Latina writer of books for kids of all ages.

Blog tour is the phrase of the day. I’m also on Latinaish today (April 21) talking about diversity and how all kids connect with stories.

But my own little blog is also a stop on the My Writing Process Blog tour.My friend, Maya Payne Smart, asked me to join.

maya-head-shotBy way of introductions, I should tell you that Maya is the first lady of VCU basketball. But I’ve known Maya as a compassionate friend, a fellow writer and as a thoughtful community supporter. Her blog specializes in business, travel and lifestyle journalism. Some highlights from her bio. “Her articles have appeared in Black Enterprise, CNNMoney.com, ESSENCE, Fortune Small Business and numerous other business and consumer publications. She earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in social studies from Harvard University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.” She writes about dynamic women and the pursuit of happiness, meaning and productivity at MayaSmart.com.

So, on to notes on my process:

What am I working on? 

BellaAbzugLine2011-1x1 copyRight now, I’m working on a YA novel set in 1977 in NYC. It explores the insanity of the city at that time and secret violence in families. The main character is 18-year-old Nora López. Feminism, mental health, serial killers, drugs, looting. Everything you could ask for in a work for young readers. (Yikes.) It’s due to my editor on May 1. Keep me in your thoughts because this is going to require some divine intervention.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?  

The most defining characteristic of my books is that I always center my novels on the journey of strong Latino characters. The other characteristic is that I like to write fiction that dignifies young women by naming their experience as it is and celebrating all it takes to grow up strong.

Why do I write what I do?

I write Latino characters because there are so few being published and because it pains me to see Latinos reduced to stereotypes in books and film. I write YA because writing for young people is hopeful and because it forces you to be painfully honest. I write about girls because the real girls I know are powerful and kick-ass, and they deserve books about something more than falling in love with boys.

How does my writing process work?

It’s a mess. No outline. Nothing but gut instinct about the characters and their problem. This is the most inefficient way you can possibly write, but it is also very genuine in that you meet the characters and their problems as they naturally arise. I can’t say I recommend it as a strategy, but it really is how I compose.

For the next few weeks after Spring Break, I’ll be doing a writing residency at Chickahominy Middle School in Hanover, VA, where I’ll spend five or six sessions working closely with kids on their writing.

Alumni logo - CombinedI love visiting schools because it reminds me of my teaching days. Years ago, I was on the faculty of what was then the Palm Beach School of the Arts. It was a dream gig in most ways because I got to work with young people who were admitted to the school based on their interest and talent, both of which they had in abundance.

With Brandi and Tynesha, former SOA students, now grown and thriving!

With Brandi Klienert Larsen and Tynisha Wynder, former SOA students, now grown and thriving!

Some of those kids went on to become writers and editors in print and media, more or less the way I did. Others chose different paths. It doesn’t matter to me, to be honest. What’s important is that they had a few years to experiment with their voice and their creativity. I like to think that my classroom was a safe, if imperfect, writing bubble where we could laugh and experiment with styles and stories. I hope they left with a taste of the power and joy that comes from being able to conjure a reality from thin air or, more importantly, from being able to name your life experience in a way that connects you to others.

teacherscollectionauthorsintheclassroom1eThese days, when I go to classrooms, I turn to an approach that resonates with me. My friends, Isabel Campoy and Alma Flor Ada –prize-winning and respected authors and researchers – have a terrific book called Authors in the Classroom: A Transformative Education Process. It advocates for parents and teachers to write along with students and to engage in a process that celebrates the idea that we’re all authors, in one way or another.thumbs_Con Alma Flor Ada

isabel-campoyI caught up with Isabel, a dynamo of a poet and thinker, and I asked her a few questions about how we teach expression and ways that we can do it better.

MM: We are all creatures of story…from cave paintings to the Russian novel. And yet, so many people struggle with writing. What blocks people from thinking of themselves as writers?

IC: There are 237 steps to climb to my high school in Alicante, and I remember my struggle to find an important topic for my daily writing exercise before I reached the door of my classroom. By step 180 I used to slow down, not only to catch by breath, but to give me more time, hoping that some great idea would pop up. I think that fear of not having a brilliant story to share, starts for the majority even at Elementary School, and for many, it is the end of the road in a writing career. Writing is more than an intellectual exercise; it is a romance with words, words that find a vacant silence to fill it up with wonder, curiosity, expectation or love. Our universe is made up of “vacant silences.” There is room for seven billion stories, one written by each person in this tiny planet.

