Lunch with the Ashers

Hi everyone,

You all know Sandy Asher or know about her plays, novels, poetry, and educational books. She and I bring you the WRTITERS AT WORK series and we’ve worked together on several other projects including her play based on my work called SOMEBODY CATCH MY HOMEWORK and a book we wrote together called JESSE AND GRACE (with a editor now). Earlier we did an anthology for boys called DUDE! We’ve also presented together numerous times, especially in the days when we created a live program that featured books for young people to encourage a joy for reading.

Sandy and Harvey lived in Springfield while raising their family. Harvey taught history at Drury and Sandy was Drury’s Writer in Residence. They moved to Pennsylvania so we rarely see one another these days. That’s why it’s such a pleasure that they’re in town regarding Sandy’s work and we’re getting together for lunch today.

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A surprise from last year

Hi everyone,

Sandy Asher just shared her discovery that SOMEBODY CATCH MY HOMEWORK was produced last year in Edinburgh, Scotland. Here’s an excerpt from the article.

“Victor J. Andrew High School Presents: Somebody Catch My Homework!

Theatre students of Victor J. Andrew High School will be putting on a fun, high energy production on Thursday, July 27th that they will also be presenting just a few days later at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland! The show is titled “Somebody Catch My Homework” and follows the everyday lives of fourth graders. Unlike a traditional musical, where the actors would break into song, in this production, they will break into poetry. Alex Craig, a student involved in the production said “We were looking to do something a little different for our show”. This family friendly, children’s show will be the only one they do before they bring it to Scotland.”

Sandy’s play, published by Dramatic Publishing, was first performed in Springfield, Missouri in 2002. She chose characters and poems from my work to pull together a class of 4th graders. I don’t know how many times the play has been produced now, but it has been several. This isn’t the first time it has appeared in another country.

Sandy, thanks for finding this and sharing it. Yay for SOMEBODY CATCH MY HOMEWORK!

WRITERS AT WORK: Rule 1: Show Up, Part 4

Today’s post was prerecorded.

Hi everyone,

Thanks for following us this month during the 4-part segment of WRITERS AT WORK: Rule 1: Show Up. Here’s Part 4, the final offering. Sandy Asher, back to you, and as always it has been a pleasure to partner with you again! Also, a reminder that at the conclusion of each of these chats, I gather them up, send them to Sandy, and she adds them to the entire series at http://usawrites4kids.blogspot.com

WRITERS AT WORK
Rule 1: Show Up
Part 4: Sandy

I can’t tell you, David, how many times I’ve tried to make “showing up” work for me without reaching my intended goal. I network. I meet editors and directors. We talk about projects we might take on together. We may even assure one another that these projects are exciting and have enormous potential. Yes! Yes? No. We part company. Time passes. Aaaaand . . . nothing. Sometimes it feels like being the kid who can’t get anyone to dance with her at a party. Everybody else is dancing (or so it seems from my forlorn perspective). What am I doing wrong? Am I trying too hard? Am I not trying hard enough?

Invitations to dance often seem to come out of the blue, out of left field, out of who-knows-where? Someplace I am simply not looking.

Still, I have to show up to receive them.

Case #1: I served on a panel at an American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) conference. I also attended other presentations and spoke up during the discussion periods afterward. No agenda, just voicing opinions, sharing what I’d learned that seemed applicable to the topic at hand. Then a director I’d never met approached me and asked me to join her for coffee. Of course, I accepted. “I think you’re someone I’d like to work with,” she said, basing her conclusion on my comments in the sessions she’d attended earlier in the day. I never knew she was in those rooms or listening to me, but coffee led to a commission to adapt “Little Women” for her youth theater, and that led to a visit to Lancaster, PA, which soon became my home. Who knew? Who could possibly have known? But I was there, actively there, and the future found me.

