Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Come to the Hub!

Spartanburg, SC, a former 19th century railroad center, is now home to one of the few independent non-profit bookstores in the country. The store which opened in June, 2010, is an off-shoot of the Hub-City Writer’s Project; a group founded 15 years ago by a trio of writers wanting to give their community a literary identity. They have gone beyond that dream and created a space which invites readers, writers, and artists to share their creativity.

Betsy Teter, Executive Director of Hub City Writer's Project and
Rebecca Ramos, Chair of HubCulture, Inc. proudly show off some of the Hub City titles

The Writer’s Project has published over 300 writers through its own press dedicated to publishing high-quality books emphasizing the Southern experience. The group has renovated two historic downtown buildings (one for the bookstore and one for the alternative arts initiative, HUB-BUB.COM--another off-shoot), given away more than $15,000 in scholarships to emerging writers, sold 70,000 books, commissioned public art, produced concerts and creative book launchings, and provided creative writing instruction to hundreds. All proceeds from book sales fund creative writing education and independent book publishing in Spartanburg.

These award-winning ventures reflect Hub City Writers Project’s serious commitment to reaching out to the community of Spartanburg and making it a better place for people to live and work. According to Betsy Teter, the executive director, “We want to show this community that words and books are important and we want to build a community through the arts.” Part of that commitment is reflected in providing fellowships and scholarships for emerging writers and artist residencies. “We want young people to come to Spartanburg and improve the community by staying here.” Teter said.

Just a short drive off of I-85, you can visit the Hub-City bookshop, coffee shop and bakery, and then walk a few blocks to visit the art gallery. Come to the Hub and see why other communities across the country want to duplicate this cutting-edge organization.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Shout-Out for a Friend

Eleven years ago Fran Davis, the regional advisor for SCBWI-Carolinas, suggested that I coordinate a writing conference with Linda Phillips. I had never met Linda, but Fran assured me that we would work together well.

Her words were true and our working relationship grew into a deep friendship as we both journeyed on the path towards publication. Along the way we honestly critiqued each other's work, prayed for each other's family, and walked many miles around our Charlotte neighborhoods.

Now, Linda has taken a big step forward and is signing with an agent, Julia Kenny at Markson Thoma Literary Agency, who loved Linda's young adult novel-in-verse, Crazy.

I hope you'll take a minute to read about Linda's journey. Hard work and excellent writing has paid off, and I couldn't be happier for anyone.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Reading & Writing Resources

Along the way I have discovered a variety of resources that can help you in your classroom or in your own writing.  Here are a few. Let me know if they help you as instructors and writers.

For teachers and homeschool educators:
  • If you look above this blog heading, you'll see that I just created a new page, "Teaching the Story." If you click on it you'll not only find book reviews, but also several reproducibles from the CD that are now available on-line.
  • The Maupin House blog is full of useful information and resources for teachers and homeschool parents. Several Maupin House authors and editors blog about subjects that interest them and you will receive input from a variety of professionals.
  • Not sure about what book to recommend to your child? You can search my blog under "books for boys," "books for girls," "books for boys and girls," or "historical fiction." Or you can check out GoodReads and read other people's  book reviews.
  • I blogged about Literacyhead before. It's worth repeating--this is a tremendous resource.
  • National Novel Writing Month has a program geared specifically towards young writers. I'll be one of the featured "pep talkers" in November.
For writers:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thinking Critically About Books

A recent article in The Washington Post reported on a conference that investigated how fiction with dark themes (such as the popular dystopian literature) can alter teen brains. Valerie Strauss interviewed Maria Nikolajeva who studies children’s media and organized this conference. Here are a few of Strauss’ questions and Nikoajeva’s answers:

Strauss: Let me start by asking you this: Are kids’ brains really changed after they read the "Twilight" saga or "Harry Potter"? What does change mean, anyway, in this context?

Nikoajeva: We have always known that encounters with art and literature affect our senses. We feel joy, sorrow, fear, anxiety, grief. We empathize with the characters. We learn from them about ourselves and about other people. What we know today from neuroscience is that there are spots in the brain that are responsible for these feelings, that it is possible to identify parts of the brain affected by reading or watching a film. Adolescent brain goes through a significant and rapid change; everything that affects it leaves deep imprints. Very dark fiction creates and amplifies a sense of insecurity, which is typical of adolescence; but it can also be a liberation, when readers "share" their personal experience with that of fictional characters. So yes, all readers’ brains are changed after they have read a book, but teenage brains are especially perceptive and therefore vulnerable.

Strauss: What kind of "deep imprints"? Does deep mean lasting?

Nikoajeva: Yes, both lasting and delving deeply into the mind.

Strauss: Is there a possibility that an exclusive diet of such material [i.e. dark fiction] could negatively affect some teens?

Nikoajeva: Definitely. Here comes the question of responsibility. Writers who address young audience should, in an ideal world, be very careful about what they say. Exactly because teenage brains lack the ability to make judgments. In plain words, they may get wrong ideas. Not because they are stupid, but because their brains are wired like that. Because they are socially and emotionally unstable. The so-called social brain is under development during adolescence.

