Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The market conference

If you don't know much about the world of children's literature conferences, then you only know a little less than I do. There are plenty of conferences I've never been to and lots more I don't even know about, but I can tell you what little I've gathered, and that is that there are a few basic categories: academic conferences (where critical and sometimes creative pieces are presented and discussed, usually based on some common theme), creative conferences (where creative pieces are presented and craft is discussed, sometimes with more of a workshop atmosphere), market-driven conferences (where creative pieces and craft are discussed in light of the market), genre/series specific conferences (where specific critical/creative genres or series are the common ground of critical and/or creative pieces being presented and discussed), and endless blends of all of the above. That's not to mention the blurry area of literary festivals, book fairs, arts conventions, and library/education association conferences where children's literature folks end up just as often.

I've yet to make it to a purely creative conference, but I've been to festivals, market conferences, academic conferences, blended conferences, and will soon add international book fairs to the list. Of all I've attended, the most productive have been the academic conferences (though I have no talent for critical work, I still appreciate the discussion). My least favorite, on the other hand, have been the market conferences.

While the academic conference is a continuation of some aspect/s of the conversation taking place in children's literature as a creative/global/sociological/historical/age-and-category-defying/seemingly-sentient being, the market conference is where you go to find out what editors want and what's selling. It's one of the best places to go to learn what's currently being offered to the public, and of that pile, what the public is consuming the most of. The fancy term for that is market 'trend'; just keep in mind, trend doesn't mean it's what the people need or prefer--it's simply what they choose from what's available. Market conferences remind me of high school: a place full of cliques and shameless networking. I'm no more popular at these conferences than I was in twelfth grade, so you can see why I shy away from them. Craft and his friends quality and originality commonly stand in the shadow of the dollar sign. While the keynote speaker may be a successful author, the rest of the speakers are mostly editors and agents doubling as marketing experts. The written word is judged by its weight in gold (though to be fair, the general message is, "Write well," which isn't a bad message at all but which is fueled by a publisher's hope to make money on words well-written). The savvy attendee is armed with creative business cards, a vaseline smile, and an elevator pitch to melt even the iciest publisher's heart. Alas--I have no talent for this and even less interest in cultivating a talent for it. I suppose I shouldn't be frustrated by the market conference. It doesn't claim to be anything it isn't. But it still bugs the hell out of me, and I probably won't be attending one again for a long time. Being the type of writer that I am, the scene can feel offensive, but as someone who wants to eventually have creative work published, it might be a necessary evil, even more so if I'm ever attempting to promote a published creative work.

However, there are always gems to be found, even when I end up someplace that makes me want to quickly go home and shower before anything seeps in. For example, at a market conference in New York a few years ago, a lovely, reasonable editor gave a talk on 'quiet' stories (the modern take on the classic tone) which was incredibly insightful and has been helpful in my writing process and journey. Then at a market conference two years ago, the keynote speaker threw all the supposed rules of the market in the face of everyone in the audience and focused on good writing instead, much to our shock and delight. So there are often good things to bring away, like an honest word and like opportunities to submit to houses normally closed to anyone without an agent. But mostly, I just sit around feeling grumpy and judgmental for spending so much money for so little return and for what often feels like one big commercial.

This past weekend wasn't much different. I attended a market conference in order to spend time with a dear school friend, and, as with the others, in the midst of the money and the food and the constant, somehow insecurely (or is it fearfully?) presented question, "What genre do you write in?" a gem was to be found. He was down the hall from the main meeting room where most of the 150 attendees were listening to another speaker. I'd never heard of him but decided immediately that author/illustrator Andy Runton was the secret treasure of the conference. To about 13 of us, Andy described the road that led him to creating Owly.

Owly came from Andy's imagination early on but waited there patiently while Andy tried other characters and forms. Eventually, he came back to the friendly little bird, turned him into a graphic novel sensation, and decided, upon realizing words weren't his thing, he'd take a chance on a new-to-him form: the wordless story. The Owly books do have words here and there, but Andy gave up trying to use regular dialog, instead using pictures within speech bubbles to express spoken language.

