Monday, February 15, 2010

Write Those Kiddie Memoirs

I think more memoirs should be written for child readers. In case anyone is thinking of giving it a shot, you might try looking at Tips for Writing and Selling the Book-Length Memoir Part I and Tips for Writing and Selling the Book-Length Memoir Part II at Guide to Literary Agents.


Monday, November 02, 2009

More Graphic Novels

I was in my favorite library last week, and what do I see on their new book shelf, but another Ottoline. I thought, What the heck, Gail. Give the series another shot. And that's how I came to read Ottoline Goes to School by Chris Riddell. I liked this Ottoline better than the first. It has a little more substance, what with Ottoline being attracted to a new friend and Mr. Munroe (whatever he is) feeling left out. The new friend is interesting because she is both upper class snotty and sympathetic at the same time.

The Ottoline books, this one in particular, use a lot of oddball names and situations, which always annoy me in a children's book. This one is so lovely looking, though, and the basic story good enough, that I was able to turn a blind eye toward all the Orvillises and Wilburtas. Plus, Riddell is British, and I should try to show compassion toward the British because no doubt they are still suffering from all those years of Monty Python's influence. That can't be a good thing.

I've also just read To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel, which is not a novel at all but a memoir by Siena Cherson Siegel, illustrated by Mark Siegel. Because To Dance is a graphic...I hate to say "novel" when it so clearly isn't...written for young readers, I was able to read it quickly. And reading it quickly made me feel immersed in Cherson Siegel's young life as a ballet student. It definitely made me feel that having such a strong vocation so young must be very special. Maybe it's not, of course. Maybe a lot of kids lose their youths to studying for a vocation. But that's not the feeling I came away with from To Dance.

Cherson Siegel writes about reading A Very Young Dancer by Jill Krementz. I wondered if her own book would end up being another generation's A Very Young Dancer?

I have only one reservation about this book. Though not a ballet fan, by any means, I recognize many of the dance names of the period when Cherson Siegel was studying ballet--Balanchine, Baryshnikov, Suzanne Farrell, etc. I think it's unlikely child readers will know those names, and I'm not sure how that will affect their enjoyment of the book. On the other hand, the fact that dance is visual and this memoir is written in a graphic format may mean that child readers can see who these people were and having previous knowledge of them won't matter.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Modeling Writing

In my former life as a professional mom, I was often perplexed by how little nonfiction of the essay and memoir variety my kids read in elementary school. This was a big problem in my mind because they were frequently asked to write essays and sometimes even about themselves. Yet as far as I could tell, they had nothing to model their writing upon. Connecticut had standardized testing before anyone had ever heard of No Child Left Behind, and the writing portion of those tests didn't involve novels, it involved multiple paragraph essays. The Gauthier kids' teachers scrambled to provide instruction, but how much easier it would have been for them "to get it" if they ever read examples of what it was they were supposed "to get."

I used to spend my time hunting for essays for my kids to read. By the time they were in sixth grade, I was passing them some of Joel Stein's Time Magazine essays. You know, his "self-focused humor column". Come on. He used thesis statements and topic sentences.

What I really wanted was Jon Scieszka's Knucklehead. But it wasn't available then. Scieszka's memoir of "Growing Up Scieszka" is filled with short, readable chapters about his life as a child. (I'm not going to make much of the fact that he was a boy child, because I think girls will enjoy this book, too.) And while I didn't notice much in the way of thesis statements and topic sentences, I did see a lot of material that could make child readers think, "Hey! I could do this! I could write about the strange books I have to read at school. I could write about my grandparents. I could write about Halloween, my siblings' injuries, things I've bought, games I've played" and about thirty-one other subjects since Scieszka includes thirty-eight chapters.

Coming up with material is hard for a lot of kids. Knucklehead could provide inspiration for some of them. After all, learning to write will come a whole lot easier if you have something to write about.

Training Report: You haven't seen one of these in a long time, have you? At the beginning of the week I found a journal to which I could submit the essay I spent so much time on this summer. And I submitted it.

