In 2005, Crystal Allen, Gwendolyn Hooks, Kelly Starling Lyons, and Kristy Dempsey attended the Highlights Foundation’s Chautauqua Workshop. All were just beginning in their careers of writing for children. That week was full of writing and sharing and critiquing, much laughter…and maybe a few tears. They each had a dream to write books that would reach and inspire children, books that would make readers laugh and make them cry, books that would give readers empathy for others and the conviction to make the world a better place. Now 13 years later, they have published over 30 books (with more forthcoming), presented in countless schools, and taught in writing workshops across the country, winning awards and recognition along the way. They’ll be sharing their hard-earned wisdom and surefire writing strategies at Writing for All Young Readers: Board Books Through MG Series.
As a sneak preview, Kristy interviewed her fellow presenters about what they’ve learned along the way, the material they will offer during the October workshop, and why books are more important than ever for all children.
Kristy: I’m so excited to be joining with you all to teach this workshop. When you teach writers, what are the key things from your own journey as an author that you tend to emphasize?
Crystal: I’ve learned that in order to ‘clean the fish, you have to catch the fish first.’ In other words, I try to make the beginnings of my novels as interesting as possible. I want to ‘hook’ my readers, and then take them into the deep with me. I think the biggest epiphany that I received, that I will pass on to new writers, is this amazing four-step formula that I now teach. Best of all, it’s easy and it works! Hopefully we’ll have a lot of new writers at our workshop because this formula is the real deal.
Gwen: For new writers, one of the things I emphasize is that we all learn differently and need to find our own learning style. It might be listening to conference speakers, reading and analyzing the books we love, attending classes or a college program, and joining a critique group. It might take all of those. But in the end, you have to write. Ideas are everywhere and right in front of us. I read books for young readers and adults. Sometimes one word will plant itself in my memory and in the course of a few days to a few years, it may grow into a book idea. An article in a science magazine developed into a fiction chapter book. So, I’ll emphasize how to find and evaluate the perfect idea for YOU. Then once you’ve found it, how do you take the next steps?
Kelly: One lesson I share is to keep growing. Even when you’re published, continue to take classes, read like a writer, study mentor texts, get critiques and attend conferences. Being an author means committing yourself to a lifetime of learning. That’s something I love about our field. There’s always a skill you can pick up, new technique you can try, or testimony that inspires.
Years ago, at Chautauqua, I heard advice that still guides me: Write the story only you can tell. When I write, I draw from everything I am. I create stories informed by memories, observations, history, dreams, my unique way of looking at the world. It was illuminating and freeing to hear that writing from within is not just enough, but it’s where treasure lies.
Kristy: I’m looking forward to learning from all of you! One of the biggest things I struggled with in the beginning of my career is characterization and integrating my character’s motivation with the plot. Learning how to do that was key for me and it’s one of the main things I focus on when teaching other writers.
Crystal, when I think of you, I think of flat-out HILARIOUS humor and personality. Tell us a little about how you inject humor into your stories. Is it natural for you because you are such a force of personality yourself or is it something you have to work at?
Crystal: For me, humor is a natural gift, and a wicked curse! Sometimes it is a curse because often my brain will take me to a humorous possibility when the situation does not call for humor. For instance, I was at a funeral and imagined the “Guest of Honor” getting out of the casket and to a stunned crowd, singing and dancing to “New York, New York” as the piano played without a pianist. And the funeral wasn’t even in New York. Maybe I need medication.
Kristy: See?! This is why I’m so excited to work with you, Crystal. I know you’re going to keep us all entertained.
Gwen, when I think of you, I immediately think of non-fiction, though you write such a variety of books. Do you have a go-to genre in which you feel most comfortable?
Gwen: I write picture book biographies, early readers, early chapter books, and expository nonfiction and they’re all my favorites. I love learning about people’s lives through picture book biographies. They are such an approachable literary form. They invite me in. Early readers are fun to write too, but they’re also tricky. One of my early chapter books is scheduled for publication sometime in the next few months. I’m very conscious of my word choices while focusing on writing a “can’t put down story.” And writing non-fiction has connected me with readers who love books that explain concepts. They afford me the perfect opportunity to talk about writing essays. Students and I compare and contrast their essays to my books. They conclude that writing a book is a real possibility.
Kristy: Kelly, when I think of you, I think of historical fiction though you write such a variety of books. What’s the genre you’re most dawn to write in?
Kelly: I felt called to write for kids through being captivated by picture books that centered the experiences of Black girls. The books, Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth and Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson, drew me in with their powerful storytelling and lyrical language. They took me on emotional journeys. That is my favorite kind of story to read and create. Family, friendship and freedom are recurring themes in my work. Whether writing historical fiction, fantasy, nonfiction or realistic fiction for picture book or chapter book readers, I feel at home when I write from the heart.
Kristy: I write mostly picture books and board books, but I’ve also published quite a bit of poetry. I’m really excited for the participants in our workshop to benefit from the breadth of our experience!
One of the things I hope we’ll talk about during the workshop is the need for diverse books and the importance of #ownvoices stories, or stories that are about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group. I have worked as a teacher and librarian in a school with a diverse population and I think each of you have important perspective to share on that subject. Also, I want to highlight both the need and the importance of these books and share how as a white author I have navigated telling the stories I’ve written even when aspects of them cover diverse subject matter. It’s an important conversation for writers to have as they think about the stories they choose to tell. Or NOT to tell, as the case may be. I’d love for you to put the need for diverse books into your own words. From your perspective, how can we encourage and raise up a new generation of voices to represent #ownvoices in literature?
Crystal: We most definitely need to hear our next generation, but first, they need to hear from us, and know we’re out there, setting the table for them. As for readers, the need for diverse books has not changed since my grandparents were children. The only difference may be that there is a louder, and more organized outcry. Every child needs to know there are books that represent them in their library, and not just one book, and not just a book about oppression. We must assist in the rise of new voices by standing up, remaining vocal, and not settling or watering down our writing. Above all, write from the heart. Writers hear two voices. One says “You can’t write. Do something else.” The other voice says, “You can do this. Don’t give up.” Which one is your voice of truth?
Gwen: A few years ago, a visual artist and I taught an afterschool class at an elementary school. Our goal was to incorporate art and literature. At the beginning of each class, I read a picture book written and/or illustrated by African Americans. One afternoon, I read Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty and illustrated by Bryan Collier. Before I read it, I explained the author and illustrator were both African Americans. The story is about a young boy whose father wakes him every morning until suddenly he is no longer around. One boy, who normally was a busy body, listened to the story without twitching a muscle. At the end, he repeatedly asked if the author and illustrated were truly African American. I repeatedly assured him, yes they are African American just like you. I think it helped him to understand that he was not alone in losing his dad to prison. There he was holding a book created by professionals and at least one had experienced the same issue he was facing and these professionals looked like him.
#ownvoices matter to the people growing up now. This year. This moment. They need them to help navigate through the maze of life and imagine the possibilities.
Kelly: My husband is a member of the mentoring organization 100 Black Men of America. One of their mottos is: “What they see is what they’ll be.” When I think about the need for #ownvoices children’s literature, I reflect on those poignant words. Books play many roles in the lives of kids. One of them is to offer affirmation. Reading a book created by someone who looks like you and gets the nuances of who you are makes you feel seen. It lets kids know their experiences, dreams and history matter. When children of color and Native children read books by creators who share their heritage, it gives them wings. They gain the confidence to lift their voices and share their songs.
Thanks Crystal, Gwen, and Kelly! I’m excited about all we have to share during our workshop and I’m looking forward to seeing new authors flourish just as we did after our first Highlights workshop!