Rosemary Wells’ Wisdom for Writers

Rosemary_and_RuthIt was on a very Good Friday, just a couple days before Easter, when I attended a Master Class taught by children’s book creator, Rosemary Wells and sponsored by our local Tokyo SCBWI chapter. The evening was well worth the trip downtown riding sardine-packed trains on a raw April evening.

From our opening introductions to the final story of the evening, Rosemary Wells gave the Tokyo SCBWI participants practical and pithy advice. Although I will not be able to distill the evening into three sentences (as we were required to do in our self-introductions), I will do my best to “omit needless words.” (Strunk and White) Rosemary’s advice was to be “preçis” or precise, because “no one wants to slog through endless wittering in a children’s book.”

Rosemary_Precis

Cut your picture book text down to four sentences per page at most. Leave some story exposition to the illustrator. Write what you know and find out what you don’t. “The art of writing for children is like being a contra-alto,” said Rosemary. “It requires unique talents.” We listened carefully, as this “off the cuff” talk struck a chord in all of us and should help us perfect our pitch in story creation.

“My stories are non-fiction,” began the author who creates beloved stories with bunnies and kittens as the protagonists. “They are based on life experiences.” As a writer, one has to have a sieve in the brain to collect memories and feelings. Max and Ruby are characters drawn from her own children. She described hearing her older child, the “Ruby” of the pair, attempting to instruct her younger nine-month old sibling, upon whom “Max” is modeled. “Table… T-A-B-L-E… TABLE. Say it!” To which the nine-month old would respond, “Bang.” Max’s dragon shirt and general countenance was drawn from a toddler with a withering glare wearing a shirt that glared as well, sitting in the heaping shopping basket ahead of her while she waited and waited one chilly raw night to bring one carton of milk home. The character, Yoko, began with a group of three girls from Osaka who attended Rosemary’s daughter’s school. They were teased about the sushi and seaweed in their traditional Japanese lunches which her daughter thought was totally unfair. Family memories and personal memories are the story starters for the author’s books. “Go back to your childhood,” advised Rosemary, “and remember.” Max and teenager2

“The art of illustration is a challenge,” explained Wells. “Try not to repeat in pictures what the text says.” The artist should look for elements that the text does not overtly mention. Find humor in the text. Marry the text without being the same as the text. Rosemary prefers the word “illumination” to the the word “illustration” harking back to the time of the beautifully, gold-leaf enhanced drawings with which scribes would enhance the scriptures. The pictures should make the story glow with deeper meaning and draw the reader further into the story’s embrace.

Rosemary Wells has been in the business since she was twenty. Now, at age seventy, she has seen publishing rise and fall. Publishing is “in the trenches now,” she explained. “Publishers grab for too much and authors cannot make a living. Publishers have wrecked things a bit,” she said. Rosemary has seen her own royalty percentages cut in half over the years. It is especially difficult for new authors. Still, she gave us hope by encouraging us to write what is true and deep. “Present it simply,” she advised, “with no affectation.” “Write for yourself,” she said, despite our protestations that editors ask writers to categorize themselves. On the other hand, she said, “You may not argue with your editor. Work without ego; listen to your editor and do it better. Only after you have produced 10 starred review books can you go at it with the editor.”

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And while a trained and experienced editor will have valid criticism, Wells did warn against listening to all the advice that one might hear in a writer’s group. “Advice given from a reader’s perspective is valid,” she admitted, “but amateurs may not know what they are talking about when giving publishing advice.” This is not to say that Wells does not encounter any friction with her own editors. She sometimes disagrees with their choices, but they are the ones paying to have the book printed, after all. She sent around a recently published book along with its original “dummy” so that we could note the changes that were made. She also mentioned that she does not illustrate for other authors as she will inevitably end up changing the original text and make changes all the way up until the deadline, and sometimes, even afterwards. The advantage of being both author and illustrator is that the two always agree on the finished product.

max could not relax

The importance of authenticity in writing for children was emphasized again and again. Children are dealing with life issues and they know they have to handle it on their own. “School is like a big bus. You get on with a bunch of people you don’t know and then they lock the doors of the bus and you can’t escape. You are stuck with these people for years.” Parents and teachers do what they can to help, of course, but Rosemary explained that it is as if they are on the outside of a thick Lucite bubble. They can see the struggles the child is going through, but in the end, the child must find his or her own solution. It is an author’s job to write about the person and the true emotions. The story should be about an individual, not about a problem or a conflict; “the person, not the peanut allergy.” Adult agendas have no place in children’s books. Children love stories that show characters overcoming obstacles with humor and grit. Be authentic and write simply. Young readers will love you for it.

