Literacy and Dia With Jeanette Larson

As a writer, literacy is important to me, but not just because I want to make sure there’s a market for my books — literacy helps children grow.

Jeanette Larson

Jeanette Larson

Author and librarian Jeanette Larson has been a supporter of the literacy celebration Día, which happens annually on April 30, since it was founded in 1997. So, who better to tell us about the program and why it’s important?

Jeanette wrote a book on Dia for librarians and teachers, El dia de los niños/El dis de los libros: Building a Culture of Literacy in Your Community Through Dia, offering easy-to-use programs that are adaptable for a variety of cultures. She’s also the author of the delightful Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore From the Americas, published by Charlesbridge and telling fun stories about the amazing birds.

Me: Jeanette, tell us about Día and how the book celebration began…

Jeanette: Author and poet Pat Mora was in Tucson, Ariz., being interviewed in 1996 and someone asked her about Children’s Day. This is an international holiday, much like Mother’s Day, that recognizes children and started in 1925. It is a major holiday in Mexico but was unheard of and uncelebrated in the United States. Pat, who grew up in El Paso, was unaware of it. One of her major goals in her career has been to promote what she calls “bookjoy,” so she started thinking about combining the recognition and celebration of children with a celebration of reading, especially bilingual literacy. That became El día de los niños/El día de los libros, Children’s Day/Book Day.

A couple of librarians and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking) loved the concept and started working with Pat to organize and promote it. The first celebration was held on April 30, 1997. I was working at the Texas State Library and had met Pat through several other projects and we were talking about how to help libraries implement Día celebrations. So my staff and I developed the first Día “toolkit” with ideas for librarians so they could create their own programs. My husband, Jim Larson, was even roped into creating a logo for it!

The goals of Día include a daily commitment to honor children and childhood, promote literacy, honor home languages and cultures, promote global understanding through reading, involve parents as members of the literacy team and promote the development of library collections that reflect the plurality of this country.

Día is celebrating 16 years this April 30, and it is moving to include more cultures and languages — whatever languages are important and relevant in your community.

Me: What happens on April 30?

Jeanette: In the beginning, April 30 was used as a day to really highlight and celebrate Día’s goals. Now it serves more as a culmination of a year’s worth of efforts for bilingual literacy. What takes place varies from very simple celebrations like a bilingual or multicultural storytime to full blown fiestas. In some communities, many agencies partner to put on a full day of events with storytellers, dancers, food, games, authors, singers, and other events that tie in to literacy and books. These partners can include the local consulates, public television stations, churches and synagogues, child welfare agencies, local businesses … anyone with a stake in our children! Often children receive a bilingual or multicultural book as part of the events.

Schools, libraries and other agencies that want to find ideas for ways to celebrate can look at the database that the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC is a division of the American Library Association) maintains. ALSC also provides a resource guide, which I helped develop. Some of the material has even been translated into Spanish and Chinese this year.

Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore From the Americas book coverMe: Why are books so important for children?

Jeanette: Books and being able to read them are the great equalizer for children. Whether the books are fiction or non-fiction, we learn from what we read, and books bring the world’s knowledge to us in ways that television and movies just can’t. Reading is the basis for everything we do. Even if you are a computer whiz, you need to be able to read. (I’m fascinated by the fact that some of the biggest proponents of reading, books and literacy are the giants of the computer and technology industry.)

It’s almost become a cliché, but books bring us knowledge but they also bring us joy. They can bring friends to a lonely child and they bring us the world! But it is also important that children have access to books that reflect their own culture, that introduce them to other cultures, and that celebrate words and language. And Día really puts the spotlight on the importance of these ideas.

Me: What can adults do to encourage children to become readers?

A lot of the things are pretty obvious and I often say that really there is more that adults can do to discourage kids from reading, like forcing a kid to finish a book he or she is not enjoying!

Surround kids with books and they will read! Borrow books from the library and leave them around the house. The worse thing that happens is you take them back on the due date unread, but if books are around kids will find them.

Be a role model. It does no good to tell kids that reading is a great thing if Mom and Dad never read anything. Kids know what adults value by how we spend our time and money, so spend time reading together (even older kids enjoy being read to) or just sitting together with each person reading silently (maybe sharing a good passage or something funny if the mood strikes you). Buy books as gifts. They may not elicit immediate jumping for joy like a new bicycle or a videogame, but they last and they tell kids that you care about them.

