Friday, August 27, 2004

The Moccasin Telegraph

"I'd hate to try to learn the craft on a novel. Novels take so very long to write, and one inevitably learns so much from the act of writing. But you can learn those same things a lot faster from the short story." - Sharelle Byars Moranville

This quote was used this week in the e-newsletter of the Institute of Children's Literature (so I'm not all that original of a thinker).

All of this is to say that we have a pub date for my next short story: "A Real-Life Blonde Cherokee And His Equally-Annoyed Soul Mate" by Cynthia Leitich Smith from THE MOCCASIN TELEGRAPH: AMERICAN INDIAN STORIES FOR YOUNG ADULTS edited by Lori M. Carlson (HarperCollins, fall 2005)(ages 12-up).

I've had two short previous stories published, both middle grades: "The Gentleman Cowboy" by Cynthia Leitich Smith, PERIOD PIECES: STORIES FOR GIRLS edited by Erzsi Deak and Kristin Litchman (Harper, 2003); "The Naked Truth" by Cynthia Leitich Smith, IN MY GRANDMOTHER'S HOUSE: AWARD-WINNING AUTHORS TELL STORIES ABOUT THEIR GRANDMOTHERS, edited and illustrated by Bonnie Christensen (Harper, 2003).

In addition, Cicada magazine has picked up another young adult short story, but I don't have a pub date on that yet.

I've enjoyed working on the short stories but have been passing on more recent anthology invitations. They're fun to write and offer a (relatively) safer venue to experiment--hence my male POV and upper YA efforts, which have triggered new directions. But they're also time consuming, and at this point, it makes more sense to concentrate on novels.

Picked up two mesquite cow-hide chairs at Mi Casa Gallery; swing by and check out the expansion/rennovation.

Tried Uchi last night. According to the public and critic reviews, it's supposed to be fantastic. And it is. Innovative, tremendous service, hip ambiance. Perfect for a big night out on the town, but Mushashino's still rules on the actual cuts and quality of fish.

The Order Of The Poison Oak

Just finished THE ORDER OF THE POISON OAK by Brent Hartinger (Harper, February 2005)--can you believe it's time for 05 ARCs already?--which was his sequel to GEOGRAPHY CLUB, one of my fave YA novels of all time.

Fans of the first book should definitely pick up this follow-up, which I notice wasn't coyly (is that a word?) labeled a "companion book." And rightly so. It's a sequel-lover's sequel, picking up the following summer after the first book left off.

Without giving too much away, our hero, Russel, and his two best friends, Gunnar (who's been falsely assumed gay since joining the Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance and, due to related snafus, sworn off women) and Min (who's apparently feeling competitive with Russel over guys), have all taken jobs as counselors at a summer camp for kids who are burn survivors.

At camp, love triangles, cases of mistaken orientation, and real bonding time with the kids test friendships, relationships, and world views.

Much recommends Brent's writing, and his other two recent titles GEOGRAPHY CLUB and THE LAST CHANCE TEXACO are stand-outs as well. Globally, what strikes me most is the believability of the characters in sometimes serious, sometimes humorous contexts. Brent's make-believe people are more real than many folks you'll meet walking down the street. It's impossible not to identify and care about them.

A side note: the character Min is a bi Chinese American, which is important because, despite recent encouraging gains, diversity of sexual orientation is still underrepresented in YA lit and because racial/ethnic/religious diversity is still underrepresented among what does exist.

One of the aspects of literature I find most annoying is the presumption that characters are white unless otherwise specified. This is a societal tendency, mirrored in publishing. It makes writers crazy. Even where ethnicity is irrelevant to the story, if we want/need a multicultural cast, we're forced to somehow interweave an ethnically identifying reference. Often they don't flow well. I've seen it handled literally thousands of ways. Hartinger's in THE ORDER OF THE POISON OAK, though, is possibly my favorite because it (a) recognizes the impossibility of the construct (b) refuses to default into an all-white world (c) clearly delineates the subject in such a way that readers may actually be led into a more enlightened state, all while (d) keeping the whole thing in the authentic voice consistent with his narrator.

It reads like this: "She was bi. She was also Chinese-American, which has nothing to do with anything, and which almost seems kind of racist to even bring up at this point. But her name sort of bears explanation."