Thank you, Rosemary, for sharing yourself with us.

– Ruth Gilmore Ingulsrud

belovedofbeasts.com

Princess Ramona, Beloved of Beasts

Princess Ramona, Beloved of Beasts; by Ruth Gilmore Ingulsrud, illustrated by Therese Larsson

 

 

 

 

Making the Second Grade Buzz

Credit: leemt2 (FlickR Creative Commons)

Self-published authors of children’s books tend to agonize over how to create a buzz around their work.

M. Knoop; Natl. Trust for Scotland

We try everything: Facebook, email, blogs, discussion boards, reader and writer organizations, library lists, book reviewers… all in the efforts to get some grown-ups to notice our books, buy our books and give our creation some validity in the mature world of children’s publishing.

Well, I may not even be a blip on the radar of the publishing world yet, but by golly I sure made a bunch of our second graders buzz. Here is a link to a class blog that our second grade teacher kindly posted: Making It Educational; Princess Ramona.

The student reactions posted in the classroom blog are priceless:

YeJin – I liked when after Princess Ramona said, “You hurt my friend’s owie,” because it was funny. The dragon was crying like a 4 year old.

Nykolas – I liked the part when the knight came through the forest and the animals were ready to attack him. I liked the part when the king was in his seat and the animals were next to him and the dragon behind him and he didn’t know it. It is about helping each other.

Devika – I liked the part when Ramona set free the animals from the cage. It reminded me of Noah’s ark. It is a good book because it has funny and interesting things in it.

Reading directly to the students and seeing their reactions and hearing what they are noticing and learning from the story make all of those hours of writing and rewriting and polishing and programming completely worth it.

When all is said and done, a writer of literature is not producing for the reviewers or publishers, we are producing our craft for the children. A buzz from the tiniest of bees is always sweeter than the sweetest honey to the soul.

The History of Books, Libraries, and Getting Kids to Write

My final project for the COETAIL course in which I am currently enrolled consists of supporting a group of 4th graders as we attempt to create a digital book on the expansive topic of… The History of Books and Libraries. I work at an international school as the elementary division librarian, and the project began as a frustrated attempt to find readable and understandable material on the subject for my 3rd grade class as part of the library curriculum. I had one decent picture book to start with and had developed the curriculum from that point. After searching online for more kid-friendly information, I finally came to the conclusion that we would somehow have to create our own material. And that is why last year’s 3rd graders are now creating material that will be used by this year’s 3rd graders.

From an authentic need and an authentic audience comes an authentic use of technology.  The SAMR model helps to identify and analyze the uses of technology to determine whether technology is being used for its own sake or for accomplishing something original that technology finally makes possible.

Although academic instruction can be enhanced by the use of technology, the transformative use is the most valuable in pedagogy. The task which the 4th graders at our school are now tackling would not be possible without the use of technology.

Each student was given a subject within the span of the “History of Books and Libraries.” They were given a folder which contained a copy of one relevant page of a book on their subject  along with a few other resources. They began to work on the “who, when, where, what, why and how” or their topic and were shown how to search for additional information on the web relating to their topic.

Some of their sources were over their heads and a teacher or helper had to sit next to the student translating into age-appropriate vocabulary what their source material was trying to communicate. Then the student would write down what they understood from the material. A few students were tempted to copy the source material word-for-word into their own document, but were quickly found out when they could not explain the vocabulary words that they had typed. The content was explained and they rewrote their page in their own words. This was essential since students who were at their grade level or lower would be the audience for this book.

As the students researched more deeply and wrote in greater detail about their topic, they became more confident in their abilities. Merely learning that your first draft is rarely your best draft was worth the process as students self-edited, peer-edited and received many successive corrections back from the teachers. It was amazing to see how well the students persisted in their editing. They knew that it had to be polished and presentable as it would be published in the final book. They also understood that the content was more important than the form. They were not given the option of choosing their own font as this tends to sidetrack many for hours. They were not even given the option of finding graphics or illustrations for their page until their final text had been approved.

Students who finished editing the text of their page more quickly than others, were challenged to take their research and creation to the next level. Some wrote emails to experts on their subjects and some created models or paintings or pictures that would enhance their page in the book. A few are even creating movies to embed into their page.

One of the drawbacks of using iBooks Author was that the software is not designed to accommodate many creators or contributors at the same time. One person needs to compile the data; it is not a multi-user, magazine or newspaper publishing type of tool where copy editors and writers can all submit material in real time to a work in progress. Actually, my husband works for a company called Woodwing that sells just such a tool. It works very well and is used by Time magazine and other large companies. It has recently been adopted by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mainichi Newspaper in Japan who used it first with their image-rich publication, Tap-i, which incorporates interactivity and embedded video into their weekly digital news magazine.