Ask your child to recommend a book for you to read — show you are interested in their literature and value their opinion about books. Take kids to bookstores and let them select what they want to read. Even if you think it is “junk,” so what? No real avid reader only reads great literature. Bring your child to author events and library programs so they see that reading is fun and can be a real social activity.

Me: What can writers do to make sure children will enjoy reading?

Jeanette: Write good books! Don’t try to write a story that will teach the child something. If your story is good, they will learn from it without you preaching to them. Don’t underestimate children. Writers sometimes write down or dumb down material because it is for children. A good book for children should also be a good book for readers of any age.

Celebrate that children are reading. It can be hard to find the time to respond when kids write a fan letter or ask a question (and yes, sometimes the questions are silly or repetitious), but it’s important that children know that we love reading and writing and we love that they are reading our books.

Me: Great insights and advice, Jeanette. Thank you!

Celebrate literacy in your family and community. And remember Jeanette’s advice for writers: Write good books!

Is there anything you do to support literacy in children?


Patience, perseverance and a whole lotta reading

Pile of booksSaturday was the monthly meeting of the great Austin chapter of the SCBWI at the awesome independent bookstore BookPeople, and all who attended got a healthy dose of inspiration.

The speaker was author Jessica Lee Anderson, who taught about dealing with the ups and downs of publishing through songs — and yep, she even sang.

Jessica reinforced the idea I wrote about in my last post, that the writing is the best part of the journey, so stop worrying about publication. But how to do that? Well, with a little Patience (from Guns ‘n Roses), R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (from Aretha Franklin) for ourselves as writers and people, and the knowledge that I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor). (Jessica’s talk had a wonderful soundtrack!)

Jessica also reminded us that reading is one of the best ways to become a better writer, and she said she had set a goal for 2011 to read a book a week. A book a week! And she’s running ahead of that goal right now!

I was amazed. I can’t read that fast. (She did admit to me later that she listens to a lot of audio books in her car and has to drive a lot, so that’s one way you can fit them in.)

Although I won’t be matching Jessica’s pace any time soon, she did inspire me to push harder to get more books read. Spurred on, this weekend I picked up my book whenever I had a few spare minutes, instead of browsing the Web. I was determined to finish the novel I was reading and start another. I finished on Sunday afternoon and immediately went to my unread pile and picked up a new book. I’m already racing through that one — as often as I can at least. We’ll see if I can finish it in a week.

So, stop worrying, be patient, keep writing and make reading a priority.

Do you have a reading goal?

Write On!

Make the most of 2010

Revision update: Things have been going well. I’ve been steaming through the chapters, getting about six done in the past few days. It feels good.

Utah Children’s Writers’ Scott Rhoades wrote a fun New Year’s blog post yesterday with some ideas to help writers in this year. I thought I’d share my favorites and add some of my own.

From Scott’s list:

Make more time for writing. I’ve let this slide over the holidays, but I’m renewing my dedication to writing every day. It helps my writing, and makes me much happier. 🙂

Extend your writing circle. Writing is so solitary, and it’s great to go to conferences, local and far away, and make friends who can broaden your support group. I’ve got two conferences in the first two months, and I’m excited about them.

Make every day an adventure. This is similar to something I read in The Artists Way years ago and have always kept to heart, that to replenish our pool of creativity, we have to get out and inspire ourselves, either by visiting a museum, or going for a walk along a pretty street. It would be great to do it every day, but with work and everything, that can be tough. But do it as often as you can, and when you can’t get out, here’s a tip from me: Take a couple seconds to Google “flowers images” or “architecture images” or whatever inspires you and enjoy what comes up.

Now some of my own:

Set goals. Don’t make them too big or too small. Set goals that you can reasonably attain in a short time and reward yourself when you reach them. There’s nothing more encouraging than a feeling of accomplishment.

Read, read, read. Reading is the best way to learn to write better, and reading the bestseller books in the genre you write, is great research — as well as wonderful entertainment. Seek out the best of the best, classic and new, and read.

Read blogs. No matter where you are in your writing journey, it’s a good idea to keep up with what’s going on in the industry. But blogs also help us see that we’re not alone. The blogosphere is filled with writers at all stages of their amateur and professional writing careers, and we can learn from them, empathise with them, by inspired by them.

Keep your characters in your head. No matter what you’re doing, washing dishes, driving, walking the dog, cooking, laundry, let your characters come into your mind and play around. Listen to them talking. Keep them in your head, and when you sit down at your computer or notebook to write, they’ll be right there waiting for you. And they’ll have figured out the next part of the story already.

