Sunday, August 07, 2005

Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar

Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar (Dutton, 2005). An insider's look at Scott's freshman year of high school as he tries to win a girl, finds another, stumbles into sports reporting, is unfortunately successful at politics, joins a theater crew, loses and gains friends, dodges bullies, seeks inspiration in English class, sometimes stands up for what's right and sometimes doesn't, and chronicles the highlights for his still in utero baby brother AKA "you quivering sack of viscous fluids" (p. 44). Ages 12-up. Highest recommendation.

My Thoughts

Disclaimer: I've never been a freshman, so this was all alien territory to me. My junior high (Hillcrest Junior High in Overland Park, Kansas) went through ninth grade. So for my peers, ninth grade was a time of supreme power. We were almost driving by the time we hit high school. Now, however, the school has changed over to Westridge Middle School, allegedly due to various studies about what's best for kids that age. I'm not convinced those studies are right.

Author tidbit: Last time I spent time with the genius that is David Lubar, it was at the Signature Room at the 95th during ALA in Chicago.

On The Novel:

I love Lee, fangs and all (I'm sure you're surprised). The daughter of two blood suckers, only one of whom is a lawyer. Likewise, dig the vampire poem on p. 127.

I disagree with Scott that short stories are harder than novels. To me, it's more like the difference of running a sprint and running a marathon. Both use most of the same muscles, but the psychology is different.

Characters include an English teacher cool enough to study comics with the class. (By the way, I rec my favorite comic of the week over at spookycyn).

This novel heightened and deepened my interest in language and writing, especially poetry. I was tempted to list all of the books, poems, etc., mentioned with links to more information, but of course, that would totally ruin/oversimplify countless readers' future homework.

Sleeping Freshman Never Lie is one of the top YAs of the year in a strong year for YAs and sort of like "My So-Called Life" for boys. The novel represents the best of comedy--balanced at times against tragedy, at times against the ridiculousness of daily life, and always fully engaging the heart and mind. It would be an excellent choice for fans of Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl by D.L. Garfinkle (Putnam, 2005). It also deserves mega ALA and especially NCTE attention; what more could English teachers (or teen readers) ask for?

Memorable Lines

p. 37 (under "Scott Hudson's Guide To Things That Are Worse Than Gym")
"5. Getting your head stuck in a bucketful of dead worms that's been baking in the sun for a week."

p. 67 "Have you ever noticed that Piglet looks like some sort of larval grub with ears?" (Actually, I find Piglet much cuter, but then again, I'm a girl).

p. 104 (re: running for Student Council) "I could have promised to try to replace gym class with Victoria's Secret fashion shows."

p. 123 "If 'music hath charms to soothe a savage breast,' then why are there so many hyperactive geeks in the band?"

p. 136 (under "Seven Reasons Why Scott Hudson Shouldn't Join The Wrestling Team")
"7. Any activity that produces that much grunting should probably be performed in private."

p. 214 "Easter is by far the best holiday for chocolate. Halloween is probably second. They have little else in common."

Cynsational note: surf back tomorrow for an interview with author David Lubar on Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie.

Cynsational News & Links

Thanks to my very cute husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, for adding links to the sidebars of my cynsations and spookycyn blogs. Greg's latest book, Tofu and T. rex was released in July 2005 along with the paperback of his debut novel, Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo.

Author Tanya Lee Stone wrote me a couple of days ago, asking for a list of my favorite author Web sites. It was a fun question I hadn't been asked before. These are the authors whose sites I highlighted for her: Laurie Halse Anderson; Heather Vogel Frederick; K.L. Going; Jennifer Holm; Jennifer Richard Jacobson; Patrice Kindl; Graham Salisbury; Nancy Werlin; Janet Wong. Tanya is the author of numerous books, including the upcoming YA hit, A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl (Wendy Lamb Books, 2006).