Andy's love of classic comic book style is obvious. But the most striking thing about his story is that Andy has turned down lucrative offers to animate and otherwise sell the Owly character--even an offer I can't imagine turning down--one from the Jim Henson Company. But in order to maintain control of the character he created, that's what Andy's had to do. Sure, he's got his fair share of character merchandise (we can't all be Bill Watterson), but the control of the character stays with the creator. When asked if he plans to work on other characters, he said he'd found the character he was looking for in Owly.

I ended up with three Owly books, all thoughtfully signed and illustrated. My good friend, the one I went to the conference with, got me one as a thanks-for-letting-me-spend-the-night gift, and the other two are for my upcoming creative writing classes...because nothing teaches you the basics of storytelling, of character building, or of brevity like taking away your words.

I suppose I should say I don't mean any offense about this type of conference. No need to bite any hands, and all that. Like I said, they are what they say they are, and they were never pretending to be anything different. But when it comes to writing a story, to creating a life out of nothing and giving it conflicts, to taking us through your created worlds--if you can, think of nothing but the art. Don't think of advances; don't hope for success; don't consider market value; don't force supernatural elements; don't force your characters into trends; in fact, don't force anything. Just write. And with a little luck and a lot of hard work, your story will live happily and not force you to create other monsters like it in order to save your own life. :)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Back to books

The best thing about the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University: the people you meet. I'm not talking about networking. I'm talking about a magical thing I learned in my good Southern upbringing called Being Genuinely Friendly. I've found this works much better than sucking up, and in the end, you make friends instead of assets. I know, we can't be friends with everyone, no matter what Facebook tells us. And some people are really more suited to being colleagues than buddies. But both can be genuine instead of greedy, and one of the things Hollins has in abundance is seriously talented critics and creatives who are genuinely friendly. If you want to get a writing degree and make lifelong friends and colleagues while dealing with the big issues (like Lloyd Alexander said, "I found I could deal with much more serious, much more profound things than I could ever do writing for grown-ups"), then apply to Hollins already. Here, I'll make it easy. Click this: HOLLINS.

If you've read this blog lately, you'll know my recent posts have been quite personal. But for now, it's back to books! This weekend, I'll be meeting a dear Hollins friend at a market conference here in Atlanta. We'll eat a lot, listen to industry pros talk about the market, hear inspiration from published authors and illustrators, get some open invitations to make submissions, and hopefully meet new friends along the way. When it's all over, I'll report back on what I learned and ate and saw. So to get the tone of this blog going in the right direction, another Hollins friend has agreed to do a One-Question Interview!

Erin is one of those lucky people who's brilliant in both creative and critical writing (I can hear her saying something sarcastic in response to that, but it's true!). So it was no surprise to the rest of us when she landed a job we're all intensely jealous of, however proud we are. As Collection Development Specialist for Turtleback Books, she's the person who gets to pick which books Turtleback will carry and which they won't. That means lots of books and lots of reading, two things that keep her current on what's happening with kids books and classics today. My one question for her was about that process:

Erin, what makes a book worthy (or unworthy!) of being bought/distributed by Turtleback?


I'm the Collection Development Specialist for Turtleback Books, a distributor of library-bound books to wholesellers & retailers who sell to schools & libraries. My title primarily means that I'm in charge of selecting all of the books that the company carries, but we have a really small staff so I wear a lot of hats. I also do marketing, catalog creation, web stuff, buying, trade shows, presentations, customer service, etc.

The kind of books Turtleback carries is primarily fiction for grades K-12. We carry nonfiction to a much lesser extent, & the nonfiction we do carry is high-interest. For example, we carry books on the Titanic & Jungian theory & teaching creative writing to ESL students, but you won't find general nonfiction books about dogs, the solar system, history, etc.

As far as what fiction qualifies for Turtleback, we strike a balance between, as I like to say, the books kids should be reading & the books kids want to read. So we carry classic classroom literature - To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice & Men, Ender's Game - but we also carry the fun, fluffy stuff that's not going to show up on any school reading lists - for example, anything involving vampires, werewolves, mermaids, zombies, teenage love triangles, etc.