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For me, this dialogue reinforced how we as authors have an important responsibility when writing fiction for young people. Stories can impact--both positively and negatively—our readers. I haven’t read many dystopian books, but I have read several with overt sexual material. I wonder if this literature also leaves “deep imprints” in adolescents’ brains effecting their thoughts, emotions, and decisions.

In light of this discussion, here are reviews of two books which I believe are well-written but contain content that I find unnecessary and potentially harmful to vulnerable middle school or teen age audiences.

Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume (Bradbury Press, 1971) shows the conflicts that 13-year-old Tony Miglione experiences when his family moves from a working class home in Jersey City to an affluent town on Long Island. His father’s electrical invention has caused the family to strike it rich and the extra money leads to interesting conflicts for Tony. Blume’s portrayal of Tony’s fears over losing the money; his discomfort with his new friend Joel’s shoplifting, covert drinking, materialism, and phone pranks; and his disapproval with his parents’ keeping up with the neighbors, all are portrayed authentically. But Blume also includes explicit accounts of Tony’s thoughts, emotions, and fantasies as he enters puberty. Does this personal information need to be front and center for middle school readers?

Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have by Michael Zadoff (EgmontUSA, 2009) also features an adolescent male protagonist. Andy’s conflicts include the fact that he is overweight (he wears size 42 jeans); his parents are getting divorced, he has few school friends and a domineering mother. The internal and external conflicts that occur as a result of his love/hate relationship with food are very real: he is bullied, can’t get a girlfriend and is generally considered to be a loser. Although Zadoff skillfully portrays Andy’s conflicts over these real-life issues, the book is full of locker room language and Andy’s thoughts and feelings about his sexuality. Couldn’t this book be just as powerful without the sexual content and bad language?

Blume and Zadoff apparently believe that blossoming sexuality are experiences which young people encounter and therefore should be represented in young adult literature. I question the benefit of revealing the intimate details of an adolescent’s life and thoughts. I’m not saying that sexuality shouldn’t be discussed with young people; I am questioning whether novels, with characters and images which can leave strong impressions on young people’s minds, are the best modes of communication.

Although neither of these books would be considered “dark” I believe that Nicolajeva’s conclusions also apply to suggestive and overtly sexual material in teen literature. A steady diet of reading characters’ most private thoughts may lead young adult readers to the wrong conclusions about sexuality and other private aspects of their lives.

Has our “tell all” environment cheapened intimacy? Has our saturated culture made sex too accessible to young adults? Perhaps we as young adult authors could consider using a more subtle and thought provoking manner to portray puberty and the transition from childhood to adulthood.

What do you think?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Keeping Novello Alive

For years my children and I enjoyed attending Novello, the book festival that the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library held in downtown Charlotte. After they were too old to attend, I often worked the SCBWI booth which provided "word play" activities for children and information about writing for their parents. When my children were young Novello had been a one-day event; gradually it grew to encompass several weeks of programs and lectures from famous authors and speakers.

Due to budget cuts, this much-loved annual event was not scheduled this year. Fortunately, two Charlotte literacy lovers; former librarian Pat Siegfried, and UNC professor Mark West, have stepped up to the plate and led a grass-roots effort to keep Novello alive.

Although you might have missed last weekend's events for adults, it is not too late to put the children's events on your calendar for this Saturday, October 9. The line-up includes several North Carolina authors who are members of the SCBWI-Carolinas region. I have added web links for the authors who are either part of our region or whose books I have read. Although only one title is listed by their name, most of these authors have published several children's books. They are donating their time and energy to talk about books and inspire young readers. Books will be available for sale; stock up for birthdays or holiday gifts!

All events take place at ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St. Here is the schedule:

Picture Books

11 a.m.: Tameka Brown  Around Our Way on Neighbors' Day
Judy Stead 12 Days of Christmas in North Carolina
Gail Haley A Story, A Story
Sherry Neidigh, illustrator of Count Down to Fall  (her books make wonderful presents for grandkids!)

Noon: Kelly Starling Lyons One Million Men and Me 
Gloria Houston The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree
Carole Boston Weatherford Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom

Junior fiction and young adult:

11:15 a.m.: Stephanie Tolan Surviving the Applewhites
 Melissa Thompson Keena Ford series
Eleanora Tate Celeste's Harlem Renaissance

Young adult mystery/suspense
 12:15 p.m.: Caroline B. Cooney Face on the Milk Carton
 Mark de Castrique Death on a Southern Breeze

Young adult
1:15 p.m.: Carrie Ryan The Forest of Hands and Teeth
 Karon Luddy Spelldown
Joyce Hostetter Blue, Comfort, Healing Water  (my co-author of Talking Story!)
 P.B.MacEnulty Alixandra's Wings

Novello Festival Press panel
 1:30 p.m.: Introducing the press's first bilingual children's book, "Wings and Dreams: The Legend of Angel Falls," by Irania Macias Patterson, illustrated by Catherine Courtlandt McElvane.
Novello is back to being short and sweet. But who can deny that good things often come in small packages? Make a point to bring your children to ImaginOn this Saturday. This is a unique opportunity for your children to meet local authors and illustrators who are passionate about reading and writing. 

It almost makes me wish my kids were little again.


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