"Painting with Words" by Erin Brady, in the Writing Schedule Section of Writer's Support from the Institute of Children's Literature. See also "No Peril, No Glory, No Sale!" by Jody J. Little, in the Story Conflict Section of Writing Tips and a chat with historical fiction writer Linda Crew from ICL.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Author Interview: Betty G. Birney on Friendship According To Humphrey

Friendship According To Humphrey by Betty G. Birney (Putnam, 2005). Humphrey's still the class pet in room 26, but suddenly, he's not the only one! Enter Og the Frog. "Boing!" Can these different species become friends, and what about the other relationships in Mrs. Brisbane's classroom? It can be HARD-HARD-HARD to be a friend, but it's worth it. Ages 8-up. A companion book to The World According To Humphrey.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Only a few months after buying The World According To Humphrey, (editor) Susan Kochan (cyn: see also this interview) asked for a sequel. I was still basking in the glow of selling my first middle grade and now had a contract for another one! It was a tight deadline to get it out one year after the first book was published but we did it. I was given full rein and I didn’t even have to tell them the subject of the book until it was completed. That sounds like a dream – right? Well, if the first book just poured out of me, the sequel was a somewhat different story. It wasn’t a nightmare, but it was no dream, either.

What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

The big challenge was to keep Humphrey and his friends consistent with the first book but to add new elements to make it fresh. Then there’s always the issue of a child picking up the second book without having read the first book – there has to be some backstory in it but you don’t want to bore the child who did read the first book. Arrgh! I was biting my nails from the start. Although a typical classroom has around 30 students, the first book really only mentioned eight students (plus Aldo, Mrs. Brisbane, Principal Morales and parents). I added four characters to Friendship. Three of them were regular students whom Humphrey didn’t know so well until Mrs. Brisbane rearranged the classroom. The fourth was the new girl, a lonely foster child.

Although The World According To Humphrey is episodic in the way Humphrey has self-contained adventures on the weekends, there was a strong through-line revolving around the idea that Humphrey was convinced Mrs. Brisbane not only didn’t like him, she was out to get him. (He was brought to class by a substitute.) That gave the book a lot of drive. Several children have written to say they were scared when Humphrey had to go home with Mrs. Brisbane. What would give the sequel the same kind of oomph? I rather quickly decided that Humphrey would have the shock of his life when a new classroom pet was added to Room 26: a frog.

Humphrey’s challenge would be to make friends with this frog, called Og, who did not appear to be particularly friendly. I did a lot of frog research but the rockiest part of writing the book was working on Humphrey’s efforts to befriend Og and also cope with his own jealousy. (Now there’s a problem kids can relate to.) Then I decided that friendship would be a general theme linking all the stories. (There was no such link in the first book). The title was up in the air but when I came up with Friendship According To Humphrey, I realized that there could be a whole series of “According To Humphrey” books.

The stories about the children came fairly easily to me, but definitely have more depth than in the first book: dealing with a bully, a lonely foster child, two best friends feuding and two warring stepsisters. Humphrey lends a paw in resolving these problems and stars in a magic show, too. But the ongoing relationship between Humphrey and Og was a constant trial. I had wanted to include Frog Care Tips at the end of each chapter, to mirror the Hamster Care Tips in the first book, but it didn’t work out because there were too many chapters where Og didn’t appear. So I ended up putting in quotes about friendship.

There’s another event that drives the action of the book: a Valentine’s Day Poetry Festival. I had a lot of fun writing good and bad kid poems and even a couple of poems written by Humphrey. The idea for the Poetry Festival stemmed from an event that was held at my son’s elementary school each year. Students didn’t actually have to write their own poems but they had to memorize and recite them at an assembly. They picked and chose each year and it wasn’t until about his fourth go-round that Walshe was accepted, so he had several years of deep disappointment. Happily, I made sure all the children in Room 26 got to participate.

While the stories came easily, making the Og/Humphrey relationship work was grunt work and I revised the sections where they interact many times. However, I had the big climax (which I won’t give away but is dramatic and visual) in mind from the start. I had my map, remember?