So we carry a lot of "good" books & a lot of trendy books because our books end up in classrooms as well as through bookstores & retail sites like Amazon. When I am shopping in publisher catalogs determining what books to carry, I use a lot of things to gauge whether I'll pick it up or not, including reviews (SLJ, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly), popularity of the author/subject, how well the book did in hardcover (we only buy paperbacks), if the book showed up on any award lists, & history (how well that author/series/subject has already performed sales-wise for us).

A priority of mine this year is to expand our adult fiction offerings as well, because the adult titles we carry are awesome sellers. Some of our bestselling adult titles include Atlas Shrugged, The Pillars of the Earth, Chariots of the Gods, & House of Leaves.

That's a really long-winded response for a very short question! Hope that is what you were looking for. I absolutely love my job; I never thought I'd be lucky enough to have a career where my primary responsibility would be to stay on top of what's going on in the book industry. It's awesome.


To learn more about Turtleback, check out their sleek site here. And to keep up with Erin, follow her here. You'll love her. She's genuine and intelligent and funny, and she doesn't mind saying when a book is total crap. Plus, sometimes she gives away free stuff.

Thanks so much, Erin. Hope to see you somewhere along the kid lit trail soon!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

For Granny

Nearly 32 years ago, I was born. Granny, my dad's mom, named me.

My sisters and brother had been around for a while before that, so I've always imagined myself arriving on a boring, possibly rainy spring day to no fanfare. I see someone saying, "Another baby has been born," and no one feeling like bothering with a name until someone else decides they must call me something, at which point my dad walks out the hospital door, down a worn sidewalk with grass growing up through the cracks, and arrives at my granny's house. He knocks and she answers, having been waiting just behind the door, somehow knowing what he was coming for. "We need a name for the baby," he says. A brief pause. Granny answers, "Robin." And that's that. I'm in the world, and I'm a Robin.

Of course it was nothing like that. But Granny did name me. No one remembers why.

When I was old enough to look forward to seeing my cousins, Granny's house was just about the best place to be. There were lots of kids to play with, and there was plenty of good Southern cookin'. It was usually a holiday, so everyone was happy. Times at Granny's were good.

There are frozen moments that come to me, many when I was alone exploring Granny's house. There was the time when I stood in the backyard under the apple tree trying to choose the perfect piece of fruit. I'd been given permission to eat a single apple. Otherwise, I'd get an upset stomach. But those sour green things were so good, the devil didn't need to convince me. In the end, I was indeed wiser, but it was worth it. I'm sure someone watched from the kitchen window and laughed as I stuffed my face. The same probably hid a smile as I denied the stomachache that followed.

Then there was the time I ventured downstairs, slipping away from the adults and maneuvering the most treacherous basement stairs in the world. It was always dark down there and had that earthy smell. There was a room just ahead at the bottom of the steps. We weren't supposed to go messing around in there, so of course simply putting my hand on the doorknob was a thrill. But I went further, like you do, and turned it till something clicked and the door opened. Behind it was ... well it was just a bunch of junk really. Storage. Was there a metal bed with an old mattress? Were there boxes? Was there a shelf on the wall? ...I can't remember for sure. All I see is everything in smudged gray, like the photo in my memory missed a stage of development. Nothing is distinct in itself, but the place as a whole is distinctly eerie.

There was that autumn when the adults sat on the porch watching us kids play in the front yard. I guess the sliding rocker bench always squeaked but was still the most sought after seat. Someone had the brilliant idea of making a path through the leaves with a huge leaf pile at the end. I see myself hanging in the air over the pile--birds are singing, my cousins are laughing and screaming and playing around me, the adults are chatting and smoking and sitting in funny poses I don't yet understand, the air is perfect--warm with a cool breeze, and I never want to land.

Not too long ago, Granny started forgetting things, repeating herself. She seemed happy enough, but there was a distance. In the years leading up to forgetfulness, I came to the age at which one begins to notice things besides oneself, and realized upon seeing a picture of Granny and Papaw that Granny had been in love once. She'd had small children. She must have had aspirations and best friends. She probably laughed and told stories and had regrets and secret wishes and skills I knew nothing about. But at our gatherings, now full of cousins with screaming, laughing children of their own, and with Papaw long passed, Granny was often alone. She was pleasant and lovely and sweet. In fact, I have no memory of her ever being angry or speaking harshly. But she had become contemplative. She'd sit in that recliner beside the wall heater and smile at everyone and hold the new babies and have her picture made with them. She'd watch the news or a game show, whatever was on at the time. Those old pictures would hang on the walls around her like always.

