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.

Are writing retreats useful?

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a fellow Algonquin YR author about how we hate (read: are jealous of) writers who post their daily word counts online with numbers in the tens of thousands, and how they are surely lying liars who lie. Of course. They’re writers. They’re used to making stuff up. Then we commiserated on our own slow-going works in progress, suffering while we’re pulled from writing by everything else (work, kids, laundry…you know, the ushe).

Not long after that conversation, I discovered that a lot of writers I knew were taking time off for writing retreats. They all came back refreshed, singing the praises of the experience and how much they got done. Well I need to get things done. I have half a novel throwing me shade. So this weekend, I’m doing my first writing retreat. Three days in the woods where they claim there will be cell reception and internet access, but I kind of hope not.

I’m nervous. Being away from my family is never pleasant. Plus what if I don’t get anything done? Or the only thing I catch up on is sleep? Or the mosquitoes tap my arteries?

I guess I’ll see when I get there. I’ve already started thinking about what I should take to feel comfy (below). In the meantime, have any of you gone to a writing retreat? What was your experience?

retreat comfies2

That’s one way to beat the summer slump

Most of my book-loving friends have a fantasy in common: they all wish they could get paid to read for pleasure. Reading for pleasure has never been a problem in my house, but my kids have been inclined to do a lot of watching tv since they’ve been home for the summer, so I decided to pay them to read AND to write. Here’s the deal. They get a dollar for every chapter book they read that they’ve never read before, and they get paid a dollar for every piece of writing they complete to my satisfaction. The plan is to get them to write  a couple of good essays, letters, arguments, critiques, and  proposals by September. I didn’t put any specifications on what they could read.

My son is reading ART2-D2 Guide to Folding and Doodling, and my daughter is reading an ARC of Kelly Barnhill's The Witch's Boy (coming out in Fall 2014)

My son is reading ART2-D2’s Guide to Folding and Doodling, and my daughter is reading an ARC of Kelly Barnhill’s The Witch’s Boy (coming out in Fall 2014)

It’s cheaper than camp, keeps them occupied, and they like being able to make deposits in their bank accounts. Not to mention they get paid to do something they like (reading) and paid as compensation for something they don’t particularly like (nonfiction writing). And when they’re done working, I take them to the pool.

Nice work if you can get it.

Do you restrict your kids’ reading?

The tote bag haul wasn't too shabby either.

The tote bag haul from BEA wasn’t too shabby either.

After my first ever visit to BEA  last week, I picked up the kids and announced that I had a lot of books for them. Cue applause. No really, there was actual applause. As soon as we got home, my daughter spread out all the books on the living room floor, counted them up, and announced, “You only got 16!” That was around 3:15pm. By 10pm when I called lights out, she had already finished two novels. NOVELS. And in between, she had to do homework, violin practice, have dinner, and shower. So she’s a reader. My son…well, he’s getting there.

So when my daughter asked to borrow my copy of The Fault In Our Stars, you’d think I just handed it over without a second thought. Nope. She’s 11, and I think that’s just not appropriate for her. “But some of my friends in class are reading it.” Still nope. And then I wondered if I was like one of those hey let’s ban all the books! kinds of parents, and if this is how it starts–by deciding that it’s not appropriate for my kid, and therefore not appropriate for any of them. I suggested she read the signed copy of Seeing Red that I procured from Kathy Erskine just for her. (Kathy even sent stickers.) The poor kid just looked disappointed, which is when I relented, but with one caveat. “If you read anything that you don’t understand and want to talk about it, you let me know,” I said. Her eyes went wide, but she walked away looking very pleased with herself.

The jury is still out on this one. I mean if she came and asked me to read Lolita, would I let her? Clearly I’m a wuss when it comes to my kids and books, so yeah, probably. Besides, I think that some of that stuff is going to go right over her head. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

The “appetizer” to an upcoming story

[Image from Wikimedia Commons]

[Image from Wikimedia Commons]

I have been challenged by my writer buddy Jayne Martin to write a story using only 25 words that hints at a larger story. Well, I’m smack dab in the middle of drafting a new middle grade novel, and thought about how that might look in just 25-words. Here it is.

