I’m also grateful for what the Maud taught me about the process of publication, of having something now out in the world for people to read and how to step into one’s “author self”—whatever that is supposed to mean for you.
Grateful because I had hoped that the book would become part of the conversation about Montgomery, to encourage new readership and it has. To inspire readers to “keep climbing” to whatever goal they want to pursue.
Grateful because I’ve been able to travel and talk to people about Montgomery across North America, people who didn’t know of their personal connections to her, or about her struggles as a woman to be educated and get published in late 19th century Canada.
Grateful because through the wonders of online shipping, Maud has been read in Canada and the United States, and has found its way to Australia, Japan, Poland and Brazil.
I discovered one day that it was being reviewed on an Italian blog!
These things are extraordinary to me—that someone cared enough to want to read my book and have it shipped across the world.
Grateful because Maud connected with young readers in ways I never could have anticipated.
One reader I met at a book signing later contacted me to do an interview for a book report she was doing for school and, later, told me she received an “A!”
Grateful because a group of teen readers from Saskatchewan told me that they had passed the book around and had questions about what happened to my characters, about L.M. Montgomery and her books, and where they could find out most of these details. (I did have these things on my website, but it was lovely to see that the book inspired such passionate questions!)
When I was signing at a bookstore in PEI, a tourist from Croatia had heard from the woman who runs the birthplace that I was going to be there and had her parents drive her to Summerside to meet me.
Melanie signing books at the L.M. Montgomery Conference.
And grateful because last June at the L.M. Montgomery Institute Conference, a graduate student spoke about Maud for 20 minutes—giving me permission to stay in the room while she did. And she said nice things! The book is now included in her master’s thesis. (I hope she’ll let me read it!)
It has been an honor to connect to these people. It was nervous-making putting a creation out into the world, having no control over what it was going to do. But Maud has shown me that when you allow things to unfold, beautiful things emerge.
With more than seventeen years’ experience in children’s publishing, she lectures internationally on children’s literature. A freelance writer and social media consultant, her work can be found in magazines, such as The Quill & Quire.
Her first YA novel, Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery, was published by Penguin Teen in 2017. The novel was featured on the Huffington Post’s Summer Reading List, a top pick for the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading Kids Summer Reading and winner of Hamilton Public Library’s Next Top Novel.
Melanie lives in Toronto with her partner and their very entertaining cat, Merlin.
Otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah) is a word that Cherokee people use to express gratitude.
Beginning in the fall with the Cherokee New Year and ending in summer, follow a full Cherokee year of celebrations and experiences.
…this nonfiction look at one group of Native Americans is appended with a glossary and the complete Cherokee syllabary, originally created by Sequoyah.
What first led you to begin writing for young readers?
I decided to start writing for children when my son was four. I had collected picture books since my undergraduate days, particularly those featuring Native Nations. Having cycled through my books and those at my local library, I had difficulty finding any trade-published contemporary picture books featuring Cherokee children to read to my young son.
My tribe, the Cherokee Nation, is the largest in the U.S. with over 350,000 enrolled citizens. How could I not find a picture book about our present-day life and culture? It made me think that other Cherokee parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents must be facing a similar problem.
I contacted a friend from graduate school who I knew had trade published books for children for advice. I attended my first SCBWI conference about writing for children in October 2013 and decided to work toward a full-time career as an author in 2015.
For me, the biggest challenge was making sure I understood the craft, so I could execute the writing. I’ve written in many different formats previously, but I’ll admit writing for children is more difficult than writing a legal brief or code.
Writing sparse, lyrical text for a picture book to capture and hold the attention of discriminating younger readers is a challenge. They will put down the book, walk away, and turn their attention elsewhere when the story starts to drag – either from the words or the art. They have no sense of “I should finish this, so I’ll trudge on through it.” If they aren’t interested, it’s over.
Knowing that invigorates me to write at a higher level, knowing every word has to be precise to evoke the emotion, convey the information or provoke the question that I want reader to experience, understand or ask.
Thankfully, I have wonderful people – fellow authors, my agent and editors – who keep me on track if I stray from that.
Please share with us the story of your literary apprenticeship. How did you master the craft of picture book writing?
I read a lot of picture books written in the last three years to learn what the market wanted. That helped me shape and edit my own voice to write sparse, lyrical texts that sell in the marketplace.
I benefitted from reading Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books (Writer’s Digest, 2009) and connecting with published authors in my local KS-MO chapter of SCBWI who provided solid critiques and guided to me beneficial workshops to further develop my voice and craft.
From there, I expanded my network to connecting with other authors via social media, including you!