But for our purposes, the tech tools that we have chosen have served us well. We did run into some problems as the students attempted to drop their pages into my teacher Drop Box folder which has “Write-Only” capabilities and the folder did not show up. The tech department is fixing the link so that the next attempt will be successful. Students in 4th grade do not have their own email accounts so for some purposes, we had to use memory sticks to transfer data. The students could not access their student folders from home and so some could not work on their content at home. Many did not have Apple computers at home, so they had difficulty transferring some of the files. We are working around these issues, however, and the students are getting closer and closer to being ready to publish.

If this project is successful, we may make this publishing unit a regular fixture in the 4th grade curriculum. It gives the students a jump on the research and writing skills that they will need to tackle the more in-depth Independent Study Project, or ISP, that they all must deal with in 5th grade. As it is, they are getting lots of practice in editing, online research, proper image attribution and digital publishing. Many students will be embedding links into their pages that will take readers to museums, universities and other sites where further studies can undertaken. The students can’t wait to see where in the world their book may be downloaded.

 

Convolutions of Connections

 

The connections that technology can weave are simply mind-boggling. On a personal scale, I can find old friends whom I have not contacted in years. On a global scale, I can discover new friends that bring fresh perspectives on the world. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, email, online discussion groups (like SCBWI), online communities (like DeviantArt), all bring a network of individuals with common interests within reach.

This is all a bit daunting and challenging to a true introvert. I must admit that I was a bit put off by all this connectivity at first, but I can see the value in it. As certain political situations worldwide can demonstrate, it is neither wise nor healthy to live in a bubble of isolation. Connections with a variety of contacts keep us honest, humble and human. (Democrats and Republicans… are you listening? China, with your “Great Firewall,” are you listening?)

So, connections are good, but they can also be convoluted and confusing. While it may be prudent to sort your connections carefully into personal, hobby, business and political categories, the lines invariably cross. We find valuable connections where we least expect them to be. I found the illustrator for my children’s book on Deviant Art. I have discovered famous authors who have connected with me on LinkedIn. By way of my Kidsermons website, have been contacted by a pastor in Norway who translated my content and included it in a children’s sermon book, called Annerledeskongen, which has been distributed to many of the churches in Norway.

And although my blog is rarely read by anyone who does not know me, every once in a while, I realize that even this is a connection that can turn up in places where I would least expect it. I recently came across a link to my “View from the Trees” blog by a person in Sweden (who is a friend of my illustrator, Therese Larsson. I have included the blurb below for those of you who can speak Swedish:

Hi Ruth,
Stefan Zackrisson commented on a status that you’re tagged in.
Stefan wrote: “Eftersom mina google-skills är a+ ,http://ruth.ingulsrud.net/blog/2012/10/13/distractions-or-enhancements-the-interactive-question/ , Verkar helt klart intressant Therese Larsson :)”

In relating all of this to teaching… we are undoubtedly instructing our students on the importance of making good connections; not just in academic instruction (text-to-self, etc.) but in personal relationships. We are teaching them to be interested and connected to the world around them, and if we build into our curriculum, the chance to make authentic and valuable connections, we equip them for dealing with the complex interconnected world that they are growing into.

Just as we tend to straighten up and project our best image when we realize that we are being observed, students also straighten up and put their best effort forward when they realize that they have an authentic audience.

When I told the 4th grade students in our school that they would be publishing a digital book that could be downloaded by any student in the world, the intensity of focus was palpable. Most students have not even complained about the many drafts and corrections that they have had to make to their writing as they prepare to truly publish their work to the world. They know that their product, a book on the”History of Books and Libraries” will be used as part of the curriculum to teach the 3rd graders as our school, but they also realize that anyone around the world will be able to read this book as well. Connections are important.

We will be using iBooks Author to construct our book and the students are each writing a page on various topics related to the the history of books and libraries. Students are tackling subjects like, “Hieroglyphics,” “the Great Library of Alexandria,” “Pictograms,” “the Printing Press,” and even “Cave Paintings” as they attempt to show the progress of literacy and books throughout the history of man. It is a big undertaking, but I have been amazed at what the students have come up with. Some are even making connections beyond the classroom, emailing librarians at the Harvard Library system and at the oldest free public library in the United States, the Peterborough Library.

Through their research, the students are even creating connections to the past and beginning to understand history better. They are discussing ideas about what the world would be like if certain writing systems or inventions had never come to light. They are realizing the value of innovation, progress and record-keeping as they attempt to see the progression of a very big concept over time. Thinking and education should be about making connections; activating dendrites and synapses in the brain. It appears that through the challenge of research and creation, these students are certainly learning to think!

