Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

Dear John Green: An Open Letter About Diversity from a Little Brown Librarian

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On February - 19 - 2013

 Dear John Green: An Open Letter About Diversity from a Little Brown LibrarianDear John Green*,

After watching your fireside chat with President Obama, I got inspired to write you a letter. I am a middle school librarian at Harlem Village Academies in East Harlem, New York, and an up and coming MG/YA writer represented by the lovely Victoria Marini of Gelfman Schneider/ICM. My library has several copies of all of your books, and they stay in constant circulation with my students. I was first introduced to you as an author in David Levithan’s Teen Lit course in my MFA in Writing for Children program at The New School. We read Looking for Alaska, and your prose, your characters, and the heart of the novel blew the class away.

There’s no denying it. You’re great!

I don’t need to tell you that you’re an awesome storyteller and that the stories you tell connect with millions and millions of readers. You’re a New York Times bestselling author, and what you write turns to gold!

I just have a question for you: Why is there a lack of racial diversity in your work?

Granted, I know that it’s probably unfair of me to ask you this question. I am a writer and don’t want to ever be told what to write or to be questioned about what I choose to write, but after watching you with President Obama, I couldn’t help but think, Can Sasha or Malia find themselves in John Green’s books? Is there someone who looks like them in his universe? Would someone who looks like them ever be the main protagonist in one of his awesome novels?

A child or teen (or a person, really) can connect to anything if there’s a thread of universality present or an emotional core that transcends race or class or ethnicity or religion. I get that. I’ve experienced that. You’ve done that in your works.

But what’s sad is that I get questions like this from my students when they visit the library weekly:

“Why is the library filled with books about white teens?”

“Why is everyone in books white?”

“Why have I read every single book about kids like me?”

“Do any books with brown kids – besides Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – hit the New York Times best seller list?”

You might say that there’s no way my students are asking these types of questions. That I made them up to suit my open letter.

Come visit and see! Harlem Village Academies are full of the brightest young minds, kids who are challenged to read 50 books a year as a requirement to go from grade to grade. They devour everything I give them, and they ask a lot of insightful questions about life and the world. When you can’t find yourself in the books you’re told to read, it brings up a lot of thoughts and questions about the world of books.

You don’t have to care about these questions. You don’t have to think about them as you write, even.

But I wish that you would consider them. There’s a pervasive whiteness to the stories you write. I don’t mean to be inflammatory or rude in this observation, and I could call out a hundred other YA authors who do the same thing. I’d like to ask you about it though. Maybe whiteness is all you know. Maybe that’s what your life journey and upbringing has afforded you. Since we’re supposed to write what we know, maybe that’s what you’re doing. I can’t fault you for that. Your stories reflect an earned authenticity.

As a minority in this country, I have a different experience as you probably already know from countless other minorities shouting from rooftops or PC culture, etc. But the fact remains that I am surrounded by white people. My identity has formed in contrast or in conjunction with whiteness. I am/was/will always be the smudge. The stories I write will always be multicultural because that is my experience. I don’t have the luxury to write about an all-anything world because that isn’t reflective of where I come from. So white people and children will always be written into my stories. You don’t have to have this experience. But it has given me a sense of creative responsibility to write invisible teens and people into the YA book world.

Do you feel a sense of creative responsibility?

I don’t have a lick of fame, yet I feel this overwhelming sense that I need to do something meaningful and inclusive with my creative work. Maybe this is all a function of my identity as a minority and my upbringing as a person from an oppressed group. I don’t have an explanation for this. It’s a feeling that runs parallel to my aspirations.

I often argue with my adult writer friends about the topic of creative responsibility. We’re a semi-diverse, motley crew made up of the ladies who blog on TeenWritersBloc.com. At our biweekly critique meetings, we sometimes discuss TV shows. At one dinner a few weeks ago, we had a fruitful discussion about whether writer/producer Lena Dunham should have meaningful diversity on her HBO show Girls. I always bring up the fact that I think she should have minorities present on her show. It’s the same argument I’ve had about other shows in the past – Sex in the City, Friends, etc. Some of my writer friends, whom I love no matter what they believe, assert that it isn’t Lena Dunham’s responsibility, and bring up a great point about why white men aren’t pushed to include minorities, yet white women tend to be pushed to do so. I always posit the following question at the end of this never-ending conversation: Even given all of that, why not include them?

