Monday, June 9, 2014

Poet Tamera Wissinger Is Back With 'This Old Band'

I don't focus enough on poetry with this blog, and that's something I am hoping to fix. Today I talk with Tamera Will Wissinger, who has a keen ear for rhyme and poetry. Her first book, Gone Fishing: A Novel In Verse (2013, Houghton Mifflin) was honored as a 2014 Best Children's Book of the Year and an ALSC 2014 Notable Children's Book. Illustrated by Matthew Cordell, it is a story about kids and their dad having a fishing day told through a variety of poetic forms and poetry techniques.

Back with a second rhyming book, This Old Band, which published last week with Sky Pony Press, Tamera puts a fun spin on a popular nursery rhyme while teaching the youngest readers about counting and noises. This one is hilariously illustrated by Matt Loveridge.

Question: What draws you to poetry and sharing it with children? Do you write in other forms and genres, or do you feel like you've found your niche with poetry for young readers?

Tamera Wissinger: Poetry through nursery rhymes and stories is the first type of storytelling that I loved when I was young. That led to a love of reading and then writing. I’ve always been intrigued about finding ways to share my own poetry with children who are beginning to explore language and stories. Rhythm and rhyme are an engaging way to do that. I do write in other forms and genres including traditional picture books and middle grade novels.

Q: Where did you get the idea for This Old Band? What was your ah-ha moment like?

TW: My initial ah-ha moment came after a trip to Wyoming and Montana with my husband and friends. I had visited the western United States before, and on this trip I carried my pen and paper with me, taking note of the rugged, intriguing places as we traveled through. I was particularly struck by the richness of character in the people, ranch life, the land, the wildlife. It was so different from my Midwest orientation that I wanted to try to capture that in a story for young readers. For a while, I struggled with a different picture book draft that didn’t quite work, so my second ah-ha moment came when I changed course and revised the manuscript to include this musical counting cowboy and cowgirl band, while keeping the setting and characters that were my initial influences.

Q: Can you talk about your creative process? Do you write in the wee-small hours of the morning, or late at night? Do you read your poems aloud and fret over every word? What's it like?

TW: My favorite time to write is in the morning, after breakfast and a workout. Of course writing isn’t always that tidy, so I’ll write whenever I have a chance. Sometimes that’s very early morning before or during breakfast and other times it’s late at night.

When I’m starting a project I just let the words come tumbling out in a sort of freethinking way I suppose – my first job is to simply capture the essence of the story or poem on paper or computer. I don’t worry about anything besides just grabbing the idea before it slips away. From there I begin to assess and structure.

Along the way as I’m working out details of story, characters, setting, pacing, if and how it will rhyme, I do read aloud – especially if it rhymes and has a strong rhythm pattern. It’s also useful to listen to someone else read my work aloud to me. I do consider every single word as part of my final edits. Some of the last questions I ask myself before submitting are, “Have I made this as strong as possible? Are there words in here that aren’t carrying their weight? What can be cut altogether, or traded for something more exciting or descriptive?”

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your books?

TW: I hope that young readers are engaged and having fun while they’re reading and that they’ll want to come back to my books more than once. Maybe my hope is that they’ll feel a connection to the story, characters, setting, those with whom they’re reading. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

Q: What are you working on next?

TW: Next up for me is a cumulative rhyming picture book called There Was an Old Lady Who Gobbled a Skink, set to release with Sky Pony Press in 2015. It is a perilous waterside story and a tribute to the traditional, Old Lady and Fly folktale. In my story the narrator worries, “Why would she think to gobble a skink? Perhaps she’ll sink!”

Friday, June 6, 2014

48 Hour Book Challenge Meets #WeNeedDiverseBooks

 

Hey, did you know the ninth annual 48 Hour Book Challenge is going on this very minute? The clock is ticking as you read this, so grab a stack o' books and get at it.

