Monday, October 31, 2005

Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy

I was pleased today to receive my hardcopy of the October 2005 (Vol. 49; No. 2) issue of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.

It features positive reviews of Tofu and T. rex by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown, 2003)--"captures the quirky eccentricities of small private schools, especially in the way they seem to foster and nurture quirky and eccentric (and highly intelligent if quixotic) personalities. ...a fun read and a fitting continuance of the earlier work, Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo."

It also reviews my short story, "A Real-Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate" from Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today edited by Lori M. Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005)--"Jason and Nika feel quite real, and Jason's situation in which identity and appearance do not neatly match up is a relevant one for most teens, as is awakwardness at romantic overtures and finding a comfortable niche in the world."

In addition, the issue offers an interview with us both under the nifty headline "People to Watch." See pgs. 162-167. Read online the reviews and abbreviated interview; read online the full interview.

Three Good Deeds by Vivian Vande Velde

Three Good Deeds by Vivian Vande Velde (Harcourt, 2005). Howard shouldn't have taunted the old witch, but he didn't know she really was a witch until she turned him into a goose! Now he's stuck that way until he does three good deeds. Meanwhile, the male geese want him away from their females. The female geese want him away from their eggs. And people--including his supposed best friends--want to eat him! Besides flapping his wings, stopping his webbed feet, and HONKing, what's Howard to do? Ages 8-up. Read an excerpt. Listen to the author read an excerpt.

More Thoughts on Three Good Deeds

This delightful middle grade novel feels very much like a sort of old-fashioned story, told to the reader. It has a cleverly interwoven novel, a reflective narrator, and a timeless setting.

It's also fresh, funny, and a one-sitting read. Definitely one of the best middle grades and fantasies of the year.

Cynsational News & Links

Happy Halloween!

Vivid Vivian! from the Bulletin of the Center of Children's Books.

DFW-HWA: the North Texas Chapter of the Horror Writers Association.

A couple of days ago, I posted a list of links to MFA programs in writing for children and/or adults. Two more are at Lesley University and Simmons College.

Books on my nightstand are: Spacer and Rat by Margaret Bechard (Roaring Brook, 2005); Mr. Chickee's Funny Money by Christopher Paul Curtis (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2005).

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Authors of Teen Books Support Intellectual Freedom

A private school in Texas recently returned a three million dollar donation rather than submit to the donor’s request that a controversial book be removed from the school’s reading list. A group of teen book authors was so impressed by the school’s actions that they gave themselves a name, Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom (or AS IF!), and are now all donating signed copies of their books, which the school will display in a planned “Freedom Library.”

The school, St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, had been promised the donation by the family of Cary McNair, who later objected to the presence of the Annie Proulx short story “Brokeback Mountain,” on the school’s list of optional reading for twelfth graders.

"St. Andrew's has a policy not to accept conditional gifts,” school spokesman Bill Miller told the Austin American Statesman. “When the McNair family looked at their gift in a conditional manner, then the school could not accept it."

According to AS IF! member Brent Hartinger, he and his author friends were overwhelmed by the depth of St. Andrew’s conviction. “They gave up three million dollars rather than compromise the principles of academic independence and intellectual freedom,” Hartinger says. “We authors wanted to show our thanks, so we formed our group, and are now all sending signed copies of our books.”

So far, Hartinger says, over sixty books have been sent, including many by bestselling and award-winning authors.

“I sent a signed first printing,” says Newbery winner Cynthia Kadohata. "I saw a copy on E-bay go for eight hundred dollars. It's not $3 million, but it's a start."

The point of the book drive, says another AS IF! member, Lisa Yee, is to make a positive statement, not just add more acrimony to the ongoing debate over controversial books. "Rather than tear down those who make negative or uninformed judgments about literature,” Yee says, “we want to support those who stand up for freedom of choice, and thank them for their efforts.”

Other AS IF! members include Anjali Banerjee, Holly Black, Elise Broach, Cecil Castellucci, Dorian Cirrone, Sarah Darer Littman, Jeanne DuPrau, Dotti Enderle, Alex Flinn, Debra Garfinkle, Barb Huff, Tanya Lee Stone, R.L. LaFevers, David LaRochelle, E. Lockhart, Bennett Madison, Katie Maxwell, Dianne Ochiltree, Marlene Perez, Douglas Rees, Eileen Rosenbloom, Laura Ruby, Linda Joy Singleton, Arthur Slade, Laurie Stolarz, Chris Tebbetts, Anne Ursu, Jo Whittemore, Mark L. Williams, Maryrose Wood, Sara Zarr, and Lara M. Zeises.

“We’re not going away,” says AS IF! member Jordan Sonnenblick. “AS IF! definitely plans to continue doing whatever it can to support all those who fight efforts of censorship and intellectual suppression, especially of books for and about teenagers.”

For more information, contact Jordan Sonnenblick, jsonnenblick@rcn.com.

Cynsational Notes

Thanks to Lisa Yee for sending me this news release. AS IF! member authors are encouraged to include cynsations/Children's-YA Literature Resources on their reviewer lists.

I had mentioned AS IF! previously on this blog, but decided cynsational readers would appreciate receiving more information as it has become available.

Kathi Appelt, Tammar Stein Win Writers' League of Texas Teddy Awards

Last night Kathi Appelt won the Writers' League of Texas Teddy Award in the short works division for Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America (HarperCollins, 2005), and Tammar Stein won in the long works division for Light Years (Knopf, 2005).

The event was held in the Texas Governor's Mansion on this, the weekend of the Texas Book Festival. Quite the venue!

Unlike previous years, there were no readings, and there was no extended program--just a social followed by a presentation of certificates to all the finalists and teddy bears to the winners. Also, this year, the event was not open to the public, but rather limited to finalists and one guest each.

I had the honor of being the guest of Jennifer J. Stewart, who was a finalist in long works for Close Encounters of a Third World Kind (Holiday House, 2004).

Highlights included a quick hug with Diane Gonzales Bertrand, who was a finalist in long works for Upside Down and Backwards/De Cabeza y Al Reves translated by Karina Hernandez (Arte Publico, 2004).

The evening continued at Caste Hill Cafe, where our party included myself, my husband and former Teddy winner Greg Leitich Smith, my hostess Jennifer J. Stewart, Teddy Award winner Kathi Appelt, Joy Fisher Hein who illustrated Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers, Anne Bustard who was a finalist in short works for Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Simon & Schuster, 2005), author Lindsey Lane who was Anne's guest at the Mansion, author Patricia McMahon and her son/co-author Conner who were speaking at the festival this weekend, Elaine Scott who was a finalist in short works for Poles Apart: Why Penguins and Polar Bears Will Never Be Neighbors (Viking, 2004), and her very cute husband.

Cynsational News & Links

Learn more about the Teddy winners and finalists from cynsations. See cover art for the Teddy Award winners and finalists from the Writers' League of Texas.

Patricia McMahon and her son Conner Clarke McCarthy's new book, illustrated by Karen A. Jerome, is Just Add One Chinese Sister (Boyds Mills, 2005).

Lindsey Lane's debut book, Snuggle Mountain, illustrated by Melissa Iwai (Clarion, 2003), is a perfect choice for pre-K.

Greg Leitich Smith is a former Teddy Award winner for Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005).

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Author Interview: Hope Vestergaard

Weaving the Literacy Web: Creating Curriculum Based on Books Children Love by Hope Vestergaard (Redleaf Press, 2005). From the catalog copy: "provides a framework for developing engaging, developmentally appropriate curriculum in the preschool classroom based on books children love. Six comprehensive chapters provide an introduction to book-based webbing and ideas for activity planning, including math, science, and language and creative arts. This innovative handbook also provides helpful tips for observing children's interests and evaluating books for your own classroom library. " Scroll for ordering information.

What inspired you to write Weaving the Literacy Web, and what is the thesis of the book?

