Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Tiny Bit Worried

   I've had the distinct pleasure to be a part of several Children's literary conferences since the beginning of September, including the Rutgers Council on Children's Literature Conference (now 40 years young and still going strong.  Yes, I'm on the council and it's a unique and amazing one day event).  Anyway, at every conference I've attended this year the changes in the CCSS came up for discussion, but the talk at Rutgers made me pause.  And worry.
   Part of the confenece is a Five-On-Five discussion, an hour where 5 veterans of the publishing wars (writers, illustrators, agents and editors) talk to 5 hopeful writers about their publishing concerns.  In the past such things as "do I need an agent?" "how should I write a proposal?" "what does a personal rejection really mean?" were some of the main concerns and drove the conversations.  This year it was the changes to the CCSS.
   Almost the entire time was consumed (in a good way) by "the changes," which I said out loud at one point and realized it sounded like some sort of medical condition.  We were fortunate to have Marc Aronson (google Marc Aronson and there's more info about him and the CCSS on his website) in the group since he's spent a great deal of time in the past couple of years explaining the changes.  But the rest of us added our opinions and ideas as well.
   During all of the discussion I noticed that the younger writers were taking notes.  Lots of them.  This seemed fine for the most part, but then the question was raised (and I'm paraphrasing here): "what sort of topics would fit these changes?" 
   The discussion about topics went on and so did the note taking.  And then I began to worry.  At which point I said (blurted out?!?) "but you shouldn't write to the CCSS.  You need to write about things you really know and love and..."  Yes, that's the old chestnut, the line of advice we've all heard forever and been urged to follow.
   Why was I worried?  Newer writers like a certain amount of direction -- from established writers, editors, and agents, from survivors! -- on how to take their ideas and early drafts and make them into wonderful books.  That's always been so; I know, I was the same way.  But I started to worry that we might breed a line of writers who write to the CCSS and not from their inner beliefs and passions.
   I wasn't selling short the 5 at our discussion.  They were all very thoughtful, very aware, and all seemed to have individual areas in interest, so I think they'll process and use the information wisely.  I was worried about myself.
   The changes in the CCSS have opened a door for children's nonfiction writers as never before.  It has tried to put a new and long-overdue focus on our writing.  That's wonderful.  But with that comes a certain pressure.  Textbooks companies seem to be hunting out and purchasing books that are CCSS compatible; I noticed one major reviewer was going to focus serious attention on books that fulfill the CCSS standards and assume all other reviewers will, too; I know that trade publishers are much more aware of the standards then ever before. 
   I wondered, for instance, will reviewers begin giving books CCSS scores (you know, 10 being a book that meets a great many of the standards).  Silly?  Well, twenty years ago most people would have said scoring wine with number ratings was not just silly, but impossible.  And then along came Robert Parker.  And some wine makers followed (a number of very good French growers made special batches of wine specifically to please -- and get higher rating's numbers -- from Parker and his associates).  Why wouldn't some writers -- me -- be influenced by the possible attention and money a perfectly sculpted CCSS book might bring.
   Anyone who's read this far is probably thinking: relax, Jim; there are enough smart, honest gatekeepers out there to criticize and marginalize such obviously engineered books.  I'm good with that.  But in the past all the gatekeepers didn't stop textbooks from being, well, textbooks, and amassing great power nationally.  So you never can tell.  As I said, this only has me a tiny bit worried, though it's the sort of worry that I think I -- we -- should carefully monitor over the coming years.                               

8 comments:

CC said...

A slippery slope.

Steve Sheinkin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Sheinkin said...

You're right, Jim - from personal experience I can say that's exactly how textbooks are born: by writing to standards. We mustn't go down that road!

Vicki Cobb said...

The aim of the CCSS is to get students to be able to read for meaning and think critically. This means that the standards are NOT in WHAT they read but in HOW they interact with what they read. Mainly, do they get the big idea? Do they understand the author's point of view? Has the author persuaded them and if not, why not? For this to happen readers need to be exposed to many voices. The CCSS promote diversity in nonfiction writing, and a pedantic attempt by textbook people to produce standardized, one-size-fits all reading material is precisely counter to this goal. It is simply the bringing of the factory-mentality to what should be the hand-crafting of intellects. It won't work. So, authors, don't panic. Your time will come. Our problem is to get educators to think critically about what it means to be truly educated.

Jim Murphy said...

Vicki I totally agree and it's one of the missions of INK to help that happen. It's exciting anhd challenging (I've never thought about myself as a "teacher," which seems like such a heavy-duty responsibility, but I'm trying to learn and be of help to anyone who wants to listen).
CC and Steve. That's my worry (tiny as it may be). When I write I try to get into this zone that has no realtionship to rules of writing, what reviewers might think, sales potential, etc. I jsut want to inhabit the material in a way that lets me walk in the middl of it and (hopefully) let readers experience it in a similar way.
DM: "hot girls, etc." I might actually be able to pay off my various debts if I wrote about this topic, but I think I'll pass on it and leave it to the YA vampire fiction writers. Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

I just read an excellent blog about implementing CCSS by using literary nonfiction. It comes from a real live English teacher who actually understands the goals of CCSS for a change, and you can find it here: http://thereadingzone.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/why-cant-we-be-friends-the-common-core-informational-text-and-literature/

This past week I also saw an ad from a publisher that's doing exactly what you were afraid they'd do--they're promoting a blandly written book series that fits their idea of the CCSS standards to a T.

Jim Murphy said...

Is the sad fact that our blog is attracting trolls a sign that we're succeeding? I assume there's not much we can do, but I just wondered.
Roz -- that's exactly it. The changes to the CCSS have gotten people's attention and made many of us very optimistic and others nervous (textbook people have been under heavy and very public criticism in recent years over accuracy and reader engagement; some uninformed fiction advocates are up in arms). Clearly, no one wants to be left behind and my worry (for me) is that this might in some way intrude on how I actually write my stuff.

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