How to be a Camp NaNoWriMo Cheerleader

Camp NaNoWriMo.Happy April! This month, writers all across the globe are challenging themselves to write a book in thirty days. I think of Camp NaNoWriMo (which takes place in April and July each year) as the underappreciated sibling of November’s NaNoWriMo. Writers work just as hard in Camp NaNo, but it’s far less recognized than the big event in November.

I think the lack of recognition for Camp NaNoWriMo means campers need even more cheerleading from friends and family. I’m not doing Camp NaNo (I thought about it, but I’m revising at the moment), but I know several writers who are. If a writer in your life is sweating through Camp NaNo this month, here are some things you can do to help them reach their goals.

  1. Cheer them on! Check in with an email or text every so often. When they reach daily/weekly goals, celebrate with them! (This can be as simple as tweeting “Great job” or sharing a funny video as a reward for reaching a goal.)
  2. If the writer has kids/siblings/elderly parents they take care of, offer to help with caretaker duties for a few hours.
  3. Make or bring them dinner. Fast drafting takes a lot of energy, and it’s really easy to lose track of time when you’re trying to write thousands of words a day. Having a night where you don’t have to think about dinner would be a huge help.
  4. Ask them how they’re doing. Some writers like to talk about their works in progress; others hate it. By asking an open question like, “How’s everything going?” you can invite them to discuss their work without making them feel forced to come up with a pitch on the spot.
  5. If they want to talk about their book, listen! If they’re stuck on something and want to talk through it, offer to be a sounding board.

There are plenty of other ways to cheer on your writing buddies, but these are the top five things my writing friends and I like to do for each other when one of us is fast-drafting.

Are you doing Camp NaNoWriMo? If so, how is everything going?

Please, call me out!

Bullhorn.In the last few years, calls for diversity in both writing and publishing have gained more and more attention. We still have a long way to go in terms of representation, but I find the current dialog encouraging. Something I’ve seen on the rise recently (or at least getting more widespread attention recently) is readers discussing books with representation they find problematic. A disappointing, though not surprising, result of this is backlash against the readers who call out problematic books.

There have been so many cases recently. A reader points out a harmful depiction of a character’s race, gender identity, mental illness, etc. The author responds with public claims that they’re being attacked. Friends of the author gang up on the reader and cry bully, sometimes without even seeing the original review or statement that “attacked” the author.

I applaud authors who try to write diverse characters respectfully. Those who do their research, who learn about the cultures and experiences they’re trying to represent, who work with readers who share their characters’ identities, are doing some great work. And even they get it wrong sometimes.

I am a cisgendered heterosexual white woman from a middle-class background, and not all of my characters are cis hetero white women. I do a lot of research, and I do my best to listen to members of the communities my characters belong to. And I know I won’t get everything right. First of all, there’s no universal Black/Latinx/trans/Deaf/etc. experience, so different readers from those communities may respond differently to my characters. But, as a writer, I’m writing for my readers. Especially my Black/Latinx/trans/Deaf/etc. readers.

So if I write something that hurts those readers, I want to know. I want to know as soon as possible, because I don’t ever want to do it again. And if you call me out in private, I’ll publicly share what you found harmful or problematic, so other writers can learn from my mistakes, and so readers can hear me say, “I got this wrong, I’m sorry, and I’ll do my best to do better.”

Authors, we need to be more open to criticism, especially when it comes to matters of representation. Good intentions are great, but if I step on your foot, whether I intended to do so or not, your foot still hurts. If I’m a decent human being, I won’t gather my friends and demand you stop crying and suck it up because I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’ll apologize and be more careful of where I step in the future.

Good representation can save lives. And bad representation can really, really harm our teens. Here’s just one story, but there are many, many others. Follow awesome people like L.L. McKinneyJustina Ireland, and Debbie Reese and you’ll see what I mean. Listen. Learn.

And if you’re called out, don’t attack the reader who’s trying to save other readers from getting hurt. Apologize, and do better next time.

Readers, if I step on your foot, please tell me.