The metal girl lies in the junkyard. Dented. Broken. Alone. A family drives by, singing. Surely, she can build love like theirs. A pipe glints.


An ever-changing process

Writers are asked about how they work all the time. Probably because writing’s such a struggle for all of us, we look wherever we can to learn better ways to get things done, to motivate ourselves, and produce better stories. Every time I’m asked that question, I answer differently, because every time I start a new project, I have a new process.

AngelsGraceMy debut, Angel’s Grace was written longhand in a black marble notebook on my commute to and from the city. Once I had enough of it written down, I switched to my laptop.

While writing Losing Faith (still unpublished, and probably always will be) I rewrote the entire manuscript from scratch after I had completed several revisions. Actually, I was forced into this method after I lost all of the files. I recovered from the horror of it all by remembering that Gabriel Garcia Marquez once lost his notebooks for a story and had to rewrite it, and when he found the original notes, the stories were pretty much the same.

My new middle grade, The Jumbies, is inspired by a Haitian folktale and went through several plot versions, none with any method, outline, or specific plan. Almost every time I restarted with a new plotline, I did so without looking at previous versions. I just kept starting over until one of them stuck.

Every picture book plot I’ve written has come into my head fully-formed, then I spend months or years fiddling with the language. As yet, none of these have been published either, but I have high hopes for the last two. In both of those cases, I made dummy outlines so that I can see how the book lays out, and concentrate on the all-important page turn.

The new outline

The new outline

True to form, my new story (still untitled) has it’s own process. I’m outlining it on a long sheet of craft paper. I had specific plot points (hi/low points) that I wanted to hit, and I wrote chunks of notes to correspond to each one. Over the last few weeks, I’ve gone back in to doodle and add snippets of ideas. My daughter read the outline and gave me a drawing of the opening scene as my mother’s day gift. She also wrote me a note with an offer of help.

This time, I really feel I’m on to something. Not just because I love how the story is coming together, or that my 11 year old thinks it’s great, but because I’m a visual thinker, and I don’t know why I haven’t tried this before. So maybe this is my process. Of course if history is any indication, the next time it’ll be something else again.

Selfie, w/ outline

Selfie, with outline

This week in writing: mother’s day recovery edition

I hope everyone’s recovered from their mother’s day festivities, whether they were good, bad, or otherwise. Mother’s day is, I think, a minefield at times for a zillion different reasons. So if you’re still basking in the glow of your day, yay you! If not, this roundup’ll get it off your mind.

At the end of the week, Harlequin was bought by HarperCollins/NewsCorp. More mergers may rightfully give authors the shivers, but it was the media coverage of this merger that gave this writer the hives. Hilarious!

Mystery Writers of America announced this year’s Edgar award winners.

Did you know that in some places Amazon delivers on Sunday? I discovered this last weekend when an overnight bag I bought (after taking a trip to Florida over spring break with woefully insufficient luggage) was on my porch after we got home from church. Whaaa? Evidently this started last November. News to me!

Also news to me is the fact that South Carolina politicians are taking funding from universities that teach books by LGBTQ authors. What. The. H?

In better news, Jerry Pinkney was recently awarded the Toast to the Children Literacy Award for his vast contributions to kid lit.

Pinkney (l) receives the award from Tom Colicchio of Top Chef (r).

Pinkney (l) receives the award from Tom Colicchio of Top Chef (r).

In case you missed it last week, Neil Gaiman is going to be doing a reading/show at Carnegie Hall. If that isn’t literary hotness, I don’t know what is.

If you’re feeling discouraged about your work, this blog post by Kate Messner is sure to help. Her remedy: write more. She has good reasons why.

This Tedx talk on story as a superpower energized me last week when I was emotionally drained working on a new story. What you do is important, folks. Believe it.