Essays, which we were discussing in this post, anyway, are kind of problematic. You feel this overwhelming need to express yourself about something that has happened to you that you think has some connection to the greater world, to humankind, and then what do you do with it? It's not easy to find potential markets for some of these personal essays. For instance, earlier this week I did a rough draft of what might be called a flash essay about washing windows. What am I going to do with that?

A writer could, of course, write essays that publications are actually looking for. I just read today that Drunken Boat is looking for 1000 word or less "nonfiction perspectives from around the world on the effect of the global economic crisis." The writing prompt becomes more specific, and I'm sure someone could do a personal essay with it. But the phrase "global economic crisis" is freaking me out.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

It Was Not Meant To Be

Well, I finally got back to the library today, where I spent time I couldn't spare going through the leftovers from Saturday's book sale looking for that Helen Dunmore adult novel I decided I wanted a day too late. I did pick up Paula Fox's memoir Borrowed Finery, though, which got a lot of attention when it was published in 2001 or thereabouts.

Take a look at this backflap author bio from Borrowed Finery: "Paula Fox is the author of the novels Poor George, Desperate Characters, The Western Coast, The Widow's Children, A Servant's Tale, and The God of Nightmares. She is also a Newbery Award-winning children's book author. She lives in Brooklyn, New York."

Wow. That children's book writing she's done sure sounds like a professional embarrassment, doesn't it? Yet at the front of the book, where the publisher lists her other writings, we learn that at that point she'd written nearly four times as many children's books as she had "novels."

I don't know when I'll get to reading this thing. It will go into that basket or onto one of those shelves I keep for books I've bought to read someday. I do take comfort in the knowledge that if civilization falls, I have a stash of books to read by firelight.

Training Report: Running errands all day, and tomorrow will be more of the same. I have decided to change the name of the street in the 365 Story Project, though. And I believe I have a little bit of a structure in mind now. I will be sticking to the 365 Story format, since I now have follower urging me on.


Monday, January 26, 2009

I See Children's Books--Everywhere

Last Thursday night I went to hear an acquaintance, Susan Campbell, speak about her new book Dating Jesus: A Story About Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl. Susan's book, which I have not yet read, is an adult memoir. But as she was telling these very funny stories about her mother being called in to take her out of Sunday school class and going door-to-door as a twelve-year-old to ask people if they'd like to read the Bible with her, I thought, Hey, this could be a kids' book! A YA, anyway. She should reuse her material as kidlit! It could be hysterical!

Hysteria is very important in a book.

Another interesting observation about Susan's appearance: The crowd, and it was a nice sized one, was interested in content. They wanted to talk about religion, the subject of the book. I, however, wanted to talk about what you might call structure or format. I was looking for an opportunity (which never came) to ask if the author had considered using her material in fiction instead of nonfiction. At the very end of the hour, one person asked the ever popular "How long did it take you to write this book?" Otherwise, not a soul wanted to talk about anything but content.

One of the reasons I found this so interesting is that in reading print and blog reviews of books I've read it has appeared to me that I read differently from other people. A lot of readers are totally interested in content. What the story is about is of primary importance to them. I am at least as interested in how the story is told. And if writers really drop the ball with that, they've lost me.

I like to think that my concern with how a story is put together instead of the story, itself, is due to the fact that I'm a writer and putting a story together is my business. But I also wonder sometimes if it just means I'm superficial, sort of like someone who is only interested in clothes, rather than the person who is wearing them.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Will It Find Its Audience?

In an NPR interview with Peter Sis, Scott Simon never refers to Sis's book The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain as a picture book. Instead, he calls it an illustrated book. That could be a good term for books published in what we think of as picture book formats but with content most definitely not for the child readers we usually associate with picture books.

The Wall is a marvelous memoir of Sis's childhood in Cold War Czechoslovakia. Sounds riveting, doesn't it? The Cold War is a subject, I'm embarrassed to say, that has always left me...uh...cold. I always thought of those Eastern European countries under the Communist's heels as gray, colorless places, much like Sis's sophisticated, highly detailed illustrations. The Wall may have changed all that for me.

