Meet My Writing Critique Group!

(from left to right) Me, Priya Mahadevan, Marc Boston, Jane Jackson

If you’d like to get to know my writing critique group, read on! This interview appeared in the spring issue of Highlighter, the newsletter for the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). (Wow, that’s a mouthful!)

The interview is reprinted below with permission from Highlighter. Thank you to author Dionna Mann, Highlighter’s Content Editor, for interviewing us!

Photos credits go to Delaney Boston, Marley Boston, and Liana Tai.

Critique Group Spotlight: ImagineInk

Members

Amy Lee-Tai, Jane Jackson, Marc Boston, and Priya Mahadevan

How It Formed

In May 2014, Amy, Jane, and Marc met at a writing workshop led by Kathy Erskine at WriterHouse. Two months later, Amy contacted the others about forming a children’s critique group that nurtures diverse voices. ImagineInk was born! Priya joined in May 2017 after Amy learned of her through a local magazine. All members are committed to helping each other transform ideas from imagination to ink.

What stood out the most was that empathy and love were the driving forces in all their writings and interactions.” — Priya Mahadevan

How It Functions

Each member sends a manuscript four to seven days before each meeting, with the understanding that sooner means more consideration. Every three weeks, usually on a Tuesday, they gather at a coffee shop downtown. While they remain flexible with the day of week, they meet during the school day since they all have young children. Meetings last about three hours. After some chitchat, they begin critiques. The person receiving a critique remains quiet (or is supposed to!) and takes notes. They share business news as time allows. Since they get along so well, their biggest challenge is not going off on tangents about their personal lives or politics. Amy, the former school teacher, is usually the one to keep them all on track.

What They Love About Their Critique Group

AMY: I feel lucky to be part of a diverse group filled with kind-hearted deep thinkers who are passionate about kids’ books and social justice. All of this shines through in their stories, critiques, and interactions. While meetings are meaty, the camaraderie and humor keep things fun; I leave feeling reenergized to do the hard work of writing and revising.

JANE: The shared experience, incredible support, humor, understanding, and fun combine to make this group shine. I have so enjoyed their wit and wisdom as I continue to grow as a writer. Also, these are three of the most thoughtful, kind, patient, and interesting people I know in Charlottesville.

MARC: I’m blessed to be able to commune with a fantastic group of creative, intelligent, and spiritual souls. It’s the personal connection I feel with each of them, which has grown over the years, that I hold dear. I trust their opinions, relish their support, and am energized by their open-minded objectivity, genuine hearts, and authentic spirits.

PRIYA: When I was invited to be part of this group, it seemed like I had already known the others for a long time. What stood out the most was that empathy and love were the driving forces in all their writings and interactions. I am constantly amazed at the subject matter that inspires their writing and at the presentation of those ideas. This allows my own creativity to expand.

How They Have Grown as Writers

AMY: The group has served as a reality check regarding my characters. Do my young characters ring true? Their emotions and thoughts? Their motivations and choices? Their actions and reactions? Given their parental experiences and open hearts, these writers help me keep it real! Their rich use of language has also been instructive: Marc’s playfulness, Jane’s wit, Priya’s poetry. I learn more from seeing them shape their words over drafts than I would from merely reading a final draft.

JANE: The critiques have informed and improved, dramatically, my understanding of plot points, structure, and flow. I have learned to manage the action sequences, and do so with humor and fun phrasing, making my work more readable and enjoyable. I absolutely credit the group’s positive attitude and expertise in delivering such helpful critiques!

MARC: Our group is truly interested in seeing each of us flourish as writers. They hold me accountable! I write much more than I otherwise would, and they make great suggestions for each manuscript. They’re not afraid to be honest—always sending me back to the drawing board if a piece appears to be missing something. We’re a beautifully diverse group, which inspires me to be very mindful of seeing life and the world from a broader perspective.

PRIYA: In a word, accountability. This group has instilled in me a discipline to write, no matter what. We help each other tweak our pieces to a point that we feel confident enough to submit them. We each have a special something we bring to the table, and each of our perspectives ends up helping us grow not just individually but also as a collective.

Member Bios:

Amy is the picture book author of A PLACE WHERE SUNFLOWERS GROW, winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. Connect with her at amyleetai.com and on Instagram.

Jane writes middle-grade fiction along with some short stories and the occasional essay. While she plans to seek publication one day, for now, she’s simply enjoying the writing process. Jane can be found on Instagram and Twitter.

Marc is a freelance writer and the author of two picture books: THE GIRL WHO CARRIED TOO MUCH STUFF and WHAT ABOUT ME?. Find Marc at marcboston.com and follow him on Instagram.

Priya is the author of two picture books: PRINCESSES ONLY WEAR PUTTA PUTTAS and FEY FEY SAYS NO. Find more details at priyamahadevan.com and follow her on Facebook.

Passing The Baton: Practicing Self-Care

I’ve gotten into the habit of waiting until the end of each month to write a blog post. Sure, life gets busy. But I suppose I’ve been waiting to see what rises to the top. Either: What has resonated most clearly? Or: What has been the theme? The answers haven’t necessarily been one and the same.

June’s theme (in terms of what has most consumed me) has been “politics.” This has been the case for months. That is, 19 months. But June has been particularly outrageous with this administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the southern border and detaining them in cages.

What?! I’ve been enraged and heartbroken. They are all our kids.

I’ve been trying to do my small part. And I’ve been growing weary. Looking at my social media and news accounts, I know I’m not alone in this deep concern and preoccupation. To many of us, this country seems increasingly more surreal. Yet, things are all too real.

This brings me back to: What has resonated most clearly?

A few weeks ago, I caught a lovely breather. I attended a potluck at the home of Crissy Hawthorne, Director of the Music Education Center where my daughters have been privileged to attend. My younger daughter and her classmates had completed a 6-year program, and families came together one beautiful evening to celebrate.

