Title: I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery
Author: Cynthia Grady
Illustrator: Michele Wood
Release date: February 2012
Word count: Not sure. (14 poems plus historical notes for each poem)
Using the American folk tradition of quilting as a structural framework, poet Cynthia Grady weaves together spiritual, musical, and quilting references with evocative imagery to express the pain, sorrow, and weariness as well as the joy and hope sustained by those living in slavery in America.
Each poem is named for a traditional quilt block pattern: Broken Dishes, Log Cabin; Birds in the Air, etc. and each poem is spoken in the voice of a different slave (except first and last poems—they are present day speakers). Each page also has an explanatory note that provides historical and sometimes literary context for each poem.Question ONE: What are three of your favorite picture books?
This is such a hard question! I never know whether to list all-time favorites or current favorites. But here are three books I love.
- The Ghost-eye Tree by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault
- Ol’ Bloo’s Boogie-Woogie Band and Blues Ensemble by Jan Huling
- If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano
Question TWO: All sound very interesting. Haven't read any of them, but I've heard of the third one. Despite not having any children of your own, how do you feel that you were drawn to write for them?
I’m drawn to the artful use of language, and combined art forms working together, so I love picture books for that reason. I don’t see myself as a writer for children so much as a writer who uses (among other things) the picture book form—one tool in a writer’s toolbox.
Question THREE: Interesting! I think that's especially true for nonfiction picture books. Picture books aren't just for children. The elementary schools in my area don't call them Easy Books, they call them Everybody Books. How might your book be used in the classroom?
Stitches can be used in so many ways! I’ve written a teacher’s guide that can be downloaded from the Eerdmans website. Teachers of older students can use it to supplement their study of American slavery as well as using it as a mentor text for writing and studying imagery in poetry, writing monologues, and in writing diary entries. All of the poems are written (mostly) in iambic pentameter, so it can be used for advanced work in poetry writing as well.
Teachers of younger students can use Michele Wood’s incredible paintings to anticipate the poems. Study the illustrations before reading the poem. What questions might the students have? Does the poem answer these questions? Does the illustration answer questions the poem may generate? How does the illustration support and/or extend the poem?
Question FOUR: Great! I think have a teacher's guide makes your book more accessible. Anyone's book, actually. I can see your book being used in an art unit as well. Maybe even have the children create their own quilt squares and/or poems with either the same theme of slavery, U.S. history, or any topic they choose. Well, the question we most want to know is what was your road to publication like?
I’ve been writing and submitting for a very long time! I’ve had a few individual poems (for adults) published, some essays on children’s literature, librarianship, and poetry published, but no books until 2012.
I wrote the first three poems in Stitches while designing a quilt over my winter vacation. They came to me all at once (author’s note contains a little more detail on this). The following February, I was taking a writing class where I workshopped these three poems and was encouraged to keep going. I wrote the next 11 poems over eight months.
I have no agent (yet), so I submitted to editors I’d been meeting at SCBWI conferences. It took me a little over four years to find a publisher (each editor kept my mss. for nearly a year before rejecting!). I think I submitted it a total of 6 times before I sent it to the slush pile at Eerdmans. Six months later I had an offer from them to publish.
I used no illustrator notes, but I did provide a small, 2-inch diagram of each quilt block to go with each poem (in case they didn’t know quilts).
Once accepted for publication, a few poems were tweaked in minor ways, but the historical notes were revised more substantially. I didn’t have book design in mind when I wrote them—some were a few sentences long and others were several paragraphs! I learned that they needed to all be of similar length, so the editor and I worked hard to get them there. Also, my author’s note was originally about 600 words—we ended up breaking it into a preface and author’s note of about 250 words each…. and the title was kept—I came up with it when I finished all the poems. It’s a line from the final poem.
I have 4 other picture book manuscripts that are submission ready, and one nonfiction manuscript currently out with an editor—THAT manuscript has been revised countless times, growing from 600 words to 4,000 words, and now back down to about 500 words—all at the request and suggestions of various editors via conference critiques. I’ve been working on it since 2005!
People are not kidding when they say persistence is key.
Question FIVE: That is such an awesome story. I love that the editor accepted your book even though you still need somewhat substantive edits with the historical notes. I also love that your title was able to be kept. And finally, what are your top three writing tips you can offer to writers seeking publication?
1. Study and analyze the masters in your genre.
2. Play, play, play with language if you want to improve.
3. Get out of your head by doing physical tasks—whether swimming laps or washing windows.
I love these tips, Cynthia! So very true. Playing with language. That could be as simple as playing word games with my kids more often. And being physical really does help. I'm pretty sure I've even read studies about that to prove it. Thank you so much for being with us today! I hope you get an agent soon and that your 2005 book will find a home, too!
You can find out more about Cynthia's other writings on her website.
Keep on keepin' on...