Congratulations on the release of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018)! What was the timeline between your creative inspiration and publication, and what were the major events along the way?
Traci & Charlesbridge editor Karen Boss
I wrote We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga in November 2015 because I won a free Skype critique for a nonfiction picture book from award-winning author Suzanne Slade through Picture Book Builders and had nothing to submit!
After revising based on her direction, I submitted the second draft with a few minor tweaks to some wording to ten publishers a month later. Then I sold it to Charlesbridge through the slush pile (unsolicited/unagented) in March 2016.
After Charlesbridge bought it, my editor Karen Boss did not have any substantial changes. She moved some text around based on the design layout that she wanted for the book, but otherwise the text was finalized quickly.
Karen asked if I had any illustrators in mind. I gave her a list of Native and non-Native illustrators. Frané was on that list. I was so overjoyed when she was selected.
The whole debut process has gone so smoothly, and I’m so thankful to work with such a wonderful team of people.
What did Frané Lessac’s art bring to your text? To what extent did you work together?
Her artwork takes the text to a different level. The detail, color, humor, and vivaciousness she creates in the book humbles me. I am in awe of what she envisioned and subsequently painted for all readers to enjoy.
Initially I sent her links to a variety of webpages and videos with information about the Cherokee Nation, its citizens, culture, and history to help her start her research.
Unless you’ve been to the Cherokee Nation (in the northeast corner of Oklahoma), you don’t have a feel for the people, landscape, flora and fauna. It’s not like anywhere else I’ve ever been in all my years of living, studying and traveling elsewhere on this continent and abroad.
Even though she didn’t receive the research travel grant she applied for, she traveled to the Cherokee Nation from Western Australia last summer anyway. So we actually got to meet and spend a few days together in late June 2017.
I introduced her to fellow Cherokee citizens who work in our cultural and museum programs. She shared her rough sketches and sought their input to make sure she had details correct.
We traveled with Will Chavez, the Assistant Editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, our tribal newspaper, where he showed her a number of historic sites, types of foliage and animals common in the area. He also provided photos from his extensive collection for her to consult later as she created the final artwork. My brother, a trained chef, prepared bean bread and hominy soup (both mentioned in the book) for her to sample.
So I like to think she enjoyed the hospitality that Cherokee people are known for, while also working to gather the information she needed to tell her part of the story.
Tell us more about how you decided to weave Cherokee words into the story and your approach on what to include in the back matter.
For me, this was integral. I was elated when Charlesbridge wanted the book because they had published the picture book, Itse Selu: Cherokee Harvest Festival (1994), featuring Cherokee words unitalicized throughout the text. It had served as an early model for me as a writer that including my tribe’s language would be welcome.
We decided to add the Cherokee syllabary next to the English phonetics at the bottom of each page where a Cherokee word appears because that’s how Cherokee people actually read and speak the language. They are not learning and speaking it from the English phonetics.
Regarding the back matter, I knew I needed to provide a little more context to some of the text and artwork. Given how little people know about contemporary Cherokee life, adding the Definitions section allowed me to amplify any reader’s understanding of what they read and saw on the page.
The Author’s Note explains my reasons for writing this nonfiction picture book.
Including the Cherokee syllabary as it is currently taught in the Cherokee Nation helps readers to know that this language continues to be spoken and is the foundation of our cultural identity as Cherokee people.
As a Native author, how does that identity element inform your writing and your role in the children’s-YA book community?
It’s the foundation of my voice and everything I write. I can’t separate it. My educational and professional backgrounds have also been focused on Native Nations, their citizens, culture, history, law and policies and how those have been impacted under the colonial regime of the United States.
When I research primary and secondary sources or read children’s literature for example, I notice what voices and experiences are included, who is left out and how that shapes the narrative and information the reader receives.
Right now, I feel like I have three main roles in the children’s-YA book community besides getting my writing out in the world.
First, I want to bring additional awareness to invisibility of Native people in the text as well as omissions of accuracy, so other writers recognize the importance of doing the work to get it right. We all are responsible for this.
Second, I want to recruit other Native creators – writers and artists – to create great works for children. You have been extremely supportive of me and other Native creators coming into the field, and I strive to emulate that. We have amazing storytellers in word and art in our Native Nations. I want children to know about and experience the stories those creators have to share. It’s imperative to recruit, educate and encourage others to make that happen.
Third, covering Native/First Nations authors, illustrators, and publishers for your Cynsations blog allows greater visibility for the craft of Native creators in the industry. I enjoy showcasing what their stories and artwork are offering for children and teens in this field. I appreciate you asking me to assist in this way.
What advice do you have for new Native or First Nations writers, starting out?
