Saturday, October 13, 2012

Children's Literature as Social Justice: Bruce Coville's 13 Rules for Writers

Courtesy One World, Many Stories Summer Reading Program

I don't usually blog about the writers conferences I attend.

Because, to be honest, there's plenty of people I see taking copious notes at these things and I'm 100% positive they are writing far more informative and useful blog posts than I ever could. Usually, I'm too busy doing the yogic thing (being in the moment) or the tired thing (being in the moment while drinking coffee) to really take the sorts of notes that could mean anything to anyone else after a conference.

But today at the Rutgers Council on Children's Literature's One-On-One Mentorship conference, I heard the fabulous Bruce Coville speak for the first time. And I was so moved, I actually took notes. Well, part of the time, anyway. The other part of the time I listened with slack-jawed adulation as he said all the things I think about children's literature.

That it's an act of social justice.

That it's a part of allowing all children to see themselves in their own worlds.

That it's a critical way to imagine a better future.

Actually his words were "Our work has the potential to change the world in ways we can't imagine."

The stuff of tears, people. Tears in my coffee.

He talked about power, and how our cultures hates children. There can be no other explanation of why, despite the rhetoric, funding for schools, teachers, libraries, and communities are slashed. There can be no other explanation why, when in pioneer times, they were family workers and earners, when, in post WWII/industrial revolution times, they were objects of family love and adulation, now, in our modern times, children are being bred to be nothing more than consumers -- who demand to be bought the goods they see advertised on the television and internet.

Literature is tasked with changing this dynamic -- with honoring children, and celebrating them -- or at least that's what his message said to me.

He quoted the wonderful John Berger (whose Fortunate Man I teach from all the time), who, in a short story wrote of a man talking to the ghost of his dead mother, who tells him to make one small change, and therefore, effect the world. (It was an example, Coville said, of what's also been called the butterfly effect.)

The barking dog in the yard is on too short a chain, the dead mother explained. If you increase the dog's chain, then the dog will be able to reach the shade and rest, and stop barking. If the dog stops barking, then the mother ironing in her kitchen will be remember that she always wanted a singing canary in a cage. And if she is soothed by the canary song, she will iron more shirts. With a freshly ironed shirt, the father will be better able to bear the weight of his workday on his shoulders. And if he is able to bear that weight, then maybe he will laugh and joke again with his teenage daughter when he comes home. If he laughs and jokes with his teenage daughter, then maybe she will bring her lover home. And if she brings her lover home, perhaps the father will ask him to go fishing...

And all this from the lengthening of the chain.

Coville asked us, in our writing, to lengthen the chain. To bring change to the world. To effect kids' lives.

These, except the above quote, are paraphrases. But I did actually take notes on the 13 Rules For Writers Mr. Coville shared with us. See if you find them as fantastic as I did:

1. Marry Rich -- some advice the wonderful Natalie Babbitt actually once gave him when he revealed he wanted to write for children.

2. Take acting or storytelling lessons -- public speaking is actually the #1 fear of American adults, most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy. Yet, part of a writer's job is sharing their work in public, a part of the job from which introverts can't shy away

3. Take voice or singing lessons -- your voice is your instrument

4. Take your art seriously, and yourself seriously as a business person -- read your royalty statements, learn to negotiate, and plan for your retirement

5. Never throw anything away you've written -- you never know when, 30 years later, that novel that never worked or the chapter in your idea folder will give birth to a publishable book

6. Take a vacation -- getting away from work is a good way to get back to it sometimes

7. Scare yourself -- take yourself to the edge of discomfort, take assignments that scare you. He quoted Cole Porter as saying "courage is freedom."

8. Stop scaring yourself -- don't be your worst critic, or let fear paralyze the writing. (Bruce Coville here told the fantastic story of how he and his lifelong friend Paula Danziger would keep each other going by promising to have 3 pages to read to one another every day on pain of outrageous shame. When this threat wore off after a while, they promised that the person who didn't have 3 pages done to share with the other every day would have to write a check to George W. Bush's campaign (at the time), and tell all their friends and family that they were writing the check. That inspired him more than anything, because there was no way he was writing that check.)

9. Make your own rules -- there are no rules to writing except the ones you make up. Here, he quoted Kipling: "There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,/ And every single one of them is right!"

10. Take your art seriously, but yourself lightly -- try to be great, but try to be good. keep writing every day and every once in a while something splendid will happen.

11. Learn to take a compliment -- just say "thank you"

12. Don't be afraid to show your heart 

13. Embrace the unfinished chord in your writing -- something dangling for the reader to ponder 

Thank you, RUCCL, and thank you Bruce Coville.

Children's literature as social justice. Yea, for that, I can put down my coffee cup and pick up my pen. Because the arc of the writerly career may be long, but it should bend towards justice.


  1. Love this post. From where I am sitting right now, it is just what I needed. :) So Thank you!

  2. so glad Srinidhi, thank you for the comment and read!

  3. Thanks so much for writing this saved me from transcribing my notes from his wonderful presentation!

  4. I'm making notes from your notes! :) Absolutely agree on the power of children's lit to change the world!

  5. Thank you for the comments, Carol and Arpita, it was an absolutely breathtaking talk, I thought!

  6. I was in the audience for this keynote, and it was truly special!

  7. Fabulous advice! I particularly liked #10 - take your art seriously but yourself lightly. Thanks for sharing, Beryl

  8. I got here via the SCBWI listserve and I'm grateful to Greg for linking this. I love Bruce Coville and I love this post.

  9. I'm so thankful to you,Suzanne, Beryl, Pen&Ink, for the read! It was indeed a fabulous talk!

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