New Visions Award: What Not to Do

Stacy Whitman photoStacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers. In this blog post, she discusses what she is—and is not—looking for from New Visions Award contest submissions.

This year is the second year we’ve held our New Visions Award, a writing contest seeking new writers of color for middle grade and young adult science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. Tu Books is a relatively new imprint, and so is our award, which is modeled after the New Voices Award, now in its 15th year of seeking submissions.

Much like the editors who are in charge of the New Voices Award for picture books, for the New Visions Award, I love seeing submissions that follow the submissions guidelines and stories that stand out from a crowd. I look for science fiction, fantasy, and mystery stories that understand the age group they’re targeted at, with strong characters, strong worldbuilding, and if there is a romance, I hope that it avoids cliches.

During the first New Visions Award, our readers made notes on the manuscripts explaining what they enjoyed and what made them stop reading, particularly the things that made them not want to read further than the sample chapters in the initial phase of the contest. For the next few weeks, I’ll delve a little further into those things that made readers stop reading, and then we’ll talk about making your writing have the zing that makes an editor want to read more.

Today, let’s cover the most obvious reasons a New Visions Award reader might stop reading immediately.

  • Main character isn’t a person of color
  • Unclear if main character is a person of color (& not made clear in any supporting materials)
  • Basic formatting rules ignored: single-spaced, no tabs, no paragraph breaks, rules of punctuation ignored to the point it was impossible to read the text
  • Chapters at times seemed to be combined to ensure more text would be read, which made them super long and terribly paced
  • Duplicate submission from the author (stopped reading the duplicate—of course we read the original!)
  • Already read as a regular submission and didn’t see any significant changes
  • Author not eligible (published previously in YA or MG, not a person of color, not based in the US)
  • Book was a picture book (this would be a New Voices submission, not a New Visions submission) or a short story (not long enough to be a novel)

The obvious solution to making sure your submission is right for this contest is to make sure to read the contest submission guidelines before sending your submission. If you are not a writer of color, or if you live in a country outside the US, we do want to read your manuscript, but not for this contest. Watch our regular submission guidelines for when we’ll open again to unsolicited submissions.

Make sure you format your manuscript in a way that it can be read. If you’re new to writing, be sure to have someone check it over for typos, correct grammar and spelling, correct punctuation, etc. We won’t reject your manuscript for a typo or two, but there is a point at which the story is no longer being communicated because the reader gets tripped up by the errors. Make sure your manuscript is as clean as you can make it.

Next time, we’ll talk about hooking the reader with your story. Happy writing!

How to Find Time to Write When You Have 11 Children

Pamela TuckPamela M. Tuck is the author of As Fast As Words Could Fly, winner of our New Voices Award and named to the International Reading Association’s Teacher’s Choices list. Tuck lives in Boyerstown, Pennsylvania with her husband and their 11 children. In this post, we asked her to share advice on how to find time to write. 

One common question people ask me is, “How do you find time to write?” I simply answer, “I don’t find time, I steal it, and play catch-up later.” In other words, I MAKE time.

Growing up as an only child, writing served as a source of entertainment for me. I found that expressing my inner thoughts on paper became therapeutic and helped me cope with stressful situations. So, as a mother of 11 children, writing, quite naturally, became a safe haven.

I don’t have a daily writing routine like some writers: waking up at 5 am, going for their morning run, eating a cup of yogurt topped with homemade As Fast As Words Could Flygranola, then sitting at their desk, with the picturesque mountainous view, and writing several pages of their next best-selling novel for 5 hours. Instead, my day begins with waking 11 excessively sleepy children, facing mountainous heaps of laundry, in between cleaning, cooking, homeschooling, and potty training. You get the point. So here’s how I steal prioritize my time for writing.

When I homeschooled my children, I incorporated timed journal writing assignments for everyone (including me). I had my children think of random words, and then I’d write the words on cut pieces of paper, fold them, and place them in a basket. We all picked one word from the basket. I set the timer for either three or five minutes, and we wrote anything we wanted about the word we picked. Some words prompted poetry, non-fiction pieces, nonsense pieces, and creative story starters that could be developed into longer works. That’s just one way I kept my inner writing flame lit.