We Are Grateful poster
I believe it’s important to read broadly across the various genres of children’s literature and determine which one resonates most with your voice as a writer. I gravitated to writing picture books first because I have always loved poetry, sparse use of language, and beautiful artwork. Any writer new to this field needs to make that same determination for themselves.
Then, I recommend studying books published within the last three years within that chosen genre. You’ll be expected to know and state what are comparable titles when you submit your manuscript for consideration. So anticipate that and be prepared.
Next, try to find fellow writers in your genre at the level just above your skill set to read and critique your work. This will pay dividends because your writing will be elevated more quickly with trained eyes providing feedback.
It is extremely helpful if some of these writers are also Native creators. In my experience, finding fellow Native creators will be a huge boost of encouragement and support as you embark on this journey.
What can your readers look forward to next?
Since Charlesbridge bought We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, I’ve sold two other picture books, At The Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Fall 2019) and Powwow Day illustrated by Marlena Myles (Charlesbridge, Spring 2020). Both are fiction. I’m looking forward to those being out in the world alongside We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. I also have two picture book biographies, several other fictional picture books, a novel-in-verse and some poems in progress.
Traci Sorell joins the Cynsations team as a reporter covering children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators.
Traci writes fiction and nonfiction for children featuring contemporary characters and compelling biographies for the trade and educational markets. She has been an active member of SCBWI since August 2013.
In April 2016, Charlesbridge acquired her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, from the slush pile. It will be published on September 18, 2018.
The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.
Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She grew up in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. She is a first-generation college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
She also worked as an attorney assisting tribal courts nationwide, advocated for national Native American health care, and directed a national nonprofit serving American Indian and Alaska Native elders. She now lives in the Kansas City area and is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram @tracisorell.
“…there is an education process that must happen with many editors, art directors, agents and other publishing industry staff, who, like most people in this country, know little about Native/First Nations sovereignty, culture and people.
“Thankfully in my experience thus far, everyone I’ve worked with has been hungry to learn and has been open to my feedback and that of others in the Native community featured in my stories.”
Melanie J. Fishbane joins the Cynsations team as a reporter covering children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news originating in Canada.
Melanie J. Fishbane holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and an M.A. in History from Concordia University.
With over seventeen years’ experience in children’s publishing, she lectures internationally on children’s literature. A freelance writer and social media consultant, her work can be found in magazines, such as The Quill & Quire.
Melanie also loves writing essays and her first one, “My Pen Shall Heal, Not Hurt”: Writing as Therapy in L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside and The Blythes Are Quoted,” is included in L.M. Montgomery’s Rainbow Valleys: The Ontario Years 1911-1942 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). And, her short story, “The New Girl,” was published in the Zoetic NonBinary Review.
The novel was featured on the Huffington Post’s Summer Reading List, a top pick for the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading Kids Summer Reading pick and winner of Hamilton Public Library’s Next Top Novel.
Melanie lives in Toronto with her partner and their very entertaining cat, Merlin.
“What had Lynne seen in my writing that made her think I could do this? Sure, I had been lecturing on L.M. Montgomery at conferences, and had wanted to write historical fiction for kids ever since I learned it was a thing you could do…but there had to be other, way more established authors, who could do this better than I.
“Lynne asked me to put together a proposal with an outline and a few sample chapters that would demonstrate my vision for the novel. Three months later, I sent a ten-page proposal and the first forty pages and waited. And waited.”
The endings of so many wonderful stories – our own and others’ – are different than what protagonists imagine they might be.
And our lives hand us some of the same twists and turns.
As writers and illustrators, there are times we must move through more than the usual vicissitudes.
Something may go terribly wrong and leave us feeling like doors are closing, possibilities are evaporating, and our creative work will forever remain in computer files or portfolios.
I had an experience this year that felt that way. It challenged my learned and well-practiced optimism to a degree that I hadn’t felt in years.
The first thing I did was a completely natural tendency: I tried to figure out how and why the experience had happened. Luckily, I’ve learned that it’s unlikely that we ever figure out the reasons for things completely out of our control. I also know for sure that spending time this way may be a natural way to mourn what is lost, but it’s also a definite mood and productivity sinker.
I won’t call it a total waste of time, but I will call it a bridge from despair to energy that I wanted to keep as short as possible. My experience left my middle grade novel in verse up in the air. The direction forward couldn’t be immediately clear.
Get busy on your next project in the meantime, I thought. That’s what we all tell one another, right? And it’s such a good plan!
But no big ideas came. No little ones, either.
I wondered whether my hard-won resilience had met its match. I definitely didn’t want to believe it had. Looking forward, I was not feeling tremendously optimistic.