I had a work-study assistant teaching position when I was in college and the teachers were so clever and creative in their planning, it really inspired me. They did a crazy fun Where The Wild Things Are unit, for example. When I got my own classroom, I began using books in a variety of ways throughout the day because kids responded so positively to them. And after I became a center director, I wanted to see teachers reading more with kids.

I encouraged teachers to do more emergent planning (start with an idea and spin off activities based on children’s interests and questions), but they often chose themes that were more adult-focused than child-focused. Eventually I realized that books are a great starting point for web-style planning. The books children love tell us so much about their passions, their hopes, and their fears.

I began doing workshops and started a pilot program for teachers to do book-based curriculum webbing, which is an offshoot of Elizabeth Jones and John Nimmo’s Emergent Curriculum (1994). Emergent curriculum is non-linear, responsive planning that encourages children to think divergently *and* make connections across the curriculum and enables teachers to modify plans on the fly to better suit their group.

My basic thesis is that good books are rich with themes, concepts, and ideas that provide a springboard for activities across the curriculum. Numerous studies have shown that children learn best with context, and I think good books provide a perfect context for all kinds of learning.

What are the challenges of using literary trade books in the classroom?

The biggest challenge is monetary – in times of tight budgets, people often classify books as a luxury. Preschool directors wouldn’t dream about operating without enough blocks or construction paper or crayons, and it baffles me when they don’t consider books to be important equipment.

Another key is to think of books as a consumable rather than permanent classroom item. Books eventually wear out if they’re being used, and great new books are published all the time. Finding the money to keep a class library well-stocked is really a question of prioritizing.

The other challenge is educational – I find that adults don’t always understand what makes a children’s book “good.” Books should reflect the children in each classroom, as well as provide a window into other cultures. Great books are culturally authentic, have rich language and beautiful art, and feature compelling characters. People who aren’t used to thinking critically about literature can learn to do it with a few simple tools, which is why I included a detailed checklist in my book. I advocate building curriculum around great books, not mediocre ones!

What are the benefits?

Trade books are widely available, even to people who aren’t anywhere close to a brick and mortar bookstore. With so many publishers paying more attention to the bottom line, the bar has really been raised in terms of the quality of books being published today. Every season I find dozens and dozens of wonderful new books that are interesting, engaging, and fun. Even since I was a child, the industry standards have changed dramatically. Stories are much more succinct and less moralistic…they’re more emotionally accessible to young children. Literary trade books are also often available to school in affordable formats through book fairs or clubs like the Junior Library Guild.

What makes this book unique, a can't-miss read for teachers and school librarians? Would children's authors also benefit in preparing their school-visit presentations?

I took great pains to provide all the tools that planners might need to successfully plan activities around books. That includes developmental interests and behavioral challenges for each age group, so teachers can target these with activities that both allow kids to be successful and challenge them to try new things.

I also provided activity prompts for all kinds of learners and teachers, across disciplines. Many teachers feel strong on one or two favorite areas of curriculum, but I think my suggestions can really help them become well-rounded and successful outside of their comfort zones. There are existing books that have pre-planned activities built around books, but those didn’t satisfy me as a teacher or director for two reasons. First, the plans are already established. They don’t bend or morph according to the skills/interests of individual teachers and children. Second, once you’ve done all the plans in a book, where are you?

My book only features a few completed webs and they’re primarily for illustration or a starter-plan for people who aren’t confident. People can learn to be more creative with the right prompts.

I really wanted to show people how the process works, so they can customize plans that are exciting for them and the children they serve. With all the beautiful books in existence, the possibilities are endless.

I think the book will also help writers in two ways: the developmental guidelines can help them hone in on why a manuscript may not quite be working, and authors who do school visits can use the guidelines and activity suggestions to help them plan presentations that are meaningful and effective.

I've been concerned about the heightened emphasis on standardized testing in relationship to use of trade books in the classroom. Is this a real worry? If so, why and how should teachers work around this competing concern?

I share your concern! So many teachers tell me they find themselves spending lots of time teaching for the tests. Parents are buying into the “measured” achievement model, too. They want their children reading chapter books just as soon as they have mastered the ability to really read and enjoy a book, but children can enjoy picture books all through elementary school and even older for reluctant readers. There are incredibly engaging and informative non-fiction books being published on so many topics these days.

I’ve also heard teachers purchase books based on their tie-ins to things that are on the standardized tests. It seems to take a lot of the pleasure out of discovering and enjoying fabulous books. We’re homogenizing everything. It’s distressing.

That said, I do think that my book can empower teachers who are frustrated by the emphasis on testing to take back their classrooms. Kids who are doing book-based activities are still learning. In fact, they’re likely to be learning more within the framework of a particular book than they would by doing random dittos and sample tests. The simple act of reading and being read to more increases kids’ skills; I’m saying the benefits don’t stop there. The context books provide for all the math and science and social studies activities you can do with them will scaffold students’ learning and increase comprehension and retention. Kids learn by doing. If we are so concerned about learning, we need to give them fun things to do.

You're a literary trade author yourself, with an emphasis on books for very young readers. What are the challenges and joys of writing for this audience?

People think that the younger the age you’re writing for, the easier it is to write. Not so! I find toddlers to be among the most discriminating readers around. If your book is boring, or doesn’t meet their emotional needs, toddlers will just walk away. It’s quite a challenge to figure out what makes these kids tick and such a joy when you see that you’ve captured their imagination. Very young kids exist to explore and connect with people and things – I enjoy spending time inside their heads.

Could you tell us just briefly about each of your children's books and their inspiration?

Sure! Much of what I write is in rhyme. The first book I sold was Wake Up, Mama! (Dutton, illustrated by Thierry Courtin). I was inspired to write it when I realized how children often use adult bodies as furniture—the story was originally called “Mama Mountain.” I started Driving Daddy at the same time and finished it when my editor asked for a companion book.

Baby Love (Dutton, illustrated by John Wallace) was my first book to be published. It’s a collection of poems about milestones in a baby’s first year, in the voices of various people who love them. It was inspired by the many babies I’ve taken care of over the years, and by all the poetry my parents read to me when I was young.

Hello, Snow! (Melanie Kroupa/FSG, illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott) was inspired by my childhood memories of playing in the snow with my dad, and by my children’s enthusiasm one snowy morning when school was canceled for the third or fourth day in a row!

Hillside Lullaby (Dutton, illustrated by Margie Moore) will be out in March of 2006. It’s about a restless little girl who unwinds by listening to the animals outside her window. The art really underscores the cozy, peaceful feeling I had when writing it. I also have What Do You Do When a Monster Says Boo! (Dutton, illustrated by Maggie Smith) coming out next summer. It’s about an older brother who’s tortured by his younger sister’s behavior. Also inspired by real life! I have a few more books in the pipeline but I’ll save them for another interview. ;>)

Is there anything you'd like to add?

I’d love to hear back from teachers who read the book and try book-based webbing with their classes, particularly teachers of KG and early elementary students who can help with the planning process. I am always surprised and delighted by the cool ideas people cook up. In the pilot programs I did, teachers who were initially resistant to the approach found it to be very satisfying once they dove in.

Thanks for interviewing me!

Cynsational News & Links

Remember Thou Shalt Not Dump The Skater Dude (And Other Commandments I Have Broken) by Rosemary Graham (Viking, 2005)(author interview)? Well, check out C.J.'s blog for his side of the story.

Applit: Resources for Readers and Teachers of Appalachian Literature for Children and Young Adults.

Books in a Series from the Monroe County Public Library.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Interview: Adrienne Yorinks and Jeanette Larson on Quilt of States: Piecing Together America

Quilt of States: Piecing Together America written by Adrienne Yorinks and 50 Librarians from Across the Nation, quilts by Adrienne Yorinks, librarian contributions compiled and edited by Jeanette Larson (National Geographic, 2005). From the catalog copy: "There is no book quite like Quilt of States—the unique combination of handmade quilts with the voice of each state heard through the writing of one of the state's librarians to illustrate the coming together of the United States of America. Using one of the only two original American folk art forms—quilting (jazz is the other)—Adrienne Yorinks demonstrates her amazing talent for using quilts not only as art, but as information sources. Her work illustrates the history of our country and is accompanied by the words of librarians from every state in the Union."

