Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Zora and Me: Multi-Racial Read #5

I didn’t realize when I selected Zora and Me from the audio book shelf of my local library that I would be treated to a powerful, multiracial historical novel. But I was.  

Under 200 pages long, this book is the result of collaboration between Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon. Their fictionalized account of Harlem renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston’s childhood, brings the reader into gator country, Eatonville, Florida, during the Jim Crow period.

Zora’s outspoken manner and boldness is seen through her best friend Carrie’s eyes. The two young girls get caught up into the myth and mysteries of the local “Gator King” (half-man, half-alligator) which they imagine to be ghostly white. In a line foreshadowing later conflict, Carrie observes, “If coloreds can be different colors, why can’t gators?”

When Ivory, an itinerant turpentine worker is murdered, Zora decides to apply her alligator-sleuthing abilities to solving the murder. The story gets more complicated when the girls meet Gold – a woman who is beautiful, stylish, and colored but “not like us.” Gold is engaged to a white man and the black community is horrified that she has turned her back on her people.

In a powerful scene, the girls come across Gold sitting in the forest by a fire, her clothes dirty and in disarray. By the firelight Gold “looks colored but like she’d been wiped down by chalk dust.” Zora confronts Gold on why she has chosen to pass. Here are snippets from this dialogue revealing Gold’s conflicts and motivation:

Zora asks, “Why would you want to be like white folks?”
Gold replies, “I get tired of being colored. I get tired of seeing everything the world has to offer and settling for a big bowl of nothing."      

During the same scene, Gold relays a story from her own childhood. Her mother was much darker than she was. When the two would go shopping, Gold’s mother would pretend to be her nanny in order to purchase what she wanted. Gold remembers, “It’s like I was the skeleton key unlocking the other world just for my Mama.” In this conversation Gold tells the two friends, “You’re both lucky. You don’t have to make hard choices. You know exactly where you belong.”

This is a powerful story about hurt, fear, and prejudice and two young girls coming of age in a town that had previously sheltered them from the bigger scope of life’s conflicts. As Carrie realizes at the end, “The bad things in life don’t define misery—what you do with them does.”

This book would be an excellent supplement to a class in US history, or to be read during Black History month. Although the two main characters are both girls, Ivory’s plight and the overarching historical theme make this also an appealing book for middle school boys. Students and writers should both analyze the internal and external conflicts permeating Gold’s, Zora’s, and Carrie’s lives. There is much to learn from this well-written book. 

View this video for more information on Zora Hurston and the story behind the story: 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Digital Tools for Teaching

I’ve often compared writing and publishing a book to pregnancy, labor, and birth. Within the context of that simile, if I help a friend or student write or publish a book I either feel like a midwife or grandmother.

When I received my copy of Steven Johnson’s book, Digital Tools for Teaching, I definitely felt like a proud grandma. I hadn't contributed one iota to the content. Instead, I introduced him to Julia Graddy, my publisher at Maupin House.

I met Steve three years ago when he participated in the “Is There a Children’s Book Inside of You?” NCCAT  seminar  which Joyce Hostetter and I co-led. At first he successfully hid his expertise as a technology facilitator and focused on writing a funny picture book. But when he leafed through Teaching the Story and we began brainstorming the digital tools which could enhance the process of writing short stories, the second edition of my book was born. 

Steve and & I brainstorming at NCCAT

After Steve wrote twelve technology mini-lessons for my book, he began work on his own project with Maupin House. He wanted to create a book that would make technology accessible to every teacher--even those who were techno-phobic.  His dream was to provide an overview of e-tools which can be used in the classroom,  show how they could be used in a variety of subject areas, and meet the needs of a variety of techno-savvy elementary and middle school students.

No small task. But with the able help of my editor, Emily Raaj, Steve accomplished exactly that.

