Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Cynsational News & Links

Interviews are slow incoming for December, which is completely understandable given the semester's end and competing holiday activities.

I'm personally busy working with my talented Web designer, Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys, on the redesign in progress of my main site. I'll keep y'all posted as things develop and let you know when we relaunch.

ARCs I've read recently include The Queen of Cool by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2006) and debut novel Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen Headley (Little Brown, 2006)(read an excerpt). More on these titles to come. In the meanwhile, read some buzz on The Queen of Cool from Chasing Ray and Shaken & Stirred: Hangovers (Nov. 15th entry).

Congratulations to The PlanetEsme Bookroom, led by children's author Madame Esme Raji Codell, winner of a $1000 James Patterson PageTurner grant. Hooray, Esme!

Advice from a Caterpillar: Writing for Children by Peggy Tibbetts from "Finding Information about Pop-up Books; Getting Published Fast; Interactive E-books for Children."

K. Michael Crawford, Children's Book Ilustrator: Chicken Little listed on Reading First website (Eager Mind Press, 1998), Family Choice Award for Bugoo the Bug meets Alex (Trafford Publishing, 2005), Miss Panda Series (7 Books) (Windstorm Creative, 1199), The Munched-Up Flower Garden (Red Rock Press, 2006), Skunk Skills (Perfection Learning, 2005), Baby Craig (Perfection Learning, 2005), Ike Takes a Hike (Perfection Learning, 2005), Sneaky Jean (Perfection Learning, 2005).

Successful Book Tours and How to Plan One by Fern Reiss from The Publishing Game: How to Find a Literary Agent, Self-Publish, and Promote Your Book. Targeted to self-publishing authors, includes articles about marketing, literary agents, and POD/subsidy publishing.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Personalized Picture Book Protagonists

Author and storyteller Dotti Enderle is compiling a list of picture book protagonist names, titles, authors, illustrators, publishers and publication dates for a Web page designed to help gift buyers match the name of the gift recipient to the name of the hero of a book.

Picture book writers and illustrators are invited to write her with this information for promotional and literacy purposes.

When the list is launched, it will be featured as a link on cynsations.

Cynsational Traffic

So far this month, about 55,000 unique visitors have surfed over to my Web site, which is currently under redesign (I'll keep you posted).

Most of them went directly into the site from a bookmark or typing in the URL. The other big referrers were Google, Yahoo,, and my blogs. The largest number of visitors were from the U.S. followed by Canada, the U.K., Australia, Spain, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Japan. In order, the top states of origin were California, Washington, Virginia, Georgia, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Massachusetts.

Thanks to everyone who surfed on by!

Cynsational News & Links

Books to Watch for in 2006 from author Uma Krishnaswami.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

"Do I Need An Agent, and How Will I Know If I Do?"

I posted the following link on November 14:

"Do I Need an Agent and How Will I Know If I Do?": a chat with Sharene Martin, co-founder of the Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency from the Institute of Children's Literature. See also Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency.

But I'm featuring it again because it has been updated with some Q&As that previously were lost to cybergremlins. Scroll toward end to read (see header in hot pink).

A few random thoughts of my own from reading the chatlog:

Sharene indicates that queries have to wait because "clients come first." I've spoken with a number of writers who fret agent turnaround time, and certainly, it should be within a professionally acceptable window. But it is important to remember that an agent without a solid client base (unless they say, just moved over from editing) is somewhat suspect. An agent without producing writers who are keeping him/her busy may not be one you want to work with either. And if you are someday a client who's invested a career with that agent, you'll have every reasonable expectation of coming first over hopefuls. On the other hand, if you have a connection or introduction or the stars are aligned, you absolutely might hear back quickly. But for the most part, keep the bigger picture in mind.

It was mentioned that some writers think an agent translates to an automatic sale and/or a quick sale. I have a top-tier agent, and I'm published by HarperCollins, Dutton, and Candlewick, but certainly, I've had manuscripts rejected since signing. Of my upcoming books, Santa Knows (Dutton, 2006) was rejected once (though it did go to committee), Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007) was rejected twice, and the pb mss I'm revising for Dutton now was rejected twice (possibly, for me, the third time's the charm!).

It's true that agents are much more concerned--exclusively concerned?--with the writing than anything you can say in a cover letter. The main mistake made with cover letters--too long. Best to let the writing speak for you. Besides, it shows confidence.

Sharene mentioned that she's not an editorial agent, meaning that she doesn't work with her clients on manuscripts once they're submitted to her. They must be ready to go to an editor. Agents actually vary on this question. My agent is likewise what I call a thumbs-up, thumbs-down agent. But one of my favorite agents often has her clients revise a couple of times before sending to an editor. It's a personal preference issue.

Another point made was that authors must promote our books. It seems like everyone I know is either an avid promoter or does nothing. One of the biggest concerns, especially for women, is that they feel as though they're bragging or inappropriately drawing attention to themselves. Here's what I say to them: It's not about you. It's about your book(s). It's also arguably about your role, some might say responsibility, as an ambassador for youth literature and literacy. And if that's not persuasive, consider this: your future publishing contracts will be determined in part on your past sales. Besides, did you write that book in hopes that no one would read it?

I had one point of personal potential disagreement with Sharene, though overall I found her comments outstanding, and that was with the issue of editor/agent relationships. Unless I misunderstood, she didn't seem to think that editors cared who the agent was, but rather only about the quality and fit of the manuscript. This is only my gut feeling, but... It seems to me that if I were an editor, and a manuscript was submitted by an agent who was a particular pain, that manuscript would have to be not only good enough, but also good enough to make up for the hassle. Just a theory!

A few other reasons to work with an agent: (1) publishing is changing daily, becoming a bigger and more competitive business; (2) the ongoing evolution of rights--such as electronic--and increased publisher aggressiveness at holding onto as much as they can; (3) your agent has more bargaining experience and power; (4) putting an agent in that role can preserve the "creative purity" of your relationship with the house; (5) agents more enthusiastically shop subrights and take a significantly smaller percentage than publishers; (6) agents are there to help fix things when something goes wrong between the author and the house; (7) packaging, submitting, and keeping track of submissions is zero fun and eats writing time.

Cynsational News & Links

Association of Artists' Representatives: "a not-for-profit organization of independent literary and dramatic agents." See Frequently Asked Author Questions.

"Guidelines: Seven Steps on the Path to Getting Published" by Tatiana Claudy, in the Writing Schedule section of Writer's Support from the Institute of Children's Literature. See also "A Writer's Ultimate Goal" by Rose Ross Zediker, in the Writing Schedule
section of Writer's Support from ICL.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Cynsational News & Links

Books for Military Children: annotated bibliography (with cover art) of more than fifty books portraying children with parents in the U.S. military. Divided by picture books, middle grade, teen, and teen/adult. Highly recommended.

Even More Long-Winded and Practical Writing Advice from Whatever: The online home of writer John Scalzi. Taunting the Tauntable Since 1998.

The Do's and Don'ts of Books Cover Design from Midwest Book Review. Thanks to illustrator Don Tate, whose posting of this link on Devas T. Rants and Raves! led me to it.

Holiday Book List for 2005 by Shari Lyle-Soffe from Margot Finke. (Scroll to read). Listing of books by members of the childrens-writer mailing list at yahoogroups.

How To Fire Your Agent from Fiction Writer's Connection. See also the Tips Sheets on revising, pre-writing, attending conferences, contracting with an agent, finding and working with an agent, manuscript formatting, novel writing, query letter writing, submissions, writing a novel synopsis and more.

Tayshas Reading List 2006-2007: recommended YAs from the Texas Library Association. See recent cynsational interviews with Dorian Cirrone, author of Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You (HarperCollins, 2005), Alex Flinn, author of Fade To Black (HarperCollins, 2005), Jennifer Richard Jacobson, author of Stained (HarperCollins, 2005), Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson, author of A Fast And Brutal Wing (Roaring Brook, 2004), David Lubar, author of Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie (Dutton, 2005), Mary E. Pearson, author of A Room on Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005), and cynsational recommendations of Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking, 2005). I'd also like to congratulate Deborah Noyes, anthologist of Gothic! Ten Original Dark Tales (Candlewick, 2004) and Texas author Lori Aurelia Williams, author of Broken China (Simon & Schuster, 2005).

