Category Archives: writing inspirations

The Waiting is the Hardest Part, Part III

I’ll soon be coming up on my fifth anniversary of writing for kids. It was December of 2012, when I first decided this librarian had things to say in books. My first manuscript, which took me a few months to write was a nonfiction biography for kids about a little known inventor.  I wanted to get his story out there in the world for kids.

Without an agent, I sent it out to about 5 publishers and played the waiting game. In the meantime, I wrote a narrative nonfiction book that took me a few months and got better at my craft. About 8 months later I received a request for the first bio from a great publisher. They loved the idea, but had a lot of changes for me to make. Would I be interested they inquired? Of course, I was excited and so new to the process. Over the next year and a half I worked with an editor who championed my book and made multiple changes. Ultimately, it was rejected. I was upset, but it helped me to develop the thick skin writers need for the many rejections we receive with and without feedback.

In the next year, I wrote a fiction manuscript with a diverse character. This too was requested, by a Jewish publisher, and had two rewrites, before a pass. Subsequently a similar idea came to fruition by another author that was published by same publisher, but hey great minds think alike!  And I’ve learned there are not that many new ideas in the kidlit world of sharks, dinosaurs, monsters and princesses.

So my writing was going places and I was learning the craft and the game. I took a few online webinars and went to a big conference. I have had my writing critiqued by other writers and editors. I signed with an agent about two years ago who believed in my writing.

Through friends and contacts, I got my first stories published by Amazon Education last year. Four e-stories in a format I never thought I would be comfortable writing in: mostly dialogue and little narrative; mostly chats between characters for the reading app Amazon Rapids. An editor who believed in me and bought four stories in a few months.

I am playing the waiting game as writers all do. Ironically, my inventor bio is being read again by the same publisher from four years ago!!! Talk about coming full circle. In the years between it was read by multiple publishers who had good things to say about it, that helped me to revise it and make it stronger. My agent helped with crafting better dialog between characters, which is the weak point of my writing. I also have a fiction manuscript about a cat who can write, out to some great publishers as well.

Now I’m working on a humorous fractured fairy-tale, so removed from the research I usually begin doing for a nonfiction manuscript.  I am enjoying the process  so much more, as I am writing what I think may be what I should focus on; creative fiction. All the rejections have just make my writing stronger and tighter than it ever was. I have helped some of my kid lit friends with editing their work as well, as I have become a sharper writer.

Did I think I would publish a book quickly? Honestly, yes. I have always believed in my stories. Did I think I would still be revising manuscripts from four years ago today? Not in my wildest dreams. But, I have come further than I thought and have learned that rejection doesn’t always equal failure, but discovery.

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I had the pleasure of chatting with the lovely Cynthia Levinson, author of  the 2012 award winning “We’ve Got a Job,” that highlights four youngsters who took active roles in the Civil Rights Movement. One of those children was Audrey Faye Hendricks, the subject of Cynthia’s newest book, “The Youngest Marcher,” illustrated by the fantastic Vanessa Brantley Newton.

LI:1. How did you decide to focus on Audrey Faye Hendricks after writing We’ve Got a Job?

Cynthia Levinson: The idea actually came from Atheneum. When my agent, Erin Murphy, called in 2009 or 2010 to tell me there was interest in the book proposal I’d written about the Birmingham Children’s March, she said there were two offers—one for a picture book and the other for a middle grade. What did I want to do? My instincts told me the story needed multiple perspectives, and I opted for a book for ten- to fourteen-year-olds. After We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree Publishers) came out in 2012, I asked Erin to find out if Atheneum would still be interested in a picture book. And they were!

We’ve Got a Job focuses on four young marchers.  One of those four children was only nine years old. With a protagonist the same age as my readership, Audrey Faye Hendricks instantly became the main character.  

LI:2. Was it more difficult to write the picture book or the YA book about the Civil Rights Movement and kids’ involvement  in it?

Cynthia Levinson :Both! We’ve Got a Job was my first book. So, I had to learn to conduct interviews, find photographs, keep track of all of the research, write a book, get edited… It was a real learning experience in so many ways.

But, so was writing a picture book. Honing in on younger readers, cutting and shaping text, and considering page turns are very challenging. And, for the first time, I experienced working with an illustrator—the fabulous Vanessa Brantley Newton.

  LI:3. Did you meet any of Audrey’s family in real life?

