Last year, my New Year's resolution was to (1) declutter and simplify my house (getting ahead of the Marie Kondo curve, at least in intentions) and (2) focus on writing and illustrating, specifically finishing and querying my MG novel.
I totally failed in the first but completed the second. I am now represented by Jennifer March Soloway of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, a dream come true! I am so thrilled and honored she is my agent.
One day, I'll write a How I Got My Agent post, but now I'll get right to my 2019 resolutions:
1) Revise my MG novel so we can go on submissions.
2) Finish drafting my next novel project that has been in the works for several years.
3) Build up my email newsletter. To that end, if you're interested, please sign up for my newsletter which will include news about my creative efforts plus good links and general recommendations (today I sent out one with my favorite books and TV shows from 2018). Here's the sign up form.
3) I hope to remain as present as possible with my family and stay accident -free, especially on my left side. Last August, I had a freak kitchen knife to toe accident that severed a tendon resulting in surgery and I ended the year with a sprained knee from skiing. Yeah. I now have an impressive collection of boots, braces, and crutches.
4) I hope to achieve a balance between caring/raging about what's going on and working productively. 2017 was a full-rage year while 2018 was much more productive. I realize how privileged I am to be able to mute the news every once in awhile, but 2019 will be continue to be a dangerous year for our democratic institutions.
What about you? What's on your plate for 2019? What's your motivating word or phrase?
Mine will be ONWARD AND UPWARD.
2018 was another great year for my creative communities. I'm always blown away by how generous my writing friends are. Here are some of the awesome people I've connected with on my writing journey this year (and some of their super cool books coming out in 2019!):
1. MY PICTURE BOOK CRITIQUE GROUP, with 3 picture books coming out in 2019
Going on our sixth year, my picture book critique group, the Penguin Posse, started out as a group of unpublished and un-agented authors. By the end of next year, almost all of us will have agents or books out. I'm so psyched for these 2019 releases:
Elaine Kiely Kearns, her debut PB, NOAH NOASAURUS, illustrated by Colin Jack (Albert Whitman, April 1, 2019)
Teresa Robeson, her debut PB, QUEEN OF PHYSICS, illustrated by Rebecca Huang (Sterling, Fall 2019)
Reneé LaTulippe & Sylvia Liu, our poems in THANKU: POEMS OF GRATITUDE, edited by Miranda Paul & illustrated by Marlena Myles (Lerner/Millbrook, Fall 2019) (both Reneé and I have poems in this anthology. I definitely have imposter syndrome being a part of this lineup: Jane Yolen, Young People's Poet Laureate Margarita Engle, and others!)
2. THE MUSE WRITERS CENTER
This year, I workshopped my MG novel at The Muse Writers Center, a writing center in Norfolk, VA, where I take classes as well as teach a picture book class. One workshop was led by Ellen Bryson (The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno) before she moved to Paris, and my current one is led by Lydia Netzer (How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky, Shine Shine Shine).
My wonderful critique partners from these workshops include: Hannah Capin, Jessica Grace Kelley, Chris Braig, Kim Engebrigsten, Bernadette Bartlett, Elaine Panneton, Lauren Fobbs Brittany Page, Michelle Ross, Sarah Hill, and Suzanne Burns. A special shoutout to Hannah and Jessica who've read my story multiple times, having overlapped in both workshops.
I can't wait to own Hannah Capin's forthcoming book, THE DEAD QUEEN'S CLUB (Inkyard Press, Jan. 29, 2019), a re-telling of the story King Henry VIII and his wives, set in high school:
3. AUTHOR MENTOR MATCH
Last Spring, I was accepted as a mentee for Author Mentor Match, a program that pairs published MG and YA authors with un-agented and unpublished MG & YA authors. This was a game changer for me. I got paired with Tae Keller, MG author of The Science of Breakable Things (Random House for Young Readers, 2018).
Tae was an incredible mentor, giving me such helpful and detailed feedback in two rounds of revisions. Her first edit letter was 10 single-spaced pages, complete with graphs. With her help, I was able to significantly transform my middle grade manuscript currently on submission with agents. Everyone needs to read her debut MG novel immediately:
Another author friend I met through Author Mentor Match was Julie Abe, who also gave me great feedback on my manuscript. She had a big year, landing an agent and selling her book. Be on the lookout for her book, EVA EVERGREEN, SEMI-MAGICAL WITCH (Little Brown Children's) in 2020:
And special thanks to my writing friend Kristen Schroeder for clueing me into AMM!
