June WOM winners and July WOM word and WRITERS AT WORK: We get letters — and e-mails, too! (Part 4)

Hi everyone,

Today has three parts.
1) Announce our winning poets for June Word of the Month.
2) Present the WOM word for July.
3) Post the 4th segment of June’s WRITERS AT WORK.

1) Remember, we have two categories for winning poets. Hall of Fame Poets are chosen by ballot and Word of the Month Poets are selected by judges.

This month we had no poems posted by young poets in either of our two categories: grades 3-7 and grades 8-12. We had nine poems posted by adults. That may be a record for the fewest poems we’ve seen since starting Word of the Month in October 2009. Also, voting was unusually light. It must be summer!

My thanks to everyone who pitched in a poem for our readers’ pleasure. I love it when one word blown on the wind cames back in so many forms and with such a multitude of messages. I hope you agree that the exercise is a good way to keep your imagination flowing. Many of you now have a collection of fifteen or twenty poems inspired by WOM.

This month our Hall of Fame Poet is Susan Carmichael, from Columbus, Ohio, for her poem, “Such a Good Puppy.” Some comments from our judges: Love the originality of this one
told from the puppy’s point of view.
“Espadrille” does sound like the name of a small, furry animal
instead of a lady’s shoe! 😉
This poet not only has a keen sense of humor,
but also has a well-tuned ear for poetry.
The rhythms and internal/external melodies are brilliant,
(e.g. “…how cunning are my hunting skills…”
“…teasing me to take a taste…”
“…but Sunday’s news sounds savory…”).
“Great metaphors and voice. Love the ending.”

Joy Acey, from Tucson, Arizona, placed second with her poem, “Our New Puppy.” One judge commented, “I like the way the poet begins by offering
images that are believable in a puppy’s
repertoire of chewables, than builds toward
a litany of unbelievable, unchewable items
in this hyperbolic tour-de-force that ends
with the poet begging for someone to give
his puppy a bone! Clever!”

Our Word of the Month Poet is also Susan Carmichael who won in a close race with Cory Corrado from Quebec, Canada, for her poem, “Letting Go.” But a win is a win and I say, “Way to go, Susan!” Technically, Steven Withrow got more votes but he’s a past winner in this cycle so he has to sit this one out. But Steven, your poems are always anticipated and enjoyed. Keep ’em coming!

Congratulations to everyone who plays the game of writing poems each month to post on my blog. I hope you continue to enjoy the experience and to find support and encouragement for your work. I’m pleased that so many have found us over the months and then return to read and/or participate. We welcome poems from the pros and are always glad to see early efforts from writers who want to try their wings as budding poets.

2) The word or July.

SOUR

3) Now for WRITERS AT WORK.

WRITERS AT WORK
Letters, We Get Letters – and Lots of Email, Too
Response 4 – David
June 28, 2011

Sandy, as we conclude June’s four-part chat about the correspondence authors receive, I confess that this topic has brought back more memories than any of our others. And I know why, at least in my case. We’ve both said many times that the first thing an adult reader must do when presented with something written by a child is to celebrate the gift. One of my favorite quotes is by Susan Ferraro who writes, “To a great extent, we are what we say and write. Laugh or sneer at how we express ourselves, and we take personal offense: Our words are all about us.”

It’s easy to forget to appreciate the gift of a beginning writer, whose work is disjointed and filled with errors, when our first impulse is to suggest how to make it better. Teachers know this and remind themselves all the time to look past the mistakes to the vulnerable child who is holding his or her breath, hoping for a kind word of congratulations before the red ink comes out. Professional writers, when confronted with less than professional efforts by emerging writers, have to resist the same temptation to make judgments before seeing that adults have the same vulnerability that children do. We may think we’re tougher, but Ferraro got it right: “Laugh or sneer at how we express ourselves, and we take personal offense.”

So, Sandy, back to me, and why I think those letters from fans of all ages mean so much to an author. It’s because they represent unsolicited affirmation that our words are good. We got them right, at least this time, and so maybe we’ll get them right again on something we do in the future. They are, often, among the few positive remarks an author receives. Most editors are good about complimenting what they like, but during the course of editing a book, getting it ready on time to ship off to the copyeditor or artist, exchanges between writer and editor become mostly about the business at hand. Adults who buy books for children rarely take time to send fan letters of their own and most children are not likely to think about writing a letter to anyone these days, or an e-mail to someone they don’t know.

That’s why those letters, notes, and e-mails that manage to make it to my mailbox or computer screen are meaningful. They got here to my house against some pretty serious odds and are all the more appreciated because of it. Recently a little girl wrote to say, “I like your poems. They are fun. I enjoy reading your poems a lot. Your friend, Camrin.” Camrin took the time to tell me specifically which of my poems she liked best. That made me smile. I got those poems right! She printed her letter on a piece of lined paper, addressed it herself, and (I can imagine) placed it in her mailbox so the postman could pick it up and send it on its way to me.

