Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Augusta Baker Retirement Book

Some people seem to stumble across exactly the thing they were meant to do and put their whole hearts into it. People change the world that way.

Ever heard of Augusta Baker? Click her name to read more about who she was and what she did, but my summary of the article is this: Augusta Baker was a woman who ignored boundaries. She was determined and worked hard to make things happen--things that were important to her. Some of her major accomplishments include changing the face of children's publishing by influencing the portrayal of African-Americans in children's books, working as Coordinator of Children's Services at the New York Public Library for nearly 15 years, and working for 15 years as Storyteller-in-Residence at the University of South Carolina. Her life and career were about a love of literature, overcoming odds, and standing for what she believed in.

It's one thing to read a biography like that on Wikipedia, or on a blog, or even on the library website. But what truly attests to a person's effect on the world is not an encyclopedic description of her life--it's the witness of those who knew her and the lasting products of her work.

On a shelf right now in the vault of the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library lies a box holding the Augusta Baker Retirement Book which is on deposit. Yesterday, I was shown the book in order to begin a research project. The book was given to Baker upon her retirement from NYPL. Inside are thick pages sewn together and bound into what amounts to a huge appreciation letter from writers and illustrators such as Maurice SendakMadeleine L'EngleVirginia HamiltonJohn SteptoeH. A. Rey, Garth WilliamsCrockett Johnson, P. L. Travers, and the list goes on. Each page is either a handwritten letter or an original work of art thanking Baker for her work. Harold greets her with his purple crayon, Curious George holds a bouquet of flowers in her honor, one of the Wild Things smiles off the page for her, Frances (sans bread and jam) is as cute as ever--all unique and original pieces.

I requested to be left alone in the vault with bread and water alone to sustain me, but of course you can't have things like bread and water around original works of art or irreplaceable unique copies of handwritten letters by award winning authors, so I had to survive with the small glimpse I was given into the life of someone who made a difference.

So what's the big deal about books and Baker and Curious George and the rest anyway? Think back to being a kid. You remember them, don't you? The characters...the stories maybe...they've stayed with you and are a part of you, and when you see a picture you haven't seen in 20 or 30 or 60 years of a little ink drawing of a character you loved, you're suddenly back in time, and it matters. And now you're reading the books to your kids, or your grandkids, possibly over and over until you kinda wish the book never existed. But you deserve it--you probably did the very same thing to your poor parents.

The rest of my afternoon, though not nearly as glamorous, was very interesting and felt a little like Christmas. In the stacks are shelves and shelves of books, many on the verge of crumbling if handled roughly. If they're hardback, they stand a chance, but paperbacks with any age or having been read at all must be protected in a special way. I learned a step in the process yesterday by doing my first stack of four-folds. As seen below, a piece of card stock is measured and cut and creased to fit the book. The first step is to place the book on top for making measurements, then the proper cuts are made, then the card stock is wrapped around the book (kind of like wrapping a present, but they're all the easy kind-rectangular and flat like a shirt-box) and attached with strips of velcro so the books can be shelved safely.

I did okay for my first day. Got 19 books wrapped and ready to be shelved. If I could have put bows on them, I would have, but that wouldn't be very practical.

And if shelving is anything, it's practical.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Rare Books

"This was altogether a more sensible sort of room that I had got into; for the walls were honestly upholstered with books, though these for the most part glimmered provokingly through the glass doors of their tall cases. I read their titles longingly, breathing on every accessible pane of glass, for I dared not attempt to open the doors, with the enemy encamped so near. In the window, though, on a high sort of desk, there lay, all by itself, a most promising-looking book, gorgeously bound. I raised the leaves by one corner, and like scent from a pot-pourri jar there floated out a brief vision of blues and reds, telling of pictures, and pictures all highly coloured! Here was the right sort of thing at last, and my afternoon would not be entirely wasted."
~ from Chapter 5 of Dream Days by Kenneth Grahame

Last summer, my classmates and I had the rare joy of seeing original manuscripts of classic literature and original artwork while visiting the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Before going into the stacks (and through an underground tunnel system for transferring books which made me feel the sense of adventure and mystery one usually leaves behind with childhood), we saw original artwork from The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia as well as handwritten portions of The Magician's Nephew. Copies of Tolkien's artwork now live on my walls in poster form, which is nothing like being inches from the originals, but they remind me the originals exist in my memory and in real life.

In Newcastle, we visited Seven Stories to see more manuscripts including some by Philip Pullman and, my personal favorite, a draft of Tom's Midnight Garden with a different ending than the one that was finally published.