4. BIG SUR WORKSHOP
In May, I attended the Big Sur in the Rockies conference, a workshop put on by Andrea Brown Literary Agency. One of my local picture book writing friends, Ginger Weddle, also went. This is a weekend where writers workshop their manuscripts with two professionals (authors, editors, or agents) in two workshops. I workshopped my MG novel with agent Jennifer March Soloway and author Melanie Crowder (The Lighthouse Between Worlds & many others). Both of these workshop leaders were amazing and I learned so much from them.
At Big Sur, I met the talented MG & PB author Kim Tomsic (The 11:11 Wish), and we have since traded critiques on our manuscripts. Her forthcoming PB, Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World, illustrated by Brett Helquist (Chronicle Books, April 2019) looks great:
Another highlight: I met Julie Hedlund, founder of the picture book 12x12 Challenge, in person, for the first time since we became online friends six years ago.
5. KATHRYN AULT NOBLE
A really cool thing happened this summer. One of my illustrator friends, Kathryn Ault Noble, posted sci-fi images she was playing around with. I loved the vibe so much, and I've always admired Kathryn's work, so I commissioned her to make an illustration for my work in progress novel (who said you have to wait until you're published, right?). She ended up creating this amazing piece that I'm so in love with:
I blogged about the making of this illustration: My Adventure into MG Sci-Fi: The Making of An Illustration.
Elaine and I continue to run the kid lit resource website Kidlit411. We're finishing our fifth year, and we continue to feature weekly author or illustrator interviews and share a weekly post with resource links. Managing our Facebook group of almost 7500 members is always fun & challenging. What I love about this venture is that I'm constantly meeting kid lit authors & illustrators, who inspire me.
7. BREAKTHROUGH WRITER'S BOOT CAMP
I joined editor and author Kate Brauning's Writer's Boot Camp, a program that provides advanced writing craft tips to novelists and a community of writers. As a former editor of Entangled, Kate has a wealth of industry and editorial experience that she shares in weekly webinars and discussions.
8. MY DAD, BERNARD LIU
This year, at age 84, my dad Bernard Liu became a debut author with his Chinese-language memoir, HOUSE ARREST DAYS OF ZHANG XUELIANG (People's Publishing House, 2018).
When he was growing up, from age 5 until 30, his father (my grandfather), Chief Special Agent Liu Yiguang, with the Guomingdang Secret Service, was in charge of the house arrest of the famous political prisoner, General Zhang Xueliang. Zhang was responsible for the 1936 Xi'an Incident, which marked a turning point in the Chinese Communist v. Nationalist civil war, that saved the Communist Party and changed Chinese history. In the Xi'an Incident, Zhang Xueliang kidnapped the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek and forced him to agree to ally with the Communists to fight Japan, instead of eliminating the Communists as he planned. Today China views Zhang Xueliang as a hero.
After Chiang Kai-shek was released, he placed his former general under house arrest for the next 50 years. For the first 25 of those years, half in mainland China (during the Sino-Japanese war in World War II and the Communist v. Nationalist civil war) and half in Taiwan (where the KMT fled), my grandfather lived with Zhang Xueliang, his wife (and later mistress), and a huge retinue of security. My dad's memoir tells the story of these house arrest years, unknown to the general public until now.
He and I are working on the English translation (hopefully to be completed in 2019). If you read Chinese, check out his book.
9. MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY
And through it all, my family & friends continue to support my writing and illustrating efforts, serving as beta readers and cheerleaders. My sister Vivian Liu gave me advice on the genetic science in my story, and my husband and daughters always had the most honest feedback. My college roommate Megan McDonald was another valued critique partner. She recently won the pitch session for her novel-in-progress at the Kauai Writer's Conference, so I'm looking forward to promising things for her next year!
So I've concluded that it takes a village to be an author! I look forward to much more of the same in 2019.
What creative communities are you a part of that you're grateful for?
This amazing image is created by Kathryn Ault Noble and represents a scene from my middle grade manuscript. I love it so much and want to share the story of its creation. This post is Part 1, about my end of the process. In the future, I'll post an interview with Kathryn for more insight on her creative process.
For the last year, I've been on a wild creative ride, writing a middle grade science fiction story that hits my 12-year old geeky sweet spot. After many years working on children's illustration, writing picture books and a couple of novels, everything clicked and I drafted and revised this manuscript. I got an amazing mentorship with MG author Tae Keller (go buy her book, THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS, immediately) through the Author Mentor Match program, did several major revisions and umpteen minor ones and completed it.
