We could all use a little

Kindness.

It’s a little thing that is not-so-little to those who receive it.

Lately, I’ve noticed a lot more folks being kind. I hope this isn’t a flash in the pan.

Candlewick Press tweeted a new hashtag today that floats my boat:

#READKINDBEKIND

I love it. Especially after finishing Leslie Connor’s ALL RISE FOR THE HONORABLE PERRY T. COOK today.

Heartwarming. And not mushy. Just the way I like ’em.

What have you read lately that’s kind? And while you’re being kind to others – don’t forget yourself.❤

Query quirks

Part of my job as a literary assistant – and a very useful one to me – is reading over all the queries that come in to the agency. It’s been invaluable to me as a writer to see thousands of queries in action.

I won’t rehash all the wonderful advice about writing a great query. I’ll just list some resources below.

But I do have some pertinent advice of my own.

  1. SIGN YOUR QUERY WITH YOUR FULL NAME. Crazily enough, some people write a whole query and never actually use their name. Or any name. How are we supposed to address you when we reply? Use your email?
  2. That brings us to your email address. USE A PROFESSIONAL EMAIL ADDRESS. Ideally, your name. (Pseudonym, if you must.) Not a cutesy “bestwriterever@gmail.com” or worse, “hotmama22@yahoo.com” type of address.  I’d also advise against creating an an email address with your protagonist’s name, book title, or series title. What if that’s not the book that sells?
  3. MODESTY IS A VIRTUE. You may be the best writer since Shakespeare, but it’s far better to let your sample pages speak for you instead of proclaiming this in your query. No sample pages requested? Make sure your query letter shines.
  4. We are not friends. Your query may be clever or charming, but don’t forget: THIS IS A BUSINESS. YOU ARE WRITING A BUSINESS LETTER. While not addressing an individual agent or using a colon after your salutation isn’t a killer for us, it may be for others. Don’t know how to write a proper business letter? Look it up.
  5. Last, but not least, FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS. Most agencies have a submissions page on their website. Check it out, and if they have specific directions, follow them. If they require you to use a form on their website, do so. If they ask for sample pages, include only the number of pages requested – and please, please, please use the first number of pages from your book. Sending pages from, say, Chapter 3, is not acceptable. We want to read the pages as if we were reading the book.

Agents want to say yes. Clients are how agents make money. No clients, no money. However, because of the vast quantity of queries, a bad first impression means your query is going into the “No” pile.

Yes, the quality of your writing is why you should be signed by an agent (or a publisher). But if you can write a good book, you can write a good query letter. So far, the reverse holds true as well. I have yet to see a horrible query with amazing pages. (Dull? Yes. Business-like? Yes. Bad? No. No really bad queries have had good samples.)

Today’s bonus tip: Like an author? Discover their agent (often from the acknowledgements in the book). Follow their agent on Twitter. That will give you interesting information about the agent’s wish list and their preferences and personality.

Resources for query advice:

Query Shark

Get Published NOW! (Molli Nickell)

How to Write the Perfect Query Letter (Writers Digest*)

How to Write a Query Letter  (Jane Friedman)

*Writers Digest magazine always has articles about query letters. You should take a peek at any classes or workshops for writers in your area. Many SCBWI conferences also offer sessions on querying.

 

 

Small surprises


Last week I visited the Met. I don’t go nearly as often as I should, but often enough that I became a member. (I know, it’s a “suggested” entry fee, but I always felt guilty paying so much less.)

Every time I go, I find something new. Not just special exhibits, but permanent ones. Statues, paintings – heck, whole ROOMS – I’ve never seen before. I love the rooms. I love imagining myself hiding in the Met like Claudia, trying out all the beds.

Even when I’m expecting an exhibit, it can surprise me. I knew that Printing A Child’s World was on view, but it was still delightful to turn a corner and walk into the exhibit unexpectedly.

The upper right image is from Randolph Caldecott’s The House that Jack Built. Yes, that Caldecott!

While the exhibit is small, it’s lovely. Especially for fans of printmaking and children’s literature – or both. Like me.🙂 How gorgeous is this circus scene?

