Monday, November 28, 2016

Meet Joanne Fritz, from bookselling to book making

Meet Joanne R. Fritz

For a decade, Joanne Fritz cuddled at home
with the best children's books in the form of
advance reader copies (ARCs), before the
real deal ever popped into reader hands.

And she met the best children's authors in the
bookstore where she hand-sold their books.

She also read the best children's magazines,
such as those from the Highlights family of

Now, she is refining her writing for children, with
help from the best author-teachers we love to
read & study.

What were the best things about being a children’s bookseller?
Besides meeting all those amazing authors, I loved finding the right book for a child.                                                                                      

If the parent told me a few things about their kid and what they liked to read (or didn’t like to read!), 
I could always make several suggestions for books they would love. Parents and grandparents, 
as well as librarians, learned to look for my Staff Pick shelves or seek me out to ask for further recommendations.
By the time I left I had quite a few loyal customers who only wanted to deal with me, especially at the holidays.
Another favorite part of my job was recommending books for Indiebound. They used my blurb for 
Padma Venkatraman’s first novel (back when Indiebound was still called Booksense), hence it was 
fantastic to finally meet her at the Highlights Foundation workshop on Novels in Verse in 2016.
I also wrote children’s book reviews for a local newspaper that was distributed to all the area schools.
Now I review books on my blog, My Brain on Books.   
What were 5-8 titles, off the top of your head, that were guaranteed sellers in 
picture books, middle grade & YA?

It’s been a few years, so this may already seem outdated, but in PBs, Olivia was always popular, 
and any funny books about animals, really. The Pigeon books, Richard Scarry books, etc. 
Anything about trucks sold well, like Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site.  
We also sold a lot of classics like Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, and
 Caldecott winners too because they made nice gifts.

In MG, after Harry Potter died down, we sold anything by Rick Riordan and really anything in a series, 
but we also had plenty of customers buying stand-alone Newbery books and whatever our current 
Staff Picks were. And in YA, Hunger Games, Twilight, and similar books sold well back then, but so 
did YA contemporary, like anything by Sarah Dessen or Ellen Hopkins. Now, I think contemporary rules, 
but there will always be fans of fantasy and paranormal.

What are your favorite kinds of children's books? What did you read as a kid?

As a kid, I absolutely loved The Secret Garden, James and the Giant Peach, and Charlotte’s Web.
But I would read anything then, even comic books.
Reading was by far my favorite thing to do, besides climbing trees.
My favorite books remain MG, though now I lean more toward historical fiction and contemporary 
than fantasy, but I do try to read adult fiction occasionally (my favorite read in 2015 was 
All The Light We Cannot See). 
In general, I’m not big on nonfiction (I know I should read more).
Just give me a good story and I’m happy.

Did you write as a kid?

Yes, I did, starting at about the age of eight.
But for a long time I thought of it as a secret I needed to keep.
I didn’t tell my family or friends.
For many years after, I wrote secret stories and poems but never tried to write
a picture book until the birth of my first son.
I also didn’t write on a regular basis back then, only when I felt inspired.
I didn’t start writing novels until 2007, so I’m relatively new at that.

How did the shop prepare for author appearances?

It was a team effort.
The manager took care of ordering books for the signing, basing it on how many 
people we expected to attend. We advertised in the local paper, and more recently, online. 
The day of the signing, we’d set up chairs, a podium, and test the microphone a few hours in advance.

For the children’s authors, I frequently introduced the author myself.
The first time I had to do that I was extremely nervous, but everyone told me I did a great job.
From then on it was fairly easy. I still got nervous and weak-kneed, getting up in front of 50 or 
100 people and talking into the microphone, but I managed.
I also moderated Q&A sessions after the author’s speech, and helped keep the signing 
line moving along smoothly. After a signing, we usually asked the authors to sign stock for our shelves, 
so I got extra chances to talk to them.
Over the years, I was privileged enough to meet many distinguished children’s book authors, 
including but not limited to, Laurie Halse Anderson, Patricia MacLachlan, Richard Peck, 
T.A. Barron, Dan Gutman, Jerry Spinelli, Ellen Hopkins, Beth Kephart, A.S. King, and 
K.M. Walton (whose launch party for CRACKED was by far the biggest of any we had for a YA debut author.)

You undoubtedly have a deserved advantage in becoming a children's writer & author, due
to your bookshop background. Perhaps it's from seeing so many titles. 
Perhaps from meeting children's authors in the shop? And from hearing what young
readers in the shop, said? 