What is the 48 Hour Book Challenge, you ask? Here's how it works: chose your starting time within the weekend and read as much of the time as you want. The books are anything from middle-grade to YA to adult. And you can blog about it during that time too. Some people go without sleep and read the entire 48 hours. Others challenge themselves to be part of the 20 Hour Club. Just 12 hours makes you a participant and eligible for prizes – PRIZES! – so there's a pace for everyone. Visit the force behind this effort, MotherReader, for a clear rundown of the system.

And in solidarity of the cause of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, this year's challenge is dedicated to reading, sharing, and reviewing books that show diversity. So included here in this post are a few diverse children's books to add to the list.

Grace Lin said it best in a recent Publisher's Weekly article when she noted that multicultural books aren’t just for minorities. “If non-minority kids don’t get diverse books, they will grow up with only stereotypes” of people of color.

My debut middle-grade, Cupcake Cousins, is an attempt at bridging that gap. It features almost-10-year-old cousins who don't necessarily look the same – one African American, the other freckled – but share the same love of cooking. And the same desire to avoid the hideous pink flower-girl dresses their moms want them to wear for the aunt's upcoming wedding. It's a humorous cooking caper with plenty of kitchen disasters and wacky relatives, and the kids just happen to have a mixed race family.

Fellow Chicagoan and all-around good egg Crystal Chan has a terrific book that features a multicultural storyline. Titled Bird (Atheneum, 2014), it explores family secrets hidden from a mixed-race race girl named Jewel and her grieving family. Jewel's brother, Bird, died the day she was born. And all her life, she has been living in his shadow. Her parents say that it's Grandpa's fault, that he drew a malevolent spirit—a duppy—into their home.

Skila Brown's Caminar (Candlewick, 2014) is set in 1981 Guatemala. It tells the powerful story of a boy who must decide for himself what it means to be a man during a turbulent time of war. It's a novel in verse, and it was inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war.

N.H. Senzai's Saving Kabul Corner (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2014) tells the story of 12-year-old Ariana, whose comfortable life hits the skids when her cousin Laila arrives from Afghanistan. Laila is charming, with perfect manners, and before Ariana knows it, she's taken her best friend too. School Library Journal writes: "It is refreshing to see such a vastly multicultural cast in children's literature, and no character is portrayed as stereotypical or overly generalized. The glossary of terms in the back is also a nice touch. Recommended for any fan of multicultural literature or realistic fiction."

These are just a few books that feature diverse characters and authors. And that is the message behind the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, which is rocking the children's book publishing industry. For those who need a bit of background, it burst onto the scene in late April when BookCon announced an all-white, all-male line-up of authors. In response, a group of children's authors joined forces with the shared mission to "promote or amplify diversification efforts and increase visibility for diverse books and authors, with a goal of empowering a wide range of readers in the process."

As an NPR article reports, a University of Wisconsin study revealed that less than 8 percent of children's books in 2013 were written by or about people of color at a time when almost half of American children come from a minority background. Walter Dean Myers wrote a powerful essay in The New York Times, asking "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?" And his son Christopher Myers wrote about "The Apartheid of Children's Literature" in the same issue.

From author Grace Lin's blog 
I believe a lot of good will come of this campaign. Already some initiatives are emerging.
  • Lee & Low Books/Tu Books is launching a second New Visions Award for a middle-grade or YA fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color. The award winner will receive a cash prize of $1,000 and a book contract with Lee & Low’s Tu Books imprint.
  • First Book has launched a $1 million campaign called The Stories for All Project. It's an initiative to provide books that "better reflect the rich and growing diversity of the population, including minorities, LGBT and special needs populations." They hope to promote multicultural books and authors, pledging to purchase 10,000 copies of multicultural titles to distribute to young readers from low-income families.
  • And according to author Ellen Oh, founder of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, a first-ever Children’s Literature Diversity Festival is in the works. Plans are for it to be held in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2016. Festival details are still to come, but read more in the PW article: “This will be a celebration of diverse authors and authors who write diversely. A festival where every panel, every event will be to celebrate diversity in all of its glory.”