Friday, March 27, 2015

Ten Easter Eggs!

 
My girls got an early Easter present that we just had to break out before Lent was over: Ten Easter Eggs, a delightful counting board book by my dear friend Vijaya Bodach.
 
 
The smiles on their faces are probably a much better endorsement than anything I could write!
 

I should mention that this is at least their twenty-fifth reading. And they still love it.
 
If you're looking for a perfect book to tuck into your baby/toddler/little kid's Easter basket, look no further. It comes with my girls' official stamp of approval. :)
 
(You can find it as your local bookseller, or, of course, buy it from Amazon.)


Monday, March 2, 2015

My YA Dilemma

Eight years ago, when I began writing "in earnest," I traveled to my local Barnes & Noble and browsed the YA and MG sections. And I felt right at home in YA. It was full of gorgeous, plot-driven historical fiction, literary efforts like The Book Thief, wonderful fantasies by masters like Shannon Hale... Sure, there were giant Twilight displays and about a zillion vampire knock-offs, but it was easy enough to tune out all the black and red covers and focus on the rest.

So I began writing YA. Because I wanted to find my books in that section someday.

Me as an actual teenager.
Perfectly happy not being normal.
A "normal" teenager.
(Image from Dawnsolemus at the English Language Wikipedia.)

Now... I feel like if the YA section was a high school, my books would be the bluestocking girls with carefully braided hair, shirts that met their pants, backpacks carefully over both shoulders, and no cell phones. Not to mention no boyfriends. They'd have great grades and their teachers would love them, but their peers would always look at them askance.

This realization has crept up on me. When I looked over the books I'd read in 2014, I noticed only a handful were YA. I read  a few contemporary YA novels, which I admired but never felt at home in. I abandoned several YA historicals after 100 pages or so, once I realized, "Wait, these are just contemporary romances in fancy dress." But mostly I decided against the dozens and dozens of YAs I picked up and glanced over on my library's shelf. Because as great as they might be, I am simply not the target reader for books about suicide, drugs, sex, abuse, or addiction. Neither will I enjoy "light" fare about high school crushes, first-sex, or auditioning for the glee club. Tragic death, dystopia....eh, depends. But I know I won't ever write it.

Four years ago when I was querying my YA historical novel set in the middle ages, I was told by agents that they absolutely loved it but could never sell it as a debut YA. They suggested trying the adult market, and pointed out the various reasons they weren't sure teens would be attracted to the story.

I hated this idea. My story was a YA coming-of-age story, exactly what I would have pulled off the shelf when I was 16. Yes, it was literary. But so was everything by Shannon Hale. Yes, it was set in the Middle Ages. But I couldn't see why it was okay for MG books to be set then, while YA could only get away with it if it was fantasy. Yes, it was about a vineyard and winemaking. But how come it was fine for YA novels to be full of beer and booze and underage drinking and adult behavior, yet somehow an ancient art and tradition involving the responsible use of alcohol was seen as taboo?

Since I stopped getting constructive criticism and continued to get "this is gorgeous but will never sell as YA," I shelved the novel...temporarily. Every few months a great YA book would come out that I would hold up to myself as the hope for my own story: The Wicked and the Just! It's set in the Middle Ages! It's literary! It's not even a romance! Between Shades of Gray! It's literary! It's about art! Code Name Verity! It's oblique! It's literary! It's about teenagers with adult responsibility!

And then I would read the reviews of those books: "I'm not sure why this is called YA. I suspect the author was just trying to capitalize on the booming YA market, because really this should be an adult book."

Another me as a teen:
Quiet. Literary. Wholesome.
Happier to be intelligent than popular.
(Similar to my stories.)
And now I see the books on the shelves that were accepted by agents as mine was being rejected...and I'm forced to admit that the agents had a point. My novel doesn't fit in there. It might fit in on a tiny shelf with J. Anderson Coats, Ruta Sepetys, Elizabeth Wein, and a few other authors--all of whom I see as stellar writers of Young Adult fiction, no matter what the reviews say. But John Green or Suzanne Collins I am not.

So here's the short version: I'm wondering if I should pull that old story off the shelf and try to find an agent who can sell it as an adult book. This terrifies me. I don't read a great deal of current adult fiction, so I need to do some reading and research before I jump into the query trenches again. Any recommendations?

