Archive for January, 2013

Speaking of “friends help”…

Lots and lots and lots of people over the years have approached me with a question something like this:

“I have a great idea for/have written/have written and re-written and re-written a children’s book. What now?”

I always recommend the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It was at SCBWI conferences that I first got to talk with and hear from published authors, where I met my first editors. My first agent was also someone I approached because of the bulletin published by SCBWI.  When River Friendly River Wild won the SCBWI Golden Kite award, I got to go to the SCBWI national conference and show a roomful of writers in LA the quilt that my writer friends had made for me after the flood.


If people are super duper serious, I recommend the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program where I teach. Even if I did break my elbow at the residency this month, I’m a fan. I’ve learned such craft from being part of that community of children’s book writers–and that’s with 25 books already published when I started to teach there.

Vermont grads

Serious? The VCMFA community is, too.

Before I became part of the VCFA faculty, I also occasionally mentored writers. One was an amazing school librarian from the state of Maine. When Toni Buzzeo got in touch with me, she had already done the first important work of becoming a serious writer of children’s books–she was a serious reader of children’s books. I loved the work she did in her school to find new books and connect them with young readers…and I told her that she had the rhythm and voice of picture books that I didn’t often see in samples people asked me to read.

I began to share some of what I’d taught myself about writing picture books. We went from that kind of back-and-forth to places like ALA and to writing retreats together with some of my other author friends. Later, I asked her advice about the new libraries I was volunteering to help plant in Ethiopia through Ethiopia Reads ( We became deep friends.


This week, I sat in the big hall at the American Library Association all shivery with excitement to hear which of my favorite books of the year would be honored with awards. The Caldecott and Newbery awards, in particular, are the stuff of writers’ dreams…luminous and shiny with wonderfulness.


When Toni’s new picture book popped onto the screen, it was hard not to shout triumphant, leap up and do a cartwheel, broken elbow and all. Caldecott Honor, baby! Bring on the celebration!

I remember Toni on retreat writing this story.  My picture book workshop at VCFA had loved it and come back to the pictures and words over and over–and Toni was generous enough to share with those VCFA students some of her process as the author. Did those students and I feel cool and smart and smug to have recognized a winner? Uh-huh. We did.


Writing fiction is a lonely obsession but writers can hold pinkies in the tough times and share ideas and sadness and also sometimes feel the wild joy with you. Only a fellow artist knows just how high the mountain peak feels after the slog, slog, slog of the journey.


Life comes at you…

library…with a whoosh and a whomp. Yes, I knew it was slick in Vermont. I slid down the hill to the gym the first morning before 6 a.m. in the dark bending my knees, staying low to the ground and trying to remember everything I knew about staying up. But I strode out of the library with a bag full of picture books thinking only about getting to Tim’s lecture.



Flat on my back–and right elbow, I guess.

elbowThat dorm room never seemed smaller than when I sat in it with my arm elevated after surgery. jj Having writer friends never seemed sweeter than when JJ came to spend the first 24 hours with me and my fellow faculty members poked their heads in to see what I needed and make sure I was okay.

I’ll go down in VCFA lore for giving a lecture with a broken elbow.  But hey at the time I thought it was only bruised.  Also, I did talk in that lecture about how growing up in Ethiopia taught me to look calamity in the eye and not get rattled.


So I stuck it out and got to see a new crop of MFA students graduate.  Thrilldom!

We looked out into a yard that was used as a battlefield hospital during the Civil War and thought about being tough for our journeys.


One of the bits of wisdom I tucked into their hats for the journey comes from an article about Jerry Seinfeld that an author friend shared:


“He compares himself to baseball players — putting spin on the ball as it leaves his fingers, trying to keep his batting average high — and to surfers: ‘What are they doing that for? It’s just pure. You’re alone. That wave is so much bigger and stronger than you. You’re always outnumbered. They always can crush you. And yet you’re going to accept that and turn it into a little, brief, meaningless art form.’ He said: ‘I’m not filling a deep emotional hole here. I’m playing a very difficult game, and if you’d like to see someone who’s very good at a difficult game, that’s what I do.'”

You’re always outnumbered.

Friends help.

Hard to believe…

vermont 008…that I first taught in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2006. Showing up in Vermont in January and July? Sleeping in a dorm room?  Eating cafeteria food? Hmmmm. Boot Camp for Writers!  Who thought THAT was a good idea?

During the rest of the year, I read my students’ material…the amazing and the not so amazing–because that’s the reality of drafts.  We have to moosh and squish a lot of clay and shape and re-shape before anything wonderful emerges.  I do author visits and put in my volunteer hours with Ethiopia Reads and am reminded of the magic that happens when authors do find their way to that something wonderful…

The magic of readers.

mobile 7

Vermont College MFA residency begins

Vermont College MFA residency begins

workshop fodder!