On one level Sis uses mature, cartoon-like illustrations with classic minimal picture book text to tell the story of his childhood and adolescence. In addition, though, he adds historical detail along the margins of those illustrated pages. On top of all that he has six big pages of journal entries going back to 1954. That's a lot of material.

Too much, of course, for your preschoolers and first grade students for whom picture books are usually written. This would be one rough read aloud. Too much, I'm guessing, for anyone under, say, fourth grade. It should grab the attention of much older readers, too. (For instance, the part rock played in these young peoples' lives should be of interest to a lot of teenagers; a lot of adults, for that matter.) The Wall would make a great reading list addition to a social studies curriculum.

But will the grown-ups who teach those classes be open to giving credit for reading an "illustrated book?" Yes, the book is good enough to read on your own. But how will young people of the right age to appreciate it find it? It was on the new picture book shelf in the kiddy area at my library. How much is it going to circulate in that age group?

I think this book would also make a great addition to an art program. Sis says at the end, "I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it's hard to put it into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life-" Does anyone else see an art project there?

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

What Is It With French Canadian Women And Joan Of Arc?

Colleen Mondor has a recent post at Chasing Ray about Joan of Arc. Moi aussi! I, too, wanted to be Joan of Arc when I was little, not because I wanted to be so good that God would choose me, the way Colleen did (she is clearly a nicer person than I am; but, then, who isn't?) but because I wanted to be strong and powerful and on the side of right while I was at it.

As I say in one of my many unpublished essays, "I have always admired women who kick ass."

A very big moment in my teenage life was seeing Genevieve Bujold in a Hallmark Hall of Fame production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. We French Canadian/Americans were not one of your cooler ethnic groups when I was growing up in Vermont. Yet, there, on the television while I was babysitting some Franco-American kids, was a French Canadian actress playing St. Joan, one of my favorite saints. I was glued to the set.

Fortunately, none of the six Lamoreux children raised hell or got sick that night, and I was able to enjoy Genevieve and Joan in peace.

Interestingly enough, Colleen's post regarding St. Joan is actually about writing memoirs. She says her desire to be good like St. Joan led her to try to be a good girl. She feels she should have fixated on someone who kicked ass instead of someone who got burned. (I swear, we've both used that same kick ass phrase.) But I always saw our Joan as an ass kicker. My interest in her only made me more combative.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

Thoughts About Memoir

No, not mine, though I do think about memoir, a beautiful sounding word. When I was in college a professor with long, long braids came to my creative writing class to read a portion of a memoir she was working on. She said that a memoir was an account of an incident the significance of which was not understood until recalled later.

She made it sound so lovely.

Anyway, Agent Kristin at Pub Rants has a number of posts up on memoir. Really.


Saturday, March 31, 2007

Speaking Of That Weird Genre

Slate just did a memoir week.


Friday, March 30, 2007

Memoir--That's One Weird Genre

Not to worry, folks. I am not interested in writing a memoir, fascinating though my life in my cellar office is. What I am interested in is personal essays and creative nonfiction, but no one was running a free symposium on either of those subjects a half hour from my home so I had to go to this one.

The morning panel discussion on truthiness was fantastic. The afternoon discussion on memoir and meditation was not as terrific, though I liked one of the panelists a lot. Why, Gail, you may ask, did you even consider attending a discussion on memoir and meditation? Well, ah, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I was feeling really stimulated creatively until the question and answer period after the second panel discussion, which drifted off onto "writing practice." Everyone in the whole freaking world has better work habits than I do. In fact, by the time I headed home at 4 o'clock I was feeling quite worn out, an indication that I really am not used to doing much if sitting and paying attention to speakers exhausts me.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Another Day Of No Work

Tomorrow I am off to an event called Giving Voice.
This is a symposium on the art of memoir, which a professor at my own college described as being an event the significance of which is only realized once it has passed. I am going to listen to panel discussions in both the morning and afternoon. I'm so hoping the one on "Truthiness: Memoir and the Facts" won't be overcrowded.