PART ONE: INTERVIEW WITH ADRIENNE

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

AY: Quilt of States is an evolution of an earlier book I did called, The Alphabet Atlas [by Arthur Yorinks (Winslow, 1999)(scroll)]. I loved illustrating that book which featured a different country for each letter, so a book on how the United States came together seemed natural. My approach was to be chronological--that is how the United States actually came together as a country from Delaware, the first to Hawaii, the last.

AY: I also wanted to know why and how each state chose statehood instead of remaining separate. I thought this was fascinating.

AY: Early on, I decided to feature a different librarian from each state to tell his or her story. I thought it would create a much more interesting book to hear 50 different voices telling the story of their state the way they wanted to tell it. I wanted quilt of States to reflect the diversity of our country.

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

AY: The process is always important. From the spark of the idea to publication took over five years. That is a pretty long time but as my mother would say, "things work out for the best." Sometimes a book as important as Quilt of States, (meaning a book that speaks about the coming together of the United States) needs a lot of time to create a quality product. Part of the problem was the first publisher went bankrupt but then National Geographic stepped in, and I can't even imagine a better outcome.

AY: I am also indebted to my good friend and colleague, Jeanette Larson [of the Austin Public Library], who, when I told her my idea for getting a librarian from each state, she not only thought it was a great idea, she asked them all! With her support, this happened in a great way.

AY: I had three editors who worked on the book and each added something to the mix. As a true "middle child," I do value people's input, but then I like to go off by myself and put it all together-- my way!

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

AY: One of the challenges I presented to myself was how to make Quilt of States different, exciting and full of interesting information. As a child, I found many history and geography books boring, where states could be interchangeable. I wanted each state to shine on its own as you turned the page.

AY: The fact that my medium is fabric, added to the interest but also the challenge of illustration. I had collected thousands of "conversational" prints which are any fabrics that depict objects (cows, pigs, tomatoes) in order to NOT replicate a cow or pig or a tomato! We do have a lot of cows in this country but I did not want to picture the same symbol in each state that had them.

AY: I was so excited when I found the Liberty Bell fabric for Pennsylvania but my most favorite "find" was the fabric featuring Mount Rushmore for South Dakota. I still can't get over that.

AY: I loved working on Quilt of States. I created 65 pieces for this book and though at first it seemed daunting to me to figure out which motifs I would use for each state and what aspects I wanted to feature, I loved the process.

PART TWO: INTERVIEW WITH JEANETTE LARSON: one of the 50 librarian-writers from Quilt of States, she also compiled and edited the librarian contributions.

Adrienne mentions above that not only did you support her idea to include 50 librarian voices, you identified and invited the contributors for her as well. Wow! How did you go about that?

JL: When Adrienne asked me to find librarians and coordinate their writing about their own state, I started with my many contacts from national conferences. So, many of the librarians are very familiar faces on the national scene. After I exhausted all the people I knew, I posted cryptic messages to library listservs inviting librarians from specific states to contact me regarding a project. The secrecy must have been intriguing because I often heard from three or four people from the same state. Everyone was great!

JL: They understood the project and wanted to be involved. I especially enjoyed helping the librarians hone down the essence of their state's interest in being part of the United States and learned a lot (I'm ready for "Jeopardy!") about each state. Each librarian wrote more than we could use in the book, although Adrienne took some of the fun facts and incorporated it into the art.

As a librarian, what do you see as the book's appeal? Who's the audience? What makes it so special?

JL: I asked that the librarians focus on what was unique about their state's reason for wanting to be part of the Union. That makes Quilt of States very different from other "state" books. Fun facts are included, along with the information a student needs to include on a school report (flower, date of admission, etc.) but learning a bit of history from a unique angle makes the book very appealing to kids. The audience is first and foremost middle grade students. A lot of kids are fascinated by geography and learning state facts. Quilt of States makes this fun. Adrienne's fabulous art is fun to peruse, kind of like a puzzle where you look for the state flower in the fabric, figure out what is different in the cows, and such. A secondary audience has been grandparents and great-grandparents who want to share their enthusiasm and patriotism with kids. Every grandparent I've shown the book to wants to give it as a holiday gift!

JL: I don't know of another book that speaks with so many voices and that makes Quilt of State special. And of course, the beautiful art and the "snapshot" pieces that summarize where the country was as a Union at milestone moments is unique and special to this book.

Cynsational News & Links

The Américas Award: recognizes "U.S. works of fiction, poetry, folklore, or selected non-fiction (from picture books to works for young adults) published in the previous year in English or Spanish that authentically and engagingly portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States."

Bringing Mysteries Alive for Children and Young Adults by Jeanette Larson (Linworth, 2004) from cynsations.

Hot Off the Press: A Sneak Peek at Publishers' Newest and Hottest Titles from CBC Magazine.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Sweet Thang by Allison Whittenberg

Sweet Thang by Allison Whittenberg (Delacorte, 2005). After Auntie Karyn dies, fourteen-year-old Charmaine's little cousin, Tracy John, comes to live with and annoy her while charming the rest of the family. As if that weren't enough, spiteful Dinah Coverdale of the light skin and silky hair is the real and gloating girlfriend of the boy Charmaine likes (and for whom she's doing homework). This debut novel looks at family ties and black-on-black prejudice. It's a 20th century historical, set in 1975. Ages 12-up.

More Thoughts on Sweet Thang

Sweet Thang kind of reminded me of those "special" episodes of "The Cosby Show" when the grandparents would visit, and everyone would reminisce about them being there to hear Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. (Charmaine's daddy even quotes Dr. King at dinner). I really loved those episodes.

That said, what moved me about this novel--about Sweet Thang--was its characters Charmaine and Tracy John. I felt such a real bond between them. I believed in them, and I'm still cheering them on.

Cynsational News & Links

NorthWestWriters.com: "features books by the authors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Alaska, and B.C., Canada."

Passport: International Children's Literature: "created from an United States perspective and defines international children's literature as anything outside of your borders."

Peace and Non-Violence Curriculum by Cecil Ramnaraine from the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse. Features extensive children's peace bibliography. See also Weapons of Mass Instruction: Anti-War Books for Young People, which includes links to additional bibliographies.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Author Interview: Philip Yates on Ten Little Mummies

Ten Little Mummies by Philip Yates, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Viking, 2003). From the catalog copy: "For the first time in prehistory ten adorable mummies are painting the town red. But what is there to paint in ancient Egypt? Find out in this refreshingly funny counting book, where the counting goes backwards from ten down to one little mummy. (Hint: some of the fun involves pyramids and a sphinx!) With a minimalist approach and a deep, distinctive palate, G. Brian Karas tickles the funny bone in this debut counting book..." Ages 4-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Mummies have always cracked me up, especially when I'm driving and there's one in the middle of the road! In the summer of '96 I had just married and moved to Austin and, since I was out of work, I had more time for writing. That period there was lot of rhyming stories popping into my head, especially lots of monster poems since I have always been infatuated with monsters, even the ones that moved real slow--like mummies.

Up to then I had published, with my co-author Matt Rissinger, five books of humor with Sterling Publishing, including World's Silliest Jokes and Best School Jokes Ever. In every book there was a chapter on vampires and monster puns. I had stuff like "What do you do when a mummy rolls his eyes at you?" "You roll them right back." And "What kind of underwear do mummies wear?" "Fruit of the Tomb." Terrible jokes like that!