It’s a different world now, because the old “don’t talk about religion or politics” adage went right out the window. Three other moms and I started off with small talk which quickly morphed into politics. I had known the political leanings of two of the moms but not the third, someone I’d only said a passing hello to before. There, in that idyllic spot where I took the above photo, we shared national news, commiserated, and encouraged each other to keep fighting the good fight.

It was the third mom who said something that has remained with me. Of all the things that I’ve heard and read and seen and done in June, this has resonated the most clearly:

None of us can always run with the baton. Pass it, take a break, recharge, and grab it again.”

Yes. That’s it! When I heard this analogy, something released within me.

I want to show up all of the time. But I can’t. No one can. It’s not sustainable.

We all need to breathe, so that we may keep going… so that we may grab the baton and give someone else a break. We’ve got a long way to go, but together — by taking turns — we can get there.

So I think June’s theme has been more like: politics, teamwork, and self-care.

While I find myself growing weary, I also find myself comforted, strengthened, and inspired by the team of Americans who are fighting for what’s right. This country is worth fighting for. Our kids – ALL kids – are worth fighting for.

If you’re on this team (regardless of party affiliation), keep fighting the good fight in whatever ways work for you. And keep breathing along the way.

Until we meet again,

Amy

All of Those Hats!

From Caps For Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina

When I was child, I assumed that I’d have life all figured out by now. I’d be set and coast into retirement. Life would be simple at this point, because I’d no longer be searching and striving. I’d have my family and home and career. The End.

Not!

Well, in some ways, life is simpler than it was at earlier stages. But in other ways, it’s more complicated.

First, I now know that each of those “things” – family, home, career — requires a great deal of time and energy to maintain and grow. Yep, they don’t just happen on their own.

Second, each calls for a different hat. A different set of skills and responsibilities.

Third, those hats change in shape as needs and demands change.

I can’t think of a month in my life when I’ve felt more acutely the wearing – and juggling — of multiple hats. And by “hat,” I don’t mean going through the motions. Quite the opposite, I mean investing my heart.

In May, I’ve been:

  • a student of writing.
Soaking up the expertise of Editor Alyson Heller at the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Picture Book Retreat.
  • a writer.
Writing at home — oh Howie, of all places to rest your sweet head.
  • a presenter.
Giving an inservice based on my book at my awesome local public library.
  • a student of education.
Updating my teaching certification; studying in my car while my daughter is doing volunteer work.
  • a mom.
Listening to my daughter’s voice recital, 1 of 5 musical performances my daughters took part in this month.

I’ve worn additional hats, but I’ll stop there.

Each hat has sub-hats. OK, I’m taking this metaphor way too far, but you know what I mean, right? Being a parent isn’t just about watching your kids’ performances. Being a writer isn’t just about sitting at a computer.

On the one hand, all of these hats are wonderful. Each is a teacher — no matter the role, I consider myself a student, still learning. Every day. It’s a privilege, really.

On the other hand, managing all of these hats can be overwhelming, so I’ve gone back repeatedly to these three mantras:

1)  I can’t do it all (at least not all at once). I have to let some stuff go. Hence, this symbolizes what my house looks like. Inside and out.

And this is what dinner sometimes looks like. More and more.

2) I can’t do it alone. When I went on the writer’s retreat, my husband was occupied a good part of the time with graduation weekend at UVA where he teaches. So two friends graciously helped by transporting our girls to places.

3) I’m doing the best that I can. And that’s good enough.

I see it on social media… and I hear it from friends and family in real time… and I just feel it in our country: we are all so busy.

You may wear more or less hats; you may have more or less support. Whatever your case:

Now, I’m off to take a walk in my neighborhood. I hope you’ll take a breather, too!

Until we meet again,

Amy

Interview with Writer Sue O’Connor

Settling in for some cozy reading

Sue O’Connor and I met on the first day of our first teaching jobs, way back in 1994. Since that day, we’ve supported each other through teaching, motherhood, and writing. Sue stayed in the Boston area while I moved to Brooklyn and then to Charlottesville.

Celebrating at Sue’s wedding in 11/2001

Several years ago I read one particularly colorful email from Sue and thought, “This woman could write a book.” I emailed that thought to her, and guess what? She ran with it. She started writing novels and hasn’t stopped.

It takes a circle of individuals who believe in you, critique partners who are honest with you, and friends who sulk with you in rejection and rejoice with you in success. No one accomplishes anything alone.”

Amy: Thanks for stopping by, Sue. You heard about my plans to blog before I’d taken any concrete steps. And now you’re here!

Sue: My pleasure. It’s always fun talking about my favorite things, books, with one of my most favorite people.

Amy: You’ve worked hard on your craft for years, and now you have big news to share. Do tell!

Sue: I do, and I’m very excited. Ann Rose from Prospect Literary Agency is now my literary agent, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Ann and I met a few years ago via an online novel writing workshop where we partnered up to critique each other’s work-in-progress. I loved Ann’s writing style from the beginning and she gave amazing feedback. After a while we decide to expand our online critique group and scouted out some fabulous talent from all over the country to join us.

During this time, Ann had interned at a different literary agency and fallen in love with the business side. After two of her own books were sold, she decided to become a full-time agent while continuing to write on the side. I was honored that she asked me to be her first client.

Sue snapped this pic of Ann winning a writing award at the NJRWA Conference in 10/2016.

Amy: That’s an amazing turn of events, and I couldn’t be happier for you! How does it feel to be represented by your former critique partner?

Sue: It’s been so positive. I know Ann’s work ethic and she knows mine, and there’s no awkward getting-to-know-you phase. There’s a level of trust there that has built up over the years and a sense of camaraderie that I cherish. We’ve supported each other through the ups and downs of the writing process and shared so much of what we learned about writing with each other.

Ann is good at pushing me to delve deeper into character motivations, feelings, and character arch. If it were up to me, I’d compose my book entirely of dialogue. She challenges me to expand on my descriptions, characters’ physical reactions, and to set the scene for the reader.

Plus, I already know Ann’s weakness— salty, crunchy chips with a side of dark chocolate.