Then one day, after more time passed than I'd realized, I went home for a visit. We were sitting in the living room, Granny in her recliner, and she told me the story of how she'd named me. "You were born, and Bobby came to the house and said, we need a name for her, and I said, Robin." She smiled as proud as can be, and we smiled right back. It was nice to hear her tell it, nice to see her energetic. Jonathan hadn't heard the story before, and people had gathered around to hear. But then a few minutes passed, and she started telling the story again. Then again. And again. Each time was new to her, and each time was more difficult to smile about.

This morning, I learned Granny is in hospice care. I guess that's the technical way of saying it's a matter of time. I know--it's always a matter of time. But it's down to days now for Granny. A while back, when it became clear that she wasn't able to take care of herself, she went to a nursing home. The family went through her house and took care of her things. And I haven't seen her since. Some have questioned my decision, but I chose my action for one simple reason: upon seeing me, there was a very high likelihood that Granny would feel uncomfortable, unsettled, confused, and possibly even scared because I'd likely be a stranger to her. On a good day, she might have told me the story of the naming again, but it was more likely that she'd be afraid, and I wasn't willing to take that chance. In my...perhaps stupid way, not visiting Granny has been my last gift to her. I've been trying to do my part to make sure she's comfortable and safe and calm. I even missed her 90th birthday party recently. In fact, I wasn't even told it was happening.

There are people in my family who are much closer to Granny than I am. They have years and years of memories--snapshots filling their minds to overwhelming. But she's granny to all of us, and we all have our special moments with her, our versions of her. Granny raised a good family. We're mountain folk at heart. We're tough and stubborn and opinionated and proud and can hold a grudge with the best of 'em. We're hard workers, we survive, we come together and take care of each other, and we grow and forgive and keep on trying.

When they went through Granny's things, someone saw a typewriter and brought it to me to remember her by. They figured with my love for writing, I'd want that most of all. But Granny gave me something to remember her by from the very first day when she opened that door, somehow knowing what Dad would ask, perhaps looking out into the field just behind him and seeing a little bird bouncing along happily. "Robin," she said, I imagine with all the hope in the world that I would be happy too. And I've kept the name close to me ever since.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


This week in class, I assigned definition essays. My students were given lots of options, including the option to define an abstract concept through a personal narrative. The only rules beyond good grammar and MLA formatting: focus on one concept, don't do any research, and do it all in 500-750 words. The best example I found for them was 'Happiness' from Nikos Kazantzakis' Report to Greco.

I've been teaching since August and have assigned lots of papers since then, but I've yet to try any of them out for myself. In fact, I can't remember the last time I attempted an essay like the ones I've been assigning, but it was probably sometime in undergrad. So, in honor of Valentine's Day, I've decided to write a definition essay as my dear students attempt the same in their homes or at their workplaces or quite possibly at the last minute on their phones on the way to class.

by Robin


"Yeah, babe?"

"I wanna marry you when I grow up."

A knowing laugh.

"Nope," he said. "You just wait. You'll meet some snot-nosed boy and..."

I must have refused to listen from there since I can't remember exactly what he said next. I do remember thinking he didn't know everything I thought he knew. But it turns out he did.

Kindergarten wasn't far ahead, and that's where I'd meet Logan. Curly-haired. Cute-faced. Love of my life. But Summer liked him too. And she had the guts to let him know.

"I kissed Logan today," she said.

I didn't respond. Logan didn't deny it.

"Right on the cheek."

So that was how it was going to be, I thought. Logan, the weakling, letting some other girl kiss him. Fine. That must be the kind of girl he liked, and if that was the case, they could have each other. (I'd keep that mentality for a long...actually, I still have that mentality.)

It took me a year to get over it, but I did manage. His name was Jason. He had a funny deep voice and tanned skin. And he was rich, in my estimation. But best of all, Jason was funny. Jason and I had good times playing hide-and-seek and making sure never to hold hands. But those times eventually faded, and if there was a void, I filled it with my first longing love. He was Jeremy. I was in fifth grade and he was in fourth. He was easily the cutest guy in school. And quiet too. Not brooding. Sweet quiet. Romantic quiet, surely. (I never considered bad-conversationalist-quiet.) He was the first guy who wouldn't notice me, an act that sets love in stone.