Got any tips for making the most of your writing in 2010?

Write On!

Reading for better writing

  • Current word count: 38,753
  • New words written: 1,205
  • Words til goal: 1,247 / 78 words a day til the end of September
  • Down to less than 100 words a day needed to meet my goal. Yay! But this word count is actually for Saturday’s writing, because I didn’t write either yesterday or today, but I’ll be back on track tomorrow and hope to have this book finished by the end of the week.

    Doing some research this weekend, I stumbled on a new blog — new for me, that is — Hook Kids On Reading. I love the concept of this blog: “Where parents and children’s writers come together with the goal of finding or writing books that hook reluctant readers — especially boys.”

    Getting kids hooked on reading is a wonderful thing, and to live up to the task, books really need to speak to the kids and the draw them in, be it through some sort of magical adventure or simply the same every day struggles the readers are experiencing. And recognizing the books that do this is great for parents who want to encourage their kids to read.

    It’s also really useful for writers. I’ve heard so often that writers learn so much through reading, and it’s true. I have found that in my own writing, with my work taking off when I’m inspired by whatever I’m reading at the moment.

    It’s also very helpful for writers to read the books that kids are enjoying in the genres the writer is writing. I’m writing middle-grade urban fantasy, so the last few years, I’ve been working my way through various middle-grade bestsellers. I’m currently re-reading the Harry Potter series, but I’ve also devoured most of the Gregor the Overlander series and the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and have started the Sisters Grimm series.

    I’m always on the look out for books that are good at pulling in a reader, so I’m going to add some of the books I see on the Hook Kids on Reading blog to my to-read list.

    How do you find books to read?

    Write On!

    Getting children to read

    As with many other industries, the last couple quarters have been rough on publishing, with houses downsizing with huge layoffs, closing imprints, and restructuring to bundle imprints together with the same staff. Some smaller publishing houses have closed altogether. Before Christmas, calls went out on many blogs, including mine, for people to put books on their gift lists, to not only help the industry we love, but also to hopefully make more readers.

    Reading has a lot of competition today: movies and videogames, mostly. Yet reading is one of the best — and least expensive — pasttimes for children and adults alike. People who don’t read say it’s boring, but those who do, usually fell in love with books when they were kids.

    I’ve read that the children’s book segment is actually one of the least-affected by the economic crisis, but it still has been affected. Meanwhile, videogames continue to increase in popularity (not that I have anything against videogames; my husband and I are quite addicted to Rock Band).

    So, I applaud British children’s book author Michael Rosen’s new program to get children to read. Along with England’s BBC, Rosen is creating an hour-long program called Just Read that will be designed around encouraging reading in children. Rosen says British school curriculums teach children how to read but not how to enjoy reading, and that’s what he wants to improve on, according to The Guardian newspaper.

    Here’s a quote from Rosen, printed in The Guardian’s article (link above): “It’s about putting books at the center of the curriculum, getting children engaging with worlds beyond their own, reading about complex ideas in an enjoyable way.”

    I wish him much success, and if any TV producers are reading this, keep an eye on Just Read. Maybe it’s something you can do in the U.S. too.

    As for us writers, we can do our part by continuing to write books that, as Rosen says, engage children with worlds beyond their own.

    Write On!

    P.S. My husband and I were in Barnes & Noble yesterday, and we were pleasantly surprised at how busy it was. Go buyers!

    Day 16 and reading books

    All’s going well in my continued unofficial participation of National Novel Writing Month. This morning I was back to revising chapters I had already written in my first draft. Everything was going well until I started looking back at my original layout for the book and realized some of my early ideas that weren’t used in the first draft and are more exciting than some of my current sections. Guess some rewriting is in order, but that’s what the revision process is for.

    Also, in a kind of part four to my notes about the Brazos Valley SCBWI conference, I wanted to mention something else Kim Griswell said: That if we’re serious about writing, we should be reading at least one book a week — at least one!

    I read slowly, so I’m lucky if I finish one in a month. But even if you’re a fast reader, finding the time to read one book in a week is hard, much less more. I’m talking about novels, of course. It should be pretty easy to get in at least one picture book. But as Kim pointed out, you should read what you want to write. So, if you’re like me and writing a novel, it’s probably tough to fit that into a schedule filled with a day job, cooking, laundry … oh, and writing your own stuff.

