Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

September Creative Exchange

Post by Mari Boyle, Tokyo, Japan

After a summer break, SCBWI Japan members got together September 6, 2019, for our second creative exchange of the year. With a mix of first-time attendees and some familiar faces, we began as usual with introductions. We had two newly arrived-to-Japan participants who were brave enough to share their writing with a group of strangers. The variety of work spanned from picture book dummies through to YA novels.

Thoughtful consideration and serious discussion were given to each of the manuscripts submitted and there was an array of takeaway advice that arose from the observations, questions and suggestions put forward.

The manuscripts shared prompted questions about the best place to start a story. One made us think about whether a story might be better suited to chapter book format rather than picture book. These are helpful points to keep in mind, especially when we feel our manuscript is not working when we are self-editing.

Comic © Debbie Ridpath Ohi from her website

An opening chapter of a YA fantasy had the group wanting more information about the fictional world that was being introduced, particularly in relation to sensory detail. A useful tip to keep in mind when world-building is to think beyond what the main character sees or feels, and consider also the smells, tastes and sounds of their world and experience.

It was interesting that two members brought picture book dummies with a bicultural focus. Those with more illustration experience were on hand to give tips and advice regarding illustrator notes and artwork. Others suggested comp titles that might be useful.

There were also some serious discussions on issues of content and sensitivity. It is easy to get lost in the writing of a story, and these face-to-face group critiques are so useful in making us aware of how our stories might be interpreted by others. Challenging questions were raised about themes of danger in picture books, borrowing language and mythology from other cultures, how some words might be read more negatively than intended, and how cultural representations might be explored beyond a food and festivals, holidays and heroes’ approach.

My own manuscript, an adaptation of a Nigerian folktale, raised the question of the right to tell other’s stories—a fundamental ethical question, and one that I’d neglected to ask myself properly before I chose to ‘rewrite’ the story. The question made me go back to the manuscript, examine it closely, challenge my assumptions and responsibilities and ultimately agree that I did not have the right to retell this story. Although not discussed during the session I found this paper a very useful read on the issue of folklore and picture books:

Eliot A. Singer, (n.d.) Fakelore, Multiculturalism, and the Ethics of Children’s Literature, Michigan State University

Additionally, Holly Thompson, SCBWI Japan co-RA, suggests reading Grace Lin’s post “Rethinking Tikki Tikki Tembo” and Diana M. Pho’s article in Writer’s Digest Representation in Fiction: How to Write Characters Whose Experiences are Outside of Your Own,” which offers steps to take and helpful links to other articles.

The creative exchange meetings are a supportive space to share our stories and get feedback and suggestions for future drafts. They are also an opportunity to learn more about the craft of writing. Our next creative exchange will be in December, but before then we have several other sessions planned. Please check the SCBWI Japan events calendar here on the SCBWI Japan website.

Mari Boyle is a writer and a teacher.