I usually find inspiration to write from reading articles, seeing interesting photos, hearing conversations, or from life experiences. If I stumble across a story idea, I simply allot time, either during the day or in the evening, to write. These one or two hour time allotments serve as refreshing rewards during my busy days. Fortunately for me, my husband encourages my writing projects and he, along with my children, comply with my writing antics of having complete silence and/or isolation while I write. I use the time allotments to do research, if necessary, and to read other books similar to the type of story I’m writing. My family serves as a huge inspiration for my writing. They are my “sounding boards” as I bounce ideas around, my audience, as I piece those ideas together, and my cheerleaders when those ideas find a home.

So, going from one end of the spectrum (as an only child, with plenty of quiet time for writing) to the other (as a mother of a large family, with hardly anyYou are a writer. You don’t have to write on someone else’s schedule. Write on your OWN schedule. quiet time at all), I would like to share a little piece of advice that was given to me by my husband. After attending my first writing conference with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in June 2007, and hearing all the wonderful writing regimens of different authors, I thought my lifestyle would hinder my dream of becoming an author. My husband told me, “You are a writer. You don’t have to write on someone else’s schedule. Write on your OWN schedule.”

My husband found out about Lee & Low Books offering a New Voices Award and encouraged me to write my dad’s story of desegregating the public school system in 1960s Greenville, NC. My dad’s experiences of determination and courage inspired me to take my husband’s advice. I submitted my story to Lee & Low Books in September 2007. In December 2007, I received a call announcing me as the winner of the 2007 New Voices Award! Now, my dad’s family story has transformed into a picture book, As Fast As Words Could Fly, that can be shared with many families across generations. So, regardless of your lifestyle, your limitations, your oppositions…grab those ideas that are close to your heart, and write the story that only YOU can write. Unleash your dreams, and let them fly!

New Voices Award sealMore information:

The New Voices Award is given each year to an unpublished author of color for a picture book manuscript. Find more information on how to submit here.

Book and Activity Suggestions to Match Your Summer Adventure: Outdoor Summer Concerts!

I and I Bob Marley

I and I Bob Marley

Each week this summer, we are pairing Lee & Low titles to your favorite summer destinations with fun activities!

Summer is an incredible time to hear and enjoy music. From public parks to local high school auditoriums to subway platforms, many towns and cities offer summer concerts. Whether it is part of an official concert series, a festival, a rehearsal, or an impromptu get-together of musicians, there are a ton of opportunities to enjoy music alongside reading.

Our motto this summer: Love Books + Keep Cool + Learn Something New

Your summer outing: an Outdoor Summer Concert

Book recommendations:

Summoning the Phoenix

Summoning the Phoenix

Questions during reading:

  • What instruments are used in the book?
  • What type of music is featured in this book?
  • How is the music in this book different from other kinds of music?
  • How does music create community?
  • What character traits does someone need to become a successful musician?
  • Why do you think people enjoy music and find it meaningful?
  • Why do you think every culture has created some form of music?

Activities:

  1. Pair the book with a music recording or live performance of the same type of music featured in the book. What instruments do you hear? What patterns do you hear? What mood/tone does the music set? How does this music make you feel (unhappy, excited, calm, agitated)? How many musicians are performing? Is there a band leader/conductor for this type of music?
  2. Drummer Boy of John John

    Design and create a drum! Although many cultures and forms of music have distinct instruments, it is fascinating to note what instruments seem to pop up over and over again. Take for example the drum! Variations of the drum appear in music from all over the world. Check out the drum instructions from Spark!Lab, part of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History.

  3. Turn listening to music into seeing music! Talk about the senses we use to enjoy music. Children may think we can enjoy music with only our ears. Yet, the author and illustrator of the book had to communicate the music and its mood through words and pictures. What words does the author use to describe the featured music? What words does the author use to capture the mood of the music? What colors or actions does the illustrator use to capture the music? After attending a concert or listening to a recording, encourage your child to draw a picture that captures the mood, feeling, or story of the song. What colors would you use for each instrument and why? How would you draw a quiet, slow, fast, or loud moment?
  4. Drummer Boy of John John

    Study the geography of the music featured in the book. Where does this type of music originate? Who are famous composers, contributors, or musicians? What kinds of instruments were/are used? Out of what materials from the region were instruments traditionally made?

For further summer reading and ideas:

Jill_Eisenberg

Jill Eisenberg, our Resident Literacy Expert, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators. 

ALA 2014 Recap: Diversity All Around

Another year, another fantastic ALA Annual, this time in Las Vegas! While “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” we thought it would be OK to break that code, just this one time, in order to share our experiences with you.

