it.

The film was a real education for me, showing images of African American families, working, middle class, even wealthy families, happily existing, just being another color on the American landscape, juxtaposed with the ones I think we all know: dirt-poor African American families and some that were staged (according to the narrator) of people stealing, and then of course, the lynching photographs which were sold as postcards and mailed around the country.

It happened that at the same time, I was just starting work on a Civil War book so images of Union soldiers in particular had a heightened impression on me. When Union soldiers are pictured in history books, they’re not often the former slaves who joined the fight, though even Lincoln admitted that it was the black troops who turned the tide of war in favor of the North.

Since then, I’ve been finding lots of images of African Americans in history that paint a very different picture from what I–and indeed all of us–have seen. I realized that the dearth of portraiture was like being erased from history. It’s painful. Britain’s Autograph ABP has an exhibit currently of photographs of black Britons from the 1800s which is illuminating. Years ago, there was a Smithsonian exhibit by Deborah Willis about black photographers. One of the inspirations for her exhibit, was a book called The Sweet Flypaper of Life. A narrative by Langston Hughes, accompanied by images of African American families looking exactly like every other American family, just with different color skin.

A few days ago, some people in my husband’s office said that he didn’t “act black.” It was supposed to be a compliment. I also came across this phrase recently in Misty Copeland’s biography. It’s funny how the people saying these things don’t realize that it’s racist. As if well-educated, well-spoken, classy African-descended people are some kind of anomaly. (Just so you all know, those are the only kind of black people that I know personally, and obviously just from family, I know a lot.) But it’s not imagery many people are familiar with. My recent post for CBC diversity covers some of the dangers of this.

Then my mother visited some family last weekend and came back with a few tales from our family history, including the revelation that somewhere back up the family tree was a white plantation owner, and possibly an Amerindian person (indigenous peoples from the Caribbean). My mother added that my father (who identifies as Indian descent) is also mixed, with some of his ancestry coming from Syria.

So I have this family–from everywhere, it seems–and I’d like to get them all into the family album. I wonder what I, as a writer and editor, can do about that.