Drag Queen Storytime – guest post by Fifi Abu

Give me something pretty to look at: drag queens at storytime

drag brooklyn.jpgOne of the most beautiful things about public libraries is that they serve everyone. Toothless damp infants, surly teens oozing with bad attitudes, stay at home moms eager for adult interaction, and gently snoring elderly men propped up behind newspapers in discreet corners. All are welcome, all are served. We see families with gender fluid preschoolers and families with two dads. Our programs are diverse and unique and we hope that our patrons connect with our wide selection of offerings. We want to show that we value and honor all types of people.

drag 3.jpgSequins, feathers, and a thick coating of makeup — what’s not to love? Drag queen storytimes are popping up at libraries all over the U.S. in recent years. Orlando Public Library, New York Public Library, The Free Library of Philadelphia, Brooklyn Public Library, and Boston Public Library have all hosted drag queen storytimes, emulating Michelle Tea and RADAR Productions (www.dragqueenstoryhour.org), who originated the program in San Francisco in December 2015. Part of a larger effort called “Queering the Castro,” Drag Queen Story Hour was created to highlight the full range of queer culture.

drag brooklyn 2.jpgResponse has been favorable, with enthusiastic responses from gender fluid and queer families as well as families who want to embrace the wide range of gender expression and identities that make up our communities. It allows libraries a chance to present queer role models, offer creative dress up role playing, prevent bullying, and promote acceptance of difference. Children arrive in tutus and glitter, staring in awe at the magnificent drag queens that will read to them. Books like Todd Parr’s It’s OK to be Different, My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis, Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman and 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert are read to the children by glamorous sparkly and fabulous drag queens, clearly sending the message that the world is full of a wide variety of types of people and that there is more than enough room for all of us.

For more information about this happily growing trend, look at the Herald Times, the New York Times, here and here.

IMG_7794Fifi Abu writes and illustrates picture books and graphic novels. A graduate of Humboldt State University, Fifi also has an M.A. in Children’s Literature and a master’s degree in library and information science, both from Simmons College. Fifi has been a judge of the Associates of the Boston Public Library’s Writer-in-Residence Program for the past several years, is an active member of SCBWI and a Children’s Book Academy graduate. She is a member of the 2019 Caldecott Award Committee and holds the position of Manager of Youth Services at the Boston Public Library. Find Fifi online at fifiabu.com and @fifiabuillustration.

 

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On Finding Your Voice – Guest post by Jenna Gavigan

“But without my voice, how can I…?” – Ariel

We just sold my first novel, Introducing Broadway Lulu. It’ll be published in the fall of 2018. (Fear not, this post is not about selling my novel.) I tell you this because I’ve literally had the idea for the book since 2004. I think I wrote my first draft a few years later because I was living in Los Angeles at the time and I lived there between 2005 and 2011. I’m sure the drafts were fine. I’m sure they were cute. I’m certain they were not the book we just sold. This is partially true because the book we just sold is a middle grade novel and the early incarnations were picture books. My now agent and then friend told me she felt there was far too much story in me for it to be a picture book. She was right. (Thanks Linda!) I had struggled for years trying to cram the story into a picture book and then I wrote the novel in about four months because I had the room to do so.

But greater than the transition from picture book to middle-grade novel was the transition in me from “girl who was always a good writer” to “confidently voiced, sharp, certain of myself woman writer.” Without going into too many boring details, I’ll just tell you that because of my other job—that of actress—I graduated from Columbia University in my late twenties, though I did actually complete my first year at nineteen, like ya do. Late twenties Jenna, unlike eighteen-year-old Jenna, was an adult. With experience. With confidence. With history and the ability to reflect upon it. More than all that, she valued her time at school because she actually wanted to be there and because of that, SHE LEARNED.