And I'm feeling lost as I move forward in writing what I think of as YA. Is there any room in the market for old-fashioned coming-of-age stories anymore? Do teens who like more literary novels just jump right to the adult section? What do you think?

P.S. You can read the very beginning of that Middle Ages Vineyard ms here. Do you think it sounds like adult or YA?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

My Writing Process

About a million years ago or so, my friend and critique partner Vijaya tagged me in the Writing Process Blog Tour. I just found a large portion of this post in my "drafts"...oops!

1) What are you working on?

As usual, a few things at once. I'm revising the ol' French Revolution Circus Story, or It-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named. Seriously, half my revising time is spent brainstorming for the PERFECT name, and I can't think of one. Titles are not my forte.


Mark and I are working together on a YA, or maybe adult, historical fiction in the vein of P. G. Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde, with some L. M. Montgomery thrown in. It's called FOOLS' GOLD, is set in 1903 Connecticut, and is told by an omniscient narrator--a task which is both fun and frightening. At one point, that narrator may jump into the mind of an armchair. But, hey, I'm all for living on the edge when it comes to writing. (Not so much in real life.)

Lastly, I'm trying to get some picture book ideas into drafts. I NEED TO PRACTICE THIS, BECAUSE THEY ARE TERRIBLE. I truly admire you writers of gorgeous picture books.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Well, I wrote it. I always have a hard time answering this question, because I think there's too much focus on originality and not enough on quality. A story is most successful if it is universal; that's why stories have the power to bind the world together when everything else threatens to tear us apart.

3) Why do you write what you do?

I have five children (one isn't born yet, but he/she definitely counts in the responsibility and motivation department). I am teaching them third and first grade and kindergarten at home. As you can imagine, I don't have a ton of free time. So I only write stories that I love so much that I can't leave them alone.

Madeleine L'Engle said that she wrote children's books because she wasn't smart enough to tell the difference between books for adults and books for children. I often feel that way. I write stories, and their audience generally becomes clear later.

4) How does your writing process work?

With silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row.


Well, the pretty maids are true. All four of my pretty maids are part of my writing process, because writing is part of my life and they are a much bigger part. That used to mean that I got up between 5:30 and 6 a.m. to write. Now my littlest maid gets up around then. So I am simply trying to stretch out the cracks of the day to get writing done. For example, right now my oldest is working on a math lesson, my second is reading, my third is coloring, and my fourth is napping--on my left arm. So I am writing one-handed. That happens a lot.

These past few years, first drafts happen in bits and pieces. I try not to outline at first, but until I have the luxury of long chunks of writing time, I just can't stay sane without something, however vague, to guide the path. Maybe it's more of a treasure map than an outline.

Second drafts are my favorite. I love going through all that raw material and polishing it all up. I outline extensively and in a very OCD manner at this point. Have you read Cheryl Klein's Second Sight? I couldn't do without it for second drafts.

Then my critique partners get to tell me how awful the shininess is in actuality. So third and fourth and usually fifth drafts happen.

And...that's all, I suppose. All and nothing, as every writer knows that "process" is as complicated as the way you live your very life. But that's all that these five kids will give me time for right now. The math lesson is done, and we're onto making some paper airplanes inspired by Leonardo DaVinci!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Books, Babies, and Ice Cream (an interview with RED BUTTERFLY author, A. L. Sonnichsen)

I have a special treat for you today: an interview with one of my dearest blogging friends, Amy Sonnichsen. I can't wait for you to get to know her, as she's one of my favorite people. If we lived closer (there's this whole continent thing between the east and west coasts, unfortunately), we'd have this chat over cups of cocoa and bowls of ice cream. But since that can't be, over email was second best. :)

FEH: Welcome, Amy! Thanks so much for stopping over to celebrate the release of your debut novel in verse, RED BUTTERFLY. I've been so excited for this since you first announced its publication! Could you tell us a few words about the story?

ALS: Thank you so much for having me, Faith, and for all your excitement and support. It means a lot! RED BUTTERFLY is a novel in verse about an eleven-year-old Chinese orphan who is left behind in China when her American mother is repatriated.
 
