Sitting in the “Expert” Chair

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Greetings! I know it’s been months since my last post, but I’m going to attempt to resurrect this thing. Because I have more I want to say! Promise! But before I go on, a post update on what I’ve been up to!

At the end of March I changed jobs. No longer needing my summers off to take grad classes on campus, I felt ready to look at what else might be out there. At that point, I had spent 7 1/2 years working in a high school computer center, on a team of three. Being in a high school, no doubt influenced my eventual thesis WIP, moving away from picture books for preschoolers and early elementary aged kids, to a realistic fiction (slice of life genre) graphic novel for young adults.

As I continue work on my YA thesis manuscript, I ironically find myself once again returning to my picture book-loving roots, however. That’s what happens when you work in Children’s Services at a library. The picture books! They’re right there! And the kids (and caregivers)! They want recommendations! Another perk? Suddenly, I, at 5′ 1”, am tall again!

Yup! That’s the job I ended up taking. And I’m so glad I did! I can’t adequately describe how refreshing it is to see babies, toddlers, preschoolers, early/mid/upper elementary aged kids, and middle schoolers coming into our space eager to explore, play, and engage with us and our collection. And I love the team that I am a part of. Each of them pour so much into their jobs and have established themselves as discerning children’s librarians and library assistants. I have not only learned a lot from them, but feel so valued and included as we work collectively to be the best children services department we can be. In my position of library assistant, I have been invited to lead MakerKid craft times, storytimes, and co-lead cultural events, and educational programs*. All of that on top of the readers advisory work that happens at our reference desk.

And now a word about flaring-up self-doubt. You all, it has been so life-giving getting to do work related to what I’ve devoted a lot of time, energy and money to! But it is also a bit terrifying. On the other side of the reference desk I have kids and adults staring at me, expecting that I am an expert of children’s literature! And they don’t even know I’m working on my MFA in it! Even a co-worker recently asked my opinion on diverse picture book titles I would recommend she put on a bibliography she was compiling, because “you’re an expert.” Eek! I think I will always bristle a bit whenever it is suggested that I am an expert of something or an authority on something. I hope that I always believe that there is more for me to learn. But I guess I could also work at having a bit more confidence in myself…

So with this more fulfilling work, comes a new challenge. To believe, more often than not, that I have something worthwhile to say when it comes to children’s literature in the real world, away from my super supportive grad school haven, where everyone is sharing and growing. And that’s part of the reason I’m back here on this blog, my friends. To work that muscle. To share, to grow, to dialogue with you.

*There will inevitably be posts devoted to these experiences in the future!

Three Basic Guidelines for Writing a Romance Arc

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Happy Valentines Day, everyone! In honor of this day of love I asked one of my writer friends to contribute a guest post here related to creating believable romance in fiction. Though she writes for adults, those of us who write YA stories know that romantic love often finds its way into our stories. Many young adults out there are wanting their first romance, wanting to fall in love. So part of writing stories that feel authentic is recognizing the desires of average youth and making sure our stories check out. But that’s enough from me, let’s hear from my friend, who goes by the pen name Elinor Diamond!

In the Spring, the saying goes, a young man’s (or woman’s, with apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson) fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.  Well, it’s not quite spring yet – at least, not in Seattle – but as we have come upon Valentine’s Day it seems appropriate to divert writerly attention to the subject of love and romance in fiction.  Love can be a tricky topic to cover without coming across as either too straightforward (not romantic enough) or veering in the other direction and slipping into clichés or purple prose.  So!  In honor of the day of hearts and flowers, let’s take a look at three basic guidelines for writing a romance arc.

  •   Conflict

Conflict is a basic rule of any fiction writing, and a romance arc is no exception.  If your heroes meet, fall madly in love, and ride off into the sunset with no problems whatsoever, you are going to have an extremely short (and pretty boring) story.  Good fiction thrives on conflict, and really good fiction establishes the grounds for the conflict early on, before the actual conflict itself even arises.  Your characters should be built in such a way that they will naturally clash when you bring them together.  Perhaps one is very orderly and the other more of a free spirit.  Or perhaps they both have deep beliefs that clash – one thinks the land should be used to rehome refugees, while the other thinks it should be preserved as a nature reserve.  Whatever it is, whether internal or external conflict, make sure that this element is an integral part of the character and that it exists before the characters meet.  And most importantly of all, don’t make it an easy fix!  Your characters should struggle with both internal and external pressures – their own beliefs and self-perceptions, the expectations of their jobs or families or communities, etc. – before they are able to come together with a solution.