Because this book was more difficult to write, I am constantly amazed that the sequel got equally positive reviews and many people have told me they like it even better than World. It does have more depth than the first book. And I’ve also queried people who read Friendship without having read World to see if it all made sense without having read the first book and I’ve been relieved that there seems to be no problem with it.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The World According To Humphrey was released in paperback in June. Friendship According To Humphrey will be in paperback next summer. The U.K. version of World will be published by Faber & Faber in February. A Dutch version was just released by Facet. (Only Humphrey is Bertje!) I am writing the third book, Trouble According To Humphrey now. It’s halfway between the first and second book in difficulty. I was nervous when I began, but then Humphrey took over. As I said to my husband, “I don’t have to worry about the book now. Humphrey’s taken over and he’ll do the writing.”

I recently sat in on a hamster examination at the vet’s office (research!) and even held a hamster. I must admit, it was easy for me because he was a pet store reject named Kramer who had one eye and no teeth. He was adorable – looked like he was perpetually winking – but the best part was, he couldn’t bite me. So I guess you can imagine the kind of trouble Humphrey may be getting into soon!

Cynsational Note: see also Betty G. Birney on The World According To Humphrey (Putnam, 2004).

Cynsational News & Links

Read Gail Giles' LJ (The YA Novel and Me) lately? Recent gems include: "Want to be a writer? Pull up a chair. Seriously, pull up a chair." and "Am I crazy or just Southern? Or is that a moot point?"

An Interview With Libba Bray from Young Adult Books Central. Ms. Bray is in true wacky form. She also alledgedly has a Web site now (but the splash page image doesn't show up on my Mozilla or Netscape browsers; perhaps you will have better luck). a discussion group of 650 plus writing teachers, children's authors, librarians, homeschoolers, etc. who discuss reading and writing strategies, resources, etc. A prolific list with more than 1500 posts last month alone, but any topic or question usually results in learning about great resources, Web sites, etc. Owner/Moderator Robert A. Redmond encourages interested parties to join.

Surf by Austin writer/illustrator Shannon Lowry's Web site. Learn more about Shannon, check out her portfolio, visit her studio and more!

Friday, August 05, 2005

Author Interview: Betty G. Birney on The World According To Humphrey

The World According To Humphrey by Betty G. Birney (Putnam, 2004). Humphrey is the class hamster in Room 26, and boy, does he learn a lot! Not only is Humphrey keeping up with the kids in their studies, he also visits the home of a different one each weekend. Everyone loves him...except the new teacher, Mrs. Brisbane. Humphrey is a VERY-VERY-VERY open, caring hamster--smart, resourceful, kindhearted, and always true to his own point of view. Ages 8-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Often, I can pinpoint exactly where an idea came from but in this case, I’m not terribly clear. When my son, Walshe, was in elementary school, his science classroom had all kinds of animals including a boa constrictor. That probably made me think of the guinea pigs back in my first grade classroom who were completely boring until they procreated at a highly inopportune time. (This was the fifties and our brand-new teacher was considered a little too progressive for those times.) I got to thinking about how a pet in a typical elementary classroom would view and interpret what he was seeing. I’ve always been interested in point-of-view.

I love all animals (though I’m rodent-phobic) and I’m constantly trying to figure out what my dog is thinking about some of the things we do – which must look pretty wacky to her. So I’m used to musing about what things look like from an animal’s viewpoint.

Once I started working on the idea, it became obvious that there were several other inspirations. When I read Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me in elementary school, I was completely delighted. I thought the idea that Ben Franklin’s great ideas and inventions really came from his pet mouse, Amos, was the cleverest thing I’d ever read. I also adored the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books where a quirky character tries to solve kids’ problems. Stuart Little was another great favorite of mine as a child. So it’s pretty clear that a hamster who tries to help people solve their problems was a natural subject for me.

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

I’m constantly amazed by the process of writing and the way each book has its own unique path. Some are hard to write, some just pop out but for me, it’s never the same process twice. I actually jotted down a few notes about a classroom hamster who goes home with a different kid each weekend and helps solve their problems back in 1996. The original idea was the same as the final product, but it took me a while to make it click.

