Thursday, January 8, 2015

Young Authors Club and Grub Street Writing for Children Classes at the Greater Boston JCC

Do you know someone who would be interested in joining the Young Authors Club at the Greater Boston JCC in Newton? This class is open to young writers ages 8-11 (approximately). The next class session begins Sunday, January 18th. I've been inspired working with such passionate talented kids and I hope to meet some more of them this winter. Here's a link to the registration page:

I will also be teaching a Grub Street class for grown-ups at the JCC on writing for children. This class will take place on Thursday afternoons beginning January 22nd. We'll be focusing on picture book and middle grade writing, and I will tailor the class according to the interests of the students. Here's a link with more information about that one:

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Young Authors Club at the Greater Boston JCC this Fall!

Excited to share that I will be teaching a kids' writing class at the Greater Boston JCC on Sundays this fall, starting Sept. 14th. The Young Authors Club combines fun writing exercises and a real professional writer-style critique group for kids in grades 4-6 (and advanced 3rd graders). We had a blast last winter, and I'm hoping for lots of new poets and storytellers. You do not need to be a JCC member or Jewish to sign up!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

So . . . What's a Skype Author Visit and Should I Do It?

The Sock Poem

Soft, Sweaty, Smooth, Slippery, Stretchy
Soggy and Soaked!

by the first grade at Cleveland Road Elementary School in Bogart Georgia

First graders recited this original alliterative poem for me when I visited them to read and talk about my book, DUCK SOCK HOP. They were in Georgia. I was at home in Massachusetts. For the last few months, I've had the pleasure of doing quite a few Skype in the Classroom visits with schools around the world. It's been remarkable to sit down at my computer in my office and be able to talk with students in Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, British Columbia, Texas, and Grodno, Belarus, to name a few. (Next week, Xiamen, China!) Though it takes a little while to get the hang of interacting through a screen, seeing the faces and listening to the thoughtful questions of students and teachers has been a valuable experience for me as a presenter, a writer, and a person. You send your books into the world and imagine children reading them, enjoying them, and thinking about them, but how else would I have the opportunity to see HOW children are interacting with my words, what they are responding to, what makes them laugh, what makes them bounce. They may be learning from me, but I'm also learning from them. Also, it's been said many times before, but writing can be a lonely vocation, and actually seeing my tiny impact is something to hold onto when things get hard.

Art from the Malta Avenue School in Ballston Spa, New York

I do want to say that electronic visits aren't a full substitute for in-person visits. They let me go to far-flung places that neither schools nor I could otherwise afford, they help me out as a person with a disability who has trouble traveling distances. There's nothing quite like an in-person visit, though, at least for me. When I go to my local schools and libraries, I can be more interactive, more kinetic, and even more creative. So if you're a teacher or librarian, have local authors come in person, and have far-away authors come by screen.

And here's some frank talk. I get asked a lot if I get paid for Skype visits. Right now I'm offering twenty minute visits free. I get asked to low-income schools, which now have an opportunity to have an author visit when they never would have before. I want to be there for those kids. But writers are people, too, and we rely on selling books. So I hope that if schools can pay, they will. I hope they buy my books so that students can borrow them from the library after our visits. I've had one teacher (that I know of) reach into her pocket to buy DUCK SOCK HOP for her classroom.  I'm going to send her the rest of my books. But I'm not sure we can go on this way. What do you think teachers? Authors?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Duck Sock Hop Christmas Tree!

 From November 27th - January 1st, There is Duck Sock Hop-themed Christmas tree on view at the Concord Museum in Concord Massachusetts. The tree is part of their annual Family Trees exhibit, in which dozens of trees are decorated in the themes of picture books old and new. You can go to their website for more details.  I will be signing books at the museum from 1pm - 4 pm on December 8th, along with several other authors and illustrators. I'd love to see you!

The Duck Sock Hop Tree was created by two very special artists, my mother Leslie Kohuth and my sister, Emily Kohuth. You can see some of Emily's other work in the Locket Scientist shop on

Monday, September 16, 2013

One Thousand Words: Writing Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree

In one week, my first non-fiction book for children, Anne Frank's Chestnut Tree, will be published. Creating it was one of the greatest writing challenges of my life. I wrote about the experience for Shalom Magazine and am reposting it here with permission.

