Patricia Polacco’s Pen

Woe to those who cross a writer, for they shall find that writers have big mouths, fast typing speeds and a long, long reach.

At least, that’s what SRA/McGraw-Hill should have realized when they decided to take on children’s writer Patricia Polacco. A Bay Area resident, Polacco has a Ph.D in Art History with an Emphasis on Iconography. After years of thinking that her art lay in other directions, she began writing in her early 40’s, and got her start with SCBWI. A prolific author, she has opened her heart and home to the writing community and is an avid speaker and teacher about the writing process.

Recently, she was asked by what she assumed was simply a booking group, to take part in the International Reading Association Conference in Chicago on May 2 and 3, 2006. The booking group asked Polacco’s staff for a specific outline and information about her talks, and grew more insistent as the date approached.

Polacco wondered why. She was told, “They requested my written outline because their “client” wanted to make sure that I would not discuss my deep concern about the “No Child Left Behind” mandate … as well as my concern that there is a link between this mandate and the SRA/McGraw Hill Company, which manufactures, prints, and profits from the sale of these tests to school systems all over our country.” Polacco, reasonably concerned, did a little deeper digging – and found that the Buchanan Associates are not a booking or advertising firm, they represent… SRA/McGraw-Hill.

Questions as to why SRA/McGraw-Hill would want to invite this woman and pay her to speak… well, they because she is well known, and outspoken and well respected among teachers and writers and librarians. They thought to put her under tremendous pressure to say “upbeat, positive, non-political” things. About them. And then un-invited her when she wouldn’t cave in.
She responded in kind, with lawyers.

And then t r u t h o u t got involved, and reported on a link between the current presidential administration, which implemented the No Child Left Behind laws, and the publishing company.
And because the ‘pen’ is now a mighty fast keyboard, the world passed the word, and now you know, too.

I guess, if fair is fair, these folk had the right to un-invite Polacco because her content disagreed with their requirements, especially since this was a paid gig, but it’s pretty tacky to have invited her and then tried to write her speeches. More questionable is that a publishing company is so sold on trying to promote the flawed No Child Left Behind as a good thing, when it has been described at best as ‘incomplete’ by countless teachers and other educational professionals — the very people with whom SRA/McGraw-Hill wants to work and support — that they were unwilling to allow Polacco to speak if she even referred to the legislation. Possibly a Reading Association Conference was the wrong venue for such flashpoint topics… but then, why would a company representing SRA/McGraw-Hill ask the outspoken Polacco in the first place? Strange.

More Work Avoidance

Short of pacing and biting my nails, I haven’t gotten much done the past hour, so I may as well let you in on something Beverly Cleary said that’s been on my mind. Cleary, 90, is facing the option of her very first novel going to celluloid. Her novels have, since 1950 when she published the first, stayed steadily in print. She’s never been a millionaire, but she’s written good books, steadily. (Oh, how I want someday for someone to say that about me!!)

Moviemakers are now looking at Ramona and Her Father for a film. Instead of being gleeful about a Ramona Quimby movie, Cleary is…thoughtful. She’s not sure it’s a good thing. She said she understands why people have toys and such as tie-in to children’s books, but she’s “not interested in making kids into consumers.”

Can I get a witness, here?

Mrs. Cleary says she is making sure that this Ramona movie is done properly so she “doesn’t turn into a plastic miniature inside a kid’s fast-food restaurant meal.”

As our friend Seren might say, “Word to Mrs. Cleary.” Down with marketing to kids! Up with great books they can get from the library.

And now back to …work

Timing, Timing

Can I just whine to the universe at large that A.Fortis chose the most awful time EVER to go on vacation!? I’m in a final edit! I need someone to hold my hand and bring me adverbs! How could A.F. leave me for some wall!?

Whinging aside, Locus has announced the winner of the first year for SFWA’s Andre Norton Award, created to honor young adult SF/F novels and named in honor of the late SFWA Grand Master. While not technically a Nebula Award, it is voted on by members in the same way the Nebula Awards are, and the winner this year was Holly Black, one of the coolest YA SF writers I know. I really enjoyed her previous book Tithe, which I haven’t written up for our sister site, and look forward to reading her latest.

Cross fingers for me – I’m hoping to send a mss. back to the editor this week for a final run-through. I’ll let you know what happens next…

LAST comments on Kaavaya Viswanathan

The SF Chronicle’s Mark Morford had some deep and good words on Ms. Viswanathan, and the Incident that got me thinking. Indulge me to underscore one tiny idea of his: my success does not depend on someone else’s failure.

Just a tiny thought, world.

I’m done with this story, which has by turns depressed and disgusted me. I wish this girl the best – a new start somewhere else, not having to prove anything to anyone but herself. May the next big Incident in the writing world be a story of someone doing so well that we are inspired to greater heights ourselves.