Some background: for 20-plus years, I made my living writing children’s television, working on tight deadlines, late nights, seven days a week. But I managed to work on books in between and sold some, too. I wrote books to preserve my sanity but the scripts paid the bills. And there were other rewards, including an Emmy and many other awards. But I had to take the work as it came so there were long lapses between the time I got an idea and by the time I finished it. But ideas do seem to need a long time to ferment with me. I’d jot down thoughts about the book, ideas for titles and the name of the character (He was Wiggins for a while.) I soon settled on Humphrey – but not in honor of Humphrey Bogart. I named him for Humphrey Street in St. Louis, where my parents grew up as neighbors and where my sister and I spent a great deal of time at my grandparents’ house. A few times, I tried a first page or two – with disastrous results. Humphrey sounded too adult – even British in one draft – and I put the pages aside. However, the teacher, Mrs. Brisbane, appeared in these early notes, as did the idea that Humphrey thinks she’s out to get him. Another early idea was that his cage has a lock-that-doesn’t-lock but appears locked to humans, so he could get out and have adventures.

In 2002, after a succession of nightmarish TV experiences, I decided to kick my literary efforts up a notch. My son was about to go off to college and I finally got a literary agent (I have a great Hollywood agent, Barbara Alexander, but needed a book agent as well.)

Nancy Gallt is a fantastic agent and she was quite taken with my manuscript, The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs (Atheneum, June 2005) She was trying to sell that and some picture book manuscripts. One day in June of 2002, I sat down to take another crack at Humphrey and –surprise - the voice was there! It was just as smooth and natural as could be. Humphrey was a kid, not an adult, and as soon as I started writing, I had the idea that he called his fellow classmates in Room 26 by the names he heard the teacher call them: Raise-Your-Hand-Heidi Hopper, Lower-Your-Voice A.J., Speak-Up Sayeh, etc. Humphrey’s habit of repeating words three times, as in, “I was GLAD-GLAD-GLAD,” just popped up out of thin air. (After I finished, I had to go through the manuscript to make sure he doesn’t do that too often, which would be just a little too cute.) Surprisingly, I soon learned that Humphrey is a punster, telling people to “squeak up” or calling someone “unsqueakably rude.” Unfortunately, all that humans hear is “SQUEAK-SQUEAK-SQUEAK.”

Another important idea that emerged was that during the week, he spent his nights at school. Again, I played with point-of-view, giving the readers a taste of what a classroom similar to theirs might be like at night, with the clock sounding very loud and the room very dark. Aldo Amato, the lonely but high-spirited night custodian, soon entered the picture and is one of my very favorite characters. Humphrey even manages to help him find the love of his life!

What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

This book was a relatively easy birth. I did make a rough outline. I’ve heard all those famous writers say they never outline and just start writing without any idea where they’re going. But my TV writing trained me differently. An extensive outline is a requirement for a TV or film script. You get paid first for the outline, then first draft and usually two revisions. It makes sense to have an outline, so that the writer, story editor and producer all know what to expect. Once you have experience, you can tell by the outline whether the script is going to be too long or too short and adjust the length then. It’s a grueling, horrible job and all writers hate writing outlines. However, once it is approved, writing the script is usually a breeze. I wrote out a rough outline for Humphrey, just so I knew where I was going. A lot of things changed along the way, but still, it’s nice to have a little map, as long as you feel free to take detours. This outline was more like a list of events than a TV outline.

I also kept a calendar for The World According To Humphrey, as I do on certain projects. A long time ago, I wrote an award-winning Afterschool Special that was almost perfect except I realized after it was in production that there was a tiny problem of time in it. It was very minor; if I read it today I probably couldn’t find it and no one else ever noticed, though I did tell the producer. But that experience made me more conscious of time. I knew that Humphrey was coming to class shortly after school started and that the story would end at the holidays. In between, he’d be going home with different students. So I had to make sure I had the right number of weekends and that Halloween and Thanksgiving fell at the right place, too. I now make calendars for all the Humphrey books.