Amy: It seems like you two can hit the ground running. You’ve been working on multiple projects over the years. Which novel will Ann be submitting to editors first? What’s it about?

Sue: The first one is Trebled Times of CeCe Sims. It’s a YA realistic fiction novel that follows a sixteen-year-old aspiring singer, CeCe, as she encounters an eccentric performer who reveals a devastating family secret. CeCe wrestles with the enormity of this new information, wondering if her whole life has been built on lies.

Faced with betrayal, CeCe enlists the help of her best friend and crush to orchestrate an out-of-state journey to find answers, piece together the puzzle of her past, and confront her fears. All the while she grapples with body image issues (many of which I’ve experienced myself), the intensity of first love, the power of friendship, and the importance of cultivating your passion.

Amy: It sounds like a page-turner. What inspired you to write Trebled Times of CeCe Sims?

Sue: It’s really a culmination and mishmash of all the stories I’ve heard over the years as a middle and high school teacher. Kids are so willing to share their struggles, their triumphs, and their fears if you listen and open your heart to them. I’ve worked in all kinds of districts and it’s the same everywhere. The thread that unites each tween/teen is a desire to be seen, to be of worth, and to have hope for the future.

Amy: Agreed. Do your students know that you write? If so, what kinds of reactions have you received?

Sue: When I worked in the school district that the book is based on, my principal knew and was so supportive that he agreed to let a portion of the students beta-read my work to be sure it was authentic to their neighborhood experience. The kids were excited that someone sought their input so their community would be portrayed in a credible way.

Having fun with her target audience

Amy: That’s awesome that your students served as authenticity readers. Music is a big part in the life of your teen protagonist CeCe. What part has music played in your own life?

Sue: Music can never mean to me what it did in high school when soundtracks punctuated every milestone. The Smiths, The Rolling Stones, U2, and The Cranberries were the backdrop to every significant event of my youth. Their music allowed me to express the intensity of my teen emotions and cultivated feelings of identity and cohesion among my friends. Music was our voice — to console, to affirm, to protest — when we couldn’t find our own words.

This is the experience I need CeCe to have with music in the book. She needs that outlet because she hasn’t yet learned to speak her own truth without it.

Amy: When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?

Sue: That is such a loaded question because there are still days I don’t consider myself a “real” writer, even after having finished several manuscripts and securing representation. Then there are other days when I say to myself, “You’ve written today. You’re a writer.” On those days I feel pretty darn good.

Amy: I get that. What occupies your time when you’re not writing or teaching?

Sue: The most important times in my life are spent with my husband, Brian, and our twelve-year-old son Liam. We have a blast playing old-school board game like Clue, Monopoly, and Risk. Inevitably, Liam always leaves our games of Texas Holdem a little richer. And there are certain television shows that are a must watch. Currently we’re on a Hawaii Five O kick.

If the boys are otherwise occupied, I relax in my little sunroom with a cup of steaming hibiscus tea, snuggling with our Morkie, Emmi, and our attack-cat Shamrock.

Vacationing with her family

Amy: How do you manage to write given your full plate?

Sue: Like anything else, if you’re passionate enough about something and dedicate yourself fully, you find the time — whether it’s getting up early, writing on your lunch break, missing social engagements, or using vacations to write. If you’re called to do it, you do it.

In all honesty, there are phases when I don’t do any writing. I allow myself time to relax, observe, and read for fun so I can fill up my well in order to be a more creative and balanced writer.

Amy: What are some of your favorite books?

Sue: My standbys are always the works of Walter Dean Myers, Margarita Engle, and Katherine Paterson. And the books I wish I’d written myself are Emily Murdock’s If You Find Me and Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere.

Amy: Other than reading and hanging out with your family, what’s your idea of fun?

Sue: Besides copious amounts of sleep? Taking a good yoga or meditation class is high on the list, and I’d love to travel more. Being in new places really heightens the power of observation. I think that’s why I like to spend time in different hotel lobbies in and around Boston where I people watch, eavesdrop, and write. And walking has always been a stress reliever. Taking Emmi out for a stroll sets things right with the world, if only temporarily.

Setting aside her manuscript to skydive

Amy: If you could travel to any place, where would you go?

Sue: Since I was a child I’ve been wanting to visit Hawaii. I had a Hawaiian-themed coloring book that depicted beaches teeming with sea creatures, intricate flowers, exotic birds, and massive volcanoes. (Maybe that coloring book is why I’m obsessed with Hawaii Five O.) Since then I’ve been interested in Hawaiian culture but have yet to go. It’s on my bucket list!

Amy: I think I’ll be seeing some Facebook photos of you in Hawaii one day. Anything else you’d like to add?

Sue: Just that it takes a tribe to free up enough of yourself to accomplish any creative endeavor, not just spouses that pick up the slack around the house or friends that cart around your kid for you. It takes a circle of individuals who believe in you, critique partners who are honest with you, and friends who sulk with you in rejection and rejoice with you in success. No one accomplishes anything alone.

Meeting up at the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Conference in 10/2017

Amy: Truth. Congratulations on moving forward with Ann by your side. I can’t wait to see what you accomplish together. Thanks again for stopping by!

Sue: Thank you so much for allowing me to share the news on your blog. And I need to ask that you carefully choose what you do next, because I will probably follow you. First, you were a Reading Teacher, so I switched from Speech and Language to become a Reading Teacher. Then, you became a writer and I pursued writing. Next, why don’t you become a taster-tested for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. I could get on board with that!

Amy: I’ll get back to you on that. My favorite Ben and Jerry’s flavor is Chocolate Therapy. What’s yours?

Sue: My favorite flavor is any one that’s in front of me!

To keep up with Sue, follow her Twitter and Facebook.

Until we meet again,

Amy

Rejections: A Reason to Keep Going

Photo via visualhunt.com

A few years ago, when my younger daughter was nine years old, we were chatting about my writing and publishing goals. She said matter-of-factly:

Just remember, Mom, you have a very rocky road ahead of you. It took Kate DiCamillo 473 tries before she got BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE published.”

