Saturday, July 31, 2004

"Middle America"

I'm hereby taking an intermission from my reminiscing to respond to the use of "middle America" as east-west coastal short hand for "narrow-minded" and/or "unsophisticated."

Okay, now I'm about to demolish my dignity by pointing out that this rant is inspired by my landing on the "E! True Hollywood Story: Dirty Dancing" while, um, channel surfing.

But basically, what happened was someone on the original creative team for the short-lived TV show (which was of course nada compared to the oh-so inspired YA movie) explicitly said the story had been cleaned up and santized because of "middle America" sensibilities.

Huh.

I've lived in Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Texas.

I know middle America.

Just FYI, NYC & Hollywood: Middle America likes its dancing as dirty as the next region. Forbidden love. Grinding point-turns. Bring it on!

Oh, wait, wasn't that the title of a cheerleader movie with Kirsten Dunst and Eliza Dushku?

Jingle Dancer

"Sing like no one can hear you. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like no one is watching." --from a plaque designed by artist Christina Holt; available from Signals

"As Moon kissed Sun good night, Jenna shifted her head on Grandma Wolfe's shoulder. "I want to jingle dance, too." --JINGLE DANCER by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow, 2000)

I read an article on MSN this week reporting that singer/actress Jennifer Lopez, age 34, had announced that she was moving into Phase II of her life and, therefore, nothing she'd done in Phase I counted. Clean slate.

How liberating!

While I believe history is ignored at one's peril, I do like the idea of renewal, starting fresh, looking forward. So, I'm going to try the same thing. I'm not sure I'd call it Phase II (childhood and adolescence each merit their own phase, I think, if only to set farther back some questionable boyfriend choices--but then again, if J. Lo is okay with hers....). In any case, I'd like to move ahead with more vigor.

First, though, it seems important to look back. Writing-wise, I'd like recall the writing journeys that brought me here today. I won't bore you with the stories behind the manuscripts that didn't sell--no blog is big enough to hold all those. But rather I'll focus on those that did eventually find an audience.

The first of my books was an illustrated children's picture book for ages four to seven, titled JINGLE DANCER.

I scribbled the first draft of the manuscript in blue ink on a torn envelope while waiting to tutor my next student in English composition at St. Edward's University. I worked there for a semester, shortly after Greg and I moved to Austin for the first time (ours, not his), tutoring freshmen in the migrant farm family students' program. All the kids were ESL speakers/writers; all were tremendously inspirational. It was a fantastic experience.

In any case, I started with the story of two sisters, one of whom was named "Kenna." I can't make out the other name on the envelope anymore. It didn't have any arc whatsoever, but rather was a slice-of-life piece about two young girls getting ready to go to powwow.

Suffice it to say, I quickly realized that, say, conflict and rising action might be a good idea. And so I revised, narrowing the focus on one girl, and changing her name to "Jenna" because it sounded good with "jingle dancing," which is a lovely ladies' dance. Though Rain from RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME has a big brother, Fynn, I usually write characters who're only children like I was. Sad to say, but for focus reasons, Jenna's sister had to go.

I revised the manuscript, then tentatively titled "Jenna, Jingle Dancer, a total of 83 times--I still used to bother to count back then. I always mention that to kids, who so often groan when a teacher marks a mistake on their paper or--gasp--makes them rewrite once. Writing is rewriting, or so goes the saying. And thank heavens, or boy, would I ever be in trouble.

The truth is I hate writing first drafts but adore revising. I'm open to at least trying any suggestion that might make the story better. In fact, one rule I have for rejecting an idea outright is that I must be able to articulate a reasoned, literary reason for not giving it a fair shot. It protects my work from my ego.

Up until "Jenna, Jingle Dancer," I'd had a great system for handling submissions. I sent the manuscript to an editor. The editor's assistant sent me a form rejection. I filed the form rejection in a big, white three-ring binder. I sent the manuscript to someone else. Sometimes I revised first.

Occasionally, I got a scribbled note saying something like--"very promising" or "send more work." I gloried in and celebrated those. A Houghton Mifflin editor named Margaret Raymo was the first editor to write something encouraging on one of my decline letters. I continued writing by the glow of her words for months.

Following this course, I'd submitted "Jenna, Jingle Dancer" to Rosemary Brosnan, who was then the head editor at Lodestar. She'd been interested in another picture book manuscript of mine, "Something Bigger" (a fishing story about a boy and his grandfather that years later was rewritten to become the last short story in INDIAN SHOES).

I also submitted it for critique at a couple of SCBWI regional conferences--one in Houston and one in Brazos Valley. Imagine my surprise when I walked into the Houston conference and found out that Simon & Schuster editor Kevin Lewis thought my manuscript was wonderful--"just the kind of thing we should be doing with multicultural books," he said and hugged me. (Keep in mind, at this point in my life, editors were not people who hugged me. They were mysterious, all-powerful, and a bit scary. This, actually has changed for the better). Then, at the Brazos Valley conference, editor Liz Bicknell (now of Candlewick Press) had quite flattering things to say as well. Right about the same time, I signed with my agent, and in the end, the manuscript sold to Rosemary at Lodestar, where it had particularly caught the attention of her then editorial assistant, named "Jenna."

For a short while, all was well. My friends fussed over me and sent flowers. I skipped through the streets of Chicago. But then Lodestar was downsized in one of those many publishing buyouts that were so frequent at the time (and still, let's face it, are always a danger). Rosemary took another job at Morrow Junior shortly after, but then--eek!--Morrow was bought by Harper and downsized, though they kept some of the contracts, including mine, and some of the editors, including Rosemary. Woo woo! We were in business.

But in sum, JINGLE DANCER is a book that was originally sold to one company, produced at a second, and distributed by a third. That's a volitile industry!

The title was changed from "Jenna, Jingle Dancer" to JINGLE DANCER, I think because it looked better on the cover art. As for the rest of the book itself...