Since I do not have a hamster (my dog strictly forbids it), I did plenty of research. I visited the pet store on the corner, which became the model for Pet-O-Rama, and I picked up an enormously helpful hamster care book. I’ve practically worn it out. I did other research online but that one book was key.

Although a hamster who can read and write and think like a human is pure fantasy, I tried hard to make his behavior hamster-like. He can’t physically do things a hamster couldn’t do (a very brave and smart hamster, that is). I put in a Hamster Care Tip at the end of each chapter, something reviewers universally liked, and at the end, added Humphrey’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans. I’m gratified that most people are shocked to learn I don’t have – and never have had – a hamster.

Once I had the voice and my map, I wrote the book REALLY-REALLY-REALLY fast – a chapter a day. It just rolled out of me. I tell people that I channel hamsters (a joke) but I felt as if Humphrey wrote the book and I just did the typing for him. Believe me, I do not think writing is a magical process and I realize that all this comes from the subconscious, but every time I sit down to write Humphrey’s voice, it feels as if it’s coming from outside of me. On the other hand, I also believe that Humphrey actually is me: the observer (or writer) always trying to fix things.

Not only did I write a chapter a day, I woke up every morning knowing exactly what the next chapter would be and how it would unfold. This was a unique experience, although I often dream scenes and use the time when I’m halfway between sleep and wakefulness to consciously work out problems in stories. When I’m in this “twilight” time, I almost always come up with a solution or advance the plot. The trick is when you wake up, lie very still while you’re still half-asleep and picture the problem you’re working on. This is a technique I’ve used for years. I also do it in the middle of the night if I wake up and can’t get back to sleep.

I think the fact that I wrote this book so quickly gave it energy and spontaneity. I like to work this way, but believe me, I have manuscripts where every word was a struggle and they turned out okay, too.

Even though I wrote World quickly, I did a lot of rewriting (I always do) and also let it sit for a while before taking that last crack at it. I gave it to Nancy Gallt in the fall of 2002. She liked it and sent it out. It was rejected by one house and then sold to Putnam’s – a very painless process. In January, 2003, I was on jury duty on a very nasty and complicated criminal trial. On break, I went into the jury room and checked my cell phone messages. When I got THE message, I literally jumped for joy. Our jury had really bonded so all 12 of us were jumping for joy within minutes.

I was very fortunate to have Susan Kochan (cyn: see also this interview) as my editor, a truly lovely, dedicated and generous person to work with.

The copy-editing process was complicated because of the way Humphrey talks. The punctuation and capitalization of things like “SQUEAK-SQUEAK-SQUEAK," and the kids’ names had to be consistent and it was time-consuming. Luckily, I’m a perfectionist about these things, too, so I appreciated all the work Susan and several copy editors put into it.

Cynsational Note: check back tomorrow for Betty G. Birney on Friendship According To Humphrey (Putnam, 2005).

Cynsational News & Links

In The Artist's Studio: Watercolor by Iza Trapani from CBC Magazine.

"To Hold Up Prisms": Australian and Canadian Indigenous Publishing for Children by Clare Bradford from papertigers. Clare Bradford is a professor of literary studies at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, where she teaches and researches children's literature, especially colonial and post-colonial texts.

Cecil Castellucci, Writer: an interview from Torontoist. See my own recent interview with Miss Cecil about her new novel, Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005).

Interview with Lara M. Zeises from Pop Goes The Library. See also my own recent interview with Lara about her upcoming novel, Anyone But You (Delacorte, 2005).

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The World According To Humphrey by Betty G. Birney

The World According To Humphrey by Betty G. Birney (Putnam, 2004). Humphrey is the class hamster in Room 26, and boy, does he learn a lot! Not only is Humphrey keeping up with the kids in their studies, he also visits the home of a different one each weekend. Everyone loves him...except the new teacher, Mrs. Brisbane. Humphrey is a VERY-VERY-VERY open, caring hamster--smart, resourceful, kindhearted, and always true to his own point of view. Ages 8-up.

