|Group photo with the 2012 LAL State Winners!|
Letters About Literature is a national reading and writing program of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, presented in partnership with Target and supported locally by RICB.
60,000 young readers from across the country participated, including nearly 800 Rhode Islanders. Students were asked to submit letters describing how an author's work—novel, non-fiction, poetry— changed their view of the world or helped them realize something they didn't know about themselves.
With a focus on reader response and reflective writing, one winner and several honorable mentions were chosen in three competition levels, ranging from grades 4 through 12.
I had the chance to read the winning letters beforehand, and heard them read-aloud by the winners at the event. All of the letters had a powerful narrative voice and displayed a talent and wisdom beyond the young writers' years.
It was honor to present the students with their awards, and an inspiration to hear their words. All in all, it was evening I won't soon forget.
Click here to learn more about Letters About Literature and Rhode Island Center for the Book.
Below is a transcript of the address I gave to the students, their families, and members of RICB.
by Anika Denise
Rhode Island Center for the Book Annual Meeting and Letters About Literature Awards
Williams Hall Library, Cranston, Rhode Island
June 4, 2012
Good evening, everyone. First, I want to say thank you to the Rhode Island Center for the Book for inviting me here to speak to you tonight. It’s an honor and a privilege. Not to mention, great fun to be spend an evening celebrating reading, writing, and the books that inspire us. There's even balloons... it's a party! So thank you, for including me in the festivities.
Second, I’d like to CONGRATULATE all the winners and honorable mentions in the Letters About Literature Competition.
It takes courage to submit your words, to participate… to put something of yourself out there into the world to be judged. Writers must do this all the time. And it’s never easy.
But, you did. You wrote something compelling and meaningful, and tonight, you’re being recognized and celebrated for your fine work. You should all be enormously proud.
In fact, you’ve already taken the first essential step to becoming great writers. And that is to READ! I’m sure you’ve heard this before – from your teachers, librarians, and from other writers.
Every gifted writer is also a READER. This, I know.
Author Stephen King, in his brilliant book, ON WRITING, A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT, said this: “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
So, why? Why do we all keep saying, READ, READ, READ!
Because if words are going to be your job, your lifeblood, your craft – then one of the very best things you can do to get better at that craft, is study the words of others. Now, I say “study,” and that makes it sound like tedious work. Perhaps I should say: “Enjoy! Enjoy the words of others. Explore them. Have fun with them.”
That’s one of the perks to being a writer.
You can spend an entire afternoon, lounging. Maybe you're in a hammock, or a beach chair, reading a bestseller. And when someone asks you what you did that day, you can say, “Oh, I was working.”
And that’s the truth. Reading stories is a part of the work of becoming a better storyteller.
By doing so, you learn what type of writing attracts you—and what doesn’t.
You learn about theme and plot, setting, character, dialogue. About how to build tension and drama.
And even if you read something and think, “Well, that’s not very good.” Ask yourself, why? Where did it fall short? Be critical. Learn what not to do.
So, keep it up! Keep reading! It will make you a better writer, I promise. And if you’ll allow me a moment of grandiosity—it will make you a better person. Certainly, a better conversationalist—and quite likely a better college applicant, a more successful student, and according to the latest research… happier.
That’s right. A study at the University of Maryland concluded that unhappy people watch more TV, while people who describe themselves as "Very Happy," spend more time reading and socializing.
Reading and socializing? No wonder we’re all having fun tonight. We’re a bunch of avid readers out socializing. We’re a happy group.
Ok, so the first step to becoming a good writer is to READ, anything and everything. Read across genres. Read poetry, memoir, biography, sports, travel, fantasy—just READ.
The second step, and this one’s harder… is write what’s true to YOU. When I say true, I don’t mean your life story (necessarily). I don’t mean write only non-fiction.
I mean, write what you want to write, in your own voice.
This is hard. Especially when you’re first starting out… because you haven’t quite discovered your voice yet. And because each story often demands a different version of your voice, and so how do you know you’ve hit on the right one?