Oh, how funny to hear that from a kid!

But yeah. A very sobering fact. Kate DiCamillo had shared this whopping number at the Virginia Festival of the Book the previous year at a presentation to local students.

If it had taken the inimitable Kate DiCamillo 473 tries, oh my oh my, how many would it take me?

******

I started sending out manuscripts to agents and editors almost one year ago. For the previous few years, I’d been building my writing life to get to the point of submitting. Hitting “Send” was another leap, and the ultimate one.

I can now say, “Fourteen rejections down.” Hopefully, not 459 to go.

But who knows? Maybe less. Maybe more. Only time will tell.

The following quote, attributed to Katherine Paterson, sums up the writing life:

To write, your heart has to be absolutely tender, and you have to have the skin of a rhinoceros.”

I have the tender heart. I’m growing a thicker skin.

The first few rejections were a tough reality to face. Since then, each rejection has been disappointing, no doubt. But I’m at a point where I see rejection as par for the course. I try my best with each submission and then send it off, hoping for an acceptance but knowing that a rejection will most likely appear in my inbox. It’s a fine line to walk.

Some rejections have come in the form of silence. The reality is that agents and editors are overloaded with queries and other responsibilities, and they simply can’t respond to every query. I do understand.

Some rejections have come in the form of a standard email. I’ve appreciated this sense of closure. Here are a few lines from some of those:

  • “It’s not quite right for my list.”
  • “I don’t think this one is quite right for me right now.”
  • “I don’t think I’m the right agent for this particular project.”

Some rejections have come in the form of a more personalized email. These are the ones that have encouraged me to press on. Here are a few lines from some of those:

  • “You are a wonderful writer with a delightful sense of humor.”
  • “It’s beautiful and bold.”
  • “I REALLY enjoyed your manuscript.”

Not all rejections are equal. There are many factors that need to be in place for an editor to acquire a manuscript or an agent to represent a writer. It’s kind of magical when it happens.

******

Maybe some of the agents and editors I’ve queried don’t think I have what it takes as a writer. I really don’t know. Whatever the case, I’m not taking rejection as a statement about me as a writer. I’m taking it as a statement about that particular manuscript: that it wasn’t the best fit for them for some reason(s).

I’ve come to see my role as one of matchmaker: given the information I have about an agent’s or editor’s preferences, do I have a manuscript on my laptop that might resonate with her? Even if a manuscript does end up resonating, there may be reasons that she chooses not to or can’t acquire/represent it.

The more I send out there, as thoughtfully as I can, the better my chances of making a match. At the time of this post, I have six manuscripts out on submission. Another one is going out on Monday. I have a manuscript that I’m revising. And many more that I’m planning to revise. (Don’t even get me started on new stories that I want to write!)

I don’t exactly feel like throwing a party when I receive a rejection (okay, maybe a little pity party). But to me, a rejection means that I’ve tried hard. And I feel good about that part. So, what do I do? I take a long look at the manuscript, revise as needed, and send it back out.

I may need to try many, Many, MANY more times. In fact, I know I will. Rejection is a fact of life for a writer, even those who have multiple books published.

Waiting is another fact of life. Submission guidelines have stated anywhere between four weeks to six months for a response or an assumption of rejection. What do I do in the meantime? Write. Revise. Repeat.

So, Kate DiCamillo’s 473 tries. That’s a very rocky road, for sure. But it’s also an incredible story about hard work, persistence, and patience. And hope. I, for one, am very glad that she kept going.

Thanks for hopping onto my road for a bit. And if you’re following your dream (whatever it may be), I wish you the very best of luck! I’ll see you along the way.

Until we meet again,

Amy

Two Different (But Connected) Worlds: Writing One Book and Building a Writing Career

During the 2013-2014 school year, I started to dip my toes back into the children’s book world.

I had published one book in 2006. So, I had gone through the process of researching, writing, revising, promoting, and sharing a book. I had learned an awful lot and, to this day, I draw from that amazing experience.

But I’d been out of the kidlit world for several years. Plus, picture books and the industry, not to mention the online world, had changed a great deal during the intervening years.

I felt that I was starting all over again.

Or really, just starting.

In 2006, I didn’t see myself as part of the kidlit world. I’m not sure I even knew there was a kidlit world!

For me, it was all about that one project, a beloved family project: writing a story to the best of my ability and working with my publisher to put out the best book we could. It was still a substantial undertaking, but for me, it was a self-contained world.

I was completely oblivious to writing organizations, critique groups, online presence, networking, agents… even books lists and awards. All of these were the furthest things from my mind. And for my purposes back then, that worked just fine.

It was a blissful existence.

******

Fast-forward to the 2013-2014 school year. My kids were growing up. They were pretty much done with picture books, but I wasn’t. I kept borrowing them from the library; I kept reading them in bookstores.

Duh! I wanted to write more books. In fact, I had already started writing one the previous year.

I joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), an international organization. I joined WriterHouse, a local organization. These were big steps — to identify myself as a writer, even though I didn’t completely believe it.

I subscribed to writing blogs, bought craft books, borrowed stacks of picture books. And I devoured them.

That March, I attended the VA Festival of the Book, right here in Charlottesville, as I had before. But that year I went with the lens of a writer.

That May, I took a workshop at WriterHouse with author Kathy Erskine – my first ever creative writing workshop.

Still, I hadn’t really committed to doing this. Writing. Trying to publish more books. And building a writing career.

******

Then that July, I attended a local SCBWI gathering led by author Anne Marie Pace. At one point, she asked attendees to share their goals. My goals had crystalized sometime between Kathy’s workshop and Anne Marie’s gathering. These goals had been hanging out in my head, gathering courage.

When it was my turn, I said, “Join or start a critique group, build a website, and then query agents.”

There! I said it. To the whole group. I was now officially accountable, at least to myself.

And guess what? I’ve been doing it…

I started that critique group the next month. And I’ve been writing regularly ever since.