  •   Connection

Of course, while you’re writing all this conflict, don’t forget that the characters do need to come together at some point.  They should have a point of connection, either early on (which then gets buried) or after a turning point in their relationship.  The connection should be something significant – a shared value, perhaps, or a backstory reveal that makes one more sympathetic to the other, or even just a strong physical attraction that can develop into something more.  Like the conflict, this point of connection must be present in your characters from the very beginning, even if they don’t figure it out until halfway through the book.  This is easier to do if you’re writing from a single perspective; you’ll need a very deft touch if you’re writing both sides of the romance so as not to present the connection point as being so obvious that the heroes are idiots for not figuring it out sooner.  And speaking of idiots…

  •   Communication

Miscommunication is a well-worn trope in romance.  True, it has its roots in real life (we’ll go into that later) but too often, it’s used as an Idiot Ball to move story along.  I know it’s tempting, but don’t use the Idiot Ball.  Do not have your characters fall out over a simple misunderstanding that could be cleared up in about five seconds of talk, because it begs the question of why your heroes are incapable of making that five seconds to talk.  A strong relationship involves lots of listening and communication, even if you’re super pissed at the other person for kissing someone else.  If your characters flounce off and refuse to speak to each other, how strong is that relationship?  And how can your readers believe that these two idiots are ever going to make a go of it?

There are ways that you can do miscommunication, of course, but it requires subtlety and an early set-up and generally, a lot of work.  You will need to convince your reader that your hero A has a really solid reason for not listening to hero B; perhaps hero A underwent some pretty serious trauma prior to this relationship that makes it difficult to trust people, or was kidnapped and can’t physically listen to anyone but the villain right now.  Perhaps there are complex societal rules à la Pride and Prejudice that prevent these two people from simply sitting down and hashing it out.

For more on this, check out TV Tropes’ Poor Communication Kills. (And then say goodbye to your free time because this site will suck you in.  You have been warned.)

Bonus! Reality and fiction

I mentioned this briefly in No. 3 (above), but it’s so important that it bears repeating: just because something happened in real life does not make it a good story.  Real life has random happenings and insignificant coincidences and people we might meet only once or twice and never again and messy unsatisfying endings (that aren’t really endings because life keeps going).  In fiction, everything is significant.  If you name or spend time on a character, your reader will remember that.  Random happenings and coincidences are never random; they serve the story and will somehow move the plot or character arcs forward.  And endings are invariably neater than real life.

My point is that fiction has rules and expectations which real life does not and likewise, even though people make stupid mistakes in real life all the time (sometimes for apparently no reason, or for a really dumb one), mistakes in fiction have a lot more significance behind them.  Everything needs to be motivated, because your readers need to feel like they know your characters better than the characters know themselves.  So no – you may not argue that your plot device works because it happens in real life.  This is fiction; it has to work in fiction.


Author PortraitElinor Diamond is a writer, classical musician, and geek aficionada currently dwelling in the Seattle area. “The Man on the Midnight Train” is her fourth story published with SilkWords. When not composing romances, she enjoys writing genre fiction, poetry, and fairy tale retellings.

Check out her blog on writing, cooking, baking and culture at http://www.elinordiamond.com.

In Order to Be a Writer, You Have to…Write

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Wednesday night I attended a SCBWI talk that author Carolyn Crimi gave,  titled “Failure Is the Only Option: Learning to Embrace the Learning Process and Grow As a Writer.” She was so great. It was really encouraging to hear her reflect on how a shift in thinking about success, failure and intelligence changed how she approached writing. Sharing nuggets of wisdom gleaned from books such as Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph. D and Carol Dweck, and Mindset: The New Psychology of Success also by Carol Dweck, Crimi talked about how she went from having a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

For someone with a fixed mindset, failure is more dangerous. To them, each failure suggests they’ve reached their threshold for success in that thing. Better back up a few feet to be safe.

Conversely, if a person is able to achieve a growth mindset, they are able to learn from a failure, seek out ways to improve the skill needed, and the confident that they can try again. Crimi reminded us all that “intelligence is malleable,” siting many interesting studies brought up in the books as she went on with her talk. If doing needlepoint was one of my hobbies, I would totally put that phrase on a pillow. That and “writing is larger than a career.”

Crimi also offered some practical advice for improving writing practices. From placing emphasis on the importance of getting the story down and then worrying about the quality of it (she did in fact say “quantity over quality,” catching us all off guard!) to suggesting shorter writing spurts and interspersing them with tiny breaks. If I had heard of the Pomodoro Technique before, I had forgotten up until her mention of it. I love the idea though. Follow the link here to learn more. It’s fairly easy to adopt, so I’ve told. I’m definitely going to give it a try!

While I’m on the subject of improving writing practices, here is a useful article from lifehacker that I was shown a few months ago. In it, the article suggests taking note of when you write for a couple of weeks in order to figure out the best time of day or night for you to write. There are those who will say that writing in the morning might help you evade your self editor, but if you are really more of a night owl, then you have to do what works for you, right? Also, the article presents the challenge to adopt a “never miss twice” approach.