FEH: I know that you spent much of your childhood in Hong Kong and still have a great love for that part of the world. (I share that love, though all my knowledge is through books. :) I am very well-traveled in my imagination if not in real life!) I'm sure your experiences informed much of the story, but are there any bits that would surprise your readers to find out are based on real life?
 
ALS: Ha! I love to travel in my imagination through books, too ... and in real life, though I don't get to do the latter very much anymore (five kids=very limited travel fund). I am so grateful for my growing-up years in Hong Kong and the years I got to spend in China as an adult. As far as how much my own experiences informed the RED BUTTERFLY story, they completely did and completely didn't all at once. The novel is purely fictional, but I did pull from stories I heard when I spent time volunteering for an organization that supported our local orphanage in China. I was the secretary for several years, so I wrote down a lot of stories, and, much like a lawyer, pulled from that big melting pot of information when I was finding precedents for how my main character Kara's story might turn out. So yes, I couldn't have written RED BUTTERFLY without my experience in China, but I didn't base any of my characters on specific, real-life people. 
 
 
FEH: So there was a brief mention there of something I'm very personally interested in talking about: "five kids." Since I'm expecting Baby #5 in August, I'm definitely there with you on the mothering/writing train. I know you probably get asked "how do you do it?" even more than I do--so I won't ask that. :) Still, let's discuss this a little... Everyone is quick to point out how difficult it must be for mothers like us to succeed in writing or art--and yeah, we have a really limited schedule, for sure--but I think few people realize the many ways in which mothering enhances the artistic life and helps us grow as writers. How has being a mom helped you as a writer?
 
ALS: Great question! ...And I'm so excited that you're going to join me soon in the Mom-of-Five Club! I do think being a mom has helped me, but it's taken awhile for me to arrive at this place of gratefulness. When we lived in China, I had household help, so I had writing time built in to my schedule. It was awesome! But then we moved back to the United States and reality hit. Finding balance was hard. My kids were perpetually late for all their activities, thanks to my writing habit. It took me about a year to find a better balance, and that prepared me for the present day, when I am probably five times as busy as I was when we first moved back to America. I'm hardly ever home now, thanks to my kids' schooling needs and activities. I'm home schooling a couple of my kids because of their specific needs and I'm pretty much useless at staying up late at night to get anything done. So, as you can imagine, I have very little writing time! But what my crazy schedule has blessed me with is, first of all, focus, and second of all, a need to schedule, something I didn't have before. I now have two hours in the afternoon that I can devote to writing (even though I'm still half-playing with my four-year-old) and during that time I am focused. I know it is my time to write, so I write. I've realized what a lazy bum I am on the days when I don't have myself scheduled. I recently took a trip with my husband and planned to write while he was in a conference. I found myself lacking the discipline I seem to have when I'm juggling the kids. All that to say, I'm starting to wonder if my "I could get so much more done if I didn't have kids" excuse was ever valid. Raising them drives me to be a better person who is able to prioritize and get a lot more accomplished. Not that it's easy, but nothing about discipline ever is!
"But what my crazy schedule has blessed me with is, first of all, focus, and second of all, a need to schedule... I now have two hours in the afternoon that I can devote to writing (even though I'm still half-playing with my four-year-old) and during that time I am focused. I know it is my time to write, so I write."

 FEH: What a perfect answer--I totally agree. I can attest to this in my life; having a tight schedule makes me so aware of every minute of wasted time. I can't lie to myself about it, and unfortunately it used to be really easy to do that. I look back at my pre-kid days and wonder what on earth I did all the time. (I didn't even have internet to blame.)
Okay, mind if we move on to some random fun stuff? That's my favorite part of interviews!
My little sister claims that you can really get to know someone from their answers to the questions:
1) What is your life motto?
and 2) What's your favorite flavor of ice cream?
I seem to remember you having an affinity for the creamy goodness that gets us through the terrible twos and long nights of homework...ahem. Didn't mean to type all that... :) Anyway, I just had to ask you that question--and you can answer the motto one, too, if you feel like it. :)
 
ALS: Oh dear, I know I've been asked the life motto question before, and I think I said, "Seize the day," but if you read somewhere else that my life motto is something different, please remember that I have five children and my life motto most days is "SURVIVE." 
My favorite ice cream flavor? Well, that's a toss up between two delectable Ben & Jerry's flavors. I wish Ben & Jerry's would sell them combined! Half-baked (which I'm about to eat straight out of the carton, as a matter of fact) and Pfish Pfood. Pardon me while I go grab a spoon. 
 