An Alloy is a Mixture… in this case one poorly put together

I don’t want to add to the breast-beating and blaming going on in the Viswanathan-a-thon. I think we all have our own opinions on the incident – deliberate plagiarism, privileged-girl stupidity, “perfect minority” myth teen manipulated by adults, etc. – Truly, we’ll never know what really happened. There’s a detail in all of this that is interesting to me, however. I want to explore the idea of “packagers” in YA lit, what they do, and why they exist.

As I’m going through the process of getting published by a major imprint, I find that there are a lot of things behind the scenes that I didn’t realize existed. There is a huge machinery of movie tie-ins, product tie-ins, and marketing that stands ready to swoop on anything in your book that looks like it’ll help it sell. Publishers are in the business of making money, and they’re good at it; so good they’re kind of scary. (I honestly do not trust that they have my best interests at heart. This is business.) Some of the editing comments I received early on have to do not so much with the book or strolling, but how it will be perceived, and ideas on how to market it.

The American Book Producers Association explains that book packagers are responsible for some of the best “high profile” book projects and that they exist to make sure that “complicated” projects can go forward. Complicated, in that these books often are compilations among authors and researchers, involve non-print materials (apparently the publishing company has nothing to do with the coffee cup, canvas tote and CD that comes with your new novel) and labor are intensive to the point of involving more hours and work than may be worthwhile to the publishing house. Often packagers are brought in to flesh out in-house projects.

Alloy Entertainment, the self-professed “most successful marketers and merchandisers to the youth market” already had a checkered past before it met with Viswanathan. According to the New York Observer, Jodi Anderson, a member of the editorial staff at Alloy had an idea for a novel. She put together a book proposal, and pitched it to her fellow editors. It was well received and it was group-thinked – but then sent out to writers other than the editor, and when all was said and done, there was a novel – and the originator of the idea had her name appearing in the “special thanks” page of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Ann Brashares was co-editor at that time. Jodi Anderson’s departure for her own novel and work in other companies is understandable.

How much is any writer willing to pay for “success?” (What is that, exactly?)
I want my novel to sell. I want it to be read. I want to make enough money to live on, at some point, or else to support my small family. I guess the question comes down to how much of your artistic input you’re willing to give up to editors, agents, book packagers and others. Do you want action figures, coffee mugs, tank tops, stickers, and tote bags along with that movie contract? Do you want your readers to be “merchandised” with more stuff? Are you willing to do what it takes to be Harry Potter-huge? Does it any longer have anything to do with how good your story is??

It’s certainly something to think about before the contract gets put on the table in front of you.

B.utt I.n — it’s not that hard. Really.

I have many friends who write, and they either swing from one extreme to the other; from those who feel like they have no control over their characters, and that the characters must “speak” to them to move the story along, to those who are leery about that whole metaphysical metaphor, and feel like you just need to stick with your B.I.C. and get things done. Garrison Keillor’s little screed in Salon yesterday was both amusing and revealing — Mostly because I realized that I’ve never felt comfortable with admitting that writing is easy.

Okay, it’s not so very easy every day; some days there are lawn mowers outside, and there are sinus headaches and small children screaming or cats miaowing and climbing on the keyboard. Some days there are spouses and grandkids and classes and deadlines and time clocks, but on the whole, the words are in there, our lives are a great reference, and it’s not that hard to pluck out the words.

I whine about finding the right word. I whine about lackluster prose and dull dialogue. I whine about revisions. Everyone whines about revisions, especially when one has a contract so close they can smell it, but there are those last four hoops to jump through, and they’re not sure they have any more elasticity in their knees – everyone whines then. Some of us whine because we have to remake the bed every day, it’s just a personality quirk, and we refuse to sleep on the floor. But this job truly is not that hard. As Keillor says, “It does nothing for the reader to know you went through 14 drafts of a book, so why mention it?” We are lucky to have this job. We are not breaking rocks. We are not shoveling. We are not flipping burgers and sucking up grease through our very pores.

We are simply chained to our keyboards.

It’s a Good thing.

Golden Kite Award Update…

We’ve been waiting and SCBWI has announced the changes to its Golden Kite Award.

The biggest change? Money. And it’s about time, too. Books for children and young people have been low on the totem pole of book awards forever, and it’s been a two-party system (Newbury and Caldecott) for quite awhile. This isn’t to say that there aren’t other great book awards, including some regionals and some for specific age groups (like the Michael Printz) but recognition has been slow and limited and YA and children’s writers can toil in relative obscurity because the marketing money just hasn’t been behind something as mundane as books. And then you get random hyped examples of people who get half a million dollars for a book they haven’t even written yet… (well, I would give Ms. Viswanathan a break today, but there is new evidence. Anyway, my point was that nobody gets rich off of writing).