One of my favorite classes was called “Style and Voice.” Actually, I think it was called something else on the syllabus but on the first day of class the professor said, “By the way, this class is actually called ‘Style and Voice.’” We read a lot—a lot of essays, short fiction. An assignment to read Nora Ephron essays? Don’t mind if I do! And we wrote. A lot. We learned how to play around with sentence structure and word choice and even grammar to develop our own unique voices and make them distinguishable from others. (You know you’re reading or watching Nora Ephron when you’re reading or watching Nora Ephron, am I right?) I learned that the only thing I’ve got going for me that others don’t is that I’m me and they’re not. And not to toot my own horn, but I think I’m swell.

When I began writing the novel version of Lulu, I began with my own voice. (Yes, Lulu is slightly based on me. No, I’m not a child mouse.) Lulu’s distinct voice eventually emerged, as did the voices of the cast of characters who surround her; but beginning with my own voice gave me a way in. I—in case you couldn’t tell—am a bit sassy. I like parentheses and asides. (I’m sure you already noticed that, yes?) I am a big personality in a tiny body and it just so happens that there is no smaller body in my book than that of my protagonist and heroine, Lulu the Mouse. (“The Mouse” is her surname and, for that matter, the surname of all other mice in my land of make believe.)

There were times, though, as an author-writer-actress-human-female, that I squashed my uniqueness and the voice that came with it. I suppose I was afraid of it? Or was afraid of what others would think of it/me? I put my precociousness in my purse on dates. I did scenes as I thought the director or writer or whoever would want me to do them, rather than how I instinctually thought they should be done. I was timid with emails or phone calls, rather than being straight to the point and asking for what I wanted and deserved. I wrote some pretty beige first drafts of what is now a very colorful book.

My time at Columbia gave me some of the skills I needed to find my voice. My dear Linda Epstein suggested a way for me to create space to say all I wanted to say with that voice. And my dear little Lulu—oh geez, now I’m crying—my dear little alter-ego of a mouse taught me that my voice isn’t simply mine, it’s fabulous. It’s valid. It’s honest. It’s fun. It’s worthy. It took a tiny, fictional mouse (of my own creation) to remind me of something I knew as a child but somehow lost as a young adult: I can do anything and I can do it by being me.

So, if you’ve got something you want to write, go write it. And start with yourself. Stop comparing, stop looking at what others are writing or how they’re writing it. (Yes, you should read other writing and learn and grow from what you read but you shouldn’t try to replicate it, is what I’m saying.) The one thing you’ve got going for you is that you’re you and no one else is. Sure, I forget all this from time to time. I become fearful about sending an email, or starting a new chapter, or simply saying what I want to say. But then this tiny, sassy, strong voice in my head tells me to cut it out and I get to work.

Jenna Gavigan’s debut middle grade novel, Introducing Broadway Lulu! will be published in Fall 2018 by Running Press Kids. Jenna is a working actress, having appeared on over a dozen television shows (usually crying), half a dozen movies (often crying), and on stage (sometimes crying, sometimes baton-twirling). She made her Broadway debut at age sixteen in the Sam Mendes-helmed revival of Gypsy opposite Bernadette Peters, and most recently appeared off-Broadway in the world-premiere of Straight, opposite Jake Epstein (of Degrassi fame). Find Jenna online at iamjennagavigan.com,  and Twitter and Instagram @Jenna_Gavigan.

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Your Picture Book Manuscript Questions Answered

Let’s talk a little bit about picture books—specifically about word count and illustration notes. Shout out to @pamela_kindred on Twitter. She came through when I asked for suggestions about what to write about this week. So, I’ll tell you a little bit about picture books. But please remember, this word count info I’m telling you is applicable right now and might not be the same in six months or next year or something—because publishing changes.

When I first got into the industry, about ten years ago, the recommendation was that picture book word counts should try to be <1000 words. And now? I’d say most editors whom I submit to are looking for around 500 words ±. I sent a picture book out on submission a couple of weeks ago that had about 158 words in it and the editors who got it were absolutely thrilled because of the low word count. And yet… there are other editors I know who say, “I really don’t care about word counts! If I love the manuscript, I love the manuscript.” And, to be honest, it really does depend upon what you’re writing. I sold a picture book biography a few months ago that had 1,500 words.