Writing a Painting by Josephine Nobisso from CBC Magazine. Don't miss Hot Off The Press: New Books (which include Spacer and Rat by Margaret Bechard (Roaring Brook, 2005) and Where The Great Hawk Flies by Liza Ketchum (Clarion, 2005)--both authors being fellow Vermont College faculty) and a Teacher Movie Review of "Chicken Little" by Sandra Kitain, also from CBC Magazine.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

"At school, the subject of Native Americans pretty much comes up just around Turkey Day,
like those cardboard cutouts of the Pilgrims and the pumpkins and the squash
taped to the windows at McDonald's."
--from Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Harper, 01)

I am thankful for the children's and young adult literature community--for the young readers, the writers, the illustrators, and the champions/gatekeepers who connect kids to books. Here's wishing many blessings of the Creator to you all.

To begin your own research, see Happy Thanksgiving Picture Books from HarperCollins, Best Children's Picture Books About Thanksgiving by Elizabeth Kennedy from, and Thanksgiving Reading from

Cynsational News & Links

Attention Censors from Bookslut. In reference to books such as Perfect by Natasha Friend (Milkweed, 2004) and Geography Club by Brent Hartinger (HarperCollins, 2003). Read a recent cynsational interview with Brent Hartinger on the banning of Geography Club. Surf over to read A Conversation with Natasha Friend from Milkweed. See also Why Every Book Matters by Colleen Mondor from Chasing Ray.

Margot Finke's World of Writing for Children has been redesigned. Surf over to check it out!

Winter 2005-2006 Booksense Picks. See recent cynsational interviews with "pick" authors Libba Bray on Rebel Angels (Delacorte, 2005) and Ron Koertge on Boy Girl Boy (Harcourt, 2005).

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Author Interview: Brent Hartinger on the Banning of Geography Club

Author Interview

The University Place School District in Tacoma, Washington has banned Geography Club by Brent Hartinger (HarperCollins, 2003), which is a highly recommended young adult novel. Brent was kind enough to share his thoughts and his essay in response.

When did you first hear that The Geography Club was being banned?

I didn't hear a word until I was contacted by a reporter last week. Then I asked around, and people "in the know" had heard all about it, but hadn't mentioned it to me. They thought I knew!

Has it ever been challenged or banned before?

Um, yeah. Repeatedly challenged. But never for this concern--the fact that it supposedly "romanticizes" Internet hook-ups. Always before it's been for language and the gay theme, I think. In all the cases I know about, it's never actually been banned--those in charge always voted to keep the book on the shelves. But then again, maybe these are just the cases I hear about. I can't imagine a librarian agreeing to ban my book, then emailing me to say, "Guess what? I just banned your book!"

I've also heard from plenty of librarians who say they WISH they could buy the book, but they feel they can't because they're afraid of parents' reactions. So it's sort of a pre-censorship.

As an author, how do you react emotionally, professionally?

This whole affair is causing the two sides of my soul to wage a desperate battle: the side of me that never wants to be the center of attention and hates all conflict, and the side of me that, um, wants to sell a lot of books!

It's really stressful, but on the other hand, I never got this much attention for, you know, writing a pretty good book!

The cited reason for the ban was that two of your characters met on the Internet. Do you feel that is the real reason? Do you happen know if there are other YA books with GLBTQ characters in that library system? Has the media reported on that question?

The parents who complained initially were upset about the gay theme. As I understand it, they hadn't even read the book. When the PTA said that wasn't reason enough to pull a book, they read it and compiled a long list of "complaints." The Internet thing was the only one the superintendant agreed with.

Being in the middle of this, you see how our media works. The issue was on all the television news broadcasts, and no one--NO ONE--called to ask my opinion. They all just repeated my one quote from the AP article, which was actually a quote from the one interview I did, with the local newspaper. It's really, really sobering when you realize how crappy our news media are. But the local paper has been great.

The school insists this isn't about the gay theme. Well, if that's the case, I do hope they have lots of other resources available. And I hope people in the district make sure that is the case.

Why was the Internet exchange important and authentic to your story?

The irony about this whole situation is that the reason my character is in that chat room is that he feels horribly alone, and that there is no one he can talk to, not even his best friends. I think that's very typical: gay teens turn to the Internet for the support they're not getting from friends, families, and communities. Do I think teenagers should hook up with anonymous people they meet online? Absolutely not! I tried to make it clear in the book that they exchange information until they're absolutely certain they're both students at the same high school. So they already "know" each other -- they're just afraid to share their actual names, for fear that one of them won't do it, and will be outed to the other. So they agree to meet. When they do meet, my character sees him from afar, and sees he is a teenager (who he turns out to know quite well!).

Whether this situation is stupid or not is debatable, but what is not debatable is that this is a situation that a closeted gay teen could very well find him or herself in.

What advice do you have for authors who find themselves in this situation?

Don't go through it alone. It sounds strange, but it's weird to have a government agency decide you're not "fit." The whole idea is upsetting, especially as a gay person. And then you want to "defend" yourself, but part of you thinks, "Wait. Why should I have to defend myself? No one else does. Besides, it's a book! The whole point of books is to be able to talk about them, and argue over different interpretations. You don't like a book? Then bitch about it to your friends like the rest of us! Don't ban the damn thing, so no one else can read it."

How can readers support free speech as related to youth literature?

Support contemporary literature! And keep in mind that it's not about the specific book being challenged--it's about intellectual freedom and academic independence. I usually hate "slippery slope" arguments, but in this case, I think if you give an inch, the opponents of free speech will take a mile. Libraries are about the exchange of ideas. If something seems unfair or inaccurate to you, tell the library to add a new book, not delete an old one.

Some friends and I (including you, dear Cynthia!) recently started an anti-censorship group called Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom (or AS IF!). Check out our blog:

They've Banned My Gay Teen Book

by Brent Hartinger
an essay in response to the banning of Geography Club (HarperCollins, 2003)

It's hard not to take it personally when a school district bans your book.

The University Place School District [in Tacoma, Washington] recently pulled my gay teen novel, Geography Club [HarperCollins, 2003], from the shelves of its libraries after some parents complained. Superintendent Patti Banks disregarded all the parents' concerns except one: the fact that two characters come together as a result of an Internet chat room. Because of that, the book encourages "extremely high risk behavior," Banks wrote.

In fact, my character is clearly fully aware of the dangers of Internet chat rooms and sexual predators. He only agrees to meet the other character after exchanging specific information that confirms that he is, in fact, another student at his high school. Later, after the two agree to meet, my character spies him from afar and sees with his own eyes that yes, he is another teenager, who he turns out to know well.

My book has been out for almost three years, sold tens of thousands of copies, received almost unanimously good reviews, won many honors, and is currently being adapted for the movies -- and this is the first time I've ever heard this particular concern.

But I'll concede that the superintendent may be sincere in objecting to this element of my book. And sure, not every school can or should stock every single book.

That said, I don't think that Internet scene is the real reason my book was banned. According to the Marge Ceccarelli, president of the Curtis PTA, the parents who complained were initially upset with the book because it would "turn straight kids into homosexuals." Those parents compiled a long list of objections, only one of which the superintendent agreed with. But surely
it was the book's gay theme that led to this intense level of scrutiny.

You're thinking: well, maybe every book in our schools should receive this level of scrutiny. But trust me, there is something in almost every book that will offend someone, somewhere. And if you exclude all the books where the main character does something that someone thinks is "questionable," or even outright dumb, you've got library shelves that are effectively bare.

And the fact is, this level of scrutiny won't be given to all books, just books like mine, ones that deal with hot button cultural issues like homosexuality. When minorities complain about discrimination, this is sometimes what they mean: not that the rules are different for them, but that the rules are enforced differently -- to the very letter of the law in cases where they usually are not.

Why does this matter when it comes to gay teen books? Because gay teen books really matter.