Cynthia Levinson: Indeed. I interviewed Audrey at her home and saw where her mother made Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter, where Dr. King sat at her dinner table, and where her church choir director practiced protest songs on her upright piano. Then, Audrey’s sister, Jan, filled me in on details about how feisty Audrey was! And, she gave me the recipe. That was like gold.

LI:4. Do you have a favorite illustration or scene from the book?

Cynthia Levinson: I have two favorites. One is the spread at the dinner table where Audrey and her mother both have one eye open and the other closed during Dr. King’s prayer. Audrey looks saucy and her mother disapproving—it’s perfect! The other is the spread where Audrey is lying on her side on her cot in jail, with her back to the reader, staring at the wall. It’s both brilliant and heartbreaking.

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  • Age Range: 5 – 10 years
  • Grade Level: Kindergarten – 5
  • Hardcover: 40 pages
  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (January 17, 2017)

Planting Story Seeds

I grew up in Queens, New York, in a small apartment complex where gardening/lawn maintenance was done for the tenants. My family never owned their own home. I’ve always loved flowers, but I never gardened while growing up, except on one occasion where I planted some seeds from a flowering tree I admired in nearby Whitestone Park.

Imagine my surprise when a few years later a small tree began to sprout in our little shared garden plot. Beginner’s luck. When I bought my first home as an adult, there was lots of land.  A front yard, big backyard, and plenty of other side plots next to the left and right of our house to garden. When we first came to view the house, it was in the late winter and I was only looking at the inside of the house with a young mother’s eyes. Would there be enough room for our two daughters to grow inside?

The next spring, to my surprise, little purple sprouts popped up next to our driveway. Soon, some pretty purple plants were showing. I googled some images and found out they were hyacinth.  On the right side of our house dozens of daffodils grew quickly. I loved flowers and soon began to plant our front garden with the help of my young daughters. To my dismay, however, everything would be eaten by the local roaming deer population. It took a few springs until I could research what to buy and plant that wouldn’t be decimated by deer.

Geraniums, tulips, lilies; all were experiments in growing and were quickly consumed by the deer, groundhogs, wild turkey. But annuals like marigolds and perennials- the daffodils, newer planted gladiola and butterfly bushes, in all colors of the rainbow, thrived. After about ten summers, my garden and my daughters have grown. And as I started to spend more time writing during my summer vacations from teaching, my younger daughter, who has a natural green thumb, has become the primary gardener in the family.

Now what does this all have to do with writing, you may ask? Well, I have always loved to write. I won writing contests and awards in elementary school, wrote for college and professional newspapers as an adult, but put it on the back burner for a while. As a children’s librarian, I started to see a void in kids literature, so I decided to try my hand at writing biographies for kids. Two years, almost three, since my story seeds were first planted and watered. A big NYC publisher gave me a chance with my first non-fiction children’s manuscript, but then my story, like the first plants I had tried to grow, withered and died. In May of 2015, devastated by the rejection of almost two years of edits to my first story, I almost gave up entirely.

Just like the first flowers in my garden, my first stories needed editing to grow. New ideas were more successful than the first ones and I finally sold a first story this spring. Four summers of writing have passed and I have five manuscripts to show for it and am starting on a sixth this summer. Just as I had to nurture and find the right seeds for my garden, I have persevered and am planting story seeds that will grow tall and strong.

Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

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Writers are always told ” write about what you know.” So when I started to delve into the world of children’s writing , that was not great information for me; because I wanted to write nonfiction, about new and unknown subjects or places. I come from the background of writing feature news articles for adults. I have always been more comfortable reading and writing nonfiction. But after an almost two year stretch of  acceptance and revisions  for a nonfiction kid lit biography I wrote, came the  ultimate rejection from a great publisher. I was crushed.   I then decided to step out of the comfort zone and try writing fiction picture books instead of nonfiction.

Write about what you know: Family, nature, humor.  I wrote my first fiction picture book  about two years ago and received requests from a couple of publishers who liked it, but wanted some edits. Still haven’t sold that title, but it has led to more fiction writing.   My newest manuscript is being read by  a few agents and editors right now and I feel confidence in it. It’s funny and kids like funny; it has a feline main character who can read and write.

Working on tightening my fiction writing led to me recently selling my first online short story, written with a lot of dialog; way out of my comfort zone of writing nonfiction narrative. I still plan on writing kids’ nonfiction; I have started on some new ideas for researching in the next few months. But sometimes it is good to try new things and step outside of that comfortable box and stretch your goals a little. For me, the fiction writing led to better writing and revising and I can say it was worth it to take on the challenge.