Happily, that looks to be changing. Beginning with the 2006 competition, Golden Kite participants can win $2,500 in four categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Picture Book Text, and Picture Book Illustration. And the fun is including the backstage people, too. Editors of winning books will receive $1,000, and for the winning book in the Picture Book Illustration category, an additional $1,000 will be given to the book’s art director. That surprises me a lot, and I’ll need to think about what that means to the industry… do we get more “superstar” editors who are that much harder to get books to…? No offense intended, but don’t we have enough of those!? Hm. Anyway, what may be the best perk is that winners get an expense-paid trip to Los Angeles to attend the award ceremony at the Golden Kite Luncheon at SCBWI’s Summer Conference in August. Since we all know that the Summer Conference can be a spendy little venture, that was thoughtful on the SCBWI board’s part.

This is all part of a move to get the Golden Kite Award national recognition, and in turn to promote books and quality literature. Cheers!

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Meanwhile,the brave YALSA/ALA folks are going to have their annual conference in New Orleans. In June. In hurricane season. They’re already looking for volunteer opportunities as well. Good for them.

It was FATED…

It had to happen. One of my favorite nonfiction adult books has been made… into a children’s book. Publisher’s Weekly reports that Eats, Shoots & Leaves is going to make the 4-8 year old set grammar-savvy once again. Toning down her ‘zero tolerance approach to grammar,’ author Lynne Truss teams up with cartoonist Bonnie Timmons (made famous by NBC’s long-ago Caroline in the City and numerous quilting toilet paper commercials) and pairs amusing pictures with funny sentences to help kids understand what they’re really saying when they neglect commas, or add them in the wrong place. I can’t wait to get this one for my little brother – and a copy for me, too, because my literal mind simply cannot get enough of such silliness as “Becky walked on, her head a little higher than usual” vs. “Becky walked on her head, a little higher than usual.” Now, imagine that with pictures! Meanwhile, Fast Food Nation, retitled as Chew On This, is also being turned into a YA book… and here’s hoping that stocks in all fast food places plummet! Doubtful, but hope springs eternal…

Meanwhile the Random House/WaldenMedia marriage is already bearing fruit; Carl Hiaasen’s brilliant book Hoot is opening as what looks to be a brilliant movie on May 5. More children’s/YA novels look to be coming into movie form this year include Where the Wild Things Are, a few Nancy Drew mysteries, the His Dark Materials trilogy, the Spiderwick Chronicles, The Tale of Despereaux, A Bridge to Terebithia, The Giver, Charlotte’s Web (I’m a bit sad about, because with Dakota Fanning, it looks like a remake of Babe. Again. And Oprah is Gussie the goose!?) How to Eat Fried Worms, and more. Can movies really make readers? We’ll find out…

Kaavya Viswanathan: Too Good To Be True?

Eeeeouch! Last April I mentioned the story of a very lucky girl who got into Harvard just about the time she got a very lucrative two book deal. At the time, I was a bit scared for her — only 17, and already — wow. I spoke at my undergrad alma mater about this 17-year-old girl who had gotten a $500K book deal based on a couple of chapters she’d written and told them that no, they’d have to work a bit harder, this kind of stuff never happens. It seems I may have been more right than I knew…

Like many other writers, I was a bit green with envy over this young woman’s succeess — but now I’m a bit nervous for Kaavya Viswanathan, now 19. Recent allegations claim that entire phrases from her book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, are taken from Megan F. McCafferty 2001 novel “Sloppy Firsts” and the 2003 sequel “Second Helpings.” There is, in fact, a full 14 word paragraph that is all McCafferty with only the names changed.

My stomach just knots as I read the comments from the Harvard newspaper, where Viswanathan is a student. Much has been made of this obviously bright girl, but it does seem that her fairy-tale beginning was just too good to be true, and that sharp readers are already joining the fray to make sure and pick out every single incidence where she could have taken her pieces of work from somewhere else.

Viswanathan is the youngest author signed by Little, Brown in decades, and the movie rights for the novel have already been sold to DreamWorks.


A shameless plug for a favorite author, and a great teen book club

Happy Weekend! Here’s a fabulous little event for YA writers brought to my attention by a fellow SCBWI-er :Not Your Mother’s Book Club a Laurel Village, SF club of the incredibly hip, is throwing a party. This YA literature community for people grades 7-12 welcomes Sarah Dessen to cafe Lo Cubano, she of the myriad sensitive and intelligent books reviewed on our sister site. This shindig is on the 25th, so you’ll need to move quickly to get your tickets online from Books, Inc., drop by their Laurel Village store, or give them a call at (415) 221-3666. Don’t wait – it’s not a big place, and once the tix are gone, they’re history, and this will be just another great event that you missed! Ticket price includes Dessen’s newest book for all the lucky teens, tapas, prizes and more — take notes, writers. What a fabulous idea for doing your own PR!! And check out their blog. Man, if I ever am forced to reincarnate I’ll make sure I come back somewhere near the Laurel Village Books Inc., thanks. What cool folks.