I wish everyone who thinks my books are not "appropriate" for teenagers could read my mail for one single week -- the avalanche of touching emails I receive from lonely or harassed gay and lesbian teens and their friends, so grateful to see gay characters portrayed accurately and with dignity, not merely stereotypes or the punchline of jokes. One of the many ironies about
this whole situation is the fact that the only reason my character is in that chat room in the first place is because he feels he can't be open at his school -- attitudes which are being reinforced in University Place by the banning of my book.

I admit to getting frustrated by the fact that people complain about my books because, in the interest of verisimilitude, I sometimes include teen characters who chew tobacco, or swear, or wrestle with issues of sex or sexuality, just like teenagers do on every school campus in America. And it's just a fact that gay and lesbian teens do often turn to the Internet for the support they're not getting from their friends, families, and communities.

So I think my critics really miss the point.

In every teen book I've ever written, gay-themed or not, there is a moment when the main character has to choose between moving beyond his or her own little bubble --doing what would make him or her momentarily happy or comfortable -- and putting those selfish prejudices and concerns aside, and committing to a larger cause, a greater good. In my mind, that's the choice
every teen confronts, again and again, because it's the difference between a child and an adult.

Do books with that message have a place in school libraries and in the hands of teenagers?

Absolutely. In fact, there might be a few adults in Tacoma who could benefit from reading books like that too.

Brent's Hartinger's latest book is The Order of the Poison Oak (HarperCollins, 2005), a sequel to Geography Club (HarperCollins, 2003). Visit him online at

Reprinted on cynsations with permission of the author.

Read the Coverage

University Place School District Bans Novel About Gay Teens by the Associated Press from November 20, 2005.

University Place District Bans Novel About Gay Teens by Debby Abe of The News Tribune.

Banning Gay Teen Novel Robs Youth of Important Lessons by author Brent Hartinger, an op-ed colum from The News Tribune. November 22, 2005. Alternate link to Brent's essay featured above.

Learn More About Brent Hartinger

Author Profile: Brent Hartinger from

Interview with Brent Hartinger, Author of Geography Club from Debbi Michiko Florence.

Interview with Brent Hartinger of Geography Club from

The Story Behind The Story: Brent Hartinger on Geography Club by Cynthia Leitich Smith Children's/YA Literature Resources.

The Order of the Poison Oak by Brent Hartinger (HarperCollins, 2005): a recommendation from cynsations.

Learn More About Book Banning and Free Speech

Banned Books Week from the American Library Association. See the 100 Most Frequently Banned Books of 1990 - 2000; see the Top Ten List of Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2004.

Cynsational Notes

Brent is a tremendously talented writer and all-around great guy whose acclaimed teen fiction is highly recommended.

Show your support by buying a copy of Geography Club or another of Brent's novels. Keep it for yourself, give it as a gift ('tis the season!), or donate it to a library.

Write a letter of support to the editor of The News Tribune in Tacoma.

Visit Voices In My Head: Brent's Blog and let him know that YA readers care about his books and free speech.

Read banned books!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Author Feature: Liza Ketchum

Liza Ketchum is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the recent historical title, Where the Great Hawk Flies (Clarion, 2005), a novel in two voices. The book is based on a true story about her ancestors, a Pequot Indian midwife and an English farmer who lived in central Vermont during the 18th century.

Other titles by Liza about the American pioneer experience are the popular serialized adventure novel, Orphan Journey Home (Avon, 2000) and the non-fiction titles Into a New Country: Eight Remarkable Women of the West (Little, Brown, 2000; an ALA “Best Book” for 2001), and The Gold Rush (Little, Brown, 1996) a companion to the PBS series “The West.”

Blue Coyote (Simon and Schuster, 1997) the final title in her quartet of young adult novels, was nominated for a Lambda Literary award. Her books also include a ghost story, two middle grade novels, two biographies of women scientists, and a picture book, Good-Bye, Sammy, illustrated by Gail Owens (Holiday House, 1989).

Liza's books have appeared on the ALA’s “Best Book lists,” numerous state award lists, Bank Street College’s “Best Book List,” and on the NY Public Library’s “List for the Teenage.” Her essays and articles on writing, teaching, gardening, and rural life have appeared in numerous magazines.

Liza has been a teacher for most of her adult life. She founded and directed a preschool and has taught writing to students of all ages. She has taught writing at Emerson College and Simmons College, and she is currently on the faculty of the MFA Program in Writing for Children at Vermont College.

Her passions—besides reading and writing—include gardening, canoeing, hiking, music, art, theater, traveling, and exploring nature. The mother of two grown sons, Liza and her husband divide their time between the Boston area and a cabin high in Vermont’s Green Mountains.

Looking over your published books, it's clear you have a passion for history. What about the past intrigues you? What inspires you to mine it for stories and information to share with young readers?

Ever since I was young, I wanted to travel back into the past in a time machine. I always wondered what it would be like to live, work, love, and play in another time and place, and to see the world through a different set of eyes than my own. Since I can’t jump into a time machine (at least, not until someone invents one that works!) I must travel back to the past in my stories. I spend time learning about earlier centuries to answer questions that keep tugging at me.

Questions such as: What was it like to be a young girl traveling across the country in a covered wagon, during the gold rush? (That question led me to write my first novel, West Against the Wind (Holiday House, 1987).) How did a family of orphaned children manage to travel hundreds of miles through the wilderness, without much adult help? (Questions about that true story led me to create Orphan Journey Home (Avon, 2000). What was it like to be my ancestor—a half-Pequot, half-English child—in 18th century Vermont? That last question pushed me to research and write my most recent novel, Where the Great Hawk Flies (Clarion, 2005).

My father, who is a historian, helped to inspire my love of history. But I’m especially intrigued by the ways in which people in the past are similar to people today. The past can help us understand who we are, and why we behave the way we do. And I hope that young people might connect with some of my characters, and find elements in my stories that relate to their own lives. For instance, the two boys in my new novel, Where the Great Hawk Flies (Clarion, 2005), wrestle with issues of tolerance, prejudice, and fairness—-challenges we also face today. The abandoned children in Orphan Journey Home (Avon, 2000) were incredibly courageous and resourceful.

Many children today need to be brave and to rely on their own resources, too: think of what young people have faced in our recent natural disasters. I hope my readers might be both inspired and comforted by fictional characters from the past, who have hopes, dreams, fears, and struggles so much like their own.

What are the particular challenges of writing historical fiction? Historical non-fiction?

For me, the most difficult aspect of writing both historical fiction and non-fiction is trying to pin down the speech and thought patterns of people who lived in another time. Because all my historical works (at least so far) are set in periods before we had voice recordings, I have to rely on diaries, letters, journals, and newspapers for spoken dialogue.

My luckiest moments, while doing research, are the times when I come across valuable primary source material. For instance, when I was doing the research for Into a New Country (Little, Brown, 2000), I was writing about two Omaha Indian sisters, Susette and Susan La Flesche. Susan was the first Native American woman doctor, and I wondered what it was like for her to leave her prairie home in Nebraska to study medicine in an eastern city. I called libraries and historical societies and finally tracked down a batch of the letters she had written home from medical school. Eureka! The letters were on microfilm. The historical society sent them to my local library and I spent a whole day reading them. Her slanted handwriting was hard to decipher—but it was a gift to learn, from her actual words, how she felt about her boyfriend, how she loved her medical education, and how homesick she was for her family.

When I write historical fiction, I try to make sure all my details and facts about the past are accurate. In a novel, I can invent exciting scenes, introduce new characters, or come up with new challenges for my narrator in order to keep the reader turning the page. With non-fiction, the challenge is to find ways to tell an interesting story when you can’t make anything up!

What advice do you have for writer-researchers?

Although the Internet has helped me in many ways, nothing beats spending time with a research librarian who knows his or her field. Right now, I’m writing a book that takes place in San Francisco in 1851. My main character is a girl who sells newspapers. Last week I found a librarian who helped me track down original copies of newspapers printed during that time. Soon, I’ll be able to hold those fragile papers in my hands and imagine my character reading those same headlines 150 years ago.

