Mina Witteman – Author Interview

I have known Mina ever since I started writing in 2011 and joined SCBWI France/International. We have met up at several conferences and last summer I got to see her in her incredible writing environment at her Berkeley home. I have spent many hours brainstorming writing projects and challenges with her and always value her advice.

 

[JM] Where are you from and how has that influenced your writing career?

[MW] I am from the Netherlands, more specifically, from a tiny town in the south, in the province of Brabant. There was ample space for adventure, for exploration, for roaming free in my hometown. The desire for adventure, for exploration and for roaming free instilled in me in those early years, has never left me and is the beating heart of all my stories. Let me give you an example: Just around the corner from where I lived was a military base with fields and an assault course; the ideal playground for fearlessly curious kids like us. We would cut gaps in the high, barbed-wired fence that enclosed the obstacle course, sneak in and race each other, until troops would emerge from the barracks to chase us away, or worse, to nab us and hand us over to the base commander, a man we called Donderbaas, Thunder Boss. Luckily, we were well-trained and super fast, and mostly we’d outrun the troops. My debut middle grade novel De wraak van Deedee, Deedee’s Revenge, starts out at that assault course, when Deedee’s brother Matthias dares her to race him and his friend Peter. The book’s main theme is sibling rivalry solidly wrapped in adventure.

[JM] Please tell us a little about your work-in-progress! Pretend we’re in an elevator and instead of us all looking around nervously, you tell us all about what you are writing! Go!

[MW] My work-in-progress is the story of a young girl on a quest to find redemption and equanimity after she sells out her gender-fluid sibling. Kicked out by her father as well as her sibling, for diabolically opposed reasons, she finds herself on the streets. When she accepts a ride from a traveling tattoo artist, she embarks on a cathartic road trip to find the courage to face her demons and begin to grasp the true meaning of normal, of bias, of self-determination, of what it entails to be an ally.

 [JM] How did you get into writing? Is it something you’ve always been into?

[MW] My mother was a raconteur—“poetic license” should have been her middle name—and I inherited her knack for storytelling. My father was an architect and he imprinted me with a passion for math and science. And indeed, my first writings were the specs with his designs, even before I could read and write. The start of my real writing career, though, I attribute to high school. One of my greatest joys in high school was detention for the sole reason that detention meant writing essays. When, after an avalanche of essays, the principal realized his punitive regime had a reverse effect, he ordered me to write the essays in German, in French and, ultimately, in English. It only deepened my fondness of literature and language (although I never let go of my love for math and science, either!) After high school, I got caught up in life’s turbulence and only after my son’s birth, did I rediscover my love for writing.

 [JM] What and/or who inspired your fabulous Boreas series? These are exactly the sort of adventure stories I adored as a tween.

 [MW] My father taught us to sail even before we could ride a bicycle (which is extraordinary for Dutch people, who are basically born with a bicycle attached to them). Later in life, after my siblings and I had all left home, my parents sold everything they had, bought a bigger boat and set sail, until my mother, much too young, died of cancer. Every year, I would find time to sail with them for a month or so. During the twelve years that they roamed the seven seas, my mother kept a logbook and after her death I inherited those. Boreas is based on my own sailing and traveling adventures and on her logbooks.

  [JM] If you like [fill in the blank], you’ll like BOREAS….? 

[MW] If you like riveting action and adventure, but also don’t want to shut your eyes for the problems of the world, like refugees and plastic soup, you’ll like BOREAS…

How the series starts?

Boreas—Bo or Boaty to his friends—is all set to go to junior high after summer break when his life comes tumbling down after his parents break the news that the family is going on a trip around the world on their sailboat. Reluctant and peeved at being left out of the decision, Boreas boards the Argo, the ship that will be their home for the next years.

The first few days he is bored and misses his friends. Then, in the dead of night, the Argo crashes into what seems a pile of ocean debris, were it not that someone shouts for help. Without a second thought, Boreas dives into the icy-cold water to rescue a drowning teenager, a refugee who tried to cross the English Channel on a self-built raft. Boreas desperately wants to help him and they anchor near the French coast to find a solution. But there seems no way to circumvent laws and the next morning the refugee has fled the Argo. Boreas realizes that freedom is not a given for everyone and how privileged he is.