MM: What, if anything, do you think is missing most in how writing instruction is handled in our schools?

IC: Perhaps not understanding the difference between “authorship” and “writing” is the answer to your question. The freedom to let the mind run free on the page should never be policed by Mr. Grammar, of Ms. Syntax. Authors, at any age, should not be paralyzed by spelling, punctuation, verb tenses or appropriate structures. Their main focus should be on describing with detail the circumstances of their plots and the features of their characters, the maintenance of a tone, or the surprise of an ending. And ONLY, only when all of that is on the page, then we can all change hats and be the best managing editors, and copy editors we can be. As you well know, we published authors, spend a year writing the story and four years correcting it. Teachers should be “Acquisition Editors” those people who discover the talent in a writer and offer her a contract many years before the book will be ready to be published.

MM: Your book presents a strong case for encouraging teachers and parents to participate as writers. Why is it important for the adults in children’s lives to be “authors” too?

IC: Together with my co-author, Alma Flor Ada, we have researched the positive effects in a child’s life of a strong home/school interaction. When teachers give themselves permission to author and write a personal story to share with their students and with the parents of their students, they are sharing more than a story, or an anecdote, or a poem. They are sharing their willingness to be vulnerable and authentic, sincere and fun, hard working, and an equal in their learning community. They become models of writing. Their books, telling the story of their name, or how they became teachers, or what are their goals for their students, or who is an important person in their lives, or where do they come from is shared with students and parents. Their books travel to the home, where parents will read them, and then, will respond with a book of their own to share with their children and the teacher of their children. Authorship existed many centuries before those stories were written. Parents can become authors, through pictures, drawings, film or the written word. The important thing is the story. It is wonderful to see a community where teachers and parents see themselves as equals, sharing the importance of their students/children’s education.

MM: What is your favorite exercise from the book?

IC: I think they all contribute to that spirit of understanding we try to foment but perhaps the last topic “Where I come from” because it provides the opportunity to share our humanity. None of us chose parents, country, race, language, or the social circumstances of our birth, and what it is important is to honor your roots and keep going forward. Reflecting on these issues and realizing either our strength or our privileges, is a positive tool for a transformative education.

MM: Do you have a favorite or memorable experience of using the methods you describe?

IC: For the past twenty years, together with my co-author Alma Flor Ada we have taught this course in perhaps 40, of the 51 states in this country. Alaska was a favorite workshop! Also in Oaxaca, Mexico; Puerto Rico, Madrid, Spain; Guam in Micronesia; Bulgaria, The Czech Republic; Amsterdam; several universities in Canada like Toronto, and Winnipeg, Manitoba. We are no longer surprised by the candor and willingness to share we find in the audiences around the world. We encourage them to realize that every one is the protagonist of their life and the secondary character of many others. Being the protagonist of your book is a humble experience but a power tool to inspire transformation around us, in order to create a better world.

Teachers should be cropped

Isabel Campoy

MilagrosREV2ghosted_(3)When one of your books goes out of print, it’s a little bit like a death. I know that sounds dramatic, but that’s how it felt for me when my first middle grade novel, MILAGROS: THE GIRL FROM AWAY went out of print a couple of years ago.

MILAGROS was my first book, and as any author will tell you, a first book has a special place in  your heart. It is your dream come true in so many ways. It represents every hope and every ounce of courage you ever had as a writer. To see it end, is a sad, sad thing.

MILAGROS came out to strong reviews in 2008, but thanks in part to my total lack of chops in promotion back then (“Facebook? What’s that? A Blog? You’re kidding!”), it faded quietly into the background.

 

Milagros_jacket_finish5 copyBut today, thanks to my agent, Jen Rofé, at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, MILAGROS: THE GIRL FROM AWAY gets a second chance in the Kindle edition.

The jury is still out, of course, on whether middle grade readers will flock to e-books. And I am well aware of the teeth gnashing we do about Amazon. Still, I feel at peace that there is a version available of all of my work.