Sandy, I mentioned last time that people who write asking for information about getting published are another category of an author’s correspondence. Sometimes such letters come from kids but more often they are written by young adults or adults who love the idea of becoming a published author and wonder how to go about it. Such letters can be time consuming to answer, and sometimes the temptation is to rush through them and keep them short. Why can’t these people figure it out on their own? But then I remember how confused I was in the first few years of struggling to get the words right, and how much I appreciated any encouragement and help I could get. And I realize that to be asked how to do it is a form of flattery. The person asking must have decided that I do indeed, at least on occasion, get it right. And so I do my best to see the vulnerable person behind the question who wants very much to become published, and I take a little longer to give a response that might help.

So, Sandy, it’s a wrap for June’s topic about letters and e-mails. I’ve had a good time and know that you have too. We’ve also been blessed with a number of warm comments from readers, which are appreciated!

Folks, Sandy and I are taking off the months of July and August before considering what to do this fall. We are both swamped with work and have travel plans as well.

David

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WRITERS AT WORK: We Get Letters (Part 3)

Hi, everyone,

Our topic this month for WRITERS AT WORK is about the letters and other correspondence that authors receive, usually from young readers but sometimes from parents, teachers, librarians, and even other writers. Today it’s Sandy Asher’s second time at bat and I love what she has to say. Sandy, it’s all yours.

WRITERS AT WORK
Letters, We Get Letters – and Lots of Email, Too
Response 3 – Sandy
June 21, 2011

Here are two more correspondence categories to add to your list, David:

The Homework Assignment Request

In the (good?) old days, I’d receive these inquiries forwarded from my publisher, all too often long after the poor student needed the information to meet a deadline. I felt awful about that! But what can you do other than apologize and hope the young person understands the delay didn’t happen at my end of the slow process, since then aptly named “snail mail.” Nowadays, these requests come by email. The speed, alas, has resulted in a new kind of problem: “Dear Sandy Asher, I have to write a report about you. Tell me all about your life. My report is due tomorrow morning.” Or, “Dear Author, I have to write a book report. What’s your book about?”

Sigh. Not much we can do about those either, except explain, politely, that specific questions are welcome. Deflected homework assignments are not.

Then we have . . .

The Deeply Moving, Never-To-Be-Forgotten Personal Letters

These are the ones I’d like to talk more about this time around because they’re so important to those who write them – and to me, reading them. Also because I think they point to a very special relationship, not so much between reader and author as between reader and character.

Three poignant examples:

My second YA novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE LAW, about the child of Holocaust survivors, brought a long, thoughtful response from a middle school student in Canada. I was quite impressed by her insights and told her so in my return letter. Thus began years of correspondence – often more than 20 handwritten, two-sided pages from her end – filled with the loneliness of being the shy, sensitive child of foreign-born parents in a not very tolerant environment, plus some charming short stories of her own.

Our penpal friendship lasted all the way through her high school years and on into the first few months of college, when the thick envelopes from Canada with their familiar handwriting abruptly stopped arriving in my mailbox. I didn’t feel it was my place to inquire further. I believe that for this young woman, as for so many other bright, creative students who don’t fit into their home towns or their high school environments, college finally offered a safe haven rich with new opportunities. My support was no longer necessary.

During the span of the long Canadian correspondence, another YA novel JUST LIKE JENNY was republished in Great Britain. The story is about two best friends, Jenny and Stephanie, who find themselves competing against one another in their chosen field of dance. How do you maintain a best friendship with your worst rival? Across the big puddle came a heartfelt, handwritten letter from a young teenager who told me about a similar situation in her own life, claiming that she felt she couldn’t talk to anyone else about it. She was “scared, really scared” of losing her dearest friend, and begged for help. I responded as best I could, suggesting that, instead of retreating, she share her concerns with her friend, who might be feeling similar stress. A second letter revealed that this was indeed the case. “It’s not always perfect, but I feel a lot better now. Thank you. It was much easier when I felt someone was backing me.”

More recently, I received a letter and a packet of poems from a young woman, mother of four small children, who had read another of my YA novels, SUMMER BEGINS, some time earlier. The writer had little in common with Summer, the daughter of an Olympic swimming champ and a university professor, but explained that she’d carried the book around with her for years and had taken heart from the way Summer learned to stand up for herself. The poems included with this letter were a heart-wrenching account of the abuse this reader had endured in her home and in foster care before also standing up for herself. As you know, David, in this case, the reader and I have become lifelong friends, and I’ve been privileged to witness with awe her continuing courage and healing.

While it’s true that those letters were addressed to me, and I answered them, I’ve always suspected they were not really written to me at all. I think they were written to Stephanie and Ruthie and Summer, the characters in my books. It was Jo March who told me I could be more than the wife and mother my parents expected of me. She may have come from Louisa May Alcott’s pen, but she was far more real to me than her creator. Characters in books understand. They tell us we’re not alone, not in our fears, not in our hopes, not in our nightmares, and not in our dreams. A character who assures a young reader of that can be the best friend that child has, and the one he or she turns to, time and again.