I say all that to say this--after seeing those rare books and manuscripts, I got the bug. I came home and immediately began looking for an opportunity to somehow work in the stacks with children's literature. Lucky for me, the Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina in Columbia is home to the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections with a special collection in children's literature. When I contacted them at the beginning of the year, they were in the process of moving, so I had to wait until about a month ago to begin volunteering. Since then, I've been researching an acquisition of "girls' books" from the early to mid-1900s. They're books like the Cherry Ames series, The Bobbsey TwinsNancy Drew (which seems to be making a comeback), and Trixie Belden (also still popular).

My project has involved sifting through boxes of books to organize the different series, making a list of authors/publishers/publishing dates/editions/special considerations (like a book's condition and whether or not it's a first edition or still has a dust jacket), and estimating values. It's been fascinating to find that so many of the series are similar to one another, that some are still very popular, that some have been edited in order to be more politically correct, and that a book's value can vary greatly depending on the corners being crisp instead of bumped, the spine being tight instead of loose, the dust jacket being price clipped, or even whether or not the child who read it signed her name inside or left it blank. I personally think the value should be greater on a book like one Nancy Drew in the collection which has the following message written in pencil inside the front cover (italics, underlining, and punctuation by original writer of message):
reads this
book is doomed
to death
by order of
death and stinks

P.S. you do!

How is that not worth a few extra dollars?

Another reason this project has been fun is because my shelves contain some of the very same books I'm researching, which were recently given to me by my mom:

My next project involves researching Coretta Scott King Award winners, but more on that later (and more on this book, the 2010 author award winner I've been hearing so much about).

More Christmas wishes for whenever you or I run into a bag full of gold:
The Hobbit
The Great Divorce
The Last Battle

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I never considered collecting stamps. But I did collect basketball cards. Now I can admit that my reason was mostly due to having crushes on many of the players, especially this guy. Ha! I still have an unopened calendar with his face on every page. Jonathan collected cards too, but I'm guessing he had different reasons.

I've since moved on from collecting petty crushes to collecting books. It's a meager collection at the moment, but I'm having fun with it. I have several categories of books I collect. Some are books I haven't even read yet but thought they looked interesting. Like this pretty 1929 printing of The Nürnberg Stove by Ouida, or Louise de la Ramée, illustrated by Edwin J. Prittie

And this copy of Hope Campbell by C. D. Bell:

And check out this 1933 printing of Dynamic Biology by Arthur Baker and Lewis Mills:

Another category in the collection includes copies signed by authors or illustrators (or sometimes both). I love the idea of someone working really hard on a book, going through the hassle of getting it published, waiting for the books to be printed, and at some point opening the cover and signing it for an admiring reader. It's like they're saying, "You may read this book and interpret it as you like, but in spirit, it will always be mine--see, my name's printed right there."

Okay, maybe authors/illustrators who sign books aren't thinking that at all. But I think I would.

Sometimes I buy books signed to other people, like this copy of Fantastic Stories signed by Terry Jones for someone named David (by the way, when you google Terry Jones now you get links to stories about a ridiculous book burner instead of the Python, and I can't wait until googling that name brings up a naked guy at a piano again):

It's even better to get a book signed in person. Like this copy of The Wall by Peter Sis. He signed this for me at the SCBWI 2010 Conference in New York:

At school this summer, we had the chance to meet the lovely author and illustrator Cece Bell. She's funny and smart, and everyone loved her:

There are plenty of random books in the collection or one-offs, but my very favorite section (until I can get a Peter Pan section going), is my small stack of copies of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. It seems like there are about a million editions of the book with just as many different illustrators, but here are a few of my favorites I've found so far, and most of them come down to illustrators for me. Here's an illustration of the Piper done by Ernest Shepard

And my favorite Shepard illustration of Mole and Ratty:

Here's a copy with the beautiful artwork of Inga Moore:

Here's one I found with artwork by Nancy Barnhart:

Here's one illustrated by Arthur Rackham:

But my favorite copy is the centenary edition I got at Seven Stories last summer. The illustrations by Robert Ingpen are beautiful, and I was able to purchase a pre-signed copy:

Hoping to get more copies for Christmas this year. In fact, if you're planning on purchasing a special something for me, this would be perfect, though I don't expect you'll be wanting to sell an organ for little old me: Christmas.

For more about The Wind in the Willows, you might like to check out this blog: OUP

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On the process of writing a story from beginning to end

(Writerly pictures throughout to give you a break from what became a long post)

The requirements for students doing a creative thesis (vs critical) at Hollins depends upon what type of creative piece the student decides to write. Since I'm doing a YA novel as my thesis, it must be 150 pages long. Then I must do a 10-15 page critical essay "situating the creative work in the historical and critical context of children's literature"...which will be harder for me than the 150.