Organizing a prom dress giveaway

Project Fairy Godmother Prom Dress Giveaway.This month I organized the First Annual Project Fairy Godmother Prom Dress Giveaway at my library. I was overwhelmed and humbled by the positive community response — when we put out a call for donations, over 300 dresses came in, and the event was shared both in person and on Facebook and Twitter many, many times! This was truly a group effort, and I could not have done it without the help of many people. If you think an event like this would be good for your community, and have questions for me, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! And if you want another perspective, check out this blog post by the extraordinary Regina Townsend that gave me the idea for this program.

November/December

I started planning for our mid-March event in November. The first thing I had to do was make sure we had a place to store donated dresses. Thankfully, we have a lot of storage space in our basement, and were able to lay down plastic sheets so the dresses (stored in garment bags) would not get dusty. I also reached out to co-workers and community members to see if anyone had clothing racks we could borrow to store donations and display them the day of the event. Thankfully, word of the program spread to someone who suggested we talk to Community Hospital, who let us borrow some clothing racks that they use for their Coats for Caring program in the fall.

January

We began collecting donations just after New Years’ and continued up until the day before the event. Next year, I plan to give myself at least a week between accepting the last donations and holding the program. I was fortunate that Circulation and Maintenance staff were extremely helpful in collecting and storing donations. We collected dresses and prom-related accessories, including shoes, purses, jewelry, and shawls.

I also reached out to local businesses that provided prom-related services, to ask if they would be willing to donate anything. One local salon offered discount coupons, and another donated gift baskets to be raffled off. A local jewelry salesperson also donated a few pairs of earrings and rings. Finally, a staff member’s wife who does alterations volunteered to do free alterations at the event.

February

Promotion, promotion, promotion! I continued collecting donations, and advertised the event everywhere I could think of. In addition to the library’s social media, I sent flyers to my contacts at the local high schools, and our Marketing Coordinator promoted the program on the local radio station. The local paper contacted me and ran a front-page article about the event, which really helped spread the word. I’m also fortunate to have the student body president of the public high school on our Teen Advisory Board. He reads the announcements every day, and talked up the program in the weeks leading up to it.

I also started getting dresses cleaned in February. A local dry cleaner offered us a significant discount on cleanings, and was even kind enough to drop off clean dresses and pick up the next round of gowns at the library. They expressed interest in partnering with us again next year, and I look forward to working with them!

Finally, I arranged for a mix of staff and volunteers to help with the event.

March

I continued to promote the program and collect donations. Our Maintenance manager helped come up with a setup for the program room and built temporary changing rooms in the most impressive transformation of a storage room I’ve ever seen.

The day before, a volunteer and I spent the whole day sorting dresses by size, then by color within each size. I would not have finished on time without this volunteer’s help. As it is, we started at noon on a Saturday, and even with the help of two volunteers we were still getting things ready at 11:58. Next year, I’ll give myself an extra day to set up.

On the day of the event, I had volunteers working the “checkout” (all we asked was to see a high school ID), tracking how many dresses were given away (30 total) and what schools the shoppers came from; returning dresses that didn’t fit to their racks; helping girls as “personal shoppers”; and staffing the accessory tables.

We also had a red carpet and a photo booth just outside the program room. I’m debating whether to have these again next year or not; if I do, I think I’ll try to get the photo booth inside the program room, because no one really took pictures in their dresses. We also had giant thank you cards for our local partners for shoppers to sign as they left.

In all, this program was a lot of fun, and I consider it a big success for our first year. Working in a community where seventy percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, my goal with this event was to help our teens have a memorable prom without their having to stress over how to afford a dress. I look forward to hosting this event for many years to come.

Got questions about the Project Fairy Godmother Prom Dress Giveaway? Thinking of hosting your own giveaway? Let me know in the comments!

Writing advice from Albert Einstein

Happy Pi Day! In honor of Einstein’s birthday (3.14), I’d like to share some of my favorite advice from the physicist and how it applies to writing.

"Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Or, put another way, give yourself permission to fail. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a new genre, a new format, a new type of character or viewpoint. There’s a good chance your first attempts will be messy. Aren’t all first tries messy, though? Van Gogh wasn’t born a master painter. NBA stars weren’t always the best player on the court. And most bestselling authors have been rejected by agents and publishers many times. Let yourself make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes.

"The only source of knowledge is experience."“The only source of knowledge is experience.” In other words, learn by doing. The best way to improve your writing is to write a lot. The second-best way is to read a lot — to experience and study others’ storytelling techniques.