Even though the weather was hot (hello triple digits!), attendance was high and spirits were up! We teamed up with the folks of the #weneeddiversebooks campaign to hand out buttons, which were a huge hit! In fact, School Library Journal reported that, “If you ran into a youth services librarian at the American Library Association (ALA) Conference in Las Vegas, odds were good that they were sporting a colorful ‘We Need Diverse Books’ button.”

#weneeddiversebooks buttons

#weneeddiversebooks buttons!

We kept a white board in our booth, and got some great answers from librarians on why we need diverse books:

ALA whiteboard

We need diverse books because…

Quite a few of our authors and illustrators made it out to Las Vegas and our schedule was packed with signings! Don Tate, Glenda Armand, Frank Morrison, René Colato Lainez, Karen Sandler, Mira Reisberg, John Parra, Susan L. Roth, Cindy Trumbore, and Emily Jiang all stopped by the booth to sign books. In true Vegas style, we kept the party going at the LEE & LOW table!

lee and low staff and don tate

Don Tate stopped by to sign copies of It Jes’ Happened

We were also pleased to host our second Book Buzz panel, “Moving the Needle: Diversity in Children’s Books and How to Make a Difference.” It’s been one year since our successful Book Buzz with Cinco Puntos Press last year, so we wanted to check in again with librarians about what has changed, what hasn’t, and how to keep moving forward.

ala book buzz panel

Publisher Jason Low on ALA’s Book Buzz panel on increasing diversity in children’s books

During the panel, publisher Jason Low talked about some highlights from the diversity movement over the past year. He emphasized that Lee & Low has stuck to its original mission by continuing to make an effort to publish debut authors/illustrators as well as authors/illustrators of color. “Of our 2014 titles, three out of seven are by debut authors and five out of seven are by authors or illustrators of color,” Jason said.

He pointed out some some great milestones from the past year, including the success of the #weneeddiversebooks movement, Lee & Low’s infographics on diversity going viral, the First Book Stories for All project, and more diversity in the Marvel Universe.

Jason also announced that Kirkus Reviews will be seeking to diversify their reviewer pool, and said that several other major review publications have expressed an interest in doing the same. Diverse reviewer pools mean that books can be evaluated for cultural accuracy and that reviewers bring a wide range of perspectives to the table.

In the end, Jason said, we need to get from Diversity 101 stories—stories focused simply on the lack of diversity in children’s books, in very basic terms—to Diversity 102 stories, which address both the complexity of the problem and the range of possible solutions. He encouraged librarians to keep moving the conversation forward within their own communities, and to help parents and teachers build inclusive book collections by creating inclusive, diverse summer reading lists and other recommendations.

Two more big highlights this ALA were award ceremonies for a couple of our books! Cindy Trumbore and Susan L. Roth, the dynamic author/illustrator team of Parrots Over Puerto Rico, were honored at the Sibert Award Ceremony and we couldn’t have been prouder!

sibert ceremony

Cindy Trumbore and Susan L. Roth at the Sibert ceremony! They’re all smiles with LEE & LOW editor Louise May (left), Sibert committee chair, Cecilia P. McGowan (center), and LEE & LOW publisher, Jason Low (right)

Additionally, Killer of Enemies was honored at the American Indian Library Association Youth Literature Awards (AIYLA) ceremony. Tu Books publisher Stacy Whitman attended and shared these photos of children and teens from a local tribe who came to dance at the ceremony:

native american dancers

Native American dancers at the American Indian Library Association Youth Literature Awards ceremony

american indian youth literature award

American Indian Youth Literature Award for Killer of Enemies

While we won’t miss the 110-degree heat, we had a great time meeting so many wonderful people and we can’t wait for next year.

If you were at ALA, what were your highlights?

Book and Activity Suggestions to Match Your Summer Adventure: National and State Parks!

Jill_EisenbergLiteracy Specialist, Jill Eisenberg, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators. 

Grab a flashlight, bug repellent, and binoculars…

Each week this summer, we are pairing Lee & Low titles to your favorite summer destinations with fun activities!

Your summer outing: national or state parks!

Book recommendations:

Questions during reading:

  • How have humans affected the habitat or animal species in the book?
  • What suggestions does this book offer to take care of the world around us?
  • What risks does the animal species or habitat face in the book?
  • How does this person(group) demonstrate respect for the environment?
  • How do healthy animal populations and habitats benefit people?
  • What happens when people do not take care of the environment or an animal species in the book?
  • What does this text teach about sustainability?
  • Do you think communities and governments have a responsibility to protect animals or the environment? Why or why not?
  • Should school field trips include visiting national and state parks? Why or why not? What are the benefits of children visiting national and state parks?