    But, what Kim said is right. Reading is very important. It helps us become better writers. So, how to fit it in? Here’s a few ways I get it in my schedule.

    1. Read while brushing your teeth. Lay the book out on your bathroom counter with a bottle of moisturizer on it to keep it open and read during that two-minute brush. It’s not a long time, but you can get a couple pages in. You can also extend it to reading while putting on your moisturizer and brushing your hair.

    2. Read while drying your hair. I have long hair, so this is a good 10 to 20 minutes for me. Mine doesn’t take much styling, but I flick my eyes up to the mirror every now and then to make sure I’m not completely botching my hair.

    3. Read while cooking. If the rest of the family is otherwise occupied during this time, keep the book open on your kitchen counter and read a few paragraphs or pages while the spaghetti is boiling.

    4. Read while walking your dog. If you have a dog, of course. Now, this is something I have been doing for years, but people look at me strangely when I say I do it, and it’s usually followed with the question, “Don’t you trip?” Although that has happened a few times, mostly no. But if you’re not comfortable with walking and reading, stick to other ways of getting reading into your schedule.

    5. Back to personal hygiene, read while taking a bath. If you have time to soak in the tub for a bit instead of having a shower, bring the book in for a few pages before you soap up.

    Anyone else got some tips on fitting reading into your schedule?

    Write On!

    Day 8

    It has been more than a week in my unofficial participation in National Novel Writing Month. Yay!

    Got up early and spent about two hours in front of the computer. I can’t report that I got that much done, I’m afraid, but I was there, fingers poised over keys and occasionally pressing them.

    Today I jumped back on the novel. With my potential solution in my head thanks to my driving yesterday, I hoped that I’d whip out the scene in no time. Unfortunately, my head is still in blocked mode as far as this scene goes. I decided to start the scene from scratch in a new Word document and paste into the novel when it’s done, thinking the change would cleanse my mind. Not so much. I wrote the start of the scene about five times. Finally, about 30 minutes before it was time to stop, I got a rhythm going, and I hope to continue that tomorrow.

    This block has been so weird. It’s just about this one scene, because the new story has been flowing fine.

    What do you do to fix blocks? Any tips?

    I also wanted to link over to agent Nathan Bransford’s blog post from today, called Tough Times and the Publishing Industry Stimulus Package. In it, he gives a run down on the current state of the publishing industry, and as you can guess, it’s not all good news. But the part I wanted to talk about was the part where he says “BUY NEW BOOKS.”

    Like him, I understand that we don’t always have the money to spend on new books. Used books still have the same words, and libraries are even cheaper: free. But buying a new book is the only way to help authors and publishing houses stay in business, and if we want to have a future career in publishing, we need to support authors and publishing houses.

    Especially new authors, because we want publishing houses to continue to take chances on new authors. That is, afterall, what we want to be. As Nathan Bransford says, publishing houses decide whether to continue to publish an author’s work based on sales of their previous books. So, signing that one contract with a publishing house doesn’t mean you’ll now have a long career as a novelist. If that first book doesn’t do well, you’ll have a tough time selling another one.

    I’m currently reading The Unnameables, by Ellen Booraem, a first-time author repped by KT Literary. I actually found out about the book on the blog of KT Literary’s Kate Schafer. It’s a great book, and I’m whipping through it — which is incredible for me, because I read very slowly; it’s a curse. I bought the book along with Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean, which Atheneum Books’ Emma Dryden talked about in a seminar in the 2007 SCBWI summer conference and I’ve been itchy to try ever since. Peter Pan will be my next read.

    For us writers, reading is next to writing as the best way to improve our skills. And reading what’s new in your field helps you to also keep up with what’s going on in the industry. So go to the bookstore — any bookstore but support independents as much as you can — and buy some books, as much as your wallet will allow, of course.

    Also, promote books to those around you. Christmas is coming up, so consider books as gifts before anything else. You might just make a new reader.

    Ok, off my soapbox now. I really would like to know any getting out of writer’s block tips if you’ve got them.

    Write On! and Read On!

    Inspiration and pet peeves

    My middle-grade novel revision is moving along, but not as quickly as I’d like. Part of the reason is that I’m editing faster than my critique group meetings. Sounds weird, I know, but I’ll explain. You see, we meet twice a month and can take up to five pages to each meeting. After each meeting, I edit the pages for which I got notes, then keep going. But once I’m past the next five, I feel like I don’t want to go on too much farther because I’ll only be taking the next five to the critique group. So I go a little further, then go back, then browse the Internet… I can’t get motivated to move on because I feel this resistance. Does anybody else have this problem? I should just keep going, shouldn’t I?

