How Writing About Terrible Things Makes the Reader a Better Person

Donna Jo Napoli spoke at the 2011 SCBWI LA Conference on why she writes books with difficult subject matter and how it is essential too creating empathy in readers. Here are my notes from her talk:

I’m Often Asked Why I Write the Books I Write:

  • Napoli writes books with intense content like rape and slavery, and she is often asked why she writes these books.
  • Napoli’s favorite book as a child was “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”. It was a very freeing and eye-opening book for her.

Let’s Talk About Censorship:

  • Napoli is very active in censorship issues.
  • The 1993 Alan Review is dedicated entirely to the issue of censorship.
  • Texas is the most frequent cite of censorship challenges.

Where Do these Attitudes Come From?

  • Why do people think that not swearing in books will make the kids act and behave better?
  • Napoli understands why a parent may not want a kid to encounter sexuality for the first time in a book, but she doesn’t necessarily agree with it.
  • Napoli thinks it is “Wrong Minded” to keep kids away from difficult topics like sexism, morbid topics, racism, violence, rape, drugs, etc. Parents hiding these from their kids are thinking the wrong way.

The Protected Child VS. The Un-Protected Child

  • In this context a “protected” child is one raised in a responsible caring culture, and an “unprotected” child is one that is abused by our society.
  • When an unprotected child reads about another unprotected child it can be amazing. They no longer feel alone anymore. They are less isolated.
  • Most children do not have the power to change their world.
  • We need books without magic and “charmed” lives to see what is real. A child reading about another child in a difficult and possibly similar situation where they character is still able to find hope is very important. That can make a huge impact on the unprotected child.
  • The protected child, however, may be even more important to talk to.
  • Protected children can become intolerant and feel like they have a right to things. They become entitled. They look down on others. We want these children to learn empathy.  The safest way to do that is through a book.

Closing Note:

  • Write from your places of joy, pain, and fear. If you need to write it, there’s someone out there who needs to read it.

Donna Jo Napoli is the author of many children’s books and young adult novels including: Alligator Bayou, The Smile, Hush, The Kings of Mulberry Street, and Bound. 

Finding the Heart to Unlock Your Story

Newbery Award winning author Susan Patron spoke at the 2011 Southern California Writer’s Day. A former librarian and lover of children’s books, she had a lot of heartfelt insight on writing for children. Her talk ranged from finding the courage to write to insights from childhood. The following are my notes taken from her presentation:

Why Does it Take Courage to Write?

  • Why do we keep writing after the shocking horror of the 1st draft?
  • Why do we continue to write after the shocking horror of the 2nd and 3rd drafts? Maybe I should be a carpenter instead, we think.
  • Each draft takes courage!
  • Writing a novel is a thrill, like riding off on a runaway horse, it’s thrilling and terrifying.
  • When Patron became a full-time writer she was scared because this meant there were no more excuses to not be writing.

What is the Higher Power in “The Higher Power of Lucky”?

  • Patron deliberately left this open-ended. Maybe it is God, maybe it is a goal, maybe it is the power of self. Each reader will (and should) interpret it differently.

Insights about Childhood:

  • “Growing up is something that happens in the tiny details of everyday.”
  • The inner life of children is rich.
  • We (humans) are fundamentally good, but we are able to do things that are very bad. She wants to show that her characters are human and flawed. That’s why they do bad/mean things sometimes.

Thoughts on Censorship:

  • The educated possess the knowledge, judgment, and ability to make decisions and opinions on their own about what they read.

Insights on Writing and Reading:

  • Reading is the only time we are able to merge our consciousness with another (with the character).
  • It wasn’t until she finished “Lucky Breaks” that she realized she was writing a trilogy.
  • Patrons writing process: She doesn’t know what she wants to say till she’s thrashed her way through a book. She reads like she writes – to see what happens.
  • You need a view to write, so that imagination can meet memory in the dark.
  • She has never written a novel in under 2 years.  So it was really hard when she was given a 9-month deadline for her “Dear America” book.
  • This quote unlocked the “Dear America” book for Patron: “Boldness is a mask for fear, however great.” – ?
  • I know everything I know about this industry from coming to SCBWI. She’s been a member since 1972.
  • The cover is the first step to getting a reader to pick up your book. It is important.
  • You can write in multiple genres. Look at the work of Linda Sue Park as an example.
  • The diary element of her “Dear America” book seemed like a challenge at first, but soon she treated it like any other first person narrative.

Thoughts on winning the Newbery:

  • It was a whirlwind.
  • “You lose a year of your writing life when you win the Newberry.” – Richard Peck

About Editors:

  • Your editor is your collaborator and your friend. Their suggestions will make your book stronger.
  • The Lucky Trilogy had three different editors. The first editor retired (first book), the second editor was let go with budget cuts (second book), and the third book had third editor.
  • Editors are very good at seeing what you are too close to the manuscript to see.

How do you get over Writer’s Block?

  • Take long walks.
  • Despair!
  • Read craft books.

Fun Tid-bits:

  • Patron taught herself to read using the LA Times comics section.
  • The public library was “Mapquest for the heart.”
  • A State of Arrested Decay – the state of a building that has been abandoned but preserved by the state.
  • Patron doesn’t read other novels while she is writing.
  • Patron was a very active librarian. She even served on the Caldecott and Laura Ingles Wilder award committees in her career.
  • Verite Sans Peur = Truth without Fear

What Resources does the Library Have that we should be aware of? (This was a Question from Audience)

  • Go to your library and talk to the librarian about your project. They will direct you to sources you may not be aware of.
  • There are lots of databases that the library has subscriptions to that the patrons can use. Often you can access these from your home!