Ten Little Mummies came out of those riddles. I got to thinking how would mummies survive in the present day? My picture books always start with questions like "What if?". Anyway, the mummies go out to play and all kinds of horrible things happen to them that I thought was very funny: they unravel in revolving doors, a steamroller flattens one into an Ace Bandage, one gets lost in a museum and ends up on display, and so on.

You know something's good when you a laugh at it when you're writing the damned thing. And fifty drafts later I thought I had something genuinely worthwhile and hilarious. My other thought---these were harmless, cute little mummies and kids would love them and not be frightened of them and want to read their exploits to figure out how they would survive in the modern day world.

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

Spark to publication was seven years. The story evolved in the summer of '96 and I sent it out to nearly 40 publishers. In the Spring of 2000, I had just about given up hope. Well, the truth was I was writing lots of other picture books and plays and I never thought Ten Little Mummies would go anywhere. I just sent it out because having something out there in the slush pile gathering dust or, hope of all hopes, just being in an editor's hands, makes a writer feel likes he's accomplishing something. Still, I had no idea it would be published.

The last publisher I sent it to in April 2000 was Penguin Putnam (Viking). I sent it on a Saturday by priority mail and it came back the following Wednesday by Express. I knew something was up because what kind of editor sends your manuscript back by Express Mail?

So I did what I always do. I freaked out. Maybe it was so bad they mailed it back as quickly as they could. Like it was a virus. So I tossed it in the trunk of the car like I do all rejections.

Of course, the next day, I always look to see what happened. This time, after I tossed it in the trunk, I went back after a few hours and opened it. The first words from Judy Carey, the Viking Editor, was, "I have never laughed so hard in my life at a new picture book." Well, I didn't have to read the rest of the letter. The story, she said, was practically perfect, but.......

She felt it would benefit as an educational tool as well as a counting book if I stayed in Ancient Egypt and used the backdrops, ie, the Sphinx, the Pyramid of Giza and so on as the mummies playground. I was against it at first and I told Judy so, but when she told me to just try it, I did and it worked perfectly. Ancient Egypt for these mummies was like a magic wonderland. They could swim in the Nile, have chariot races, hang out with the baboons. The story truly came together then, though it was only 250 words long. But to get to that moment took four years and sometimes spending as much as a month on two lines!

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

I buried myself (the puns again!) in Mummy lore. I bought toy mummies, I ate mummy gummies, I had a toy mummy you took part and removed the heart and brains from. I read zillions of books on Ancient Egypt and the whole process of how to make a mummy. I watched Mummy movies, the great old Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. films. Basically, I wrapped myself up in the whole history until I knew everything there was to know about mummies.

Now of all this research I probably ended up using about 80% of what I read. There was not time to give a scenic tour of Ancient Egypt, the story had to move quickly and the setting became merely a place where mummies could play, but, at the same time, we would discover Egypt's historical significance. Still, reading all about Ancient Egypt gave me the atmosphere to work with.

The challenge was creating different ways of dying----getting eaten by crocodiles while swimming in nile, having heat stroke, etc. The unique and challenging slant was to give variety to the mummies play moments while keeping it Ancient Egypt-like. So I had to come up with unusual facts that would stir kids to laugh and learn about Egypt. For example, Baboons thrived in Ancient Egypt and I didn't know this. I had to use it because juxtaposing a mummy and a baboon seemed hilarious. At first I had them all dying and not reuniting at the end, which is very grim, which I like, but not realistic or logical for a mummy.

My editor, wise one that she was, indicated that "The little mummies are already dead to begin with, stupid," so why bother killing them off? So I came up with the ingenuous idea of getting rid of the mummies one by one, but not killing them, just making them conveniently disappear one by one. "One swims away from a crocodile," "One is arrested for painting the Sphinx," "One blows away in a sandstorm." We think these cute little mummies are gone, but not for rotten, I mean not forgotten. In the end, I had to have them come back.

"Duh," my editor wasn't afraid to say. "They have to come back because they are dead, anyway!" I also thought it would be cool to have a girl mummy be the survivor, though this is very subtle in the end.

The biggest literary hurtle I faced was worrying about the right illustrator. The editor, thankfully, gave me a choice------they had an illustrator who could do the illustrations in two months and the book would come out in a year. Or, I could go with G. Brian Karas of Saving Sweetness (by Diane Stanley (Putnam, 2001)) and Kathi Appelt's Incredible Me (HarperCollins, 2003), and wait three years. I loved Karas'elonogated playful humans in his previous books so I went with him. Sometimes three years is the right choice to wait for a book if you know the illustrator will make a difference.

The most heartrending psychlogical hurdle I faced was the impending death of my mother. She was so proud of the book, and I was so afraid she wouldn't see it or read it before she left us. Thankfully, the day before the stroke took her, I received the first copy of the book and read it to her as she lay in her bed. I think she stayed alive to see the book. She couldn't talk, but she did smile and nod her head. The next day she was gone. Waiting seven years was just fine with me just to see the smile on my mother's face.

Finally, the last great thing about the mummies is I was able to dedicate it to all ten members of my family (six brothers, two sisters) so now I don't have to worry about dedicating any more books to them.

Enough. As one of the mummies would say, "I'm so tired I'm dead on my feet."

Cynsational Note

Ten Little Mummies is now available in paperback.

Cynsational News & Links

Other recent interviews with picture book authors/illustrators include: Kathi Appelt and Joy Fisher Hein on Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers: How A First Lady Changed America (HarperCollins, 2005); Varsha Bajaj on How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? (Little Brown, 2004); Kelly Bennett on Not Norman: A Goldfish Story (Candlewick, 2005); Anne Bustard on Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Melanie Chrismer on Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang (Pelican, 2004); Carolyn Crimi and John Manders on Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies (Candlewick, 2005); Dottie Enderle on The Cotton Candy Catastrophe at the Texas State Fair (Pelican, 2005); Jean Gralley on The Moon Came Down on Milk Street (Henry Holt, 2004); Kelly Milner Halls on Wild Dogs: Past and Present (Darby Creek, 2005); Jan Peck on Way Up High in a Tall Green Tree (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Lupe Ruiz Flores on Lupita's Papalote (Arte Publico, 2002); Anastasia Suen on Red Light, Green Light (Harcourt, 2005); Jerry Wermund on The World According to Rock (Rockon, 2005); and Kathy Whitehead on Looking for Uncle Louie on the Fourth of July (Boyds Mills, 2005).

The subject of MFAs in writing for children (or children and young adults) was discussed of late on childrens-writer@yahoogroups.com. These appear to be the current programs: Vermont College/Union Institute & University (where I teach); Spaulding University; Seton Hill; Hollins; Chatham College; and Western Connecticut State University.

Friends, Leaders Remember Rosa Parks' Life from YahooNews. The character "Rosa" from my short story "Riding with Rosa," which was published in the March/April 2005 Cicada, was inspired by Rosa Parks. The story is about harassment of a gay boy and students at an Indian college by football players on a team bus on Kansas 10 highway.

The Texas Library Association sponsors several lists of recommended books for young readers: the 2x2 for age two through 2nd grade; the Texas Bluebonnect Award for third through sixth grade; the Lone Star for sixth through eighth grade; and the Tayshas for high school students. Nominations for the 2x2 list must be submitted by November 15 (only 2005 books are eligible); the in-the-running list for the Bluebonnet Award has already been posted ("final choices will be made October 22"); nominations for the Lone Star (books from the last three years are eligible) and Tayshas (books from the last two years are eligible) appear to be ongoing. The committees welcome outside suggestions.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Author Interview: Amy McAuley on Over and Over You

Over and Over You by Amy McAuley (Roaring Brook, 2005). Penny is haunted by vivid dreams that feel so real, almost as if they...were? After being tipped off by a psychic, she's starting to consider extreme possibilities, destinies, and even true love. Penny's voice is engaging, her plight compelling, and her command of historical factoids inspirational. A wonderful choice for romantics, fantasy fans, and those who appreciate psychic (and psychological) puzzles. Ages 12-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I'm a history buff. There's a story attached to every person who's ever lived, and while the ways in which people live change all the time, people themselves don't change that much--no matter the time period, they love, hate, hope, want, and dream. That's always fascinated me. And I love the idea of seeing history through someone else's eyes. In Over and Over You, Penny begins to, literally, see the past in her dreams. I wanted the reader to be right there with her. I also wanted to write a fun novel that both contemporary and historical fiction readers could relate to and enjoy.

