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The Top Three Things I’ve Learned in 2k13

Now that we’re a little more than half way through they year, we’re having a retrospective theme in August, looking back on 2013 so far and sharing some of the things we’ve learned. I, for one, have certainly learned a lot, and here are my top 3:

1. The Golden Rule. 
2K13 logo FINALBe nice to other people, especially other debut authors. Join a 2k-class or its funny-named equivalent (Friday the Thirteeners, The Lucky Thirteens, One-Four Kid Lit, etc) and be as active as you can. Volunteer to help with something, because it gives you a good reason to email people you’ve never met; attend conferences together; share ARCs; tweet each other up. You generally get as much as you give and this is no zero-sum game we’re playing. Readers read more than one book. So help promote the others coming out with yours.

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My bookmark!

2. Think Critically About SWAG and Your Time. 
These two things can be limitless sinks… OF COURSE you want stickers with your cover on them… and water bottles… and bookmarks… and maybe those rubber-band-bracelet thingies… but swag costs time to make and money to produce, and not all of it will help you get the word out about your book. Also, just because a certain type of swag is a great idea for someone else’s book (It totally makes sense for Mindy to have water bottles, for example), you really need to think about what makes sense for your book and your readership. For example, GOLDEN BOY is middle grade, and most of my middle-grade-author-peers were getting excited making bracelet things and book-related fun stuff, stickers, etc. But my book is about a human rights issue, and so fun stuff just wouldn’t do. SWAG for me? Bookmarks from non-profit organizations working in the field, framed pictures from when I went on Safari on my research trip to Tanzania, and, for a lucky few, wood carvings. I used postcards to get the word out, especially for signing times at conferences and my release party, and I now give out bookmarks to everyone who shows any interest in my book. The basics, you need (bookmarks & a website); the rest is optional.

Related to you-only-have-so-much-money-for-SWAG principle is the you-only-have-so-much-time principle! Yes, you should have a Facebook page, a fan page, a Twitter account, and a blog… and you should probably be a member of a few group blogs or sites too. Yes, you should post deep, fun, and original content frequently and interact with your target audience and its gatekeepers, both online and in person whenever possible. You should do events. You should have a launch party. You should think about school visits. You should still cook meals, clean your house, do laundry, speak to your spouse, play with your kids, walk your dog, and do your day job. You also need to stay sane… which means you CAN’T do all the things you “should.”

Instead of panicking and having an identity crisis (neither of which is fun or powerfully productive, trust me), you should make some concrete decisions about what you can do easily and what you just won’t engage in. I, for example, created a FB page which I never intend to use, and have it automatically update with content from my website. I think Twitter might go there too. I Tweet occasionally. I plan to do relatively few bookstore events (as a debut author, unless you have enough friends to pack the place–like at your launch party– then I think these are hard to pull off since you have no name recognition), but hope to get involved in schools. However, with schools, I’m more likely to do a Skype author visit than a real one, because I’m still teaching. When edits are due, we eat out a whole lot more than I’d like. Stuff like that. You don’t have enough time to do it all. So, instead of giving up on everything, or feeling miserable about yourself as you do everything poorly, pick a few things to focus on and just let go of the rest.

 

3. WRITE!
P1090991With all that other stuff to do, it can be really hard to focus on the most important thing to prioritize of all: you need to keep writing! For all that your publisher wants you to do your own marketing and outreach, they hired you on as an author, not a marketer. And at some point, when you’re not ready yet to be asked, they’re going to want to see your next book! It will be a happy moment, but when you get the email from your agent you really don’t want to have to type the last 100 pages in 11 days… trust me! 🙂

 

 

 

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Thinking Outside the Box: One Smart Thing I Did To Sell GOLDEN BOY

One smart thing I did to sell GOLDEN BOY was to dance just a little bit around the edges of the traditional lock-step route to publishing… and it’s what got me my agent!

uuw3btb1m6deb9dm3xs6A few years ago, a member of my writer’s group had the fantastic idea of submitting for a writers group development from our local New England chapter of SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators). For a while we debated what to do with it, but we finally agreed: the agent query process terrified and mystified us. We were a group of six, all with YA & MG manuscripts at different stages. So, I went to work researching agents that listed all of our genres. When I found one, I approached her and asked if she would be willing to accept the grant money to do an informational Skype interview about the agenting process. She agreed and offered, in addition, to critique each of our query letters. A few weeks later we had the session and learned a lot… and she ended up extending an offer to two of us (one third of the group!) to formally query her when we finished our manuscripts. Two years later, we’re both represented by her.