Post-acquisition edits were unusually mild, the addition of one clause ("As light blurred silver..."). I'm sure never again will edits on one of my books be so minor. I also added the author's note and brief glossary, mostly for the convenience of teachers, librarians, and parents. (I doubt kids of the book's target age read author's notes.)

JINGLE DANCER has been noted for the following qualities:

(1) inclusion of biracial Native characters in the illustrations without it being an issue in the text, particularly Black Indians;

(2) its strong girl/woman relationship emphasis, which cuts against the false stereotype of Native women being secondary to Native men or otherwise undervalued;

(3) the juxtaposition of traditional (like storytelling) and contemporary (like a TV in the family room) images in a Native American setting, which sends a clear signal that we are still here (to paraphrase the Lerner series by the same name).

(4) showing of Native characters of all generations, not just children and elders;

(5) showing of a woman in a professional role (Cousin Elizabeth is a lawyer);

(6) building a story on the number for instead of three (as in three wishes, three billy goats gruff, three pigs as is so popular in the European tradition);

(7) Grandma Wolfe--the subtle suggestion of Wolf as Grandma instead of, well, the bad guy who eats grandma. Yikes! (Another Native versus Euro perspective quirk).

Arguably these qualities repeat in some of my work that followed, though honestly I didn't put much thought into any of this at the time. I just wrote the world I saw.

Probably no aspect of the final book was as pleasing to me as Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu's original watercolor illustrations. JINGLE DANCER was the first book they had done that didn't reflect either of their own backgrounds (Neil is African American; and Ying is Chinese American). They were tremendously concerned about accuracy and solicited several suggestions for what to include in a contemporary Okie Indian household. Rosemary was considerate enough to let me double check the illustrations, and I was able to make a few comments that led to revisions which reflected Jenna's world with more storytelling precision.

Generally speaking, authors and illustrators are kept separate, but in this case, it made sense for me to offer feedback because I was the subject-matter expert.

That said, only Neil and Ying could've brought the characters to life with such warmth and love. I'll be forever grateful for their talent, consideration, and grace.

Of course, long after a writer's efforts on a particular tale are finished, the story lives on. On bookshelves, in the hearts and memories of readers. It makes me smile to think of Jenna, forever dancing.

See also:

Articles

Jingle Dancing With Cynthia Leitich Smith by Julia Durango of By the Book. Short interview with includes information about Cynthia's first two books and some of her favorite books as a reader. Fall 2000.

“Native Now: Contemporary Indian Stories” by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Book Links, December 2000).

Meet the Author: Cynthia Leitich Smith "Jingle Dancer" by Joanne Spataro from Families-First.com Fresh Air TeenZine. Spring 2000.

An Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Taylor Fogarty from American Western Magazine. Spring 2000.

Awards

Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies and a Selector's Choice for 2001; Named to the 2001 2 x 2 Reading List of twenty books recommended for children ages two through second grade by the Texas Library Association; One of five finalists for the children's/YA division of the Oklahoma Book Award; Runner-up for the Storyteller Award from the Western Writers Association; Named a CCBC Choice for 2001; Debuts That Deliver (Book Magazine); Editor's Choice, Library Talk); featured in GREAT BOOKS ABOUT THINGS KIDS LOVE by Kathleen Odean; 2002 Read Across Texas Bibliography (Texas State Library and Archives Commission).

note: back then I didn't read reviews at all, so I can't easily pull any. But I think they were pretty positive.

Brain Ooze

"No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft." --H.G. Wells

I'm not sure about that, but if you want to really complicate the issue.... Ever try copy editing for your spouse?

Greg is on deadline to send his final draft of TOFU AND T.REX (Little Brown, spring 2005) to Amy, who by the way has a food company named after her. Her last edits were pretty minor--some confusion about the fact that school starts in Texas sooner than in Chicago (the sooner to practice football, my dear) and what not.

Mostly, we're just combing through for little, picky stuff because any time you tweak anything, you open the door to glitches and ripples.

Or really bad lines like "open the door to glitches and ripples," which pretty much proves my point.

Yes, Amy herself will go over it and so will the copy editor. But we can't let anything leave the house looking icky.

So, anyway, TOFU is smart, hilarious, classic G. But the tedium of copy editing has never been my passion, hence my leaning toward reporting rather than editing in J-school. So...brain ooze.

In other news, two darling blond chicks took me out for Chinese food and showered me with celebratory gifts. I love my friends. (More on that later; it's part of a much bigger story to come).

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Turkey Burger & Ghosts

As you know, I've given up all meat except fish/fowl, and so I had the turkey burger on wheat at Hyde Park Bar & Grill tonight. It was a "meeting" of my crit group, which involved no actual critting. That will be reserved for Sunday when we meet to hear G read TOFU out loud.

(By the way, ignore the customer comments on citysearch; only the cranky bother to post).

Stopped after for a glass of red at the Driskill, which by the way is Austin's most haunted hotel. I learned all about it last fall on the ghost tour with Brian Yanskey, author of MY ROAD TRIP TO THE PRETTY GIRL CAPITOL OF THE WORLD (Cricket, 2003). Spooky!

But I emerged from the ladies' room unscathed.

Cinderella

"One shoe can change your life." --Cinderella, as quoted on a pillow at Emeralds.

I'm a "Cynthia" now, but once upon a time, I was--gasp--a "Cindy Lou." Perhaps because I've heard every version--none of them clever--of "Cinderella, dressed in yella...," I have something of an issue with the princess. I dislike the character, especially the Disney version (though the mice are darling) with only a few exceptions.

(A few exceptions: JUST ELLA by Margaret Peterson Haddix; ELLA ENCHANTED by Gail Carson Levine; CINDERELLA by Ruth Sanderson; and "Ever After," starring Drew Barrymore).

I was mulling over the mythology as I picked my purchases: black-and-white slides; black with rhinestone thong; cream thong with silk flower at toe; pink thong with silk flower at the toe (what can I say? they were the most comfortable); 2" heels.

But the clear plastic psuedo "glass" slippers pinched at the toes.

However, I'm completely enthralled with the idea of a fairy godmother. I've always wanted one. Children's literature has one, you know. Her name is Esme Raji Codell, and I have complete faith that she is magic personified.