The only way to sort through this, to find your style and the story you want to tell, is simply to write. A lot. As with any skill, writing gets better with practice.
It will take time. At first, you’ll imitate other writers—ones you admire. And that’s only natural when you’re starting out, that you’d emulate the work of the writers you like best. And, like reading, there’s a great deal to be learned from it. Eventually, though, you’ll shed the parts of other writing styles that don’t suit you, and what will emerge, is a voice that’s all your own.
And a story only you can tell.
My first attempt at writing a picture book, I tried to sound like one of my children’s book heroes: Dr. Seuss. The title of the manuscript was PIGGY PARADE or PIGS ON PARADE or something like that – and it wasn’t even a story, really, it was just this… rhyming list. Acrobat piggies! Pigs playing flute! Some pigs are scary! Some pigs are cute! Fat pigs! Small pigs! Big pigs! Tall Pigs!”
I submitted it to a few publishers, and not surprisingly, it was rejected... for two reasons. As I mentioned, it lacked an important element: A story.
The second reason was: There’s only one Dr. Seuss. The world doesn’t need two. Any imitation can only ever hope to be second best.
But the experience wasn’t a total loss. I learned things. I learned that even simple picture books require a story arc (beginning, middle, end) and that I could write a rhyming picture book, but I would have to figure out how to do it in my own way. In my own voice.
Thankfully, one editor added a small note with her rejection that said: “While it’s not quite a book, there’s some very nice phrasing here. I’d like to see more from this author.”
My first thought was: “She called me an author!” And then I thought: She wants to see more; let’s see if I can do it. So I got to work, and I wrote a bunch of drafts, and eventually one of those drafts became PIGS LOVE POTATOES, my first published picture book.
Each of you has a unique voice. I know this because I heard it emerging in your winning letters.
You made connections from the books that inspired you, to your own lives. Many of you shared deep and personal experiences. That emotional truth – that honesty – made us all want to read on. And that’s what it’s all about: Making the reader care… and turn the page.
I know she's already read us her letter, but I’d like to read this excerpt again... from Level 3 State Winner, Rachel Minassian’s letter to Adam Bagdasarian, author of FORGOTTEN FIRE.
“It brought to my attention that happiness is as fragile as a china plate perched on the edge of a shelf; it could shatter at any moment, so we must enjoy and relish it while it lasts. Because of my passion for the book, I was even able to convince my parents to read it. I consider this a feat because the only material they ever read is the newspaper. My mother is pure Armenian, while my father is only half. Needless to say, they were both moved deeply by the novel. They were extremely impressed by the courage and tenacity displayed by Vahan, and at times I would come into my mother’s bedroom to find her crying silently while reading the novel.”
What a powerful image Rachel gives us, of coming in to find her mother – a practical person – who typically reads only the newspaper, so moved, that she is weeping silently into the pages of the book.
Reading that, we’re in the room. We feel the importance the book has had not only on Rachel, but her mother, and her whole family.
If Rachel were to write this scene into her memoir – or a work of fiction – that’s the emotional truth she would draw on to find her voice, and the voice of the story. Even if she changes the time and place, the characters, or the circumstances… the scene will still be powerful.
Find that bit of emotional truth in everything you write, continue to make people care, and you will be successful storytellers.
By the way, I quoted an example from Rachel’s letter, but there were instances of strong narrative voice and emotional truth in all the letters, at all the age levels. So, well done. [Applause]
Ok, what do we have so far. The steps to becoming successful storytellers: READ A LOT. WRITE A LOT. SEEK EMOTIONAL TRUTH and along the way… FIND YOUR VOICE and the VOICE of YOUR STORY.
I want to talk specifically about writing for kids, for a moment, because that’s my area, and perhaps one day, some of you will want to write for kids, too.
Here’s the difference between writing stories for kids and writing for adults: THERE IS NONE.
What? She’s crazy. Of course there is! NO, there isn’t. There are subjects that are more appropriate for adults than children, yes, that’s absolutely true.
But the mechanics of storytelling are exactly the same.