A sapling from Anne Frank's Chestnut Tree was planted on Boston Common in the summer of 2013. 
(Boston Herald photo)

One Thousand Words: Writing Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree
by Jane Kohuth

It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see a world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.  -- Anne Frank, 1944

The most challenging thing I’ve ever written was only one thousand words long. I write for young children, so I’m familiar with the challenge of keeping language simple and concise while also making it interesting. But in 2011, I received a call from my editor at Random House asking if I’d like to write an early reader about Anne Frank. I had written an early reader before, I had a background in Jewish Studies and had already published one Jewish interest book for children, so why wouldn’t I want to tackle this? But I didn’t say yes right away. The publisher wanted a book for early elementary school students. I wondered, how could someone explain Anne Frank to children without delving deeply into a complicated and dark time in history? Was I prepared for the enormous responsibility of writing a book that could be a child’s introduction to the Holocaust? Was it possible to be both honest and gentle in writing about such terrible subject?  And finally, how could I say anything about Anne Frank’s experience that she hadn’t said better herself?

I thought about the first time I learned about the Shoah, in a Hebrew School class in the 1980s. The lesson felt abrupt and dramatic, fascinating and confusing. The teacher tried her best, I believe, but a good book written for children might have helped her and helped us to better understand in a way that was appropriate for our age. Since that time many more children’s books have been published about the Holocaust. Some are very good. But there isn’t much out there for younger students about Anne Frank. I first read The Diary of a Young Girl when I was in middle school. And as with so many children before me, I felt like Anne was talking to me. Her voice made history real in a way that the photos and facts and numbers I’d been taught did not. I thought that if I could use as many of her words as possible, I could, perhaps, write a worthy book for children who were still too young to read her diary. Perhaps Anne could speak to them the way she had spoken to me. 

I had one thousand words. I couldn’t use complex vocabulary. I had to keep clauses to a minimum. I could have no more than thirty characters in a line and no more than twelve lines on a page. When I explained my project to people they thought it might not be possible. In the end, it helped that I needed to choose an “angle” -- a way in to Anne’s story. Over and over, in her diary and stories, Anne returned to the agony of being shut inside and the power of nature to give her courage, to ease her suffering, and to help her overcome despair. She wrote about the attic window where she was able to see a sliver of sky and the branches of a chestnut tree. The tree, I learned, had become a symbol of hope to visitors of the Secret Annex, which is now the Anne Frank Museum. It had a story of its own, and its saplings, planted around the world, have come to represent Anne’s legacy. (Just this June, one was planted on Boston Common.) This was an aspect of Anne’s story I hadn’t seen in another book. It was a way to talk about Anne’s feelings that children might understand.

In researching and writing Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree, I also drew on my background in Jewish Studies and my experience teaching in Jewish classrooms. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, where I attended a Conservative synagogue. When I was fourteen, my parents moved to Falmouth, MA, where we became members of Falmouth Jewish Congregation, and I became active in NFTY. At Brandeis, I studied Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, along with English and Creative Writing. For graduate school, I attended Harvard Divinity School, where I focused on women in religion. I’ve been a teacher at several Hebrew schools, and spent time as a synagogue’s Assistant Director of Education. I found that my reading over the years had already immersed me in Jewish History and given me an understanding of Anne Frank’s era, while my classroom experience helped me to think about how children might relate to Anne’s story and how teachers might be able to use my book in the classroom.
As Jewish educators and parents we find that we must, at some point, introduce our children to the reality of the Holocaust. I hope that in focusing on something a child can imagine -- being shut indoors and longing for outside -- I have written a book that will allow children to empathize with Anne, a book that is both honest and gentle, and a book that is true to Anne’s view of the world.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Book Events Spin Cycle: Are You a Famous Author or Just the Entertainment? Helpful Hints I Hope

This past Saturday officially marked the end of a book event season that stretched for me from May, when my picture book Duck Sock Hop came out, through National Jewish Book Month and my local town's Holiday Stroll this November. In between I went to schools, libraries, bookstores, and community centers on the multi-pronged mission of promoting my books, developing a career as an author who teaches, and getting kids to love books and be excited by readings and writing.