Another inspiration for the book goes back to when I met my husband. After a series of strange coincidences, my second college-roommate introduced me to one of her male friends. (I'd forced the landlord to kick out my first roommate within days, because she just didn't feel like the "right one"--completely abnormal behavior for me.) My first thought when I saw this man was, "Hey, this is the guy I'm supposed to marry." Freaky!

So when I started writing, I thought about incorporating romantic notions such as fate and true love into a young adult novel. I mulled it over for years, while writing other books, but no ideas clicked with me. I had to wait for Penny to start talking to me (yes, authors do hear voices in their heads), and when she did, I knew I finally had the right main character and the right story.

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

The spark happened one night in 2002. As I tried to sleep, a girl's voice came into my head. "I've been in love with the same boy for a thousand years." The way she said it, as if she'd just heard that strange news herself and couldn't believe it, got me right out of bed to write. Who was this boy? Why had they been in love with each other for a thousand years? Were they destined to be together? One question led to another, and soon I had so many questions I needed answers to, I couldn't possibly not write the book. I had to find out more about the characters, their pasts, and their possible future together.

I finished a first draft quickly, and soon afterward, I got my agent. I liked the book, but it didn't feel complete. The thing was, I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong with the book. My agent sent the manuscript out to several publishers over the course of a year. No bites. Just as I was getting discouraged, Deborah Brodie from Roaring Brook Press called me to discuss ways to make the book better. Her ideas were fantastic. I dumped a bunch of the book, sped up the beginning, bulked up one of the past-life storylines, and had a major AH HA!-moment about the ending.

I sent the revised manuscript back to her, but after years of rejections, I honestly wasn't expecting an offer. I was just so thrilled that she'd helped me improve the book significantly! But on October 16th 2003, I got a call from my agent. Deborah had loved the revision and made an offer. The news threw me for such a loop, I went into a weird daze and nearly threw up. My agent laughed and said, "Well go outside! Don't throw up on the good furniture!" Luckily, I pulled myself together enough to sort of listen to what he had to say and I didn't destroy any furniture in the process.

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

Right after I sold the book, Millbrook Press (Roaring Brook's parent company) announced that they were filing for bankruptcy and selling Roaring Brook Press. The future of the company became uncertain. I worried about my book at first, because it was quite possible it wouldn't be published. But Roaring Brook had such a fantastic backlist of books that included award-winners, and I believed they would be bought. I actually believed the sale would wind up being a great thing in the end, I just had to be patient and wait for things to sort themselves out. From late 2003 to April 2004, the fate of my book was up in the air, and that was tough on occasion. I hate that whole inability to see into the future thing I'm cursed with! But things did work out for the best. Roaring Brook was bought by Holtzbrinck Publishers (which includes Henry Holt, Farrar Straus and Giroux, and Tor, among others). Over and Over You came out just one season late--Spring '05.

Cynsational Note

Surf over to spookycyn to see my hypothetical past lives list.

Cynsational Links

Author-Editor Dialogues from CBC Magazine: Naomi Shihab Nye and Virginia Duncan; Tracy Mack and Brian Selznick; Karen Cushman and Dinah Stevenson; Katherine Paterson and Virginia Buckley; Kevin Henkes and Susan Hirshman; Christopher Paul Curtis and Wendy Lamb.

Secrets of the Successful Mystery Book Club by Gary Warren Niebuhr from Libraries Unlimited. See also Eight Things Mystery Readers Say by Jim Huang.

Reminder: it's Banned Books Week.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Author Feature: Niki Burnham

Niki Burnham has burst onto the YA romance scene wowing readers with such titles as Royally Jacked (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Spin Control (Simon Pulse, 2004), and Sticky Fingers (Simon & Schuster, 2005). According to her bio, "Niki Burnham is originally from Colorado, but when her father joined the Army, she started moving around the world, too (because she was only six years old at the time, she didn't get a say.) She even wound up in Germany—twice. Now that she's grown up and theoretically gets to do whatever she wants, she still hasn't stopped moving. She currently lives in Massachusetts, where she also writes romance novels as her alter ego, Nicole Burnham."

Could you give readers a brief sense of each of your YA titles? What inspired the stories? What about the protagonists fascinated you?

The first two books, Royally Jacked (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and Spin Control (Simon Pulse, 2004), are about Valerie Winslow, a girl whose life is turned upside down when her mother comes out of the proverbial closet and divorces Val's father. Her father moves overseas, and Val is forced to choose where to live. It sounds heavy, and Val does deal with some serious issues, but both books are truly comedies. Val goes to live with her father in the fictional country of Schwerinborg (say that five times fast) and meets a prince. Val's a typical sarcastic teenager--she has rebellious thoughts about everything--but she's one of those rare individuals who is able to see people for who they are. She knows when someone is trying to put one over on her. As you might guess, I had a blast writing about her life. (Enough so that another book about Valerie will be out in June 2006!)

The third book I have on the shelves, Sticky Fingers (Simon & Schuster, 2005), is set in Framingham, Massachusetts. It's about a high school senior named Jenna Kassarian. It's a more serious book, as it deals with the way Jenna's life changes after she gets an early acceptance to Harvard--the way her boyfriend's attitude toward her changes, the way her best friend reacts, etc. Also, Jenna is a total control freak, and the book shows how that can affect someone if that perfect facade ever cracks.

Finally, I have another romantic comedy coming out in late December called Scary Beautiful. It's about Chloe Rand, a high school junior whose longtime boyfriend just dumped her cold in the middle of the airport terminal in Denver. Chloe is one of those girls who's beyond pretty, and she discovers that when you're the prettiest girl in school and suddenly single, everyone's attitude toward you changes. Girls don't trust you, boys aren't sure what to make of you, and everyone assumes you're stuck up, your life is easy, etc. Chloe was interesting to write because in fiction, we often see the not-so-pretty girl as the outsider. Here, the pretty girl is the one who's the outsider who feels no one understands her.

You were already publishing romance novels for the adult market when you decided to add YA books to your writing. What inspired you to branch out? What about writing for teens appealed to you?

A friend of mine, Lynda Sandoval, writes young adult books for Simon & Schuster. She sent me a few titles she thought I'd find funny, and said, "Nic, you really should be writing YA. It's your voice. Read these and tell me I'm wrong." I wasn't so sure, but I started reading the books she recommended and fell in love with them. And Lynda was right--writing for teens is a very natural thing for me. It's partially because I remember my high school years (and all the emotional ups and downs) vividly, and partially because I think the teen years are such fertile ground for stories. It's the time in your life when you're experiencing a great deal of change. You're earning who you are, you're learning what you can and can't trust about the world around you.

What are the challenges of writing a love story? What do you, well, love about it?

Especially for teenagers, love is a complicated thing. There's always a push-pull between what your brain is telling you is right and what your heart wants to do. There's also a push-pull between what you believe to be right and what society believes. I like writing about that push-pull. In addition, relationships are also a great tool for showing character growth--we're always more interested in reading about characters who learn (or don't!) from their mistakes and seeing how their perspectives change.

You're one of the lawyers-turned-writers. What inspired the switch? Does your legal background help you in any way?

I knew, probably by about halfway through my first year of law school, that it wasn't something I wanted to do my entire life. I was decent at it, but it wasn't something I burned to do, so I started looking elsewhere. I knew I was a good writer, so I focused on that.

