A few weeks ago, Fort Wayne author Helen Frost led a children’s lit workshop at the Allen County Public Library, where she offered advice on historical research, “writing the other,” and not stressing too much about the children’s publishing industry.
Frost is a big fan of the Juv/YA writing community as a whole. She spent much of the workshop promoting other authors — particularly local authors — and encouraging us to join organizations like SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). She also encouraged us to compare her advice with many other voices. “I’m speaking from my own experience and knowledge,” she wrote on her handout, “but things change fast, and opinions differ, so read and listen to many people.”
Frost may have started out as an aspiring entomologist, but it turned out her ultimate love was poetry.* So far, she’s written two poetry collections, nine novels-in-verse, and six picture books (one of which was about butterflies, one about fireflies, and one about insects in general…so, the entomological dreams didn’t completely fade 🙂 ).
Of course, a good part of the workshop focused on Frost’s 2013 poem-novel Salt, which is an ode to the Fort Wayne/Kekionga region, set during the War of 1812. It centers on two boys — one a member of the Miami nation and one a new American settler — who try to remain friends as the war starts to drive their neighbors apart. Knowing she was writing half of the book from a cultural perspective that was not her own, Frost did extensive research and deferred to members of the Miami tribes of Oklahoma and Indiana for everything from historical details to character names.
As a sign of respect, she also chose to italicize not only the Miami words that co-protagonist Anikwa teaches his friend James, but also the English words that James teaches Anikwa — placing both languages on equal ground rather than showing one as default and the other as different.
Frost’s conscientiousness has not gone unnoticed; Salt received fifteen awards, including the New York Historical Society’s Children’s History Book Prize and the International Reading Association’s Notable Books for a Global Society Award. For my full review of the novel, see page 2.
On the other hand, Frost is a firm supporter of #ownvoices literature and wants to see more support for books like Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming — a memoir in verse that centers on Woodson’s experiences as an African-American child in Ohio, South Carolina, and Brooklyn during the ’60s and ’70s — which was a finalist for the Children’s History Book Prize the same year as Salt. For more resources and recommendations of diverse authors, Frost points to the We Need Diverse Books website.
I’ve also been exploring the Writing the Other website and book for advice on writing about cultures and experiences outside of my own.
And, of course, do check out Helen Frost’s own website, which has even more resources for writers, readers, and teachers of children’s lit and poetry.
Writerly advice: Top 4
There were four tips that stuck with me the most, in roughly ascending order of “Aha!” momentousness.
- The children’s lit publishing process is not as scary as it seems. Getting your book published the traditional way can be hard, but it’s not impossible. It can take years, or it can take much less than that. It’s a fairly case-by-case process, so just focus on writing your best draft instead of trying to guess what kinds of stories/protagonists/narrative formats/etc. publishers are looking for.
- Keep going. If you write something that makes you feel an intense emotion — anger, sadness, fear — keep going. These feelings can reveal the heart of your story. More importantly, going back to the previous tip: if you think you can’t write, or that no one will care about what you’re writing, keep going!
- Even more importantly, to me: If you feel like you’ve reached a dead end and you want to start over, and if this phenomenon happens over and over again, THAT’S OKAY(!!!) Set the dead-end draft aside (don’t destroy it), and start over (as many times as you like!!!!!).
I’ve been re-starting my current work-in-progress over and over (and over and over and over) for the past two years, and every time I do, I feel a bit guilty. As though I’m not disciplined enough to just crank out a complete draft and then revise it. As though I’m stalling, as though maybe I’m too afraid to complete a full draft because that would mean moving on to terrifying next steps: revision and agent-hunting and convincing one of the Big 6 to publish it.
A slight disclaimer: It’s not that this was the first time I re-evaluated my revision process. Occasionally, when I’m feeling discouraged, I think back to an interview of Peter S. Bealge, in which he admitted that writing The Last Unicorn made him feel like “Sisyphus pushing that damn rock up the hill, only to have it roll back down again.”** So, Helen Frost’s comments didn’t give me a first-time-ever Aha! moment. It was more like an Aha! confirmation.
- Finally, Frost gave us a challenge that I am more than willing to accept: Is it possible to write a Juv/YA story with an interesting conflict that does not involve cliche drama like school bullies and mean girls? Can you write middle-grade/teen characters who are generally kind to each other, yet still seem relatable and compelling?
For me, more specifically, this means writing relatable queer teen protagonists whose most significant obstacles do not involve homophobic bullying. Characters like Kevin from Seven Tears at High Tide and Quentin from the October Daye series.
* Helen Frost. “Autobiography Acrostic.” About. HelenFrost.net. Accessed 30 August 2019.
** Connor Cochran. “A Conversation with Peter S. Beagle.” 2007. The Last Unicorn Deluxe. Peter S. Beagle. Kindle Deluxe Compilation Edition. Conlan Press, 2015.