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2010

24August

Publishing: Change is Here

Publishing: Change is Here

I went to the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles a few weeks ago looking for answers because I had a dilemma. The new iPad seemed perfect for the type of book I'd written - the true story of a boy from the projects who'd stolen a bus after Hurricane Katrina and driven his neighbors to safety. I had photos of the route he and I had retraced together, links to newscasts of the event, video footage of the devastation the storm brought to the Gulf coast, beautiful satellite images of the hurricane's path - all pieces of the story that could only be told in an e-book. The problem was that I'd found an agent - a really good one at Trident Media - who was shopping the book for a print version with publishers. Would I lose my agent if I self-published? Was I impatiently selling my talents short by "jumping the gun" and uploading my book to Amazon on my own? 

At the conference several pieces of information came together that convinced me my instincts to upload my book were good. First, I talked with agents and writers who agreed with me that although publishers claim to want multicultural non-fiction, my book would be a tough sell. The latest controversy over publishers printing white characters on the covers of books with black protagonists certainly seems telling. And we've become so narrow in our definition of "non-fiction" that we have trouble including narratives written in an engaging style in the category. (Even the term "non-fiction" seems negative - like it's somehow inferior to fiction - a fiction "wannabe". Why not "true stories" instead?) Secondly, I listened to leaders in the publishing industry suggest that SCBWI establish an arm that would become a "clearing house" for self-publishing authors - a vetting agency to help readers find good books that had not made it through traditional gatekeepers in the ferociously competitive climate brought about by a stagnant economy and an uncertain future for publishers worried about the effect of digital books on their business. I realized that the stigma against self-publishing would soon be gone as more authors took their careers into their own hands in a digital world. And I realized there were two more aspects of the new model that really appealed to me:

1.I could launch my Katrina story in time for the five year anniversary of the storm in just a few short weeks - a process that would take a year and a half or more with traditional publishing.
2.I really liked the idea of readers as gatekeepers. In spite of some folks' worries that the new model of authors publishing online will bring thousands of poorly written books for us to wade through to find a good one, I knew that the same word-of-mouth process (personal recommendations, online reviews, etc.) will help us find good books - just as we find them in giant book stores full of books that don't interest us.

So here it is - my announcement that tomorrow I'll launch my book online - in time for the Five Year Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on August 29. It's called Last Bus Out, and I hope you'll download the free sample that will be available on Amazon. It's really easy to load the free Kindle app onto your computer, phone, or Blackberry. (PC's or Macs are actually preferable because Apple's refusal to acknowledge Flash will hinder your iPhone's ability to play the videos; and your Kindle will only show the photos in black-and-white - a real shame.) If you like the sample, I hope you'll read the book. Courtney's story is compelling; he's a great kid who's managed to make something of his life in the face of poverty and neglect. His took bold action that he knew could land him in jail - while government officials posed for cameras. It's time. It's time for Courtney's story to find readers. I hope you'll be one.

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Posted in August, 2010

10June

Sea Change

Sea Change

I learned a lot about coastal ecology with my students when we traveled by bus to Dauphin Island and to Jekyll Island for marine science and environmental education programs. For eight years we left the confines of the classroom to spend five hands-on days studying beach erosion, wave movement, currents, and marine life. We learned the names of the strange creatures caught in our seining nets in tidal pools – before we threw them back. A fellow that looked exactly like a baked potato turned out to be a tunicate that molds himself to your hand just as he molds his body in the shape of the sand he washes up on.

In the salt marsh we held snails to our throats and hummed to coax them out of their shells; we watched hundreds of male crabs waving one claw, all at the same time, to attract females - hilarious. We spied on tiny fish hiding in Spartina grass until they're large enough to survive in the sea - a fascinating snapshot of the importance to the food chain of estuaries as nurseries.

In the lab we dissected squid and studied plankton – a life form familiar to middle schoolers who also like to float through the day without expending any effort (and sometimes get eaten alive by predators.) We giggled at the instructor's claim that the barnacle has the largest reproductive organ of any living organism, proportionately speaking. Those grad student teachers knew how to keep the attention of an 8th grade audience.

From Jekyll we took the ferry over to Cumberland Island, a natural environment unspoiled by man – with wild horses and armadillos roaming free and nary a gas station or Wal-Mart in sight. We even watched an overly zealous conservationist lady try to revive a sea turtle by blowing into a tube down its throat – despite the fact that it had been dead long enough to produce an impressive stench. (I think she'd been isolated on the island too long.) At night we learned how city lights can confuse newly hatched turtles as they search for the moon on the water to make their way out to sea. We watched constellations appear, sharply focused in true darkness, the same stars that have helped sailors navigate for centuries.

And we journaled about our experiences and kept notes in workbooks printed for the occasion. We connected with the sea and its inhabitants in a way that stayed with me and, I hope, with my students.

Today I am grieving – for beautiful ocean creatures dying in numbers too large to document, for sea birds cooked alive in heavy coats of oil, for fishermen who will lose their homes and the livelihoods handed down to them by their fathers and grandfathers, for once pristine beaches caked with tar - for the lost beauty of an ecosystem now desecrated beyond belief. And I grieve for the arrogance and ignorance of callous men who've willfully and thoughtlessly defiled our precariously balanced planet and jeopardized the futures of our children and their children – to satisfy their greed.

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Posted in June, 2010

25May

Spelling Probs

Spelling Probs

Lots of former students have told me they worry about spelling mistakes in notes they write to me. I promise I've never returned a personal note yet with red pen marks (I actually always preferred green), and I honestly don't notice the medium when I'm caught up in the message. I LOVE getting notes – whether they're in my Facebook Inbox or on my wall, through the mail, texted, or recently – stuck in my mailbox. Last week two students who were leaving on trips stopped by to leave notes – what sweethearts to take the time in the middle of packing! Love you, Martina and Aaron! And Carson, you have a gift for knowing when I need to hear from you most!