There were many advantages to working in a large children’s book department.
Probably the biggest advantage was having access to so many ARCs.
Since I was able to read (for free) as many current books as I could, I learned a lot about 
writing from that
(and I think any aspiring author should read as much as possible in their genre – if you don’t 
have access to ARCs, go to your local library!)
Restocking shelves helped me learn what books were flying off the shelves and what weren’t, 
so I learned what books were successful, at least in our area. I’m sure every bookstore is different.

As a bookseller, I devised a pitch for each book.
So when my customers asked for a recommendation I could pull out a few books and 
describe each one in an enticing way.
It’s a bit like hooking an agent or editor with the first few lines of your query.

Meeting authors is always wonderful, and some of them I’m proud to call friends now, 
but it really didn’t give me any advantages as a writer. Talking to my young customers h
elped me realize what they look for in a book (as opposed to what their parents look for). 
My customers were diverse and their tastes varied widely.
What one young reader liked, another wouldn’t.  
But they all knew a good cover can make a potential reader pick up a book, but if the first page 
doesn’t deliver, they’ll put it down again.

More about Joanne R. Fritz

Before you leave a note/comment for Joanne here, read some more about her:

A lifelong avid reader, Joanne majored in English at Dickinson College, intending to work in publishing. 
She spent a couple of years as an editorial assistant in New York City, before moving back to Pennsylvania 
and working first in a greeting card company and then in a school library. 
After a stint as a stay-at-home mom, Joanne re-entered the work force as a children’s bookseller in 2002 at Chester County Book & Music Company, in West Chester, PA. At one time, it was one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. It opened in 1982. The bookstore no longer exists, unfortunately, but there are still several indie bookstores within a reasonable driving distance of Joanne's home.  When the bookstore closed, she began writing full time. 

You can meet up with her at MY BRAIN ON BOOKS, her book review blog. 

  "Storm Magic," (above) a rebus by Joanne R. Fritz, was published in the October 2016 issue of Highlights.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

NA-NU NA-NU! How NaNoWriMo Helps a Picture Book Writer - by Kathy Halsey

As you munch on turkey, give thanks with family and friends, perhaps you have a moment to read about a another November tradition, NaNoWriMo. Ask your parents or others around the table today if they recall the Mork and Mindy sitcom that featured comedic genius Robin Williams. Robin played the alien Mork from the planet Ork, and his greeting was, "NA-NU NA-NU."  I felt rather like Mork, visiting another planet as I began my November journey through National Novel Writing Month. 

The challenge to write 50,000 words in one measly month seemed monumental. It feels that way still. I may not make the word count, and  today, if I keep writing at my current pace, I'll reach the finish line March 27, 2017. Plenty of people who embark on this adventure say they "fail" the first year. Whoa, that's harsh. However, my "failure" is still a win in my book. 

I primarily write picture books, have tried my hand at a chapter book and even dipped into  a middle grade. I pride myself of word counts of 300-500 and by final draft time, I usually cross that finish line. So could this older dog learn a new trick? I had to find out if I could sustain a much brisker clip.

My motivation was a "failed" PB biography that just wouldn't budge. Taking revision to the nth level, I played "what if." What if this became a first person, middle grade, historical fiction? I became my main character and revised my structure to a travelogue on which to hang my plot and research. I shared that beginning with a friend's 5th grade class, and voila, they actually clapped after my reading. Yes, I guess I'm writing a middle grade novel. GULP. So here's a few tips to chew on along w/the turkey sandwich.

Top Tips from a Newbie

1.  Prepare for NaNo ahead of time. There are meetings all over the country during October on the website. Also the site includes articles and help boards similar to the SCBWI blue boards.
2. I had a topic and plot via my PB bio, which helped. Perhaps you can dust off a manuscript that tugs at you still for NaNo. I used my fourteen spreads and reimaigned them as chapters. 
3.  Gather your tribe. I hooked up with picture book and nonfiction writer friends  from FaceBook  and they became my first NaNo 'buddies." We spur each other on.
4. Go to meet-ups within your region. This may be more difficult if you live in a small town, but it helps. Some meetings are informational; some are like-minded folks who write on their own, yet join together. I found coffee, munchies, and camaraderie at   The Thurber House and two library branches in Columbus, Ohio. 
5. Be kind to yourself if you slip up and don't reach your word count target for the day. My daily target is 1667 words and I don't always measure up. But I will not quit.
6. JUST WRITE. Sounds simple, but it's not. I am a constant editor and rough drafts come slowly. That works for writing a picture book draft, but for NaNo, I had to plunge forward with a truly #%% draft. I had research holes to fill, too. When I had no time to sift for dates or names, I just wrote "XXX" and highlighted it for later. It almost killed me at first, but it is a DRAFT. (This gets easier over time.)
7. Make this challenge your own. My middle grade novel is probably going to be 30,000 + words, not 50,000. I have to research as I write this month because of the radical change in structure. And, I may not get done by November 30. What? Me worry? No, if  I get this middle grade written by the time the NESCBWI conference rolls around, I win. These are my goals, MY NaNo.
The Benefits
1. NaNo forced me to adopt a real writing routine which became a ritual.  I researched in the morning or read sources for the section I'd write in the afternoon. Afternoons were for writing and "writing sprints." (Timed writing with others made me accountable. Try it even if you aren't interested in NaNo.) 

