By Chana Stiefel
This month, I attended JudyBlumesDay, an event at Symphony Space in NYC celebrating the 80th birthday of beloved author Judy Blume. Four well-known children’s authors--Jacqueline Woodson (the new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature!), Rachel Vail, Debbie Ridpath Ohi (who illustrated Blume’s new book covers), & Soman Chainani--held a panel discussion about the influence of Judy Blume’s 30+ books on their writing and their lives.
Then Judy Blume herself addressed the audience of kids and their nostalgic parents. She answered questions, such as which book is her favorite (“It’s like asking ‘who’s your favorite child?"); what inspired her to write (“It was my need. There were so many stories inside me, I had to let them out”); and her age when she started writing (“From the time I was 9 I had stories in my head, but I didn’t start writing until I was in my late 20’s. I had two babies and I was going cuckoo so writing saved me!”).
As a children’s writer, I’ve also been taking Judy Blume’s online Master Class. Many of the key takeaways in the class resonated at Blume’s birthday bash, including what I’ll call Three R’s of Writing:
#1 Real Life
What is it about Judy Blume’s books that have struck a chord for two generations? Her books speak to real kids about real-kid problems. And the source of all that tween angst was Blume herself. Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, she says, includes all of her childhood fears exaggerated. (At the birthday event, Broadway actress Colbie Minifie read a dramatic passage in which Sheila overcomes her fears and swims across the pool.) In Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Blume relates her own experiences of what it was like to be a 6th grade girl obsessed with puberty. When writing the book, she took notes on her own life and her childhood fantasies of what it would be like to be a grown up. The part about choosing a religion was fictional, though she says the book is more about finding your place and what you believe in. She calls Starring Sally J. Friedman As Herself her most autobiographical book. Blubber came from stories that her daughter in fifth grade shared about bullying at school.
In her Master Class, Blume quotes Maurice Sendak saying, “I’ve never had children, but I was a child.” She advises writers to “be in touch with the child we were!” Remember the smells and all the details. “Go back into your childhood and put yourself in the classroom with your teacher. Who’s around you? What are you doing?” she asks. While writing, authors need to see and feel and react to the details around them to make their books real and relatable.
Two of the biggest challenges for writers is finding time to write and sticking to a routine. Each author at the event spoke about his or her writing rituals that keep them in their chair. For example, Jackie Woodson lights a candle, wears headphones, and listens to a favorite playlist. Soman Chainani exercises before and after writing. Judy Blume famously wears a silver bracelet that reminds her that it’s time to write (although she shared with the audience that the bracelet gets really annoying and she takes it off while writing!). Kids at the event were given elastic bracelets, white paper, and a writing prompt. They had an opportunity to share their writing with the audience--and Judy Blume!
Often as authors, we feel pressure to be writing all of the time. But Blume says she often takes a breather between books. “It’s not fun to write,” she says. "It’s hard work." And if the inspiration isn’t there it’s doubly hard. “Once the inspiration comes, hold on to it,” says Blume. Then write like crazy.
Happy birthday Judy Blume! We wish you many more happy, healthy years of writing!
Q & A with Ann Marie Stephens, Plus a Giveaway
By Chana Stiefel
Welcome back to Takeaway Tuesday! Have you ever noticed that many children's authors are ALSO teachers? With a love of kids and a passion for literacy, the two careers seem to go hand-in-hand. Today we're sharing an interview with teacher-author/author-teacher Ann Marie Stephens, including LOTS of takeaways about juggling two careers, finding time to write (at stoplights!), being famous (among first graders), and much more! PLUS, Ann Marie is generously offering a giveaway of her book, CY MAKES A FRIEND. See details below!
Which came first—teaching or writing? (Are you a teacher who writes or a writer who teaches?)
Hey, wait a minute. This is just like the chicken and the egg question, which means it’s debatable. I started playing teacher and writing stories when I was very young. I created characters out of construction paper and would hang curtains made from towels so my stories could be told on a stage, in true dramatic fashion. When I was in elementary school I decided I would become a writer one day, and a teacher, and maybe a pediatrician, while touring the country playing my flute. After narrowing down my options I ended up becoming a flute-playing teacher who writes whenever she can. I’m also a teacher who teaches her students to write.
What grade do you teach?
I teach first grade at George C. Round Elementary in Virginia. It’s exhausting yet exhilarating. I’ve always loved teaching younger kids. They are magic, and fire, and love all bundled up in little bodies.
Describe your background in teaching...
