Posts Tagged ‘One Cool Friend’

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.

Regale me with deliciousness

Being an writer breaks hearts left, right, center and all the time.  When I first met Toni Buzzeo, she was school librarian goddess of Maine, a smart and determined connector of kids and books.  I did an author visit in her school and said, “Wowee.  You have to write about how you do this!”

She agreed.  Toni and I wrote a book about terrific connections between schools and authors, illustrators, and storytellers.  But she was longing to publish a children’s book, herself, and she started a writing retreat in Maine (now near Boston) where she and I write and talk together every fall.

I remember the achey-breaky-heart retreat when Toni was in despair over having written so much, revised so much, submitted so much, and been rejected so much.  She wailed that she’d never get a book published.

Failure is a constant in our writing and publishing world.  Acccccccccccccccccck.  It’s enough to make anyone weep.

Well, guess what?  This week, Toni’s newest book has its debut–in the #10 spot of the New York Times Bestseller picture book list.

I remember when this book was a vague glimmer in Toni’s brain.

I remember watching her sit and laugh with one of our author friends on retreat as she shaped and re-shaped the story.

I remember giving suggestions and listening to various readings and cheering it on.  And of course I remember that retreat when she was in the depths of despair and thought she’d never get even one book published.

Toni and I first bonded over a story she’d written that came out of her first trip to Kenya.  Right now, she’s now on her way to author visits at international schools in Ethiopia and Kenya.  Via phone, we got to jump around some before she left.  I told her I needed her to regale me with the deliciousness of the whole cool story, and she did.

Triumph!  As Lanie would say, “Thrilldom!”  Every once in a while, everything clicks.

Author Philip Pullman, in his Isis lecture writes, “Writing a story feels to me like fishing in a boat at night. The sea is much bigger than you are, and the light of your little lamp doesn’t show you very much of it. You hope it’ll attract some curious fish, but perhaps you’ll sit here all night long and not get a bite.”

Most of my efforts–whether my pages of fiction or my volunteer work for Ethiopia Reads–don’t get a bite.

In Ethiopia, schools have creative ways of getting words and pictures to kids.  Books are expensive to produce.  A lot of classrooms have 0 books so, as my brother says, lots of kids are doing the hard work of learning to read–with no books TO read.

Why do he and I think that’s so awful?

Why do he and I donate so much time and effort to Ethiopia Reads when we should be writing more books?

Look at this picture of Opening Day and listen to Philip Pullman again:

“Stories are written to beguile, to entertain, to amuse, to move, to enchant, to horrify, to delight, to anger, to make us wonder.”


Those who focus on only standardized tests and fill in the blank sheets (for example) “seem to have completely forgotten the true purpose of literature, the everyday, humble, generous intention that lies behind every book, every story, every poem: to delight or to console, to help us enjoy life or endure it. That’s the true reason we should be giving books to children.”

So Opening Day this spring at the newest library in Ethiopia?  New partners in the work to share teacher-to-teacher, reader-to-reader in Ethiopia? Regale me with more of the deliciousness of THAT.