As to my legal background helping me--I'd like to think it does, since I spent all that time and money on my legal education. hile it is handy when I have a publishing contract I need to read and understand, I'm not sure it affects my writing at all.

What advice do you have for beginners interested in writing YA romance?

Read, read, read. So many people think there's a 'secret' to writing YA. That you have to know someone in the business, that you have to have the right agent, etc. It's not true at all. The real secret? You have to write a good book.

So my advice? To write a good book, you first have to be able to recognize good writing. Then, you need to learn from it. So read a ton. And whenever you read a book, take notes on what does and doesn't work for you. Does a character resonate with you? Why or why not? Are there certain storylines or character situations that speak to you? Why or why not? That kind of analysis will point you in the direction of what you should be writing. You'll learn a lot about how to write simply from reading and studying authors you find captivating. Word of warning: don't imitate. Learn from the authors you enjoy, then go out and do your own thing. Readers want something new and fresh.

Finally--you've gotta sit your tail in a chair and write. I meet a lot of so-called 'authors' who spend very little or no time writing. This is a career you pursue because you absolutely love it. (And that passion for your work will show in your writing!)

What do you do when you're not writing?

I read a lot (no surprise there!) and I like to garden. I'm always out in my yard doing something. I also play softball in a women's league in my town--we have a fantastic time.

Cynsational Note

Nic and I became pals as classmates at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. I noticed that the Princeton Review ranks U of M Law #2 in the U.S. for "career prospects." Hm. Do you think they took future authors into that equation?

Cynsational News & Links

Today kicks off Banned Books Week.

Thanks to author Anastasia Suen for her e-card congratulating me on the permanent position at the Vermont College/Union Institute and University MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults! Most appreciated. Read a recent cynsations interview with Anastasia Suen.

Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Leda Schubert: official site of the author of Here Comes Darrell, illustrated by Mary Azarian (Candlewick, 2000) and Ballet of the Elephants, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker (Roaring Brook, 2006).

You've Got the Look: The Author Photo from Agent 007.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

SmartWriters Short Story Competition

2005 SmartWriters.com Short Story Competition: Because the annual Write It Now! Competition has been so successful in helping new writers and illustrators get their work in front of the editors who helped launch their careers, the SmartWriters want to do that for short story writers, too!

Three Categories: Young Adult Readers, ages 15+; Mid-grade Readers, 11 - 14; Young Readers, ages 7 - 10.

Grand Prize: $200, plus a 2006 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market; First Prize, each category: $50, plus a 2006 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's MarketEntry Fee: $10 per manuscript.

Plus, the 1st - 3rd place finishers in the MG and YA categories will be published in a 2007 anthology by Blooming Tree Press. Entry Deadline: October 31, 2005; Email entries are welcome and encouraged. See rules, FAQ, submission guidelines, and entry form.

Cynsational News & Links

Alan Armstrong's Stories Write Themselves by Susan VanHecke from Authorlink. Alan is the author of Whittington (Random House, 2005). October 2005.

Liz Bonham Fine Art: illustrator site, apparently specializes in the Christian market.

Meet the Author: Cynthia Leitich Smith by Toni Buzzeo from Library Sparks. October 2005. PDF file (takes a few moments to load if you're on dial-up due to images).

Friday, October 21, 2005

Author Interview: Marc Aronson on The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence

The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence by Marc Aronson (Clarion, 2005)(ages 12-up). From the catalog copy:

"This extensively researched and groundbreaking account by Sibert medalist Marc Aronson centers on events in the mid-18th century that enabled Americans to give up their loyalty to England and form their own nation. Shedding new light on familiar aspects of American history, such as the Boston Tea Party, and ending with the aftermath of the American Revolution, Aronson approaches the events that shaped our country from a fresh angle and connects them to issues that still exist in modern times. Also developed throughout is the pioneering idea that the struggle for American independence was actually part of a larger conflict that spanned the globe, reaching across Europe to India.

"Packed with dramatic events, battles, and memorable figures such as George Washington and Tom Paine in America and Robert Clive in India, this insightful narrative provides a multi-layered portrait of how our nation came to be, while discovering anew the themes, images, and fascinating personalities that run through our entire history. Cast of characters, maps, endnotes and bibliography, Internet resources, timeline, index."

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Two, really. For one thing, I did ask myself a simple question: why did the Brits send the tea that the Americans tossed into Boston harbor? I had never read anything about that, their motivation. The answer did transform how I saw American history. But maybe it did that because I had written two books on colonial America, Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado, and then John Winthrop, Oliver Cromwell and The Land of Promise, I wanted the three books to be a real trilogy, just like a fantasy trilogy -- after all, the transition from New World to Independence is exactly like the plot line of Star Wars, or the Philip Pullman trilogy, or the Tolkien -- it is about the transition from one age, one era, one kind of ruler and world organization, to another -- with all of the gains and losses typically found in fiction. Since the first two books are global in their approach to American history, I wanted to treat even the runup to the Revolution the same way. I am so glad I did.

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

It took about a year to research and write. Some key moments came, actually, while doing photo research in London, I learned a great deal looking at images. But I can still recall the most exciting moment. I love footnotes -- reading them and writing them. I was trying to understand one crucial moment in my story -- the completely forgotten global credit crisis of 1772. I had found a footnote that cited an article published in 1960 in The Journal of Economic History. I went to 42nd St. library, found the article, and printed it out. That article linked together events in North America, the Caribbean, Scotland, London, Amsterdam, and India. It provided the perfect lynch pin that showed me I had hooked a big, big fish.

The big fish is the discovery that the explanation of why Americans fought for their independence which we all learned in school, and which is in every adult book, is Flatland. That is, it is two-dimensional. It pretends that the world began at our shores. I discovered that good old American history makes no sense until you add in the East India Company, and the riots in London. We always lived in a globalized world. And when you add in the connections I found, suddenly both our past and our present makes sense.

Then there was the opposite moment. I was all done, and I saw a new British book that took a global approach to the period just after the one I discuss. Reading it, I came upon a footnote. The author credited a paper given at Cambridge University in England that sounded like exactly the same thing as my book. I emailed Cambridge to ask about the paper -- which I assumed had been given by a grad student. No, it was given by a professor with a joint appointment at Harvard, who has an institute of her own. Not only that, she is married to Nobel Prize winning economist, whose work also fits this area. In fact she, Dr. Emma Rothschild, is writing about exactly the same topic. But she was very gracious in reading my work, and hers is a couple of years away. In fact she is giving a series of talks at Princeton this spring -- on the Johnstone family, who are major actors in my book.

So, the good news is she thinks I'm right. And, given the timing of the books, for once young readers will get the information well before adults. The bad news is, well, I wish I were the only one to have figured all this out.

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

All of the books about India in the mid to late eighteenth century that I read were written by Brits (or Indians) for a Brit or Indian audience. They assume you are well-versed in their history. I had to read enough just to follow their arguments. Then I had to figure out what they were leaving out, when they were right or wrong, and how all of this looked from an American point of view. Then again, there was the problem that on an 18th century British map of a key battle, the river had a name that is no longer used. The delta of the Ganges is the largest delta in the world. I had to pore over geological surveys of the delta, searching for every twisting stream, to find the modern name of that old river.

More globally, what are the challenges today in publishing trade non-fiction for young readers?

The challenge is that literature for young readers is defined as leisure reading -- it is by definition that which is not for school. Now I personally find nonfiction to be leisure reading. But the assumption of the chains, most librarians, many teachers, etc. is that nonfiction is assigned in class, it could not possibly be for leisure. So here are the options: write NF that seems more like leisure reading; write NF that is entirely for school; raise consciousness and get people to change their views; win a prize. Those are your only options. Or, well, what I do is write as well as I can, then I hire a great woman to write teachers guides which I put up on my website: marcaronson.com that way I write what I like, and teachers can find ways to use the books in class.

What are the encouraging signs?