But I don’t believe in writer’s block.
So I meandered forward more slowly than I might have wished, but I stayed patient.
Ideas came, and I jotted down verses. The ideas didn’t take hold, and I turned elsewhere, pulling out a picture book draft for revision.
I was writing, but I couldn’t detach my best writing self from the novel in verse that had been a story I had had to write, and did. I was collecting ideas that would or wouldn’t go anywhere.
That’s all I knew. I didn’t have a clue where my meandering would take me. I was fairly successful with staying patient, but I won’t say it was easy. I just wanted to keep writing.
Then an online course popped into my email – an intensive, homework-heavy, webinar-filled picture book course that appealed to my need to dive into something deeply. I read the syllabus, and any other time, it might have felt even overwhelming, because it was that filled with a bounty of information and peer and professional critiquing. It was going to be intense. Could I handle it?
I decided I could. At this moment in time, the intensity of the course offered a door off my meandering path, and I was ready to head through it.
Deep into dissecting components and aspects of a favorite picture book text during the five weeks of the class, I knew I had moved forward just by focusing on, and doing, the work. Thoughts came and went, and came again, about how I wanted to proceed with my novel in verse. I spoke with colleagues, a mentor, a friend. I began to research options for submission.
By the end of the course, I thought about the process I’d taken myself through: Without planning it or thinking about it, I’d used reliable techniques from past experiences. These come naturally to me now, but they were originally learned behaviors:
Trusted my feelings, let them come and go without judgment – the initial shock and disappointment, the interest in moving on along with the uncertainty of how I would do that, the pleasure in writing every day even if it “went nowhere,” the ultimate excitement about immersing myself in a new project.
Trusted the process – that if I nudged myself gently with interest rather than impatience, with a brain open to stimulation, my meandering and daily writing would lead me somewhere meaningful, or be meaningful for its own sake.
Worked hard to reframe any negative language (which equals negative thinking, and then a negative mood, decreased productivity, decreased creativity, and more) into neutral, and then positive language replacements.
All three “activities” kept my brain open and able to take in new information and possibilities, creative solutions to problems, and positive emotions.
For me, being a resilient optimist means that sometimes I see the worst possibilities, then begin to do whatever I can to at least try to have those possibilities not come true. And as I do, all kinds of opportunities open up right in front of me.
Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and consultant/educator, she writes extensively about the psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience.
I’ve been musing about what project I will work on next. Of my numerous ideas, which will take me into the challenging and blissful intellectual, emotional, psychological environment that I’ve been in for more than two years with my middle grade novel in verse, now on submission through my agent?
While I’ve written and revised it many, many times without having the thought of whether or not it would ever be published hovering close to me, now that it’s with an agent, it’s pretty hard to keep it on a back burner.
Of course, not knowing whether or not it’s truly “finished” inhibits me some from beginning a big, new project. And I also tend to rock gently in the hammock the wonderful Norman Lear has described – one that exists in the space between “over” and “next.”
But I try to tell myself the truth – the whole truth – about what I’m going through. It’s best for me, and it’s the best way to communicate with readers of my posts.
And when I wonder with interest (not judgment) about what keeps me from moving forward with a new, intense project, I know that it’s partly because the experience is not just meaningful and joyful.
It’s also scary.
Because the best of my work includes letting myself sink deeply into the inner life of my character, and her longings, pains, struggles, become my own. That feels wonderful…and also pretty uncomfortable at times.
And I don’t think that’s unusual for us writers. Because the writing I love – others’ writing – takes me to those profoundly intense (joyful and painful) places, too.
The name sent an electric shiver from my stomach to my brain and back down again. “Perilous Places” – what a wonderful, intriguing, serendipitous title for what I had on my mind!
I clicked on Darcy’s link and immediately saw this:
I fell in love, and in my mind, heard the words, “perilous places” as I stared at, and then purchased, the beautiful print. This piece captures the peril and the joy of taking risks, and I could afford to own it.
Because I felt such an instant kinship with this piece of Darcy’s work, I asked her if she’d answer some questions for this guest post about entering that wonderful and yet scary place.
I love her comfort with the process of creating without knowing exactly where she may be headed. Here’s some of what she told me about Morning, which is the actual title of the work above.
The piece, Morning, that you’re referring to, is one of a series that I am working on in collaboration with Dutch composer Sebastian Huydts. These are illustrations for his CD, Delicias de Blancanieves, which is a series of what he calls “Spanish fairy tales for the piano.” Though the title translates to “Snow White’s Delight,” he has said that it’s not referring to any specific fairy tales, so I approached the music with a mind wide open to possibility.