Friendship According To Humphrey by Betty G. Birney (Putnam, 2005). Humphrey's still the class pet in room 26, but suddenly, he's not the only one! Enter Og the Frog. "Boing!" Can these different species become friends, and what about the other relationships in Mrs. Brisbane's classroom? It can be HARD-HARD-HARD to be a friend, but it's worth it. Ages 8-up. A companion book to The World According To Humphrey.

Cynsational Note: Betty G. Birney has another new novel out, The Seven Wonders Of Sassafras Springs (Atheneum, 2005). It's in my stack, but I haven't read it yet. However, you can get a sneak peek online at chapter one.

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to San Antonio's Lupe Ruiz-Flores, recipient of the second Martha Weston Grant. Lupe will receive $1,500 to defer her expenses to attend the SCBWI annual summer conference in Los Angeles August 5 to 8.

The Children's Writing Update for August 2 features: Market News from Magazine Maven Margaret; Ask the Children's Librarian; Julia Ward Howe Awards (for those who live or have lived within a 100 mile radius of Boston); Getting Published with Self-Help for Kids.

Smart Writers Journal for August 2005 features: articles about winners of the Smart Writers' contest; an author interview with Marlene Perez ("talks about writing edgy YAs and spirited fantasies"); and Writers Retreats and Conferences by Margot Finke. Read my thoughts on Unexpected Development by Marlene Perez (Roaring Brook, 2004).

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Ethnic Book Awards: A Directory of Multicultural Literature for Young Readers by Sherry York

Ethnic Book Awards: A Directory of Multicultural Literature for Young Readers by Sherry York (Linworth, 2005). This collection of award-winning books will help K-12 educators select culturally-relevant materials for their libraries, making collections appeal to and reflect a diverse population.

The one-of-a-kind directory includes culturally-specific award-winning books about Jewish, African-American, Latino, Caribbean, and Asian-American cultures. The book includes background information on ethnic book awards as well as an alphabetical listing of award-winning books with publication information and brief summaries for each title.

Cynsational News & Links

Rebel Angels by Libba Bray/The Secrets of Spence Sweepstakes is an online scavenger hunt in which you will be asked to search for and gather clues on outside web sites. With each clue you uncover you will be entered for chances to win awesome prizes - like Alloy gift certificates and free books! Plus, clues will grant access to exclusive Rebel Angels features. And once you've gathered all the secrets from the scavenger hunt you'll get a chance to listen-in with Gemma as she overhears midnight whispers in the ill-fated burned wing of Spence Academy. Cynsational Note: YA fans, definitely check this out, and then surf by Libba's LJ and tell her how infinitely goddess-like she is.

Susan Heyboer O'Keefe: Award-Winning Children's Author by Sue Reichard from Her middle grade novel, Death by Eggplant (Roaring Book, 2004), has been named a Disney Adventures Kid's Choice Nominee for 2005, to New York Public Library Best Books for Teenagers 2005, and to IRA/CBC Children's choices for 2005.

Writing About The Guy Nobody's Heard Of. Can You Relate? by Connie Clark of Kid Magazine Writers. See also Editor's Speak: Kidtime Magazine: Tania O'Donnell, Editor by Jan Fields.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Reviewers Checklist Highlights New Books

Reviewers Checklist ( is an online database designed to help the media find new and forthcoming books for children, teens and families. It also serves as a promotional tool for authors and illustrators and a one-stop resource for educators, librarians and industry professionals. Registered media can search for their topics of interest and send review copy requests directly to the publishers.

Authors and Illustrators can showcase their own books through enhancement features and ads on the site. They can also register to keep informed of books in their areas of interest. For more information, contact

Cynsational News & Links

An Interview With Debut Novelist Amy McAuley from Debbi Michiko Florence. Read my thoughts on Amy's new novel, Over and Over You (Roaring Brook, 2005).

"How to Sell Your Manuscripts the Fastest Possible Way!" an ICL chat with Kathleen Lay.

I'll be chatting online with members of Absynthe Muse, a young adult writing community, at 4:30 p.m. CST, 5:30 p.m. EST on August 6. Learn more about Absynthe Muse.