All of this is to say: grab a copy of the novel for yourself. And also surf over to Brent's hip site, read the first chapter, check out the discussion guide.

For more background, here's an interview I did with Brent when GEOGRAPHY CLUB (Harper, 2003) was released; since Lisa Firke is busy with my redesign, I'm just going to paste it in here:

The Story Behind The Story: Brent Hartinger on GEOGRAPHY CLUB

GEOGRAPHY CLUB by Brent Hartinger (Harper, 2003). Russel Middlebrook has a secret from even his best friends at high school, that he's gay. But an online chat offers an opportunity to meet up with another gay teen--who ends up being one of the best-looking athletes in school. These two cautiously connect with peers and then seek a place to be themselves, a place where they can talk, a place where people understand. Starting a gay-straight alliance seems too risky at first, so they form the "Geography Club" instead. Witty, smart, touching, even romantic--this debut novel signals an author to watch and applaud.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

In many ways, the book is my own story, since it includes many of the things I experienced in high school. In some sense, I think I wrote the book to rewrite my own adolescence, but give it a better resolution (and a happier ending!).

The actual inspiration came in the early 1990s, when I worked with a support organization for lesbian and gay teens. I soon realized that while lesbian and gay teenagers are incredibly diverse and come from every imaginable background, many of them--maybe even most--do share certain feelings in common: a sense of isolation, a fear of discovery, and an often desperate longing to find a place where they are accepted for who they are (and where they can safely do all the normal adolescent things, like have a crush on someone, talk about people they think are cute, and maybe find a girlfriend or boyfriend). The kids I worked with all shared a similar story, and it was one that I didn't think had ever been told particularly well. So I decided to tell it!

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

My first attempt at a gay teen novel, which I wrote in the early 1990s, was rejected by every publisher in the known universe (even after winning a series of awards, including the 1996 Judy Blume/SCBWI Grant for a Best Young Adult Novel).

Everyone--and I mean everyone--was convinced that a book about gay teenagers would never sell, especially to school libraries, which admittedly made up a bigger slice of children's books sales back then. I actually had one editor, who was very enthusiastic about the book itself, tell me, "We don't have any slots in our list right now for books with low sales projections." (I certainly didn't project the sales for my book to be low!)

In 2000, my then-agent and I pitched a bunch of new book ideas to an editor who was looking for an ensemble series. On a lark, I decided to make one of my story ideas gay-themed, and to my surprise, that's the storyline she wanted to see more of. So I wrote up an outline and a couple of sample chapters. She hated what I'd written, which is pretty much what I'd expected, so I forgot all about the project.

A year later, I reluctantly showed my new agent (Jennifer DeChiara) the sample chapters, and she absolutely loved them. We decided to pitch the project as a stand-alone book, and she took it out to new editors. A lot of them liked it, but even in 2001, I think more than a few were scared by the subject matter.

Fortunately, Steve Fraser, an editor at HarperCollins, loved it enough to actually buy it. In fact, he bought it just based on the outline and those two sample chapters, which I know is pretty unusual given that I was unpublished at the time. I was so certain he was going to change his mind (or be fired) that I pounded out the entire manuscript in the next three weeks--even before he and my agent were done negotiating the contract. The editing process was pretty painless (one draft), and I know my editor was thrilled with the result, because he has since bought three more of my young adult novels (for 2004, 2005, and 2006!), and we're planning a middle grade series as well.

Since editing, HarperCollins has been unbelievably supportive. People from different departments still surreptitiously contact me to tell me how much they like my book and offering little ways to help (it's like having a whole forest of little helper elves!). There have also been a few guardian angels from the greater world of children's publishing, and they've been invaluable in helping to get the word out. I think a lot people have been waiting for a book like mine for a long, long time.

One interesting note: Now that the book is getting such good reviews and a fair amount of attention, I have had several editors say to my agent, "If I'd seen this in the manuscript stage, I would have bought it in a minute!" They may actually believe this, but I don't think it's true. The subject matter made this project a very hard sell.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

I was determined that this not be one of those depressing "issue" books. So many young adult books are way too earnest, and most of the few existing gay teen books deal with really serious stuff like suicide or gay-bashing. These are real problems, but far too heavy for the book I had in mind.

I hope my book has a serious message, but I wanted to capture the fun and humor of adolescence too. And more than anything, I wanted this to be a book that people want to read--dessert, not broccoli! (Hey, whether we like it or not, we teen book authors are competing against Nintendo and Britney Spears in a thong!)

