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This is the second installment to my report on this year’s SCBWI Conference. After tanking up on some java, I was revved and ready to go for what promised to be a jam-packed second day. First up was KAREN CUSHMAN, author of a number of successful historical fiction novels, including , Lucy Whipple, Will Sparrow’s Road, and Newbery award winner The Midwife’s Apprentice. Karen said there are three rules for writing; unfortuntely no one knows what they are, so make your own rules, or better yet, have no rules at all. That may not sound very helpful, but I think the point was that you have to give yourself permission to try something different and then figure out how to make it work. She also suggested that we separate the editor from the critic.

What I took away from the panel of agents that followed was that authors should be open to and have the ability to revise. When asked  by Moderator Lin Oliver what would be the one thing you would tell authors to do, or not do, Neal Porter said, “Please yourself, don’t follow trends.” Elise Howard and Laura Godwin warned against accepting too much advice from others. And Jordan Brown said to be aware of the market so that you can create something new.

Following an inspiring talk by BRYAN COLLIER, author and illustrator of the Coretta Scott King Award-winning book Uptown, I attended a session on Renewal and Revision by EMMA DRYDEN. She coached those present, many of which were well-published authors, to learn how to manage our expectations in a rapidly evolving market. Putting our words out into the social network, doing a sketch a day, changing genre’s, and setting new goals were all methods for reinventing ourselves when the tried and true  no longer works.

CLARE VANDERPOOL spoke on the Power of Quiet for creative pursuits. Her suggestions were to:
1. Make quiet a priority.
2. Look for an opportunity for forced quiet.
3. Limit input.
4. Look for the resting points in a day.

Next up was a high-energy session with CAROL TANZMAN, author of the YA thrillers Circle of Silence and Dancegirl, who offered acting tips for readings. We watched and listened as she used eye contact, constant movement, volume changes, a different inflection for each character, and strategic pauses to enhance  and energize a reading from her book.

Perhaps the most moving presentation of the day came from RUTA SEPETYS, author of the New York Times bestseller “Between Shades of Gray.” I had met Ruta at this year’s ALA convention in Anaheim and was immediately struck by her openness and warmth. She is the perfect example of an SCBWI success story and credits the Work-in-Progress Grant she received plus other support from the organization for her success, but  honestly, it is her passion for her subject matter that makes her writing so moving. If you ever have the opportunity to hear her speak–do it. You will walk away loving her.

The final presentation of the day was an overview of the current children’s book market by DEBRA HALVERSON. I learned that for the first time in a long while there are signs of improvement. There is more optimism among agents, book sales have risen, and the picture book glut has been corrected.  So what are publishers looking for? Fresh voices and character-driven books that dig deep, but what else is new?

Then it was party, party at the Hippy Hop where revelers surprised SCBWI’s founders Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser with a Flash Mob to the song Aquarius. We all got our groove on and had a great Rumpus of a time, to borrow from Where the Wild Things Are.

Me, Alexis O’Neill, Tina Nichols Coury,
Yuki Yoshino, and Allison Crotzer at the
2012 SCBWI Conference Hippy Hop

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Every year I look forward to the SCBWI (Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators) Summer Conference, knowing it will be the highlight of the writing year. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with friends and hopefully meet new ones. Coffee is typically consumed in vast quantities and sleep is a rare commodity. Since I am now the illustrator coordinator for our region, this conference began early for me. At pre-conference meetings, I learned about the SCBWI website revamp. Let me sum up by saying that there are going to be some wonderful improvements, and if you’re reading this and not a member of SCBWI already, you’re missing out. Nowhere else will you be able to find a better resource for children’s book writers.

The main conference began bright and early Friday morning, August 3, with over 1200 in attendance representing 15 countries. It ran over three days with a fourth day of intensives. Although my brain is still downloading much of what I heard, I wanted to share some of my favorite take-aways. So here they are:

ARTHUR LEVINE, Vice President and Publisher of his own imprint, Arthur A Levine Books, led off with the first keynote, and spoke about some of his most memorable books and what in his mind makes them timeless.. He said that a book becomes timeless when the author and reader can share an authentic experience. He cited examples of books that do just that, including Lisa Yee’s MILLICENT MIN GIRL GENIUS, Shawn Tan’s THE ARRIVAL, and HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCEROR’S STONE by J.K. Rowling. He reminded the audience that great writers use anticipation instead of surprise, citing Peggy Rathman’s GOOD NIGHT GORILLA as a brilliant example.