Mostly, in the big world of books, I feel small. Most people don't know my name, and I don't know that they ever will. I've been lucky to get some great reviews, but nothing so far that has broken that invisible (though context dependent) barrier between known and unknown. And doing events can be a great way to experience the discombobulation of not knowing what your place in the world as a writer IS yet. Sometimes you get greeted like a star, with an excited audience, sometimes no one shows up. Sometimes people show up, but no one seems interested in talking to you, let alone having a book signed. Sometimes you get treated like the babysitter (a hazard of writing for very young children, I think) and sometimes you get treated like a guru. It can really take your self-image for a rough and tumble ride in the spin cycle.

I'd like to be helpful to other writers out there who are getting out and doing book events. What can I tell you that's useful? Here's an eclectic list of things I've learned as a writer/teacher/entertainer.

The role of children's author has changed. Sure you can just write your books. But you might not be able to get any more of them published if you don't do something to boost your sales and get your name out there. I'm an avid reader about the history of children's books, and I've also been lucky enough to hear some of the greats speak about how they got started. There were intimate bonds with editors, and not as much of a role for agents. Tours, if they happened, were arranged by publishers. And when you spoke, it was more like speaking at an adult book signing. You read from your book. You answered questions. That's how our elder statesman still do it. I recently attended a great talk by Lois Lowry about her new novel, Son. She stood on stage, next to poster on an easel, and talked. That's all.

The rest of us, though? We're expected to do much more. We're expected to teach and entertain. Unless we're lucky enough to have a big prize medal on one of our books (and maybe not even then), we need to sell stores and other venues on what else we can do to bring in folks who have so many choices of how to spend their time. What fascinating and fun activities can go along with your book? For Duck Sock Hop, I combed discount stores for wacky socks, made a colorful sock box like the one featured in my book, borrowed my mom's record player and rock and roll records from the 50's and 60's, and held sock hops for the preschool set. I provided white socks and fabric markers for a sock decorating craft. I read my book aloud, but I also became a dance leader and an art teacher. It can be sock boxes of fun, but also exhausting. And, see above, some groups may shower you with praise and others may treat you like the free entertainment. Develop a thick skin.

Preparation Will Take You Far, but You Never Know
Different places are different. Communicate as much as possible with your venue before you go. Make sure they know ahead of time what set-up and materials you need. Give them the details of what you plan to do, and hopefully they'll advertise. Advertise it yourself to the best of your ability. But even if you do all this, you never quite know what you'll find when you arrive. You might be greeted by enthusiastic booksellers or community program organizers ready to run around and get you whatever you need. Maybe you'll get a goody bag and a gift card and an escort to drive you from school to school. Maybe they'll have been talking up your program for weeks. Or maybe there will be one librarian on duty and a crammed room filled with overexcited children and parents who won't even help you get the kids to scoot backward so you have room to stand. Or maybe despite all your emails with the event coordinator, the booksellers on duty when you arrive are barely aware that you were meant to show up. Roll with it. You may still make some great connections with children and parents.

The Dilemma of Grown-ups

That brings me to grown-ups. If you write for children, you're probably a bit kid-centric in your planning. That's as it should be. I've found that my school visits tend to go more smoothly than my family events, in no small part because kids, even toddlers, pay more attention in a school group setting than they do when their parents are around. Did you know that moms and dads? It surprised me. When kids are with their parents they tend to be distracted by their parents as well as shyer about letting go of mom and dad and participating. Some parents are great at getting their kids interested and joining in, but others are more likely to sit in the back, not modeling the kind of involved behavior that their children might emulate. Others talk the entire time, which makes you have to repeatedly ask for quiet, which can really throw off a program. I know parents are stressed and sometimes overwhelmed. I wish that we could work together for a better experience. But how do I better involve the grown-ups? I've tried to bring things that might interest them (and older kids) and leave them where they can take a look. I try, if possible, to invite them to ask questions. But what else? Here I could use some advice.  I'd love a good talk on this topic with other writers, especially those who do preschool presentations.

The Signing/Sales Table
Sometimes you're not giving a presentation, you're sitting at a table full of your books as people walk through the store or festival. People are shy. Most will glance at you and walk past. Unless you make eye contact, smile, say hello, and, if they look at all interested, give a brief line about who you are. So many times people will look surprised and say, "Really? You wrote those books? How wonderful!" and they'll come take a look. Why did they think I was sitting at a table full of books? I'm not sure. I think my "Meet the Author" board with information about my books has helped, but, frankly, most people don't look at your signs. But if you reach out in a friendly way, they are often happy to have a brief chat and, if you're having a good day, buy lots of books. (Grandmothers, by the way, are your dream customers.) I'm an introvert, so this has never come completely naturally to me. I'm grateful for my years of working in a bookstore for helping me get comfortable talking to strangers.

What Makes It Worth It
A couple of days ago I received an envelope in the mail. It was full of letters from students at a school I had visited. The students wrote extremely well (great use of commas by 4th and 5th graders is very impressive), and I could tell from their letters that they had really listened to what I'd said and taken from it what I hoped they would. They talked about a new resolve to write despite feeling discouraged sometimes. One girl, inspired by my "never give up" mantra, thought she could be a doctor after all. Ultimately, this is what it's all for. So take that ride in the spin cycle. You might come out dizzy, but you'll also feel renewed.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Interview with Nancy Conescu, Executive Editor at Dial Books for Young Readers

Working with my editor Nancy Conescu on the text of Duck Sock Hop was a wonderful experience. She made clear suggestions that made the text stronger, was easy to have a positive back and forth with, had a great overall vision for the book, and has been very supportive of the book post-publication as well. She agreed to answer some questions here: 

1. What qualities make you love a picture book manuscript when you receive it for consideration? What qualities do you look for in an illustrator's work that makes you want to work with him or her?

When I’m considering picture book manuscripts it’s the voice and read-aloud quality that I’m drawn to immediately.  I look for stories that I think will inspire repeated readings and characters I think have breakout potential.  (I’ll confess that I tend to favor well-intentioned but ill-behaved characters--the Pig Won’t’s of the world!)  I also look for humor and consider the illustration potential a manuscript has.  Oftentimes we’ll receive strong texts that seem more targeted to parents than to kids, and those are never for me.  I like books with genuine kid-appeal. As for seeking out illustrators, I look for artists with unique styles, memorable characters, kid- appeal, and the ability to convey movement and expression. 

2. Do you ever have to turn down manuscripts you want? If so, why?

I do sometimes have to turn down manuscripts that I wish I could pursue, and it’s always a little heartbreaking.  It takes a whole team to publish a book successfully though, and if there’s not enough collective enthusiasm for a project, I feel I’d be doing the author a disservice if I took on his or her work.  That doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing to me and to the author though. 

3. What drew you to Duck Sock Hop when you first saw the text?

Duck Sock Hop is the kind of text you can’t possibly read without smiling.  It’s very Sandra Boynton-esque in its read-aloud quality, and I felt that kids and parents would truly enjoy reading it and sharing it.  I also imagined it with Jane Porter’s illustrations.  I felt that her bright colors and bold lines would be a perfect match for Jane Kohuth’s joyful text, and indeed it turned out to be a wonderful pairing. 

4. What kinds of books do you like to read for pleasure? What are some of your favorites?

I always wish I had more time to read for pleasure, but a great deal of my reading time is devoted to submissions.  I did just finish Jenny Lawson’s memoir Let’s Pretend this Never Happened, which I absolutely loved, and I’m in the midst of an adult non-fiction book right now.  I sometimes find adult memoirs and non-fiction to be an interesting change of pace, but more often than not, my reading for pleasure is focused on middle-grade and YA.  I recently read Wonder by R.J. Palacio, and I have Trent Stewart’s latest Mysterious Benedict book and Kelly Barnhill’s The Iron Hearted Giant on my to-read list along with lots and lots of other books I’ve stacked up at home and at work. 

5. What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

I feel very lucky to have a job that I love so much and that gives me the opportunity to work with so many inspiring people.  It’s incredibly gratifying to help authors and illustrators execute their vision, deliver their best work, and ultimately see the books that results from the process.  I realize how much trust it requires authors and artists to put in me and in us, and I’m beyond grateful for their willingness to share their work.        

6. What would your perfect day be like?

Hmmm….my perfect day?  I’m not sure there’s just one kind.  I love finding new manuscripts and new artists, but I also love the moment when an author delivers a revision or an artist delivers their sketches or final art.  Then, of course, there’s the moment when finished books arrive, which never loses its magic.  And, on a more basic level, it’s always really rewarding when an author or artist connects with the notes you’ve sent and is excited and inspired to revise.  So, I guess it’s nice to have so many different things that can make my day.  That’s not to say that every day is perfect—we work very hard—but I think that when you’re passionate about what you do, you’re able to appreciate a great deal of the process.