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If these images aren’t enough to inspire you, what does? I know November is NaNoWriMo for many, many, many writers, but Kendra Levin’s guest post on Writing Kids (While Raising Them) makes an excellent point for taking November – or another month – off.

Also ending soon is the SCBWI Book Blast – November 18th. If you’re a member of SCBWI, check your email for a note about the Book Blast 10 Plus Club. Not a member? Join now! Or just check out the Book Blast to browse, buy, or enjoy the great books promoted by SCBWi members.

One last surprise from last week: KA Reynolds’ book deal! Congratulations to KA! She was my competitor in QueryKombat last year, and her pitch for this book triumphed (gracefully and graciously) over mine. Her dream came true – just more proof that determination and hard work pay off.🙂

Labelling books

Eileen & Jerry Spinelli wrote a wonderful book titled  Today I Will: a Year of Quotes, Notes, and Promises to Myself. I bought it in Chautauqua during a Highlights Foundations Children’s Writers Workshop. I don’t look into it every day, but when I do it never fails to surprise me with a great piece of advice – usually, but not always, from a kids’ book. Today’s passage was even more thought-provoking than usual:

“October 26

To me, the labels that people gave each other – or themselves – were like invisible name tags. Once you started to ‘wear’ one, everyone was free to make assumptions about who you are.

More than a Label: Why What You Wear or Who You’re With Doesn’t Define Who You Are 

by Aisha Muharrar

So why do it? Why costume yourself like a this or a that and thereby invite everyone to assume you’re so much less than you really are?

I am not a label.

I am not a label.

I am not a label.”

Published in 2002, Muharrar’s book looks at the role of labels & cliques for teens, based on a survey that then teen-aged Muharrar performed while a member of “Teen People News.” It’s still relevant – perhaps even more so – today, given what’s happening in publishing and kidlit. #WNDB isn’t just a hashtag. (Thank goodness!🙂 )

But it’s also relevant in our libraries: classroom, school, public, and even personal.

I’ve always been a little annoyed by the constant narrowing down of divisions in kid lit. PB, MG, YA… easy read or chapter book? … fiction vs. nonfiction … shelving series separately or with other fiction. Don’t get me started on shelving biography separately from Dewey call number 920.

Volunteers always want to pull out books. Make a shelf for princess books. Make a shelf for holiday books – no, not 394, that’s nonfiction, we want holiday picture books. Why are graphic novels shelved with nonfiction?

Sheesh. Sometimes separating books is a good thing. (Hello, Dewey subject headings and call numbers?) But more often, it creates a morass of shelving minutia that’s hard for new volunteers and new students to understand. That’s the surprise and delight of browsing: finding something you didn’t even know you wanted just because it happened to be by an author whose last name started with K when you were about to re-read one of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books.

And separating books by reader age? Picture books are for everyone, but too many people regard them as only for very young children. Where does that leave the many “picture storybooks” of the past? There’s a clear line between most easy readers or beginning chapter books and middle grade books or YA, but what about the morass that faces the middle school reader or advanced MG reader? Please don’t tell me that now there’s upper MG. And forget about NA.

What happened to integrating all the fiction – assuming shelf heights and space allow – and letting kids discover books for themselves? Did libraries start following a bookstore model, or was it the other way ’round? Was it an outgrowth from the classroom and the now constant leveling of readers? (Stick to the five-finger rule, my friends! Works for all ages, not just kids.)

We make assumptions about books based on the labels they “wear,” just like we make assumptions about people. “That’s too hard for me.” “I don’t like fantasy.” “I want a princess book.” (You try giving a determined kindergartener a ‘real” fairy tale instead of name-your-Disney-Princess-here. Fun!)

I see it in the queries I read for the slush pile all the time. Yes, it’s important to know your audience. It’s important to know your genre. As a literary assistant, it’s very helpful – unless I read your pages and realize that you really don’t know what YA is.

As a writer, I don’t want labels to limit the audience for my book. As a lapsed librarian, I know some labels are necessary so readers can find the books they want. Maybe the folks who shelve their own books by color instead of by genre or alpha by author are on to something. I’m not that brave with my own bookshelves.

As a person, I agree with today’s passage. I am not a label. It’s the sum of the many labels I have worn and do wear that make me who I am.

Instead of dividing books or people – as labels do – let’s start adding.