There are days in my writing, when it’s going really well, that I feel as if I’m taking dictation from my characters. They become that real to me, too. They need me to get their stories written down. And, sometimes, they need me to answer their mail. I do both with pleasure and deep gratitude for their trust.

WRITERS AT WORK: We get letters — and lots of e-mails, too. (Part 2)

Hi everyone,

At this point we are not sure if we will continue doing the series past the end of this month although Sandy Asher and I have been enjoying these Tuesday visits and are learning that at least a few of you do too.

Please let us know if you find WRITERS AT WORK to be of interest and/or help in your own work. If you do or if you don’t, we need to know. The show will conclude at the end of June or continue as our schedules allow, depending on what we hear from readers to help guide our decision.

Feel free to jump in with comments about the monthly topic. The one we’re discussing this month is especially fun because just about everyone who does a school visit or speaks before groups is bound to receive thank-you notes and e-mails. If you have some good examples, please share them.

Don’t forget that at the end of every month we bring all the Tuesday chats together and repost them on the blog of America Writes for Kids. That link again is http://usawrites4kids.drury.edu /

I’m up for today so here we go.

WRITERS AT WORK
Letters, We Get Letters – and Lots of Email, Too
Response 2 – David
June 14, 2011

Thanks Sandy! I love to hear from readers too. Who doesn’t? They tend to come in three categories. One is the packet of notes required by the teacher after a school visit. “Get out your paper and pencils and think about what we learned today when Mr. Harrison visited our class. What did you remember about what he said? Which poem did you like best?” A second group is from individuals who find something in a book that makes them want to write a fan letter to the author. The third category, which usually comes via the Internet, is from those who not only like our work but seek our help in getting published. That category is probably worthy of another day.

But back to the teacher generated notes from students. “Dear Mr. Harrison, thank you for coming to our class. I remember when you dug up your dead pet parakeet and whacked off its wings. Your poem I liked best was ‘Life’s Not Fair’ because it was about running out of toilet paper and it was short. Your friend, Joe.” I read every note. I bet that every author fortunate enough to hear from a child takes the time to read the note and try to respond in an appropriate way.

I dig my way down through the stack, mining for the gold of originality. Every now and then a real voice speaks out and tickles me. When I least expect it, some kid makes me snort out loud and interrupt my wife to read the note. A few years ago I did a book with two voices called FARMER’S GARDEN. It did well so I collaborated with the same artist, Arden Johnson-Petrov, on a follow-up title called FARMER’S DOG GOES TO THE FOREST. In both books, Dog stops to examine and interview the things he sees, which results in two-way chats in rhyme. A teacher read the second book to her class and asked her students to write about their thoughts. Here’s what one honest kid had to tell me.

“Dear Mr. Harrison,
Your book is weird. First, the dog is talking to inanimate objects. For example, the dog was talking to a tree, some grass, and the brook. Clearly you can see the book is kind of out there.”

Sandy, what can you say when someone that young pins you to the wall with such a valid point! In another case, I wrote a poem about a dead wasp I found on a windowsill in our house. “Death of a Wasp” is sad. I visualized the tiny creature’s futile efforts to escape, bumping against the window over and over until it eventually died on the sill. My editor told me she cried when she read the poem. When I read it to groups of adults, all eyes turn solemn. That’s true of most kids, too, except this one. I love his note.

“Dear Mr. Harrison,
On the wasp poem, I saw my teacher about to cry. I didn’t see why everybody about cried.”

What can I say? If dead insects don’t jerk your tear ducts, they just don’t! Which reminded me, as these notes so often do, that everyone reads with his or her own ideas about what’s good, what makes sense, what’s right, what’s funny, and even what is worthy of tears!

Sandy, do you save your notes from young readers? I do, not all of them, but the ones that really grab me. Sometimes they come in handy, for example, right now.

Being new: “I’m new so I relate to the part (in a school bus poem) that says some kids are new but you wave at them too. That’s exactly what happened to me.”
Being rejected: “I know how it feels to be rejected. I entered in the poetry contest in my school in third, fourth, and fifth grade but I never won. I plan to enter this year. It’s my last chance.”
Cursive writing: “You were just like me when I was learning how to write in cursive. I had trouble with the letter X.”
Being embarrassed: “My favorite poem was the one with you falling off the risers. When you fell off the risers I bet you were embarrassed. I have embarrassing moments too.”

Years ago I was waiting to see an editor at Random House. On the floor by my chair were stacks of boxes of letters from kids addressed to Berenstain Bears. When I asked about them, I learned that letters arrived in such volume that responding sometimes became a problem. Sandy, may I live long enough to receive so many letters that responding becomes a problem! For now, I remain grateful every time a child writes, even when he thinks my book is weird and kind of out there.

Back to you!

David