Archive for the ‘writing retreat’ Category

A Woman Walked Into a Picture Book…


After decades of publishing books that have sometimes been called lyrical and important and poetic, I’m about to publish a picture book that my friend Carmen Bernier Grand calls hilarious.

Zoo poo

Thanks, Carmen.

Ironically, this book was born in a brainstorming session where my writer retreat friends and I were making each other laugh—and the idea for it wasn’t even mine. I was just the one who seriously wanted it. Now it’s about to come out and I’m terrified.

Aren’t you often terrified?

Art makes us vulnerable, and the sea can be so brutal.

My writer friends and I sometimes shout, “Back, back, Fearnando.”

Poor Fearnando. He just wants to protect us. As shame guru Brene Brown (she of the academic research around vulnerability) tells us, “The message is, do it! Get your courage on, but be clear that it won’t be easy. It’s going to feel like shit.”

(This is an appropriate message from someone who would write What Do They Do With All That Poo.)

zoo poo 2

Humor is, well, fun and games. Right up to the point someone slips on a banana peel.

I thank my lucky stars that one day I took a deep breath and began to sing as part of my Vermont College of Fine Arts lecture (which is another story) and Cate introduced herself afterwards and admitted she sings and…

VCFA singing

…Reader, we sang. (Singing in public is scary. It’s a lot like telling a joke. Do you feel—as I do at times—that you can die from scary? But do you also feel more alive when you’re taking risks?)

Cate also wrote her critical thesis on funny picture books, and since I was her adviser I got to think about all of this. A lot. (Thank you, Cate—and she’s going to post for all of us later this month and give us all kinds of wisdom about why women feel they are so shut out of humor in picture books.)

That’s why I read an article called “The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian” ( about how humor dances on the edge of the unacceptable. Is often transgressive. As the article says, “Go purely light-hearted and you risk being toothless. Too edgy, and you’ll make people uncomfortable.”

It made me look inside for part of the answer. Good girls don’t bite. Luckily, I was born fierce. (So was my daughter, who demanded that her teachers have a sense of humor. So was my granddaughter–as you can see.)

My mom recently asked me, “When did you get to be so civilized?” Well, Mom, it happens to the best of us. But Mom herself was pretty unconventional–tough, but also witty. When I was growing up in rural Ethiopia and we were given a chicken to carry with us in the Jeep, I made her laugh and laugh by announcing, “I smell something foowwwwl.”

I did not win any good-kid awards in my family. I did get to feel the zingy power that comes from making someone laugh.

My dad loved a funny story, too. And in my family we didn’t get the memo that only boys get to take after Dad–because for a long time there weren’t any.

Humor. Often so uncivilized. I have a feeling we’ll have to push hard to wedge this particular door open wider because there’s a lot at stake in seeing women as sweet and ladylike. Grandmas? We wear aprons and are jolly and warm and comforting. In other words, on the other side of the door, a big sweaty mass is pushing back.

Brene Brown says, “I want to create. I want to make things that didn’t exist before I touched them. I want to show up and be seen in my work and in my life. And if you’re going to show up and be seen there is only one guarantee. And that is, you will get your ass kicked.”

I don’t like getting my ass kicked. I—like you, like all humans, probably–have been on a lifelong quest to get over shame. To actively…with big gulps…resist the idea that I was born to sit down and shut up and make myself small.


When the sea is brutal, there’s only one real boat for me.

The sisterhood.

sisters at beach

Yes, I mean my actual sisters (and my brother, too) who make me laugh harder than anybody else can.

I also mean my sisterhood of writer friends. For example, recently Jennifer Jacobson and I have been exchanging manuscripts and we ask each other for help in answering how can this story take more risks, be more inventive, be more muscular?

And I mean the sisterhood of teachers, librarians, academics, reviewers who can use their power to amplify the voices of the small peepers down here up to our eyeballs in sand.

Maybe a woman walked into a bar…and walked away with a black eye.

But maybe the sisters are there with ice packs and raw beef.

Didn’t we once, long ago, burn our bras together and feel the power?



Author Power

It’s tough times for writers of children’s books.

All of the things that hit education and libraries in the United States also hit children’s books.  And families live busy, distracted lives–sometimes too busy to read; sometimes too busy to visit a bookstore.  And publishing is centered in a city of devastatingly expensive real estate.

AG 105 AG 092I took these pictures when I was in NYC signing copies of my Lanie books at the American Girl store.  It was thrilldom seeing a character that created taking up a whole window in that amazing city.  But most books don’t get that kind of marketing pizzazz.

To say the least.

So I loved spending last weekend in Chicago for the American Library Association conference, getting to talk to friends (who are also powerful book ambassadors) about my new book, Anna Was Here.  This is a time when the NEW and DEBUT is celebrated.  Why not?  I was once a new author and I loved the extra boost.

I also love the long life of growing in craft.

DSC00712I’ve been going on a writing retreat with author friends for years. ???????????????????????????????