Another thing that was tremendously helpful was Lee Harper’s Facebook post last week about a picture book story he’d been working on for years. I have been struggling with two PB manuscripts and it’s always helpful to know that the words–even for those successful in this genre–don’t just flip off the page in perfect order. (I don’t have a link for that post, but check out his website at the link above. The wooly mammoth, folks. SO MAMMOTHY!!!)

That’s all I’ve got. Have a great week!

This week in writing: Put your money where your shelf is edition

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign launched last week and got rousing support on Twitter and Facebook, and the conversation continues. All the talk is good, but it’s important to actually go out and support diverse books with your hard-earned cash.

If you’re interested in buying from indie booksellers. This link will help you find the ones near you. However, wherever you buy these books it’s going to be a good thing.

And so you know what to buy, here’s a list of books by or about African/Afro-Caribbean/African-Americans that were published in 2013. Some books are reissues. I think it’s all correct. If you notice any issues, please let me know and I’ll update the list.


Title Author Illustrator
Sasquatch in the Paint Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem
Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad Adler, David
He Said, She Said Alexander, Kwame
The Laura Line Allen, Crystal
Splash, Anna Hibiscus! Atinuke Lauren Tobias
The Market Bowl Averbeck, Jim
Hold Fast Balliett, Blue
Jump Shot Barber, Tiki and Ronde
Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me Beaty, Daniel Bryan Collier
Revenge of a Not-So-Pretty Girl Blythe, Carolita
12 Days of New York Bolden, Tonya Gilbert Ford
Emancipation Proclamation Bolden, Tonya
Echo Brewster, Alicia Wright
My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood Brown, Tameka Fryer Shane W. Evans
Can’t Scare Me Bryan, Ashley
A Splash of Red: the life of Horace Pippin Bryant, Jen Melissa Sweet
The Cart that Carried Martin Bunting, Eve Don Tate
Serafina’s Promise Burg, Ann
What Was Your Dream, Dr. King? Carson, Mary Kay
Ignite: All About Myths: African Myths and Legends Chambers, Catherine
Etched in Clay Cheng, Andrea
Max and the Tag-along Moon Cooper, Floyd
Parched Crowder, Melanie
Off to Market Dale, Elizabeth Erika Pal
Don’t Spill the Milk! Davies, Stephen Christopher Corr
A Marked Man Doeden, Matt
Panic Draper, Sharon
Go, Jade, Go Dungy, Tony and Lauren Vanessa Brantley-Newton
The Missing Cupcake Mystery Dungy, Tony and Lauren Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Africa is My Home: A child of the Amistad Edinger, Monica Robert Byrd
Dog Days. English, Karen Laura Freeman
Nikki & Deja: Substitute Trouble English, Karen Laura Freeman
Life is Beautiful! Eulate, Ana Nivola Uya
A Song for Bijou Farrar, Josh
I See the Promised Land Flowers, Arthur Manu Chitrakar
The Price of Freedom Fradin, Judith Bloom and Dennis Brindell Fradin Eric Velasquez
Community Soup Fullerton, Alma
A Good Trade Fullerton, Alma Karen Patkau
Words with Wings Grimes, Nikki
Schuman, Michael A. Halle Berry
The Girl Who Heard Colors. Harris, Marie Vanessa Brantley-Newton
When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop Hill, Laban Carrick Theodore Taylor III
The Magic Bojabi Tree Hofmeyr, Dianne Piet Grobler
Lullaby (For a Black Mother). Hughes, Langston Sean Qualls
Vengeance Bound Ireland, Justina
The Summer Prince Johnson, Alaya Dawn
Lottie Paris and the Best Place Johnson, Angela Scott Fischer
Flowers in the Sky Joseph, Lynn