So I’ll posit the same question to you – Why not include racial minorities in your work? What’s the harm?

I know the publishing industry is very different from the TV/film industry, and one of the ugly rumors floating about is that books with minority teens don’t sell. Their faces on books alienate white readers and their white parents, who buy the books their kids read.

I just don’t know. It makes me sick to think about it being true. And it really isn’t your problem. It’s mine. It’s something that I will have to face as a writer who includes teens/children of color as main protagonists.

But your career makes me wonder if someone with your fame and clout could change the game. You’ve done it in so many different ways already. If you wrote a book about a non-white teen, would it explode like The Fault in Our Stars? Or would it be the one book you wrote that flopped and didn’t make all of those best teen books lists? Would your white fan base say the book isn’t for “them”? Would angry minorities come after you for writing a book from a non-white protagonist and earning money from it?

I don’t know.

I’d just like to challenge you to write a book with some color in it, or at least consider it. I know if anyone can do it, it’s you. Even if nothing comes of this letter, I’d love to start the conversation about the lack of diversity in teen books.

Happy Writing!

Dhonielle Clayton, a little brown librarian (and writer!)

*NERDfighters do not attack, put the lasers down, this open letter comes from a warm and fuzzy place, and I am a small, humble librarian who wants no trouble. I speak my words in peace. Thanks!

What’s on Alyson’s 2013 Wish List?

Posted by Alyson Gerber On January - 1 - 2013

wish list Whats on Alysons 2013 Wish List?

You might remember that I am a New Year’s resolution failure. Well, that hasn’t changed. When it comes to creating a routine and sticking to it, I am awful. Absolutely incapable.

I envy people who order the same salad for lunch everyday, who consistently check the forecast and leave home (all responsible) with an umbrella and a weather-appropriate jacket, who do the same things over and over again (or at least more than once). I wish I could be that way. It looks so much better, especially when it rains. But I am not. I can’t help it. Maybe I need things to be a little chaotic. I am pretty sure no matter how hard I try, I will always be a little bit of a hot mess. Or at least, I will see myself that way. It is part of my charm. I hate routines, and I don’t thrive on them. So, why have I been pushing myself to write the same amount of words, at the same table, with the same cup of coffee everyday? It makes no sense, and I am done doing it.

There is only one thing on my 2013 Wish List—I am making a resolution that won’t fail. I am giving up trying to be someone I am not. I am going to be okay with the fact that I am someone who writes best on my phone, and on random post-its, and on paper table clothes, and on the subway, anywhere but on my computer. Except, of course, when I have finally given up on staring at my computer, given up on my 2,000 word goal for the day, when I have accepted that I can’t write anymore, that is exactly when I can’t stop typing. It makes no sense, but it is me. It’s what I do, and this year, I am going to be okay with it, because my chaotic way of doing things is actually working. I can feel it every time I work on my new book. Every time I send pages out to be critiqued. Just being me is working, and I’m not going to stop.


Author Interview: Nnedi Okorafor and Akata Witch

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On September - 10 - 2012

akatawitch Author Interview: Nnedi Okorafor and Akata Witch

Teen Writers Bloc member Mary Thompson sent me an email back in the spring and said I had to read this book called Akata Witch, and that I’d love it. She’d heard me droning on in workshop about the dearth of fantasy and fiction featuring kids of color and fantasy worlds not rooted in a European mythos. And she’d found a book that does it — and well!

Nnedi Okorafor took me on a whirlwind and I had to track her down for an interview so I could figure out how she’d done it all. We caught up with Nnedi this summer to discuss African magic, writing discipline, and her life as a writer.

Tell us a bit about yourself (bio) and how you became a writer? 

What did I do before “officially becoming a writer”? I was a writer and a Ph.D student who’d once been pre-med. I’m a professor, so I don’t need to write to eat. However, I write and produce as much as many who do write to eat. I consider myself a full-time writer. But it’s more a part of me than something I need to do to survive financially. It’s not a job. I didn’t “want” to become a writer; it’s just something I became. It was in me all along but it took certain events in my life to happen in order for this part of me to come forth.

How did you come up with the concept for the book? Can you talk a bit about your process, from conception to publication?