One of the people who dreamed up this retreat was Toni Buzzeo.  She was Maine School Librarian of the year when I met her–loving books, loving her students, matching up the two.  I did an author visit at her school, and she KNEW her teachers and her library and how to make an author (and her books) sparkle there.  She was longing to publish a book and she was determined to learn how.  I’m proud to say we were once mentor and mentee.

DSC02506Now Toni and I have now been tight friends for years.  We’ve shared lots of life moments.  I got weepy at her son’s wedding…and I’ve also choked up sometimes in asking her advice for the hard work of Ethiopia Reads or in hearing “it’s not working” about things in my manuscripts.

So imagine the thrilldom of getting to see her this month as Caldecott Princess!

DSC04485Off to the banquet. One Cool Friend coversAnd signing with the talented illustrator who, okay, actually got the Caldecott Honor for One Cool Friend, a book I remember when it was words on a page and a giggle in the corner of retreat.



I wish for every writer the sweetness of retreat and the pinky holding in the weepy times and the swelling pride of the times when it all clicks

retreatUp with writer friends.ALAUp with ALA.



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.

The myth of the solitary artistic genius and me

All the published authors I know are introverts.

One of my friends was talking about being part of an incoming class in the Vermont College MFA in children’s writing.  At the get-to-know-you session, people were asked to move here and there in the room depending on such things as where in the world they live…or whether they write YA or picture books…or whether they are introverts or extroverts.  With the last question, she said, the room almost tilted as people moved to the INTROVERT side.

When I put together my last VCMFA lecture on the lizard brain struggles of artists–and how to use insights from our own insecurities and fears in our writing–this is one thing I talked about.  A recent visiting author, who used to teach at Vermont College, said she started every residency loving everyone but by the middle of the 10-day residency, her “black Irish heart” would take over.

It’s hard to be an introvert, squeezed together with other introverts, and not feel the beating of one’s black Irish heart.

That’s why it’s so amazing to be part of my beloved annual writing retreat.  The generosity and warmth and laughter and smart conversation are something that sustains my work and something I yearn for all the rest of the year.  And this year was expecially amazingly wonderful because I went into the week feeling despair about my novel for young readers and where I am in the draft and came out in love with it again.

I had the chance to read the whole thing aloud to a fellow writer and illustrator and hear where she was confused…where she laughed…where she said “I love it; don’t change a word”…where she said, “You’re not yet having the effect you want.”

She was painting this retreat.  I got the idea of asking her if she’d be willing to listen because of another artist pairing of a writer and a painter.  It turned out to be exactly what I needed.  And she was only the latest person from this group to give me the gift of listening and reading.  The gift of warm but ferocious feedback.

Yes, art is often made in silence, humans walking that lonesome valley all by themselves.  But not always.  Sometimes we wrestle with the joys and terrors of collaboration and of what it means to have and maintain a team.

It takes generosity of spirit.

It takes people who are willing to mentor and people who are eager to be lifelong students.

When I saw this picture of Ethiopian artists working with the young children at one of the Ethiopia Reads schools in Addis Ababa–in probably the most crowded and dangerous part of that big city–I thought about how much the human community gains when we can dance together in the deep play of art.

Perhaps there are solitary geniuses in this world who can write a stunningly wonderful novel without ever venturing out of the playgrounds in their own brains.  I can’t.  I need a team.

Lucky me that I have one.  Last week in this place will warm me through many solitary days.

Revision…and appetite…and bring on the chickens.

Revision time.

I am in Boston on the edge of my annual writing retreat…it’s shocking to think that this group has been getting together for something like seventeen years.  Our lives, our writing, our despairs, our soaring bits…they are woven together.  Nancy Werlin and I went to Dian Curtis Regan’s wedding in Colorado Springs this summer, for example.  And now we’re together as our writer selves.

We are ready to talk (or I am, anyway) about chickens and how they fit or don’t fit into our scenes.  We are ready (or I am, anyway) to revise.


I used to hate it.

Sometimes I still do.

But sometimes I love the process of cutting and chopping and mixing and tasting and sampling and tossing things out and moving things around.

Adding a shake of a spice here and a little crunch there.

One of my favorite books talks about revision in terms of appetite.  We have some vague understanding of our readers’ appetite for a bit of color here and a change of pace there and some tension or some laughter.  Ingredients.

We sample and taste and say, “Hmmm.  Needs something.”  We try something new.  We sample and taste again.

Sometimes we ask our skilled reader friends to take a taste.

The Vermont College MFA program where I teach understands the power of good readers who will talk about what’s happening to them as they read our words–the movies in their mind, as one writing guru puts it.

And now I get to be student…of my own writing–for at least a week.

It’s exciting.  When kids ask me, “Who’s your favorite author?” I talk about this group of writers.  Generous.  Warm.  Funny.  Tough.

When I was a kid growing up in Ethiopia and going to a small school, I never met any authors.  I never even thought about the authors of the books I loved.  And now I get to learn from authors.


Bring on the despair.  And the joy.  And the chickens.