One psychological challege: Gay teenagers are typically coming to understand their own sexuality at earlier and earlier ages (it has to do with media exposure and more forthright attitudes about homosexuality, and it's not necessarily a bad thing). Anyway, I wanted Russel, my main character, to know that he is gay from the very beginning of the book. But this wasn't my personal experience at all, so I had to draw on my conversations with today's gay teens and try to put myself into the head of a character that, in that respect, is very different from me.

An interesting literary challenge: My book is the story of a teenager who starts a secret gay-straight alliance at his school. But because he and his friends can’t tell anyone the true nature of their club--and because they don‘t want anyone else to join!--they give it the most boring name they can think of: the Geography Club. Since the name is a ruse, they don't learn any actual geography, but I did intend for them to learn about a "geography" of sorts--specifically, the rigid social terrain of most American high schools. I knew this had to be done with a light touch, because I hate heavy-handed metaphors. Frankly, I'm not sure I succeeded--but I definitely did try!

Another challenge: I hate stereotypes, and I'm bored by how jocks and cheerleaders are always so evil in so many books. So in my book, I decided to shake things up. Sure, there are some jocks who are jerks in my book, but the main antagonist is actually one of the geeks. It was fun to go against the grain, but it was difficult to give a real sense of menace to such an inoffensive character. But I'm more confident that I succeeded here.

Finally, I wanted a protagonist who is likeable, but the plot requires him to do some pretty unlikeable things. The book is about having integrity and standing up for people who are different, but for my character to learn about integrity, he has to behave like a jerk for a time. It took a couple of drafts to get just the right amount of jerkiness--enough to make a point, but not so much that the reader loses sympathy.

Read An Interview With Brent Hartinger from Debbi Michiko Florence.

Today's mail brings an illustrated chapter book, OWEN FOTTE. MIGHTY SCIENTIST by Stephanie Greene, illustrated by Cat Bowman Smith (Clarion, 2004), and THE OLD WILLIS PLACE: A GHOST STORY by Mary Downing Hahn (Clarion, 2004).

The book I'm reading right now is SON OF THE MOB: HOLLYWOOD HUSTLE by Gordon Korman (Hyperion, 2004), the sequel to SON OF THE MOB.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Waving the Wheat

"Wave the wheat" is an expression used by Kansas Jayhawks to explain why we're swinging our arms back and forth over our heads at sporting events.

In an effort to be a healthier person, I've switched to whole wheats and whole grains and brown rice, which really are my preference anyway but often a challenge to find at restaurants.

Today, for example, I tried to order the wheat linguini at The Olive Garden and was given white instead (even though wheat was on the menu). Then the most unsympathetic waiter argued with me that it was wheat (it wasn't).

In any case, these are places in Austin where I've had some success in the matter:

Guerro's on South Congress (whole wheat tortillas);

Katz's (whole wheat bagels--yummy with lox and fat-free cream cheese);

Magnolia Cafe (brown rice, whole wheat tortillas, whole wheat bagels);

Maccaroni Grill (whole wheat pasta; now to be favored over The Olive Garden);*

PF Changs (brown rice);*

Suzi's North (brown rice, but sporadically).

*national chains

But if you're looking for the height of sugary goodness, go to Royer's Round Top Cafe, guilt-free. It's the pie place in Texas.

I know, I know... Stop obsessing and go read or write something. On it.

My lunch date was the goddess Dianna Hutts Aston, who's latest, ON THE DAY YOU WERE BORN (Candlewick, 2004), illustrated by E.B. Lewis, snagged a PW star.

The book I'm reading right now is THE ORDER OF THE POISON OAK by Brent Hartinger (Harper, 2005)(a sequel to GEOGRAPHY CLUB). Pleased to see Min back as a major character.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

September Roses

Today's mail brings SEPTEMBER ROSES by Jeanette Winter (Frances Foster/FSG, 2004), a tribute to an act of kindness in the wake of 9/11/01.