I also believe in wishes come true, and today, my feet look pretty sassy. So, maybe I'll cut the princess a little slack. Sometimes we all need a little help with our transformations.

Site I'm surfing right now: Publisher's Lunch: Published Daily. Except When Not.

Book I'm reading right now: IDA B by Katherine Hannigan (Greenwillow, 2004).

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Bob Newhart

Greg calls it to my attention that the TV Land TV channel has erected a Bob Newhart statue in Chicago. I find this brilliant.

I became hooked on "The Bob Newhart Show" when I was a law student. Excellent writing, good acting, people who actually looked like they could exist. Ah, those were the days.

Speak To Me

Received a picture book in the mail today: SPEAK TO ME (AND I WILL LISTEN BETWEEN THE LINES) by Karen English, illustrated by Amy June Bates (FSG, 2004). I don't know Karen, but her debut novel, FRANCIE, was wonderful and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. No information on Amy, except that it says on the flap that she's from Ann Arbor, which is where I went to law school. The book features alternating point of view poems in the voices of young African American characters.

FSG is one of the few national publishers still doing multicultural literary trade picture books. Clarion (particularly with Asian American) and Charlesbridge are still hanging in there, too. There's another house or two, I'm sure...but their names are just on the edge of my mental facilities. Boyds Mills, that's one. Small lists, but the quality and diversity are there.

I realize multicultural publishing is fraught with challenges. No way around it, though. African American children's and YA books are definitely the strongest of the historically underrepresented groups, though Hispanic/Latino and Asian (by which I mean Chinese and Korean American) are coming up strong. Books featuring Jewish characters and gay/lesbian characters are on the rise, but the topics are still somewhat limited.

As for the rest, the numbers are still pretty awful across the board. Native, Southeast Asian, Arab and so forth, we should perhaps look to the African American children's book community as a model.

Maybe start by checking out: BLACK BOOKS GALORE! by Donna Rand, Toni Trent Parker, and Sheila Foster (John Wiley & Sons, 1998). Features descriptions of 500 books, award listings, tips for encouraging young readers, and highlight articles on a sampling of African American authors and illustrators.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Mr. Monk and the Red-Headed Stranger

The longer I live in Austin, Texas, the more I like Willie.

Multicultural Humor, Seriously

My husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, and I had agreed to give one of the keynote presentations at Reading The World in San Francisco in March 2004. Since humor plays a role in our work and the conference’s focus was multicultural, we decided to talk about the interplay between the two in children’s and young adult literature.

Only problem?

The number of humorous multicultural books published was insignificant. Not that we did a statistical study, but via the Internet, we did call on the cumulative wisdom—of authors, librarians, reviewers, university professors, booksellers, elementary and secondary teachers, and so forth—to offer titles that we might highlight. And the results were fairly sparse, especially when talking about comedies as opposed to books with some humor in them.

This inspired us to conduct a survey of our own, sending a query to twenty particularly well-read professionals. We began by asking for recommendations.

“I didn’t know the genre even existed in children’s books,” wrote illustrator Don Tate. “There must not be many in the area of books featuring African Americans.”

In response to our query for multicultural humor recommendations, most of left the question blank. Author Uma Krishnaswami listed twelve. Author Joseph Bruchac offered nine titles, but none that involved human characters. Everyone else suggested one to three. On the assumption that there simply had to be more, a university professor of language arts education wrote to say that she had been negligent in her studies.

In fairness, a handful of authors like Gary Soto, Walter Dean Myers, and Lensey Namioka have been writing funny books for years, though they’re more common at the picture book than novel level. Yet considering the thousands of books published annually, it was clear that it would be a challenge to meaningfully address the topic. So, why did we persevere?

Though multicultural humor was rare, we nevertheless were convinced it was on the rise. Lisa Yee’s debut novel, Millicent Min: Girl Genius—recently named the 2003 Sid Fleischman Humor Award winner via the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators—is an excellent example of a comedy with an Asian American protagonist, and young adult novelist Nancy Osa’s Delacorte Prize winner Cuba 15 sparkles in part because of the humor in it. Perhaps Christopher Paul Curtis’ Newbery Honor Book, The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963, will stand as the book that heralded an increase in the publication of multicultural humor. But despite such positive signs, the children’s and young adult literature community has barely begun to graze our potential in this area.

Author Joseph Bruchac told us, “It has got to change. We need laughter to survive, and our children need it more than they ever have before.”

The idea of laughter as essential resonated with us. So, we set out to find out what the challenges were in publishing multicultural humor. The answers we found were rooted in the writing itself, in the history and politics, in often misguided perceptions, and perhaps most of all in our grown-up psyches.

Ironically, one of the biggest challenges in publishing not only multicultural humor but any kind of humor seems to be adults’ need to have others take us seriously.

Perhaps because of our own insecurities, our need for societal approval, we apparently overcompensate. We write, illustrate, publish, and herald a disproportionate number of serious books at the expense of their funny brethren.

This tendency may be even greater with authors of multicultural books and those from historically underrepresented communities. Just labeling a book or author “multicultural” is sometimes seen as divisive, even diminishing. So, we’re more likely to write about what’s deemed “significant” by the whole in hopes that the significance will rub off on us, will have a positive effect on how our work is received.

Put another way, it’s tempting to write the umpteenth book about the Japanese American internment because most people will rush to agree that’s inherently a valuable topic. It matters, so we must matter, too. Our book must matter, too.

But at schools and libraries, young readers from communities of color are telling us again and again that while they appreciate a title about, say, the internment, slavery, Trail of Tears, or immigrant persecution, a steady reading diet of those books gets a little depressing after a while. As one African American young reader asked, “Why is it that it’s only the white kids in books who seem to laugh and have fun?”

The answer from author Rukhsana Khan was that: “It all comes back to trying to publish something ‘worthy.’ With prestige. They don’t take comedy as seriously as ‘literature’ because comedy is like a needle that pricks the balloon of ego.”

