Friday, January 22, 2010

Writing Contest from Agent Mary Kole

In between reading books for my critical thesis, I've been polishing my manuscript because there are several opportunities coming up that require submitting the opening pages.
I already sent the first five pages to a contest sponsored by the Dallas/Ft. Worth Writers Workshop. The deadline was last week and I didn't want to miss it, so I submitted it before the winter residency at Vermont College.

In some ways that is very sad, because the one hundred books I read and the dozen of essays I wrote during my first two semesters finally gelled during the lectures and discussions I attended on campus. I've come up with a new first sentence filled with mystery and emotion. I hope it will capture a reader's attention in a way my previous opening did not.

But, all is not lost!

I get to send that first sentence and dozens of its followers (up to 500 words) to Mary Kole of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency for the contest she has set up on her Kidlit blog. First prize is a 15-page critique!
Here's the entire lowdown on Mary's contest. It's a great way to get an agent's reaction to your work.
Kidlit Contest

My SCBWI chapter also has a manuscript critique/contest in conjunction with their spring conference. I have another week or so to polish my first ten pages that will then be considered by an agent or two editors. But I won't know the results of that until the conference on March 27. (And I have to wait even longer on the Dallas entry, that's not until April 9!)

Mary Kole says she'll take about a week to consider her entries. That really appeals to my desire for immediate gratification!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Vermont College of Fine Art

I foolishly thought I would be able to keep up with my blog posts during my winter residency at Vermont College.

Silly me.

I barely checked my email during the residency, little alone having the time to post.

Vermont College offers a low-residency MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis on children and young adult literature. What this means is I spend about ten days on campus in January and then again in July.
In between, I'm home in Oklahoma. Going to work at the Supreme Court of Oklahoma, raising my two amazing daughters, doing my best to be a fun, supportive wife and somehow cramming about twenty-five hours of reading and writing into my schedule each week.

I don't watch television (much).
I don't have a social life.
I don't do housework.

But I do have the first draft of a mystery manuscript that I started in July and finished in December. And for me right now, that's more important than those things I've given up. Most days, my family agrees.

I know some other schools offer variations of this concept for other degrees. But I think it works particularly well for creative endeavors. Writing is such a solitary undertaking.
This truly offers the best of both worlds -- a community offering support and insight as well as time to write.

One Vermont College tradition is for students in each semester to pick a name for their class. This is announced at the beginning of the students' third semester. After several discussion sessions, our group finally decided on The Bat Poets, inspired by Randall Jarrell's delightful book.

During my time on campus, I attend some thought-provoking lectures, participated in a small workshop critique group with five fantastic students - Graduate Clete Smith, Margaret Crocker (entering fourth semester), fellow Bat Poet Barbara Roberts and two second semester students, Stacy Nyikos and Helen Pyne.
Our faculty leader for the workshop was the amazing Julie Larios. I read two of her poetry collections just before residency: The Yellow Elephant and Imaginary Menagerie.

They are both delightful and though the titles point to animals or fanciful creatures, in the end her poems urge us to take a look at ourselves by asking questions like what would a mermaid wish for? Both books are too much fun to miss.
In addition to all the things I learned during this residency at Vermont College, a lot of things happened in the world of childrens literature.
The ALA awards and the Edgar finalists were announced. Thanks to all the reading I've been doing for my graduate work, I've actually read many of these books prior the announcement. I'll be talking about those books and sharing my thoughts on the writing life in coming posts.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Who Really Killed Cock Robin?

 Who Really Killed Cock Robin: An Ecological Mystery   by Jean Craighead George published by HarperCollins, 1971, 1991.

Everything old is new again - Going green may seem like a new trend, but Jean Craighead George was writing about it more than 30 years ago.
Obviously, an environmental message is the cornerstone of this novel. The story is told in third person and follows Tony Isidoro, an eighth grader who has been recruited by the Mayor to solve the mystery of a robin's death. The plot includes politics and corporate interests, along with a hint of government conspiracy. Tony has become interested in bird watching in the absence of his brother Izzy who had been working on a graduate thesis about the local robins before he was drafted into the Army. Tony is invested in this mystery because his brother has asked him to continue his observations. From the time it was written, we can infer that Izzy is likely in Vietnam. But it feels more like he is away at college somewhere instead of in a potentially life-threatening situation. Tony seems much more worried about the environmental impact of the local toxins than about his brother.