This is only the first of many of Boreas’s adventures that range from tractor racing to being caught on a fishing vessel as a stowaway. I have tried to bring the journey around the world realistically: not just the romantic dream, but also the loneliness, the dangers, the unpredictability. A Dutch reviewer said: “It doesn’t matter if like sailing or traveling, if you are a boy or a girl, a man or a woman: no one will regret choosing this book.”

  [JM] I know you are a sought-after writing craft teacher. Without giving away too much, as I would love some of my readers to attend your workshops, could you give us a taste of how you explore plot & story structure as a revision technique?

 [MW] Ah, one of my favorite topics! Here is where my math brain and story brain coalesce. I explore plot and story structure in a very visual way and for this particular workshop I have combined two of my favorite plot structures. We usually have one or more of these structures in the back of our minds and we can dream the most important plot points. We’ve listened to countless explanations. But to me it is always most illuminating when I can apply what I hear to my own writings. It’s why I ask my attendees to bring a paper copy of their manuscript or, if they work in Scrivener—Did I say that I love Scrivener? I do!—bring their laptop. It can be a first draft or a tenth draft and even a partial where you got stuck.

After a brief introduction of both structures and some well-known examples to illustrate, I guide attendees through their manuscripts, tagging and color-coding plot points. What’s important in this class is that it is not a linear process and that every plot point comes with a set of questions that will reveal not only plot holes and gaps in your story, but also problems with pacing and placing. The end result is a color-coded visual of your story that gives a lot of insight and food for revision.

  [JM] As writers much of what we put into our stories is a fictional version of our memories. Could you give us some tips for this process?

 Of course! Another one I like. Personal memories are paramount when it comes to writing fiction. But using memories can snare you in the ‘truth trap, when you want to stay too close to how it actually happened. At times and in particularly when the memories are of the darker kind, using them can be a harrowing undertaking. I teach a master class Fictionalize Your Memories in which I let attendees play with points-of-view and tenses in a certain order. I designed writing exercises that allow you to keep the core emotion of a memory, while at the same time skillfully sidestepping the truth trap. This master class always, always results in beautiful stories brimming with wonder and surprise.

 [JM] How Important has SCBWI been in your writing journey?

[MW] SCBWI was and is key in my writing journey. I would not be here, were it not for my SCBWI tribe. Because, yes, it is a tribe, a tribe of amazing, inspirational, knowledgeable, generous, fun, and professional people. These past years would have been the darkest if it hadn’t been for my SCBWI friends who tirelessly shone their guiding lights to make sure I continued my journey, who spurred me on not to give up, who caught me when I fell. The lifelong friendships that are forged through SCBWI are invaluable to me, as a writer and personally. I cannot thank Lin Oliver and Steve Mooser enough for starting this organization that is invaluable to so many creators of children’s books.

 [JM] I have been fortunate to visit your lovely home in Berkeley, and see how it is a super inspirational place for a writer. The Bay Area is known to have a strong writing community, what have been your experiences with this over the last couple of years?

 [MW] What can I say? It’s like a family. My first initiation in the Bay Area writing community was when my dear friend, former roommate, landlord and all-together amazing children’s book author and illustrator Jim Averbeck sent me to the library of the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco, where I was welcomed as if I were a long lost friend. Writers in these parts, from San Francisco to East Bay to Marin, are a tight-knit and supportive network. Are you in need of a critique group, an accountability group, a friend to join you to a bookish event? A simple shout-out is enough to find like-minded writers.   

FIVE FUN ONES TO FINISH

[JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world? 

 [MW] Point Reyes National Seashore. The first time I visited Point Reyes, I sat down on a log washed ashore eons ago on the north beach. Staring out over the water, watching the cross currents swirl and sway, listening to the surf and the gulls, I felt more alive than ever before in my life. A truly magical place.