Honestly, I don’t know. I just started writing. I recall thinking it would be cool to write a story where black children of the African Diaspora experienced magic and adventure rooted in real African culture/history/location/beliefs. Also, the summer before I wrote the novel, I’d spent a week with the daughter of one of my mother’s friends. They were visiting from Nigeria. This daughter was nine-years-old and she didn’t want to hang out with her mother. So she hung with my daughter and me for those days. She was an Igbo girl with a strong feisty personality and she also happened to be albino. She was a lot of fun. I knew I wanted to write about her by the time she left. The main character of Akata Witch is based on her.

Once I started writing, it came together organically. Many of those things I researched because they interested me wound up in the novel, as did many of my experiences in Nigeria and with Nigerian culture. Lastly, the theme of cultural complexity was something I’d wanted to write about for a long time. I was born in the United States to two Nigerian Igbo parents. At the same time, my parents started taking me to Nigerian from a young age. So I grew up bi-cultural, identifying with two district cultures — American and Nigerians. I don’t identify as African-American; I indentify as Naijameican. (“Naija” is slang for “Nigerian.”) It’s an interesting position to occupy. It’s one that makes me very aware of the African Diaspora. I wanted to reflect this complexity and need for more dialogue with the Diaspora in this novel.

What’s your writing process?

I write every day. I’m disciplined. However, no day is the same. I have a nine-year-old daughter and I’m a professor; I have to be malleable. But before the day is done, I will have gotten at least two good hours of writing in, many times more than that. I can write at any time. I used to write in the early morning. These days, I find stories beg to be written late at night. I’ll write in the afternoon if I must. My inspiration comes from Africa , and the world as a whole. It also comes from places of energy, amusement, trouble, and action.

Can you talk a bit about world building, especially this African magic? Did you start with Sunny, the magic, or Nigeria? Or a mix of all three?

The magic in Akata Witch is mined from mysticism and beliefs that are part of my culture. These are things I grew up hearing and that are all around me, a part of my life. In the book, I may tweak things here and there or blow some life into things but that’s about it.

As far as world-building, that phrase feels unnatural to me because I don’t purposely “build worlds”. I just write the story and within the story the worlds exist. I can’t say what I started with Sunny because it’s all mixed together. I can say that the first thing I saw in my mind with Akata Witch was the character of Sunny, but once she started moving through her life, it all came with everything- the magic, her Nigerian-American-ness, the setting, etc.

What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?

My path to publication was rough, but embedded with luck where it counted. A lot of the more negative aspects I encountered on that path were predictable and expected, though knowing did not make dealing with them any less distasteful. Really, I didn’t have expectations and I’m aware of the isms at work in this country, so I wasn’t surprised very often.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

Author Steve Barnes once said that you have to write a million words before you are any good. There’s no exact word count, of course, but the sentiment is 100 percent correct. You have to write and write and write, far more than you can image to hone your craft. For me, I think I DID have to write over a million words before I was any good. My first published novel was the fourth or fifth novel that I wrote. The ones I wrote before that were practice.

I pass this same advice on to aspiring authors. Write and write a LOT. Hone your craft. Don’t atrophy because you are obscessed with getting published until you are truly ready.

 Author Interview: Nnedi Okorafor and Akata WitchWhat was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

As a kid I loved Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson and The Witches by Raold Dahl. As a teen, I’d have to say it was a tie between Stephan King’s The Talisman and Robert MacCammon Swan Song. Right now I’m reading and absolutely loving Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi.

What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

Right now I’m finishing up two adult novels. But soon I’m going to start writing Akata Witch 2. I’m also working on another young adult novel and several other writing projects that I can’t talk about just yet. I’ve also written a chapter book in the Disney Fairies line. It’s called Iridessa and the Secret of the Never Mine. I’m not sure of the release date yet but it should be later this year.

Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you?

I currently don’t belong to any critique groups, though I am a product of university writing workshops. There’s no formula. Whatever works.

Photos courtesy VIKING

Kid Lit Critiques — A New Venture From Two Teen Writers Bloc Members!

