Friday, August 24, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from John Pendleton Kennedy

Ah the eighteen-year-old male. Is there anything so omnipotent, so immortal, so perfectly bullet-proof--at least in the mind of the eighteen-year-old male.

John Pendleton Kennedy was eighteen at the time of the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814. He had an eye for the young ladies, a "dashy" uniform, and a head full of romantic notions of the glory of war. It was all a grand adventure, as he saw it, at least until the shooting started. The young private, a volunteer with the Maryland Militia, had gone so far as to pack his dancing shoes along with the rest of his gear when he had set out for the battleground. These were essential, he later explained, since after they had beaten the British army and saved the city of Washington President Madison was sure to invite the victorious soldiers to a ball at the White House. It simply wouldn't do to arrive in combat boots.

The night before the battle, there was a great deal of talk among the men. The night was marked by excitement, confusion, frequent moves of the camp, and a lot of sleeplessness. Somehow, in all the hubbub, Kennedy's boots were misplaced. When the Battle of Bladensburg began, he had turned out wearing the fancy dancing shoes on his feet.

Today, August 24th, is the anniversary of Private Kennedy's first taste of battle. It is also the anniversary of the burning of Washington, which tells you all you need to know about how the battle turned out. The Battle of Bladensburg is usually referred to as the US military's most humiliating defeat. Not that there was great loss of life. Frankly the soldiers, mostly green untested militiamen like our young private, were running too fast to suffer much injury. The pursuing British soldiers fared worse. At least twelve of them died of heatstroke trying to keep up with the stampeding enemy.

Private Kennedy summed up the day in his own plucky way. "We made a fine scamper of it," he said later.

It would be easy to laugh at young Kennedy's naive cheerfulness. I admit I've done so. But lately I've come to appreciate the Private Kennedys of the world. Maybe, just maybe, when you're going into the worst battle of your life, it's not such a bad thing to wear your dancing shoes.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

An Interview with WORKING MUMMIES' Joan Horton.

Joan Horton is the author of MATH ATTACK!, HALLOWEEN HOOTS AND HOWLS, and other picture books featuring her trademark wordplay and smart, snappy verse. Her latest picture book, WORKING MUMMIES, illustrated by Drazen Kozjan, was chosen by the editors of Amazon as one of the best picture books of July 2012. Kirkus has called it, "sure to be a hit."

 Where did the idea for WORKING  MUMMIES come from?
A few years ago, I was struggling to write a poem about a witch whose house was for sale. I scribbled a few lines describing the house, but didn’t know where to go from there. I was about to set the poem aside when I pictured a real estate sign out front.  Who, I asked myself, put it there? The witch? An agent? If it were an agent, what did she look like? Was she a mummy – a working mummy?  What started out as a poem about a witch’s house morphed into a whole new picture book idea.

How long does it take you to get from idea to just right?
It depends. Once in a great while the stars are aligned, and I get lucky. A poem or an idea will come to me full blown. Other times, it takes me months or even years before I get things just right. And let’s not talk about the dozens of poems and stories I suspect I’ll never be able to finish. Even after a book has been published, there are times I wish I could take it back and tweak it ever so slightly.

What usually comes first for you, the story or the rhyme?
Probably the story, especially when I write a picture book with a beginning, middle, and end. For shorter poems, I might play around with words and sounds and see where they take me. I write a lot of light verse which often ends with a punch line. Sometimes, I think of the punch line first and work backwards, hoping I can come up with a second, rhyming line to complete the couplet - not a method I recommend.  

Many people find verse intimidating, but you seem fearless. Are you? 
Foolish might be a better word. When I first started out, I read a lot of books on writing for children. Almost every one of them had a paragraph or two warning the reader not to write in verse. According to the authors, editors hate it. But writing in rhyme is what I love, so I ignored the advice and forged ahead. I guess it was a case of, “Fools rush in…”

What were your favorite books growing up?
I didn’t read much as a child. I had a vision problem which wasn’t diagnosed until I started school. By that time, I had lost significant sight in one eye. Perhaps that’s why my mother encouraged me to go out and play, rather than sit in the house with my nose in a book.  

When I was very young, I loved the rhythm of nursery rhymes. Before I went to sleep, I’d beg my dad to read from one of my Mother Goose books. I don’t remember which poem was my favorite, but I do know Diddle, Diddle, Dumpling  signaled lights-out. Unfortunately, not all Mother Goose poems have perfect rhyme and meter. Kids as young as four or five know when something doesn’t sound quite right. That’s why I’m pretty meticulous about making sure my own rhyme and meter are as good as I can make them.  I owe that to my readers.  