A Fortuitous Confluence of Interests
In June, while working on my revisions, my friend and talented illustrator Kathryn Ault Noble posted some super cool sci-fi work on Instagram. Images like these:
Kathryn and I have become online friends through various kid lit groups. I've seen her work over the years and always loved how she constantly explores new styles and never rests on her many laurels. She's helped me with my portfolio, we featured her on Kidlit411, and we've generally commiserated over current events.
Something about these images prompted me to reach out to Kathryn and ask if she'd be interested in doing a commissioned illustration of a scene from my novel. I wanted to see how she would apply her skills and this cool aesthetic to my story.
Luckily for me, she was in a creative head space where she was exploring her 12-year old geeky sci-fi self too. We agreed to work together.
I call myself an illustrator, but working with Kathryn was a master class in illustration and the creative process. We spent a lot of time sharing images and styles we liked. Our shared Dropbox folder is a visual feast of sci-fi settings, concept art, middle grade covers, and art. We both were drawn to a retro sci-fi look, probably because we both grew up reading classic sci-fi novels. She read several chapters of my book to get a feel for the story.
She sent me hundreds of images of her work (sketches, styles, etc) so we could pick a direction. After an exploratory process, she sent me some quick ideas and I sent her some crude sketches back. She spent many hours researching whether my visual ideas had any basis in engineering and physics (for example, curved maglev tracks and futuristic cities). We discussed the news of the day (the immigrant children separated from their families) in between discussions of color palettes.
I had a specific idea for the sky and cloud treatment and found one of Kathryn's old pieces that had the feel I wanted. Coincidentally (or cosmically, maybe), I went for a walk on the beach and came across this scene:
As we agreed on a direction, we each went back to our respective creative caves. The end result was the fabulous illustration above. A closer view of a slightly earlier version, cropped:
And a closer look at City Center:
Sharing ideas and conversation with Kathryn as she worked on the illustration showed me the magic that happens in an ideal creative collaboration. While I provided the initial vision and some input along the way, the key thing I learned was to trust my instinct that Kathryn was the right person to bring my story to visual life and trust that her vast experience and skill set would do it justice. What I love about the creative collaborative process is that an alchemy happens, where new things come into being that wouldn't have if we'd worked on our own. I also loved how we both approached this from a purely creative angle. We weren't looking to create an image that was going to sell (though Kathryn is very cognizant of the current trends in MG art and her art is totally fresh). We wanted to please our inner 12-year old geeks.
We Don't Live in a Vacuum
Because we did this project with the backdrop of some of the most disturbing news in a year and a half of disturbing news and researching the setting yielded heartbreaking real life images of children in garbage dumps, we agreed to donate our efforts (her time, my payment). Kathryn decided to make this her annual pro bono illustration and chose the ACLU as the recipient.
I couldn't be happier with the end result and our creative journey.
One of the most fulfilling things about being an author is visiting schools. I did a number of visits in DC and Virginia Beach last Spring, and I'm just getting around to posting some photos (the schools needed to get permission to share them).
My presentation includes an interactive reading of my book (the kids act out the tai chi and yoga moves), breathing exercises, a tai chi lesson, and exercises for creating mental and physical resilience. It's an active 45 minutes that usually revs the kids up more than calms them down . . . it might be all that oxygen and movement.
Stonegate Elementary School, Silver Spring, MD (April 2017)
I was thrilled to be invited to Stonegate Elementary School's annual Literary Festival, where they invite an author or illustrator to visit their school each day of a week. Some pictures from that day:
Our Lady of Good Counsel, Olney, MD (April 2017)
I was one of the speakers at Our Lady of Good Counsel's Health and Wellness Day. All grades from K - 8th grade cycled through my station for a 15-minute presentation, so that was quite an exhausting but fun day.
Dorothy I. Height Elementary School, Washington, D.C. (April 2017)
I also visited the Dorothy I. Height Elementary School, second grade, sponsored by the Open Book Foundation, a DC-based nonprofit that brings authors to low-income schools and that provides a copy of the author's book to each participating child.
Southside STEM Academy at Campostella, Norfolk, VA (March 2017)
I spent a morning with the fourth and fifth graders of Southside STEM Academy at Campostella. The kids became rambunctious during this presentation, especially when we got to the "fighting" moves (chop, parry, punch)
Shelton Park Elementary School, Virginia Beach, VA (March 2017)
Another fun visit, with several crowded assemblies.
It's times like this when I am so proud that my first picture book is published by Lee & Low Books, the largest publisher of multicultural children's books in the United States. Lee & Low has dedicated itself to creating mirrors and windows for children to see themselves and learn about others since they started 25 years ago.