Which of course begs the question of, if not just the authors, who “they” are.

Author Carolyn Crimi explained, “The industry as a whole doesn’t reward funny books with any kind of serious recognition. I think many believe funny books are ‘easier’ to write and should therefore be taken less seriously when, in fact, humorous fiction is incredibly difficult to do well.”

While it’s impossible to talk about multicultural humor without incorporating concerns related to humor more generally, we also wondered if there might be some considerations that were inherent about writing comedy about specific cultural communities or characters from diverse backgrounds.

“The big problem,” author Johanna Hurwitz said, “is trying to be funny without making fun of an ethnic group in any way.”

Historically and sometimes still today, reactions to diversity have not always been a source of the kind of laughter most of us would like to encourage. So, what to do?

How does one know when the humor laughs at or laughs with?

We have to know what we’re talking about. That doesn’t mean we have to be a member of the reflected group, it does mean we’re enough at ease to tell them a joke in their own language, so to speak, and know it will be well received. That can be a challenge for the author, but it can be an even bigger one for cross-cultural readers.

“Some comedy (a lot of Indian comedy),” clarified Joseph Bruchac, “doesn’t make much sense to the average white person.”

Maybe that’s okay. Maybe the only way sense of humor will translate is by continued exposure, by trusting our readers to try harder when it doesn’t come easily.

To have faith.

Because sensibilities vary so greatly, even within communities, we have to do so knowing that the jokes may fall flat. We also have to risk possibility offending someone.

If it seems like too much to ask, perhaps now is the time to ask anyway. Author Uma Krishnaswami said, “[I]t’s time for children’s literature to begin looking at culturally based stories as stories about grounded communities rich in relationships and not just about sad, struggling people who miss other places and times, and whose journeys are about trying to fit into/understand the American way! That’s a shift in perspective that allows humor to emerge.”

We will and must continue to publish books that ask the tough questions and reflect the hard times. But we should also make more of an effort to inspire a smile, a chuckle, and in thoughtful literary ways.

After all, as author Carmen T. Bernier Grand wrote, “Music, dance, art, tears and laughter connect us as human beings. They are silk ribbons—sometimes hemp ropes—that spool us into each other.”

Note: though humor is the above topic, this same article could've focused just as directly on multicultural genre fiction (fantasy, horror, science fiction, mystery), etc. just as easily. Really, the more global picture is that we've offered a completely disproportionate amount of serious, realistic fiction for children and teenagers rather than a mix of serious, funny, realistic, and fantasy/genre. Our point is that balance is a good thing.

TV, Baby!

Finally got up the courage to watch the tape of my Project Smart interview. The PS people all rule--very nice and very professional. Me, I actually--gasp--sounded like I knew what I was talking about. Only problem, in my last-minute quest to wear something in a solid (not blue), I ended up in this red top that was about four sizes too big. I remember trying to tuck it behind my back before the taping started. Worse, the chair was red and my aforementioned red shirt totally blends so... I admit it. I look like Clifford The Big Red Chair. But oh well. Whaddya gonna do? Otherwise it was all good.

Mail, Glorious Mail! (Also known as bilingual, Walker, and Roaring Brook)

Received a postcard today from Salina Bookshelf, which is publishing in English/Navajo. They seem to have two picture books and four board books. I'm very interested in this...the publication of bilingual books in Native languages. It definitely gets across the idea that these are living languages, and language preservation is of course so important. Children's Book Press has been doing bilingual multicultural books for some time in a variety of languages, and I believe both Arte Publico and Cinco Puntos Press publish English/Spanish (as, by the way, does my publisher HarperCollins under the Rayo imprint). But Native/English books are rare.

Hmmmm..... Consider this a hint from Cyn to the universe.

By the way, if you're interested in small, multicultural presses, also surf by Lee and Low, which publishes a diversity of titles, and Polychrome Books, which has an Asian American emphasis and, by the way, was established by Greg's childhood neighbor.

At a time when multicultural picture books are fewer and fewer on the major publishers' lists, these smaller companies are stepping up to fill the gap.

On another note, today's mail (yes, I love mail; yes, I know this makes me an odd duck) brought the Roaring Brook and Walker catalogs.

Walker is a great company; they publish Anna Myers, an Oklahoma author whose books I've long admired. And on that note, I see her that Anna's TULSA BURNING is now available in paper.

The Walker catalog does a good job of promoting the backlist, which is unusual. That said, front list books that caught my eye include A WOMAN FOR PRESIDENT by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Jane Dyer (which came with a button that I'm now wearing--very effective promo item; timely title); LUCKY LEAF by Kevin O'Malley (a picture book with a psuedo-graphic-novel-esque appeal), JUNGLE GYM JITTERS by Chuck Richards (check out the debut illustrations on this one); and OUTSIDE AND INSIDE BATS by Sandra Markle (all Austinites love bats).

Roaring Brook is a a new fave. Do they have a Web site? I can't find one. For those of you not deeply embedded in the business, they were recently bought by the same people who own Henry Holt (German company; I forget what it's called). The seller was Millbrook as part of the bankruptcy I mentioned in a previus post. Despite all this financial trauma, RB is a tremendous innovator, the kind of publisher that gives me hope and inspires. They also have really cute catalogs--small and hip, just like the house.

Among my checked many requests are UNEXPECTED DEVELOPMENT by Marlene Perez; DEATH BY EGGPLANT by Susan Heyboer O'Keefe (middle grade; looks really hilarious), and A FAST AND BRUTAL WING by Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson.

And finally I'm off to go take a bath and read my SCBWI July-August Bulletin. Hey, you have your definition of fun. I have my definition of fun.

Woo woo!

People on my mind today: Debbie Leland, Dianna Hutts Aston, Tanya Lee Stone. Also Jean Gralley has a new Web site.

Monday, July 26, 2004

The Thin & The Fat Of It

So, I'm watching my "Bridget Jones' Diary" DVD, and I notice for the first time that the weight issue that is so socially/emotionally exasperating to the protagonist is that she's 131 pounds.