Hosting an Author

Last month, in September of 2012, I had the amazing honor of getting to host an internationally famous author, Sharon Draper, during her first-ever visit to Japan.

The catalyst for this opportunity came from the Sakura Medal Awards, which are organized by the librarians of international schools in Japan. It is one of the few literary awards in the world that is selected by young readers themselves. Students take great pride in the fact that they have the final say over who receives the Sakura medal in any given year.

I offered to send the 2011-2012 Sakura Medals to the winning picture book and chapter book authors, so that is how I ended up making contact with Sharon. Her book, Out of My Mind, was voted by the students as the best chapter book of the year. (Many seem to share the international students’ opinion, since this book has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for many weeks and has been translated into Russian and Chinese.) I sent her the congratulatory letter with its accompanying certificate, student artwork and burnished medallion, and she was very appreciative.

She mentioned that she was being sent to China in September as part of State-Department sponsored author tour representing the United States. Since she would be so close to Japan already, she wondered if she could squeeze in a quick trip to Tokyo to visit some of the students who had given her such a lovely medal. We quickly arranged a schedule and several of our international schools in Tokyo had the pleasure of getting to see Sharon present in her warm and personable, lively manner.

We were thrilled to host her and she was demonstrably thrilled with her time here in Japan. My husband and daughter and I got to show Sharon a bit of Tokyo on Sunday, her one full day of sightseeing. As soon as we started off in the morning, we were greeted with a mikoshi-carrying procession which had paused immediately in front of her hotel in Kichi-joji. It was a perfect day full of serendipitous experiences and our author seemed very happy to have had a taste of Tokyo. She even learned to use chopsticks for the first time, a skill that she later made use of in China.

We continue to stay in touch. I was very interested to hear about her experiences in China. One of the most touching meetings that she remembers was with a group of mothers who all had developmentally challenged children. Many of them had read Draper’s book, “Out of My Mind” and were dealing with the difficulties of raising a child with considerable challenges. They knew that they had an empathetic ear with Sharon and they poured out their hearts as they shared common struggles and griefs and hopes for their dear children. Sharon admitted that it was hard to know what to do or say in this situation. While technology and digital connections can often help, they are not the final answer or solution to all of the problems.

Out of My Mind

In Sharon’s book, Out of My Mind, the main character, Melody, who is confined (for the most part) to a wheelchair, is set free to communicate by means of an electronic talking machine, a table attached to the front of her wheelchair that can be manipulated to produce speech and phrases.

teachinglearnerswithmultipleneeds.blogspot.com

 

 

 

 

She is finally able to show the world the brilliant mind that has been tucked away and ignored by her peers for so long. Technology opens up a whole world of connections to her and keeps her from going “out of her mind” in the isolation of her disability. Our world is now so intricately connected, one would think that no one needs to live in isolation. We blog and twitter and ichat and Facebook and email and FaceTime until we are saturated with connectivity. There is a lot of good in our tech-connectivity.

Still, we can feel like we are trapped in a fish bowl if we don’t possess the ability to connect soul-to-soul with another individual. Teaching students (and ourselves) to communicate on deep and personal levels, is a skill that should never be neglected in our rush to adopt the latest-and-greatest methods of electronic communication. If it does not enhance true communication, it’s just that much more electronic static. We should all strive to author our intentions and our ideas with as much clarity and depth as is possible with our resources. An accomplished author can touch the world with important ideas, and Sharon Draper’s visit reminded me of this important truth.

Distractions or Enhancements? The Interactive Question

What is a book? The concept of “book” is changing so fast, it’s hard to keep up with it all. There are so many options available now when designing a book, that it is almost mind-boggling. I would even go so far as to say that the options may begin to distract one from the original purpose in creating a book. This is a problem for the author as well as for the reader.

guardian.co.uk Photograph from Rex Features

An article published by the UK’s “Guardian” suggests that interactive digital books tend to distract children from the content and storyline of the book and make it harder for them to remember crucial details from the story. The headline of the article declares: “Enhanced eBooks Are Bad for Children.” The article then goes on to detail the results of a study done in the USA where parents, with their children, read a story together. Half of the group settled in with a print book and the other half with an interactive digital version of the story. The print book kids could recall more details and discuss the story much more readily than the digital book kids. The researchers concluded that while “print books were more advantageous for literacy building co-reading”, ebooks, and particularly enhanced ebooks, were better “for engaging children and prompting physical interaction”.