But, there are many notable scenes. Tony defies the Mayor and exhumes the robin's corpse following a small funeral. At the end of chapter six, the reader is reassured that Tony is actually a kid when he convinces Mary Alice to go fishing. In this scene, George finesses the environmental information into the story subtly.
This classic is a must-read for all budding environmentalists.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose published by Melanie Kroupa Books, an imprint of Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009.

Winner of the 2009 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

From the jacket copy: "On March 2, 1955, a slim, bespectacled teenager refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Shouting 'It's my constitutional right!' as police dragged her off to jail, Claudette Colvin decided she'd had enough of the Jim Crow segregation laws that had angered and puzzled her since she was a young child."

Hoose did an excellent job of integrating quotes from Ms. Colvin with the background information about the time and events. Yet, he doesn't try to inject himself too much into the story.

The second chapter is almost entirely Colvin and the details she shares paint a vivid picture of life in Montgomery in the 1950s. One particular eye-opener: “...they wouldn't let us try anything on. I never went into a fitting roomm like white people did. The saleslady would measure me and then go get the dress or the blouse and bring it out. She'd hold it up and tell me it was a perfect fit and expect my mom to buy it.”
She also relates tracing the shape of their feet on a brown paper bag and taking the outline to the store because they were not allowed to try on the shoes.
A powerful parallel Hoose nailed is the description of the Alabama flag hanging in the courtroom and its similarity to the Confederate flag.  The period photos used generously throughout the text augment the vivid reality feel of this book. Of course, all the pictures are in black and white, subtly underscoring the context of the book.

I highly recommend this book for ages 10 and up. The text is simple enough for older elementary students, yet the unflinching look at segregation will be enough to challenge high schoolers. Would even make a  lovely companion for To Kill a Mockingbird.

Here is a book trailer that includes Claudette Colvin talking about her experience:

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Kiss in Time

A Kiss in Time by Alex Flinn, published by HarperTeen, 2009.

An updated take on the classic Sleeping Beauty story, told in alternating point of view with Talia (the princess) and Jack (the boy who wakes her with a kiss).

I found Flinn's chapter structure to be very interesting. Instead of simply alternating between one protagonist or the other, she offers part one from Talia's point of view, part two from Jack's point of view, then part three with Jack and Talia, alternating chapters between their points of view.

I was impressed by the way Flinn indicates a significant amount of time has passed between part one and part two with the opening line: “What they don't tell you about Europe is how completely lame it is.” Completely lame cues the reader that we now have a modern narrator. By and large, Talia's speech did seem authentic for an eighteenth century person.  Malvolia's backstory makes her a fascinating villain  - but to say anymore might be a spolier.

A wonderful romance filled with wit and humor.

Flinn also has a retelling of Beauty and the Beast called Beastly.  A feature film based on the book is due out this summer. I look forward to reading the book before seeing the film. You can read more from Alex Flinn on her blog: I Plan to be a Diva Someday....

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Stars Beneath Your Bed

Stars Beneath Your Bed: The Surprising Story of Dust written by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Ann Jonas. Published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2005.

I have a tiny confession: picture books scare me. I know what you're thinking: there's just 32 pages, less than 800 words. What could be scary about that? Well, you try telling a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end in less than 800 words. You'll see just how hard it is!

But April Pulley Sayre makes it look easy. She even helps unravel the secrets of the universe and she does it with just a few words on each spread. That's because she has found the right word for each sentence. Not a word that will work, or something close, but THE word. And doing that is magical.

My current work in progress, a young adult mystery set in the dust bowl had a lot to do with me selecting this book from Sayre's impressive list of non-fiction picture books.
I was a bit surprised to find the intriguing title doesn't appear exactly in the book, only as an inference that “the dust beneath your bed might be from Mars.”
This spread also has the most unusual text layout with the words: “floating, swirling, sprinkling, bits of you and me and soil and stars” moving from right to left down the page. This placement gives the words a life all their own, almost making them seem to dance. The beginning of most lines of text in the book start to the right or left of the previous line, mirroring the gradual descent of the dust acted on by the forces of gravity. But on the space spread, gravity isn't quite as strong. The dust lingers, suspended, floating before reaching the bottom of the page.