Well, that’s all for now, but here’s a heads up that tomorrow we will be gifted with a guest post by a friend who writes romantic fiction in honor of Valentines Day.

Children’s and YA Disability Fiction

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My current WIP has as its main character a new teen mom named Dell. She’s deaf. It’s been a winding road writing this story, from discovering Kessa was deaf, to realizing her name was really Dell and that I had set the story seven months too early. Oh, and that I was writing the story in the wrong form. But that’s another story. Well, you know what I mean.

But getting right the character names, setting and writing form isn’t what this post is going to be about. I want to talk about writing disability in fiction. In the post I wrote earlier, on telling a story from outside one’s own experience, one piece of advice shared was to do your research. And I have been. I have read and continue to read books on Deaf Culture, memoirs, creative writing by Deaf authors, and I’m taking the second section of an ASL (American Sign Language) class. I have also read YA books which too feature deaf characters as well as characters with other differing abilities. But even with my story ideas in one hand and what I have read and learned in the other there, there is still more work to be done, more road to explore.

I was first introduced to a list of ten disability stereotypes found in literature, at a diversity in children’s literature conference this past summer. During one of the morning sessions, I attended a panel presenting on disability in children’s lit. One of the presenters, who is a public librarian and part of the Disability Studies community, examined various books, which have received the Schneider Family Book Award, under the microscope to see if they avoided the 10 pitfalls. As she spoke, I realized I was being handed a map. Though I still wasn’t wholly familiar with the terrain I was trying to journey through, now I knew some spots to keep my eye out for.

And now for the list of disability stereotypes found in children’s literature:

1.  Person with a disability portrayed as pitiable and pathetic.

2. Person with a disability as the object of violence.

3. Person with a disability as sinister and/or evil.

4. Person with a disability used as “atmosphere.” (not central to the action of the story)

5. Person with a disability as “super crip.” (Given a special/ above average trait/skill to facilitate the acceptance and positive attention of reader and other characters)

6. Person with a disability as laughable.

7. Person with a disability as his/her own–and only–worst enemy.

8. Person with a disability as a burden.

9. Person with a disability as asexual.

10. Person with a disability as incapable of fully participating in everyday life.

This list was compiled back in 1977 by Douglas Biklen and Robert Bogdan as they analyzed how characters with disabilities were shown in children’s literature. And as I prepared for this post, I came across an interesting article published ten years later in The Lion and the Unicorn. In the article, the authors Ellen Rubin and Emily Strauss Watson present the ten item list above and then proceed to offer examples of what they deem to be successful and unsuccessful portrayals of characters with specific disabilities. They also suggest that another item could be added to the list.

11. Person with a disability as being isolated from disabled and non-disabled peers.

Now, I agree 1977 was awhile ago. And there are other lists out there, but this particular list has been helpful for me as I continue to write and plot out my story. This list keeps me mindful of everything I write, and when I get too close to any one of those items an internal alarm starts going off. As for how characters of differing abilities should be portrayed and real people should be seen, the links below are a good start.

From Together We Rock: Building Accessible and Inclusive Communities

From The National Youth Leadership Network on being an ally

Also, here are the recent 2015 winners of the Schneider Family Book winners “for books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience” :

In the teen category: Girls Like Us by Gail Giles

In the middle school category: Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

In the children’s book category: A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, illustrated by Catia Chien

I haven’t read any of these books yet, but I plan to, and I hope you consider adding some books featuring characters with differing abilities to your reading list! Read and write on!

An Interview With a Book Reviewer

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For the last ten years, Kefira has spent her days as a middle school librarian. Previously, she worked at the local public library in the teen space, as well as in a high school. She has served on two state book award committees, on the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults committee, and is on the ballot for the 2017 Printz committee. Kefira describes herself as a passionate reader, so it is little wonder that she has also taken on the role of book reviewer!

How long have you been a book reviewer?

I have been reviewing books since 2012.

Where can we find your reviews? Who do you write for?

I write for School Library Journal – the reviews are in the print issues and online.

Do you tend to review a variety of books ranging from picture books through YA? What is your favorite area of children’s lit (Genre and intended readership age)?

School Library Journal divides their reviews into sections by grades. I typically review for grades 5-8 since I’m a middle school librarian, and all of what I review is fiction. My passion is for YA books, and I’m pretty liberal when it comes to what I think is grade level appropriate.

Is there an average number of books you review per month or year?

I usually review 1 book every month or so.

How many reviewers write for the journal? And is there a reviewer community out there?

I’m not sure how many reviewers there are for School Library Journal, but it seems like a lot. I’m sure there is a reviewer community out there, but I’m not involved in it at the moment. Many people post reviews on their personal blogs and the like.

What do you enjoy about being a reviewer?