Activity:

1. Sound scavenger hunt!

Many animals rely on sound to detect nearby predators and search for food. For your next scavenger hunt, use the sense of sound to explore the wonders of the state or national park. This activity is a great way to teach young scientists about:

  • our five senses
  • how the human ear, like other animal ears, is a powerful physical adaptation and is very effective in detecting and differentiating sounds
  • how we can appreciate natural beauty as both visual and aural
  • the importance of slowing down and soaking in all the stimuli around us

Make a list of sounds for your child to “find” on the next hike. Together, check off and record as the child hears them! While you will want to adapt specific sounds to the park you are visiting, sound ideas include:

Everglades Forever

  • the local bird species
  • the rustling of an animal in the bushes
  • the wind among grass or tree leaves
  • sound of the nearest water source (river, ocean)
  • the buzzing/humming of insects
  • sound of walking on different types of surfaces: the trail, through leaves, in mud
  • a hiker whistling
  • a swimmer splashing
  • a dog barking or the clinking of a dog collar
  • sound of something being recycled
  • sound of something hollow
  • an echo
  • sound of food being unwrapped
  • horse clopping/trotting
  • a stick snapping
  • a hiker drinking (chugging) water
  • Bonus: the elusive spot of complete silence

To prove that your child experienced the sound, allow your child to:

  • record the sounds on a phone
  • take a picture of the creature or thing making the noise
  • describe the noise in a sentence with a juicy verb, such as chirping instead of singing

2. Animal and ecosystem observation!

Buffalo Song

Even if your nearest state or national park does not have the wildlife or habitat featured in the book, your young scientist can check out the featured animals or habitat in real life and real time from a computer or mobile device. Many national parks, zoos, and wildlife protection groups offer real-time footage of animals that serve as great opportunities to talk about behavioral and physical adaptations and habitat preservation.

Explore.org offers multiple livecam opportunities to observe wild animals outside of zoos. After finishing Buffalo Song, I checked out Canada’s Grasslands National Park for bison. I observed brown bears and salmon from Alaska’s Brooks River in Katmai National Park following I Know the River Loves Me. After A Man Called Raven, I used The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library for videos and audio recordings of ravens.

i know the river loves me 2

I Know the River Loves Me

For further book and activity suggestions to match your summer adventure:

 

 

Join Us Tomorrow in New York City for the Harlem Book Fair!

Tomorrow, Saturday, July 12th is the Harlem Book Fair. LEE & LOW BOOKS will be there from 11 a.m., selling some of your favorite titles. We’ll be at table C32!

harlem book fair

For a full list of tables and exhibitors, please click here.

LEE & LOW BOOKS, along with some other industry professionals, will be participating in a panel discussion on diversity in children’s books:

ABUNDANTLY RICH: HARVESTING THE WEALTH IN MULTICULTURAL BOOK PUBLISHING

  • Where: Langston Hughes Auditorium
  • Time: 12:00pm to 1:15pm
  • More information can be found here.

We hope to see you there!

Book and Activity Suggestions to Match Your Summer Adventure: Beaches!

Each week this summer, we are pairing Lee & Low titles to your favorite summer destinations with fun activities!

Our motto this summer: Love Books + Keep Cool + Learn Something New

Your summer outing: the BEACH

Book recommendations:

Surfer of the Century cover

Surfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku

Questions during reading:

  • What is this person’s relationship to the ocean? How does this person’s relationship to the ocean change from the beginning to the end of the story?
  • How does this person show appreciation for the ocean?
  • How is the ocean/beach a part of this person’s identity?
  • Look at a map of the world and locate the island this person is from. What is the capital? What ocean surrounds it? Infer what the climate is like based on the island’s location. What makes this island unique?
  • How does this person demonstrate pride in his/her culture?
  • How does this person remember home even when far away from home?

Seaside DreamActivity:

Create a beach ball collage!