So, as you try to shop your baby out in the big bad world, try to think outside the traditional lock-step for ways to actively develop yourself and gain the skills you need for whatever step of the process you’re on… you never know what unintended awesomeness might come of it!

(Disclaimer: My story in this post is intended to be illustrative only. Please do not use it as a launching-off point to bother my agent. I like her. I like that she likes me. Please don’t make her dislike me. It might make me dislike you.)

Telling a Fictional Truth: Violence in GOLDEN BOY

The 2k13 theme for this month is to talk about the content of our books and whether that makes them more appropriate for certain ages than others.

With GOLDEN BOY, I’m considering this from an unusual perspective as my book, perhaps more than most in my debut class, is based off of real circumstances. People with albinism living in East Africa are currently being hunted and killed so that their body parts can be used as good luck talismans.

I wrote GOLDEN BOY with a middle school reader in mind. Truly graphic violence happens “off-screen,” and I made the choice to have my main character be a boy rather than a girl so as to avoid another superstition: that having sex with an albino can cure AIDS. That said, many reviewers, including Kirkus and the Junior Library Guild, are listing it for teen audiences due to the seriousness of its subject matter.

To answer the original question: Yes, there is violence in my book. I couldn’t have told the story without it. Elephants are poached; people with albinism are attacked. However, when people’s greed creates a demand for death I feel it is vital that this be paid attention to.

With realistic contemporary fiction then, the question we’re really asking  is, at what age to we give children access to the details of the violence in the world? This, I think, is a personal choice determined by parents, teachers, and the children themselves as they gravitate towards or away from books that show disturbing realities. Violence is in the world one way or the other. In fact, children in other areas of the world are often the ones most likely  experience it first-hand. And it’s not only adults who can do something to change it.  I truly believe that kids can make a difference in the world, but this can only happen if they are allowed to know what’s going on in it.

The Senegalese ecologist, Baba Dioum, said the following in a speech he made in 1968 to the general assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but I feel it applies just as truly to human nature as it does to environmental concerns:

“In the end, we will protect only what we love.
We will love only what we understand.
We will understand only what we are taught.”

Changing the World

The biggest thing I remember about being a kid was that I never really liked being thought of or referred to as a “kid” … because this usually meant being talked down to, being told to leave the room, or being told to wait.

Being told to wait was usually a hassle, but sometimes it really, really got to me. This happened mostly when I had just learned to care about something or I was upset by an injustice. When this happened I found I was almost always told to wait… usually accompanied by some sort of phrase about “when I was older.”

For example, I remember vividly once having just read a book where the protagonist was struggling to survive in a country where a genocide was going on. I was really upset about it and wanted to know what I could do about it. I was told, “Well, honey, when you grow up you can join the UN or some other organization and really make a difference.”

And that bothered me. Not the idea that I would grow up and join the United Nations… but the idea that there was nothing I could do now made me feel useless. My favorite nonfiction book at the time quickly became “100 things you can do to save the planet.” I would read it compulsively, finding ways I could make a difference in the world. Even now, I still cut my 6-pack-soda rings into tiny pieces so I don’t choke the sea turtles.

So, when I finally did grow up (and didn’t join the UN after all), it mattered to me to write fiction for kids like me: kids that wanted to know about injustices, but that wanted to do something about them too. That’s why, if you head over to my website, or read the author’s note at the end of GOLDEN BOY, you’ll see a whole bunch of things kids can do to change the world around them.

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How GOLDEN BOY is Decidedly Different

 

I wrote a post back in November telling you how GOLDEN BOY is similar to some other books out there. Well, the follow-up question, naturally, is: How is GOLDEN BOY different from other books out there? Turns out that’s an easy question to answer. I know this because I tried my darndest to find this story out in the world before I wrote GOLDEN BOY, and failed.

When I first came across the report of the killing of people with albinism in East Africa I was distraught, and immediately looked for three things:

  1. objective news sources to learn more about the tragedy;
  2. novels written about the topic to help me process the emotions, and;
  3. humanitarian organizations working in the field to help do something about it.

I found the last immediately and, with some digging through international presses, found the first. But for the life of me I couldn’t find the second.

P1100607I found moving books of the difficulties of being a child in Africa, such as Ishmael Beah’s memoir, Long Way Gone; Memoirs of a boy soldier. These books told the story of normal kids fighting extraordinary circumstances, but didn’t address the unique challenges of people with albinism. I had no better luck searching in the other direction, finding only two novels published for middle grade readers that had a person with albinism as the main character. Here, I found stories of  exceptional children fighting to claim ordinary circumstances, but the approach of these books bothered me: in both novels, the crux of the plot centered around the albino character joining a circus. I was aghast.

