Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell

1. A short bio about yourself and why you write for young people. 

Patricia Hruby Powell danced throughout Europe and the Americas with her dance company, One Plus One. She has earned advanced degrees in Dance (Temple University) and in Library Science (UIUC). Her awards include choreographic fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council; a storytelling award from Creative Arts Institute and for writing she has received the Boston Globe Horn Book Nonfiction Honor 2014, Parent’s Choice Gold for Poetry 2014, Bologna Ragazzi Nonfiction Honor 2014 as well as awards from Western Writers of America and the American Folklore Society. Her picture books are Blossom Tales and the bilingual Navajo/English Zinnia: How the Corn Was Saved and Frog Brings Rain. Her books with Chronicle are Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (January 2014) and the forthcoming documentary novel Loving v Virginia in 2016.

1. Why you wrote this book and created these characters 

I write for young people because I just might have something useful to say to them. I started JOSEPHINE while working as a children’s librarian at the Urbana Free Library and got to know a group of unfocused preteen African American girls who attended the library daily. I thought Josephine who could do anything she set her mind to do, would be a good role model for all young people but especially marginalized young people. I want people to know who Josephine Baker was.

The book is advertised as being for readers second to fifth grade. There are some reviewers and many teachers who see JOSEPHINE suited to middle school kids, due to the mention of difficult subjects (the 1916 riots of St. Louis) and also suited all the way through high school readers. (It has been cited in Harper Bazaar’s UK July 2014 edition as a book for adults). Being a picture book draws people in; being 104 pages long, makes it a book for many ages.

Tell something about the characters you would like young readers to grasp. 

Josephine did just about anything she set out to do. She became a world-renowned dancer and singer, a civil rights worker, a mother to 12 adopted children, a war hero. We should all be so fearless.

How you see your book fitting into schools and into the concept of Windows, Mirrors and Sliding glass doors. 

When I show JOSEPHINE to large groups, I see the faces of African American (and Hispanic and Asian) kids light up. I realize they don’t often see themselves in the books they see in school. They see themselves in Josephine. It’s very gratifying.

A little about your research and other efforts to make the portrayal of your characters culturally accurate 

My first connection to Josephine is that of our both being dancers. I know dance intimately. I did many years of research on this book, reading all of Josephine Baker’s 5 autobiographies in French, many biographies about Josephine, watching hours of early and later footage of her dancing, listening to recordings of her singing, listening to her being interviewed. I visited the neighborhood in St. Louis where she grew up. I know her well. I have continued to do primary and secondary research into the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. It’s a clichĂ©, I know, but I have many black friends.

Any words form your publisher, reviewers or readers you would like to share?

“Baker’s entire life spreads out in this tapestry of words.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A life devoted to self-expression through dance and racial harmony is celebrated in this lavish, lengthy picture book.” Kirkus starred review

“Clear and lively descriptions of Josephine’s story play out creatively in the text, introducing readers to basic principles of poetic structure in storytelling and offering an accurate portrait of a woman who fought for racial equality and civil rights through her life’s passion: performance. Reluctant readers of nonfiction and poetry lovers alike will be drawn to this book’s musical, theatrical nature, making for a fun, enriching, and holistic reading experience. This unique and creative work is a first purchase.” SLJ starred review

“Powell and Robinson create a biography of a woman whose life and art are inseparable.”—Shelf Awareness for Readers, starred review

“In this incomparable biography both Powell and Robinson convey the passion, exuberance, dignity, and eccentricity of their subject through words and pictures that nearly jump off the page.” Horn Book starred review

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Offenders - Jerry Craft

The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention! is an action / adventure story designed to teach kids about the negative effects of bullying. It's the story of 5 school bullies who get superpowers, but instead of turning into cool heroes, they take on the characteristics of the kids they pick on.

I write for young people because when I was a kid, I didn’t like to read. I only read Marvel Comics and whatever books I was forced to read in school. As an adult, I realize the importance of reading and do what I can to reach reluctant readers. I focus on creating characters that are interesting enough to get a kid to read a book on his or her own.

Guided Reading level – W
Grade level Equivalent- 5
Interest level- grades 5-8 (middle school reader) Ages 12-up

You can see more of my work and learn more about me on my website. http://jerrycraft.net/

Tell us why you wrote this book and created these characters

I wrote “The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention!” because it seems as if bullying has reached epidemic proportions. Many books that I see are about kids who ARE bullied. My book is about the kids who are DOING the bullying. One teacher told me she read one of my books in class and a young girl gasped and said, “Oh no, I just did that to someone this morning! I didn’t realize it was bad. I have to go apologize.” I couldn’t ask for more than that.

