Saturday, July 26, 2014

Line drawings

Have been doing a lot of line drawings recently.These were done on some blank watercolor paper postcards left over from my sister's wedding.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Grannie's Coal Pot: Manuscript Review and Thumbnail Review

I'm happy to share that I'm currently working on my first publishing project. No, it's not my very own picturebook (as we say in the Caribbean, soon come!), rather, my poem 'Grannie's Coal Pot' is carded to appear in an illustrated anthology of children's poems and stories to be published by Reflection Press. The anthology grew out of the "Heart of It: Creating Children's Books that Matter" online children's writing and illustration course that I did earlier this year. At the end of the course, students were given the option of submitting work to this anthology and I decided to go for it.

A word on Reflection Press. They're a small, independent publisher affiliated with The School of the Free Mind, which runs the online course I just mentioned. Their books are designed with "a grassroots feel inspired by our revolutionary ideas of transforming the world of children’s books." For this anthology, they were looking for writing and art that aligns with the philosophy of the "Heart of It" online course:

i. Inclusion
ii. First voice
iii. Multicultural
iv. Respect children
v. Lgbtqi
vi. Heart

I'm happy, and I might add proud, to be taking my first baby steps into the world of children's publishing with a small, independent publisher whose mission and values I share. The anthology will feature the writing and art of twenty-nine author-illustrators from around the world, and it will be edited by Maya Gonzalez, Pura Belpre award-winning author-illustrator of My Colors My World/Mis colores, mi mundo, I Know the River Loves Me/Yo se que el rio me ama and more (check out Maya's gorgeous books on Amazon). I'll also be doing an illustration to go along with the poem, another first for me.

Partly because I need the moral support and partly to give you a window into what it's like to work with a publisher on a children's book project, I'll be blogging about the process from beginning to end as I go along. Here's what's been going on so far.

Stage One: The Manuscript Review

The first stage of the process was the manuscript review. Back at the beginning of June, I submitted the manuscript electronically as a Microsoft Word document. Not all publishers accept electronic submissions, but at Reflection Press they're really committed to leveling the playing field in terms of providing equal access/equal opportunity (not everyone can afford the costs associated with sending snail mail submissions) and electronic submissions is one way to work toward that ideal.

Because this anthology will be printed at 8.5" x 5.5" trim size (also known as "digest size"), and I'm getting one double-page spread (i.e., two facing pages designed to be seen together, the illustrations or text forming one whole design, also known as a "two-page spread" or "full spread") for text and illustration, there was a strict word limit. My poem was actually a wee bit over the limit and I made sure to let the Editor know that.

As will usually happen, the Editor then sent me back a brief providing feedback for revisions. Most editors will provide a written brief, but in my case, Maya sent me a fifteen-minute audio review- a nice personal touch to hear her voice!

The audio review helped me finalize the text of the poem. This involved tightening up the language in some places, and re-phrasing in others to bring out the meaning and imagery more clearly. In the end, the poem flowed better (I could hear that reading it aloud; it's always important to read your writing aloud) and I just felt better about it. Maya is an Editor who really encourages you to pay attention to the heart- a writer's emotional connection to the story. There's an intuitive knowing that happens when you know in your heart that it's right.

It would be remiss of me if I didn't mention that I'd initially titled the poem 'Grannie's Pot'. The Editor pointed out that the word 'pot' is synonymous with marijuana here in the US, which is where the book is being published. Good catch! It's not my intention to write anything subversive (at least not with this poem!) so I'm glad they caught that.

I'm lucky to have an Editor who believes in supporting me as the writer/illustrator in listening to my own voice and in becoming more free and strong in my creative expression. Besides, Maya has a wealth of experience working in children's publishing and a strong vision for supporting voices that aren't typically represented in mainstream publishing. I trust her and felt comfortable accepting all her suggestions.