 [JM] I have been several times to the Bay Area but have still to visit Point Reyes. It is on my bucket list. Cats or dogs? (or maybe parrots?)

[MW] Mooie Hond! My son’s knuffle dog who now resides with me in Berkeley.

 [JM] Adorable! Please recommend a coffee shop or restaurant for me to visit in your city/town!

[MW] I like writing at the Musical Offering, a café/bistro/classical cd shop. They play classical music throughout the day and have free lunch concerts on Sundays and live jazz on Thursdays.

 [JM]  Great, I shall try this next time I am in Berkeley. What was your first paid job out of high school?

[MW] After I dropped out of Architecture School, my parents had me work in an uncle’s weaving mill. My job was folding towels. That is, until I got into trouble with the women who worked there day in, day out, year in, year out. They folded an average of 850 towels a day, but because I didn’t want to disappoint my uncle and knowing that I would get out in six weeks, I folded 1,000 towels a day. When the foreman upped their daily towel count, stating that if the temp could do it, they could too, they cornered me and ordered me to cut back. I can still hear my uncle’s bellowing laugh when I told him about my dilemma. He had me quickly transferred to another station, where I couldn’t do any harm.

 [JM]  Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?

[MW] Tea! Always tea. Oolong. Earl Grey. Lapsang Souchong.

Thank you so much for sharing a bit of your writing life and craft with us, Mina. To your continued success!

https://minawitteman.com/

Posted in #kidlitwomen, author, Interview | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 35 Comments

Sewing the Rainbow – perfect Picture Book Friday

Title: Sewing the Rainbow – The Story of Gilbert Baker and the Rainbow Flag

Written by: Gayle E. Pitman

Illustrated by: Holly Clifton-Brown

Publisher: Magination Press, October 2018

Ages: 4-8

Genre: biography

Themes: lgbtqia+ history, gay flag, rainbow flag, Gilbert Baker

 

Opening:

In a small town in Kansas, where everything
was grey and dull and flat, there was a little boy
who was full of color and sparkle and glitter.
His name was Gilbert.

Synopsis:

Sewing the Rainbow is the powerful story of Gilbert Baker and the creation of the rainbow flag. This book takes readers from Gilbert’s childhood in a small town in Kansas where he didn’t fit in, to his historic artistic career in San Francisco. Today the flag is everywhere, even in the small town where Gilbert grew up! This book shows that when you see a rainbow flag, you’ll know it’s okay to be your colorful self.  (Publisher)

Why I like this book:

I am so happy to see a picture biography about Gilbert Baker and his legacy, which can at times become sidelined when when we focus on Harvey Milk in our queer history.  This is a biography of young Gilbert growing up in the early 50’s in Kansas, being drafted into the army, and of discovering new freedoms of when he is stationed in San Francisco in the early 70’s. The community and tolerance he experienced in SF led him to revisit his early childhood dreams of sewing and creating colorful designs, dreams that were destroyed at an early age by his father. In 1978 he designed the first rainbow flag, a symbol for the diversity of the LGBT (QIA+) community. This flag is still today a universal worldwide symbol of diversity. 

I appreciate how paralleling the story of his creating the rainbow flag is his story of being free to be himself after childhood and early young adulthood experiences of peoples’ disapproval of him. This is, of course, what the flag represents. The story celebrates unity,  in diversity, symbols, creativity and that we should never feel ashamed of letting our inner sparkle show.

The illustrations are bright and colorful, perfect for the story. This is an important addition to your units on inclusion, tolerance and lgbt history.

Resources/Activities:

The book comes with an extensive Reader’s Note for parents and older children, which explains Gilbert Baker’s background in depth, as well as his important role in the gay rights movement.

Get those art supplies out and have some fun. Easy Peasy and Fun has a ton of rainbow crafts for kids. 