Materials: poster paper, pencil, markers, colored pencils or crayons, assortment of magazines

  1. Using a pencil, draw a large circle on the poster paper.
  2. Inside the circle, draw a small circle about the size of a quarter somewhere off center.
  3. Draw a curved line from the small circle to the large circle. Repeat drawing lines until you have six lines and six spaces. Each curved line should face the same direction in a pinwheel formation. The lines will be different lengths and can be varying widths apart from each other (this will give it a 3-D effect).
  4. With a black marker, trace over the pencil so the beach ball stands out on the poster paper.
  5. Optional: lightly fill in each segment a different color using colored pencils or crayons.
  6. Select and cut out pictures and words from the assortment of magazines to answer the question: What makes the beach special to you?
  7. In each of the six beach ball segments, draw or glue pictures. In one section, think about what foods you eat while at the beach. What animals have you seen at the beach? What do you always make sure to pack before you head out? What activities do you like to do at the beach? Who do you play with while there?

For further reading on book and activity suggestions to match your summer adventures:Seaside Dream

Jill_EisenbergJill Eisenberg, our Resident Literacy Expert, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators. 

5 Tips to Engage Latino Families and Students

Peggy McLeod, Ed. D. is Deputy Vice President of Education and Workforce Development at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).

Peggy McLeod, Ed. D. is Deputy Vice President of Education and Workforce Development at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).

Today we are featuring one of First Book’s celebrity blog series. Each month First Book connects with influential voices who share a belief in the power of literacy, and who have worked with First Book to curate a unique collection that inspires a love of reading and learning. All recommended books are available at deeply discounted prices on the First Book Marketplace to educators and programs serving children in need. Peggy McLeod, Ed. D. the Deputy Vice President of Education and Workforce Development at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), writes on engaging Latino families and children in reading and learning.

Any student who has parents that understand the journey from preschool to college is better equipped to navigate the road to long-term student success. While parent engagement is critical to increasing educational attainment for all children, engaging Latino parents in their children’s schooling has typically been challenging – often for linguistic and cultural reasons.

The National Council of La Raza’s (NCLR) parent engagement program is designed to eliminate these challenges and create strong connections between schools, parents, and their children. A bilingual curriculum designed to be administered by school staff, the Padres Comprometidos program empowers Latino parents who haven’t typically been connected to their children’s school. Many of the parents the program reaches are low-income, Spanish-speaking, first and second generation immigrants. Through Padres Comprometidos, these parents gain a deeper understanding of what the journey to academic success will be like, and how they can play a role in preparing their children for higher education. Prior to participating in the program, not all parents expected their children to attend college. After the program, 100% of parents indicated that they expected their children to attend college.

Much of Padres Comprometidos success rests on the program’s ability to address language and culture as assets, rather than as obstacles to be overcome. This asset building strategy extends to NCLR’s partnership with First Book. Together, we’re working to ensure Latino children of all ages have access to books that are culturally and linguistically relevant, books they need to become enthusiastic readers inside and outside of the classroom. Click here to access the three parent engagement curricula developed by NCLR—tailored to parents of preschool, elementary and secondary school students.

Below you will find a few tips and titles that can help you engage families and get children – and their parents and caregivers – reading and learning.

La Llorona

La Llorona

1. Find ways to connect stories that parents know about to help them engage in reading and conversation with their children. This Mexican folktale can open that door: La Llorona .

 

Spanish-English Dictionary

Spanish-English Dictionary

2. Keep an English/Spanish dictionary handy to use when you have a parent visiting or to give away to a parent or caregiver who needs it. It will show them that you’re making an effort to engage in their language of comfort, such as Webster’s Everyday Spanish-English Dictionary.

The Storyteller's Candle

The Storyteller’s Candle

 

3. Learn about the children you serve and their heritage, and identify books that will affirm them. This Pura Belpré award winner is actually about Pura Belpré, the first Latina (Puerto Rican) to head a public library system: The Storyteller’s Candle.

Grandma and Me at the Flea

Grandma and Me at the Flea

 

4. Share books that include some of the everyday experiences of the children and neighborhoods you serve, like this story highlighting the value of community and family: Grandma and Me at the Flea.

My Colors, My World

My Colors, My World

 

5. Bilingual books provide family members and caregivers the opportunity to read the same books their children are reading, but in their language of comfort. Families will love reading about all the colors of the rainbow in English and Spanish: My Colors My World.

Sign up with First Book to access these and other great titles on the First Book Marketplace.

Book and Activity Suggestions to Match Your Summer Adventure: Ballparks!

Jill_EisenbergJill Eisenberg, our Resident Literacy Expert, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators. 

catchingthemoon022

Marcenia Toni Stone Lyle

Each week this summer, we are pairing Lee & Low titles to your favorite summer destinations with fun activities!