What’s your favorite writing advice?

School-Library Partnerships

Library eBook.One of my favorite parts of my job as a teen librarian is partnering with local schools to promote a love of reading for pleasure. During my school visits, I always tell students how they can get a library card if they don’t already have one. Recently, however, I’ve been working with teachers and department heads at one of the local middle schools to provide eCards for all of their students.

eCards allow students to access several of our digital platforms — Axis360hooplaOverDriveFreegal, and Freading — using their student ID number as their library card number. While a full library card (which all students in our community can get for free) provides access to these resources as well, eCards expand access to eBooks and audiobooks for those who need it most: the ones who can’t get to the library to sign up for a full card. I am so excited to bring these resources to our students!

If you’re thinking about setting up a similar partnership, here are some things to consider:

  1. Who is your contact at the schools? In order to make the eCard program a success, I had to have buy-in from the head of the English Department. We had several meetings to work out the details, and when we were ready to go live, I was invited to present the resources students could access at a meeting of all the school’s English teachers.
  2. What will the logistics look like? How often will new students be added to the public library’s system? How often will those who leave be removed? Does every student have an ID number? Are all student IDs the same number of digits? Our Collection Services Manager had to work with our vendors to ensure students’ information could be added to our system so they could log in to our digital platforms.
  3. How will you tell students about it? In addition to promoting eCards on our website and social media, I have been talking up these digital resources when I visit classes and showing students how to use them.

We’re still in the early stages of using eCards, so I’ll have another post later with an update on how things are going. In the meantime, if you have any questions about starting a program like this at your library, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

#ownvoices trans stories

Because I feel one of the best weapons we have against discrimination is empathy, I try to share books with the teens in my community that tell a variety of stories about characters with different backgrounds and experiences. I want my teens to see themselves in books, but I also want them to see Muslims and Jews (who are few and far between in this city), to see refugees and immigrants and people of all races, genders, and orientations.

I will never understand the bathroom bills being proposed in several states, because I cannot fathom the logic behind blatant discrimination and transphobia. There is zero evidence that allowing trans people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity has led to assault against cisgendered people. Far more often, trans people are harassed simply for trying to pee. Moreover, if a man (and I use the example of a man, but remember that boys and men are victims of sexual assault, too) wants to assault a woman in a public restroom, no bathroom bill is going to stop him from doing so. He’s already breaking the law and violating another human being. He’s not going to refrain from doing what he wants, what he feels entitled to do, simply because of a bathroom bill.

But I digress. My heart and thoughts have been with my trans friends especially this week, and so this list is dedicated to them. I have mixed feelings about the language used in some of these summaries (not everyone in the trans community is comfortable with phrases like “a boy born in a girl’s body”), but I’ve taken them all directly from Amazon.com. If you have recommendations to add to this list, please share them in the comments!

Redefining Realness.Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock

In her profound and courageous New York Times bestseller, Janet Mock establishes herself as a resounding and inspirational voice for the transgender community — and anyone fighting to define themselves on their own terms.

With unflinching honesty and moving prose, Janet Mock relays her experiences of growing up young, multiracial, poor, and trans in America, offering readers accessible language while imparting vital insight about the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of a marginalized and misunderstood population. Though undoubtedly an account of one woman’s quest for self at all costs, Redefining Realness is a powerful vision of possibility and self-realization, pushing us all toward greater acceptance of one another — and of ourselves — showing as never before how to be unapologetic and real.

Rethinking Normal.Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill

Katie Rain Hill realized very young that a serious mistake had been made; she was a girl who had been born in the body of a boy. Suffocating under her peers’ bullying and the mounting pressure to be “normal,” Katie tried to take her life at the age of eight years old. After several other failed attempts, she finally understood that “Katie” — the girl trapped within her — was determined to live.

In this first-person account, Katie reflects on her pain-filled childhood and the events leading up to the life-changing decision to undergo gender reassignment as a teenager. She reveals the unique challenges she faced while unlearning how to be a boy and shares what it was like to navigate the dating world — and experience heartbreak for the first time — in a body that matched her gender identity.

Told in an unwaveringly honest voice, Rethinking Normal is a coming-of-age story about transcending physical appearances and redefining the parameters of “normalcy” to embody one’s true self.

If I Was Your Girl.If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Like anyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret, and she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.