Thank you to Kathi Appelt for filling in for me as a speaker at the Houston SCBWI monthly meeting last night. (My throat is still sore, but the other symptoms appear to be clearing).

Monday, August 01, 2005

Author Interview: Elise Broach on Shakespeare's Secret

Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach (Henry Holt, 2005). Hero knows her unusual name comes from a character in the Shakespeare play "Much Ado About Nothing," but that's no consolation on the first day of sixth grade at her new school. All the kids make fun, and she's sure this year will be as empty as all the rest. But then Hero meets an elderly neighbor who tells her about a missing diamond, and much to her surprise, Hero finds herself becoming friends with one of the cutest, most popular boys in school. Ages 10-up. More on Shakespeare's Secret.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

This is always the hardest question for me to answer. I'm never quite sure where my books come from... for me, the writing process is sort of like the Greek myth where Athena springs full-blown from the head of Zeus. There wasn't a single source of inspiration for Shakespeare's Secret; the book is more of a melting pot of influences and events.

In the winter of 1998, I took a children's writing course with a friend through a local high school's adult education program. Six of us formed a writing group after the class ended, and that summer we all decided to start novels. I had lived in England as a child and was a bit of a Shakespeare nut, and I'd always admired the play "Much Ado About Nothing" because it's witty and fun but doesn't shy away from the deeper themes of honor, reputation, and betrayal.

Originally, I thought I might write a contemporary version of it set in middle school (what better place to explore reputation and betrayal?), the way the movie "Clueless" transposes Jane Austen's Emma to modern Beverly Hills. My family moved six times when I was a child, and I had the strange experience of occupying literally every level of the social hierarchy at some time during those years--sixth grade was actually my "popular" year, unlike for Hero--so I've always found those social issues interesting and resonant.

But then, as I was writing the story, it went off in its own direction. Over the winter, my children had been playing in the woods behind our house and found an old pewter tennis trophy stuck in the snow, with the date 1915 engraved on one side. It was like finding buried treasure. We were all completely intrigued, wondering who might have owned it and left it there. As a result, in Shakespeare's Secret, the mystery of the diamond took center stage. It begin to eclipse the plotlines that were more closely based on the play, which was fine with me. In my writing, I've learned not to force things. Stories are like children; they have to be allowed to grow in their own way, in their own time.

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

I am indebted to my wonderful writing group--Claire Carlson, Anne Gaston, Mary Hughes, Laurie Krebs, and Peggy Thomas--for the fact that this novel was ever finished. We met every three weeks and I gave them a chapter each time. I had a baby and two young children at home, so the deadlines imposed by the group were incredibly important--even essential--in forcing me to write to the end. After a year and a half, I'd completed the book.

I spent a month or so polishing it, and then, in the spring of 2000, began submitting it. Over the next year, I sent it to eight or ten editors or agents and accrued a sheaf of rejections. They were full of contradictory advice. Some liked the mystery but didn't like the voice; some loved the voice but thought the mystery needed more work; some thought it was "eminently publishable" (God bless that encouraging soul) but said it wasn't right for their list.

Because I'm such a critical reader myself, I basically believed every one of them. The funny thing was, it didn't really discourage me. I came to think that the book probably wouldn't be published, but I was still so glad to have written it. It had shown me that I could write a novel, and that was such an empowering feeling.

Then, in late 2000 and 2001, I had three picture books accepted from the slushpile, and in 2002, I was able to get an agent based on my other picture book manuscripts. She asked if I'd written any longer fiction. I gave her Shakespeare's Secret, which was originally titled The Finding Place. She liked it, and at my suggestion sent it to Christy Ottaviano, an editor at Henry Holt whom I'd heard speak at the New York SCBWI conference that winter. A few weeks later, in August 2002, Christy made an offer on the book.

In so many ways, Christy turned out to be the perfect editor for this project. We have similar backgrounds (she went to graduate school in English literature and taught high school English; I went to graduate school in history and taught college history) and she has a wonderful ability to be very analytical and very supportive at the same time. She was thorough in telling me what didn't work, but her pure enthusiasm for the book was like a giant safety net that let me take the risks needed to make it better. As a writer, you sometimes feel like you're crossing a tightrope in total darkness, one foot dangling over thin air. It's a great comfort to know that someone is there to catch you if you fall.