TONY DiTERLIZZI, New York Times Bestselling author and illustrator, took the stage next. He is hilarious, by the way, freely covering the stage and at one point crawling on his knees to imitate a child. His pithy take away for me was that when an illustrator reads a manuscript, they are not reading the words; they are reading instructions.

As usual, it was difficult to choose between all of the notable workshops. I opted to sit in onLISSA PRICE’S talk on how to use screenwriting techniques to make your YA novel better.  Using her new novel STARTERS  as an example, she explained that High-Concept books are often an easier sell. She also stressed that a good logline creates emotion, gives an idea of what the protagonist wants, hints at the obstacles to be faced, and spawns an emotional response, often with irony. All this happens in one sentence! Sounds easy, right? Not so much, as was demostrated by many of the volunteers who offered up their loglines.

Following lunch, PATRICIA MACLACHLAN, best known as the author of SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL and winner of the Newbery Medal, the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the SCBWI’s Golden Kite Award,  entertained us with anecdotes about her grandchildren and how they influence her writing. She said that every concern we have now, we had in preschool. I would only argue that I appreciate naps much more now than I did when I was four. Her advice to writers was to remember that character is plot and all plot emerges out of character.

Earlier this year I read TROUBLE by GARY SCHMIDT and marveled at the way he was able to weave thematic significance throughout the book and to surprise me along the way. I was thrilled to see he was on this year’s faculty and made a b-line to his workshop on Layering a Character. What rung true most for me was when he said that speed is never the friend of the writer; we must embrace the time it takes to create. This prompted a giant “note to self,” since I find it a challenge to let ideas percolate and projects to ripen.  He also emphasized that setting should not be merely a stage; it should be a reflection of the character.

The speeches and workshops of the first day were followed by a social for traditionally published authors, and once again this year I had the pleasure of sitting beside Sue Fliess who had her new book, TONS OF TRUCKS, on display. Her energy, warmth, and generosity are contagious, and I am just grateful that our last names fall one after the other and the organizers saw fit to arrange us all alphabetically.

Me with Sue Fliess, and no, we are not in a brothel. It was just really funky lighting.

Imagine a hundred or more amazing and gifted artists all eager to meet more of the same and you get a glimpse of of the social for illustrators organized by the wonderful Priscilla Burris together with SCBWI board advisors Pat Cummings, David Diaz, and Cecilia Yung.  When it was all over , I collapsed back in my room to catch what I could of the Olympics and consume my daily ration of dark chocolate courtesy of Alexis O’Neil, our regional advisor extraordinaire and my roomie for the conference. By the end of the Day 1, my head was brimming over with ideas for new projects, ways to resurrect abandoned ones, and enough inspiration to last me the year. I realized that like the athletes in London, I would need to pace myself or I was never going to make it to the finish. (Read faculty party here.)

Next Week I will be posting Part Two of my conference takeaways. It will feature more insights from the conference along with some incriminating photos from Saturday Night’s festivities. Stay tuned.

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Hey Diddle Diddle

Animals are often associated with very specific characteristics. We all know cheetah’s are fast, sharks are dangerous, dogs are loyal, monkeys are mischievous. But how do you choose the right animal for your story?

To begin, determine the primary characteristics of your story’s main character. Then examine which animal species best exemplifies those traits OR, to make the tale even more interesting, the animal which is completely the opposite. Let’s look at a few examples to show how this might work.

Let’s first look at an animal that fits the character’s arch-type.

Typically the main character in a story must  change or grow. If the protagonist  in your story starts out meek and timid, you might choose to make the protagonist a mouse.  Mice are particularly popular in children’s books because children can easily identify with them. Mice never grow beyond small. They are familiar. They are considered to be shy and mischievous. And mice are easy prey making them appear vulnerable. The great thing about working with a mouse as the main character is that it is the perfect foil for overcoming large obstacles.

Next, we’ll look at using an animal that is the anti-archtype.

If our story was centered around a character that is foolish, but must learn to think for itself, we might choose to use an owl. Typically owls are thought to be wise. In Western folklore, owls are commonly associated with studious scholars and wise elders. Perhaps the earliest known link between owls and wisdom is their association with Athena. The Greek goddess of wisdom is often depicted holding an owl. By using an owl as our protagonist we go against these common assumptions, but we also make the challenges for our protagonist greater and in effect make the story more interesting.

I.Q. Goes to School

Some animals are definitely more popular than others. My picture book I.Q. GOES TO SCHOOL was nearly rejected because my main character was a young rat and  the editor had a strong dislike for rats because so many inhabit the subways of  New York where she works. In the end we let people think I.Q. was just a mouse.