Everything goes back to education and what a young child learns. Do they learn empathy, compassion and understanding? Or distrust and fear of the other? We Need Diverse Books has pushed for more diversity of views and cultures in all aspects of children's publishing, from the publishers to the creators to the consumers and gatekeepers.
The kid lit resource website I help run, Kidlit411, has a page dedicated to websites, blogs, and articles about diversity. I'm reproducing some of those links here to help spread the word. So dive on in and help be the change you want to see in the world.
Good Blogs and Websites
American Indians in Children's Literature - provides critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children's and young adult books
CBC Diversity committee of the Children's Book Council devoted to encouraging diversity in children's and YA literature
Deaf Characters in Adolescent Literature
Disability in Kidlit - reviews, guest posts, and discussions about the portrayal of disabilities in MG & YADiverse Pages promotes and discovers main characters of color in mainstream and indie publishingDiversifYA site with tools for authors to include and promote diversity in their YA work
DiversityinYA - celebrating diversity in YA
I'm Here, I'm Queer, What the Hell do I Read? (Lee Wind's blog)
Latin@s in Kidlit - exploring the world of Latino/a YA, MG, and children's literature
The Latino Author - tips and tools for authors and emerging Latino authors
Multicultural Children's Book Day - a day to celebrate multicultural books. 1/27/17
Open Book - blog of Lee & Low, publisher of multicultural children's books
Rich in Color - dedicated to reading, reviewing, and promoting YA with main characters of color or written by people of color
We Need Diverse Books - home of the campaign
Oyate - a Native American organization that evaluates books and curricula with Indian themes to ensure accuracy
Writing Diverse Books
Is My Character 'Black Enough'? Advice on Writing Cross-Culturally by Stacy Whitman, Editorial Director & Publisher of Tu Books
The Secrets of Writing a Multicultural Children's Book interview with Tessa Strickland, founder and co-editor of Barefoot Books
An Illustrated Guide to Writing People of Color
Pub Hub: Considerate Craft: Pitching Characters (how to pitch diversity in a query)
Diverse Characters: Corinne Duyvis on the Decline of Issue Books
Writing about Minorities for Non-minorities
First People/American Indians/Native Americans in October/November + Year Round
"You Can't do That! Stories Have to Be About White People"
Children's Books: A Middle-Class Ghetto
Diversity within Diversity: Moving Beyond Oppression
The Uncomfortable Truth about Children's Books
Diversity in Publishing
The Apartheid of Children's Literature
Where are the People of Color in Children's Books,
Diversity 101: The Multiracial Experience
Agents Discuss Diversity Gap in Publishing
We Need Diverse Books: Can Children's Authors End Publishing Industry Prejudice -- and Change the Way America Reads?
Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews
The 2015 Youth Media Awards: A Crossover Year for Diversity
The Diversity Gap in Children's Publishing, 2015
Selection is Privilege (a Librarian's View)
Dear Publishing Industry: Fix Your Own Racism Before You Beg for Diverse Books
The Diversity Baseline Survey
Diversity is Magic: A Roundtable on Children's Literature and Speculative Fiction
What's Trending? What's New, What Was, What's Soon to Be in Kid Lit
Diversity in Reviews: Behind the Scenes with SLJ's "Gatekeeper"
Little Black Sambo and The Gingerbread Man: Rountable on Truth and Honesty in Literature
"I Just Don't Connect with the Character"
How to Support the Diverse Books Movement
When Publishing and Reviewing Diverse Books, is Expertise Overrated?
Gender & LGBTQ
Do Boys Get All the Fun?
LGBT & You: How to Support Your Students
Gender Matters? Swedish Picture Books and Gender Ambiguity
The 22 Best Feminist Picture Books, Because You're Never Too Old To Be Saved By A Princess
Where were the Funny Women Writers?
LGBTQ Publishing: An LGBTQ Publishing Wish List
The Gender Police: A Diary
Fifteen LGBTQ-Themed Books for Readers of Every Age
Why Are There So Few Girls in Childrens' Books?
The Best LGBT Children's Books: A Sweet and Assuring Celebration of Diversity and Difference
Best Books by or About American Indians
First Peoples in November: Kid Lit Heroes by Jan Godown Annino
A List of 20 Kid Lit Books Off the Beaten Path
12 Children's Picture Books That Challenge Gender Roles
Beloved Books: A Might Girl Community Favorites
Ignite Her Curiosity: 20 Books Starring Science-Loving Might Girls
6 New Picture Books For and About Kids with Special Needs