After that came middle school: the gateway to the hell of relationships. It's the place where someone liked becomes someone to win, and someone won becomes a status symbol. It's the start of the game. By high school, you're in the ninth circle of hell, having skipped through several circles in-between because you're young, dammit, and don't have time for getting to know each other. Just get to the kissing! The idea of kissing was a terrifying prospect. How did one do it? But more importantly, why? And even more importantly, eww gross, please don't touch me with your tongue.

My first kiss was given to a sleeping boy at a church lock-in when I was in seventh grade. I figured I'd practice without embarrassment. He didn't wake up, so it must not have been life-changing for him. It wasn't for me either, so the next time was quite a while after, and though I won't give any names here, I can tell you he didn't deserve it. Do you know he came to my house just for that purpose? That idiot knocked on the front door, said something stupid, and kissed me goodbye without even asking. He was much too old for me, left with a smug look, having won what he came for, and never came back. Ass.

In the midst of the hell of adolescent love, there was one person. Isn't there always one? This one was my best friend. Through all the stupidness and ridiculousness of middle and most of high school, he floated in and out of my experience but stands out now as the clearest figure in my memory. He was the funniest of everyone I knew--one of those effortlessly clever people, quickest to the draw. I tried, in my idiocy, to convert him, to change him into the person I thought he should be. I suppose humor helped him put up with me. Sometime toward the end of high school on a day after that fateful but unnoticed day when I, like all of my friends, slipped into the very early stages of serious adulthood without realizing, my friend quietly acted on what we'd both suspected and had long felt but not known what to do with--and of course that's the day everything changed. Things didn't go the way they should have in a decent love story. I don't mean things should be different now. I just mean I didn't handle it well, and I suppose that's why I still dream about it. My conscience still tries to work out the scenario in a positive way, but when I wake up, the friendship is still lost, and I'm left with that unfeeling stare at graduation.

There were lots more stupid decisions after high school, and by then, I really couldn't be said to be making childish mistakes anymore. Mostly they were innocently lusty (I think that's possible, maybe even healthy) and never involved the selflessness that commitment requires. Most of them didn't involve love at all. They involved people still playing at being grown up, not realizing they actually were grown. And that's okay, in my opinion. They were part of the transition; they were preparation for the future; they were lessons in what love is not, which helped me recognize real love when I found it.

I remember a day in my teens when that old conversation about marrying Dad came back to me, and I started to cry uncontrollably. Dad asked what was wrong, naturally, and I don't know how he kept it together when I mentioned the memory and told him, in my dramatic way, that I still loved him dearly, though I no longer wanted to marry him. We had a good laugh then, and I wonder if, when dear Jonathan asked Dad for my hand in marriage, the memory came back to Dad. His response: "Don't ask me. Ask her. I've raised my girls to think for themselves."

It seems odd to talk about serious committed love in this essay because, in my experience, the marriage of minds and bodies becomes such an advanced form of love that it doesn't fit in with all the others. It's not a funny feeling in the stomach or thinking someone is cute and funny or hoping someone likes you back or even that dangerous stage (please do let it only be a stage with you, if you take nothing else from this meandering tale) when we think love is about control instead of freedom--no, married love is none of those. Married love--and this is a warning for the squeamish, a blessing for the adventurous--married love is a molting. It's an agreement to become one without knowing what one will look like, and it's a commitment to somehow remain free to be yourself within the unit. Married love has been both a glorious completion and a process of sometimes painful growth. It has been a blessing and trial, often in the same moment. It has been a tearing apart and a sewing back together. Is there anything else like it?

Since I've only got my experiences, and since there've been bazillions of people who've experienced love in its endless forms, I suppose I fail at this assignment. Because I can't actually define love. Love is yours to define. Plus I've gone over the word count, and that makes teacher especially irritated. Even more so than this fragment. Even more, than these, excessive commas. Because creative errors are expected, and awkward wording tolerated, but to neglect discipline, to ignore sacrifice, to refuse revision...those are probably the least forgivable of all.