Two years later, when I was interviewing the staff at Under the Same Sun, a non-profit organization working to help those with albinism in Tanzania, I found I was not alone in this feeling. The people I interviewed there pointed out that “every single time an albino is in the media, they are the freak or the bad guy.”

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So there you have it: GOLDEN BOY tells the story of Habo, an albino who is neither a freak nor a bad guy, but rather someone decidedly different struggling to claim his humanity in an inhuman world. It tells the story of a current human rights tragedy of which the world is largely unaware and on which there are no other books (and woefully few news articles) written.

To be honest, had there been any similar stories out there I don’t know that I would have been able to finish this book. The untold tragedy of people with albinism in Africa pulled me through the rough patches of writing and gave me the courage to travel to Tanzania to fact-check. The unsung heroism of the people currently working in the field drove me though the long, intense season of revision. There were times that I thought I wouldn’t be able to write this book, but the story had to be told.

And I hope it’s not too big of a spoiler to tell you that, at no point in the entire book, does Habo ever consider joining a circus.

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GOLDEN BOY debuts June 27th, 2013. 
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Comparable titles for GOLDEN BOY by Tara Sullivan

GOLDEN BOY
Marginalized due to his albinism, thirteen-year-old Habo discovers it’s more dangerous to be seen as priceless than worthless when his family moves to Mwanza, Tanzania, and he must flee for his life from people who think his body parts are magical. 

Though GOLDEN BOY is a work of fiction, it’s a compilation of the stories of real people, and it brings to light a modern human rights tragedy that is largely unknown. In Patricia McCormick’s SOLD, a similarly dehumanizing tragedy is brought to light and made hauntingly immediate through the eyes of Lakshmi.

Like Auggie in R.J. Palacio’s WONDER, Habo was born looking different from everyone in his family, everyone in his school, everyone in his village. His older sister, Asu, tries to protect him but, like WONDER’s Via, she can’t keep the world from hurting her brother.

Like Virginia in QUEEN OF WATER by Laura Resau & María Virginia Farinango, Habo struggles to see where he fits into the clear categories of the society around him. Neither the good brown of his family, nor the white of tourists, Habo has no word for himself until he arrives at Auntie’s house in Mwanza. Only there does he find out that he belongs in another category entirely: albino.

Like Raphael, Gardo, and Rat in Andy Mulligan’s TRASH, Habo also finds himself trapped in a deadly treasure hunt… but, in Habo’s case, the items that other people believe will bring them riches are the pieces of his own body. Seen as nothing more than a collection of good-luck talismans, Habo must flee for his life.

But fleeing for his life is only half the journey. Having been seen only as an aberration and an object, Habo must discover his true value and show his worth to others. Like Tree-Ear in Linda Sue Park’s A SINGLE SHARD, Habo needs to work to sculpt a new life and learn to love and accept himself.

If you enjoyed any of these books, I hope you’ll consider reading GOLDEN BOY!

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@SullivanStories

Also, check back soon on the Giveaways tab: I’ll be giving away my 2k12 mentor’s book: ONE FOR THE MURPHYS by Lynda Mullaly Hunt!

Tara Sullivan & the Inspiration for GOLDEN BOY

GOLDEN BOY tells the story of Habo, a 13-year-old albino boy growing up in Tanzania who finds out the hard way that being seen as priceless is much more dangerous than being seen as worthless.

And here’s where it all started….

About three years ago, I came across a small article in a non-profit journal that told about the kidnapping, mutilation, and murder of African albinos for use as good luck talismans. I was horrified. I tried to learn more. Except… there wasn’t much more. There were no books on the subject and very little press coverage, especially not in western media. Disturbed, I tried to walk away from the story. But I couldn’t.

Why not? Well, back up a few decades, and was a pale, red-headed kid getting sunburned and unable to blend into a crowd in places like Bangladesh and Bolivia. (My parents were international aid workers. I had never lived in the U.S. until high school.) Fast-forward from there and you find a teen and twenty-something that worked with village micro-finance and refugee resettlement programs. And so the story haunted me. The adult in me wanted to publicize a human rights tragedy. The kid in me wanted to tell a story about what it feels like to never belong in your own skin.

So I wrote a first draft. Then I went to Tanzania to complete my research and rewrote the whole thing. I traced the path of the book. I corrected the facts that my internet research had gotten wrong. I added in smells and the color of the dust. And I met with people working in the field to rescue people with albinism, move them to safe houses, and educate society about their condition and their worth. These people were so inspirational—working in spite of death threats, some of them living under twenty-four hour guard, and when I asked them what I could do to help, they said: write a story where we’re human.

I hope I did.

GOLDEN BOY comes out from G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers June 27th, 2013.

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