Your summer outing: the Ballpark, Baseball Hall of Fame, or Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Book recommendations:

William Hoy

William Hoy

Questions during reading:

  • What position does this ball player hold and what responsibilities are involved in that position?
  • Why does this person have a difficult time being allowed to play baseball?
  • How does this person demonstrate persistence?
  • What do you think this ball player accomplished for ball players of today?
  • How has baseball and who can play changed (or not changed) over time?
  • How does baseball encourage tolerance or acceptance?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the statement: Baseball is America’s favorite pastime? Why?


Activities
:

Louis Sockalexis

Louis Sockalexis

Create a baseball trading card!

Materials: a school individual-sized milk carton, white paper, glue stick, markers or crayons

  1. Using the book or the baseball museum websites, research the player’s full name, position, team(s), league(s), dates of career, any honors, batting average, and a fascinating fact.
  2. Cut the individual-sized milk carton with scissors so that you have one rectangle side panel. The rest of the carton can be discarded.
  3. Cover both sides of the side panel with white paper and secure with a glue stick.
  4. On one side, draw the player’s portrait or picture of the player in action. The picture is typically portrait orientation, but it can be landscape orientation.
  5. At the bottom of the picture, write the player’s name.
  6. On the other side of the trading card, write the player’s position, team(s), league(s), dates of career, any honors, batting average, and a fascinating fact (if there’s room!).

Write and think like a ball player!

Imagine you are the ball player you just read. As this person,

  • Write a diary entry about one or more of the events in the story: when you first found out you were selected to play on the team; how you felt the first time a fan, coach, or other player treated you poorly; or when you finally felt accepted by fans and other players for your abilities.
  • Write a letter or email to your parents about why you want to play baseball and what support you are or are not getting from fans and the other players.
  • Write a blog post or letter to the editor to your fans describing your abilities, what makes baseball rewarding for you, and how your role as a minority in baseball is important.
Marcenia Toni Stone Lyle

Marcenia Toni Stone Lyle

For further reading on books and activity suggestions to match your summer adventures:

Ask an Editor: Worldbuilding in Speculative Fiction, Part II


Stacy Whitman photoStacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of 
Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers. Parts of this blog post were originally posted at her blog, Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire

Last week, I discussed why worldbuilding in speculative fiction can be so challenging for authors. How do we introduce a completely new world without infodumping or confusing readers? I gave some examples of worldbuilding done well in popular YA science fiction and fantasy: The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Twilight. In all these cases, the starting point is in some way relatable, or there is something about the character (Tris, Katniss) that hooks the reader. First pages should be character- and plot-driven, and worldbuilding should support rather than dominate. That gives these books an easy entry point and wide appeal.

There are three primary approaches to worldbuilding:

Reader learns world alongside character

Readers of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Twilight figure out the world alongside the main character. Information is spooled out as the character learns it, so the reader doesn’t have to absorb everything at once. This is a low bar for entry, not requiring much synthesis of information. The character is almost a stand-in for the reader.

Exposition: questions raised, then answered

What about Hunger Games? Now it gets a little tougher. Suzanne Collins starts out with a perfectly relatable (if a tiny bit cliche) situation, the main character waking up and seeing her family. We get some exposition on Katniss’s family and the cat who hates her.

But it becomes non-cliche by page 2, when we learn about the Reaping. Ah! What’s the Reaping, you ask? We don’t know yet. Now the bar for entry is raised. There is a question, the answer for which you’re going to have to read further to find out. The infodumpage level is low, but there is still some exposition in the next few pages, letting us know that Katniss lives in a place called District 12, nicknamed the Seam, and that her town is enclosed by a fence that is sometimes electrified—and which is supposed to be electrified all the time.

Collins’s approach to spooling out a little information at a time is to explain each new term as she goes, but some readers think that feels unnatural in a first person voice because the narrator would already know these things, so why is she explaining them to the reader?

It depends on the story, in my opinion—Collins makes it work because of how she crafted Katniss’s voice. It is a very fine line to walk—I can’t tell you how many submissions I’ve received that start out with, “My name is X. I am Y years old. I live in a world that does Z,” an obvious example of how this approach becomes downright clumsy when not handled with Collins-esque finesse.