I built that website. Or rather my awesome designer Ashley Parkin built it with input from me.

I started to query agents and editors last April. (More on this in a future post.)

I’ve attended writing gatherings, workshops, classes, and conferences.

I even joined social media and started blogging. Who, ME?

Each of these steps over the past few years has made me stretch in new directions. Some of that stretching has been exhilarating. And some of it has been painful. All of it has taken some combination of courage, patience, and commitment (and chocolate).

All of it has made me grow.

I still have only one book, but I’m a different writer now. And I’ll continue to grow. The growth is never-ending which, in my book, is a pretty cool thing.

******

So, writing one book, and building a writing career – these processes have been connected, of course. And they’ve both been incredible. But they’ve been different.

Perhaps the biggest difference, other than the obvious ones of scope and intention, has been the level of initiative and independence required of me.

While working on A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, I had the guidance of my wonderful editor, Dana Goldberg (and the support of the team at Children’s Book Press, now an imprint of Lee & Low). We had a plan and, together, we tackled it.

Now, I’m the captain of my own team-of-one. As it should be, it’s on me to build this career.

Thankfully, I can call on support from various sources: my critique group, individuals in the kidlit world, my family, my friends. The fabulous folks at Lee & Low continue to help promote my book. I value all of this greatly, and I couldn’t do it alone.

But, of course, I hope to work with an editor again one day (and dare I say, an agent). There’s nothing like two (or more) people working together closely to bring a book into the world.

So, I’m digging deep and doing what I need to do. It’s a different kind of proud than holding a published book, but I’m proud nonetheless.

Because I’m sending my heart out there into slush piles. And because I’m trying.

If you’re also following a dream, keep at it! I’ll be right there with you.

Until we meet again,

Amy

Make Like a Tree Branch and Bend

It’s not good story-telling, I know, to give away the ending at the beginning. But I don’t like stressing people out with this sort of thing, so I’ll cut to the chase. I recently had a biopsy done, and it came back negative. Yay!

I’ll also leave out most of the story, the part that led up to the biopsy — what?! — because what I want to share is what I got out of the experience. There is a short story in that, though.

See these branches?

They’re on a tall pine tree outside of my bathroom window. When I called my doctor’s office for the results, I retreated to my master-bedroom bathroom. This way, I’d be out of earshot from my kids who were home on a snow day (which yielded no snow, so the branches looked just like this).

I waited for the office staff to put my call through to the nurse. It took a long time before the nurse picked up. Well, maybe a minute or two, but it felt like a long time.

There wasn’t much to do in the bathroom, so I gazed out of the window at those branches on a beautiful, blue-sky day.

On the one hand, the branches looked vulnerable – sitting way up high, extending far from the trunk, bobbing in the breeze.

On the other hand, they’d weathered many storms over the years. Whipped around by high winds. Pelted by heavy rain. Weighed down by snow and ice.

Those branches had been really good at bending and not breaking. I’d been watching them for sixteen and a half years. A few had broken from extreme stress, but for the most part, they’d remained resilient.

So, as I waited for the nurse, I anchored myself by watching those strong, flexible branches. And I thought about how the nurse on the other end of the phone would give me news, likely either: “It’s negative,” or “The doctor will call you” (which I’ve come to understand often means bad news).

And I thought about how the news, depending on what it was, would take my life in one direction or another.

Photo via Visual Hunt

Would I proceed with my plans for the rest of this school year? Or would a good deal of my time and energy need to go elsewhere?

Whatever the news, I hoped to handle things as those branches do. In that moment, I don’t think I could have laid eyes on a better role model. They keep it simple. They do what they need to do. And they do so with grace.

They seemed to be saying, quietly, “You got this. Whatever it may be.”

As it turns out, I was lucky. Before this, I’d been lucky — and unlucky — in other life situations.

Haven’t we all been in both of those places? Lucky? Unlucky? Be it health or something else? Something little or something big? It’s just part of the human experience.

This makes me think of another very short story. When my younger daughter was three years old, she had an accident while under my care. She required stitches, as had my older daughter a few years prior. I felt awful. Both of them. Under my care! Maybe I could have prevented it, if only I had…

My brother, Pete, who happens to be a family practitioner, told me over the phone, “You’ve probably helped her avoid other accidents. You just don’t know it.”

That was such an eye opener, and I felt so much better. What a compassionate response. And what a novel way of looking at motherhood and at life. I also took it to mean: Luck is all around, even when we don’t know it.

I’m aware of how fleeting and fragile life is. It’s a heavy awareness to live with, yet it’s part of what feeds my gratitude. That awareness makes me feel grateful to wake up each day.

That awareness also makes me avoid drama (which is different from conflict). I have no time and energy for the former. I’d rather be doing something meaningful or having fun. Or eating chocolate.

Those moments, like my phone call with the nurse, feel like reminders from the universe to sharpen that awareness and gratitude and perspective when it may be dulling.

As I’ve moved forward from that phone call, I’ve held on to the image of those branches swaying gracefully. They don’t know what will come their way; they just keep bending.

Those branches remind me to keep bending. They remind me that I’m lucky (even when I don’t know it).

And now, for some chocolate…

Until we meet again,

Amy

My Christmas (and New Year’s) Wish

December is whizzing by in a blur of kid-related activities and holiday festivities.

And more outrageous national news.

I must say: America’s turmoil has challenged my spirit this holiday season, as it has this past year. Like many people I know, I’ve tried my best to stay informed and to carry on.

Thankfully, holiday traditions have grounded, distracted, and cheered me: shopping and cards, decorating and baking, gatherings and volunteering.

Loaded with butter and topped with my husband’s homemade icing

The same old holiday songs have played in the background, connecting the past to the present. Some people have grown annoyed by the endless holiday music — no wonder, some stores have been playing them since the day after Halloween! — but I haven’t been able to get enough of them. I think it’s because they’re so filled with love and joy, peace and hope. And good memories.