Case #2: I attended the opening reception of a new art gallery in town and was stunned by the images on the walls and the journal entries that accompanied them. I approached the gallery owner, who was an acquaintance, and suggested the story conveyed by the exhibit deserved a wider audience. Might I read the journals and think about writing a play? Permission was granted, and the result became both a stage and film version of “Death Valley: A Love Story.” I did not walk into the gallery intending any of that. It was waiting there for me to show up.

Case #3: My interest in TVY (Theatre for the Very Young) led me to the first meeting of AATE’s special interest group dedicated to that topic. Which led to a conference call among members, during which someone bemoaned the fact that American TVY practitioners almost never get to see one another’s work. In Scotland and Denmark, we’d heard, practitioners are able to visit one another’s theatres and learn and grow together. We’re separated by too much geography and too little affordable transportation. That casual phone comment gave me an idea: What about a digital festival? Fast forward: I gathered a steering committee, wrote a grant proposal, got the grant, and American Theatre for the Very Young: A Digital Festival debuted on Vimeo on March 1, 2018, with a first offering of 11 performances from around the country, including Pollyanna Theatre’s production of my play based my own picture book, CHICKEN STORY TIME, and more to come.

Case #4: The Dramatists Guild announced the formation of an Institute that would offer various courses for playwrights. I sent the director (whom I’d never met) an email stating my hope that courses for playwrights working in theatre for young audiences would be included and pointing out that our field is not often given the attention it deserves. The director assured me such a course was under consideration and invited me to come in and to talk about it. I did. And guess what? I’ll be teaching a “Weekend Warrior” course in writing plays for young audiences at the Guild offices in New York City on April 4 – 6, 2018.

A panel, a reception, a conference call, an email — all ways to show up. And sometimes to join in the dance.

WRITERS AT WORK: Rule 1: Show Up, Part 2

Hi everyone,

Here is Sandy Asher with Part 2 of this month’s issue of WRITERS AT WORK: Rule 1: Show Up. Thanks, Sandy. The floor is yours.

WRITERS AT WORK
Rule 1: Show Up
Part 2: Sandy

All kinds of ways to show up, David, and, yes, I’ve managed more than a few: I attend, present at, and often develop workshops and conferences. I do programs at bookstores, libraries, and festivals. I submit work to contests and publishers. I visit schools occasionally as a guest author and weekly as the nearly invisible human being at the other end of Gracie the Reading Dog’s leash. I adjudicate contests. I started and maintained for years the American Alliance for Theatre and Education’s Directory of Award-winning Plays and its New Plays by Members List. I speak up at professional meetings and in discussions even when I’m not on the panel. And, on March 1 of this year, I helped launch American Theatre for the Very Young: A Digital Festival as founder and co-chair, showcasing children’s plays coast-to-coast, including my own. Oh, yeah, and you and I have done reading-focused TV spots, David, and we ran the America Writes for Kids and USA Plays for Kids websites together. Oh, and we co-write this blog.

Though it doesn’t always lead to publication, all of this showing up is related to career development, even being the largely ignored observer as first graders regale Gracie with their favorite books. Some of it is hard work; much of it is undeniably great fun. And every once in a while, it does lead to new ideas, a flurry of writing, and publication.

More often than not, such opportunities happen in ways that are totally unexpected, ways I could never even have imagined. “Life,” John Lennon is said to have observed, “is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.” Indeed.

One example: While serving on the faculty of an SCBWI workshop some years ago, I was sitting in the audience with the other participants listening to editors talk about what they were looking for. It’s always a good idea to show up at SCBWI workshops and listen to editors, agents, authors, and illustrators, but in this case, what one of the editors had to say really ticked me off. She raved on about how picture books used to run 1000-1500 words in length, but how nowadays 500 words is really the preferred limit, and 250 words would be even better.