Tell something about the characters you would like young readers to grasp.

Since I have loved superhero stories since my Marvel Comic days, The Offenders is about 5 school bullies who get superpowers, but instead of turning into cool looking heroes, they look like the kids they pick on. So one gets really smart, but physically uncoordinated; one gets super thin; one gains 100 pounds; one gets two large metallic buck teeth; and the girl who calls kids mousey shrinks down to the size of a mouse! Now they have to protect the school, but they’re too embarrassed to go outside. It’s a lesson in Karma!

Plus, when the kids transform, they trade physical characteristics with each other. So it’s hard to like a kid, or not like him because of how he or she looks. Because it changes.

How do you see your book fitting into schools and into the concept of Windows, Mirrors and Sliding glass doors.

One of the things I’m most proud of is that the main characters are 3 boys and 2 girls from very diverse backgrounds; both racially and economically. I did a LOT of research to avoid traditional stereotypes and to create characters that kids want to know better. It’s also a perfect book for schools because it makes kids aware of how their words and actions can affect other kids’ lives. There’s also plenty of humor and excitement, so it never comes across as a lecture. We all know how much kids “love” lectures. ;)

I tried to be descriptive enough where kids can see what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, and enjoy the walk.

Share a little about your research and other efforts to make the portrayal of your characters culturally accurate

I am most proud of Dexter Diaz, who is Puerto Rican. As an African-American man, I have always been acutely aware at how stereotypes have shaped the way that our kids have been portrayed. So the last thing that I wanted to do was to be guilty of that myself. So after I wrote Dexter’s chapters, I gave them to two friends who are Puerto Rican, and asked them to be VERY critical. One is a male author, the other is a mom (obviously female).

They told me what they liked, and told me where they thought that my portrayal was inaccurate. So I kept working on it, until it had passed both of their tests. The same goes for Bobby Bonderman, who is a Korean boy adopted by White parents. In fact, this was probably the most research I have ever done for a book, and I’ve illustrated and/or written about 18.

I also hired my two teenage sons as co-authors to give authenticity to the characters. So if the characters are playing a video game, they made sure I didn’t have them playing Pac Man or Space Invaders. I had a mom email me to say that after reading the book, she finally knew what her kids were talking about!

What you have done to insure quality in the finished product in terms of content, editing, and appropriateness for the age range.

First, I never do any book that I don’t want my kids to read, so there’s never anything inappropriate in my work. I was also fortunate to get 2 schools to test my book, before releasing it to the public. One school in upstate NY chose it for their “One School, One Read” program. So not only did I hear from kids, but I also heard from teachers and librarians. To me, that’s the ultimate seal of approval.

Most recently it was chosen for PACER’s first ever bookclub. PACER is one of the world’s leading anti-bullying organizations. They are the ones who made October National Bullying Awareness Month.

Here’s what they had to say:
Creative, funny, and engaging – this book presents a unique look at the dynamics of bullying. With a diverse cast of characters, the book illustrates that bullying affects everyone – and that the students who are bullying can change their behavior and make their school a more positive place.
— PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center

So after gathering initial feedback, the version that I have now is EXACTLY the way that I want it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Soda Bottle School by Suzanne Slade

In a Guatemalan village, students squished into their tiny schoolhouse, two grades to a classroom. The villagers had tried expanding the school, but the money ran out before the project was finished. No money meant no wall materials, and that meant no more room for the students. Until they got a wonderful, crazy idea.

Suzanne Slade is the award-winning author of 100 nonfiction books for children. Her most recent release, THE SODA BOTTLE SCHOOL: THE TRUE STORY OF RECYCLING, TEAMWORK, AND ONE CRAZY IDEA, shares the story of children in Guatemala who built their school out of trash. Ms. Slade often writes about ordinary people who achieve extraordinary things with the hopes that her books will inspire children to pursue their own dreams, passions, and crazy ideas.

This book is perfect for ages 7 to 107 (The author's 101-year old Grandma likes it!)

Tell why you wrote this book and created these characters

Several years ago I went to the annual Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. and spotted a colorful, plastic wall made out of old bottles and trash. The display explained how the tiny town of Granados was facing two problems in 2007: their trash piles were too big, and their school was too small. The village had no garage dumps—no place to put their trash. The school was so crowded that two students had to use one desk. The situation looked hopeless, until the villagers got a crazy idea. When I discovered how 200 children created a school from old soda bottles and trash, I literally got “goose bumps” (this always happens when I find a story I have to share.) Although I had many projects waiting on my desk back home, I knew I had to share their story.