My background in teaching came from pure, natural instinct. I LOVED school. I used to beg my teachers for their old teacher’s editions or extra worksheets so I could play school at home. I taught neighborhood kids and one of my sisters. I never let anyone else be the teacher. My sister claims that’s why she became a teacher too, so she could finally have a turn to teach! I graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Early Childhood Education - Family and Child Development.
...and in writing?
My writing background really started in 5th grade. Mrs. Ripol asked us to write a story and I wrote an ode to my dog that had just died. I read it aloud and got choked up. Mrs. Ripol got teary-eyed and the class was silent. I could tell my words had made an impact and that was such a cool feeling. I continued to write letters and poems to my parents and friends, and as you probably predicted, I had a diary. I wrote a ton of love poems to boys I crushed on. I kept those to myself, thank goodness.
How does your teaching influence your writing (and vice versa)?
People always want to know if I have a constant stream of ideas because I work with kids. It doesn’t actually happen that way for me. They also think that I read all of my manuscripts to my easily accessible audience. My first year of teaching, I tried. Then I realized my students were never going to have helpful critiques for me. They loved every book I wrote. There were claps and whistles, and woo-hoos after each manuscript reading. So now we just talk a lot about the process of writing because they are writers too. They get to watch my paper manuscripts become real books! Mostly, I think working in an elementary school keeps my mind in the world of kids’ books. We read about 15 or more picture books a week. Reading makes us better writers and thanks to authors, we have a constant supply of books to read. My students are proficient writers by the end of our year together. They “publish” their own books and poems. We even keep their manuscripts in a WIP (Work in Progress) basket like real authors. The writer in me reminds the teacher in me, to let my students think outside the box. That’s where the magic happens. I encourage weird, funny, offbeat, unique, and diverse writing. My students never disappoint.
How did you come up with the ideas for your books CY MAKES A FRIEND and SCUBA DOG?
CY MAKES A FRIEND came from my long-time interest in Greek Mythology. As a young girl, I didn’t find myself wanting to learn more about the pretty and powerful goddesses. The evil monsters and the creepy underworld were what fascinated me. I thought it would be great to write a story about a Cyclops, but not a mean one who ate people. I wanted to create a one-eyed guy that would be so sweet he might even be irresistible. I wanted him to make a friend because that would be totally unexpected. It was also exciting to work with the theme of bravery. Putting yourself out into the world can be the hardest part about making new friends. If Cy with his one eye, swoopy bangs, and awkward tendencies can do it, anyone can.
The story behind SCUBA DOG is a simple one. A long time ago I saw a cartoon picture of a dog in scuba gear. I thought to myself, “What would a dog do underwater if he could stay down there long enough?” I jotted the thought in one of my journals and didn’t revisit it until years later. As a scuba diver, I find myself extremely comfortable underwater. Much more than I am on land! When I’m down there I meet all kinds of animals. I’m curious about them; they are curious about me. We have many ways of communicating. I stare; they stare. I float; they snap their claws. I blow bubbles; they squirt ink. I even have videos of fish and sea turtles following me. I pretend they actually want to be my friend. Silly, I know. See why I write for kids? But all dives must come to an end so I never really get the chance to form friendships. SCUBA DOG was my outlet for this.
Describe the submission process for your books.
The submission process for my stories is way easier than it used to be. Now, when I finish a manuscript, I send it to my agent. Sometimes she asks for edits, sometimes she doesn’t like what I send, and other times she snatches up a story immediately. After she accepts a manuscript, she does the rest of the work, choosing editors and publishers just right for the story. When I started in this business back in the late 90’s it was much different, though not at first. I landed an agent right away but we weren’t a good fit so we parted. After that I had to put in the hard work researching publishers, editors, and agents. I attended SCBWI conferences (still do) and local SCBWI chapter workshops. It’s super important to understand the market before wasting your time and energy sending to the wrong people. I always had a current copy of THE CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET book. It was dog-eared, written in, highlighted, and sticky noted to death. It was impossible to live without it.
How did you find your agent?
I am agented by the funny, patient, and diligent Emily Mitchell, at Wernick and Pratt Agency. I used to send my manuscripts to her, starting back in 2002, when she was an editor at Charlesbridge. Even as she rejected me she saw my potential. Over the years, she requested revisions and most importantly she kept asking to see more of my work. We even had a story that came close to a contract, but it didn’t make it past acquisitions. In 2012, she left the kid lit business and I was sad. Then in 2014, I was visiting her book blog and saw that she had reentered the publishing world as an agent. I queried her, sent her a handful of manuscripts, and she signed me. So how did I find my agent? I was persistent, positive, faithful, and did some good old-fashioned online reconnaissance.