Also, don’t be afraid to tell your friends what you’re working on. Friends and family members have sent me invaluable information, books, articles, and diaries, or referred me to experts on that particular period. And talk about your projects with young people, too.

When I was revising Orphan Journey Home (Avon, 2000), I visited schools in Kentucky, where the novel takes place. A class of 5th graders, studying Kentucky history, told me about a historic home built in 1828 (the year my novel took place) in a nearby town. I went there the next day. It was exciting to step inside that crude log home and imagine my characters spending the night in a place just like it. Thanks to those school children, I was able to add an important chapter to my story.

Your latest novel, Where The Great Hawk Flies (Clarion, 2005), was inspired by your ancestors. Would you tell us more about how this connection sparked the story?

The seeds for this book began 30 years ago, when my great-uncle Carlton Griswold Ketchum sent me an article titled “Randolph’s Indian Princess.” The article told a fascinating story about a Pequot Indian midwife named Margery Dogerill and her husband, Joseph Griswold. They met in Connecticut when Joseph had an accident and nearly drowned. Margery and her father, who were both healers, rescued Joseph and nursed him to health. The young couple married and moved to Randolph, Vermont, where Joseph farmed and Margery became the only healer for miles around. At first, their families were opposed to the marriage, but eventually, they reconciled. Margery’s father, who was a Pequot powwaw, or medicine man, came to visit several times, and died on his last trip to their farm.

Griswold was a family name on my father’s side, and Margery and Joseph came from the same town as my father’s relatives, so my Uncle Carlton thought we might be related. “You should look into this,” he said.“It would make a good story.” But the article was unsigned. Did it come from a book, or a magazine? I even wondered if the whole thing was made up. I put the article into my “Idea File” where it sat for almost thirty years.

Still, I never forgot the story. In the 1990s, things opened up. First, the Pequot Indians gained official tribal recognition from the government, took control of their land, and started a successful casino, using some of the profits to build a museum with a wonderful research library. Second, the Internet exploded—and with a few clicks of my mouse, I found a mailing address for the Randolph Historical Society. I sent a letter to the president, Miriam Herwig and enclosed a copy of the original article, asking if she knew anything about this family. Within a few days, I had a response: Miriam Herwig was the author of the anonymous article my great-uncle had sent—and she also had family materials that she was willing to share. My husband and I drove to Vermont to visit the Herwigs the next weekend.

I unrolled my family tree on their kitchen table. The tree begins with a John Griswold, born in 1760. Miriam smiled. “John was Margery and Joseph’s son,” she said. So Margery and Joseph Griswold were my direct ancestors, seven generations back. The Herwigs also had valuable information about Vermont during that time period. But it took me many years to do the research for this story; I made numerous trips to the Pequot Museum as well as to central Vermont and other libraries.

Where is Griswold, Vermont? How did it evolve?

Griswold is actually an imaginary town in central Vermont. The name came about when I was writing my second YA novel, Fire in the Heart (Holiday House, 1989). I told my father I was searching for a name for my fictional town. He suggested I call it Griswold, after our Vermont ancestors. The terrain in Griswold is similar to Randolph, Vermont, where my ancestors actually lived: long mountain ridges roll away from a fertile valley carved by the White River. When I wrote my connected YA novels, I invented roads, schools, and houses that don’t exist in Randolph. I also drew maps of Griswold and pinned them up on the wall so I could keep track of my characters while I was writing.

I'm fascinated by your having written Orphan Journey Home (Avon, 2000), a syndicated serial novel that appeared in newspapers across the United States. How did this project evolve? What was it like, writing a serial novel? How can readers get hold of this story?

I was approached by Breakfast Serials, a company started by Avi, the children’s author, and his wife. At first, I didn’t think I could write a serial novel because of the strict rules: each chapter could only be 750 words, every installment had to end with a cliff-hanger, and I had to complete the entire story in 20 chapters or less. Then I leafed through my Idea File and discovered a story I’d found when I was doing research for Into a New Country, about a family of children who were orphaned in southern Illinois in the 1820s. In spite of the dangers of wilderness travel, they managed to find their way home to their grandmother in six weeks time, without much adult help. I realized that an adventure story involving a journey would lend itself perfectly to the serial form.

I wrote the entire novel at first, but the chapters appeared in newspapers week by week. It was the most exciting experience I’ve ever had, as an author. The story was carried by over 120 papers around the country, with a total circulation in the millions. I heard from readers as young as five and as old as ninety. They sent me historical maps, information about the real family, and questions about the story. I was able to answer some of those questions when I turned the serial into a book. It was the first book where readers of all ages participated in my revisions.

Could you give us some insights into the story behind your quartet of interconnected YA novels?

I didn’t set out to write a quartet of novels. My readers inspired me to continue the stories, and the series grew one at a time.

The first novel began as a diary, written by a girl named Abigail. A Vermont teen found the diary in her older cousin’s attic. Before long, Abigail’s diary turned into a novel called West Against the Wind.

Many readers wanted to know what happened to Abigail after she reached California. I answered their questions in a roundabout way. I returned to my original idea—of a girl named Molly and the old diary—and that story evolved into a modern day novel, Fire in the Heart (Holiday House, 1989). When Molly solved the mystery surrounding her mother’s death, she also unlocked clues about what happened to Abigail, her gold rush ancestor.

Molly’s brother Todd was an important character in Fire in the Heart. My characters often seem like real people to me, and Todd was no exception. I wanted to know more about him. When I witnessed an incident of discrimination and harassment on a local soccer team, I decided to write a story about homophobia and prejudice, with Todd as the main character. That novel was Twelve Days in August (Holiday House, 1993), the third story in the series, and it tells about a boy named Alex , a star soccer players, who moves to town. His new team members tease him because they think he’s gay and Todd has to decide whether to go along with the teasing, or whether to help Alex and keep the team together.

After that book was published, I heard from many readers who asked: “What about Alex? When will you tell his story?” I wrote Blue Coyote (Simon & Schuster, 1997) to answer their questions, and was proud when it became a Lambda Book Award finalist.

And now, the quartet of novels has a sort of prequel. Where the Great Hawk Flies (Clarion, 2005) takes place in the same imaginary town, more than 200 years before Molly, Todd, or Alex were born. Readers who want to know more about any of these books, as well as about my non-fiction work, can visit my website:

Cynsational News & Links

A Baker's Dozen with Mark London Williams from Revolution Science Fiction. Mark is the author of the Danger Boy series, published by Candlewick Press.

It Takes Two to Make a Book Go Right: Are Two Authors Better Than One? by Emily Gould and Zareen Jaffery (AKA Ali Deshler), authors of Hex Education (forthcoming) and Chris Tebbetts and Lisa Papademetriou, authors of M or F? (Razorbill, 2005).

What Happened to Picture Books by Judith Rosen from Publisher's Weekly. On the decline in sales, especially at the midlist level. The theory I most agree with: too many "sappy and sweet" books for ages four to five, from Shirley Mullin, owner of Kids Ink in Indianapolis.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Oklahoma Fall Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain

I'm just back from co-teaching Writing for Children and Teenagers (scroll) to an inspiring group of teachers and librarians as part of the 2005 Oklahoma Fall Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain in Lone Wolf, Oklahoma. The OAI offers a "series of weekend retreats for educators, professional artists, and amateur artists." The student body is comprised primarily of Oklahoma public school teachers.

Did you know there were mountains in Oklahoma? I didn't, and I have deep Okie ties. Granted, the mountains are not particularly big right now (more Ozark size), but I'm told they once towered higher than the Rockies. And talk about gorgous! The deep sunset color of the southwest, sparkling with--what else?--quartz.

Shana Rutz of OAI donor programs picked up me and my husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, at the newly (since I'd last visited) remodeled OKC Airport and shuttled us some two and a half hours (longer than the flights from Austin to Dallas and Dallas to OKC combined) to Lone Wolf.

We circled only a few minutes amid the winding pinkish red rock and came upon breathtaking Lake Altus-Lugert nestled within the range.