Tell something about the characters you would like young readers to grasp.

The children in the book are based on real students in Granados. The main character, Fernando, is a remarkable boy who kept a positive attitude during the long, grueling building process. The story also shares the phenomenal teamwork of the entire community as they worked together for 18 months to build a school. I hope this true story helps young readers see that sometimes a seemingly “crazy idea” can be the perfect solution to a problem, and that with persistence and cooperation, they can achieve things others might say are impossible.

How you see your book fitting into schools and into the concept of Windows, Mirrors and Sliding glass doors.

I hope this book serves as a window into the Guatemalan culture as it shares how those students worked side-by-side to create a school that was big enough for everyone, a sliding door which allows readers to imagine what it would be like to live in a place where the schools are so crowded that children are willing to get blisters on their hands to create a bigger school, and a mirror which helps readers see that their “crazy” ideas can come true, and that teamwork is a powerful entity that can accomplish almost anything.

Tell us a little about your research and other efforts to make the portrayal of your characters culturally accurate

I co-authored this book with Seno Laura Kutner, a teacher at the Granados school, who played a big part in the building project. Working closely with Laura was crucial in ensuring the story details, as well as the illustrations, were accurate.

Are there any words from your publisher, reviewers or readers you would like to share?

After the Granados Soda Bottle School was completed, other communities in Guatemala decided to solve their growing trash problems (and overcrowded school issues) by building schools out of trash. To help with these projects, I’m donating my profits from this book to Hug-It-Forward, a nonprofit organization which helps fund new bottle schools.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Adding the Spice of Diversity class for authors

Some of you know that I give workshops and teach classes for authors and readers.  One of those classes is Adding The Spice of Diversity.  Originally given as a Workshop at the 2014 Chicago North RWA Spring Fling conference, the material will now be presented as an on-line course in August.

Comments from Spring Fling:
Thanks you so much for the great workshop at Spring Fling. In the car on the way home, I figured out how to solve a major problem with one of my short stories, thanks to some of the things you said. - Mary Driver-Thiel

My new online class, Adding the Spice Of Diversity to your writing is being offered in August, 2014 in association with the Low Country RWA chapter. Find out more about the class and register at LRWA Workshop site

Course description:

Many authors fear inserting diverse characters and settings into their work for fear of creating a stereotype of not getting it right. This course will explore both the reader’s need for something different, and ways to put those different characters on the page free of stereotype. This includes characters from different races, ethnic backgrounds, and with disabilities.

Course outline:

Week 1 What is diversity/multiculturalism? (It may not be what you think) Why is it important to writers/readers
Write what you know, and what you don't know, learn
Week 2 Taking ourselves out of the story, putting the character in
Introducing your characters and settings to your readers. Sometimes the hardest work happens at the start.
Week 3 Backstory - Getting to the heart and soul of a character Avoiding cliches and stereotypes
Week 4 Final touches & Resources Keeping it together, revision and editing and keeping things real
This is a four week class and will include homework assignments. The target Audience is beginner and intermediate writers and anyone interested in about adding diversity and multicultural elements to their writing.

Interested in taking the journey? Register at LRWA Workshop site 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Books filled with life's quirks, kinks, and diversity - #weneeddiversebooks

Diverse books for young readers were plentiful at the Chicago Black Authors tent this weekend at the 2014 Printer's Row Literature Festival in Chicago, Il.

We faced a steady stream of interested kids, parents and teachers both Saturday and Sunday.  I had the misfortune of selling out my stock of copies of Pull early on Saturday, but the supply was replenished for Sunday. And, although people listened when I talked about that book and how the hero deals with life in the aftermath of domestic violence that left him and his sisters orphans, teachers and people who work with youth were all ears about Minority of One. The hero is a black, gay teen, but it's not the story of a difficult coming out. Instead it's the story of his day-to-day life after he comes out to accepting parents. It's a hero who happens to be gay, but also has to face other issues. It was also my best seller during the fest with some adults saying they wished they had seen a book like this years ago, especially those dealing with at-risk youth.  Kids of all races had already told me they wanted more books about what high school and life is really like.  That's what the independent authors of Chicago Black Author Network are trying to present to them.

Life, with all its quirks, kinks, and diversity.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Super Fan

I have this Superfan named Michael. It's always nice to know someone out there reads--and loves--my books. He took upon himself the task to make my books easily available to others. He had to special order my new book, Minority of One from his local Barnes and Noble  because they don't carry it. And then, he persuaded them to obtain copies and put them up for sale. He spent several weeks having meetings with people at his local B&N to get them to give the books more than just a listing in the catalog.