FEH: Mmm...now why did I ask that question when I recently emptied my last carton (peppermint stick)? Now I now what my pregnancy cravings will be today. :)
Okay, one last question, so we can both get back to the writing and homeschooling and toddler chasing! I wouldn't dream of pinning you down to one, but can you share with us a few favorite books or writers that inspire you?
 
ALS: Especially when I'm writing verse I go back to two books that I own, OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse and MAY B. by Caroline Starr Rose, and re-read, just to get in the correct frame of mind. I've also re-read Jandy Nelson's THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE for the same reason. Another huge inspiration is SOLD by Patricia McCormick. I love simple, beautiful language. When I read these books I feel a huge sense of inadequacy, but that's healthy--it keeps me energized to improve my craft.
"When I read these books I feel a huge sense of inadequacy, but that's healthy--it keeps me energized to improve my craft."

 FEH: I love your last sentence! I have the same feeling when I read great books; as soon as the feeling of "Oh my gosh, I'm never going to write again" has passed, I feel more ready than ever to jump in and make my work better. (By the way, since we started this interview, I picked up my copy of RED BUTTERFLY at our local bookstore, and so far it is just gorgeous. "Simple, beautiful language" are exactly the words I would use to describe it.)
Amy, this interview has been such a pleasure. Thank you so much! Congratulations on the release of RED BUTTERFLY!
 
ALS: Thank you, Faith! It's been wonderful chatting with you! I'm so glad you're enjoying RED BUTTERFLY so far. 
 
You can order RED BUTTERFLY from Amazon here, or find it at your local bookstore since everyone knows that's more fun. And if you don't already know where to find her, here is a link to Amy's lovely blog, which always leaves me feeling encouraged and inspired and ready to write.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Art of Bringing Young Children to an Art Museum


Life's an art, wouldn't you agree?

I love the idea of being a living work of art, while participating in the ongoing Creation by creating art of my own. And one of my favorite things about being part of this massive, timeless, glorious artwork is enjoying the work that other creators have put into it. As a mother, this has extended to sharing this joy with my children...

...but I think any of you who have ever actually tried to take a child to an art museum will know that this can be a challenge. As I've tackled it many times, with a general level of success, allow me to share some tips from my experience.

TIPS FOR THE UNDER-TWO CROWD


1. Take babies to the museum. Trust me. It may seem like a daunting task, but this is actually the easy part. And if they become comfortable and familiar with museums now, they're more likely to continue to enjoy the experience as they get older.

2. Feed your hungry baby. If you meet your babies' needs, you set the tone for a happy experience. Even though I've been afraid of complaints, I've never had so much as a raised eyebrow when I found a quiet room of the museum in which to nurse my baby. But in case you're worried about any anti-nursing nastiness, you can steal my strategy and choose a quiet bench right under a medieval painting of a nursing Madonna or a Renaissance nude of a Grecian goddess. Go ahead, naysayers: try and complain.

3. Wear your little babies. If you don't absolutely need to bring a stroller into a museum, don't. (That time will come soon enough when you have a runaway toddler AND a baby.) You'll be cursing the unwieldiness and frustration of finding elevators in no time. Just make sure you have a sling or a front carrier, as most museums don't allow back carriers.

4. Let your toddlers toddle. You'd be surprised how engaging those long galleries are to little legs and minds. Just hold hands or stay close, because a museum chase is not something you want to add to your life experiences.

5. Look at the (painted) babies. Babies like nothing so much as other babies. Which is convenient, because most art museums are full of images of babies. 9 out of 10 times, as soon as I take a just-fidgety baby over to a painting of the Infant Jesus, she's all smiles and cooing.