That triggered a concern of mine: I think we are systematically depriving children of language at the very age — 0 – 5 or so — when they are programmed to soak up as much language as possible. They need it to think! They need it to speak! They need it to understand! They need it to read and write and reason! I could go on. I have gone on, in presentations and posts elsewhere. But for now, I’ll just say that there was steam coming out of my ears as I listened. But I decided to use my fury as fuel. Okay, fine, I thought, you want books with very few words? I’ll write a book with as few words as I can. With that impetus — can I call it inspiration? — CHICKEN STORY TIME happened, a process of elimination almost as much as it was a process of creation. The manuscript sold quickly, the book got published, and, since then, I’ve written a stage adaptation that’s being performed around the country. Go figure!

Showing up is important, but it can be a bit of a challenge. Rising to the challenge — ah, that makes all the difference.

WRITERS AT WORK: Rule 1: Show Up, Part 1

Hi everyone,

If you follow my blog fairly often, you’re aware of an ongoing series of essays by Sandy Asher and me called WRITERS AT WORK. These are informal chats about various aspects of being a writer or illustrator of children’s books. We post on each Tuesday of the month so in this case you can expect our exchanges on February 6, 13, 20, and 27. We’re calling this set, RULE 1: SHOW UP. I lead off so here we go.

February 6, 2018
Writers at Work
Rule 1: Show Up
Part 1: David

Talent — being capable of producing a publishable manuscript — is the basic ingredient for writing and illustrating success. Sandy Asher and I have talked about numerous other topics in past series of WRITERS AT WORK. But in this set, which we’ll post each Tuesday this month, we want to talk about “Rule 1: Show Up.” Another title for this topic might be, “Help Make Your Own Breaks.” Either way, we’re talking about the merits of taking positive action. We never know what might happen when we place ourselves in “fate’s way,” but odds of something good happening in our careers improve when we do.

My first picture book, THE BOY WITH A DRUM, was published in 1969 by Western Publishing in Racine, Wisconsin. My editor was Betty Ren Wright. Not long after that I decided I wanted to meet my editor so I flew from Kansas City (our home at the time) to Racine for a visit with Betty Ren and other Golden Book and Wee Wisdom editors, one of whom was Dorothy (Dee) Haas.

When Dee moved to Chicago to become a Childcraft editor at Rand McNally, she stayed in touch. I flew to Chicago on Hallmark business but made a date with Dee while I was in town and left with an assignment to write the first 95 pages of the annual issue called, ABOUT ME; which led to CHILDREN EVERYWHERE (1973), a 62-page nonfiction book about children growing up in twelve countries; which led to writing two stories for THE WITCH BOOK anthology (1976); which led to WHAT DO YOU KNOW? (1981) a 255 page book of questions and answers about questions asked by upper elementary students.

Another editor I met in Racine was Kathleen Daly, who subsequently moved to American Heritage Press in New York City. Within a few months of my trip to Chicago I was in NYC to negotiate a contract and interview writers for Hallmark so I made an appointment with Kathleen. I left her office with an agreement that I would send her some ideas for stories about giants. I did. She liked them. THE BOOK OF GIANT STORIES (1972) won a Christopher Award.

Sandy, these books all came about the same way. I had previous publishing experiences with each of the editors. And in each instance I took advantage of a trip already planned for other reasons to “show up.” But there are other ways of applying Rule 1.

On a vacation trip up the Amazon River in Peru, I took hundreds of notes. Not because I meant to write a book but because writers take notes and fill journals. We never know when something might develop. Three years after that trip, sure enough I began thinking about a book of poetry. I fished out my notes, which ran 86 pages when typed, and eventually SOUNDS OF RAIN was published. Seventeen years after the trip the same thorough notes produced material for another story, a middle grade novel. Who knew that showing up on a river in the rain forest would result in two new projects?

Sandy, at times there may be a fine line between “showing up” and “finding ideas,” but to me, Rule 1 involves some sort of action on the part of the writer or illustrator that goes beyond the norm. It means an act we do on purpose that may lead serendipitously to something positive we don’t anticipate. Whether we “show up” metaphorically or with suitcase in hand, it pays to place ourselves in fate’s way. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about Rule 1.