“Incluing”: questions raised, then reader infers answers bit by bit

Then there is the opposite end of the spectrum, in which the reader is given clues to work out rather than having any new terms explained to them. This approach needs just as much, if not more, finesse. It’s a process that some readers who are new to speculative fiction might stumble over the most, which is why I think there’s so little of it in middle grade and YA fantasy and science fiction. I’ve seen it called “incluing,” which is a silly word, but I don’t know of another name for it and the description of incluing in that Wikipedia link is exactly the kind of worldbuilding I—as a lifelong fantasy fan—prefer to see in the beginning of a book, particularly one set in a world that has no connection to our own, or if it’s in the future of our world far enough into the future that the society is unrecognizable to us, such as the society in Tankborn. Karen Sandler does a wonderful job at incluing readers as we read chapter 1 of the first book in the Tankborn trilogy.

The prominent example I like to give writers for this kind of worldbuilding is from The Golden Compass. Check out the first paragraph of that book:

“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests. Portraits of former Masters hung high up in the gloom along the walls. Lyra reached the dais and looked back at the open kitchen door, and, seeing no one, stepped up beside the high table.”

Pullman jumps right into the scene, with Lyra sneaking down the dining hall with her daemon. We’re hooked—she’s doing something sneaky, and we don’t know what. And we want to know. We don’t even know what the daemon physically looks like until paragraph 4, and even then we don’t know why he’s called a daemon or what makes a daemon special.

What is a daemon, anyway? We don’t know! In fact, this is one of the major conflicts of the book—we need to read more to find out about daemons, and further mysteries are revealed as we read that deepen our understanding of daemons and of Lyra’s world in general. As we discover more clues that intrigue us, we want to know more, and keep reading.

But the line between intriguing the reader and confusing the reader is very thin, and I would argue that for some readers it’s in a different place than for others. Those of us who are familiar with fantasy might be more willing to patiently wait for more information about daemons because we trust that this author will let us know what we need to know when the time is right. We know that they’re teasing us with this information so as not to overburden us within the first few pages of the book (or, in the case of The Golden Compass, because the reader can’t know what the majority of people in that world don’t know, either).

Tankborn coverIn situations in which you need to establish a world that’s entirely different from our own, I find that putting a character in a situation that’s somewhat familiar to the reader can help with establishing the unfamiliar. In Karen Sandler’s Tankborn, for example, Kayla has to watch her little brother instead of going to a street fair with her friends. While Kayla calls him her “nurture brother” instead of just her brother, it’s still a situation to which a lot of readers can relate, even if it is set on another planet and her brother is catching nasty arachnid-based sewer toads instead of familiar Earth frogs and toads.

M. K. Hutchins, author of Drift, approached it in a completely different way. She starts with a dangerous situation—a family on the run from authorities, splitting up. The mother, our main character Tenjat, and his sister Eflet are embarking on a terrible journey that’s almost certain death, setting off on a raft in the middle of the night into an ocean full of snake-like monsters, and leaving the family’s father and smallest brother behind to face unknown punishment. While perhaps no reader has been chased by authorities in the middle of the night, it is a dangerous situation and a parting of family—mixing the familiar (family) with the unfamiliar (a dangerous situation in a completely new setting).Drift

It’s the difference between showing and telling. Philip Pullman, Karen Sandler, and M. K. Hutchins all show us how their worlds works, rather than pausing to tell us how it works (“in this world, all people are born with an animal companion called a daemon”).

Telling can work, though, especially in small doses—Katniss’s voice is so conversational that the brief moments of telling in the first few pages of The Hunger Games work, particularly because Collins is mostly showing what Katniss is up to. The brief pauses to “infodump” feel like the reader is being told a story by a storyteller, like a friend telling a story over the kitchen table after a nice big meal would pause and explain something you didn’t understand (a friend who’s a very good storyteller). It’s an awareness of audience that most speculative fiction doesn’t have the luxury of.

Showing isn’t always better, and telling isn’t always bad, when done right and mixed in with showing. Whichever method you use, remember that sometimes readers will trip over new words so you need to give them as much context as possible without over-infodumping.

And here is where the art comes in. I can’t tell you what that balance is, but if you look at examples like the ones above, you’ll get a better feel for how much to reveal and how much to hold back in your first few pages—revealing enough to orient your reader and give them a sense of the differences of this world (while grounding them in something familiar like Lyra’s hallway or Katniss’s humble home) while seeking to avoid overburdening them with too much all at once.

What about you? How have you found the right balance of introducing your world without overburdening the reader? What books do you recommend that do this particularly well?

 

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