Here they are, Pull, Being God and Minority of One, all on a Florida B&N stack among the Top Teen Picks. Even more, he's talking to local kids about the books, especially kids of color.  He'll soon be  sporting a brand new BABinns fan T-shirt. He'll also have info cards to spread out, in the store and local hang-outs for kids.  I'm proud of him, and proud to see that at least in this store, the top teen shelf shows diversity.

This was one of the suggestions from a multicultural discussion at the CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center) listserve earlier this year. We developed action items and tangible ways to do more to get diversity into the hands of kids. Michael, I salute the work you did.  Barnes & Noble, I salute you for giving this a go.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

End of Year School visit

On Friday I traveled the 144 miles to Bloomington Illinois to meet with freshmen at Bloomington High School. I was invited by Keran Johnson, the school's retiring Library Media Specialist (she's in full countdown mode).  We met last fall when I spoke at the Illinois School Library Media Association in Springfield, and she mentioned how much she wanted an author visit at her school before she left. Over the months we corresponded, trying to find some way to make it happen. At times we almost gave up, but miracles can happen. I guess we have to thank the snow gods, thanks to the need for snow days to make up for closings during the horrific winter, school did NOT end on May 23, the originally scheduled date.  So at the last minute, they were able to fit an author visit in the school year.

While I did not know that my day would begin with the first period class at 7:30 (I am so not a morning person) I got there and got to work.  I actually got there the night before. The drive took about three hours (2 1/2 according to Mapquest, but they did not include the construction slowdown in I55) Keran put me up overnight in her lovely home, and treated me to dinner. Then it was rise and shine and face the students.

The teachers and I
During the day I faced five classes from two English teachers, along with some kids who got passes to attend one of my session.  The groups listened attentively (OK as attentively as kids who really wanted summer vacation to begin already) could.  I talked about writing, and the author's responsibility to craft a story that reaches out and grabs a reader and sucks them in.  And about the readers bill of rights, most especially the right to stop reading any story that bores them.  I admit to valuing that right just as much as I value the right to read anything, the right to reread and the right to skip pages.  I talk to lots of reluctant readers, and I think many of them are or become reluctant because they don't realize they have the right to dislike things other like, that right to read anything they like, and the all-important right to not finish if they are not hooked.

The school put together a poster for me to advertise my school visit. I loved it and just wished I could take it home with me. None of the students, and it was a culturally diverse group, had any issue with the faces on the cover. Kids really don't seem to be put off by that, although publishers and booksellers seem to think only white faces on a cover will sell. Learning that my 2014 release, Minority of One, featured a black gay teen, perked up their interest. And when they asked me about my work in progress and I mentioned the heroine of that book is going to be bi-sexual, several of them wanted to see it NOW! (Sorry, it's just started so they have to wait until at least 2015).   I also shared lunch with some eager future authors, and we discussed the writing process.

Like the group I spoke to a few weeks ago in New Orleans, these kids were interested in multicultural books.  We talked about crafting believable and likeable characters, which is where I start my stories. I read the beginning pages of Pull, my first published YA novel, and of one of my short stories and watched them perk up and tell me to keep going. I left the teachers with a list of book choices the kids could start with in deciding on a summer read for the contest, but reminded each student it was up to them to find the book that best appealed to them. Describe your likes to a librarian. Or maybe pick a book off the shelves at random. Read chapter one. If it doesn't appeal to you, don't try to force yourself to read it. Toss it and find something else. 

All of this was to prepare to set them a challenge. Summer is a time when many kids want to do anything except read. I challenged them to go out and find something, fiction, poetry, an anthology, non-fiction, memoir, even fan fiction or magazines. Something they will feel so strongly about they will want to come back and recommend it to their friends. Because if they do, they will win prizes that include t-shirts. There is no requirement they read a specific book (I was pleased that several of them inquired about my books) or that it be fiction (non-fiction, graphic novels, memoir etc work just fine). This is not a replacement for any summer reading set by their teacher.  But it is incentive for the eager readers, an inducement to reluctant readers, and a hope that some of them will find that maybe reading isn't all that bad after all and share that with their friends.

Over the summer and the beginning of the fall years, these freshmen kids (now sophomores) will enter their recommendations int he school system. They have to add in a blurb about why this story was recommended. And then, they have to get their friends to vote on the best recommendation. The library will collect the votes, and I will send prizes to the top three. I am looking forward to hearing from the teachers and sending out prize packages.

And happy retirement, Keran.
I teach online classes for writers, give workshops on reluctant readers and writing, and presentations to schools and libraries. If you are interested in a school, library or conference visit, use my contact page to send me an email