In her revision letter, Christy asked a lot of questions, but she had enough confidence in me to let me find my own answers. By the time I started revisions in 2003, I'd become a very different writer than I was in 1998 when I began the book, partly through all the writing experience I'd gained but also through my life experiences in the intervening years.

While I was revising, I was caught up in the totally bizarre process of running for public office in the small town where I live. The campaign was full of challenges for someone who is congenitally frank in her opinions and addicted to solitude and privacy. Furthermore, since elections are essentially popularity contests, it gave me a firsthand, intense exposure to the questions of reputation and social power that plague Hero in Shakespeare's Secret.

When I started revising, I knew there were lots of things I wanted to change about the story. I wanted to deepen the characterizations and the mystery, and make Hero more organically connected to the plot.

I also wanted to make the book more my own: something only I could write. (Actually, it changed so much in the revision that I began to worry it was something only I would read!) I'd always loved British history, especially the stories of Henry VIII's wives, and I'd been interested in the Shakespeare authorship question for a long time. Those historical themes and my personal experience in the campaign became the keys to carrying the mystery and the story of Hero's social adjustment to a different level.

I doubt I could have written this same book at any other time in my life. The Author's Note at the end closes with a quote from "As You Like It": "And one man in his time plays many parts." I think for writers, different times in our lives set the stage for different selves, and create the possibility of different books (which are always the products of a particular mix of imagination and experience).

I finished all final edits to the book in the summer of 2004, and we were lucky enough to have Brett Helquist create a fabulous cover that captured both the intrigue of the mystery and the historical aspects of the plot. One of the most exciting things for me on the road to publication was the enthusiastic response from my son's sixth-grade friends, who read early copies and turned out to be as fascinated by Shakespeare, Edward de Vere, and Anne Boleyn as I was (and these were boys!). The book was published in May of 2005, seven years after I started the first draft.

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

Oh, there were so many. Literary challenge: I don't consider myself a mystery writer and Shakespeare's Secret is unambiguously a mystery. I was hugely comforted to read recently that J. K. Rowling doesn't consider herself a fantasy writer. Maybe there are more of us imposters in the writing world than I realized. At any rate, I rarely read mysteries and didn't read many growing up, so I worried that I wouldn't know how to write one. And truthfully, I was as interested in the human mysteries of the story--what makes a person popular? What makes a person ostracized? What makes a mother abandon her child?--as in the missing diamond and the Shakespeare/de Vere question. But I hope that those other mysteries just made the story richer.

Research and logistical challenges: layering all the details of the Shakespeare authorship question over the framework of the original mystery in three weeks, which was the timeframe for the revision. I have lots of British history books, I'd saved many articles on Edward de Vere and Shakespeare, and the Internet was helpful for filling in gaps, but the revision required lots of additional research.

Psychological challenge: I have a bad mix of character traits for a writer. I'm a total perfectionist but a terrible procrastinator. I'm obsessed with details but easily bored. I worry about showing too much feeling because I'm horrified by anything sappy or sentimental. So sometimes it's hard for me to be messy enough and patient enough and fearless enough to make a book as great as it could be. But I try. About writing, Ernest Hemingway said, "The hell with playing it safe." I really believe that. I'd rather read a book that fails in interesting ways than one that succeeds in all the usual ways...and I'd rather write a book like that, too.

Cynsational News & Links

Author Finds New Publishing Opportunity in Legends of Harry Potter: An Interview with David Colbert, author of The Hidden Myths In Harry Potter: Spellbinding Map and Book Of Secrets (St. Martin's Griffin) by Susan VanHecke from Authorlink.

A Message About Messages by Ursula K. Le Guin from CBC Magazine.

An Interview with Novelist Marcus Sedgwick from ACHUKA.

An updated list of books nominated for BBYA 2006 is available at Genrefluent (scroll to read; includes links to teen comments).
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