Monday, March 31, 2014

Bossy Girls: Dare the Wind

There’s been a lot of talk recently about “banning” the word “bossy” when it refers to girls and women, taking away the negative stereotypes that dog women who are assertive leaders.

Was she bossy or just a gal with executive leadership skills? 
Tracey Fern’s newest picture book Dare the Wind (FSG 2014), illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, takes us back to the mid-1800s and an improbably successful and assertive female leader.

“She dreamed of living her life at sea and catching her share of adventure.” That’s how Fern introduces Eleanor “Ellen” Prentiss of Marblehead, Massachusetts. Her father being a sailor, Ellen learns to sail. But beyond learning how to “hoist a sail and spice a rope,” she also learns to navigate.

How did people get around at sea before GPS? Well, if they were born in Prentiss’s era, they navigated using a sextant and the sun and complicated calculations.

After growing up and marrying a captain, Ellen goes to sea. She takes care of the navigation, while her husband runs the ship. All goes well until the couple takes over a new clipper ship, built for speed.

Ellen dares the wind a little too much. Maybe you could call her bossy. Maybe you’d just say she has “executive leadership skills” that wind does not respond to.

Either way, she manages to  keep her head and guide the clipper around Cape Horn on a voyage from New York to San Francisco, depositing passenger just in time to take part in the Gold Rush.

The journey and Ellen’s courageous role in it are given life through McCully’s illustrations. The best images show Ellen and her ship darting across page spreads, leading us all forward across the seas.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Submissions Nuts & Bolts

This spring, I’m leading a workshop for writers interested in children’s picture books. Some workshop members wanted to know more about the submissions process—how to get picture book manuscripts out and published.

I developed this FAQ list* for the workshop but am sharing it with all Story Slinger readers. Let me know what I've gotten wrong or left out. I'll be looking for your comments...

How should I format my manuscript?
The short answer is typed, double-spaced, adequate margins, page numbers, your title centered, the text flush left and non-justified in an easy-to-read font, your contact information on the first page. The long answer is at Harold Underdown’s Purple Crayon website:

Should I include illustration notes in a picture book manuscript?
Generally, No, not unless you could never in a million years understand the story without them. There’s a quick take on Mary Kole’s website:

I was lucky. I submitted the manuscript for this picture book directly to an editor I had met. She liked it enough to make an offer of publication!

How do I find the right publisher?
The Children’s Book Council ( maintains a list of its member publishers:

2014 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market by Chuck Sambuchino also contains an annotated list of publishers.

The other tried-and-true method is to read children’s books and notice which publishers publish the books you like best.

Should I get an agent?
Sure, but bear in mind that it’s hard work finding a good one—one who will appreciate your work and put your interests first. Chuck Sambuchino’s book above has a list of agents to start with. You can also find many lists online.

FYI, some publishers only accept agented manuscripts for consideration.

What’s the difference between an editor and an agent?
Good question. Generally, they are people with distinct roles and needs. The editor dreams of finding the perfect manuscript but has to turn a profit. The agent loves children's books but generally represents writers whose work will sell quickly and easily. 

Here’s an overview from former agent Mary Kole:

FYI, agents charge a fee for the service of finding a publisher for your work and selling all rights, but that fee (usually 10-15%) is only ever collected as part of the sale of the manuscript—and never as an up-front fee.

What and where are agent’s guidelines?
These are lists of dos and don’ts, usually found on the agency’s website. 

Here’s an example from Andrea Brown Literary Agency:

What and where are publisher’s guidelines?
These are lists of dos and don’ts, usually found on the publisher’s website. 

Here’s an example from Cricket Magazine:

Sometimes the guidelines are very short and say simply “We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.”

What is an unsolicited manuscript?
It’s a manuscript that arrives in a publisher’s inbox or mailbox without having first been requested by an editor. When a publisher receives an unsolicited manuscript, the publisher may return it to the author, but will generally simply file it in the trash.