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On September - 7 - 2012

kid lit critiques final banner JPEG 600x138 Kid Lit Critiques    A New Venture From Two Teen Writers Bloc Members!Announcement! Announcement! Jess Verdi and I have pooled our skills together to launch Kid Lit Critiques, a manuscript critiquing business. Check out a little more about us:

Dhonielle Clayton and Jessica Verdi are two girls in New York City, living the writerly life: attending kidlit events, reading the latest books and ARCs, meeting editors and literary agents… and, of course, writing! We received our MFAs in Writing for Children from The New School (Class of 2012) and we are both agented authors actively writing for children and teens. While at The New School, we studied under such esteemed instructors as David Levithan (author of over a dozen YA novels and founder of Scholastic’s PUSH imprint), Susan Van Metre (VP and publisher for Abrams Books), Hettie Jones (author of How I Became Hettie Jones and a Beat generation poet), Tor Seidler (author of several acclaimed children’s books, including National Book Award finalist Mean Margaret), Sarah Weeks (author of many picture books, chapter books, and YA novels), and Sarah Ketchersid (Executive Editor at Candlewick Press).

We have a fresh perspective on MG and YA literature while also keeping our fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in the industry today. We are both members of SCBWI and while we both read and love all kinds of literature, our specific areas of expertise are different: Dhonielle is the Middle Grade expert, Jess lives and breathes all things YA. Dhonielle is also more fantasy-based, while Jess is down with the contemporary. It’s these differences that make us the perfect team for your critiquing needs – between the two of us, we’re able to cater to all different types of writing styles and genres!

We are both extremely experienced critiquers (those here at Teen Writers Bloc can attest) and we have started this joint venture because we know how valuable quality feedback is. Time and time again, we have received feedback on our own works-in-progress that opened our whole stories up for us. Oprah calls those “a-ha!” moments, and we know how crucial they are for a writer to take his or her work to the next level.

We wanted to start this business to give someone a workshop feel that might not be in an MFA program, who is in desperate need for unbiased feedback, but doesn’t have $600 -$1,000 to spend with a book doctor.

Our website was designed by the wonderful designer of the Teen Writers Bloc website, Navdeep Singh Dhillon, and it was an awesome experience. He built a customized site for us and arranged (and re-arranged!) the layout to meet our aesthetic tastes. Check out his writer-focused design company Pataka Design. He hand sketched every page so that we could see it before he built it which allowed us to see a rough idea of what it would look like before he started. He’s great!

Let us read your work. Come check us out!


Alyson’s Summer Reading: Confessions of a Goodreads Addict!

Posted by Alyson Gerber On August - 29 - 2012

Document1 600x301 Alysons Summer Reading: Confessions of a Goodreads Addict!
It all started about three weeks ago in Penn Station. I was 30-minutes early (as usual), bored, and Facebook had nothing left to offer me. While I waited for the train and my boyfriend, who was securing my extra-spicy Chipotle burrito, I decided to activate the Goodreads account I’d opened back in the spring. I was curious what other people were saying about the middle grade novel — Wonder — that Corey Haydu had recommended to me earlier in the day. After reading the first 30 out of 3,000 reviews, I added it to my ”currently-reading” shelf. By the end of my ride to Boston, I’d switched it to “read,” downloaded the following books to my Kindle Fire, and added them to Goodreads:

#1 One For The Murphys

#2 The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet

#3 Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies

#4 The Secret Identity of Devon Delaney

#5 Deenie

#6 See You At Harry’s

#7 Out of My Mind

#8 When You Reach Me

I’ve never been a fast reader, and I’m definitely not the competitive type. I’m more of a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race/ I’m up against myself kind of girl. I should also mention that as far as I know I do not have an addictive personality. Yes, I am passionate and potentially obsessed with a handful of things/topics. Namely: horoscopes, The Gilmore Girls, manicures, and Sugar Babies (a popular 1990s caramel candy), but something about clicking on “currently-reading” pushed me to finish nine books in three weeks. That is more than we read per week in David Levithan’s lit class. I’m not sure if it is the act of announcing my progress to the world (if it is, dear Internet coders of the world, please invent this app for writing), or if it’s been part of a reading community, but whatever the reason, I am definitely addicted to Goodreads.