The Campaign Karre, Elizabeth
Trouper Kearney, Meg E. B. Lewis
Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest for Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who would cure the world Kidder, Tracy
My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King III, Martin Luther AG Ford
Louisa May’s Battle Krull, Kathleen Carlyn Beccia
Charm and Strange Kuehn, Stephanie
You Choose: The Harlem Renaissance Lassieur, Allison
We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song Levy, Debbie Vannessa Brantley-Newton
March: Book One Lewis, John and Andrew Aydin Nate Powell
Cline-Ransome, Lesa Light in the Darkness: A Story About How Slaves Learned in Secret James E. Ransome
Hope’s Gift Lyons, Kelly Starling Don Tate
The Pirate’s Coin: A Sixty-Eight Rooms Adventure Malone, Marianne
Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table Martin, Jacqueline Briggs Eric-Shabazz
The Mystery of Meerkat Hill McCall Smith, Alexander Iain McIntosh
Lulu and the Cat in the Bag McKay, Hilary
Lulu and the Dog from the Sea McKay, Hilary
Jesse Owens McKissack, Patricia and Fredrick
Ol’ Clip-Clop. McKissack, Patricia C Eric Velasquez
Double Victory: How African American Women Broke Race and Gender Barriers to Help Win World War II Mullenbach, Cheryl
Kuku and Mwewe: A Swahili Folktale Munte Vidal, Marta
The Cruisers: Oh, Snap! Myers, Walter Dean
Darius & Twig Myers, Walter Dean
Invasion Myers, Walter Dean
A Great Idea Engineering: The Pyramids of Giza Nardo, Don
Mythology and Culture Worldwide: Egyptian Mythology Nardo, Don
Nelson Mandela Nelson, Kadir
I am Harriet Tubman Norwich, Grace Ute Simon
Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her Novesky, Amy Vanessa Brantley Newton
Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas Ottaviani, Jim and Maris Wicks
Spy Boy, Cheyenne, and 96 Crayons Owen, Rob
Out of Nowhere Padian, Maria
Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song Pinkney, Andrea Davis Brian Pinkney
Peace Warriors Pinkney, Andrea Davis
The Tortoise & the Hare Pinkney, Jerry
A Girl Called Problem Quirk, Katie
Sugar Rhodes, Jewell Parker
The Cucuy Stole My Cascarones Rivas, Spelile Valeria Cervantes
Jackie Robinson: American Hero. Robinson, Sharon
Hey, Charleston! Rockwell, Anne Colin Bootman
The Other Side of Free Russell, Krista
Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-so-Happy Heartbreaker Russell, Rachel Renee
Dork Diaries: OMG! All About Me Diary! Russell, Rachel Renee
Prince Fielder Savage, Jeff
Anna Carries Water Senior, Olive Laura James
Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew up to Become Malcolm X Shabazz, Ilyasah A.G. Ford
Anubis Speaks! Shecter, Vicky Alvear
Something to Prove Skead, Robert Floyd Cooper
I am the World Smith, Charles R
Brick by Brick Smith, Charles R Floyd Cooper
Daddy, My Favorite Guy: Papá Mi Compañero Favorito Smith, Icy and Crystal Smith Octavio Oliva
Nobody Asked the Pea Stewig, John Warren Cornelius Van Wright
Courage Has No Color Stone, Tanya Lee
Father Groppi Stotts, Stuart
Golden Boy Sullivan, Tara
Kenya’s Song Trice, Linda Pamela Johnson
As Fast as Words Could Fly Tuck, Pamela N Eric Velasquez
Desmond and the Very mean Word Tutu, Archbishop Desmond and Douglas Carlton Abrams A.G. Ford
Next Waltman, Kevin
The Milk of Birds Whitman, Sylvia
P.S. Be Eleven Williams-Garcia, Rita
JFK Winter, Jonah AG Ford
You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! Winter, Jonah Terry Widener
This is the Rope: A Story From the Great Migration Woodson, Jacqueline James Ransome
The Granddaughter Necklace Wyeth, Sharon Dennis Bagram Ibatoulline
Between U and Me Zendaya