But when she meets sweet, easygoing Grant, Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she realizes just how much she is losing by guarding her heart. She finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself, including her past. But Amanda’s terrified that once she tells him the truth, he won’t be able to see past it.

Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It’s that at her old school, she used to be Andrew. Will the truth cost Amanda her new life, and her new love?

Some Assembly Required.Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen by Arin Andrews

In this memoir, seventeen-year-old Arin Andrews details the journey that led him to make the life-transforming decision to undergo gender reassignment as a high school junior. In his captivatingly witty, honest voice, Arin reveals the challenges he faced as a boy in a girl’s body, the humiliation and anger he felt after getting kicked out of his private school, and all the changes — both mental and physical — he experienced once his transition began.

Some Assembly Required is a true coming-of-age story about knocking down obstacles and embracing family, friendship, and first love. But more than that, it is a reminder that self-acceptance does not come ready-made with a manual and spare parts. Rather, some assembly is always required.

Being Jazz.Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings

Jazz Jennings is one of the youngest and most prominent voices in the national discussion about gender identity. At the age of five, Jazz transitioned to life as a girl, with the support of her parents. A year later, her parents allowed her to share her incredible journey in her first Barbara Walters interview, aired at a time when the public was much less knowledgeable or accepting of the transgender community. This groundbreaking interview was followed over the years by other high-profile interviews, a documentary, the launch of her YouTube channel, a picture book, and her own reality TV series — I Am Jazz — making her one of the most recognizable activists for transgender teens, children, and adults.

In her remarkable memoir, Jazz reflects on these very public experiences and how they have helped shape the mainstream attitude toward the transgender community. But it hasn’t all been easy. Jazz has faced many challenges, bullying, discrimination, and rejection, yet she perseveres as she educates others about her life as a transgender teen. Through it all, her family has been beside her on this journey, standing together against those who don’t understand the true meaning of tolerance and unconditional love. Now Jazz must learn to navigate the physical, social, and emotional upheavals of adolescence — particularly high school — complicated by the unique challenges of being a transgender teen. Making the journey from girl to woman is never easy — especially when you began your life in a boy’s body.

 

Unreliable Narrators

I just finished a book that has one of the best/most frustrating unreliable narrators I’ve come across, so I thought I’d highlight some of my favorite books with unreliable protagonists this week.

Allegedly.First, the book I read this weekend, Tiffany D. Jackson’s Allegedly. I have so many questions I want to ask Mary.

The description from Amazon:

Orange Is the New Black meets Walter Dean Myer’s Monster in this gritty, twisty, and haunting debut by Tiffany D. Jackson about a girl convicted of murder seeking the truth while surviving life in a group home.

Mary B. Addison killed a baby.

Allegedly. She didn’t say much in that first interview with detectives, and the media filled in the only blanks that mattered: a white baby had died while under the care of a churchgoing black woman and her nine-year-old daughter. The public convicted Mary and the jury made it official. But did she do it?

There wasn’t a point to setting the record straight before, but now she’s got Ted—and their unborn child—to think about. When the state threatens to take her baby, Mary’s fate now lies in the hands of the one person she distrusts the most: her Momma. No one knows the real Momma. But does anyone know the real Mary?

We Were Liars.My favorite unreliable narrator is Cady from E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. The ending to this book blew my mind.

The description from Amazon:

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from New York Times bestselling author, National Book Award finalist, and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart.
Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

Vanishing Girls. Another favorite read with unreliable narrators is Lauren Oliver’s Vanishing Girls.

The description from Amazon:

New York Times bestselling author Lauren Oliver delivers a gripping story perfect for fans of We Were Liars and I Was Here, about two sisters inexorably altered by a terrible accident.

Dara and Nick used to be inseparable, but that was before the accident that left Dara’s beautiful face scarred and the two sisters totally estranged.

When Dara vanishes on her birthday, Nick thinks Dara is just playing around. But another girl, nine-year-old Madeline Snow, has vanished, too, and Nick becomes increasingly convinced that the two disappearances are linked. Now Nick has to find her sister, before it’s too late.

In this edgy and compelling novel, Lauren Oliver creates a world of intrigue, loss, and suspicion as two sisters search to find themselves, and each other.

What are your favorite books with unreliable narrators?