It's important to note that an editor's brief (or, for illustrators, an artistic director's brief) is for guidance only; everything is still open to change and the final decision rests with the author/illustrator. If a publisher wants to make changes to your work to the extent that you feel your vision for the story is lost during the editing process, you're always free to part ways with that publisher, although you'll want to be sure to do so amicably. At the same time, it's good to remember that editors and artistic directors are there to help bring out the best in your work, so make sure you're open to what they have to say.

Stage Two: The Thumbnail Review

After resubmitting the manuscript, I got an email informing me that the final text had been approved. Yes! At that point, the process of translating the poem as art began.

The next step then was to submit a rough thumbnail, which I did earlier this month. The rough thumbnail is just a small initial sketch to give the publisher/the book's artistic director an idea of your basic vision for an illustration. It's a very elemental preliminary drawing for brainstorming purposes. As you can see, my rough thumbnail is very rudimentary. This is me just starting to feel things out, just playing with possibilities and figuring out how I want to structure the image. This is the rough thumbnail I eventually submitted after doing a few.

The rough thumbnail is just a start, but an important one

A few days after submitting it, I was emailed a brief written review with some suggestions for revision. One of the suggestions was that I add shadows on the wall behind the figures, a great idea because the word "shadows" is used in the poem, as is the word "night". After getting the thumbs up (pun intended) on that initial thumbnail, I then had to submit a final thumbnail, which I did last week.

The thumbnail stage is for sorting out the technical, layout and design issues of the spread. It's the publisher who decides how the text and art will appear on the page and who guides the layout aspects of the book. For example, the publisher will suggest whether a particular spread should be a “full bleed” (a single illustration running to the edges of the page as opposed to an illustration with an illustrated border or white space around it), two separate illustrations, or a series of smaller vignettes. The publisher will also determine which pages will be left blank (white background) for text, and places where text will be integrated into the illustrations.

In the case of this anthology, we were offered three design options for our double-page spreads and because my poem contains a lot of text relative to the small trim size this book will be printed in, I chose the half spread page, as you can see in my final thumbnail below. As you can see, we were given templates to work with for our thumbnails.

Final thumbnail, it's coming together

The thumbnail template is a working design to help me, the illustrator, begin to see where any issues with the layout might lie. In book layout, elements like the trim line (where the edge of the page will be cut), the gutter (the part of the book where the pages are bound), the text space (the area of the page where the text will appear) all affect the decisions I will make in terms of how I structure the different elements of an illustration.

I want to make sure all the important elements of the illustration are within the proper margins/the trim box (also known as the "safe zone"), and I want to make sure that nothing important crosses or gets cut off by the gutter. The thumbnail template helps me to "see" the final layout clearly so that I know what I'm about when I go on to the next stage: the final drawing...which is what I'm working on now. I've also been asked to submit an additional spot illustration, i.e., a small independent piece of art that would relate to my spread image and that would appear on other pages of the book as an extra design element. So I'm working on that too.

I'm having a lot of fun learning and experimenting with the art. More updates on 'Grannie's Coal Pot' to come.

Monday, July 14, 2014

2014 Caribbean Children's and YA Books So Far

Back in 2011, I started a ritual of keeping track of the English-language Caribbean books for young people published each year. I've found this to be a useful and edifying exercise. To get an idea of the types of children's stories that are being told by Caribbean writers is always a revelation. To see Caribbean writers of literature for young people making the effort year after year despite the mainstream disesteem for this market is encouraging.                                      

This exercise of counting books has suggested year after year that self-publishing is currently a sine qua non in the Caribbean children's publishing endeavor. Generally speaking, self-published books still don't have the cachet of traditionally published books, but attitudes are changing. Over at Anansesem, we recently ran a Self-Publishing Journeys segment where we featured the first-person stories of five self-published Caribbean children's authors. The testimonies of these five authors speak to the turning tide of self-publishing in Caribbean children's book production. Personally, I've found that if you give self-published books half a chance, you can find some gems in the stacks.

It's mid-year, and here's what the Caribbean children's book market (English-language books) looks like so far for 2014. I'm even now actively compiling this list, so please let me know if I missed any. I'll be adding other information such as genre and publisher later.