I like being able to read books before their published and weighing in on their quality and grade level appropriateness. I depend very heavily on reviews to select materials for my school library collection, so it’s nice to know that I’m helping other librarians as well.

Is there any advice you would offer for someone interested in becoming a reviewer?

My biggest advice is to put yourself out there – I became a reviewer because I looked up the contact information for the head of the department online and sent her an e-mail. You never know what someone’s response will be until you ask them. You might be surprised by how easy it can be.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

For anyone interested in becoming a children’s book reviewer, check out these journals/magazines:

To All Present and Future Illinois Library Staff Out There

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If you haven’t already heard about RAILS, let me tell you, it’s a great site to visit for anyone who currently works in an Illinois public library or hopes to. Not only does the RAILS: Reaching Across Illinois Library Systems site offer library news and resources, it also always has a running list of library job openings.

Allow me to point you towards a handful of open positions found in the children’s/ youth services department of these Cook County libraries:

Jobs which don’t require an MLS (Master of Library Science) or MLIS (Master of Library and Information Science):

Youth Services Outreach Storytime Intern – Forest Park Public Library (part time)

Children’s Services Library Assistant III–  Park Ridge Public Library (part time)

Storytime Outreach Intern – Oak Park Public Library (part time)

Infants, Teens, and In-Betweens Associate Librarian Lansing Public Library (part time)

Shelver, Children’s Department– Glencoe Public Library (part time)

Jobs which do require an MLS or MLIS:

Youth Services Reference Librarian 1– Orland Park Library (part time)

Adult and Teen Services Librarian– Morton Grove Public Library (full time)

Youth Services Department Head– Prairie Trails Public Library District (full time)

Youth Librarian II, School Service Coordinator– Glenview Public Library (full time)

Teen and Youth Services– Lamont Public Library District (part time)

There are more positions posted for children’s and youth services librarians and librarian assistants on the site, but they are for libraries outside of Cook county. Continue to check the RAILS website for more job postings as the ones I’ve posted here get filled.

Who Is the Reader?

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As children’s writers, how often do we think of our readers? Do these imagined readers each have an age, a gender or even a face? Would the stories we tell leave these readers feeling affirmed or unseen and unrepresented? I was first made aware of novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s eye-opening Ted Talk a handful of years ago at a school meeting, and in the speech she discussed the danger of telling a single story. Growing up in Nigeria, she loved to read. But the stories she had access to featured characters who had blonde hair, lived on a different continent and were part of a different culture. So when she turned to writing, these were the types of people she wrote about. That was, until she read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The Washington Post quotes Adichie as saying “[It was then that] I realized that people who looked like me could live in books.” Once she came to the US for college, she realized many of her peers had a faulty understanding of what being from Nigeria meant. The other students too hadn’t come across many books which informed them about Adiche’s country and since they lacked the first hand experience Adichie had, all they had to go on were stereotypes.

Diversity in children’s literature is crucial for all children to see. Children’s books should seek to educate their readers about diversity among the human identity and experience as well as offer engaging stories featuring characters with similar qualities to the readers themselves. But can one text do both? Can a diverse text be intended to both educate “majority” kids and serve as an affirmation of diverse kids? I don’t have answers to these questions, but my ears are open to those who might.

As I continue to consider how to write diverse books, I appreciated hearing the perspective of Nevin Martell, a Caucasian American man married to a Ghanaian woman, and father to an interracial son. In the Washington Post article which he wrote, titled “Where are all the interracial children’s books?,” Martell explored the small collection of picture books out there featuring interracial kids (like his son), and also looked into the messages and intent of these books.

“Examining these compendiums [the list offered on Brown Baby Reads as well as the list on Goodreads] reveals a larger issue with almost all of the books featuring interracial characters: the primary objective of the narrative is to address their interraciality. “Right now, they’re more about affirming identity and image,” says Dawn Eddy, director of Brown Baby Reads. “Or they’re about normalizing relationships with parents or grandparents.”’

Instead, Martell wants stories for his son where characters are featured in engaging stories and happen to be interracial, rather than their race being the primary focus of the story. I understand and want to support that desire. However, I would hope that if a writer followed this call, as I may, that it would not encourage character creation in which an aspect of their identity appears as an after thought or replacement of a preexisting identity.

If you have a diverse story you hope to publish, please check out the links below for grants, awards and publishers submission requirements. Each of these publishers produce diverse books and accept unsolicited manuscripts.

The We Need Diverse Books Short Story Contest for writers of diverse backgrounds (entries accepted between April 27-May 8)

Multi-cultural Work-in-Progress Awards (2015 awards open March 1st)

Lee and Low Submission Guidelines

Albert Whitman and Company Submission Guidelines (previously published Black, White, Just Right)

Chronicle Books Submission Guidelines (previously published Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids)

Usborne Books (formerly Kane/Miller)  (previously published You Be Me, I’ll Be You)