FYI, agents can get manuscripts into a publisher’s inbox and mailbox, even if that publisher says “We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.” That’s because good agents have professional relationships with editors and have an idea of what individual editors are looking for.

Should I submit online or on paper?
Online is generally preferable. In many cases, it’s the only way you can submit.

How important is a cover letter?
Very. Think of it an a way of introducing your story to your audience. A good cover letter will contain sentences that could end up as part of the “flap copy” on the published book. You will need a cover letter when submitting to an editor or an agent.

Here’s a nuts & bolts introduction from Cynthea Liu:

Descriptive phrases from my cover letter to editor Wendy Loggia found their way into the flap copy for my first middle-grade novel, Chig and the Second Spread (Delacorte).

When can I expect a response?
Plan on never, so you will be pleasantly surprised if you do get a response. Many publishers and agents give you a ballpark idea of their turn-around time in their submissions guidelines. Add two months to that ballpark. Then, if you’ve heard nothing, move along. Don’t take it personally.

*FYI, This is all general advice. I am not specifically endorsing any source listed. My answers are just that: my take on things. Always do your research before submitting your work! And thanks for reading The Story Slinger...

Monday, March 24, 2014

One-Room Nation, Part 5

Remember Your Lines!

In a one-room school, you’ll learn mostly by memorization. As a student, you’ll work hard to remember and recite poems, stories, and other texts.

In the one-room school in Balsam Lake, WI, George Washington looks down upon 'scholars' reciting their lessons.

Once you ‘commit’ a piece to memory, you’ll say the poem or quotation out loud from the recitation bench, a seat at the front of the schoolroom.

The recitation bench is the long one in the foreground of this shot of the Marshall Center School in Cedar Rapids, IA.

Here are a few poems from one-room schoolhouse days for you to commit to memory and recite.

The first is taken from a book often found in one-room schoolhouses, a McGuffey Reader. The poem will probably seem mighty familiar:

The Little Star

Twinkle, twinkle, little star;
How I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky!

When the blazing sun is set,
And the grass with dew is wet,
Then you show your little light;
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

 Then, if I were in the dark,
I would thank you for your spark.
I could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.

And when I am sound asleep,
Oft you through my window peep;
For you never shut your eye,
Till the sun is in the sky.

William McGuffey created a series of "readers" used in American schools in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The second poem is by Mary Mapes Doges, best known for her novel Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates (1865): 

When I Am Big

When I am big, I mean to buy
A dozen platters of pumpkin pie,
A barrel of nuts to keep them handy,
And fifty pounds of sugar candy.

Here are a few quick tips for your recitations: Read the poem out loud (keeping your voice at a whisper if you’re at school) over and over again. Cover the first line and see if you can remember it. Once you can, then cover the next line, and so on.

The rhyme should help you remember line endings. But practice, as they say, is really what makes perfect.

NOTES: "The Little Star” is from McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Reader, compiled by William McGuffey (1879), available online as part of Project Gutenberg. Mary Mapes Dodge’s poem was published in 1904.


Could you survive in a one-room schoolhouse eighty or one hundred years ago? One-Room Nation, an on-going segment of the Story-Slinger blog, tries to answer that question in a few dozen posts. Unless otherwise noted, the text and photos in One-Room Nation are the property of the blogger, so please contact the Story-Slinger if you wish to use them.

Monday, March 17, 2014

One-Room Nation, Part 4

LBJ and ABCs

The previous post in One-Room Nation (the story-slinger’s continuing series on one-room schoolhouses and how they shaped America), I introduced a really cool word:
abecedarian. (Say it: ay-bee-sih-DAIR-ee-yuhn.)

It means someone who is learning his or her ABCs.

Who was America’s most famous abecedarian? LBJ, otherwise known as Lyndon Baines Johnson, our 36th president.

A young Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States. (15-13-2. LBJ Library Photo by Unknown)

Before he became president, he was a boy of modest means in rural Texas. Lyndon was so eager to attend school that he couldn’t wait until he turned six. In 1912, when he was just four years old, he convinced his mother to let him attend the one-room school near his house in Gillespie County, Texas.