One on one

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Last weekend, I spent Saturday at the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Plus Conference. Do I even need to tell you it was AMAZING?

Of course it was. Not just did I get a wonderful hour with my mentor (Annie Berger of Sourcebooks), but a group discussion with nine other editors and authors: the Five-on-Five. And a panel discussion about the author-agent relationship, a success story speech by Sheela Chari, and…

A fantastic keynote by Ellen Oh of We Need Diverse Books! #WNDB is not just a hashtag, it’s a concrete force for good in the publishing world. Small successes lead to BIG changes.

And lunch. Let’s not forget lunch. Especially because I was lucky enough to sit next to Wendy Mass. (Excuse me while I fangirl.)

Silly me, I was so busy taking it all in and meeting new writing friends that I didn’t take any pictures. Not one. Sorry.

But if you’re interested, check out #RUCCL16 on Twitter and Facebook. I know more highly technologically evolved folks were snapping away.

I was surprised – though I shouldn’t have been – to meet folks from all over. Yes, most of us were from the NY/NJ area, but nowhere near all. And did you know that RUCCL members generously offer two scholarships each year in honor of Paula Danziger and Dorothy Markinko?

I wish this could be a “meatier” review, but the truth is, most of what I learned was personal, specific to my work, especially this most recent draft and query letter. (Thus the name One-on-One.)

Thank you to all the council members for volunteering their time and efforts to ensure a wonderful and rich opportunity for writers.

Writing friends, please, please, please do your writing self a favor and apply for next year’s conference. I just hope I’ll be accepted again so I can see you there.

Hmm, maybe I’ll be even luckier and get to become a mentor someday.

 

 

Words are the tools

Today at Yom Kippur services, the rabbi spoke about words.

“Words are the tools we use to create our world,” she said.*

As a writer, this struck home. Words are my everyday tools, and I can spend long minutes typing and deleting and looking up synonyms in a thesaurus, all to try and find the precise word that means what I want to say.

During the rest of the service as we prayed and meditated in atonement for our sins of the past year, it occurred to me that words are also our weapons. My tongue can be sharp, and without thinking, sometimes I cut those closest to me with it. For that, I atone and will do better in the coming year.

Too often we hurt people we do not and never will know with our words. It is so easy to say harsh, cruel, or demeaning things – particularly when we hide behind the screen of our computers or our phones. Especially this year, words are being used as weapons every day, knowingly and with hurtful intent.

“You don’t need to kill with a sword, the tongue can do equally a better job and police will not knock on your door” 
― Bangambiki HabyarimanaThe Great Pearl of Wisdom

The police may not knock on our doors, but that doesn’t make the injury any less.

Let our words be tools.

May you & yours be inscribed for good this year!

 

*I believe this was a quotation, but sadly, I don’t remember the attribution.

A good book?

One thing I won’t miss from my school library is the perpetual battle over what makes a good book. I do wish I’d had Adam Gidwitz’s recent New Yorker article to hand to parents and administrators, however. Gidwitz’s article is a beautiful examination of what, exactly, makes a children’s book good.

Using R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series as an example, Gidwitz makes the excellent point that selling over 350 million copies – please read that number in a Dr. Evil voice, ok? – just isn’t possible unless children themselves love and adore the books, devouring them like popcorn. He says no marketing push or movie tie-in can give a book those numbers, and he’s right.

I believe him because I’ve watched students descend upon that section of library shelves like a horde of locusts, class after class, year after year.

I’ve also had to convince concerned parents and faculty that reading those books – or Diary of a Wimpy Kid or graphic novels or the Rainbow Fairies or name your child’s favorite popular title – is OKAY.

Sigh. They’re reading, folks! All reading is good reading. (Great reading, now that’s another story.)

The article continues with an examination of the difference between a good book and lit-ra-cha. (Thank you, Laura Amy Schlitz, for that. Loved Splendors and Glooms!)

My personal opinion is that children should be reading. I don’t care if it’s a cereal box. If they’re reading something, it is SO much easier to get them to read other things. While I’m no longer a librarian, that philosophy guides my writing as well.

Like Adam Gidwitz, I just want to write something that some child somewhere will “clutch to their chest and say, ‘I love this book!’ “