Susan Patron specialize in children’s services for 35 years at the LA Public Library before retiring in 2007. That same year her novel The Higher Power of Lucky was awarded the Newbery Medal and the FOCAL Award, and went on to become an New York Times National Bestseller, as well as being translated into 12 foreign languages. The Higher Power of Lucky has been turned into a trilogy including Lucky Breaks and the forthcoming Lucky for Good.

For Richer or Poorer: Writing Through the Good and Bad Times

Young adult author Carolyn Mackler spoke at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference. In her keynote presentation, she addressed the struggles of living a literary life, and that even when you’ve made it (been published, won awards), you still face new challenges in your career. Despite the breakdowns, one must press on and persevere! The following notes were taken turning her speech:

A Few Thoughts About the Writing Life …

  • Mackler doesn’t feel much connection between her writing success and her home life. There is a disconnect between the two.
  • Mackler always felt like she was not supposed to stand out. If one stands out then they can get shot down.
  • Mackler cannot purge the adolescent voice in her head.
  • Be proud of what you wish for.
  • Be proud of making a commitment to your writing life. Pledge to stick with it when broke, stuck, or insecure.

A Little About Carolyn Mackler’s Journey to Publication…

  • She worked for MS. Magazine and had the honor to work with Gloria Steinem.
  • She did screenplay research for Mike Nichols.
  • Her book Love and Other Four Letter Words sold when she was 25 years old.
  • Her agent Jodi Reamer was an assistant agent when she contacted Carolyn Mackler.

Staying Published has Been a Rocky Road…

  • The path to stay here (to stay published) can be rocky.
  • After Mackler wrote her Printz honor book The Earth My Butt and Other Big Round Things, the words dried up. It was a “mind-screw.” She started to second guess herself.  She would ask herself: “Is this what a printz honor book writer would write?”
  • After the birth of her first child she felt as if she couldn’t do this (writing). She felt like she was done. However, a good friend said to her  “Maybe you can’t have a baby and write a book, but maybe you can have a 2 or 3 year-old and write a book.” This helped her to get through.

On Having a Banned Book…

  • Mackler’s book The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things was banned after it came out and 350 students signed a petition to support her. This story got the attention of the Baltimore Sun. The school got letters from the public and the superintendent of the school that wanted her book banned, got fired.
  • The reason books get banned, but movies can do almost anything is because the novel (in Mackler’s opinion) is more powerful than a movie. The reader is part of the creation of the story because they must imagine and envision it. There is creation in the act of reading.
  • “Your book is intellectual anthrax” – quote from a play by Adam Rote Rapp about a YA book author who’s books are banned.
  • “It’s the books that will never be written, books that will never be read that concerns me.” – Judy Blume on censorship and book banning.

Look to The Future and Be Flexible…

  • It’s important to be flexible, Mackler advises.  You may need to shift gears, scrap manuscripts and go in a new direction.
  • Mackler has felt a lot of pressure due to the trends in YA literature these days. She’s tried a new creative twist in her next book, which is grounded in reality but is not fully contemporary realistic fiction like her previous books.
  • She’s in it for the long haul, and this is some of the tricky stuff you have to deal with. Even as a published author there are difficult decisions to be made.
  • The writing life is always an ebb and flow.

Carolyn Mackler is the author of the popular teen novels, The Earth My Butt and Other Big Round Things (A Printz Honor book), Tangled, Guyaholic, Vegan Virgin Valentine, and Love and Other Four-Letter Words. Carolyn has contributed to magazines including Seventeen, Glamour, CosmoGIRL!, Girls’ Life, Storyworks, and American Girl. In 2008, Carolyn was a judge for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. She lives in New York City with her husband and two young sons. Visit her online at

Speak Loudly! Speak Out Against Censorship

If you haven’t heard, author Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak is once again under the knife of censorship. In particular, Wesley Scroggins an associate professor at Missouri State University is touting the book as pornography. Anderson is rallying her troops and asking bloggers, tweeters, writers, teens, and all who love this book to share the positive effect the book has had. It is time to SPEAK LOUDLY about the power of books to help educate and heal!

I thought I’d share with some great quotes about censorship and teen novels:

“It’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.” – Judy Blume

“The reason books get banned, but movies can do almost anything is because the novel is more powerful than a movie. The reader is part of the creation of the story because they must imagine and envision it. There is creation in the act of reading.” – Carolyn Mackler

“Books won’t stay banned.  They won’t burn.  Ideas won’t go to jail.  In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost.  The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.” ~Alfred Whitney Griswold, New York Times, 24 February 1959

Censorship in any form is the enemy of creativity, since it cuts off the blood of creativity: ideas.” – Allan Jenkins

“The real heroes are the librarians and teachers who at no small risk to themselves refuse to lie down and play dead for censors.” – Bruce Coville

“Withholding information is the essence of tyranny. Control of the flow of information is the tool of the dictatorship.” – Bruce Coville

Find Out More Information or Get Involved:

  • Follow the thread #speakloudly on twitter for more great posts and information.
  • Add a Twibbon on your twitter profile to show your support.
  • Write a letter to the editor of News-Leader.
  • Write a letter to the superintendent or principal in the Republic School District.
  • Comment directly on Scoggin’s post.

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