Burn for Burn e1345948151544 448x600 Summer Reading Success: Dhonielle Couldnt Put Down New School Alums Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivians Burn for BurnBack in June at the awesome FOLIO BEA party, I got the pleasure of catching up with fellow New School Writing for Children alums Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian. It was wonderful discussing their experiences during the New School program with the two of them and comparing/contrasting our experiences. It was also awesome to see ARCs of their collaborative project Burn For Burn.

Those of you who know me, know that I am a HUGE fan of collaborative writing and projects. Combining the talents of several writers into one book sounds like a recipe for success. And Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian have taken everything I love about their individual writing styles and put them into a book!

So a day after I left the party, I emailed my wonderful agent Emily van Beek (who represents both Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian — SQUEE!), and begged for an ARC. And I received that awesome ARC the next day because she’s awesome like that. And the book did not disappoint.

Our friends at Amazon describe the book as follows:

Postcard-perfect Jar Island is home to charming tourist shops, pristine beaches, amazing oceanfront homes—and three girls secretly plotting revenge.

     KAT is sick and tired of being bullied by her former best friend.

     LILLIA has always looked out for her little sister, so when she discovers that one of her guy friends has been secretly hooking up with her, she’s going to put a stop to it.

     MARY is perpetually haunted by a traumatic event from years past, and the boy who’s responsible has yet to get what’s coming to him.

     None of the girls can act on their revenge fantasies alone without being suspected. But together…anything is possible.

     With an unlikely alliance in place, there will be no more “I wish I’d said…” or “If I could go back and do things differently…” These girls will show Jar Island that revenge is a dish best enjoyed together.

I started this book on my flight to Hawaii and finished it by the time I landed. I started it over twice because I just did not want it to end. Here’s what I loved about the book in no particular order.
  • Each girl had a distinct and interesting voice and I loved being in each girl’s chapters.
  • The backstories were thick and complicated — Mary’s story especially. I remember gasping out loud when I found out what happened to her. READ TO FIND OUT!
  • The teenage drama is palpable — best friend drama between KAT and her ex BFF REENIE; boy drama with LILLIA and ALEX; and an old wound for Mary between her and REEVE. They combined so many elements of high school drama seamlessly into one novel, and this first book sets up so many other things to be explored in the next two books in the series.
  • The pacing is extraordinary — the chapters hit that sweet spot of seven pages or so with the perfect balance of character information, snappy dialogue, and plot.
  • Last, but not least, its MULTICULTURAL! LILLIA is Asian, not a stereotype, and is refreshingly complex. Her ethnicity is not forgotten throughout the text, nor is it belabored. Her ethnic identity is drawn with the perfect strokes.

Pre-order this book, experience the wonders of collaborative work!

Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster

Now What? For Dhonielle, School’s Out for — Well, Forever!

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On June - 18 - 2012

closedforsummer color Now What? For Dhonielle, Schools Out for    Well, Forever!So school is out, and I’ve decided that I will not go back (except to culinary school when I’m 35). Now what?

Well, lots of things…

I’m moving to another New York City apartment — yay!

I’m going to Hawaii.

I’m teaching summer school in Harlem again.

I’m going to South Africa to visit Amy Ewing with Jess Verdi.

I’m going to catch up on reading!

But first off, it’s business as usual. Writing! Writing! Writing!

And critiquing… I’m looking forward to continuing to read my classmates’ work, as well as that of my other writer friends. I like deadlines and I like the feedback I receive from my classmates. We’ve been off for a couple weeks since graduation, so I’ve been able to recharge my battery, and getting ready to get back in the saddle again.

It’s time to work now. Usually, I HATE the summer. The heat makes me a slug. But I’ve decided to use these three months to do a lot of work, so when September 1st rolls around I feel good about what I’ve accomplished.

My plan is to turn in another revised manuscript to my agent in August and to start something brand new. I work well with self-imposed deadlines and stress. Somehow in my head I make up this story that my lovely (and patient) agent Emily has called me frantic and upset, wanting the manuscript on a certain date. Then I work like a dog to meet this made up deadline. It has worked well so far, and I’ll be keeping with that tradition.

I hope to head into the fall with an arsenal of fun things to share and celebrate.