One song, “My Grown-up Christmas List,” has resonated like none other this year. It’s not my favorite, by any means. It’s always been too mushy for my taste, especially the melody. But I appreciate the lyrics, particularly those of the refrain.

What’s on your list?

Wherever these lyrics have caught me this season — in a store, in the car, at home — I’ve paused and thought, “Yeah. That’s where it’s at.”

No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end, no
This is my grown-up Christmas list”
— David Foster & Linda Thompson-Jenner

My kids are too old now to believe in Santa. And as much as I’d want it, I don’t believe these grown-up Christmas wishes will ever come true, completely. I’m dreamy, but realistic.

I love this ornament! I love this world.

Yet I do believe that if enough of us work on this list, we’d see less lives torn apart, less wars start, more healed hearts…

So, here’s my top wish: Our country and world will be in a better place at this time next year. Not in the same place, and definitely not in a worse place. But in a better place.

The grown-up in me knows that wishing is not enough. I must act, and do so with commitment and courage. I’ll do my small part in the greater effort to make that happen.

I spotted this while Christmas shopping.

Whichever holiday(s) you celebrate, I wish you and yours love and joy…peace and hope…and whatever fills your list.

I just may keep playing holiday music well into the New Year. Here’s to 2018! Together, we can do anything.

With friends at the Women’s March on Washington, January 2017

Until we meet again,

Amy

The Big Read Holland Area: Connecting with a Community

Speaking with students at a school visit. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Earlier this month, I participated for two days in The Big Read Holland Area. Holland is located on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The first Europeans who settled there were — you guessed it — from the Netherlands.

Holland’s nickname is “The Tulip City.” This whimsical sculpture by Stuart Padnos stands in front of the Holland Area Arts Council.

My experience in Holland was simply powerful. Rarely does an experience resonate in so many ways: as a writer, former teacher, politically conscious citizen, and human being.

The Big Read, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, is a program that provides grants annually to about 75 communities across America. Led by Associate Professor Deb Van Duinen of Hope College, Holland received its fourth consecutive grant this year. They’re doing something right!

According to the NEA website, “…the NEA Big Read broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Showcasing a diverse range of contemporary titles that reflect many different voices and perspectives, the NEA Big Read aims to inspire conversation and discovery.”

I had the joy of seeing a community putting NEA’s aim into action — particularly refreshing during this time of national turmoil.

For this year’s Big Read, Holland chose Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine, a heartbreaking novel about a family’s experiences before, during, and after the Japanese American internment. Built around this novel and the internment, Holland offered a month-long array of programs incorporating book clubs, lectures, visual arts, music, film, and so on.

My well-loved copy

The Big Read is not just for adults! The committee chose my book, A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, so that kids would have an accessible book about the Japanese American internment. A committee member told me that 600-700 copies of my book were distributed in the community. Wow! What an honor to think that so many kids in Holland have my book in their hands.

As you may imagine, the internment is a difficult subject to discuss with young people. The last thing I want to do, in my personal or professional life, is to crush a kid’s spirit. On the contrary, I try my best to lift up.

Speaking to a group of 3rd-5th graders. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Whenever I share my book and give a program, I walk a fine line between educating kids about this dark chapter of American history and trying to inspire feelings of hope for their lives and our country. It feels like, and is, a tremendous responsibility.

Speaking to a group of 2nd graders. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Although my library visit was advertised for upper elementary students, younger children also attended. One boy, about four years old, asked one of the wisest questions:

Why were there guns?” He was referring to the guards who pointed guns toward the internees from the watchtowers.

Yes, indeed. Why?

At the library and at the schools, I spoke with a total of about 600 kids. What an opportunity to reach so many young people about the internment!

Yet my primary goal was to connect with them, in one way or another. I think that when we experience connections, it’s hard not to care about each other and the world. And I think that connections can also foster hope. Don’t we all need more hope these days?

Depending on the audience, I shared:

history about the Japanese American internment…

Discussing “Evacuation Day.” (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

…my maternal family’s experience at Topaz, one of the ten internment camps…

Discussing a photo of my mother and grandmother taken by Dorothea Lange. (Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area)

…information about Topaz Art School where my grandfather, Matsusaburo Hibi, and my grandmother, Hisako Hibi, taught and painted…

Discussing Topaz Art School which my book centers around. (Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area)

…my grandmother’s art which helped sustain her during the internment (as well as before and after)…

Discussing “Floating Clouds” (oil on canvas, 1944) by my grandmother, Hisako Hibi. (Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area)

…and Felicia Hoshino’s illustrations which were, in part, inspired by my grandmother’s art. Do you see the girl in the red cape in both pieces?

Discussing my grandmother’s painting, “Windy,” (oil on canvas, 1944) alongside Felicia Hoshino’s dust storm scene. (Photo Credit: Thea Patterson)

I asked kids to think about what it is they love doing and encouraged them to nurture that love. What brings you joy? What brings you peace? Their faces lit up and they were eager to share.

Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area

Of course, I read and took questions.

These kids asked so many compelling questions! (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

You never know what someone might connect with, and it was eye-opening to see the range of connections that students made during my visits.

Some students focused on the internment: “One of the saddest things about the internment was all of the loss.”

Some students focused on writing: “What did you struggle with when you wrote your book?”

Some students focused on personal identity: “Did you know that I’m half Chinese American, too?”

Still others focused on personal experience. Between school visits, I heard that my book resonated with a student whose parent had been removed from home due to immigration issues.

And just yesterday, I received an email saying that one student, who is going through tough life circumstances, connected deeply with the main character who “understands what it’s like to go through hard stuff.”

Heart-rending stories.

Speaking to a group of 3rd-5th graders. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Then there was a question that cut through the weight of the subject matter and made me chuckle: How old were you during WWII? You gotta love kids!

At one of the schools, I offered a high-five to students as they were filing out of the gym. I was surprised to be offered hug after hug. Ever mindful of physical boundaries, I repeatedly said, “You don’t have to hug me.” But many students chose to give a hug over a high-five.