The first thing that will reassure teachers overwhelmed with digital technology is Steve’s division of thirty e-tools into three groups:  those for newbies, developing users, and advanced users. From there he encourages teachers to rethink their role as educators:

Going forward, our jobs must be about giving our students personalized, relevant instruction that develops their ability to make meaningful sense of the information-rich world they live in. Sure, they can find anything and everything under the sun on the Internet-but do they know what to do with it?  Can they evaluate the accuracy of what they read? Can they analyze and organize the glut of information? How does it improve their lives? They might have the world at their fingertips, but we have the power to guide them towards molding it into something worth creating. p. 4.

Steve next presents the eight characteristics of the “Net Generation.” Reading this will help you understand the different ways in which your students approach the Internet. And, it will help you feel OK about asking your students for help troubleshooting when something goes wrong. In fact, figuring out what went wrong is part of the learning process for everyone.

The meat of this encyclopedia of digital classroom technology, is the 30 alphabetized tools. Each double-page spread explains  what you need to do prior to utilizing the tool in your classroom, tells you how to get started, lists other issues to consider, and provides examples of how to use it in language arts, science, math, and social studies. It would be easy to feel overwhelmed except that the book is very readable and Steve walks you through the process of classroom implementation. If that wasn't enough, Steve offers his website as an on-line "living, breathing resource for all teachers."

Steve's enthusiasum for the power of using digital tools in your classroom is contagious.

Steve in the computer lab at Washington St. School
Rockingham, NC

And I'm not saying that just because I'm the proud grandma.

It's the honest truth. 

Joyce and I are giving away a copy of Steve's book in our next issue of Talking Story. If you haven't subscribed yet, click on the link which will bring you to our last issue. On the top, click on "Subscribe" and then send us an email when you receive your copy in a few weeks.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Interview with Harold Underdown- Part III

In the spring I published two interviews with Harold Underdown, children's book editor and children's publishing maven. In Part I he answered general questions about writing and publishing for children. In Part II he answered questions from illustrators. 

Here in Part III, Harold answers questions specifically about crafting picture books. 

Question:  Recently I heard Tracey Adams of Adams Literary talk about how the industry standard for picture books is now moving to being geared towards 3-5 year olds and of course, much shorter word counts. But K-8th grade teachers all use longer picture books in their classrooms. Is there no room in the market for longer picture books?

Harold: Yes, longer picture books are still published. Tracey is reflecting on the reality that the larger publishers have largely abandoned the school and library market, and are seeking material that will do well in bookstores (also known as the trade market). She's an agent and so she wants material she can sell for a good advance. That is the kind of picture book she describes. But Holiday House and Charlesbridge and Boyds Mills and Whitman, to name just a few, still publish for the educational market.

Question: When writing a picture book manuscript, how much information and/or details should a writer include that could wind up being shown better in the illustrations? With word counts being so low, should an author bother giving much description of the setting or how a character looks and just leave it up to the illustrator, or should that be included in the manuscript?

Harold: I regard it as good standard picture book writing practice to leave out the words that just aren't needed. This serves a dual purpose, since it both reduces word count and leaves an opening for the illustrator.

Question: Should a picture book writer include illustrator’s notes in their manuscript? What if they want to have a wordless page? Should that be noted?

Harold: A writer can include a short note in the manuscript, perhaps in brackets. However, I would warn writers about features like this--don't make your story too dependent on them. The story should still work even if the publisher or illustrator doesn't feel that this is a good place for a wordless spread, and that decision will be, in the end, theirs to make.

Question: A panel of agents and editors at a recent conference was asked if a writer could continue submitting after receiving a few rejections. The agent basically said, if I've rejected you twice, you probably shouldn't submit to me again. The editors seemed to be nodding in agreement. How does anyone ever get an agent or publisher if you're not supposed to submit with new projects more than a few times?

Harold: I think that to answer this question you have to understand the context that that agent was assuming. She's assuming an actual correspondence with an author, not the case of someone, as is often true, who starts submitting early on in their writing development and sends out a number of manuscripts before reaching the point at which an agent or editor sends a "personal rejection." Here the agent is assuming that someone met them at a conference or impressed them with something in their submissions, and they've written to the agent. And written to them again and perhaps again. I don't think the agent is suggesting a three-strikes-you're-out situation, but more of a practical rule of thumb in a certain situation.