Sashimi last night. Friends spoiling me this week, very attentive. Planning to spa Friday. Mercury (growling) and Bashi (cowering) to the vet today for annual check up. Mercury is down to 18 pounds. Woo woo! Kitty pilates in action! Changed out the photo on my blog; planning to open a new one tomorrow if time permits. More on that later.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Wizards, Spies, and American Girls

Today's mail brings a review copy of THE SORCERER'S COMPANION: A GUIDE TO THE MAGICAL WORLD OF HARRY POTTER by Allan Zola Kronzek & Elizabeth Kronzek (Broadway Books/Random House, 2004); "now fully updated to include HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX." Essentially, this guide offers historical insights into the literary and mythological inspiration of Potter's magic. Recommended to young readers, fantasy fans, and researchers for an introductory overview. Well designed; this is one to pour over for hours.

Despite not being much of a non-fiction person, I'm loving the vibrant, fascinating, and informative SPIES by Clive Gifford (Kingfisher, 2004)(ages 7-up)(forward by Dame Stella Rimington, former director--general of British Intelligence Agency). Great for suspense fans; this photo-illustrated picture book features a design as exciting as its subject matter. Recommended for kids and grown-ups.

American Girl heroine Samantha will be brought to TV viewers on Tuesday, Nov. 23 on the WB in "Samantha: An American Girl Holiday." The story will focus on Samantha, an orphan living with her grandmother, developing a friendship with a servant named Nellie O'Malley. The setting is the turn-of-the-twentieth century United States with an emphasis on the Industrial Revolution. In conjunction, American Girl is releasing a Nellie doll, a paperback, an array of movie-related tie-ins, and a new advice book titled REAL BEAUTY: 101 WAYS TO FEEL GREAT ABOUT YOU (ages 8-up). Unlike most "beauty" books for girls, this one emphasizes physical and emotional health as well as inner beauty. Inclusive, uplifting, well done.

Books I'm reading right now: ORDER OF THE POISON OAK by Brent Hartinger (Harper, 2004)(ages 12-up)(a sequel to GEOGRAPHY CLUB, which I loved), SON OF THE MOB: HOLLYWOOD HUSTLE by Gordon Korman (Hyperion, 2004)(ages 12-up)(a sequel to SON OF THE MOB, which I also loved) and ESCAPE FROM SAIGON: HOW A VIETNAM WAR ORPHAN BECAME AN AMERICAN BOY by Andrea Warren (Melanie Kroupa Books/FSG, 2004)(ages 8-up).

Of Interest:

Strange Family Adventures by Linda Joy Singleton from Llewellyn's Article Archive.

Visit author/illustrator Monica Wellington.

The Great Circle (Which Doesn't Always Feel So Great)

My dad died on the 13th of this month, and I've been busy with the logistical fallout. Forgive me if the posts are a bit sporadic for a while. This is an excerpt from the eulogy I gave:

"Bud Smith was a gentleman and a gentle man with a quiet strength—dependable and reassuring. He was protective of his family and welcoming to his friends. He loved people—especially elders and children."

And we all loved him.

I'm tremendously blessed to have had such a wonderful father, supportive family, and caring friends. Thanks to all who've done what they could to ease a difficult time.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Bill Martin, Jr. & Misc.

Bill Martin Jr., the author of hundreds of popular children's books, including BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR, WHAT DO YOU SEE?, died recently after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. Like me, Martin had Kansas, Chicago, and Texas ties. He was born in Hiawatha, Kan., received his doctorate from Northwestern in Chicago, and lived in Commerce, Tex. (about an hour outside of Dallas).

Bill was one of the few living legends I had the priviledge of visiting with on a semi-regular basis as he attended numerous Texas children's book events with his co-author, a charming man named Michael Sampson.

Early on in my career he gave me some helpful advice about picture book writing, and he always showed me every kindness and graciousness.

He will be deeply missed.

As much as he loved the book world, I don't think he'd mind as I go on to share some industry tidbits.

Boyds Mills Press and Front Street Books have merged, which seems to be a good move for all concerned.

Check out The Ban-Proof Bookshelf by David Lubar from VOYA. Lubar is the author of FLIPPED and many more books for young readers. Greg and I had the pleasure of lunching with him and his lovely wife on the riverwalk at the annual TLA conference in San Antonio last spring.

A Tribute To Paula Danziger from Surfnet Kids.

A new author site: www.sarahlamstein.com (author of a Front Street title for 10-up, HUNGER MOON).

Feeling in the know? Surf over to Voya's teen pop culture quiz.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

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