Dogs, on the other hand–or paw, pop up in many children’s books, but why? One reason is that people already treat them as human making it much easier for the reader to connect with the protagonist. Dogs crave attention and depend on  humans to provide their needs–much like children depend on others. They are as varied in breed as people are in looks. If you choose to adapt a dog to your story even the breed can alter the reader’s perception. A pit bull is going to be seen as a much different character than a poodle or a chihuahua. All of these associations come as baggage which you as a writer can use to your benefit or will have to at the very least acknowledge when writing. The fact that dogs are so common in children’s literature also means that you will want to make your character more original.

Also recognize that different people might see the same animal differently. It might be a cultural thing or the result of experience. Someone from Alaska who frequently has to deal with wild moose might see that animal in a way that is much different than someone from the city who has only seen them through popular culture (Bullwinkle, for example). It is not ever enough to simply plug an animal into your story in place of a human. You must understand how that selection will affect the reader’s perception of that character and then use that to your advantage. The important thing is to remember that in children’s fiction the animal is always the proxy for the child.

Which animals have you used in your stories, and why?

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Whether I’m writing a non-fiction book as in WHERE ARE THE NIGHT ANIMALS or fiction as in I.Q. GOES TO THE LIBRARY or PET SHOP FOLLIES, it’s  often the animals that headline the show. It’s not by accident.  In addition to a lifelong fascination with all creatures both furry and scaly, animals are the perfect vehicle for telling a story. It’s a tradition that can be traced back thousands of years, and one that has it roots firmly planted in oral tradition.  Why animals? They were thought to be closer to nature and to have a direct relationship with the creator.

Perhaps some of the best known animal tales come from Aesop, a slave and storyteller living in ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BCE. He used animals to teach morals and lessons. Although originally not  intended for children , today his The Fox and the Grapes, The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Ant and the Grasshopper  continue to be popular with young people throughout the world.

Aesop’s fables were followed by medieval bestiaries which added to the list of known creatures and introduced the fantastic and unreal. Stangely, these have more or less disappeared  with such exceptions as maybe Dragonology.

During the time of world industrialization, man’s focus turned to more scientific and literary concerns and animals fell out of favor until the 1800’s when animal tales made a shift in the way beasts were incorporated into stories for the young. Many of those stories have been lost through the years, but some have become classics. In kindergarten I launched and ended my acting career in a production of Three Billy Goats Gruff which was first published between 1841 and 1844 by Asborrsen and Jorgen Moe in  their Norske Foleeventur. It has an “eat-me-when-I’m-fatter” plot. Sounds like an endorsement for procrastination to me, but, hey, I love it just the same.

About the same time  Hans Christian Anderson gave us The Ugly Duckling,  a tale about personal transformation for the better. Since then a number of variations have been published along with innumerable spin-offs. How could anyone forget Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s version of the ugly duck in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.  Now that was one ugly duck!

When Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty in 1877, she gave the world a new kind of animal story –the realistic animal story. In her book the noble animal suffers at the hand of man. For years, many  books followed in this tradition, but this genre has apparently lost some of its appeal in recent years. Now we have books where not so noble people suffer at the paws of animals — Marley and Me by John Grogan.

With the publishing of Sir Charles G.D. RobertsEarth Enigmas at the end of the century, a third genre  was born the super realistic animal story . Usually devoid of humans, the animals in these stories acted out of habit and instinct.

Today animal books draw from all of these past sources, but many take the animal story to an entirely new level with characters vying with children for the lead roles. Think Olivia by Ian Falconer and  Diary of a Worm by Denise Cronin. My own I.Q Goes to School and Pet Shop Follies fall into this category.  These books are entirely character driven and the animal is clearly the understudy to a child.

This is the first in a series of posts I will be doing on the subject of animals in children’s books. Much of this material comes out of a workshop I offer called LIONS and TIGERS and BEARS, OH MY! Bringing Your Animal Characters to Life. In the next post I will look at the advantages of using animals instead of people as the main characters in books for children.

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Last night on Celebrity Apprentice the challengers were asked to create a children’s book. The impression was that the book was written in one day and  illustrated almost simultaneously. To add insult to injury, the main character had to be based on one of the celebrities. What a surprise! Both teams insisted that the book should have a moral and squabbled over tired storylines that in the “real” world would have been turned down flat.