The rustic arts-and-crafts conference center includes a 700-seat performance hall, state-of-the-art darkroom, five studio pavilions, an outdoor amphitheater, the Beverly Badger Memorial Library, and the Arts and Conference Center. Inside, visitors find a tremendous collection of art, including murals by Mike Larsen, sculptures by Allan Houser and Jess Moroles, paintings by Joe Andoe and Don Nice, prints by Daniel Kiacz, sculptures by Menashe Kadishman, and works by OSAI students.

Greg and I arrived Thursday evening and then attended a faculty meeting and dinner.

We taught a class to a wonderful, witty, and goodnatured group on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning. We emphasized story structure, multiculturalism, humor, protagonists, antagonists, and getting published.

The students included Una Belle Townsend, debut author of Grady's In The Silo, illustrated by Bob Artley (Pelican, 2003)(see related activities). Una Belle was kind enough to give us a signed copy of her book.

On Friday evening, we gave a presentation to the entire Institute community. Faculty presentations took place that night and Saturday, and much of the group also participated on a show tunes sing-a-long Saturday night.

The other workshops were: Producing the Small Budget Musical; Intermediate Choral Voices; DanceSport; Monotype; and Arts Integration. Previous 2005 OFAI speakers included Tim Tingle, author of Walking the Choctaw Trail (Cinco Puntos, 2003)(read excerpt).

The workshops are highly recommended to Oklahoma teachers, and the OAI summer programs are highly recommended to Oklahoma teens.

Cynsational Note

On the road from Okie City to Quartz Mountain, I spotted a live armadillo running in a pasture.

Cynsational News & Links

Centennial Book Club: Made (Written) In Oklahoma by Oklahomans from author Molly Levite Griffis. A campaign to raise awareness of books by Oklahomans and their inclusion in public and/or school library collections.

On Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today edited by Lori M. Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005), Flamingnet Book Review writes: "a welcomed addition to short story collections and offers an introduction to respected writers whose other works will be equally inviting. I hardily recommend this book for middle and high school students who want to read of other adolescents' travels toward adulthood" and "'A Real-Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate' [by Cynthia Leitich Smith] wins a prize for a title that tells almost all of the story while encouraging readers to examine stereotypes of appearance."

Oklahoma SCBWI: the Okie chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Anna Myers is the regional advisor.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Children's Holiday Picture Books 2005

I had the pleasure last night of attending Kathi Appelt's signing for Merry Christmas, Merry Crow, illustrated by Jon Goodell (Harcourt, 2005) at the Barnes & Noble Westlake (TX) last night.

It's a magical title that reunites the amazing author-illustrator team behind one of my all-time favorite picture books, The Alley Cat's Meow (Harcourt, 2002).

Kathi did a presentation and reading, followed by a question-and-answer session. The event was well attended, and NCSA Crown Award Chair Sandra Morrow mentioned that Kathi's Miss Lady Bird: How A First Lady Changed America, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein (HarperCollins, 2005) had been named to the forthcoming Crown Award List. Luminaries in the audience included Anne Bustard, author of Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Simon & Schuster, 2005).

Cynsational Notes

Other new and recommended holiday books include: When Cows Come Home for Christmas by Dori Chaconas, illustrated by Lynne Chapman (Albert Whitman, 2005); Christmas Mousling, also by Dori, illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung (Viking, 2005); and Hanukkah, Schmanukkah by Esme Raji Codell, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Hyperion, 2005). See also CBC Showcase: Holidays and the Winter Season for more suggestions.

Fall 2006 is the publication date for Santa Knows by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, 2006). I'll keep you posted as production progresses.

Planet Esme's author pages have been redesigned! Surf over to check it out!

Cynsational News & Links

Love of KU Basketball inspires 'Airball' Book by Terry Rombeck from the Lawrence Journal-World. Feature story on Airball: My Life in Briefs by L.D. Harkrader (Roaring Brook, 2005). Read a recent related author interview on cynsations.

L.D. Harkrader will present a reading from the book, followed by a discussion and book signing from 3 to 5 p.m. Nov. 18, 2005 at Oread Books, level 2 in the Kansas Union at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. A second appearance at Oread Books is scheduled from 3 to 5 p.m. on Dec. 22.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Cynsational News & Links

Cheryl Klein, editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, has arranged that her e-book, The Rules of Engagement: How to Get (and Keep!) a Reader Involved in Your Novel, be made available for free by the organization Children Come First.

The Austin Public Library Foundation is holding a “Read-in” from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 16, 5-7 p.m. at the John Henry Faulk Central Library at 800 Guadalupe. The first hour of the program Austinites will take turns reading for five minutes from a much-loved children’s book. During the second hour, readers will read from any favorite title. Local authors participating so far include Emcee Spike Gillespie, Sarah Bird, Michael Maguire, David Rice and Janice Shefelman.

Reading the World: an annual conference sponsored by The University of San Francisco Department of International and Multicultural Education. The conference features guest speakers, as well as workshops by educators, librarians, authors, illustrators, and scholars. This year, it is scheduled for March 11 and 12, 2006. Keynote speakers are: Alma Flor Ada, Matthew Gollub, Linda Sue Park, Katherine Paterson, Joyce Carol Thomas, Tony Watkins, and Ed Young. Learn more about Reading the World VIII. See also the list of past speakers, which includes me and my husband, author Greg Leitich Smith.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Author Interview: Josephine Nobisso on Show; Don't Tell! Secrets of Writing

Show; Don't Tell! Secrets of Writing by Josephine Nobisso, illustrated by Eva Montanari (Gingerbread House, 2004). An interactive picture book. Gorgeously illustrated. Ages 7-up.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

For eighteen years, I'd been going into schools, speaking at conferences, etc., limiting myself to conducting 100 writing workshops per year. These figures suggest that I travel quite a lot, but the fact is that I have never had to leave my home turf of Long Island to get that many bookings. It was clear that I had come up with some very serviceable and accessible insights on writing that could help so many people. Putting these strategic tips into book form seemed the logical outreach.

Show; Don't Tell! Secrets of Writing explores the intrinsic nature of nouns and their modifiers. The next book will cover another of my workshop topics: verbs, adverbs--and surprisingly, perhaps--prepositions, to give writers more tools for expressing what they intend.

My approach is grammar-based: applying grammar in its most elegant and authentic way in order to become the most creative and individual writer.

I used to think what I have heard many writers say--that writing is somehow magical or miraculous. Well, wrangling story (fiction or non) into a communicable and interesting form is certainly one of the mysteries of human life, but the tools for accomplishing that are neither magic nor miracle, and once internalized, they liberate the writer to speak in his own voice.

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

I was the child of hard-working immigrant parents who provided me with an education that today would be called "classical." I attended Catholic schools where the nuns taught me the architecture of language. Later in life, when I was working on my fourth novel and wanted to take a blow torch to it, it occurred to me to diagram some sentences to see why I was boring myself. Bingo!

I published many books and short pieces before I was able to isolate and articulate the precepts that became so clear to me on that day. These insights seemed too much to put into an appealing picture book form, but that was the dream I had for them--to become a book that was artistically illustrative, one that connected writing to reading to visual arts.

One Spring evening, my daughter (Maria Nicotra, whom I've affectionately dubbed our "Art Dictator") handed me a portable tape recorder and suggested I take a walk along my favorite dirt lanes. I hadn't been gone ten minutes before I called her with the triumphant news that I had the format figured out. So, how long did it take? A lifetime. Or ten minutes.

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

My workshops progress sequentially. They go from a quick diagnostic, to verbal proofs about the tendencies that weaken our writing, to a modeled experiment that tests my points, to the participants' putting pen to paper, to editing and rewriting. I wanted the book to take readers on that same sequential journey. That challenge was the easy one.

The larger challenge was to take a text that has no characters, no plot, no setting, no nuthin' but a lesson that could be converted into a conversation, and work with the artist to create story elements from just the underlying thrust of the precepts. It took Maria, Eva Montanari, and me over 300 emails back and forth--this is largely how Maria learned Italian, this, and Italian rock songs--to bring it all into shape. Eva did a such a marvelous job of creating a self-referential universe that one doesn't much notice that there is no story.