How do you manage juggling two careers? How do you find time to write?
I will admit it can wear me out, but because I love both careers I keep plugging away. I think it’s the nature of both jobs. When I’m at school I must be tuned in 100%. That’s a lot of brainpower. Then when I write, I must be awake, thinking, plotting, and creating. However, above everything I do, being the best teacher to my students is most important to me. An editor can wait on a manuscript. Not being there for my students is not an option. My grade level and I work closely on the paperwork and planning. I’d be a mess without them. My principal and assistant principal are beyond supportive of my writing career which helps make the juggling possible. Weekends, vacations, and summers are prime writing time. I write in the car on my 40 minute commute each day too. I call it Stoplight Writing. Don’t worry. It’s not dangerous. Rather than thinking about how long my commute is taking or how annoying the driver in front of me is, I think about my latest story, finding the right word, revising a line, or changing a plot point. When I get to a red light (there are some doozies on my drive) I jot my thoughts down. I recently finished a story that’s out on submission now and I wrote 90% of it in my Jeep! I used to be hard on myself because I couldn’t spend hours writing each day like my full-time author friends could. I felt less authorly because I wrote for a shorter amount of time. There was nothing I could do to change that reality aside from quitting my job so I changed my internal dialogue. If you want to write, you will find the time. Every little minute can take you closer to finishing your story.
Writers often have to market their own books. Do you feel that you have certain advantages as a teacher in marketing your book? (e.g, a daily audience, connections with teachers and professional organizations, expertise in writing lesson plans, access to librarians, etc.)
When you are a teacher-writer you definitely have insider knowledge to kid trends, their dislikes, their obsessions, and the kind of books they fight over. We read a ton of books and you better believe I’m paying attention to their reactions, which keep me aware of what works. My years of teaching experience does make it quite easy to generate ideas for my books and my friends’ books. I have activity packets for CY MAKES A FRIEND and SCUBA DOG. You can see them on my blog: http://2happyteachers.blogspot.com. Authors meet a lot of librarians. They welcome us into their libraries and we approach them whenever we can. It’s always reassuring to meet a librarian because you know without a doubt, that they love books as much as you do, and sometimes even more.
How do you come up with book ideas?
I am the queen of random. Like most writers I pay attention to details around me. I eavesdrop, spy, observe, explore, and allow my thoughts to go off on tangents. Any object can come to life at any moment, and animals always have the option of talking. I record all ideas no matter how embarrassing or seemingly ordinary because one day they could become a story. Unfortunately, some of my most creative ideas come around 3 a.m., which is not good when you get up at 5 a.m. for work. Still, I embrace them, yawning all the way.
How do your students react to having a celebrity author as a teacher?
Funny you should ask because when I’m in my classroom is the only time I feel like a celebrity! When I’m in the real world I’m just another starving artist trying to get my work out there. My students think it’s awesome that I have published books and they love that I know other authors. Some of my author friends even come visit for free which makes my class feel pretty special. They think I know the authors of every book we read. Not yet I tell them, not yet.
What’s coming up next?
I have upcoming books with Boyds Mills Press called ARITHMECHICKS ADD UP (2019) and ARITHMECHICKS TAKE AWAY (2020). They are books about fuzzy little chicks that like to do math. I am also doing some educational writing for a book by Kwame Alexander. Stay tuned! As usual, I have manuscripts out on submission that I’m hoping will turn into book contracts in the near future. Until then, you will find me eavesdropping on your conversations, writing at stoplights, and pretending to be the celebrity I’m not for a bunch of energetic, book-happy first graders.
CONGRATULATIONS & THANK YOU for the terrific interview Ann Marie! Enter the giveaway for CY MAKES A FRIEND in the Rafflecopter below!
Ann Marie Stephens is the author of several picture books including Scuba Dog, Cy Makes a Friend, and forthcoming titles, Arithmechicks Add Up and Arithmechicks Take Away. She has been an elementary teacher for over 26 years. She was a contributing writer for Kwame Alexander’s Page-to-Stage Writing Workshop, a co-writer for Trait Crate Plus for grades 3 and 5, and has had dozens of original ideas published in Instructor and The Mailbox magazines. Represented by Emily Mitchell at Wernick and Pratt Agency, Ann Marie is a seasoned presenter for both children and adults. She co-blogs for teachers at http://2happyteachers.blogspot.com. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s off scuba diving somewhere tropical. You can find her on Facebook, Ann Marie Stephens (AMStephensAuthor), and on Instagram and Twitter @AMStephens_.