Once again TV has scewed reality so grotesquely that it is hardly recognizeable. The true reality is that writing a 32- page picture book requires long thought, craft, and an understanding of age appropriateness. Hitting children over the head with a moral is NOT art; it’s nagging. No child wants that.

What I found particularly amusing was that the network brought in illustrators to do the art as if to say anyone can write a  book for children, but not everyone one can illustrate one. Take it from someone who has spent years doing both, writing is no easier than drawing.

In the end, both books were proclaimed well-done and Donald Trump even offered to publish the winning title. The myth that anyone with a little name recognition should be writing for kids continues to be bought and sold. Sorry kids.

And sorry Donald Trump., but you’re fired.

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This past weekend I had the unbelievable pleasure of participating in the SCBWI Ventura/Santa Barbara Writers Day. It’s an event I always enjoy, but this year was particularly special since I got to share it with my son, Ian, and to meet some amazing people in the field of children’s books.

Rubin Pfeffer, with the East/West Literary Agency, refers to himself as a content agent, and boy does he know his content! He spoke to the audience about the rapidly changing children’s book market, reassuring us that the book was not as endangered as some might have us believe. He also reitterated that this is a time of opportunity and innovation, siting some of the marvelous book apps currently in development. Outside of his session,I spoke to him about copyright protection, and he assured me that publishers are just as concerned and are making more of an effort to thwart piracy.

Diane Browning showed some wonderful images during her spotlight presentation about the development of her book, Signed Abiah Rose. Her selfless committment to family and dedication to her craft is admirable and inspiring.

Catherine Linka, children’s book buyer for the Flintridge Bookstore here in California, gave a wonderful presentation on Dystopian literature and made it clear to all in attendance that we have all enjoyed this genre at one time or another. If you haven’t, you should.

Mary Pearson, author of  The Miles Between and Scribbler of Dreams, followed up with a talk about her book The Adoration of Jenna Fox and how she never set out to write a Dystopian novel. I had the chance to speak with her several times during the weekend, and all I can say is here is one amazing author, a true crafter of stories. Oh, did I mention I just love her books, like really love her books.

Ian and I did a spotlight presentation on our new books, Ogg and Bob Meet Mammoth and Ogg and Bob Life with Mammoth. Despite some initial microphone juggling  it came off better than I could have hoped, and to be there with him speaking to so many friends and collegues was a special occasion I shall never forget. Ian, you Rock!

Sara Lynn, a busy mom, author, and social worker, shared her new picture book Tip Tap Pop, with the audience. Her talk was music to all our ears. Gee, and I thought I was busy!

Andrea Welch, editor at Beach Lane Books, brought us all into her office though wonderful photos and anecdotes. It is remarkable the success Beach Lane has had in such a short period of time. They are producing some truly remarkable books.

Stay Whitman, editorial director of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low, talked about the need for ethnicity in science fiction and fantasy for children and young adults and pointed out that until now most fiction has underrepresented minorities, something she is working to change.

And finally, Candace Ryan, gave a humorous presentation about her new book, Animal House. She is a tinkerer of words with an imagination that knows few bounds.

Special acknowledgement goes to Alexis O’Neill, our regional advisor, who did a yeoman’s job organizing the event. Her high energy and mad organizational skills made the day a huge succcess for all in attendance. Bravo! Can’t wait until next year.

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I’m very excited about some recent changes to this blog. Note the new header and “About Mary Ann Fraser” page.  Until now I have been focusing primarily on the world of children’s books because, well, it’s what I do. But I do other things, too, so I’ve decided to broaden my territories while focusing in on the broader point behind these musings of mine, namely, how to manage a creative life in a chaotic world.

It’s fine and dandy to talk about how to craft beautiful stories, and make pictures, but that’s only a small slice of the pie. How do you give birth to entire worlds in pictures and words when you’re also trying to maintain a second day job, cook for a family, exercise, attend classes or conferences, tend to the menagerie, drive your kids all over creation, and finish that novel you’ve been reading for a month because you keep falling asleep after one paragraph? That’s a lot of plates in the air, and we all have them.  But let’s face it, some are going to fall once in a while, and that’s okay. It’s all about choices.

I choose to write and draw because it makes my soul sing, and I’m going to keep those plates twirling at maximum rpm’s while others are left to teeter and perhaps come crashing down. If the house windows don’t get washed we’ll all live. (Besides, you know it will rain tomorrow if I do.)  It’s not all about me, though. I’m just sharing the journey. I want to hear how you’re managing it all, too.

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