Right now, what I’m seeing the most movement on in picture books are manuscripts geared towards the very young crowd. So, keep that in mind. Low word count… and very young readers… which means you should also be thinking about content that very little kids would be interested in having read to them and that they will understand. The other day I received a well-written picture book submission that had the right voice for little kids, and a low word-count, but the subject matter was all about single-celled organisms… which actually could be pretty cool, but the story, the laughable moments and stuff, all presupposed a body of knowledge that a three or four-year old child just doesn’t have.

Picture book biographies can often have longer word counts, as can other non-fiction manuscripts. But again, you need to take into account what aged kid you’re writing for, what knowledge they already will have, what they will already need to know to understand what you’re writing, and if a kid that age will still be reading picture books. All of which depends upon your subject matter, the voice you’re using, vocabulary level, etc… Good ideas are great (and, for the record, good ideas are a dime a dozen) but what you do with your good ideas is another matter. And you need to be thinking about all of these things to make a picture book work.

Ok, now let’s talk about illustrations. If you’re not an author/illustrator (that is, if you are only writing the text of a picture book) you don’t need to find an illustrator. As a matter of fact, unless you’re collaborating and writing a story with an illustrator, finding one is a rooky move. It’s not only not necessary, but it shows you don’t know how the publishing process works. Publishers buy text-only picture books all the time, and then they find the illustrator that they think will work best for their vision of the book. Did you hear that? Their vision of the book. Because when an editor buys a manuscript, they have a vision. Which leads me to illustration notes…

This is what you need to know about illustration notes: only use illustration notes that you must put in for somebody to understand your story—and the less the better. When I read a picture book manuscript, I want my imagination to take over, and so does an editor, and so does a potential illustrator. So, don’t tell me in an illustration note that your character, Gordo the Great, wields a golden sword, and has long blue dreadlocks, and always wears a bowtie, unless the sword, the locks, and the bowtie, are integral to your story. Because maybe the amazing illustrator that the publisher finds to illustrate your story will want to make Gordo the Great a fish. (It could happen.) My client Ruth Horowitz and I were oh so very surprised when we first saw the illustrations from Blanca Gomez for Ruth’s picture book, Are We Still Friends, because we had no idea that Ruth’s characters Beatrice and Abel would end up being a bear and a mouse! Go back and re-read that book, and don’t look at the pictures, and you will see that nowhere in the text does it indicate that they’re a bear and a mouse. When I sent Ruth’s manuscript out on submission it didn’t have one illustration note. And you know what? The whole thing works! There was plenty of room for Blanca’s artistic vision to complement Ruth’s text, and the result is a very beautiful book.

Ok, now one of the specific questions on Twitter was about word count when querying a picture book manuscript. The concern was that if a picture book manuscript has a high word count, and you’re not sure what to edit out because you love it all, do you submit it anyway and pray, or pull out the potential best part of it. Guess what? I can’t answer that question! How can I possibly know the answer to that? But people, listen to me: if you don’t have other folks reading your work, critique partners, beta readers, a mentor, classmate, etc… go and get some right now! In my opinion, you shouldn’t be sending out work that has only been seen by your own eyes. And then, go kill some darlings. The only things that should stay in a manuscript (picture book or any other kind) are the things that make the manuscript great. If the word count is high but nothing can be trimmed because it’s all brilliant, then don’t trim it.

Another question was about whether a submission would be rejected if it wasn’t quite right or if agents might suggest edits if it was close, and just needed “small repairs.” Every agent is different, but the thing to know is that no agent is going to take on a manuscript unless they’re in love with it. And if they’re really in love with a manuscript, whether it’s the story itself or the writing or voice or whatever (hopefully all of those things), then if there are minor things that need fixing it’s probably not going to make a difference to them. That’s how I am, anyway.

I’m happy to answer your general questions about picture books down in the comments.

And stop back for some terrific guest bloggers in the coming weeks!

 

 

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