2014 Caribbean Children's & YA Books- Traditionally Published

1) Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal by Margarita Engle
2) Anna Carries Water by Olive Senior
3) Give the Ball to the Poet: A New Anthology of Caribbean Poetry edited by Georgie Horrell, Aisha Spencer and Morag Styles
4) Zapped! Danger in the Cell by Jewel Daniel and Lynelle Martin
5) Forest Fever by Sharon James
6) Sand, Sea and Poetry by Ashley-Ruth Moolenaar Bernier
7) Oliver and Friends (Living the Beach Life series) by Heidi Fagerberg
8) Ash the Flash (Sand Pebbles Pleasure Series) by Hazel. D. Campbell
9) Drog, a Dreggen Story by Hazel D. Campbell

Some covers of 2014 traditionally published Caribbean children's and YA books. To view larger, click on illustrations.

2014 Caribbean Children's & YA Books- Self-Published

1) Nadia's Good Deed: A Story About Haiti by Rachel Harris
2) Goobee Goez Tu Da Refe: A Caribbean Lullaby by Seth Bernanke
3) The Adventures of Freddy the Frog & Lena the Lizard by Jennifer Nunes
4) The Twins and the Arawaks by Diafra Thomas Nunez
5) Caribbean Princess by Beverley Byer
6) Manatee Has a Question by Stacey Alfonso-Mills
7) Bum Bum Bananas – Oh, Do Mind Your Manners! by Betsy Bermuda
8) The Rice Bag Hammock by Shaeeza Haniff
9) Concealed Treasure (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
10) Hurricane Liza (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
11) The Beautiful Turtle Dove (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
12) The Market Woman Song (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
13) Virgin Islands Proverbs (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
14) Mema’s Medicine Basket (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
15) Our Humble Beginnings (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
16) Virgin Islands Delights (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
17) Justice pon di Road by Aliona Ginson
18) Jubilee and Ashanti Find Insects by Christina Griffith
19) Why Jubilee and Ashanti go to the Doctor by Christina Griffith
20) Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight: A Caribbean Cinderella Story by Diane Browne

Some covers of 2014 self-published Caribbean children's and YA books. To view larger, click on illustrations.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Poems in Moko: Caribbean Arts and Letters

Five of my poems (for adults) are in the July 2014 issue of Moko: Caribbean Arts and Letters, a new literary magazine out of the Virgin Islands. You can read them here. Founded by David Knight, Moko is doing a great job providing a platform for Caribbean writers.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Interview with Uma Krishnaswami

Publishing Perspectives is an interview series here on the blog that's all about seeking insights from people on both sides of the publishing fence ―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication. Today, I'm honored to add Uma Krishnaswami's voice to the series.

Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Uma at a Commonwealth Education Trust curriculum planning workshop for a children's writing course. In those few days, Uma taught me a lot about what it takes to write for children. I've grown to respect her not just as an author of beautiful picturebooks and compelling novels for young readers, but also for her contributions and visibility in conversations about diversity and inclusiveness in children's publishing. I asked Uma to share some of her wisdom culled over two decades of writing books for young readers and helping her students do the same ―yes she's been at it that long! Here's what she had to say.

As a somewhat random start, I saw on your blog that you use Scrivener software for writers. I’ve been threatening to try it myself for the longest while. Would you recommend Scrivener for people writing either picturebooks or children’s novels and why? 

I’ve never used it for a picture book—it’s so much easier for me to visualize an entire picture book than an entire novel. In fact I need to hold a whole picture book in my mind for some time before I write a word. I don’t seem to need too many tools to accomplish that.

For novels, I find Scrivener invaluable. I don’t use all its features—e.g., I never use the little feature that helps you name characters. I turn the spellcheck off. I rarely use the screenshot. I like being able to color-code chapters and see patterns of plot and character involvement. I like being able to move passages, scenes, and even entire chapters around as I need to. I like being able to keep just the right music file handy to pull up if I need to evoke a certain mood as I write. For both novels and nonfiction projects, I can keep all my reading, research, and lists of print and online sources together in a single compiler, so everything’s accessible to me while I’m writing.