Encouraging signs are that because publishers have to take such high returns in fiction, they are beginning to recognize the value in nonfiction; Jonathan Hunt wrote a wonderful piece in The Horn Book about the fine nonfiction we have, and how the prize committees are lagging behind. It is the area in which generally overpublished children's books can grow.

I heard from one reviewer that she was concerned about where this new book would fit into school curricula, since schools generally do not take the international approach to the founding fathers that I am urging. That made it all the more pleasing to get this initial response from a school in Long Island: I had sent one galley to a librarian there, who shared it with her AP teachers, and also those involved with the IB -- the program that allows teenagers throughout the world to take a similar course of study. Those teachers found it so much in line with their approach that they purchased hardcover copies for every student, I believe that is 70 books. So that tells me that even within the constraints of budgets and tests, teachers are hungry for fresh perspectives not found in textbooks. And then the central organization for AP teachers nationwide asked me to write up my research for their website. Not bad for a book that hadn't even reached print yet.

In publishing, you wear two hats--writer and editor. How do you balance the two? How do they fuel (or detract from) one another?

It can be crazy-making when some author is being very demanding with me-- the editor, and then I, the anxious author, become very demanding of my own editor. It is like standing in a hall of facing mirrors. On the other hand, Jim Giblin began as an editor, and still edits; Jim Murphy was his assistant and an editor in his own right. So clearly being an editor can help you to think about what makes a good book. And since a large part of the challenge in nonfiction has to do with structure, being an editor is especially helpful. You get used to thinking about how to shape ideas into the best structure for your readers.

One key lesson I learned as an editor is that books need great art, and even if the author has to pay a lot for permissions, s/he will see the reward for that in sales. As a result, I always overspend on images.

There's a lot of talk these days about the "emerging crossover market" (YA/adult). Some people are advocating for double shelving. Some for getting rid of YA as a marketing niche. Some for holding firm to the YA market/label. Where do you stand and why?

I would be happy to see cross-shelving in adult and YA. I think getting rid of YA would be silly. Here's one obvious reason: adult publishing is extremely front-list driven. You have no time at all to make your mark before the next book takes your shelf space. Okay, if we published YA as adult, where do we think those books would get the media attention to drive sales? Book reviews are cutting back their pages, and especially of fiction. Do we imagine they would suddenly add space for YA books? Sure, some books can do fine on media tie-ins, but I hardly imagine that those who favor YA as adult want to restrict YA to those few books that have huge marketing budgets. And the library-media that now reviews YA explicitly cannot review much adult (Booklist does review adult/ya crossover fiction, but that is it). So we would be casting YA to the front-list lions with no way it could get enough attention to keep the books alive.

And to add one last point -- I would love those who advocate YA/adult crossover to include nonfiction. But that is another story.

Cynsational News & Links

I'll be the featured guest author next week (October 23-29, 2005) on realwritingteachers@yahoogroups.com, a discussion group of 650 plus writing teachers, children's authors, librarians, homeschoolers, etc. who discuss reading and writing strategies, resources, etc. Owner/Moderator Robert A. Redmond encourages interested parties to join. Learn more about realwritingteachers.

Facing the Facts: Frances Wilson calls for the abolition of author photographs from The Guardian. October 15, 2005.

Meet Lori Marie Carlson from CBC Magazine. October 2005. Read a recent cynsations author interview with Lori about her YA anthology Red Hot Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Being Young And Latino in the United States (Henry Holt, 2005). Note that Lori also is the anthologist of Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today (HarperCollins, 2005), which features my story, "A Real-Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate."

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Newton Marasco Foundation Announces 2006 Green Earth Book Award Nominations

The Newton Marasco Foundation (NMF), a national voice advocating responsible stewardship of the environment, announces that the nomination period for the 2006 Green Earth Book Award is now in progress.

NMF launched the Green Earth Book Award in 2005 in partnership with Salisbury University in Salisbury, Maryland. The award is intended to promote books that inspire children and teens to grow a deeper appreciation, respect, and responsibility for their natural environment.

This is an annual award for books that best raise awareness of the beauty of our natural world and the responsibility that people have to protect it. One of the main criteria for this award is that the books should encourage the idea of environmental stewardship and the importance of the role each person can play in nurturing, protecting, and defending the environment.

The Green Earth Book Award will be awarded to authors/illustrators in two categories: children's and young adult. The children’s category encompasses books for young readers from infancy to 12 years of age, while the young adult category includes books for readers from ages 13 to 21.

The children's book award is comprised of a monetary award of $1,250 to the author and $1,250 to the illustrator (or $2,500 if the author and illustrator is the same person). The young adult award is comprised of a $2,500 monetary award to the author. In addition, a $500 donation is provided to the environmental organization chosen by each winner and approved by the Newton Marasco Foundation.

All nominations are due by Saturday December 10, 2005. See nomination form. Winners will be announced on March 1, 2006.

About the Newton Marasco Foundation: Newton Marasco Foundation (NMF) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to work collaboratively on issues related to environmental stewardship through the areas of education and greening. They are national, headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia, with chapters in numerous states and the US Virgin Islands. They aspire to ignite the energy and passion that is embodied by youth-to teach the ethos of environmental stewardship and to make children more aware of the fragile nature of their local ecosystems and the role everyone can play in nurturing, protecting, and defending it. They educate and inform companies on sustainable green business practices and promote energy-efficient practices in housing, from design to home living, especially for lower income families.

Cynsational News & Links

Thanks to all the cynsations LJ syndication readers for their congratulations on my new permanent faculty position at the Vermont College/Union Institute & University MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Note: Rita Williams-Garcia also is a new member of the faculty. Marc Aronson was invited to join but elected to defer until the summer semester.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Author Interview: Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson on Dumb Love

Dumb Love by Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson (Roaring Brook, 2005). From the catalog copy: "What’s funnier than True Love? Dumb Love, that’s what. In the tiny town of Brewerton, the minister needs an assistant for his advice column, someone with a sympathetic, open heart and a confidential, closed mouth. Who better, Carlotta decides, than a Love Expert like herself? In fact, once Pete, her soon-to-be boyfriend—he just doesn’t know it yet—gets a look at her, she’ll be the syrup on his pancake, the cream in his coffee, the crab cake at his clambake! All she has to do is get rid of her competition: Bernice, Andrea…and Fate."

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Dumb Love was originally conceived as a serious, perhaps grim, story of a teenage girl’s relationship with an older, “wild” mountain man. I could see them both so clearly! There was to be sadness and tragedy and fate and an illegitimate baby and . . . and . . .What was I thinking?????? Fortunately, by the time I actually got around to writing it, I was so exhausted from finishing my previous book, A Fast and Brutal Wing (Roaring Brook, 2004), that just considering my aforementioned plot elements made me all but pass out. Crawling across the floor to my computer, I managed to punch DELETE before pitching over in a dead faint to the ground.

What I needed—and wanted—was something fun and light, both to shake off the seriousness of A Fast and Brutal Wing, and to shake some of that same gloom out of myself. (Though I hasten to add the FABW has some funny stuff in it, too.) The only thing that remained from my original notion of Dumb Love was the mountain setting.

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

The initial spark came somewhere in the distant, hazy past. But in terms of actually writing Dumb Love, it took about two years from the first time I stared at the post-mountain man blank screen to actual publication.

In terms of process, I made it to about chapter six without any problems, then was interrupted by revisions for A Fast and Brutal Wing, followed by a house-search, as a first-time homebuyer. I then spent the next several months going over those first six chapters and going over those first six chapters and going over those first six chapters . . . again and again and again. I was stuck in my own private "Groundhog Day." It wasn’t until after I had actually moved into my new house that I managed to wiggle my way into Chapter Seven and beyond.