Let's think about this.

At 131 pounds, she's probably a women's size small.

So, the catastrophie is...that she's not an extra small?

Why do I even own this DVD? Because it was otherwise cute, the story of a plucky underdog... Forget it. That's pretty much a fatal flaw.

And really, though I'm finger-pointing at Hollywood, this is culture-wide problem and it has been for a loooooooong time.

When I was a teenager, I didn't eat on Fridays. At all. Because they were game days, and I had to.... I don't know. Look good for the football team?

Three of my close friends had eating disorders. Two were anorexic. One was bulimic and diabetic. All three were intelligent and staggeringly gorgeous. It's a wonder they all survived to adulthood.

Two good related reads are: the Printz honor book FAT KID RULES THE WORLD by K.L. Going and ALT ED by Catherine Atkins. Of course these are both about heroes on the overweight end of the spectrum.

(Have you ever noticed, by the way, that there is almost never an overweight figure depicted on the cover of a children's or teen novel--even when it's an issue in the book? Sometimes, the protagonist is even portrayed inconsistently with the way he or she is described by the author. Would it be that bad for sales? I wonder. Maybe.).

There is probably some excellent book related to eating disorders that I don't know about. Write and tell me about it.

Yes, yes, I know. Time to stop overexaming everything and get back to work. Well, almost. I have just a few things to take care of first.

Author's Life

"As I write, I create myself again and again." --Joy Harjo

Author Angela Shelf Medearis (DAISY AND THE DOLL (Vermont Folklife Center, 2000) is working on a children's books program for PBS, and despite effort, there just wasn't a day Greg and I could go interview for it that fit her schedule. I can't believe how hectic my life is sometimes.

I first began working with my Harper editor, Rosemary Brosnan, when I was in my late 20s, which is young for a children's/young adult author. Okay, it's not young compared to Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, but generally speaking.

I attribute this to my mentors, Jane and Kathi, the support of my husband, Greg, my amazing agent, and the fact that I had a lot of first-rate writing training in college.

It does substantially change-up your life, though, when you move from being a writer to a writer-author.

No one is complaining because it's certainly a blessing to be published. But being an author brings with it a number of extra responsibilities. Certainly, production is a process unto itself, and authors are involved to varying degrees. Promotion is a burden and opportunity, one of those things where you can always do more. At some point, you must learn to say no or there will be no time for writing future books. But if you say no too often, you fret those already on the line will die.

All of this is to say, looking back...

Before I was published, I used to feel that would be so important for validating what I did. Maybe it was because I'd quit a (more lucrative and responsible-sounding) law job to do it. Maybe it's because many people don't believe in you until they hold that first bound copy in their hands. Maybe it's just plain old fashioned self-doubt.

But in any case, the apprentice phase should be a glorious one. All you have edging against your writing is your supposed "real" life, whatever that may hold. Embrace it, rejoice in it. You can never go back to that place again.

Later, much will be good--even great--and some, well, will not.

I was really frustrated a couple of years ago by the direction of the publishing business. (Actually, I still am at times).

But Franny Billingsley told me to just shove it all aside and focus on craft.

In a dive-in-head-first-like-air-doesn't-matter kind of way.

It helped.

Of course competing responsibilities and temptations do still permeate, but I'm more selective about which to accept. And, for that matter, initiate.

Craft is good.

If you're stuck, exhausted, or otherwise can't go there, read instead. You'll be doing the same thing, only more subconsciously.

By the way, Joy Harjo is a Creek poet, songbird, children's author. Her books include: THE GOOD LUCK CAT, illustrated by Paul Lee (Harcourt, 2000). Aunt Shelly says that Woogie is a good luck cat. As he survives one scrape after another, her analysis seems to be right on target. But one day when he doesn't come home, we wonder if this good luck cat's ninth life has run out. This is a delightful look at the friendship between a cat and a young girl. And it's -- yahoo! -- a children's picture book with Indian characters wherein Native culture isn't the main focus. Of course, it's wonderful to have children read accurate, respectful books that touch on Indian themes; however, they should be balanced with charming stories like this one that depict daily life. Ages 4-up.

People on my mind today: Joseph Bruchac, Laura Ruby, and Jenni Holm. Jenni's site has this really cool online game in conjunction with her 2003 Harper suspense novel, THE CREEK (which is not a reference to mine and Joy Harjo's Indian tribe). In any case, turn up your volume and check it out--spooky!

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Lance, Goats, $, Blah

Lance won the Tour de France. Its funny, I remember in '91 when I was studying EC Law and the French Law system in Paris, my friend Monique was obsessed with the race. I could not for the life of me figure out what was so exciting. Now, I know. It's that local tie that makes all the difference.

I just talked to my quasi-lil-sis of childhood and forever. She adopted two goats, went to bed one night, and woke up to three goats. All goats, baby included, are doing just fine.

Am currently surfing funds for writers....

Just read a very blah 1980esque children's book (this is not to say there weren't amazing '80s books; I'm not talking about those). Safe. No arc. No stakes. Or at least no rising stakes. We need to watch out for that. If it feels out-of-touch to this GenXer, I can't imagine the PlayStation generation embracing. And no, a Grateful Dead reference wouldn't help. And this is coming from me, dead-friendly. Or at least undead friendly.

Trips: Road and Virtual

Just back from Denton--stayed at a nifty B&B, Italian for dinner, spoke at Texas Woman's University. I-35 travel pretty much mandates going up the day before. Hit several traffic jams, but well worth the trip.

Loved speaking at the U, which is one of my hands-down fave venues. It's all in the preparation. All of the students had either read Greg's NINJAS or any one of my three. The professor had also arranged for a bookseller. For anyone looking for related tips, I strongly recommend:

TERRIFIC CONNECTIONS WITH AUTHORS, ILLUSTRATORS AND STORYTELLERS: REAL SPACE AND VIRTUAL LINKS by Toni Buzzeo and Jane Kurtz (Libraries Unlimited, 1999). Unlike other author visit guides, this book goes beyond nuts-and-bolts planning to illustrate how to create the best accessible encounters between students and authors. Choosing the guest, guidelines for successful visits, making curriculum connections, using e-mail to connect with bookpeople, having live chats in virtual space, taking advantage of ITB and satellite technology, and using such props as realia and curriculum guides are covered. Grades K-12. To order call: 1.800.237.6124.