You’ve been on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts since 2006. What is it like balancing teaching and writing? Any advice for people trying to strike this particular balance? 

I think it’s a different kind of balancing act for everyone, just the way we all come at writing in hundreds of different ways. For me, teaching and writing are very much alike. They are both more about process than product, the work is never finished, and you meet an amazing number of generous, wonderful, talented people along the way. Advice? I’d say stay open to possibility on both fronts and think about what both teaching and writing mean to you, not just as a balance to strike but as part of your life.

You’re represented by Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown, Ltd. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned about the working relationship between a writer and a literary agent?

I don’t know if I really feel competent to answer this question, but I will say that in my experience (and I’ve been both agented and unagented over the years) “relationship” is the key word. I am very grateful for my agent’s support. I don’t often have burning questions I need answered but can’t imagine not being able to call on Ginger, and Curtis Brown, when I do. And I am more than grateful for the help I get with navigating the business end of my work.

You recently wrote a blog post about common errors in American children’s books with South Asian content. It’s true that children’s books outside the mainstream, white norm published here in the States have often been subject to inaccurate and sometimes insensitive interpretations on the part of both publishers and reviewers. As someone writing children’s books set in India and rooted in the South Asian diasporic experience, have you had to work to ensure that reviewers, publishers and ultimately young readers in the US “get” your books? 

Factual inaccuracies, outmoded depictions, and great big gaps in material related to India and the region—these were in part the things that drove me to write in the first place. That said, I think my job as a writer is to write the story I need to tell. When I write and revise, I find the more I focus on the story, let the characters grow as they need to, let the big picture of the story reveal itself, the more likely it is that an editor will relate to it. At another level, I simply can’t control who will “get” my books and who will not. I’m an idiosyncratic reader—I read what pleases me and I have opinions about the books I read. I need to write my books and then when they’re published I need to let go of them, to hope that readers will have opinions about them. Beyond that, I have to move on to the next book and the next.

I recently wrote a post here on the blog about the question of audience in Caribbean children’s writing. Audience has such a big effect on the way a writer writes and also on the types of stories that get told. As a South Asian writer living and writing in America and writing books that in your own words, “cross from one place into the other and back again”, how do you see the issue of audience? 

It’s complicated. I tend to push audience to the back of my mind when I’m writing drafts, and then slowly, over the course of many revisions, I bring them back into my consciousness. By the time we’re done with the last rounds of edits, I’m fully aware that I need to make my thoughts accessible on the page to someone who’s 6 or 8 or 11, depending on the book. That does not always make me simplify, mind you—sometimes the thought of the audience has quite the opposite effect because I know how very perceptive young readers can be.

At some level I don’t think it matters where that reader lives. When I was writing Book Uncle and Me, I didn’t think I was writing it for readers in India, or in Australia where it has since been picked up. My picture book, Out of the Way! Out of the Way! was originally published in India, and I didn’t think I was writing it for kids in the US, but now they’re reading it anyway, thanks to the wonderful people at Groundwood Books who published a North American edition.

Illustration by Uma Krishnaswamy from Out of the Way! Out of the Way!

You regularly travel to India, where you were born, for book festivals like Bookaroo and to speak with young readers at schools and so forth. Do you find that your books are well received in India and as an expat writer, what have you found to be key for connecting with your readers in India?

I have felt very welcomed in the land of my birth. It’s been a joy for me to encounter the energy and enthusiasm of young audiences I’ve spoken to in India. I don’t know that I’ve had to make any special attempts or look for ways to make that connection—it’s all felt very natural.

In your children’s books, you’ve managed to tell nuanced, non-stereotypical stories about Indian and Hindu traditions ―like yoga, Bollywood and Hanuman, the Hindu monkey deity― that have been largely festishized in the West. Your books have also addressed topics as far-ranging as immigration (The Grand Plan to Fix Everything), divorce (Naming Maya), interfaith dialogue (Many Windows), death of a loved one (Remembering Grandpa), the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan (Chachaji's Cup), and adoption and biracial families (Bringing Asha Home). Both from the perspective of navigating the publishing world and honing our voices as storytellers, I’m interested in the question of how we convey culture and traditions in our stories without stereotyping or pigeonholing ourselves. Any insights? 

