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Monday, September 24, 2007

Gettin' wiggly wit it

Patrons of Blue Chair Children's Books wiggled and waggled, squiggled and squirmed, their way through the store on Saturday.

The independent children's bookstore in Glendora, California, threw the worm event of the year: a Wiggle and Waggle party with author Caroline Arnold and illustrator Mary Peterson on Saturday.
"The shop did a great job preparing for our visit. We had a nice audience with plenty of bug juice and dirt for snacks," said Mary. "Caroline and I read the story, sang the digging song, had real worms for the kids to pet - and sold some books! We had a great time."

"The live worms were a big success, as well as the gummy worms in "dirt" (chocolate pudding mixed with Oreo cookie crumbs) that the store prepared for a snack," said Caroline.

Those real worms aren't nearly as cute as Wiggle and Waggle, but they're still a lot of fun!
Kudos to Rachel and Doug Rustenberg at Blue Chair for hosting a great event!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Writing a Book: A Winding Path

Are you a published writer? Or a prospective writer seeking publication? Regardless, we all travel a winding path with multiple turns before inspired idea becomes marketed manuscript. Successful navigation of these turns requires research, which most writers put in the same category as dread disease. A few years ago a speaker at a conference for children’s writers asked the 60+ attendees to raise our hands if we liked to do research. About five hands slowly went up. Like it or not, successful research can make us less likely to take a spill on our way to being published. When I consider my use of time I am amazed how many different types of research devour my writing life.

One type of research involves visiting the location for a book. After a trip to Kenya to do research on The Leakeys (Greenwood), a young adult biography, I decided to write a book for high school students about the life of Jackson Minteeng Liaram, a Maasai

warrior now a nature specialist at a camp in Kenya, his love of the land, and his desire to preserve it for future generations. A return trip to Kenya is now planned. Needless to say, travel to somewhere as exciting as Africa is the very best type of research!

Deciding on a topic leads to a need for research of another kind. A writer has to investigate the target audience. After looking online at various school systems’ websites and swapping emails with teachers and with Wendie Old, my librarian friend and co-author of Busy Toes and Busy Fingers (Charlesbridge), I decided readers in grades 5-8 would enjoy a book about a young man like Jackson and it would also fit into the social studies curricula of most states at those grade levels. Ta-dah! I made a major turn on the path to writing Jackson’s story.

Targeting the book to an audience mandates a trip to the library. I reviewed all kinds of nonfiction books for ages 9 and up, like Susan Bartoletti’s Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 (Houghton Mifflin), and Sally Walker’s Fossil Fish Found Alive: Discovering the Coelacanth. I enjoyed reading these quality books and I also used them to research style, tone, voice, and organization—topics critical to both nonfiction and fiction.

At last the time comes to do intensive research. Fiction or nonfiction, whether we need details about the ancient past, the immediate present, or the possible future, accurate information is crucial. Could a medieval king have worn glasses? How does that gadget attached to plugs in teens’ ears work? How might a fast food restaurant be different in the 22nd century? Although basic information can be found via the Internet, this type research requires locating books and articles by credible authors and carefully taking notes and keeping a reference list.

And speaking of someone credible, of course I added Jackson’s letters and e-mails to my “Maasai Warrior” folder since they contain unique personal correspondence that will enliven the writing.

But wait! Another fork in the road. I began to type a story Jackson sent me about an elephant that charged toward tourists he was leading on a nature walk across the Kenyan bush! Inspiring! Thrilling! I couldn’t resist stopping my research to tell this story as a picture book. I wrote:

“We were walking between two hills,” Jackson begins. “I spotted a herd of elephants in the distance. One was a mother with a baby calf barely a week old and still shaky on its feet.”

I added additional information about the Maasai Mara, the beautiful area in Africa where Jackson lives and works, and included other bits from his letters. Much later, after re-writes, ruminations, and research on the habits of elephants, I concluded with the joyful image created by Jackson’s own words.

Jackson finishes his story: “Our small group relaxed also and we continued our walk. As we walked, we watched in the distance while the mother elephant paused to suckle her calf.”

I sent him the manuscript to vet and he wrote back that the additions I made were correct. We had collaborated on a picture booka turn I did not expect to take in the path to writing a middle reader about his life, but using the same material for several writing projects is always a welcome step.

Now another type of research must be done, equally important and for which no shortcuts exist. I must search for a publisher that might be interested in The Elephant Charge--Vishindo vya Tembo! I will review past issues of Children’s Book Insider, pore over Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, look at materials of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and investigate websites like that of the Children’s Book Council .

Then it’s back to research for my original book proposal. Will either of the two books I’m working on be published? I don’t know. Writing is truly a winding path that leads a curious and wandering spirit in many directions. And sometimes, even if good research is part of the path taken, a writer runs into a high brick wall!

Posted by author Mary Bowman-Kruhm