Greg just got TOFU AND T.REX edits from Amy--final edits. Woo woo!

In other news Pooja Makhijani has a new author Web site. I was particularly interested in reading her story behind the inspiration for MAMA'S SARIS (Little Brown, 2006). Awk! 2006 is such a long time to wait. In the meantime, check out South Asian Voices With North American Accents by Uma Krishnaswami at Papertigers.org.

Writing Tip: Avoid eavesdropping to advance the plot. Try something more imaginative instead!

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Spidey, Ruth, Dale/Adam

Inspired by having seen "Spiderman 2" yesterday, I'm reading MARY JANE by Judith O'Brien, which is actually a hardcover, pretty entertaining YA (and I'm only at the end of the prologue). The book itself is supposedly inspired by "Ultimate Spiderman," which is a really fantastic comic. ("Robin" and "Teen Titans" are also worth reading, especially for Stephanie/Spoiler and Cassie/Wonder Girl and Raven in general. Tim/Robin, too.)

If you're interested in such things, be sure to check out: GETTING GRAPHIC! USING GRAPHIC NOVELS TO PROMOTE LITERACY WITH PRETEENS AND TEENS by Michele Gorman (Linworth, 2003). An information guide for librarians, teachers, and anyone who works with young people who want to learn more about graphic novels. For librarians and school library media specialists, this is a tool to help you develop, manage, and promote a collection of graphic novels in addition to the developing corresponding programs and special events. This book is designed to meet the needs of both school and public librarians who have little or no knowledge about graphic novels. Topics addressed in the book include a brief history of comic books and graphic novels, the value of graphic novels for developing readers, the role of graphic novels in public libraries, school libraries, and classrooms, issues and information relevantto collection development and bibliographic control of graphic novels,programming and promotion ideas, and core collections for middle school libraries, high school libraries, and public libraries serving youth populations. NOTE: Greg and I have eaten BBQ with the author and talked Green Lantern (and more!); she knows her stuff. See also Comic Books for Young Adults from Michael R. Lavin.

Lunch today with Ruth Pennebaker (CONDITIONS OF LOVE, Holt, 1999). Took poor Bashi to the vet for his allergy shot. I swear I'm qualified to be a vet tech at this point.

Just watched the Dale "the whale" episode of "Monk." Episode 3, I think. Anyway, Dale is played by the same actor as Adam from "Northern Exposure" (my cousin Stacy owns a lamp from that show). Brilliant.

Note: Burt's Bees Evening Primrose Overnight Creme seems highly effective at enlivening skin. Voice of Dr. Frankenstein: "She's a-liiiiiiive." Eh, ya know.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Mentors, Millbrook, "Monk," and "Xanadu"

Pal Tanya Stone (P IS FOR PASSOVER: A HOLIDAY ALPHABET BOOK (Price Sloan, 2003)) wrote to ask if Kathi Appelt is my mentor because she was looking forward to hearing her speak at Vermont College, which by the way has an excellent program in children's and YA writing. She is!

So is Jane Kurtz (THE FEVERBIRD'S CLAW (Greenwillow, 2004)), who is currently living in my previous home state of Kansas. And speaking of Kansas, I also should mention that Dian Curtis Regan (CHANCE (Philomel, 2003)) has recently revamped her site and it now includes the two first chapters of her long-awaited PRINCESS NEVERMORE sequel.

It was reported today in "Byline" that when suffering from writer's block, I'm known to dance in the dark to Olivia Newton John's "Xanadu" album. This is in fact gospel truth.

And finally, Lerner bought Millbrook at auction for $3.4 million dollars. I'm thrilled for the authors. Limbo is not a happy thing in publishing.

Off to watch "Monk" season one on DVD.

On The Big Screen

Just back from my second viewing of "Spiderman 2," this time with Anne Bustard (BUDDY (Simon & Schuster, spring 2005)). All around fantastic film. Great writing!

Saw "Van Helsing," earlier this summer--not so great. And sigh. What I could've done with a vampire movie, that kind of budget, and Hugh Jackman. It pains the heart.


Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Listen to the Duck

WriteFest T-shirts and mugs (one to go in a China cabinet we've yet to acquire) arrived!

Speaking of WF, taking Page to the spa today for a much-deserved massage. What a Wonder Woman!

Rereading IMMEDIATE FICTION by Jerry Cleaver (helpful for plot structure) and THE COMPLETE IDIOT'S GUIDE TO PALMISTRY by Robin Gile and Lisa Lenard (probably research, too soon to say). Other recent reads include ALT ED by Catherine Atkins (Putnam, 2003) and NOTHING TO LOSE by Alex Flinn (Harper, 2004), which like her BREATHING UNDERWATER, touches on domestic abuse, and DOUBLE HELIX by Nancy Werlin (Dial, 2004). Have decided that Nancy is my new career role model; also she is a very brainy cutie.

Am deciding to give up recreational reading of romance for a while because of one too many references like "woman doctor." Don't get me wrong. I think fiction (largely) by women (largely) for women about love should be considered as valid as fiction (largely) by men (largely) for men about war. And a lot of it is well written. (More so than my previously snobby self used to think). But my inner GenX feminist just can't take it anymore. An exception, though, will be made for any book by my darling Neecola (Nicole Burnham), who writes YA chick lit as Niki Burnham and knows a thing or several about strong women.

In other news, online wedding photos came in from Staci (formerly of BookPeople, Austin's uber indie), and I'm not techno savvy enough to open the files. Sigh.