My process in writing this thesis has been a huge learning experience for me, so I thought I'd share it with you in case you're blocked up and can't write anything so you figured you'd fill up your time reading a blog post. The story that would turn into my thesis began in an undergrad fiction class I audited because my favorite professor of all time was teaching it. That was in August of last year. In November of last year, I took inspiration from NaNoWriMo and spent that month writing at least five pages per day until my novel was finished, if very messy and most of the time incoherent. If you're ever stuck, I highly suggest writing and writing until it's done, even if the end result is terrible. Writing The End was a huge boost for me. I'd never gotten that far before, and now I knew I could do it.

The reading room at Seven Stories

From there, I began the editing process. I actually love editing. That first draft was so very awful that editing was like walking into a room that I knew was beautiful underneath but was currently unrecognizable beneath the mess. Editing is my way of saying, "Hold on. Just give me a minute. I promise there's something worth waiting for here if I just use this broom and dustpan. And possibly some bleach."

But why bother, you may ask. Why go to all that trouble for a story?
Because it's what I do.

I have something to say, which is the reason I write. I don't write to see myself think. I write to be read, and to be read, I need to it be damn near perfect. Hence the editing, the struggle, and the hope.

A plaque honoring Milne and Shepard overlooking the 100 acre wood

The next step in my process was to set a goal. Just telling myself to clean the room wasn't exactly enough. I needed a deadline. I told myself I'd at least get the very beginning of the story spotless so I could take it to the SCBWI conference in New York in January 2010 so I could present it at the writers' intensives and hopefully get noticed by an editor. That gave me two months to spit shine. I was lucky enough to have a group of writerly and readerly friends who were willing to help (a critique group of close and trusted readers, for me, is invaluable). The next two months involved sending the group my work, editing, having them read again, editing some more, and so on.

When I attended the intensives, I did actually happen to get the attention of an editor. I was invited to send in the first few chapters of my story for her to check out. I scrambled to clean them up, wrote my very first query letter, and crossed my fingers as I hit send on the email. (For really great info about writing query letters and talking to editors and everything in-between, click here The Purple Crayon or check out the resources at the SCBWI site.) Months later, I got an email saying the editor would like to see the full manuscript. That was a good day and a bad day. It was good because, Yay! An editor wanted to see my manuscript!! It was a bad day because I knew it wasn't ready and wouldn't be anytime soon but I'd have to do my best and send it anyway and this would all probably end up being a really good learning experience and not my breakout novel moment.

And I was right. I edited my story to death and back and sent it in. Months...and months later, I finally heard back. She didn't want my story. But she did have a lot to say. She spoke about the strengths and the weaknesses, about what I should do as a next step professionally, and about the people I should talk to in order to make that next step. After getting my formal (though very generous and not nearly as painful as I'd thought it would be) rejection letter, I came to be relieved. See, I hadn't worked on the story in a couple of months because I'd been in school, and there's this magical thing that happens when you write a story and then ignore it for eight weeks--you get perspective! You begin to see its flaws clearly. It's as if you're reading something someone else has written, like you didn't write it at all and can finally see it for what it is. When I went back to my manuscript, I could see its problems jumping off the page begging to be fixed. If the editor had taken it as it was, I would have had to question her editing abilities.

Inspiration for Swallows and Amazons

I'm glad to have written a cover letter and gone through the submission process and survived a rejection. But what I'm actually most glad of is the critique she gave me. I opened my story and started making a few of the changes she suggested, and suddenly everything opened up again. The story got new life. If you've ever written anything and gone through the editing process, you'll know what I mean. You'll know that I mean you got new life, not just your story. Now the novel I had in mind from the beginning, the beautiful shiny room I mentioned before, is actually starting to show through. I had begun to wonder if that was even possible, but I can see that it is. It just takes time.

But back to the thesis issue--after working on the story so much, I figured it may as well be my thesis since I needed a story for that and this one was coming along so nicely. I have two wonderful thesis advisors overseeing my work (check them out here: Jamila Gavin and Alexandria LaFaye), and I'm set to graduate in May which means I'll be finished with the story by then and submitting it to agents.

I really knew I wanted to be a writer when I realized I love the process. I love seeing the story come together and get stronger, and I can't wait to share it when it's near perfect enough not to make me crazy. This is who I am. It's what I want to do. And if you're who you are and doing what you want to do, you'll know what I mean.

So. Back to editing now. I'm doing a huge rewrite at the moment since my protagonist was apparently the wrong age and her friends in the journey were sometimes confusing and her motivation had the tendency to feel foggy to everyone but me. One last picture, and then I shall confess some of my writerly sins to reward you for making it through this post.

I think this one is self-explanatory, but what a beautiful place to live

1. I'm horrible at plotting. I can character build pretty naturally, but when it comes to story coherence, I have to work at it.
2. I'm wordy. When I say I clean the room with a broom and dustpan, what I really mean is vacuum cleaner.
3. I misspell things. Or is it mispell?
4. My symbolism is too subtle.
5. I have pet words like then, suddenly, and well. I have to go back and edit them out regularly.
6. I overuse dialect.