Johnson spent most of his first year sitting on the teacher’s lap.

Later, as President Johnson, he signed more education bills than any other American president—and he signed the very first one back at the one-room Junction School in Texas, with his teacher at his side.

Signing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Bill with the President seated next to his first teacher, Kate Deadrich Loney, at the Junction School in Texas, April 11, 1965. (C148-31-WH65 LBJ Library Photo by Frank Wolfe)

Could you survive in a one-room schoolhouse eighty or one hundred years ago? One-Room Nation, an on-going segment of the Story-Slinger blog, will try to answer that question in a few dozen posts. Unless otherwise noted, the photos in One-Room Nation are the property of the blogger, so please contact the Story-Slinger if you wish to use them.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

5 Best Bits of Advice for Writers

From Other (More Accomplished) Folks

I’ve been prepping for a writing workshop I’ll be leading over the next few months. Our focus will be mainly on picture books, beginning readers, and children’s nonfiction.

The Idea Box, Half-Opened  

To prep, I have been looking at books and pulling writing exercises out of the Idea Box.

But here are 5 of the best links I’ve found while mining the internet, looking for wisdom and advice for the new (and not so new) writer.

They’re in no particular order, so click, ponder, and enjoy:

Middle-grade novelist Barbara O’Connor’s 16 ways to kill a story

And last, but surely not least:

Why indeed!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

One-Room Nation, Part 3

Come On In and Sit Right Down!

Prairie School No. 1, Sheldon, IA, has two doors: one for boys and one for girls.

Let’s open the door on a one-room school.

Boys and girls often entered through separate doors—boys on the left, girls on the right.  Once inside, you’ll pass through the coat closet. 

Bonnets hang at Shoen School, Gibbs Farm Museum, St. Paul, MN.
Girls will hang their aprons and bonnets on hooks at one side. Boys will perch their hats on the other.

Aprons & lunch buckets at the Marshall Center School, Cedar Rapids, IA.

Leave your lunch bucket, often a recycled container for lard, or pig fat, there as well. Otherwise, the yummy smells of food will be simply too distracting.

Lard bucket lunch pails, Farmington, MN

A well-equipped schoolhouse will have a bubbler in the coat closet.

Once you enter the classroom, find your seat quickly. You’ll notice that both the desks and chairs are bolted down. Most often, this is done to keep the classroom orderly and quiet. 

Bolted to the floor, this school desk & chair combo never scrapes.

If you’ve ever scraped your own chair along the floor, then you can probably understand why someone screwed down these desk and chairs.

If you see a single empty seat or bench at the front of the room, facing the desks, you’d better not sit there…

…unless Teacher says so.

A scholar works on her lessons at the one-room school in Balsam Lake, WI.

Called the “recitation bench,” this is where you wait for your turn to recite, or say out loud, the lessons you’ve memorized.

Before Teacher gets started with roll call and the pledge to the flag, look around and get your bearings. Don’t worry. It won’t take long.

Desks at Sholes Pioneer School await scholars of all sizes. The biggest ones will sit in the back.

A one-room schoolhouse only has enough space for 25 or 30 scholars. Most schools have fewer students than that, ranging in age from four or five to eighteen—or even twenty.

Abecedarians (kindergartners) work on their ABCs.

What you’d call a kindergartner is an abecedarian,  someone whose job is to learn the alphabet. Most often, the youngest pupils sit at the front of the class in the smallest desks. The oldest sit at the back, where the desks and chairs are roomier.

So come right in. Take a seat. Lessons are about to begin!

Could you survive in a one-room schoolhouse eighty or one hundred years ago? One-RoomNation, an on-going segment of the Story-Slinger blog, will try to answer that question in a few dozen posts. Unless otherwise noted, the photos in One-Room Nation are the property of the blogger, so please contact the Story-Slinger if you wish to use them.