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.

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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 (www.ethiopiareads.org) We became deep friends.

Toni

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.

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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.

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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.

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