    Anyway, onto the subject of this post. In my dawdling, I’ve been reading writing-related articles online and found some good ones I wanted to share.

    First up, an article from NPR about a book called The Lace Reader and how it came to be. The author and her husband self-published the book and got the word out in book clubs with a particular interest in the book’s subject matter. In fact, the author even gave the book clubs pre-published manuscripts with a request for notes, which got them intrigued and gave them a feeling of being invested in the book (I would assume). After self-publishing the book and getting word out, the author got interest from an agent, who then got interest in a bunch of big publishing houses and finally signed a deal for $2 million. Wow! Now, of course, this is a-typical. But, it’s an example of what can happen if you’re passionate and smart and, most of all, if you follow through. Even without the $2 million deal, this story is great, because this lady had an idea, wrote it, was passionate about, built fans for it and made it a success. If she can do it, so can we. Click here for the full article. There’s an excerpt from the book too.

    Second is a blog post from Writers Digest’s Guide to Literary Agents about agents’ and editor’s first chapter pet peeves. Some are purely subjective (Stephany Evans of FinePrint Literary Management says she’s turned off by protagonists called Isabelle who go by the name of Izzy, but I’d guess there are plenty of agents and editors who aren’t bothered by that), but most of them are good reminders or eye-openers for our own work. Too much or unnecessary exposition is mentioned by a few of them, for example. Best part, the magazine has a bigger list in the print publication, which will be online in a few weeks if you can’t get to your local magazine rack. Click here for the full blog post.

    Third, I was turned on to this through agent Kate Schafer’s blog. Author Cory Doctorow has a great column in Locus magazine about writing for young adult, the pleasures and pit falls. He talks about it as a privilege because “it matters,” because through books, these young readers are finding out how the world works. As he says: “there are kids who read your book, googled every aspect of it, figured out how to replicate the best bits, and have turned your story into a hobby.” I can fully agree with this from first-hand experience. With my first Sir Newton book, Sir Newton’s Color Me Cayman, a 10-year-old reader (these aren’t YA by any stretch of imagination) said that after he had gone through the book, he went on his computer to Google the Cayman Islands. That’s one of the best compliments the books have received. Doctorow also talks about a great job one indie bookstore called Anderson’s is doing to get kids reading. We need to encourage all bookstores to be doing things like this. As Doctorow says, people who go into bookstores are already hooked; we need to go to them to get them hooked. Click here for Doctorow’s full column.

    Fourth and fifth, two things from one of my favorite blogs (because it’s informative, inspirational and very entertaining), A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing by author J.A. Konrath. First, he has put up a message board where writers, agents, editors, fans can chat about the industry, books, etc. Click here for his message board. Second, Konrath has compiled his years of useful blog posts into an ebook about writing and getting published, which he is offering as a free download on his website. Click here for his website. There’s also lots of info about his books — he’s a master at marketing — so check them out as well.

    Got any links you’d like to share?

    Write On!

    Reading to write

    I’m back on the novel. Last week was still really busy, but I jumped into the rewrite of my novel anyway. Time to start waking up at 6 am again! New goal: Finish the rewrite by November.


    I’ve also made strides with the Sir Newton Color Me Florida book. Drawings are completed and fixed up in the computer. All that’s left is finishing the layout and final editing.


    During my novel hiatus, I still worked on it through reading. Any time I’ve been stuck in my writing, reading has helped bring me back. The more you read, the rhythm of the story, pacing, dialog — it seeps into your brain like osmosis. To get you in the mood — so to speak — for your own work, read books that fit what you’re writing. If you’re writing a fantasy, read a fantasy. If you’re writing in first-person, read a book that’s written in first-person. Also, read what’s hot, what your target audience is reading.


    How can you find the best books in your area? Librarians are a great place to start. They’ll be able to tell you which books kids are checking out the most. The message board on the SCBWI website is a good source too, if you’re a member. You can also try the good old Internet. I found a great link for this while I was doing some research yesterday: A message thread on Amazon detailing the best books to get middle grade boys to read. (Click here to read the thread. Make sure to read the post from Julie M. Effertz.) Write down these books, and that’s your must-read list.


    What books are you reading right now? What’s on your must-read list?


    Write On!