and Inspiration: The Bank Street Children’s Book Symposium
makes a great children’s book?” remains one of the great, unsolved
questions of our time.
Perhaps, one can reach this conclusion only after attending the
guided symposium organized by the Bank Street College of Education
New Perspectives Program at the Teachers and Writers Collaborative.
The four-day event, which was the first of a hoped-for annual
series, conceived of by the New Perspectives Director Mary Kocy.
New Perspectives Program, a series of short graduate courses,
is all about putting a creative charge into teachers and all others
in education,” said Kocy. “I believe that anyone involved in children’s
education has to have a creative nature. You teach 30 kids in
a class, you enter 30 different lives in the most profound way
possible. So much of your road into those lives must be walked
through on-the-spot improvisation. So our charge here at Bank
Street is to find new and innovative ways to honor and develop
those creative impulses.”
The guided symposium, “Writing for Young Children,” was just one
way to achieve this task. It served as the natural successor of
the famous, 60 year-old Bank Street Writer’s Lab.
Operating within the quartet of main themes—“Where Does Inspiration
Come From?” “Writing with Pictures”, “The Uses of Language in
Children’s Literature” and “The Business of Publishing”—the course
dealt with several issues related to the writing and selling of
children’s books. Attendees participated in extensive writing
workshops where they dissected, discussed and critiqued manuscripts.
me, this was a fabulously rewarding experience,” said Jacquee
Mahoney a symposium participant. “The group work, the panels were
so creative, so inspirational. I could not sleep for four days.
Ideas were simply jumping out of my head.”
The panelists provided the participants with tips and advice on
how to select a topic. “It’s simply not the nature of inspiration,”
said panel moderator Leonard Marcus, who wrote a biography on
the life of the great children’s writer Margaret Wise Brown.
According to Marcus, the best definition of inspiration came from
the composer John Cage: “If you don’t know what to do next, do
something boring and ideas will flock to you like birds.”
Judith Viorst, another panelist, suggested that “You must pay
attention to your unconscious.” She continued, “You must trust
and honor your own intuition. Ideas, sometimes the best ones,
come from the strangest places.” An author of seven collections
of poems for adults, a novel, four non-fiction volumes and innumerable
children’s books, she one day had the expression “sad underwear”
floating through her head, “for no particular reason that I could
fathom,” she said. A day later she wrote a popular children’s
poem on the admittedly unusual subject.
Those who attended “The Business of Publishing” panel received
more practical advice. Panelists included Arthur E. Levine (the
editor who brought the Harry Potter books to America) and agent
George Nicholson (acclaimed as the inventor of paperback books).
“Publishing is something of an accidental profession,” said Levine.
“But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do your homework.”
According to Levine, homework should include getting an agent,
carefully choosing which agent to get for a particular type of
book, and, perhaps most importantly, not alienating the agent
with your approach.
should not begin your cover letter with ‘Dear Madame’ or ‘Dear
Sir,’” said agent Holly McGhee. “Most of us have huge egos and
we’d like to think that you know exactly who we are when you approach
McGhee added, “And don’t ever write a letter that ends ‘please
give me three reasons why you should be my agent.’ That is the
end to any possibility for representation, I assure you.”
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