I think we reach for honesty at many levels—in thinking about why I want to tell a particular story, in getting as close as I can to a credible, plausible character, at staying true to the kind of story I am trying to reach. I try to get at the bigger questions through small, specific details of setting and context. Naming Maya needed a different kind of truth-telling (facing the realities of a contemporary child’s life) from Chachaji’s Cup (the truth about a period of history my mother lived through).

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything—well, it has an immigrant family at its center, but I see it and the sequel, The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic, as being about friendship and family in a world of blended cultural identities. Writing those books called for me to turn some conventional wisdoms on their heads—hence the kid of color rather than the white kid is the one who defines what is “cool” in the books. They are not about becoming American—Dini’s blended version of Americanness is never in question and that in some ways is the point.

Your latest chapter book, Book Uncle and Me won the 2011 Scholastic Asian Book Award and the 2013 Crossword Book Award in the Children's Category. You wrote on your blog that the book really started with memories of a particular setting, specifically, the street where your parents lived for over thirty years. As you say, “When you start to pay attention to the quirkiness of a place, it will begin to show itself to you as if it's auditioning for a part in your story.” I love that! I’ve been blogging about the importance of stories of place and “place-based writing” in Caribbean children’s literature. What, have you found, is the power of writing with a strong setting? 

It’s the only way I know how to write. Eudora Welty said, "Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else...” And I think children are loaded with the ability to soak up place even when they may have no idea that’s what they’re doing. All my childhood memories are deeply sensory, and bound up with very specific places—the way the bark felt in trees I climbed, or the smell of jasmines, the clanging of train wheels and so on. For me, reaching for place is always a part of reaching for story.

I've been hearing a lot about renewed interest in the poetry of children’s stories. In fact, the Children's Book Academy is currently offering an online course titled "From Storyteller to Exquisite Writer: The Pleasures and Craft of Poetic Techniques " and they just hosted a free webinar on the same topic. Some of your picturebooks, like Monsoon and The Girl of the Wish Garden: A Thumbelina Story have been praised for their poetic quality and even in some of your novels, there is this use of poetic imagery. How did this awareness of poetic language develop for you as a writer? Was lyricism something you naturally leaned towards or something you’ve had to consciously develop? 

I was a reader before I was a writer. Back in the last century, I was one of those lucky kids who can’t remember learning how to read. I have memories of sitting by myself and reading…reading…reading silently and then suddenly finding myself reading out loud, as if the words were just bursting off the page and I had to make them my own. We memorized a lot of poetry in those days, and perhaps that has something to do with it as well. My grandfather used to recite Longfellow and Tennyson while shaving. There’s a sensory memory—fluffy white shaving cream and “This is the forest primeval…”

Illustration by Jamel Akib from Monsoon

What’s next on your itinerary and are you currently working on a book?

Summer residency’s coming up at VCFA, so I’m getting ready for the next teaching semester to begin. And I’m working on a book project that I cannot talk about because it might evaporate if I did!  All I can say is that I’m in that happy place of waking up each morning eager to get to work on it.

Uma Krishnaswami is an award-winning children's author described by the Journal of Children's Literature as "a major voice in the expanding of international and multicultural young adult fiction and children's literature." She is also a writing teacher in the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her short stories and poems have been published in CricketHighlights and Cicada, and her books, which include picture books, collections of stories of India, non-fiction books and novels, are published in English, Spanish, Hindi, Tamil and six other languages. She is published by Atheneum, Groundwood Books, Lee & Low Books, Scholastic India and Scholastic Australia, and represented by Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown, Ltd. Born in New Delhi, India, she now lives in Aztec New Mexico and regularly travels to India. She blogs at Writing With a Broken Tusk.