In fact, it’s arguable that when it comes to authenticity, to having an emotional truth to the story, that kids are actually the tougher audience. You can’t fool them.
And the window of opportunity to make them care, is far smaller with children than it is with adults. Adults will stick with it longer, for a whole host of reasons, but a child will toss that book over his shoulder for something else, if he doesn’t like it. I’ve seen it.
I was at an event once with an adult author, and I overheard someone suggest to him that he write a book for middle grade students. His response was, “I don’t know if I could simplify my work enough to write for children.” And I thought, “He doesn’t get it.” It’s not about simplifying your work. It’s about writing in a voice that’s appropriate for - and authentic to - your audience.
The complexities of constructing a narrative, the rules of good storytelling are exactly the same.
One thing I’ve learned, from writing for kids, from having kids, from visiting classrooms, is that children are infinitely clever, and we as authors, educators, parents, should never underestimate them.
I’ll give you an example. It’s a story that was retold to me by a friend.
A little 4-yr-old girl wants to drink her juice on the couch.
But, her mother has a rule: No drinking juice on the couch.
When the little girl asks: “Why, why can’t I have my juice on the couch?”
The mom says, “Because you might spill it.”
“I promise, I’ll be really careful,” says the little girl.
“No,” her mom says.
But the little girl doesn’t quit. She keeps at it. “But why? But why? Why can’t have my juice on the couch?”
Finally, exasperated with the barrage of why’s, and the whining, the mom gives her the classic non-answer answer.
“Because I’m the Mommy, and I’m the boss. Mommies get to be the boss and make the rules.”
“Oh,” the little girl says. “So, then, is your Mommy the boss of you?”
Not wanting undermine her argument, the mom says, “Sure, my mom is the boss of me, yes.”
And her little daughter looks up and her and says:
“Good, cause Grandma let’s me have my juice on the couch.”
Like I said, kids are infinitely clever.
And the best children’s stories, and storytellers know it.
Just like stories crafted for adults, kids books should contain an element of “truth” for the reader. Even the seemingly simplest picture books.
Another way to say truth, is the THEME or the POINT of the story.
Try going through some of your favorite kids books and asking yourself: what's the point? See if you can articulate the theme of the story in a sentence or two. It’s actually a really helpful exercise.
You’ll find that all the best stories… have one; have a theme; have a point. And if they don’t – they’re called “slight” or worse, “forgettable,” by reviewers, by librarians, and by kids, who probably won’t read them more than once.
Some children’s stories state the theme outright... shout it from the mountaintops:
“A person’s a person, no matter how small!”
Or, “There’s no place like home.”
Or, “There’s no place like home.”
Others are more subtle… like this one:
“And [he] sailed back over a year
and in and out of weeks
and through a day
and into the night of his very own room
where he found his supper waiting for him
and it was still hot.”
Who knows what the theme is there? Of Maurice Sendak’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE? (The librarians in the room can’t answer, they know this.)
That kids can be naughty, they can be “wild” and even get scolded, but their parents still love them. It’s right there, in that bit about supper being still hot.
It’s something all kids can relate to. Worrying when they get in trouble, when they get reprimanded, whether their parents still love them. Wanting to be reassured.
It helps, too, that everything else in Sendak’s classic picture book is marvelous. His beautifully detailed cross-hatched drawings, the magic of Max’s room morphing into a forest at night, the wonderful, descriptive language as the wild things “Roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible claws.” Those perfect wordless spreads in between the action.
It’s masterfully crafted, no question. But it’s the “universal truth,” the point of the story, about getting in trouble, but still being loved, that makes WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE the perennial classic that it is. It’s why generations of kids, and parents, love it, and will continue to love it.
So whether your stories feature naughty children, packs of potato-eating pigs, talking elephants, boy wizards, aliens, time machines, historical figures or Greek Gods—ask yourself, what idea am I trying to get across? What will my characters have learned at the end of their journey?
What’s the point?
And then be brave. Be true. Take chances.
And tell the story only you can tell.