Paper-Plate-Rainbow-Craft-for-Kids

Each week a group of bloggers reviews picture books we feel would make great educational reads. To help teachers, caregivers and parents, we have included resources and/or activities with each of our reviews. A complete list of the thousands of books we have reviewed can be found sorted alphabetically and by topics, here on Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

Posted in Biography, children's books, Children's literature, diversity, LGBTQIA | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

An A to Zed of the USA by a European Nomad

At the end of my thirteen amazing years in Nice before moving to the USA, and as a newbie to blogging, I wrote an A-Z about France. I have now been living in and around New York City for the past 6 years and have so far made it to 29 states, so I feel it is about time to share some musings of my time thus far State-side. I can’t promise as many gastronomic entries in this series, but there will be some!

 

Automobile

Already the term automobile instead of the only word used in the UK, car, conjures up for me a concept far more expansive and grandiose than merely a mode of transportation. Certainly outside a couple of major metropolises like NYC or San Francisco, with the vast distances between habitations, life without an automobile here is unimaginable. 

There’s perhaps no single person more associated with the automobile than Henry Ford. Ford is credited with bringing the car to the multitudes. Just imagine what the world would look like without the mass adoption of the automobile: We wouldn’t have countries crisscrossed by freeways, there’d be no truck diners, and no one would ever have to be trapped in a long drive-thru line at McDonalds. 

The automobile can arguably be considered a centerpiece of American culture.  Take into consideration how the car is still the second largest purchase among American households, and part of pop culture in a way it isn’t in Europe. In the US, an automobile doesn’t just represent options or status. That first second-hand Chevy or , with its personalized tweaks, shapes ideas of freedom and self-possession. Attaining one’s driver’s license here (between the ages of 14-16!) is a rite of passage in a society that maybe has fewer of them. It is the first major step into adulthood and independence. I suspect because cars have come to symbolize a kind of coming-of-age, freedom, and America’s pioneer spirit, they have become vital to a sense of identity, and not just to teens.

Blue at a West Virginia Air B n B on my first road trip.

When I bought my battered 2002 Subaru Outback (called Blue) for my first road trip three years ago, little did I know I had picked the perfect lesbian road trip vehicle… it’s all about identity, folks! But I will save “Road Trips” for another entry.

Baseball

In America, “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” is probably one of summertime’s most-sung songs. Why? Because America’s favorite summer sport is baseball. Maybe not every American drives a Chevy (see A above), but almost every girl and boy learns to play baseball in school, and adults pay good money to watch the pros!

And you thought cricket was slow?!!! Bear with me, as cricket is my only real comparison. Everyone wears pajamas. Oh, and don’t forget the sox. Each side has 25 players but only 9 actually play. The pitch is aimed at an imaginary box in the air. The players and umpires can see this box, but no one else can. If the ball is going into this box, the batter tries to hit it. If cricketers missed the ball as often as baseball players, cricket matches would be over pretty quickly. They don’t, which is why cricket matches can take five days. But hey, that gives lots of downtime in baseball to chat to your match-buddies, which is the real reason I went.

I am told it was a good match (the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 4:2 ), and they must have sung the anthem and had some mid-time entertainment but I still don’t know most of the rules. What I do remember is the food!

Baseball is a summer game as I have said, but it was mid April (of my first year in New York) and still below freezing though not actually snowing. Thank goodness my Manhattan friend played mama, and had packed enough plaid blankets in her backpack to keep the four of us warm if we huddled together. My game partners (2 Yankee fans, and one lone Red Sox supporter) were committed to giving me the full-blown Yankee Stadium experience.

Remember, I came from the land of garlic, yet have never been garlicked-out before I tried Yankee garlic-fries. 😮 The fries would have been plenty for my not-so-delicate constitution, but no, there had to be more more. Add a foot-long hot-dog loaded up on all the fixings: ketchup, mustard, sauerkraut, jalapenos, onions, tomato, a package or two of Cracker Jack (a concoction of molasses-flavored popcorn and peanuts), and domestic beer, and my digestive system was yelling “strike” way more often than any umpire. 

Yeah, baseball truly is an All-American thang! And if any of my US friends want to take me to see the Giants, or the Dodgers or the Mariners… I won’t say no. Just give me some prior warning so I can do a bit of fasting in preparation!

Posted in A to Zed, ABC USA, European Nomad, Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments