Book clubs come in all sizes and shapes. In 2012, Wendy Lawrence, educator and aspiring children’s author, launched a book club with a novel—no pun intended—twist.
When she arrived in Ann Arbor that year, she hoped to find a community of like-minded writers. “Not only did I want to talk about writing with other children’s writers, it’s just a fact that children’s writers are the best people in the world and that’s who I wanted to be friends with!” she told us. “Also, I had another goal: improving my craft by reading and analyzing great books.” She sent a group email out on the SCBWI-MI listserv inviting local children’s writers to meet.
Nearly a dozen writers answered the call. We agreed to do more than read and review books. Our goal was—and is—to analyze them closely and learn craft lessons from the masters - Newbery and Caldecott Award winners.
Who are our members?
How do we structure meetings?
We rotate among members’ homes, meeting monthly on the third Tuesday, each of us bringing snacks. Days earlier, Betsy McKee Williams provides links to reviews and author bios. We prepare to discuss characters and character development, place (Is it a character in itself?), time, themes, plot structure and development, beginnings and endings, and social/literary relevancy.
Because we focus on the best of the best in children’s picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and young adult titles, they serve as laboratories for everything from word selection, pacing, point of view, and story structure to trends in illustrations, ways illustrators tell their own stories paralleling the writers’ tales, and the evolution in children’s literature over the past two decades.
An equally valuable aspect of our club is the opportunity to share information about agents, publishers, publishing trends, authors’ school visits, schedules of upcoming writers’ workshops, local bookstore news, and book signings.
We began as a diverse group of people with little in common except a love of writing, a commitment to our craft, and the joy of reading, but we’ve become loyal friends. We attend each other’s signings, sometimes baking and bringing treats. We also serve as beta readers and encouragers to bolster sagging spirits struggling with writers’ block or agent queries. Several of us belong to the same critique group.
Our favorite nights are celebrations, when we break open a bottle of champagne—or sparkling cider—to celebrate the release of a member’s new book. Last fall Nancy Shaw, Tracy Gallup, and I shared the same publication date and big smiles when Patrick opened the bottle.
|Patrick Flores-Scott reads aloud from Lindsey McDivitt's newly published picture book, The Gwen Frostic Story|
Why this club?
We all love the craft perspective this book club offers. Despite the fact we’re studying award winners and runners-up, we don’t accept these books as cast-in-stone works of art without reviewing every aspect. Each has obvious strengths, but also occasional weaknesses. We each have a unique perspective on the club’s merits:
Doug Kasischke: “This club has been a great remedy for, what is for me, the heartbreaking problem that comes when I finish a book: not having someone with whom to talk about it.”
Lori Yuhas: “I love meeting with this brainy and talented group of writers to discuss award-winning books! While I’ve learned a lot about craft, what’s helped me the most as a writer is the knowledge that even award-winning books aren’t perfect. They’re filled with flaws. Striving for perfection as a writer is a waste of energy. Striving for excellence is the end goal.”
Deb Gonzalez: “I love the community that has been created around our love for quality literature written for children and, ultimately, for one another.”
Shutta Crum: “What I love most about this group is that since each one of us is a serious writer, we ask for honest opinions about what is working and not working in the books we read. It allows me to go home and let those ideas simmer awhile. Then, sometimes, new ways of approaching my own work pop up to the surface. It's much more than simply an ‘I liked,’ or ‘I didn't like’ group. We are called on the carpet to explain our thoughts and to try to parse exactly how the authors of the month did what they did—or just missed doing.”
Kristin Lenz: “Ann Arbor is an hour from my house, but it’s always worth the drive to connect with other writers and examine the craft. It’s also a great nudge to read and study some books I wouldn’t normally pick up on my own. I was especially touched when Nancy Shaw opened a bubbly bottle and led a toast for the publication of my debut novel. We’ve celebrated not only the publishing success of other members, but the many personal milestones along the way: revisions, speaking engagements, MFA programs, even weddings and grandchildren—not to mention Deb Gonzalez’s outstanding pickles! ;)”
Laura Stewart: “Being new to the writing community and not even a member of SCBWI, I took a chance and met everyone for the first time at Nancy Shaw’s home in 2014. You might say I was a bit nervous coming into a group with some published and pre-published writers who seemed so well versed in the mechanics and style of writing. I felt like a country bumpkin mixed with a touch of greenhorn. Six years later, they haven’t booted me out yet. I feel very welcomed, as are my thoughts and feelings about the many books we have read and discussed together.”
|Reading Kathy Appelt's Newbery Honor book, The Underneath|
Our best discussions always take place when we don’t all agree about the merits or problems within books. As you can imagine, we have a long list of books we’ve read and discussed, but among the titles with outstanding discussions:
- Richard Peck’s A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder.
- Kathy Appelt’s The Underneath.
- Many marvelous stories based in World War II have been published recently. Elizabeth Wein’s YA novel Code Name Verity; Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s middle reader The War That Saved My Life and its sequel, The War I Finally Won, and Pam Munoz Ryan’s ECHO.
- Gary D. Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.
- Jean Alicia Elster’s The Colored Car.
- Neil Gaiman’s magical and terrifying YA fantasy novel The Graveyard Book.
- Veera Hiranandani’s The Night Diary.
- Our two best discussions about the Hero’s Journey involved a close analysis of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (an added bonus was a discussion about crafting sequels effectively and efficiently) and Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief.
Do you attend a book club? Tell us about it in the comments!
Coming up on the Mitten Blog:Introducing the SCBWI-MI Diversity Committee, all about book reviews, a non-fiction mentorship, a Writer Spotlight, another round of Hugs and Hurrahs, and much more.
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