TIPS FOR THE TWO TO FIVE CROWD
 
by Sir Thomas Lawrence, who knew how to paint happy kids

1. Have reasonable expectations. You know what kids' attention spans are like. Don't expect a full-length museum trip with a three-year-old, because you are likely to be disappointed. Depending on my child, I like to frequent free or low-cost museums at this point (most libraries have tons of passes, which is an excellent option), so that you don't feel cheated when you only end up staying half an hour. I figure anything past that 30 minute mark is a bonus.

2. Make even limited museum time always fun. It's important to keep the museum experience a happy one so children never associate it with being bored or tired. With some guidance, and a firm set of rules, let your child wander from painting to painting that holds his or her interest. Ask lots of questions about the stories behind the paintings. Ask them to point out the colors they know. See if they can play detective and find paintings that look similar. Make it a game.

3. Speaking of games...really, make a game. My very best museum trick is this: make a treasure hunt list for your child. I draw simple pictures for my pre-readers, and create a list of items they'll be sure to encounter in the museum. This generally keeps them engaged for well over an hour. Here are some sure-fire choices for pretty much any museum with traditional artwork, but you can adapt to your needs:
-a peach
-a bird
-a white flower
-a pink flower
-a blue dress
-a baby
-a dog
-a fancy hat
-a golden necklace
-an apple
-a red dress
-a saint
-a tree
-clouds
-the sea
-a boat
a mountain
-a vase of flowers
-a bowl
-a cup
-a window
-a castle, or fancy house
-a horse
-a fish
-a crown

 Also fun is printing out small images of actual paintings for them to find--just make sure you check in advance to make sure all the artwork is currently on view.

TIPS FOR FIVE- TO EIGHT-YEAR-OLDS


1. Do some advance research.
A. Study one or two artists whose work you know you will find in the museum. There's something so exciting about walking into a room and recognizing the work of a great artist. When you're studying, talk about the stories you see in the paintings as well as limited technical elements like which colors you see, the level of detail with which the artist paints (impressionistic versus realistic, for example), and general thematic elements in the paintings. There are super, super, super picture books about many artists that are an excellent place to begin.
B. Read the stories behind some of the paintings you will see. Greek myths, bible stories, and Shakespearean plays have been beautifully represented in thousands of paintings over the centuries. Before visiting a museum, we like to brush up on these classics with some good "kid editions." Kids at this age will be thrilled to see a story they know "illustrated" on canvas--the story is more important to them than who painted it or what style it represents. Knowing the stories and recognizing the characters will help them realize that art is for them, too, not just for grown-ups. Here are some of our favorite books for this purpose:

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2. Allow them to help plan the visit. I want my children at this age to feel they "own" the experience of visiting a museum and aren't just being dragged around. I prevent that latter tragedy by allowing them to help me plan the trip and decide which parts of the museum (in a large museum such as the Met, at least) they want to see. They look at maps with me, help me develop itineraries, and even problem solve what they'll do when their little siblings get antsy.

3. Plan a longer visit, but schedule in breaks. My big little kids really want to spend a whole day at the museum, but (especially if we're visiting with younger siblings), they can't take it all in one stretch. It's easiest in the summer when you can hop outside--have you ever noticed that most museums have beautiful gardens and outdoor areas where little ones can run around or have a picnic?--but even in the winter you can run to the parking lot and have a snack in the car.

4. Bring a sketch book and pencil. Allow your children to actively participate in their study of and appreciation for art by inviting them to copy one of their favorite paintings. Make sure to remind them that you're not hoping for perfection--but that greatness depends on practice and lots of hard work. In our experience, it's best to start with something simple like a fruit or flower still life, as it will generally be easier to come up with a sketch that satisfies rather than disheartens. Even though this activity demands more patience and stillness and work from our kids than any other part of the day, it's absolutely their favorite.

TIPS FOR A LARGE FAMILY WITH LOTS OF LITTLES

One tip only: don't go alone. Definitely enlist your spouse's help. But also bring your little sister, your best friend, or your mom. Pay for their admission, if there's a cost...buy them lunch...promise them cookies...because you can't put a price on an extra pair of hands. Anyway, don't you want to share the fun?

Do you have any expert museum-going advice? Any questions you'd like me to answer? Please speak up!

P.S. Mom, I owe you some cookies for yesterday... :)