Already dressed for the day and having trouble keeping Blizzard Bently (named for SNOWFLAKE BENTLY by Jacqueline Briggs Martin off my black tropical pants. FYI: I have three other cats: Mercury Boo, Sebastian "Bashi" Doe, and Galileo "Leo," named for the Starry Messenger who inspired Greg's debut novel. But unlike the three tabbies, all white Blizzy is my most reliable lap cat. Virtually all writers have an affection for cats. Exhibit Hemmingway.

People on my mind this morning: Esme Raji Codell and Katie Davis.

Monday, July 19, 2004

About Town

Fueled by recent surge of self-confidence (and improved physique) purchased not only ensemble for my friend Tracy's baby shower tea party but also black sheath dress.

Just back from Magnolia South on South Congress. Scrambled eggs amid the pierced, dyed, tattooed children of the night. Leslie spotting--in thong and high heels at the intersection. He was kind enough to wave. Keep Austin Weird. I love this town.

Reading nothing. A rare occasion.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Grooming Warning

Do not use Nair on your eyebrows.

Not writing?

"Some people don't really bother much with remembering; it seems like such a useless activity. But most writers are addicted to it." --Alice Munro

My grandparents gave my cousin Stacy and I electric typewriters one Christmas. We were young-elementary age--but I don't remember exactly how young. I can remember sitting in the floor of their spare bedroom, tapping away all afternoon. I don't have that little electric typewriter anymore, but I do have my grandfather's heavy manual sitting on the wine cart in the downstairs back hall beneath a small gold-framed mirror and two antiqued pictures of Paris.

(If anyone's interested in learning more about my childhood on dad's side of the family, one of my short stories, "The Naked Truth," from IN MY GRANDMOTHER'S HOUSE: AWARD-WINNING AUTHORS TELL STORIES ABOUT THEIR GRANDMOTHERS (Harper, 2003) is a story about me and my grandmother and a painting of a nude in my grandparents' basement).

In sixth grade, I was "Dear Gabby" for Mr. Rideout's class newspaper. Mr. Rideout had a mustache and called me "Olive Oil," and that made me feel special--the nickname, not the mustache. Back then I read a lot of Judy Blume and all of the Newbery winners. I especially loved THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare.

In junior high, I was practically mute, but I did work on the newspaper. I don't remember actually writing anything for it, though, and I can't seem to bring up a picture of it in my mind. By then, I was reading Stephen King and a handful of YAs. Lots of sci fi, fantasy, and horror from then on and still today...

In high school, I didn't read much except my dad's serials (Westerns, Tarzan, and James Bond) and my mom's mass market romances--all while laying out bikini-clad and soaked in baby oil on the back deck. The theory, believe it or not, was that I was too busy for anything more substantial. I'd also mostly (temporarily) abandoned superhero comics (which are now considered infinitely hip and in bound collections called "graphic novels"). However, I did edit my high school newspaper, a task made infinitely more fun by the fact that two of my best friends were managing and sports editors respectively.

In college, I majored in journalism (as did my abovementioned cousin), which was really pretty much a gimme by that point, and took a concentration in English (three courses in fiction writing--all the short story). I would've been astonished if anyone had told me that someday I'd actually be well published in the short story. Or, for that matter, fiction generally.

Journalism school probably saved my life, gave me a place to fit in without pretentions. I also loved my "Children and Television" class, which was taught by a husband-wife team who'd been affiliated with Children's Television Workshop AKA "Sesame Street." I did too many related internships in news reporting (small town and big city) and PR (private greeting card company, public oil company, non-profit association), all of which combined served to let me know that I would be better off self-employed--my current status.

Law school was a different, though still verbal, field of study. Being an overly academic workaholic simply made me redundant--a nice change. The first summer study abroad in Paris showed me how big and little the world could be. I took my second summer to do a feature writing internship at a major metro daily. After graduation, I lasted about six months in a federal law office on La Salle Street before quitting to write full time.

It amazes me every day that I get to do what I love most.

Not that I'm doing it today. I'm not writing today. I haven't been writing much for the past few weeks, trying to sort of mentally regroup for the next big wave. I tend to do that, to fall completely into a manuscript. But every now and then, for a while, I have to break and go live a little in the real world. I don't like it as much as the worlds of my own making, but there are a lot of people here I love. So, I'm not writing. Unless writing about writing or not writing in this blog counts. Maybe it does. Sure it does.

Everything counts.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Hill Country Expedition

Hill country road trip today out to Fredericksburg. German Texan with shopping and food stuffs and bier gartens. Random musings: Who eats enough jerky to fuel an industry? Why do people find signs that say things like "A fool and his money make a great date" so amusing? (Of course, this said, with you-know-what in mind, I almost bought a burgundy T-shirt spouting "Got Wine?") When did small Texas towns start selling Ouija boards on Main Street? Should've bought that Texas cemeteries book.

Basically a lot of hot and a lot of humanity, but quaint in a touristy way. Has definite potential as a partial setting for a future novel, though I'd have to sink in. Maybe hole up at a B&B for a while and play ghost.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Other Red Things Include Lobster

Indulged in lunch at the Red Lobster, which was this psuedo-suburban flashback experience.

Adolescence in the suburbs is... Well, worthy of a novel in itself. And not worthy at all. If you're there, or have been there, you understand what I'm saying.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Blood Wine Boots

Quest finally pays off in San Marcos: blood wine, kangaroo leather cowboy boots.

Boy howdy, they sure are fine.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Brrrring

Alex Sanchez (author of RAINBOW BOYS, RAINBOW HIGH, and SO HARD TO SAY) called tonight, and he'll be at Texas Book Festival this fall. Amazing guy. Brought me a keychain from Graceland. Nobody else has ever brought me anything from Graceland. Also a great writer. Also, reading PLAYING IN TRAFFIC by Gail Giles.

Rituals

"The rituals of getting ready to write produce a kind of trance." --John Barth

I will heretofore (and you thought I didn't go to law school) shift blame for my staggering unproductivity (while waiting on my revision letter) to the trance.

But in any case, I am apparently getting ready to write. I spent most of the morning cleaning out my office. I always feel smarter when my office is clean, even though I only exhibit said smarts when picking my way through its messiness.

