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.

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

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

Topaz Museum: A Gem in The Desert

Three weeks ago I joined my mom, Ibuki Hibi Lee, and Michio Aoyagi for the Grand Opening of Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah. As young children, they had lived at Topaz, one of the ten Japanese American internment camps during WWII. They met decades later in the Bay Area where they were born and now live.

My mom, Mich, and me at Topaz

My mom, her brother Satoshi, her mother Hisako Hibi, and her father Matsusaburo “George” Hibi were among the 8,000 Japanese Americans who were interned at Topaz. My grandparents, who were professional artists, were very involved at Topaz Art School.

The art school was directed by Chiura Obata, who had been a Professor of Art at UC Berkeley for 10 years prior to the internment (and later returned to teach there). He and my grandfather were close friends and served as best man at each other’s wedding.

Edited by Kimi Kodani Hill, Chiura Obata’s granddaughter, and published by Heyday Press (2000)

When Obata was released early from Topaz, my grandfather took over as director of the art school. My grandmother taught classes to children; my mom and uncle were students. The art school gave them all a sense of purpose and peace behind barbed wire.

The final art exhibition at Topaz, as pictured in Topaz Moon. Photo Credit: War Relocation Authority

My mom published an edited book, Peaceful Painter Hisako Hibi: Memoirs of an Issei Woman Artist (Heyday Books, 2004), containing some of my grandmother’s artwork and memoirs.

I published a picture book, A Place Where Sunflowers Grow (Lee & Low/Children’s Book Press, 2006), incorporating the Topaz Art School.

Illustration by Felicia Hoshino from A Place Where Sunflowers Grow

Really, how could I not go to the Grand Opening with my mom and Mich? The internment history made it a bittersweet occasion. Yet it turned out to be an overwhelmingly positive experience.

This museum is more about the future than it is the past.” — Don Tamaki

Hundreds of people — of all ages from all over the country — attended the events on Friday, 7/8 in Salt Lake City and Saturday, 7/9 in Delta. The outward energy was upbeat and, well…celebratory. It was as if the community was saying, “We did it. We survived. We were wronged. We prevailed.”

At the reception in Salt Lake City

Below are the Topaz survivors who were able to attend the events. I wanted to hug each and every one of them! Three moments during the weekend made my eyes well up: at dinner and at the opening ceremony when the survivors were asked to stand, and when this group photo was taken. Each of them had traveled such a long distance in life. What were their stories?

Topaz Museum is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. It features art as well as artifacts from the camp, displaying the beauty that internees managed to create during one of America’s darkest chapters.

Located about a 20-minute drive from Topaz and about a 2.5 hour drive from Salt Lake City

Of all the camps, Topaz held the highest concentration of professional artists. Topaz Art School served several hundred students, from young children to senior citizens, in classes that ranged from ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) to oil painting. Not only did classes allow for creative expression and exploration, they documented camp life since internees were prohibited from owning cameras.

Seeds for the museum were planted 35 years ago in two of Jane Beckwith’s Journalism classes at Delta High school. Over the years Jane, the Founder and President of Topaz Museum, worked tirelessly with the help of others to grow these seeds into the museum.

With Jane Beckwith at the reception

The events were organized to a T by Jane, other Topaz Museum Board Members, and volunteers:

There were speeches…

Don Tamaki, one of the pro-bono lawyers for Fred Korematsu’s appeal case

…music…

Ogden Buddhist Taiko Group during dinner at Salt Lake City
Shirley Muramoto, Koto and Vocals, at the Grand Opening in Delta

…books…

A Place Where Sunflowers Grow is now available at the museum gift shop.

…a play…

…even a pack of greeting cards in the welcoming packet…

…and, of course, artwork. The museum features many artists; here is one each of my grandparents’ pieces.

Tigers #1, #2, #3, and #4 by my grandfather Matsusaburo “George” Hibi
Print of Laundry Room by my grandmother Hisako Hibi. The original is at the JANM in LA.

In 1972 my grandmother donated the majority of my grandfather’s artwork to the UCLA Japanese American Research Project. In 1996 my mother donated the majority of my grandmother’s internment camp artwork to the Japanese American National Museum.

My grandparents’ pieces at Topaz Museum were donated by other individuals, known and unknown to my family. It was a joy to see their pieces, especially in this setting — in an ironic sense, back home where they belong.

The local NBC affiliate interviewed my mom about what the museum means to her. At one point she said, “To see my parents’ works, too, displayed here is very meaningful.”

The last event that I attended happened to be the most sobering one: visiting the site of the internment camp itself. What remains of Topaz is an open field, now a historic site.

Standing there, I could only imagine the shock of being removed from the Bay Area — where most of the Topaz internees had lived — to the one-square-mile of desert surrounded by barbed wire and policed by armed guards.

The heat alone felt oppressive. To give you an idea: an EMT truck was stationed there in case any of the guests should need medical care. When I jumped back on the bus and felt the rush of cool air from the AC, my heart sank at the thought that the internees didn’t have even electric fans to provide some comfort.

How did they cope with the hardships? From physical to psychological? How did they endure? While these were not new questions for me, they now felt more tangible.

After the events were over, my mom asked me, “Was there anything about Topaz that surprised you?” It was a thought-provoking question, and I was surprised that only two things came to mind. The first was that there was a great deal more sagebrush than I had imagined. My mom said that indeed a lot had grown since Topaz days. The second was that Delta was located much closer than I had imagined. Mich said that the town had indeed grown over the years and spread closer to the site.

This was my first visit to Topaz, so I felt relieved that I had managed to depict my book fairly realistically. I’m currently writing another children’s story based on the Japanese American internment. Being at Topaz was both grounding and inspiring for my work. I wrote while there and have continued to write since (which is partly why I’ve taken so long to blog about the museum!).

I also left with a better understanding of my mom, even though she had spoken openly of the internment while I was growing up. There was nothing like stepping back into history for a bit with her to bring me to a greater place of knowing.

My mom and me with our Topaz-related books

Finally, I left with an even bigger wish for this grave history to never repeat for any group in America. This deep sentiment was echoed over and over at the Grand Opening. My mom said it in her TV interview: “Justice for all people…We’re a nation founded in democracy.”

This t-shirt, which I picked up for my daughter, also sums it up:

If you ever find yourself in that neck of the woods (or desert), please stop by Topaz Museum. It’s filled with gems from the desert. And you’re sure to learn a thing or two about American history.

As Don Tamaki — one of the pro-bono lawyers representing Fred Korematsu in the 1983 reopened case that cleared him of criminal conviction for defying internment orders — said in his keynote speech at the Grand Opening, “This museum is more about the future than it is about the past.”

At Topaz

Until we meet again,

Amy