 

 

Diversity is Every Day

 

 

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Here comes another month of celebrating cultures! Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Filipino American History Month, Native American Heritage Month. While I applaud celebrating diversity, shouldn’t every day be a Diversity Day?

It is almost thirty years this month that I started teaching urban kids in Harlem. And from that time, in the mid 1980’s until today, so much has changed. We only had the books of the father of African American kid lit, Walter Dean Myers, to offer up to to middle school and high school kids who wanted to see themselves depicted realistically in books.  Forget about finding any diversity in picture books then.  Today we have wonderfully diverse picture and chapter books by the likes of Walter’s son, Christopher Myers, Don Tate, Kwame Alexander, Zetta Elliott, Jacqueline Woodson, just to name a few authors of color. Monica Brown, Margarita L’Engle and Meg Medina are Latina authors representing their Hispanic culture in picture and middle grade books.  Not to mention this year’s multi award winner, Matt de la Pena, whose “Last Stop on Market Street,” has universal themes for kids of all colors.  Joseph Bruhac continues to be the master spinner of tales with Native American settings and characters.

Publishers like Lee and Low, Tu Books, Kar-Ben and Apples and Honey Press strive to show kids of different races and religions in their publishing choices. Theses publishers were not around in the 1980’s when I first had to recommend books to kids of color.  I have seen a multitude of changes in children’s lit as both a teacher and currently librarian. But I say to you, shouldn’t every day be a diversity day, to learn about a new culture? I now teach to a predominantly Haitian- American population and while we do spend a large amount of time learning and reading about African American history, which is great,  I also love for my students to read about other cultures. I have had some interesting conversations with African American fourth and fifth graders about the Holocaust and how my grandfather lost many of his siblings during Hitler’s regime.  If we only learn about our own culture, we are not getting the full picture of humanity.  And despite what many are saying, I have seen big and great changes in the world of children’s literature over the past few decades.

 

 

 

 

Finding Your Fiction Voice Through Non-Fiction

10835255_671606022984727_3647482300606995007_oI am primarily a lover of non-fiction writing and books, but once in a while a great fiction read comes along. In the past few months I’ve realized that historical fiction like Outlander, TV shows like Mad Men or a children’s book about Golda Meir  can be important tools for a writer to look at character development based on true historical events. Using research and facts first,  as a backdrop, one can find a character’s qualities to write about.  Did living during wartime or leaving one’s country help develop your character’s strengths and dreams? I usually spend hours or days on research before deciding which way my character’s story will progress.

After researching some facts about strong women in the 1920s and 30s  labor and feminist movement, I’ve taken notes for a children’s picture book biography about one of these strong women. But I have decided to put that on the back burner for a few weeks and have started a fiction picture book about my grandparents journey from Poland and Russia to America, spurred on by some of the non-fiction research I did for the bio.  I have started to write about my grandparents on other occasions, but now after reading more about the time period I felt ready to tell their story.  From butcher to seamstress, shop owner and milliners, all four of my grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe with stories to tell. As I write about the grandparents on my maternal side, I hope their interesting story will come alive on the page as I edit and revise to make some details of  their journey into historical fiction fun for young kids to read.

Champagne Wishes and Publishing Dreams

10675520_10152977368632028_1786284487381610554_nHappy 2015!    The year has changed but some things stay the same. The waiting game in the publishing industry can literally make you insane.  After my editor said I would get my third rewrite back for my pb bio on Lewis Latimer  before Christmas, I should not have had any expectations of getting any work sent to me before the holidays.  Last year I got my first revisions and initial  interest in that manuscript sent to me by my editor on December 23! So a full year has gone by and I’m still  working on what I hope will be my final revisions before it is acquired and an illustrator is found.  I am grateful and excited though, that my debut book would be published by the wonderful Lee and Low, no matter how long it takes.  I know of many writers whose work has taken years to come to fruition. Patience is certainly a virtue. I have worked for almost 3 years now to get “Lighting the Way,” published without an agent’s help.

Just finishing sending out my multicultural fiction title, “Mooncakes and Matzahballs for Anna Goldstein Wong” to a few houses around the country.  I have high  hopes for this book, my newest baby, as I think it is unique and fits the bill for more books about multiracial/multicultural kids.   I will play the waiting game again.

I will try to get an agent this year, as having helpful editors can only go so far.  For all the months and years I invest in writing and revising a manuscript, I think having my ideas approved before the work would help my sanity.  All this while working full time as an elementary school librarian!

Here’s to anyone with hopes and dreams getting published in 2015! Keep believing in your work!