I don't care at all about spelling errors, but if you're writing for professional reasons – whether you're querying an agent or publisher or submitting requested info to a boss – you gotta get it right. I found this poster on the Oatmeal site that covers the "it's and its" and "they're, their, and there" issues, along with some other spelling buggers, in a way that'll help you remember. Perfect for your office or dorm room (or you can print out a smaller version.) If you focus on one issue at a time and make a commitment to learn the rule, most spelling problems are pretty fixable. Old habits die hard, so it takes conscious effort. (Thank you, Alice Evans, for teaching me to spell "y'all" which I'd always spelled "ya'll" for some reason before you noticed it. I think nice thoughts about you every time I write it - which turns out to be a lot.)

In the current crappy job market, don't give an employer (or a potential one if you're resume writing) ANY excuse to choose someone else over you. Clean up your act and take care of those little problems that have bugged you for years! Unless you have a learning disability (which I totally understand because numbers are like a foreign language for me) It's not hard if you make up your mind to do it.

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Posted in May, 2010

19May

Love and loss

I had a long conversation yesterday with someone I haven't seen in a while. He came in town because a friend committed suicide. No one saw it coming, and he hadn't spoken to this friend in a while. The thing is, the last time I saw him was at another friend's funeral – someone he'd been really close to and had a falling out with, who was killed in a car accident a couple of years ago. My friend has attended more than his share of friends' funerals for someone in his early twenties. And the conversation we had on my porch came three weeks after I lost my father who slipped into a coma just a couple of days after being admitted to the hospital with pneumonia.

This isn't going to be a blog about how we should say all the things to people that we want to say in case we don't have the chance later. Worrying about not having time to say stuff isn't a very good reason to cough up a bunch of emotional sentiment that doesn't feel natural. What struck me yesterday was how important friendships really are. Lots of people will go to bed tonight after the funeral wondering if there was something they might have said to stop what happened. I don't think there is. In the conversations I've had with suicidal students through the years, I've learned that you can't tell them about all the things they've got going for them or how different things will look in a few months – because that's YOUR perspective, not theirs, and they can't see things from your point of view. All you can do is promise to be right there with them while they work through their crisis - but they're not likely to tell you how bad things are until it's too late. So you're left just hoping that you made it clear how much you cared for them.

I told my friend on the porch that what I remembered about him and his friend who died in the auto accident is how they always laughed when they were together, how one of them always had a crazy idea that the other thought was pure genius, how proud they were of each other's successes, and the way they pulled everyone around them into whatever rule-breaking stunt they were planning. They shared a love of music, a gift for storytelling, and a bond as brothers. I rarely saw one without the other. I never knew what caused the rift in their friendship that didn't get mended, but I'm pretty sure the friend who died knew that the love was still there. In spite of the stubbornness that kept both of them from reaching out to fix things, the months of silence didn't diminish the years of friendship they shared. I hope my friend can focus on the good times they had.

There are lots of things I might have told my father if I'd known I only had a few hours to say them. But the truth is, he knew. And I know the things he'd have told me if he could. I'm hoping that the friends who will be suffering this fresh loss we're now facing, a tragic and violent death made harder because it was exacted by the victim's own hand, will understand the same thing. Whatever pain is so great it causes someone to take his own life might temporarily overshadow his best days, but the terrible passion of that moment doesn't negate the years of companionship offered by his circle of friends. He knew you loved him. He just – for one tragic instant - couldn't find a way to love himself. He leaves you behind to stand as a testament to the good times. If he could, he'd ask you to be happy for the memories you'll have forever, and the friendship you were lucky to share.

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Posted in May, 2010

13May

What Babies Know

What Babies Know

Emily told me about a New York Times' article on "what babies know," so I looked it up yesterday. Fascinating stuff with big implications for people who write children's books! These researchers showed babies a "puppet show" where a red ball is moving up a hill. A yellow square shows up and assists it up the hill, but a green triangle appears and pushes it down. (All the shapes have faces, which has turned out to be an important part of getting babies involved in socialization issues; they lose interest without them.) After watching, the babies are offered each shape, and they prefer the "nice" shape to the "mean" one overwhelmingly – those under six months by looking at it longer, older babies by reaching for it. (In case you're thinking babies might prefer a particular color or shape, they changed those up and the results were the same.)

We can no longer assume those big eyes and rounded foreheads house empty space – or visions of sugarplums dancing. Those babies are dealing with complicated issues like right and wrong. By the way, they can also "do math." When one Mickey Mouse doll is shown on an empty stage, then joined by another, babies stare longer if they are subsequently shown one doll or three dolls instead of the "expected" two.

That innocent wide-eyed look is deceptive. My friend Beth points out that the word for that appealing combination of features look babies have is "neoteny," which usually refers mostly to the retention of these characteristics in adults. It's why film-makers make aliens with big heads and low, wide apart eyes. (And don't you just want to force-feed a cupcake to those poor starved models with the huge heads?)

With infants, eyes and cries are all we've got. Many parents learn to "read" cries to determine hunger, pain, or fatigue. But it's the eyes that show the more positive emotions I love – absolute adoration of whoever's feeding them, downcast embarrassment for the person making a fool of himself trying to get a smile, and wicked bemusement when they're "in on the joke." I've learned never to sell my students short; they've often come through when I least expected it. Looks like we owe babies the same benefit of the doubt.

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Posted in May, 2010

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