Photo Credit: Momland.wordpress.com

Author Interview: Jewell Parker Rhodes

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On May - 31 - 2012

Ninth Ward 000 409x600 Author Interview: Jewell Parker RhodesLast year I trekked to the Brooklyn with Sona Charaipotra to the Brooklyn Book Festival and got a great big hug from author Jewell Parker Rhodes after hearing her read. She was wonderfully bubbly and reminded me of my own mother. And then, we discovered she is the mother of one of the students in The New School Writing for Children program in the Class of 2013 — Kelly McWilliams (an author herself). We caught up with her despite her busy schedule.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself (bio) and how you became a writer?

When I was a little girl, I was a voracious reader. My family used to call me the “little professor.” The librarians could not give me books fast enough. Partly, I think I was escaping some tough times in Pittsburgh. I never had an easy childhood. I got into college (Carnegie-Mellon) on a dance scholarship, which saved my life. One day I went to the library I found a book written by a black man. A black man! No one ever told me that black people could write. I’d never even considered the option. I quit dancing and started in the English program. They didn’t want to admit me, because of my low SAT scores, but a lovely woman, who because my mentor ever after, saw my potential.

I worked hard in school. I was under-educated by the Pittsburgh system, despite my extensive reading. I had no idea what a “foil” was, or “foreshadowing,” or any literary devices whatsoever. It was like my classmates were speaking a different language. I was in the library every day trying desperately to catch up. And then, when it came to writing, I was absolutely the WORST writer in my program. They came in with lots of education, years of practice, and talent, but only one of them is still writing today. I was the one that persevered.

2. What made you want to be a writer? Do you write full-time now?

I love stories. I love to read. My grandmother used to tell me stories on the porch. There is so much power in sharing your own stories with others. As a black woman, I was called to that power, and it gives me strength, purpose, and peace of mind. I do not write full-time now, but I am involved with writing in some way, all the time. I teach at the Arizona State University MFA program in fiction; this semester, I taught an undergraduate literature course in the short story, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I am also chair of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, with which I manage a lot of global outreach. Some of my work has included traveling to China and Singapore, countries, which historically have not had many creative programs, to help set up programs in creative writing. I get to travel a lot, which I love!

3. How did you come up with your story for NINTH WARD? Was the hurricane your primary influence?

I have always written about New Orleans. My first novel, Voodoo Dreams, was about Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen. I have also set a mystery series in New Orleans. When the hurricane hit, I was glued to my television, and as I watched the horrible drama unfold, I kept thinking, what about the children? You caught glimpses of them now and again. Glimpses of terrified faces. But no one focused on them. That’s when I heard Lanesha’s voice – the voice of a little girl, caught up in the hurricane. I was called to write that book, no doubt about it.

 Author Interview: Jewell Parker Rhodes3. What’s your writing process? What does a typical writing day look like? Where does your inspiration come from?

Oh, dear. I’m ashamed to say I have no typical writing day. My advice to you young writers is to write every day, but I never follow my own advice. I write in fits and bursts, sometimes taking as much as six weeks off! I write according to deadline, these days – I   doubt I’ve met a single one – but when that deadline comes around, I like to head to a nice hotel (with my husband and my terrier, of course) and do nothing but write and order room service and have the linens changed for me. My husband is crucial to the process. He’s a wonderful help as an editor, a first reader, and a steady hand with plot. I don’t know what I would do without him.

4. What has your path to publication been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the writing/publishing process for you?

My first novel was rejected seven times. That’s right. It was awful. But that book, over twenty years old now, is still in print and still on the shelves. What I learned about the publishing process is this: you might get a lot of “no.” But you only need one “yes.”

5. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice would you yourself give aspiring authors?

Best advice I’ve ever gotten? I’ve gotten so much good advice from so many places and people, I simply can’t choose! I’d say, seek out authors, seek out artists of all kinds, and get as much advice as you can. Ask questions. Find mentors. Read books, and not just fiction, either. Read theory, so that you learn more about the nature of what it is that you are doing.

6. What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now?

I treasured Anne of Green Gables when I was a girl. Right now, I am reading ON STORIES: And Other Essays on Literature by C.S. Lewis. Also, anything and everything by Walter Dean Myers, my hero.

 Author Interview: Jewell Parker Rhodes7. What’s next for you writing-wise (and otherwise!)?

I’m currently revising a new book for middle-graders, called Sugar, about a girl growing up on a sugarcane plantation.

8. Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you? Or trusted readers?