Photo Credit: Anne Harrison

In addition to kids, I had the pleasure of connecting with adults in Holland. I shared a yummy lunch with Hope College students who serve on the college committee of The Big Read Holland Area. It’s a big operation (and even includes a high school committee). These bright students are getting it done!

Hope College students (from left to right): Ryan, Lauren, Becky, Thea

I also shared a long dinner with two wonderful librarians, Anne Harrison and Anne Pott, who serve on the main committee of The Big Read Holland Area. Dinner was scrumptious, the company lovely, and the conversation meaningful. Could I love librarians more? Authors and librarians (and teachers) share a special bond when it comes to books and kids.

With Anne Pott (front) and Anne Harrison (back), celebrating The Big Read Holland Area.

I asked the waitress for a menu to take home as a memento. Salt of the Earth seemed like a fitting description of the evening and of my experience in Holland.

I went to Holland hoping, most of all, to connect with people. I did and left with a renewed sense of hope — born of a community’s commitment to learning and growing, even when the conversation gets difficult. As with most things in life, going through the process can bring on something positive.

I found this downtown — footsteps leading up to an inspiring sculpture.

The President aims to start shutting down the National Endowment for the Arts in 2018. NEA programs like The Big Read, which reach millions of Americans, would cease to exist. It’s hard to fathom the loss that this would cause in our country, both individually and collectively. Please click here to read about it and to speak up for the arts.

I often quote Kate DiCamillo: “Stories connect us.” I think the same goes for all of the arts. They have a way of sparking connections within and between people, sometimes in unexpected ways and in unexpected places.

My first time spotting a fireplace on a sidewalk!

Thank you, Holland, for your warm welcome. As 2017 comes to a close, I’ll remember my time there as one of the brightest spots of my year!

Signing and saying good-bye. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Until we meet again,

Amy

Interview with Author Marc Boston

Marc Boston on Skyline Drive near his home in Charlottesville

When I registered for a writing workshop with Kathy Erskine in May 2014, I knew I was in for a wonderful writing experience. I had also been hoping to find other children’s writers who might want to form a critique group. Lucky for me, Marc Boston was also in the workshop!

At one point, Kathy asked for volunteers to read aloud manuscripts. Marc volunteered. Based on the smiles and laughter in the room, I think it’s safe to say that everyone was delighted by his rhyming picture book manuscript.

Well, Marc and I formed that critique group (along with other writers). He’s been cranking out the manuscripts and has been a great support to me on my own writing journey.

And that picture book manuscript? Marc ended up self-publishing it as The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff in October 2015.

With Marc at his book launch for The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff in Charlottesville

In June 2017 Marc self-published his second delightful picture book, What About Me?. Like his first book, this one is charmingly illustrated by Annie Wilkinson.

Marc with family and friends at his book launch for What About Me? in Kansas City

Amy: Hey, Marc! Congratulations on the publication of What About Me? Tell us a bit about it.

Marc: Hey there, Amy! Thank you, and thanks for inviting me to stop by to have this conversation with you. In the story, the nameless main character is vying for the attention of her two older sisters, who seem oblivious to her appeal for recognition. They aren’t being mean; they are just in their own little worlds. 

As the story progresses, our lead character must come to understand that with a little creativity and imagination, she can learn to be her own best friend. She learns that she doesn’t need to seek validation outside of herself, and that it is ultimately up to her to make herself happy. This story is an attempt to explore the theme of self-empowerment, which is truly a universal theme that folks of all ages can embrace.

Amy: Will you share your inspiration for your books?

Marc: Many of the stories I’ve written are based on the interactions, antics, and shenanigans I witness my three elementary age daughters engaging in during their everyday lives. I notice their interesting or quirky behaviors such as my middle daughter Delaney’s old habit of needing to carry many of her possessions around the house and whenever we’d leave. This particularly priceless practice of hers sparked the idea for my first book, The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff. 

I also enjoy listening to the funny things that they say, and I attempt to use that as writing material. I love to remain aware of what they are doing around me because I feel that there are so many treasures that can be mined from their unaffected, authentic way of being. I casually and surreptitiously observe all of this and spin those situations into fun tales. I’m basically a fly on the wall reporting on their day-to-day lives without their permission…hopefully they don’t sue me one day. 🙂

What About Me? is based on my youngest daughter, Journey, and her perceived interactions with her two older sisters. Perceived in that even though the stories are based on them, the stories are told through the lens of my perspective. All three of my girls get along splendidly, however there are those occasions when I notice that the older two are off engaging in some little household adventure, while Journey is off somewhere doing something solo. 

Most of the time Journey seems content, but there are those times when I feel like she’s been purposely left behind because she’s just not old enough yet to keep up. After witnessing several of these instances, I began to wonder how she might feel about being treated like a third wheel. Maybe she doesn’t mind it at all, but I thought that this episode in their lives would make a great story. So I sat down and wrote What About Me?

Marc with his daughters at Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, VA

Amy: How was the experience publishing your second picture book?

Marc: I am excited to have recently published my second book. I experienced a much easier time around publishing the new book than my first book, The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff. The first book was almost four years in the making. I wrote the story but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, because I didn’t know much about the publishing world in general. 

Once I performed a bit of research, I decided that I wished to self-publish the book as opposed to seeking traditional publishing. I set out down the road to self-publish, but I had almost no idea what I was doing at first. I learned through trial and error with the help of some very supportive artists and professionals. This time around I didn’t feel like a rookie; I didn’t have to wonder about whether to self-publish as I had my personal publishing apparatus in place already, so to speak. So this time it felt like a rather painless process. 

Amy: Why did you decide to self-publish your first book?

Marc: Probably because I’m a little crazy. 🙂 Mostly it’s because I’m a bit of a rebel. I’ve never fit completely in with many social standards. For example, I was one of the first stay-at-home dads that I’d ever known 11 years ago, and now we are more common place. 

