Writing other voices

At NJSCBWI’s summer conference this year, I had the privilege of facilitating a session by Emma Otheguy and Andrea J. Loney, “Writing Marginalized Voices in Children’s Books.”

What a fantastic presentation!

Given the current – and much-needed – focus on #ownvoices, many writers have questions about writing characters that do not resemble themselves. Andrea and Emma had useful, practical, and wonderful advice about writing diverse and marginalized voices.

Perhaps the most practical piece of advice they shared was that #ownvoices writers should do the same things as writers outside their particular community. After all, everyone’s experience is unique. Not all African-American or Latinx writers share the same experiences and backgrounds, just as not all White writers are the same.

The most important piece of advice was to engage with the community you want to write about, especially if you are writing about history or culture that belongs to someone else. You have to do the research,ย but even the most thorough research has limitations.

“Do you live a diverse life?”

Or are you a tourist, using someone else’s history or culture for your own ends? Your work is less likely to be criticized if you are active and engaged with the specific diversity you write about in a long-term and meaningful way.

Sharing your work is great advice for all writers. Emma and Andrea recommend working with critique partners and sensitivity readers appropriate to the voice you’ve chosen. Ideally, you should share your work with more than one sensitivity reader to gain multiple perspectives.

Finally, above all else:


Is your work a “clear reflection”? What is a child of the community you write about going to see in your work?

A little tip from me: read widely. Read OUT and read ACROSS. Read as many diverse voices and stories as you can. Make it a habit to choose books that are windows instead of mirrors showing you yourself.

P.S. Check out Andrea and Emma’s books! Such great additions to any children’s library.






I’m on a deadline today preparing a writing sample and submissions package.

Plus, Sean McCarthy has said far better than I can what makes an agent (or their assistant) stop reading your query. Pay attention to his oh-so-good advice!

Especially the parts where he tells you not to use your children or students as a test audience and to address the query correctly. ๐Ÿ™‚

Got a few more minutes? Head over to Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating to see the second half of her interview with Jennie Dunham of Dunham Literary!

It’s HOT here in NYC. Stay cool, stay hydrated, and keep writing!

No time like the present

Happy New Year! I love starting the year off with a bang, and the lovely and talented Tara Lazar has given me (and you and writers everywhere) a special present this year.

STORYSTORM. That’s right, you heard me.

PiBoIdMo is now Storystorm and open to all writers, not just picture book folks. But the premise is the same. 30 ideas in 30 days.

I found PiBoIdMo to be a wonderful jumpstart to creativity some years ago, and I expect Storystorm will be the same.



Let’s do this thing and start 2017 off right. Forget losing 10 pounds; let’s gain 30 ideas! ๐Ÿ™‚



We could all use a little


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:


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. โค


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. ย 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 ย (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 Worldย 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. ๐Ÿ™‚ How gorgeous is this circus scene?


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. ๐Ÿ™‚


Labelling books

Eileen & Jerry Spinelli wrote a wonderful book titled ย Today I Will: a Year of Quotes, Notes, and Promises to Myself.ย 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 Areย 

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! ๐Ÿ™‚ )

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.ย 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.