At that point, if a writer isn't hitting it off with an agent, it might be time to take a break, and perhaps come back at some point in the future. 

·    People writing picture books would do well to get Ann Whitford Paul's "Writing Picture Books.” here's a review that I wrote:
·       For advice about creating illustrator’s notes in a manuscript, writers should consult this article:

Thanks, Harold, for generously sharing your publishing wisdom with us in this series! 
Three years ago Harold taught me to probe more deeply into what my
 main character wants at the Highlights Writers Workshop

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My Sister, My Reader, My Friend

Recently, my sister Barbara visited from Milwaukee. While in my home, she  was looking around for something to read. I suggested that she start reading through our father's letters to his parents when he served in World War II. There are hundreds of them that need to be organized:

Henry Federlin's WWII mementos and letters

"No," she said. "I'd rather read your book."

"It's not in very good shape," I said. "Especially towards the end. It needs a lot of work."

"That's OK," she replied.

I shrugged and brought her a stack of papers.

Barbara Federlin beginning her big read

Up until now I have shared the premise of Half-Truths with the experts I have interviewed and with an handful of writers.  No one except a few friends has read beyond the first fourteen chapters.

No one until Barbara insisted.

In three days, interrupted by trips to see our mother and to local museums, my sister read the entire manuscript.

Now I have someone who understands my purpose, who "gets" the scope of my story, and who has a mental picture of my entire book.

Now I have someone who I can ask if a scene should be deleted or enlarged upon, or if a character has stayed consistent from beginning to end.

She didn't stop to correct grammar, word choice, or tenses. She just read, and gave me the gift of not being able to put it down.

When she finished with tears in her eyes she said, "Good job."  

That's high praise coming from my big sister.

                                        The Federlin resemblance is unmistakable
Our father, who taught us to love stories by reading aloud to us when we were little, would be pleased that she took such an interest in mine.

So am I.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Creating Memorable Characters

Do you know who this character is and what book made her famous?

"Of course, she knew that married people occupied the same bed but she had never given the matter a thought before. It seemed very natural in the case of her mother and father, but she had never applied it to herself. Now for the first time since the barbecue she realized just what she had brought on herself. The thought of this strange boy who she really hadn’t wanted to marry getting into bed with her when her heart was breaking with an agony of regret at her hasty action and the anguish of losing ____ forever, was too much to be borne. As he hesitatingly approached the bed she spoke in a hoarse whisper.

“I’ll scream out loud if you come near me. I will! I will—at the top of my voice! Get away from me! Don’t you dare touch me!”


In preparation for my class at Central Piedmont Community College on "Crafting Characters that Connect," I wanted to find an example of a memorable character. I leafed through the books on my daughters' shelves and finally decided on this selection.

Reading through these two short paragraphs, what do you learn about this character FAST- about her feelings, actions, speech, or thoughts?

As a reader, you are privy to her thoughts and can hear her naive beliefs about sex and marriage; this may make you wonder what time period is depicted. The author also informs you that this character is prone to impulsive actions--even to the point of marrying someone she doesn't truly love. Her obvious discomfort during her wedding night is emphasizied in five short, belligerent lines of speech. 

In less than 150 words a famous author artfully shows us a woman who finds herself in a difficult position and handles it by refusing her new husband.

Internal conflict precipitates external conflict. Delicious conflict that hooks the reader, leaving you wanting more.

Memorable characters keep readers turning the page. Creating them is the goal of every writer. If you are a new or established writer looking for ways to create your own unforgettable characters, I hope you'll consider joining my CPCC class which begins on June 16. You'll write, do lots of fun exercises, and learn how to wiki--all within the space of six lessons.  

Now, back to our mystery post. If you insert "Ashley" in the blank above, then you know that the infamous character depicted above is none other than,

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara

If you guessed Gone With the Wind you were right!

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