As an illustrator, I’m always telling a story. In this case, I had no text to start with, only the music, which is infused with Spanish character, so I started looking at visual motifs from Barcelona or Spain (architecture, tiles, fabric).
I also watched Spanish films. The whole time I was sketching. I kept coming back to the imp and the girl with the wheel.
There are so many opposites in this image and I guess that reflects a certain philosophy of balance. Life is delicate. There’s a sense of hope, but the figure is also on a precipice.
I didn’t think of this at the time, but looking at it now, it seems to me that one character is dealing with internal struggles and the other with external challenges.
I’m still not sure what my next project will be, and I’m not sure from where or when the moments of perilous experience for the sake of joy will come. It’s impossible to know, or to plan.
But Darcy’s work hanging above my desk, reminding me that I want it to be a perilous and joyful place, and that deep work does not allow one without the other.
Darcy’s words express another belief that accompanies the longing to be deeply involved in the intensity (comfortable and uncomfortable) of deep writing – a receptive mind and a comfort with the journey, knowing that it may be uncomfortable and joyful:
Although I have taken classes, I don’t have…art school training, so I don’t think I learned any rules. In many ways this has made my way more difficult and longer. However, sometimes when you don’t have a roadmap and you get lost, you find yourself in a more interesting place than you could have imagined in the beginning.
So my journey toward the next project continues, into the scary for the sake of joy.
Carol Coven Grannick has been a writer since before her fourth grade teacher told her she was one. Her poetry, essays, and articles have appeared in numerous print and online venues.
Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and consultant/educator, Carol also writes extensively about the psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience. Her column, “The Flourishing Writer,” is archived in the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.
Carol lives with her husband in Chicagoland and treasures her family, friends, and works at an extraordinary early childhood center.
Has the wisdom of time and life positively affected my ability to write flawed characters? Or is it the other way around?
I muse about this during an early summer morning’s coffee and writing time.
In much younger days, a painful flaw in a friend’s makeup would end the friendship. I could not tolerate – or truthfully, did not know how to negotiate the waters of – imperfection.
I don’t mean to imply that some relationships, whether romantic or friendship, never change beyond repair, or don’t have some Shakespearean-level fatal flaws. Some people come and go in our lives, as we come and go in theirs.
In retrospect, I believe flaws frightened me. You can guess at the multiple reasons, but there it was: a problem, a serious bump, a major difference in opinion or belief used to pose a threat to the relationship itself. I did not have the courage to stay for discussion, argument, confrontation. I did not believe in my own value in such a confrontation.
I did not know the inherent beauty of flaws.
I could spend time regretting the relationships that I left behind – the ones, that is, that could have benefited from conversation that pushed each of us to accommodate the other’s differences and flaws. But instead I devoted effort to accepting my own and others’ flaws, and developing the capacity to, more times than not, gently nudge myself past the historically embedded impulse to head the other direction. In life, I’ve learned that flaws, disappointments, failures are part of the tapestry.
Appreciating, although not always loving, has made for a better life story.
So as a writer, you’d think that I’d “get” the need to make my characters imperfect, create their flaws with a more complete understanding that this is part of what makes them human, engaging, and even universal.
But it’s always a struggle. I want to idealize them. In first drafts, or even in the daydreams that happen before the first drafts, deeper imperfections, the roiling internal conflicts that make us human, are absent.
I steer myself deliberately into the “deep” later on. And more often than not, it will take repeated efforts to comb away my idealizing vision of a girl, her family, her friends, until they all become flawed.
Not fatally, but naturally. Like most of us.
Decades ago, when I read and fell in love with so many magnificent middle grade novels, I participated in an online “chat” (no visuals in those days, just typed questions and responses) with Katherine Paterson. As a new-ish writer for children, I typed in a question:
How did you create a character with so many flaws that we still fall in love with by the end of the first page?
Ms. Paterson’s answer was simply stated, but profound. The typed words appeared on my screen:
Because I love her.
I knew how important these words were, and also knew that it might take me years of practice to fully understand.
In fact, as I’ve worked on multiple revisions of my middle grade novel in verse, it has seemed that I created the love by creating flaws. As I made everything and everyone less perfect, I grew fonder and fonder of them, and of the story.
We know the flaws of being human make for better characters, and a deeper story. They also probably make for a better life.
Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and
consultant/educator, Carol also writes extensively about the
psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the
essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience. Her
column, “The Flourishing Writer,” is archived in the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.
Carol lives with her husband in Chicagoland and treasures her family,
friends, and work at an extraordinary early childhood center.