Then, there were the challenges with sourcing the touch and feel swatches, the scratch and sniff patch, the sound module, etc., but those are the challenges of the publisher and of the printer, and not of the writer.

Cynsational Notes

Awards and Honors for Show; Don't Tell! Secrets of Writing: an International Reading Association-Children's Book Council "Children's Choices Award," a National Parenting Publications "Honors Award," a Learning Magazine "Parents' Choice Award," and it has been named to the American Booksellers' Association's Book Sense "Picks List," and is a ForeWord Magazine "Book of the Year" Finalist.

Cynsational News & Links

"Do I Need an Agent and How Will I Know If I Do?": a chat with Sharene Martin, co-founder of the Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency from the Institute of Children's Literature. See also Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency.

"It's Only Pink on the Outside" by Rosemary Graham from Not-So-Terrible After All. Rosemary talks about pink cover art, feminism, the associations of the "chick lit" label, and acknowledges its market power and limitations. Rosemary is the author of Thou Shalt Not Dump The Skater Dude (And Other Commandments I Have Broken)(Viking, 2005). Read a recent cynsations interview with her on the novel.

See also Author2Author: Megan Crane and E. Lockhart from Beatrice. See recent cynsational interviews with E. Lockhart on The Boyfriend List (15 guys, 11 shrink appointments, 4 ceramic frogs and me, ruby oliver)(Delacorte, 2005) and Fly on the Wall (Delacorte, 2006).

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Star-Lit: A Children's Literary Festival

My husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, and I had the honor of speaking yesterday at Star-Lit: A Children's Literary Festival benefitting the Dallas Bethlehem Center at the Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas.

Other featured authors and/or illustrators were: Newbery winner Christopher Paul Curtis; illustrator Tracy Dockray (originally from Lubbock, now living in NYC); author "Farmer" Ted Dreier; author/illustrator Will Hillenbrand; author Sharon Robinson (daughter of baseball legend Jackie Robinson); author Dee Scallan; author Toni Simmons of Dallas; author Anastasia Suen of Plano; and author G. Clifton Wisler of Plano.

The festivities opened Friday night with a private party for the authors, donors, and volunteers, at the lovely home of one of the donors. Highlights included sparkling company, a Tex-Mex buffet, and a first-rate collection of classic and contemporary children's illustrations. We left with "goodie bags" that were so heavy I had to ask Greg to carry mine.

After a good night's rest at The Adolphus Hotel, the Festival opened with a breakfast with the authors and illustrators, which featured pancakes, eggs, autographing, and a magician.

Greg and I then spoke to three sessions of attendees at the events, autographed even more books, and made sure to purchase at least one book by each of the other speakers.

Because his plane was late getting in Friday night, I only had the opportunity to speak with Chris Curtis briefly, but he graciously purchased signed copies of my Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000) and Greg's Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005).

Greg and I would like to send out our special thanks to event planner Jeff S. Morton of Frito-Lay and our gracious author liason Susi Grissom, the librarian at Travis Vanguard and Academy, a magnet school for gifted and talented 4th - 8th grade students in Dallas ISD.

All in all, it was one of my favorite events ever!

Cynsational News & Links

This weekend, I was pleased to learn that Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002) and Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) both were featured as American Indian Education Program Book Club Titles in the DISD Communicator.

Friday, November 11, 2005

PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship

The PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship of $5,000 is offered annually to a North American author of children's or young-adult fiction. Eligible candidates are writers in financial need, who have published at least two books, and no more than five, during the past ten years, which have been warmly received by literary critics, but which have not generated sufficient income to support the author.

Previous winners have included Deborah Wiles, Graham McNamee, Lori Aurelia Williams, Franny Billingsley and Amanda Jenkins.

Submissions for this year's award are due by January 16, 2006, and the Fellowship will be presented in May 2006 as part of the annual PEN Literary Awards.

Writers must be nominated by an editor or a fellow writer. It is strongly recommended that the nominator write a letter of support, describing in some detail how the candidate meets the criteria for the Fellowship. The nominator needs to provide:
-- a list of the candidate´s published work (preferably accompanied by copies of reviews, where possible).
--a description of the candidate´s financial resources, such as a summary of recent earnings, or some articulation of why monetary support is particularly needed at this time (the need for child care, research expenses, etc.).
-- three copies of no more than seventy-five pages of current work, intended as part of a new book.
-- a self-addressed, stamped envelope of a suitable size if the candidate wishes return of the manuscripts.

All inquiries and nominations should be sent to:

Naylor Fellowship/PEN American Center
588 Broadway, Suite 303
New York, NY 10012

For more information, please call 212-334-1660 ext. 108 or email

Cynsational News & Links

Arthur's blog from children's book editor Arthur A. Levine.

BBYA Nominees 2006: (especially if you're an LJ subscriber) take another look at this post, which now reflects updates for nominees since the last ALA update.

In Celebration of Books, Writing, Art, and The First Amendment from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 10 at the Chapin Auditorium at Mount Holyoke College is located on 50 College Street in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Featuring M.T. Anderson, Natalie Babbitt, Susan Cooper, Steven Kellog, David Macaulay, Gregory Maguire, Patricia MacLachlan, Fredrick and Patricia McKissack, Katherine Paterson and two-time Caldecott winner David Wiesner. "Following the discussion the NCBLA will host A Reception With The Authors, offering an opportunity for a limited number of guests to meet with the NCBLA authors and illustrators in an informal setting, with light fare, convivial beverages, and a chance to have your books autographed!"

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Author Interview: Jennifer J. Stewart on Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind

Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind by Jennifer J. Stewart (Holiday House, 2004). From the catalog copy: "'Think of it as an adventure,' twelve-year-old Annie Ferris's father tells her when he announces that the family will be spending the next two months in Nepal on a medical mission. But what sort of adventure is it if you have to leave behind your friends, sleep in a tent with your bratty little sister and actually be expected to eat something called yak cheese? Not an adventure Annie wants any part of. Then Annie meets Nirmala, a local girl, and she begins to get to know the real Nepal. Before long, Annie, her little sister Chelsea, and Nirmala embark on a journey, and the girls find themselves lost in a real-life obstacle course--with a snarling dog, a creaking rope bridge, and a darkening night sky. Will Annie be ready to handle the adventure she finds after all? In this warm and comic tour of self-discovery Jennifer J. Stewart gets to the heart of what it truly means to be a family." See review excerpts and awards information. See also teacher's guide.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

In 1999, my husband and I yanked our kids out of school and headed halfway around the world to the kingdom of Nepal. People said we were crazy, but he had always wanted to do medical volunteer work, and we realized that if we were to make it happen, we should do it before we had kids in high school, when they aren’t so easily uprooted.

We went with an organization called Helping Hands Health Education, and we worked in three villages: Khandbari, Kusma, and Bandipur. We were part of a medical team made up of American volunteers and Nepali staff. I learned on the job to be a scrub nurse (my husband is a surgeon), and, much to my surprise and his, found that if it wasn’t my vomit, blood, or pus, I could deal with it. We provided medical care and surgery using local anesthesia, without access to a lab or an operating room, only a pharmacy and a can-do attitude. (Duct tape was infinitely useful.) My husband and I shared a journal, taking turns writing in it, and our three daughters--then age ten, eight and five--also kept journals, although our youngest just drew pictures in hers.

I think I knew right from the start that the experience had the potential to become a book, so keeping a diary was my way of making it stick. I listened carefully when people told me stories. I was sure it could become a book when I found that many of our translators at the hospital were schoolchildren, and because our children worked alongside us.

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

My first novel, If That Breathes Fire, We're Toast! (Holiday House, 1999), came out while we were in Nepal (I remember the surreal experience of reading my first Kirkus review in an Internet cafe in Kathmandu; my editor had emailed it to me). After we returned to the United States, I found I wasn’t ready to write the Nepal novel. I suppose I wanted the experience to marinate in my head, to get some distance from it, so I wrote The Bean King's Daughter (Holiday House, 2002) next. But after that, I pulled out all our journals, and I wrote the beginning of what would become Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind in 2001.