I chose to go into self-publishing because first of all, I didn’t want to wait to be picked. I chose to pick myself! I feel like I have something to say through the stories I tell, and I didn’t want to have to wait to tell them. When I was ready to follow my goal of becoming a children’s book writer, I knew it; and I didn’t want to wait any longer. I was ready to just go for it with a sort of against-all-odds attitude. 

I worked through my initial fear and attempted to just focus on putting out my best work, allowing the chips to fall where they may. Today’s publishing world is so different than in the past that it afforded me the opportunity to do this. Not to mention, my first book was like my baby and I didn’t want to give her away to the traditional publishing world to raise. That’s the stay-at-home dad coming out in me.

…my first book was like my baby and I didn’t want to give her away to the traditional publishing world to raise. That’s the stay-at-home dad coming out in me.” — Marc Boston

Amy: Do you see yourself continuing to self-publish or do you see pursuing traditional publishing at some point?

Marc: This is a question I’ve wrestled with from the very beginning, before I made the informed decision to self-publish. Which way should I go? I certainly have nothing against pursuing traditional publishing. There is something to be said about having a team of professionals to help a relative newcomer like me with the process. Being new to the game, it would be nice to have an agent or publisher hold my hand as I continue to develop and grow in this industry. And I’m certain that the education I would receive from such a partnership would be invaluable. One of the biggest issues I’ve had with self-publishing has been the marketing, promotion, and distribution. So yes, I am truly open to the idea of receiving some assistance to further the career I’m working to firmly establish.

Amy: There are so many writers looking to publish picture books. What do you feel sets your writing apart?

Marc: There are so many reading choices out there, so what would make someone want to choose one of my stories to read? When a writer is striving to be heard, it’s easy to feel lost in the shuffle. During these times I try to remember that I have something to contribute as well. With my writing, I attempt to entertain, educate, and inspire. These attributes are common in all of my stories. Part of what I hope makes my writing entertaining is my rhyme style. It is definitely what gives my work its flavor. I also don’t shy away from using words that may be above a certain reader’s grade level, and after reading my stories I want you to feel something. I try to write thought-provoking pieces.

Amy: What threads all of your stories together?

Marc: The need to write stories that contain universal themes that all people can relate to. No matter how old or young you happen to be. And the strong desire to present people of color as the lead characters in my books.

Marc with family and friends on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville

Amy: Why is it important to you to send main characters of color out into the world?

Marc: Because there is a whole segment of people out there who feel left out, forgotten, invisible. Diverse books help to remind the world there is more than one story to be told, more than one perspective, more than one culture. And, diversity is normal! You don’t only see one race or one gender when we leave our homes. There are many different types of people, with various positions and points of view. Diversity is a beautiful thing; it should be embraced, and reflected in the books we read. 

Diversity is a beautiful thing; it should be embraced, and reflected in the books we read.” — Marc Boston

Amy: What has surprised you about the writer’s life?

Marc: (1) How much better I feel when I’m writing. If I don’t write I don’t feel right. (2) How many other people wish to also write books and articles. I can’t tell you how many people have solicited advice about how to write and how to publish, and have asked if I would critique their work since they found out that I published a couple of books. And I’m thrilled to be of service in that way.

If I don’t write, I don’t feel right.” – Marc Boston

Amy: What has been the most rewarding part about the writer’s life?

Marc: One of the most rewarding things about the writer’s life is being able to write. To start with a blank page and have a story come together the way you wish is great. To publish a book and have it accepted to the VA Festival of the Book is an amazing feeling. To have an article published in a magazine is very rewarding. To have someone actually ask your advice about writing, because they believe that you may be an authority on the subject, is fantastic. For someone to say that they really love your work is worth all the effort.  

Amy: What has been the most challenging part about the writer’s life?

Marc: Writing can be a lonely pursuit. Often I wonder if anyone cares about the work I put out. The vulnerable feeling of putting yourself out there to potentially be judged by others can be nerve-racking. Am I good enough to even call myself a writer? Sometimes it’s really hard to produce something you feel is worthy enough to present to the world, and after you do, the insecure feelings over the quality of your work are always there.

Some writers wish to be JK Rawlings or John Grisham or Walter Mosley, and if you aren’t that it feels as if you have to fight off the stigma of this being “just” a hobby. There are certain expectations you put on yourself as a writer and the perceived expectations of others that seem to be ever-present. The only thing I can do about that is to put out the best content I can, and let the work speak for itself. Because it isn’t about me, it’s about the work. 

Amy: What other stories are you working on these days?

Marc: The beauty of being in a wonderful writing critique group like ImagineInk is that we usually submit new material to one another for review every three weeks. Without my writing crew, I probably wouldn’t write as much as I do. You all have been holding me accountable for the past three years. So I’m always working on something new. I have a picture book story I’m working on now that touches on childhood poverty, and I just wrapped up an article I wrote for a local magazine that explains how my daughters often provide fodder for my stories.

Amy: What other interests do you have besides writing? What else fills your days?

Marc: When I’m not writing, I’m usually reading. I’m an avid reader who loves the Easy Rawlins mysteries by Walter Mosley. I’m very much into spiritual books like those from Marianne Williamson and also Eckhart Tolle. I try to stay fit by running a mile a day, and I have a daily meditation practice. I also enjoy watching old movies, listening to classic hip-hop, taking walks, cooking, and spending time with my family traveling or just being silly with them around the house. 

Marc with his daughters at Sesquicentennial Park in Columbia, SC

Amy: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

Marc: I just want to thank you, Amy, for giving me this opportunity to chat with you. I’d also like to encourage everyone to continue to support diverse books, and to always strive to live as fearlessly and authentically as possible. Peace & Blessings.

Amy: Thanks so much for stopping by, Marc. It’s been fun to learn more about what makes you tick. I look forward to your next writing group submission. See you soon!

And thank YOU for stopping by. Marc’s books are available at http://www.marcboston.com/. 

If you’re local, Marc and I will both be at the Charlottesville Book Fair on Saturday, November 18 from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. at CitySpace on the Downtown Mall. Please come say hey to over 40 local authors!

Until we meet again,

Amy