Tell us about your journey. How did you come to be an author?
It wasn’t until I retired from my job as a medical technologist that I gave any thought to writing. By then my four kids were grown and on their own. It seemed the perfect time to try something new and different. A friend told me about a conference on writing for children that was to be held at the Hartford College for Women. I signed up, and that was one of the best things I ever did. I came away from the conference energized and excited about the prospect of writing. A few weeks later, I joined a critique group. Not only were the members encouraging and supportive, they shared practical tips on how to prepare and submit a manuscript. We’ve been together for fifteen plus years, and I feel privileged to call this remarkable group of writers friends. 

The first thing I ever wrote was an ABC book about apples. “A is for apple,/ I’m sure that you know./ B is for branches/ On which apples grow.” I thought it was pretty good. Editors didn’t share my enthusiasm, and the rejections piled up. In the meantime, I was writing and submitting a group of unrelated poems. These were also rejected, but a few editors took the time to scribble a note of encouragement. One day, I got a phone call from an editor who said she liked my writing, and suggested the poems would be more marketable if they had a theme. I always loved Halloween and set about writing twenty-one poems on the subject. When I finished, I eagerly mailed it off to that editor. To my dismay, she rejected it. She felt some of the poems weren’t strong enough. She was right. I reworked them, added new ones, and sent the manuscript off to a second editor who loved it and offered to publish it. Halloween Hoots and Howls was my first picture book.

What’s the best part of being an author?
Sharing my books with thousands of kids I’ve never even met. And then there’s the thrill of walking into a book store and seeing my book on a shelf. 

How do you work? Do you wait for inspiration to strike or are you, as Jane Yolen says, a “butt in chair” person?
I wish I were more of a “butt in chair person”.  My output might be greater. I don’t have a regular routine. Sometimes when I have an idea, I tuck it away in a corner of my mind and carry it around in my head for weeks or months. Other times, I write each day for several hours.
I always write in longhand. My words seem to flow better that way. When I’m satisfied with what I’ve done, I type it into my computer.  Some of my most productive times are just before I drift off to sleep. I keep a pad and pencil by my bed so I can jot down a rhyme or a couplet or two that had been eluding me during the day. A couple of times I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea that wouldn’t keep. I was so inspired, I hopped out of bed and went into another room where I wrote until dawn.  

What story would you love to tell in verse?
No one story in particular. But what I’d really love is to write a book in prose and have it published.

What are you working on now?
A picture book about a girl whose library books are long overdue. I’m afraid it’s somewhat autobiographical. To this day, I remember worrying about what the librarian would say when I didn’t return my books on time.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from Picture Books

When my younger son was about ten, he happened by one day when I was struggling with a writing project. I'd write for a bit, get stuck, then turn to a picture book by my side. I'd read a little to get the inspirational juices flowing, then start off writing again. My son watched this happen a number of times and then said, with an eye-roll that I would soon come to know well, "You know, Mom, I really don't think you're supposed to be copying other people's books."

Yes, I guess that's just what it looked like to him. But I often find myself turning to a number of favorite picture books to get unstuck. It's the voices I love. As a nonfiction writer, I find reading a much-loved picture book is especially valuable when I'm starting a new project. That's when I've spent months reading through adult information and I'm struggling to adjust to my kidlit voice again. Reading a great picture book, with a great voice, helps me through. I think of it as cleansing the palate.

So here, in no particular order, are my top ten picture books. (I lied. I do have one all-time favorite. See if you can find it!) And, in the interest of full disclosure, yes, they are all nonfiction picture books. That's just who I am.

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, by Mordecai Gerstein. This is how I will always choose to remember the twin towers.

The Day-Glo Brothers, By Chris Barton and Tony Persiani. This is the total package, a perfect marriage of great text and simple illustrations with eye-popping color.

Eleanor, by Barbara Cooney. I love the so-sad illustrations of the early Eleanor, and the triumph of her later life.

Handel, Who Knew What He Liked, by M.T. Anderson and Kevin Hawkes. Fresh and a little irreverent, Hallelujah!

Martin's Big Words, by Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier. I can't imaging a more intimidating biography subject than Martin Luther King, but this picture book takes a larger-than-life subject and makes it kid-sized.

Michelangelo, by Diane Stanley. Because I'm a sucker for anything about Michelangelo. Or by Diane Stanley.

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, by Barbara Kerley and Brian Selznick. Who wouldn't love  a party in a dinosaur model?

When Marian Sang, The True Recital of Marian Anderson, by Pam Munoz Ryan. Marian's dignity shines through the text and illustrations.

Revolutionary John Adams, by Cheryl Harness. The absolute best for tight writing. So much is packed into both the text and the illustrations, right down to the portrait of Nabby in the Adams' home.

Snowflake Bentley, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian. The one I turn to again and again for a lesson in how to convey time, place, and mood in simple, lyrical language, with perfectly matched artwork. 

So there are my favorites. Please share yours with me.