My husband and daughter are my readers now. I also love going to the SCBWI conferences in New York and Los Angeles! However, I am craving a “bloc” of writers, as you put it, but this technological era is way ahead of me. I’m just starting a blog on children’s literature now. You can find it at laneshasays.com. I would love any comments from the wonderful students of the New School. Writing for Children is brand new to me! And so is blogging!

9. Your work is imbued with a sense of African-American spiritualism, did you grow up with this surrounding you?

My grandmother was a very spiritual person. She was the most loving, stable adult in my life, and I am happy to say that she passed a little of her magic on to me.


Photo Credit: Little Brown Books for Young Readers, Picador

Dhonielle Wonders, Is an MFA at The New School Worth It?

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On May - 21 - 2012

sayonara Dhonielle Wonders, Is an MFA at The New School Worth It?If someone asked me whether or not I’d do the MFA in Writing for Children at The New School again, I’d say YES and NO!

YES, only if I could get the same class of talented writers — Corey Haydu, Caela Carter, Sona Charaipotra, Amy Ewing, Amber Hyppolite, Jess Verdi, Jane Moon, Alyson Gerber, Mary Thompson, Riddhi Parekh, and Kevin Joinville. I think the Class of 2012 was put together by kismet/fate. On the very first day of class I felt this energy, like “This is IT!”

And since then we’ve hit the ground running — finished projects, developed extra workshops, hunted for agents, attended readings and conferences, landed publishing contracts. I’ve forged deep, life-long relationships with my peers and I know I’ll be an old bitty sitting around with many of them discussing children’s books and hollering for grandkids to sit down somewhere cause they’re being too loud.

I came to New York City and this program full of BIG ideas and a desire to do BIG things. If it wasn’t for my classmates willingness to entertain my crazy antics and ideas and energy (like the creation and maintenance of the Teen Writers Bloc blog, and more things to come…), then the program could’ve been quite dull, in fact.

I would’ve been upset even further with some of the unfavorable aspects of the program. So YES, I’d re-do the program just to have 2 more years of reading my classmates’ manuscripts and having workshops with them and constant deadlines.

Onto the NO portion of this conversation.

I would NOT do this MFA over again due to the unfavorable bits of The New School’s MFA in Writing for Children. Alas! Where do I start?

Firstly, I have to fully confess that I have an MA in Children’s and Young Adult Literature from Hollins University, so I had very HIGH expectations before coming in to The New School’s MFA program. If the Hollins program was located in New York City it would drain The New School of its applicants completely in my opinion (and I know many Hollins Grads would agree).

Just check out this course list: They feature classes like Children and Poetry, The Fantastic in Children’s Literature, Minority Images in Children’s Literature — Reading in Color, Exploring boundaries — Books For and About Boys, Children’s Film, When Childhood Goes to Hollywood, and the Modern Young Adult Novel. This isn’t even half of what’s offered.

Failure #1: Lack of Choice!

The New School Writing for Children MFA lacks choice, and choice is desperately important to me. I am a person that values the opportunity to choose my fate and pick my poison, so to speak. I don’t like being forced into something or to suffer from a lack of options (even with food). When I was a child, my parents learned very quickly that if they wanted me to do something they needed to present me with choices, and orchestrate it so that I’d ultimately pick the one thing they wanted me to do.

In the New School Writing for Children concentration we had NO choices. We were assigned to our workshops and our literature seminars until we had to pick a class outside of our concentration during our third semester. As an aside, I did enjoy the classes they offered us in our concentration — Teen Literature with David Levithan and Middle Grade Fiction with Susan van Metre. Also, I enjoyed the weekend workshops with Sarah Ketchersid and Andrea Pinkney.

no choice Dhonielle Wonders, Is an MFA at The New School Worth It?But the worst part of the NO choice thing was our third semester literature class. This was the most horrible experience during the program. Our concentration is ghettoized into an enclave where we only hang out with each other, and then we were thrown into classes with the other MFA students. The fiction professors don’t put any children’s or teen books on their syllabi and there was a general disdain or dismissal of children’s books. I hated this whole experience and the program requirement. I think it should’ve been an option for those who wanted to diversify and not a requirement. I think I created a class record — speaking one time the entire class )out of maybe 15 people in the course), and the professor didn’t care enough to engage me.