Joe Cepeda

Joe Cepeda

Best of all, though, I want to let you know that the beautiful new cover was designed by my friend and colleague Joe Cepeda. You know Joe’s work, such as Nappy Hair, Esperanza Rising and many other iconic books. esperanza_rising images-5

To have his work paired with mine is a huge honor and I feel so grateful for the experience of learning how he created a visual concept for Milagros’s lonely journey. When he showed me his initial sketches, I actually felt a little teary. He understood completely what MILAGROS was facing as she struck out into the world alone.

So thank you, Joe, mi buen amigo, for this beautiful cover. And thank you, Jen, for all the hard work you put into trying this new venture.

***********************

Catch an interview with Joe on April 27, 2014 as part of El Dia Blog Hop for Latino authors this month. He’ll be on Justice Jonesie.

Download MILAGROS today for $.2.99  

 

Okay, a very quick post because I am on deadline!

I spent three glorious days with my friends Kristen Swenson and A. B. Westrick in the mountains of Virginia at the 20th anniversary of the Festival of the Book.

Some highlights in pictures:

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  • My school visit at Jackson-Via Elementary. Best question from a second grader: Do you make more than $30 a day?
  • Great panel about author platforms with Jane Friedman, author Gigi Amateau, and “The Book Maven” Bethanne Patrick who is behind #Friday Reads. They gave lots of definitions and practical advice on creating your overall reputation. Favorite take-away from Jane:  Building your platform takes patience and consistency. It should outlast any single book or project that you do.
  • Talking YA books for adults with old friend K.P. Madonia (Fingerprints of You) and new friend Andrew Auseon (Freak Magnet and others) at the Village School. Great reads. Put them on your list.

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  • Practicing the use of hashtags with children’s lit legend Louis Lowry, Kathy Erskine and Jennifer Elvgren. I didn’t see that one coming, but you know, we’re all racing to understand this stuff! #YA, #kidlit, #canyoubelievethis?
Jennifer, Ms. Lowry, and me

Jennifer, Ms. Lowry, and me

  • Top pick of all: The joyous “homecoming panel” at the Paramount Theater on Saturday night. We were treated to an evening of conversation with (thank you God) a culturally diverse panel of writing giants – who talked about their lives as writers: Rita Mae Brown, Lee Smith, Kwame Alexander, Sonia Manzano, E. Ethelbert  Miller and  moderator Dr. Joanne Gabbin.  They were at turns hilarious, thoughtful, and tender. Overall wisdom: Say yes to your wildest literary ideas and offers.
The Homecoming Author Event

The Homecoming Author Event

Dr. Jamie Naidoo, Teresa Mlawer, Margarita Engle, Adriana Dominguez, Lila Quintero Weaver (front), Laura Lacámara, me, and Irania Patterson

Dr. Jamie Naidoo, Teresa Mlawer, Margarita Engle, Adriana Dominguez, Lila Quintero Weaver (front), Laura Lacámara, me, and Irania Patterson

Snow outside – AGAIN. Thank goodness for the leftover cozy feelings from the  National Latino Children’s Literature Conference this past weekend. On a scale of 1 – 10 in warmth and  camaraderie, it ranks about a 50.

Lifting Me Home by Laura Lacámara

Lifting Me Home by Laura Lacámara

One reason was the  faculty, a solid collection of Latinas in publishing. It included the fabulous former editor and literary agent Adriana Dominguez; color goddess illustrator Laura Lacámara; multiple-award winning poet and prose author Margarita EngleLila Quintero Weaver (who we’ve talked about here); bilingual library pro and storyteller Irania Patterson (how can anyone imitate every accent in the Spanish-speaking world?); longtime publishing icon Teresa Mlawer (“sounds like flour, with an m”); and me.

For three days we worked side by side with teachers and librarians from all over the country who wanted to know how to use multicultural books to serve all kids. Inevitably, we all drew close as we asked ourselves hard questions and generated new ideas. “I’m so glad you guys aren’t divas,” one of them told me as we all sat together.

Some of my personal highlights and favorite ideas:

Margarita Engle. Poet, feminist, botanist, historian. If you want your students to experience history’s most unknown and shocking corners, seek out her books. Who else can tell you about pirates in the 1400s, search-and-rescue mountain dogs, Cuba’s first feminist, and how the Panama Canal was dug by hand… in a single presentation? It was astounding.

purabelpremedal2Make a simple move with a big implication. Print out the list of Pura Belpré winners and have those books available in your collection, right alongside your Newbery, Printz, and Caldecott winners. (In fact, go hog wild. Put out as many winners/honors of the ALA awards as you can.

americasAdd the books from the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature to your list. Are you familiar with that award? It was founded in 1993 to recognize quality children’s and young adult books that portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States. CLASP (which organizes the award) also has a mission to provide teachers with recommendations for classroom use.  Go here to familiarize yourself more.  You can see the titles that have won or received honorable mentions over the years. Click around for descriptions and activity ideas. Here they are on Facebook, too. 