Actually, in fairness, I usually do original writing downstairs in the sunroom on my laptop in the middle of the night. It's a ghostly place. I drink iced tea, curl up with one-to-four cats, and keep the lights off. Sometimes I'll turn on music on TV, something to suit the mood of the piece. (My breakup with television did not extend to the all-music channels). Midnight to four a.m. for first drafts. Always.

That said, the upstairs daylight office is for revision and administrative whatever, so it's still important. One major step was to clear out a series of research books for a novel that, after too much reflection, I'm deciding not to write. It's been a backburner project for years, a frequent reader (I would say "fan," but let's be real) request. The whole process has been fairly empowering. Moving on already...

My office itself is cozy (read: too small). It was originally the maid's room in the house (we don't have a maid, unfortunately). Deep closet and a wash closet that serves the glamorous job of cat bathroom. Ceiling fan. One window overlooking the backyard and another overlooking the sideyard. The walls are green and adorned with wolves.

It's also been a year since I gave up potatoes and changed my life for the better. Not that the potatoes were key, but they were simultaneous. Or rather, they were not simultaneous. I'm sure I'll now get mail from the Potato Growers of America.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Maybe Half Full, Said The Optimist

"Writing does not exclude the full life. It demands it." --Katherine Anne Porter

I'm not sure I'm living up to the demand for a full life. I try; I do. But today is on the bland side.

Various news and thoughts:

Harper is including me in a calendar of its authors. I'm Miss November, if you can believe that. I should point out that this is a bibliophile calendar and not a lover-of-sexy-girls calendar.

If you want to meet a real Miss November, there's a rockin' editor by that name. She has the best hair God ever gave to a woman. Really.

I had the honor of writing a recommendation letter for one of my WriteFesters to Vermont. Speaking of WF, also have had numerous inquiries about next year but already decided that alumni get first dibs. It's only fair. They believed before the buzzy-ness.

Boot quest is going nowhere. I tried South Congress today. Some hopes for a used set in good shape--all red with something lizard at the toe for only $130--but no dice. Too small. Couple of really hot pairs at the actual Western wear shop, but everything I loved was at least $350 (up to $900). Who buys thousand dollar boots? Not Cyn.

This reminds me, Frances Hill (author of THE BUG CEMETERY, Holt 2002) told me recently that your feet keep growing or "spreading" for the rest of your life. Ever since then, I've had images of myself at 80, walking around in flippers. I think your nose and ears continue to grow, too. Hm. Probably time to start concentrating more on my personality.


"Freaks and Geeks" on DVD

Started watching the series "Freaks and Geeks," which is fairly addictive. Great YA stuff; first three episodes. I've broken up with television in light of the cancellation of "Angel," so my solution is to try quality that I somehow missed when it was aired. Anyway, it's set in 1980, which preceeds my high school years, but still... There's a nostalgia appeal. I recommend it.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Little of This, Little of That

Greg took me to lunch at Houston's to celebrate my mail. Usually avoid chains, but something about the brick and fire reminds me of Chicago. Have begun working on a massive rennovation of my site; going for a more sophisticated, user-friendly design. Lisa had the most intriguing idea about definition through color. Have rediscovered the "Footloose" sound track. Contemplating the author's note on my WIP. It's either irrelevant or crucial. Possibly a decision best left to the editor. Got "Freaks & Geeks" via Netflix.

The first time I wrote something on my own with the idea of sending it out to the world in general was in fourth or fifth grade, a collection of very bad (sometimes rhyming, sometimes not) poems. I got a white participation ribbon at my school district's fair. I've mentioned that in speeches and acknowledged that the participating was the important thing, but the truth is that the white ribbon made me feel lousy and I haven't really written poetry since.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Lunch and Library-ness

I had the honor today of lunching with a fave YA librarian--one of the conference-going, planner types. I have no idea how these folks do so much. Definitely warriors for the cause. We talked a bit about how far Native American children's/YAs are lagging behind books representing other groups in terms of reflecting modern life. Light-a-candle kind of talk, but still concerned. Problem is, our numbers are small, and there's no quick fix for that. Only option is to cultivate up-and-comers and encourage friends from other communities to take an interest. We also talked about Julie Anne Peters latest, LUNA (Little Brown, 2004), which may be the first YA with a transgendered character. Still reading TOO BIG A STORM by Marsha Qualey (Dial, 2004). Thinking again about talking to Lisa Firkle about doing a major redesign on my site. Past time to take it to the next level, past time for a change.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Sad news

Paula Danziger, author of the AMBER BROWN series and so much more, died yesterday, and the world is no longer as vivacious.

First Reading

I started young as a writer. Really young, but don't we all? When I was in first grade, I dictated a poem to my mother who wrote it down so I could give it to Mrs. Woodside, my teacher. It was about Christmas, my gift to my teacher. My mama probably still has a copy in a scrapbook somewhere. Mrs. Woodside--plump, gentle, nearing retirement, with an odd affection for owls--gave it to someone in the principal's office to read to the whole school over the intercom.

Nobody told me first. I was embarassed and then elated that my gift had been so well received, so enthusiastically shared. It didn't matter that I hadn't signed away those audio rights. It didn't matter that my copyright was ignored. I certainly didn't have to worry about a cranky PW review.

The poem was simple and heartfelt and uncensored and celebrated. Probably my entire career has been spent looking for one day just as good.

Today's highlights: lunch with Julie Lake, author of GALVESTON'S SUMMER OF THE STORM (www.julielake.com); dropped off donation copies of signed books for Texas Book Festival; dinner tonight with authors Dianna Hutts Aston (www.diannaaston.com; LOONY LITTLE) and author/illustrator Janie Bynum (www.janiebynum.com; ALTOONA BABOONA), who is apparently Austin-ish bound.

Reading TOO BIG A STORM by Marsha Qualey (Dial, May 2004), a story of a young girl in the 1960s fretting the fate of her older brother who's gone missing in the Vietnam War. Just received my copy of Joseph Bruchac's latest, THE DARK POND (Harper, 2004).
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