Failure #2: Lack of a picture book class!

The lack of a picture book curriculum was very frustrating at the New School. I believe after leaving this program I have a massive hole in my educational background. We received little to no instruction about picture books. If someone asked me to write a picture book right this instant, I’d be unable to do so. One caveat — our third semester workshop professor Sarah Weeks gave us an awesome picture book lesson. It was a snapshot and I would’ve loved an entire course on it.

I didn’t have to read picture books or study them or even try to write them. I think this is a problem. Some students may not want to have to create picture books, but it’s part of the canon of children’s literature and I feel it should be introduced and/or discussed. Instead of wasting my money and taking a class outside of my concentration, I should’ve been offered a picture book class. Makes sense, right? Teen, Middle Grade, Picture Books — the whole spectrum of children’s books.

Failure #3: Out of touch professors.

Yes, it’s controversial and I said it. I would have loved to have a professor who liked fantasy or genre fiction (or even read fantasy) or who looked like me or who was in touch with the “current” market, etc. I could go on and on here, but I will spare you. Hmm, not to toot my own horn here, but if I was a professor or teaching a writing class, on the first day of class I’d give a homework assignment as such:

“Who’s love-child are you? Find your literary parents in the bookstore! If you were to pitch to an agent or editor who you are in terms of your writing based on two other established authors, who would they be? Fill in the formula: Dhonielle is XX meets XX, with a sprinkle of XX. Her current project is XX, which is a combination of XX and XX.”

Then, because I am an overzealous person, I would try to familiarize myself with the work of the people they listed, so I could be most helpful to them, and really try to grasp what they are trying to do in their writing. I wish a professor would do something like that. Maybe one day I’ll get the pleasure of teaching and be able to do that. To really help students transform into the writers they want to be, while keeping their work firmly placed where they want it to be, not where I want it to be.

All in all, the New School MFA was a hell of a ride. I loved it. Met lifelong friends and started awesome creative relationships. I will miss the program, but Jackson Taylor isn’t rid of me yet. I told him I would be the squeaky wheel and the thorn in his backside until I graduate, and what he doesn’t know is that I am going to continue to do so long after Thursday, May 17th.

Photo Credit: the-one-about.blogspot.com, dryicons.com

mousewheel Spring Cleaning: Dhonielle Must Pull Back on the Day Job and Stop Spinning Her WheelsAlas … the dreaded day-job — well, really, afternoon, early evening, and weekend job — is cutting severely into my productivity. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to make a dent into my on-going, never-ending to-do list. I try and try to get up earlier, take a shorter lunch, sit in Starbucks, but I can’t seem to get it all done. I always have to create a worksheet for a kid or I’m running to make photocopies of test prep material or scooting up to the Upper East Side at rush hour, fighting through the crowds to get to Madison or Park or Fifth Avenue.

It’s a never-ending loop. You could say, “Dhonielle, you have your whole day all to yourself.” YES! I do have that. I can get up leisurely and write. But I’m always preparing or behind, so I need to get caught up so I can use my day-time hours more efficiently. That, and going to bed at a decent hour. I get home from tutoring and decompress with a little TV, and then try to do more work. By the time I’m finished it’s 3 a.m.

And at the end of each day, even if I’ve checked something off the to-do list, I still feel like there’s a mountain on top of me and I’m spinning my wheels.

My list of bad habits that need to be kicked this spring are:

  • Staying up past midnight
  • Eating past midnight and thus fueling myself to continue working
  • Staying in bed past 10 a.m.
  • Taking on new tutoring clients
  • Ignoring my thesis!

But here’s a sample of what’s on my plate to justify my whining:

  • Editing and cleaning up my thesis!
  • Completing the last 50-75 pages my current w-i-p MG novel — smoothing it, editing it, giving it to Amy Ewing to read — to turn a full into the agent
  • Finishing a massive edit of a collaborative project
  • Launching a website with Jess Verdi — details to come soon
  • Slowly working on another collaborative project with Lisa Amowitz
  • Reading and critiquing
I know what needs to be done. And I plan on getting there.

Photo Credit: Secretary of Innovation

pixel Spring Cleaning: Dhonielle Must Pull Back on the Day Job and Stop Spinning Her Wheels

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