So an author has to consider the goal of any particular book before beginning to design it. Is the book created to promote physical interaction and initial interest or is it created to build literacy and present an engaging story? This is what I have been asking myself as I consider the digital options of my first illustrated children’s book. I began the project with an illustration that simply begged for a story. It was chosen as a “Deviation of the Day” and was simply titled…

“You!”

When I first saw the illustration on the Deviant Art website, the picture was so compelling that the story began to write itself in my head. And then it wouldn’t let me sleep until I had written it down.

So when designing the book, I knew that the detailed illustrations were a key factor of this story and they would be displayed beautifully on a retina-display iPad where the viewer could zoom in on the picture to see all of the creative, little details which the artist has tucked into every page. For example, there is a dragon hidden on almost every page of the book if you take the time to look carefully. And there are critters hiding in trees, in the grass and in wee hidey-holes, just waiting to be discovered. Because this particular artist, Therese Larsson, is very skilled at portraying light in her digital art, the back-lit iPad is an ideal platform for showing it off.

The story should always be the reason for a storybook. You write a book to tell a compelling story. Too many digital books that I have seen lately, seem to have been produced to distract a child or to provide a platform for playing games; they often lack an original story. So when thinking about how to design my digital book, I decided that I did not want to include animation or distracting games. I wanted to add things that would enhance the story. The read-aloud function will be included as the story uses a higher level vocabulary than is customary for a picture book. Some words may present an pronunciation challenge for younger readers and the read-aloud function can help with this. I certainly did not want to “dumb down” the text, especially not after the discussion I had with the 5th grade students at my international school when they realized that many modern authors are doing just that as they attempt to make their books more consumable to young readers who may not want a challenge. (The 5th graders were offended and went and checked out challenging books just to spite those authors.)

“Wily” and “plundering” may not be commonly used words, but they are delicious and poetic and deserve some airing out, and so they are staying in the book. But it does help to have a function that will read the words out loud so that “wily” does not become “willy,” (heaven forbid). I work with many students who are struggling to learn English as a second or even third language, and they are helped out a lot by being able to check out from our school library audio books and books with read-aloud CDs included in the back cover. Some of our EAL students check out the audio version of a novel when they check out the print novel so that they can hear the native pronunciation of the words while they are reading the text. I see read-aloud digital books as being very useful in the international school context where students may not have native language speakers at home.

In deciding what digital enhancements to include or not include in a book, the author has to think carefully about the purpose of the book. Will the book’s purpose be amplified or diluted by the choice of digital enhancements. This type of consideration applies to using technology in the classroom as well. A tool should help achieve one’s goal instead of becoming a distraction unto itself…. (one reason why I just cannot appreciate the design of certain pencils).

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Honing the History iBook Project

Sigh. Thinking about my final project and wondering how the heck it’s going to get done…

I need to bring myself from a valley of dull dread to pinnacle of sharp enthusiasm. Blogging my thoughts can serve as a whetstone for both attitude and ideas.

Writing a book in six weeks that encompasses the history of books and libraries sounds like an impossible task, right? My final CoETaIL project will be to produce an iBooks Author version of said book and I’d better get cracking or it will never be done in time. Oh, I won’t be doing it by myself. No, that would be inconceivable. How could one person manage such a far-reaching project? I will succeed with the help of a classroom of 4th graders! Ta-da! Isn’t that a brilliant strategy?

No, they have never used iBooks Author before, but that is a skill that, once mastered, will allow them to publish their own stories to the world. Our ES tech support person, Grace Y., will be assisting with this task. (What would I do without amazing Grace?)

We are spreading the monumental task around by assigning one part of the history to one student. Their task is to create one page for our book. To scaffold their task (and to move things along) I will provide lists of books, magazine articles and websites from which they can glean essential information. They will mock up their page in the “Pages” application, remembering to find, insert and attribute appropriate visuals. Because iBooks Author accepts input directly from Pages, this will simplify the construction of the digital book.

Challenges Thus Far:

1.  4th graders only have library time for half an hour per week.

2.  Library time for 4th graders was canceled this week for Pro-D days and is canceled next week because of a field trip.

3.  Some sections of the planned book have few resources in our library.

4.  iBooks Author needs to be installed on the student laptops.

Solutions or Plans:

1.  Add time available to the project by partnering with classroom teacher to incorporate iBook project into classroom writing time.

2. (See #1 solution.) Also use all of the library time to work on iBook and have students check out books during one of their recess times, before or after school.

3.  Allow use of web resources as long as the source is valid.

4.  Done. Our tech guy, Dusty Mack, (yes, he works with our Mac computers which are used so often they never do get dusty) has already installed iBooks Author on the laptops.

More honing to be done, I am sure, but at least I am ready to start.