In September 2001, I took the first five pages with me and work-shopped them at an Arizona Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators working writers retreat. I was lucky enough to have Bruce Coville read those pages, and buoyed by his comments, and telling myself to quit being chicken, I mailed off three chapters in February, 2002 to my editor at Holiday House, Regina Griffin. I applied for a Work-In-Progress Grant from the SCBWI, because I very much like entering contests, especially when I win. Anyway, even though I did not include the outline the option clause in my contract required, my editor made me an offer one month later. After debating a little bit with my conscience, I withdrew the ms from the SCBWI competition, because the contract offer came four days after the grant deadline. Technically I didn’t have to withdraw the manuscript, but it felt right.

Then I had to finish the book. I had seven months to do it. I had three chapters. They were good chapters, but it’s not like I had a plot. However, I had never had a plot before, so it wasn’t that worrisome.

You see, when I write a book, it’s like I’m hopping in my car, and I’ve decided I’m going to visit Alaska. I have only a vague idea where Alaska is, and an even vaguer idea of how I’m getting there, because I don’t have a map, and why would I stop for directions? Eventually I do arrive, and although I’ve made a lot of detours, this is the way writing works for me.

Chapter by chapter, I ran it by my critique group: C.S. Adler, Patricia McCord, and Janni Lee Simner. They would tell me what was wrong with the chapter; I’d fix it, and move on. The chapters were really rough, and I give them lots of credit for keeping me going, and not complaining too much about not seeing revised chapters, which would have taken twice as long. I turned in the manuscript in September 2002.

My Queen of Editors got back to me with comments in June 2003. Mostly, I had to go deeper into my main character’s head, keeping the focus squarely on my 12-year-old narrator Annie, and not her mother (a somewhat natural tendency, as I had lived that role). I also had to remember my readers were not planning a trip to Nepal, not to be a travel guide. So it was mostly cutting, but some interweaving of more layers, to give the book more emotional depth. I rewrote and sent back the manuscript in September. I had one more minor tweaking after that.

Then, there came one final, eleventh hour revision in the galley stage. My editor said that outside readers were objecting to the climactic scene where Annie, Chelsea, and Nirmala confront a growling dog protecting its territory. Nirmala throws rocks at the dog, but my editor said that the outside expert readers were claiming that action would cause American kids to become copycats. And that when American kids threw rocks at menacing dogs, they would get bitten.

I argued that Nirmala was not an American child, and she did what a Nepali child in her situation would do, but to no avail. I had to find a way for Nirmala to run interference for Annie and her little sister without throwing rocks, and I had to do it in the 110 lines allotted for that section in the galley proofs, no more, no less, if possible. I did, and I am so proud of that scene. It’s better than the original.

The book was delayed because the cover artist gave the creature on the cover blue-eyes instead of brown. That had to be fixed. I do love the cover, though!

Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind came out in November 2004. It has had lovely reviews, and I’m pleased to report it’s up for an Arizona Young Reader Award in 2007.

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

Usually I just make everything up when I write a book. But this book was different, more personal. It wasn’t going to work that way.

I had thousands of details in my head of Nepal, covering all five senses. In my initial draft, and even in my second one, I had the tendency to try and stuff them all in, and it made my manuscript sound like a travelogue, and a lot of that had to be cut. I also was a bit heavy on the medical stuff, and kids wouldn’t be interested in that. To bring this exotic place alive to my readers, I had to look for the telling detail, and only use one or two of those telling details per paragraph to make it real for my readers.

I did not only rely on my memory; I read every book on Nepal I could find, and I talked to everyone I could find who had been to Nepal about their experiences. I even met Sir Edmund Hillary, but he’s not in my book.

I think what scared me the most about writing this novel is that I was writing outside my culture. I had done it before with Rick Morales, the main character of If That Breathes Fire, We're Toast!, but that felt natural because I’ve lived in southern Arizona most of my life, and Hispanic culture has been part of my upbringing.

But with Nepal, everything is different: terrain, religion, language, even the way you look at life, which appears more fatalistic to American eyes. I knew I would be crossing lots of lines, not just the racial one. Because my narrator, 12-year-old Annie, is traveling with her parents and her five-year-old sister to work as medical volunteers, I had a frame of reference from my own experience, so that’s what I started with. Annie and Chelsea befriend a Nepali girl, Nirmala, and it was Nirmala’s character that I knew would be crucial to the heart and soul of the book. If I didn’t get her right, I knew I would blow it. I did not want to do a disservice to the country and the people I had loved so much. Sometimes, when I read a book written by someone outside the culture it’s written about, it feels phony, or what’s worse, totally wrong-headed, and I did not want my book to feel fake.

The other thing that could have proved difficult was keeping the tone appropriate for my young readers. I had witnessed heartbreaking things in Nepal, but I didn’t use too much of that, except for when Annie puts her hand to a girl’s ribcage. Her heartbeat feels like a small frog trying frantically to escape, and Annie realizes that the girl will die, because there is no way she can have heart surgery. I didn’t want to get too grown-up for my readers, and I wanted it to be a funny adventure story, which it is, but it’s a whole lot more, too.

The hardest part was how to end the book. I was going to either have to leave Nirmala behind, or find a way to bring her to America for a visit. Eventually, I broke Nirmala’s arm in a way that required surgery to set it properly. With her mother’s blessing, and knowing it was her father’s wish that she continue her education to become a teacher, Nirmala leaves for America with Annie’s family. It is left open-ended as to when she will return, but I did not intend to have Annie’s family adopt her. I expected that someday they would return to the village with Nirmala.

It’s funny how your characters become so real, isn’t it?

What can your readers expect next?

I am working on another funny middle grade novel, due next May and if all goes well, that one should be out about a year later, in the summer of 2007. It is with a new publisher, one which I shall not name here, as I am still waiting for the contract to arrive. This one sold on the basis of two chapters and no outline, so I have my work cut out for me. Looks like I’m heading for Alaska again!

Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind and its characters still tug at my heart, though. I would enjoy the challenge of writing a sequel, a Nirmala in America type book, and maybe I will tackle that in the future.

Cynsational News & Links

Enter to win a Lara M. Zeises Prize Pack from Young Adult Books Central. Read a recent cynsations interview with Lara on Anyone But You (Delacorte, 2005).

Get ready for Children's Book Week, Nov. 14-20! For related materials, information on celebrating, help promoting, its history and more, visit the Children's Book Council.

DC Green Yarns: official site of award-winning and very funny children's author, DC Green. Includes: first chapters, reviews, links. The author's books include: Erasmus James & the Galactic ZAPP Machine.

Master Plots from Suggested on author board by Alex Flinn; suggestion passed on with permission.

BBYA Nominees 2006

Looking over the Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) nominee list, I thought it might be a good time to review those books on the list that have been recommended (see title links) and/or whose authors were interviewed (see author links) on cynsations:

Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking, 2005);

Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson (Harcourt, 2005);

Rebel Angels by Libba Bray (Delacorte, 2005);

Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War II by Joseph Bruchac (Dial, 2005);

Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2005);

Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You by Dorrian Cirrone (HarperCollins, 2005);

Shelf Life by Robert Corbet (Walker, 2005);

Fade to Black by Alex Flinn (HarperCollins, 2005);

The Vanishing Point: A Story of Lavinia Fontana by Louise Hawes (Houghton Mifflin, 2004);

Stained by Jennifer Richard Jacobson (Simon & Schuster, 2005);

Boy Girl Boy by Ron Koertge (Harcourt, 2005);

The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart (Delacorte, 2005);

Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie: A Novel by David Lubar (Dutton, 2005);

Pinned by Alfred C. Martino (Harcourt, 2005);*

A Room on Lorelei Street by Mary E. Pearson (Henry Holt, 2005);

Far From Xanadu by Julie Anne Peters (Little Brown, 2005);

Keep in mind the BBYA nominees list doesn't reflect all books nominated--only those up to the last posted update. New nominees include cynsations featured:

Anyone But You by Lara M. Zeises (Delacorte, 2005);

The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence by Marc Aronson (Houghton Mifflin, 2005);

Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl by D.L. Garfinkle (Putnam, 2005).

Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today by Lori M. Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005). Features my short story "A Real-Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate."

*GLS read and recommended.

Cynsational News & Links

Attention Austinites: As part of its “Year of Writing” program, my husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, and I will be speaking on "Writing the Young Adult Novel" at Barnes and Noble Westlake on Dec. 3, at 10:30 a.m.

An Interview with Sam Swope, author of The Araboolies of Liberty Street, from

Rick Riordan: debut children's author of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Hyperion, 2005), which made the Texas Bluebonnet list. Rick lives in San Antonio and has previously published mysteries for adults. Visit Myth & Mystery, Rick's blog.

Writing and Publishing Board Books by Harold Underdown of the Purple Crayon.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Author Feature: Lisa Yee: Millicent Min, Girl Genius; Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time

Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2003). From the catalog copy: "Millicent Min is having a bad summer. It isn't easy being a genius. But when she finally puts her mind to it, she realizes just what it will take to make her first friend." Winner of the winner of the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor from SCBWI. Read excerpt.

Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time by Lisa Yee (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2005). From the catalog copy: "Stanford Wong is having a bad summer. If he flunks his summer-school English class, he won't pass sixth grade. If that happens, he won't start on the A-team. If *that* happens, his friends will abandon him and Emily Ebers won't like him anymore. And if THAT happens, his life will be over. Then his parents are fighting, his grandmother Yin-Yin hates her new nursing home, he's being "tutored" by the world's biggest nerdball Millicent Min--and he's not sure his ballpoint "Emily" tattoo is ever going to wash off." Read excerpt.

What was your inspiration for creating these books?

My first book, Millicent Min, Girl Genius (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2003), came out of a two-word joke. Child psychologist. I thought that was funny. A kid who was also a psychologist. I wrote an entire novel about an 11-year old who solved problems for adults. The book went through massive changes, including throwing out all the plots, but one thing remained true and ended up in the final version. The MC was lonely.

I had a happy childhood, lots of friends, and loving parents. Still, at times, I felt all alone. I thought that many kids might feel this way, too. So I wrote about it.

After I completed the novel, I was going to write a non-fiction. But my daughter, then about 11-years old, was so down on boys. She was convinced they were stupid and smelly, and could not understand why anyone would want them around. So I asked, "Would you read a book about Stanford?" (He was Millicent's enemy in my first novel.) And she said, "Yes!"

I think she thought I'd prove her assessment about boys to be correct. But my motivation was different. I really wanted to do was to show her, and others, that boys are kinder and more sensitive and more confused than she could ever imagine. I wanted to give voice to boys who so often have a lot to say, but no forum. And so Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2005) was born.

What were the timelines from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Millicent Min, Girl Genius took years and years and years to write. I had been pulled from the slush pile by Arthur Levine, but was told "this isn't the one, but I would love to see anything else you have." So I told him about a story I had about a smart girl. I sent a synopsis and three sample chapters. He loved it and asked to see the complete manuscript. I panicked. I hadn't written the book. I'd only implied that I did.

When I told him this, I expected to be banished from publishing forever. Instead, I was encouraged to keep writing. I sent in the novel (the one about the child psychologist) and Arthur loved the main character, but not the broad humor. He kept saying, "I want literature." I wrote two more completely different novels, each time changing everything but the main character, before it became the book that is out today. The entire process took over six years. Although at one point, real life took over and for an entire year I didn't write at all.

For Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time, I wrote the first draft in three months. By then I had figured out how to write a book. It went through about two or three more drafts until the final version. In all, the process was about two years.

I would like to add that there is an incredible amount of time and effort that goes into producing a book, that has nothing to do with the author. At least work/time-wise. Even though it took Stanford Wong's novel two years to be released, my writing time was about a year of that. And it was not one continuous year. There is a lot of down time between completing a draft and getting it back from you editor with his/her notes. In my case, I actually work with two editors, Arthur Levine and Cheryl Klein, and I'm proud that both their names are listed in the back of Stanford Wong's book!

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

One of the main challenges for the first novel was that I felt the weight of high expectations upon me. (I put them there, no one else did.) It wasn't until I wrote the novel in e-mail format that I found Millicent Min's true voice. You see, I was always e-mailing Arthur and he loved the humor that came out of our correspondence. But when I'd send book chapters they were so formal. That's because I got too serious when writing. I really needed to loosen up to do my best work.

I began researching child geniuses quite a bit, then abandoned it. It finally dawned on me that I was writing a book about a child who happened to be a genius. Not a book about a genius who happened to be a child. However, I did Google extensively when looking up Latin phrases, trivia, etc.

Probably the biggest challenge was trying to find the time to write. I co-owned a business with a dozen employees and was working anywhere between 50 - 70 hours a week. I had two young children. And writing was low on priority list, coming in just after laundry and before going to the dentist. I wrote at night when all were asleep, between 11 pm and 2 am. However, once I got a contract, I cut back my career hours to 40 per week, and later to 20, and got really got serious about writing.

Logistically, Stanford's novel was harder, and easier. I was writing full-time, but still was able to find tons of distractions. (I am excellent at this.) Since his book had the same timeframe as Millicent's, key scenes and dialog had to overlap, yet each from distinctive points of view. Plus, the novel needed to have divergent plot lines and characters to sustain interested and make it a stand-alone book.

Whereas novel #1 was painful at times to write, novel #2 was a joy.

What advice do you have for beginning children's novelists?

Read, read, write, read, write, and read and write. Read whatever you can. All genres, even books you are convinced you will hate. You need to know bad literature to appreciate good. And then write whenever you can. Carve out time for yourself and learn to value what you do. Only then can you succeed.

What insights do you have to share about writing humor?

There are two kinds of humor, slapstick and personal. I write personal humor, the kind that comes from life experiences. My novels are character driven, therefore so is my humor. I develop my characters, given them heart, and go from there. The jokes, the funny bits, the humorous scenes, they usually come last.

I taught a humor workshop recently and told the group that your book needs to stand up, even without the funny parts. Humor is the icing on the cake. It can bind a story together and give it a richness that enhances the plot, characters, theme. But without a great storyline and compelling characters, all you'd have are a bunch of random jokes.

How would you describe the landscape today of Asian American children's literature?

When I wrote MMGG and made the protagonist Chinese American, it was not because of any ethnic agenda. I happened to have an Asian American MC because she reflected who I was. Therefore, I was surprised to get so many letters from girls who said they were Asian and had never read a book about a typical American girl like themselves. Or kids who were drawn to the book because they saw an Asian on the cover of a contemporary novel.

Stanford's story was interesting to me because he was so anti-stereotype. An Asian kid who is a stellar athlete, but flunking in school. And boy, does he feel the pressure to get good grades. With his novel, I wanted to turn perceptions upside-down.

I like to celebrate a person's ethnic heritage yet, at the same time, make it part of the fabric of the story, not the core. Since writing that first novel, I have been more aware of Asian American books, or lack of contemporary books featuring Asian American characters. Recently I blurbed a debut novel by Justine Chen Headley called The Truth and Nothing But the Truth (Little Brown, 2006), about a girl who is half Chinese and half Caucasian. It's funny and touching and contemporary.

Of the children's/YA books you've read this year, which are your favorites and why?

I love Cecil Castellucci's Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005), she really captured what it felt like to be an outsider. D.L. Garfinkle's Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl (Putnam, 2005) was hilarious. And, Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick (Scholastic, 2005) made me cry.

Right now I'm re-reading A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, 2001). This time it's out loud to my son, and it's even better sharing the story with someone you love.

Cynsational News & Links

See recent cynsational interviews with other humor writers: M.T. Anderson; Carolyn Crimi; Bruce Hale; Kathryn Lay; Dian Curtis Regan; Philip Yates. Congratulations to my husband, humor author Greg Leitich Smith, whose novel Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005) was nominated for the ALA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults List (see Books That Don't Make You Blush).

An Agent's Advice on Selling Your Artwork by Chris Tugeau from the Purple Crayon. See also The Artist/Agent Team.