Continue to lean on your book fair organizers, bookstores, and publishers to carry and promote diverse books. We’re talking about friendly and persistent reminders. To reach a range of students, you need to access a range of “voices” in your library. Ask for their help. And if you need additional backup, point them to this article by Walter Dean Myers in yesterday’s NY Times.

Join REFORMA (and other librarian groups with a mission around serving diverse populations.) It’s inexpensive ($25 as a community supporter if you can’t think of a category for yourself) and the funding helps librarians get the books and materials into children’s hands.

Unknown-1Support your champions: One of the quiet heroes of the Latino lit movement is Dr. Jamie Naidoo Campbell, a Kentucky-born guy who doesn’t speak una palabra de español, but still leads the charge. He organizes this conference at the University of Alabama to help his library students and others learn how to make informed and sensitive choices for their collections. If you can support the conference, make a donation or plan to attend in 2016. (Right now the conference happens every other year.) If you’re of like minds, consider reaching out soon to partner or in some way help the effort. Proceeds from the purchase of this handy book go to support the conference, too.

Believe in the power of inspired teachers and librarians. The energy and good-will in the room was so high. It makes me smile to think of the changes – large and small – that will come as the result of our three-day celebration. To Klem-Mari, to Erica, to Margaret, to Marianne, to all those happy teachers and librarians from Arkansas, to Demi, to the first grade teacher from Chicago, to all of you fabulous people who took the trip to Tuscaloosa and stepped outside your comfort zone to learn, mil gracias  and best wishes as you experiment at your schools and libraries. Be sure to let us know of your successes!

You’re on a quest for more diverse literature for the young people in your life? Last week, I pointed you to CBC Diversity. Here’s the next thing you can do: Make a point to meet the authors, editors, bloggers, and librarians with a passion for that area. Seek them out. Make relationship. We’re friendly.

Sarah Guillory, Ellen Oh and me. NOVA Teen Book Fest

Sarah Guillory, Ellen Oh and me. NOVA Teen Book Fest

Example: This past week I met Ellen Oh (among other amazing YA authors) at the Northern Virginia Teen Book Festival – and it didn’t take long for us two former New Yorkers to start putting our heads together on what we can do in the Mid Atlantic region to promote multicultural lit to all kids. She pubs with HarperTeen, and her latest is Warrior, which features Kira, a dragon-slaying ancient Korean girl on a quest. Ellen is kind of a dragon slayer, too. She’s from Brooklyn, by her own admission speaks lousy Korean, and is determined to break stereotypes. Stay tuned.

4104444I’m on the road this week to the National Latino Children’s Literature Conference held at the University of Alabama. That would be Tuscaloosa…which means cars, planes, vans to get there. It’s absolutely worth it, as far as I’m concerned. (Look at the lineup.) It’s the brainchild of Dr. Jamie Campbell Naidoo who has published widely on Latino lit, but also on the power of diverse books in general. I’ll be talking about YAQUI, the Pura Belpré prize, and what my own plans are to help authors and librarians reach wider audiences. I’ll also be meeting library science students, bloggers, and fellow authors who love what I love and who work hard at it, too. In the end, we all make the tapestry together. 

Dr. Jamie Naidoo's 2013 release

Dr. Jamie Naidoo’s 2013 release

So, something for you to ponder: When you choose conferences to attend, are you looking for those that feature multicultural authors in the lineup?

If you plan conferences, are you making significant efforts to include diverse authors beyond discussions about culturally specific literature?

Hmmmm….more soon! Off to the airport!

Cariños de,

Meg

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It’s one way you can continue press for books that reflect the diverse students who fill our schools.

If you teach kids of color…

If any of your patrons have disabilities…

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If you teach any students who are more or less clueless about the world outside of their own bubble…

then, this is the badge for you.

I’ve added it here to the widgets on my site and plan to be a CBC diversity partner. Find out more and link to CBC Diversity here.

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