A Question of Worth

Posted September 26th, 2010

Visiting schoolsI love my job, and there are few occupations I would trade it for. I love writing, of course, and I look forward to opportunities to meet and speak with teachers and librarians at the various conferences and book festivals I attend. The children’s book community is the best! I also enjoy connecting with young readers as I travel the country each year visiting schools. That said, there are some aspects of my occupation that cause me to scratch my head.

Recently, an acquaintance, one I have not set years on in years, casually asked me to drop in on her class as a favor and conduct a story hour with one of my books. When I declined, explaining that school visits are something I do professionally (i.e., something for which I am paid), she became very snippy with me. Sigh.

In the days that followed, I found myself wondering if she’d be inclined to ask a carpenter, one who had not laid eyes on her in years, no less, to drop by and build her a bookshelf, just for the fun of it. Or if she’d ask a doctor to drop in and give her an exam, for free, just because, you know, he lives nearby. Somehow, I don’t think she would. Nor would she expect free services from any other professional, including another teacher, which is why her snippy attitude rubs me raw.

To be fair, she is not the only teacher, parent, librarian, or fellow church member who has casually asked me to come work for free. She’s simply the latest. Yet, for some reason, I haven’t been able to shake off this most recent exchange. Now I know this piece won’t keep people from treating children’s author like unpaid labor, but sometimes a girl’s got to vent.

I’m a full-time author and speaker. Unlike the authors of Harry Potter and Twilight, I am not wealthy, nor is the average children’s author, or adult author, for that matter. Most of us are either in the working-class or lower middle-class tax bracket. As such, our earnings go towards the usual basics: rent or mortgage, utilities, phone, health insurance, and the like. Why do I mention this? Because, aside from the occasional promotional book tour, we cannot afford to offer speaking engagements gratis, nor do we have the great reservoirs of “free time” some seem to imagine.

The author’s daily schedule is packed with writing, rewriting, copyediting, conference calls with editors, agents, and marketing directors. We give interviews, maintain websites, conduct research,, prepare keynote speeches and workshop presentations. We organize school visits, book flights, schedule ground transportation. We wear many hats, and have to change them mid-dance. Then, of course, there’s the ordinary stuff of life. You know: shopping, laundry, housework. In other words, children’s authors, whether single or married, are as busy as anyone else. We ask that you respect and value our time, just as you would wish for us to respect and value yours.

Think twice before you ask us to donate our time and talent. Instead of saying to yourself “Wouldn’t it be nice if Author A dropped by to visit my class?”, consider whether, given your own job and responsibilities, you’d have the time and inclination to leave your desk, or office, or classroom for a few hours to do the same.

Interestingly enough, on the very day I drafted this piece, I received a note from premier poetry anthologist, Lee Bennett Hopkins about a publisher who had the audacity to suggest that poets should simply write poetry for children’s anthologies for free. Have they no shame?

To be sure, most of us believe in giving back, no more so than in the children’s book community. We often donate books for fundraising campaigns, lend our voices to causes dear to our hearts, and occasionally offer our time and talent for free, at our largesse. Otherwise, we expect remuneration. And why shouldn’t we? A servant is worthy of his hire, the bible says. That’s my word for the day. I honestly hope you hear it.

Novels in Verse: Let’s Talk

Posted September 1st, 2010

I am tremendously psyched that this has proven to be a genre with legs, at least in the children’s book market where I ply my trade. When a publisher at the last ALA told me that librarians were actively seeking novels in this format, my little heart went pitter-patter. However, before a writer decides to jump on this particular bandwagon, may I suggest that non-poets need not apply.

Now, on the surface, that statement might seem obvious or an overstatement. However, I’ve come across a number of so-called novels in verse that are anything but. It seems that someone has floated the notion that anything that looks like a poem is, in fact, a poem. With that in mind, they create a collection of short pieces that may quite competently tell a story, but which are not, in fact, poems. Rather, they are what I call broken prose. That is to say, prose shaped on the page to resemble poetry. How can you tell the difference, you ask? That’s easy. You can read page after page after page without once encountering a metaphor, a simile, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, meter, or any other poetic element. Here you will find no sestina, tanka, sonnet, haiku. There will, in fact, be nothing that constitutes an actual poem. I’m just saying.

Does this distinction matter? Well, if you are a poet it does. If you are an educator seeking to introduce students to an authentic novel in verse it does. If you are a reader excited about poetry, and interested in learning about the possibilities of using authentic poetry to tell a story, this distinction matters. So, you decide.

For myself, if I crack the spine of a book that purports to be written in poetry, I’m looking for poetry. Anything less is a let-down.