2.  I found more writing time in my day by breaking it down into manageable segments. The official name for this is the "Pomodoro Technique." The method breaks time into 25 minute intervals with short breaks. Here are twelve timing apps to help. 
3. The resources within the NaNoWriMo website are awesome. There are pep talks and wonderful forums. Listen to these forum titles: Plot Doctoring, Reference Desk (great for NF), Worldbuilding and The Adoption Society. Folks leave characters, plots and catchphrases they've abandoned that you can pick up. 
4.  The confidence you will gain with sustained writing. Yes, there is a real "zone" or "flow" that happens w/this type of writing. My biggest surprise is that my main character really does enter me, and I just type what she is thinking, doing, and saying. I used to scoff when I heard this from other writers. 

Whether I run a 5K or a marathon, I will finish. (If I don't cross the finish line in November, I'll join Camp NaNo which let's me complete a project in any month.)  
I am proud of stretching beyond my comfort zone and pushing myself past what I think I'm capable of as a writer. I took a big leap forward, and I win! 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Giving Thanks for Poetry ~ by Christy Mihaly

Detail from the cover of Words, a novel by Ginny L. Yttrup
Have you felt overwhelmed by words this month? I have. We’ve heard words of hope and hate, of exhilaration and anguish, words of vision, words of violence. We’ve been reminded how powerful words can be, and how important.

NYC sign advertising a post-election pop-up poetry reading
In this season of giving thanks, I'm appreciating the words of poetry. A poem or song speaks directly to the heart. Poetry and music can heal divisions and bring people together. Let's do poetry!

Last week, I heard Kwame Alexander speak. (He was featured at the Children's Literature of New England meeting here in Vermont.) He read poems, told stories, and shared his dreams. He told us how his daughter recited poetry when she felt sad, so she wouldn't cry. 

He told us about a group of boys he'd taught in prison. At first these young inmates were skeptical about poetry. Then he read them a poem. Once they realized that poetry wasn’t the stuffy or artificial thing they’d believed it to be, the boys poured their hearts onto the page.

At its best, poetry transforms us. In poems, we can share truths that might otherwise be too difficult to hear, or say. Amid the widespread post-election calls for listening, for being open to the points of view of others, for defending our fundamental values—let’s remember poetry. Whether you read it aloud, sing it, recite it silently to yourself, or write your own, there’s no better time to celebrate poetry. 

I'm sharing a few poetry ideas here for teachers and writers, and especially for young people. 

Poetry reminds us of universal truths

From the centuries-old poems of the Persian mystic Rumi, to Shakespeare’s masterpieces, to modern poets from around the world, poetry can deepen our understanding of other peoples, times, and cultures. 

19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East
by Naomi Shihab Nye

And as Bob Dylan's Nobel prize recently reminded us, songs are poetry too.

Poetry gives young people a powerful voice

Many schools and organizations foster poetry for young people. Poetry Out Loud encourages them to memorize and recite poetry aloud. At poetry slams around the country, teens compete and share their poetry out loud. I've been following a group of teens calling themselves Muslim Girls Making Change. This youth-led group recently represented Vermont at the national poetry slam. Their slam poetry reflects their thoughts and feelings on a range of subjects, from high school to the hijab.
YouTube image
Young people interested in social justice can participate in programs such as Split This Rock, harnessing poetry to fight poverty and make the world a better place.

And always, poetry comforts and gives us hope

Poetry can be a comfort in dark times and a joy in times of happiness. In addition to poets mentioned above, I've often turned to Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, David Budbill, and Billy Collins. And so many others! Check out the Poetry Foundation website for more ideas and poems.

I’d love to hear about readers’ favorite poems and poets. Feel free to leave comments below. 
Happy Thanksgiving, and Peace, to all.