By Donna Cangelosi
I recently had the opportunity to see Springsteen on Broadway, a one-man show and intimate look at the experiences that shaped Bruce's life and fueled his artistic expression. A perfect mix of heart-felt stories, humor, and musical genius. I laughed. I cried. I was so inspired!
Most of the experiences Bruce shared during the performance appear in his beautiful memoir, BORN TO RUN, a story about growing up, hardship, dreams, friendship, rock-n-roll, letting go, and heart, heart, heart. Bruce also shares wonderful tips about the creative process that relate to the craft of writing picture books.
Find What You do Best
"I needed to travel light and be able to blow somebody away with just my voice, my guitar and my song. Voice...guitar...song...three tools. My voice was never going to win any prizes. My guitar accompanied on acoustic was rudimentary, so that left the songs. The songs would have to be fireworks. I decided the world was filled with plenty of good guitar players, many of them my match or better, but how many good songwriters were there? Songwriters with their own voice, their own story to tell, who could draw you into a world they created and sustain your interest in the things that obsessed them. Not many, a handful at best."
The Takeaway: Find your own unique style and create the story only you can write.
Write with Purpose
"These were issues that had previously been relegated to the margins of American life. Dread--the sense that things might not work out, that the moral high ground had been swept out from underneath us, that the dream we had of ourselves had somehow been tainted and the future would forever be uninsured--was in the air. This was the new lay of the land, and if I was going to put my characters out on that highway, I was going to have to put all these things in the car with them."
The Takeaway: Write stories with universal, relevant and relatable themes.
Know your Process
"I started with the guitar riff. Get yourself a great riff and you're on your way. Then I'd chug along chording randomly while I'd mumble, mumble, mumble...then, tramps like us, baby we were born to run...That was all I had..."
It wasn't an easy piece to write. I started my title song that afternoon but I didn't finish it until six months of trial and tribulations, images, the road, the car, the girl...what else is there?"
The Takeaway: It takes a long time to create a masterpiece, even for a rock star!
Get to Know your Characters
"When you get the music and lyrics right, your voice disappears into the voices you've chosen to write about. Basically, with these songs, I find the characters and listen to them. That always leads to a series of questions about their behavior. What would they do? What would they never do? You need to locate the rhythm of their speech and the nature of their expression. By pulling these elements together as well as you can, you shed light on their lives and honor their experiences."
The Takeaway: Imagine what t's like to be your characters and write from their perspective
Write with Meaning
"Most of my writing is emotionally autobiographical. I've learned you've got to pull up the things that mean something to you in order for them to mean anything to your audience. That's where the proof is. That's how they know you're not kidding."
The Takeaway: Write about subjects that have personal meaning to you. The best stories are the ones that come from the heart.
Work at It...Over and Over and Over
"Some of our mixes remained on the board for three, four days, a week, as we fussed, mussed and murdered one another in a vain attempt to capture all worlds. We had mixes with three-digit take numbers. We were violently frustrated and puzzled."
The Takeaway; Collaborate and revise, revise, revise.
Write for the Sake of Creating
"I'm glad I've been handsomely paid for my efforts but I truly would've done it for free. Because I had to. It was the only way I found momentary release and the purpose I was looking for. So for me, there weren't going to be any shortcuts."
The Takeaway: Enjoy the process. Write because you love to write, not for fame or fortune.
Find your Tribe
"If we didn't play together, The E Street Band would probably not know one another. We wouldn't be in a room together. But we do...we do play together and every night at eight we walk out onstage together, and that, my friends, is a place where miracles occur...old and new miracles. And those you are with in the presence of miracles, you never forget."
The Takeaway: Don't go it alone. Join a critique group, go to conferences, and build friendships. Magic will happen!
By Chana Stiefel
Sunni Herman, a dear friend of mine, recently completed the Atlantic City Half Ironman IM70.3 triathlon. She swam 1.2 miles, biked 56 miles, and then ran a half marathon. After this monumental achievement, she wrote an inspiring article about her “aha” moments and lessons learned. While Sunni’s article added a pep to my step and a fews laps to my swim, it also brought tears to my eyes. Sunni is a mom of three terrific kids and is Executive Vice President of a nursing home. She is power personified. I asked if I could adapt her lessons to our writing community. And in her sunny way, Sunni said, “Of course!”
For those of you who want to run an Ironman, read Sunni’s article here. For the rest of us, here are five takeaways for authors from an Ironwoman:
Q & A with debut author, Ariel Bernstein, plus a giveaway!
Donna Cangelosi and Chana Stiefel are picture book critique partners & friends who are passionate about kids' books & are eager to share tidbits from their writing journey with other aspiring writers.