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

The first challenge was to find my main character, Carlotta. I wanted a teen girl totally different from my originally conceived mountain-gothic, tragic, ill-fated heroine. It took me awhile to fit her out, both physically and emotionally. Usually my characters are right there, but I had to study on her a bit. Once she was in, however, she started reorganizing the novel and bossing me around.

Another concern was that I worried people would not take to a humorous romance from me, given my penchant for the lonely, dark moments of the soul. But, ever since I’d had a library job, years ago, where I processed paperback romance novels (for diversion I read the last paragraph of each book—they all ended the same way!) I knew I had a romance novel in me; I just needed the right moment to give it birth.

Also, never having lived in the mountains myself, only ever having visited, I had to check up on a few details with my brother and a friend, who do live in the mountains, albeit different mountains in different states. (Come to think of it, I have to check with my brother on some goat details for my current work-in-progress.)

Other challenges were just the ongoing struggle to get the words on the page, to believe that I was writing this crazy story for a reason. But if you can’t laugh and you can’t fall in love (not necessarily in that order!) what fun is it?

Cynsational News & Links

Author Spotlight: Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson on the Parallel Universe of Liars (Roaring Brook, 2002) from Random House.

Pregnant Pauses, Toys in the Crawlspace: A writer’s encounters with L.A. by Kerry Madden from L.A. Weekly. Kerry is the author of Gentle's Holler (Viking, 2005); see interview.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Smith, Williams-Garcia Join Permanent Faculty of the Vermont College MFA Program in Writing for Children and YAs

Cynthia Leitich Smith and Rita Williams-Garcia are joining the permanent faculty of the Vermont College/Union Institute & University MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Teen Read Week at the YA Authors Cafe

Tonight, Tuesday, Oct. 18, join guest host Catherine Atkins and young adult librarians Hope Baugh, Kristin Lade, Christi Showman and teen literacy advocate Liz Bass for a celebration of Teen Read Week at the YA Authors Cafe. All chats are at 8:30 p.m. EST, 7:30 CST.

Cynsational News & Links

Author Interview: Linda Sue Park from Downhomebooks.com. October 2005.

Hot Off the Press: A Sneak Peek at Publishers' Newest and Hottest Titles from CBC Magazine. Those I've read so far are: Walter Was Worried by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (Roaring Brook, 2005) and I'm Not Afraid of this Haunted House by Laurie Friedman, illustrated by Teresa Murfin (Carolrhoda, 2005).

The Author Vitae

About a year ago, I painstakingly assembled a vitae for my writing career.

Having been self-employed, it had never previously occured to me that I needed one. But increasingly, I found myself having to scramble to put together niche-market bios or support materials for grant requests or media replies. A little bit of this, a little bit of that.

At this point, having compiled a vitae (and kept it updated), I recommend other writers and illustrators consider doing the same. It's a handy reference.

In case it helps, these are my headings: Books; Short Stories; Additional Publications; Online Publishing; Teaching Experience; Judging Experience; Speaking Experience; Media Coverage; Professional Affiliations; Education; Representation (my agent). Awards are included under the above listings as applicable.

Cynsational News & Links

I was honored to read on Bartography that author Chris Barton's son enjoyed my picture book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/Harper, 2000).

Picturing History in Picture: a chat with author Pegi Deitz Shea from the Institute of Children's Literature.

Speaking of pictures, I spent some time this past weekend pinpointing helpful articles on writing picture books. I was most impressed with these:

Make Your Picture Book Sparkle by Peggy Tibbetts from Writing-World.com.

Writing Picture Books by Marisa Montes (includes helpful chart).

Monday, October 17, 2005

Austinites: Support A New Central Library (Final Meeting)

The final hearings for a new downtown public library for Austin are tonight, Monday, October 17 at 7 p.m. at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (4801 La Crosse Avenue).

There were eight supporters at the last meeting, which was great, but still they comprised only 10 percent of the people in attendance.

Austinites: If you can swing by (or fill out the online survey; see below), it would be greatly appreciated--right now, APL has to take a book off the shelf for every new one it buys.

See more information; online survey.

Author Interview: Carmela A. Martino on Rosa Sola

Rosa Sola by Carmela A. Martino (Candlewick, 2005). From the catalog copy: "Living with her Italian immigrant parents in 1960s Chicago, nine-year-old Rosa, an only child, often feels SOLA and different. But as soon as she holds her friend AnnaMaria's baby brother for the first time, Rosa is sure that if she prays hard enough, God will give her a sibling too. Amazingly, Ma does get pregnant, and Rosa is overjoyed -- until the awful day comes when she learns that her brother was stillborn, and Ma, who is weak and grieving, must stay in the hospital for a while. With her papa bitter and rarely home, and her bossy aunt Ida in charge, Rosa has an "empty cave" feeling and now is more SOLA than ever. Why would God answer her prayers, only to take her baby brother away? Will her broken family ever be happy again?" Ages 9-up.

note: "Carmela A. Martino was born and raised in Chicago and still makes her home in the area with her husband and son." See also Carmela Martino from SCBWI-Illinois.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

The novel began as a short story called “Rosa’s Prayer,” which I wrote while working on my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College. I had originally enrolled at Vermont to complete a YA novel, but after a few months in the program I realized that I didn’t yet have all the writing skills I needed to make that particular story work. Instead, I began a middle grade novel about a 12-year-old boy whose friends kept moving away. When my advisor, Marion Dane Bauer, critiqued the opening chapters of the novel, she said it lacked “emotional core.” I was devastated. I knew what my character was feeling, but apparently those feelings weren’t coming across on the page. Marion suggested a writing assignment: she asked me to write a short story about an event from my childhood that still aroused emotion in me. I chose to write about fear—the fear I’d felt at age ten, after my mother nearly died in childbirth.

“Rosa’s Prayer” went through several revisions. By the end of the semester, Marion approved the story for inclusion in my creative thesis. However, she said I could also submit it for my next residency workshop, which I did. My workshop group provided terrific feedback and encouraged me to turn “Rosa’s Prayer” into a novel. I spent most of my time in the Vermont Program working on the manuscript. The original short story spanned only a few weeks, ending on the day Rosa’s mother comes home from the hospital. The novel encompasses a year in Rosa’s life, and focuses not on Rosa’s fear as much as on her family’s struggle to heal from their loss. Interestingly, the most common feedback I’ve heard from readers is that the novel made them cry. For me, that’s a great compliment. I think Marion would be proud.

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

I completed “Rosa’s Prayer” in Fall 1998. I spent the next 18 months turning it into a novel that became my creative thesis. When I graduated from Vermont in July, 2000 though, I knew the manuscript needed more work.

Without the structure and deadlines of the MFA program, I dawdled with the revisions for over a year. Then, after I was accepted as a graduate assistant for the Summer 2002 residency, I realized I couldn’t face my former instructors with the manuscript still “in a drawer.” I quickly finished the revisions and sent the manuscript out.

After two rejections, I submitted the manuscript to Cynthia Platt at Candlewick Press in October 2002. Four months later, in January 2003, Cynthia called to say Candlewick wanted to buy Rosa, Sola . I was thrilled, especially when she said the book could be out in Spring 2004. Cynthia asked for some revisions, which I completed happily. Then in June 2003, not long after I’d submitted my changes, I came home to a voice message from Cynthia. I assumed she’d called to discuss the revisions, but instead, she wanted to let me know that she was leaving publishing and that I would be assigned another editor.

Of course, a new editor meant more revisions. At the time, I thought the process would never end. Yet, looking back, I can see that each set of revisions made the story stronger. The official publication date for Rosa, Sola turned out to be September, 2005, almost seven years after I wrote the short story, “Rosa’s Prayer.”

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

The first challenge was taking a short story that was closely tied to events in my life and expanding it into a novel. Even though many of the things that happen to Rosa happened to me, I had to remind myself that Rosa was not me. The way she reacted to situations and the choices she made weren’t necessarily the same things I would have done.

The second challenge was writing a novel based on events that still aroused emotion in me. While that helped make the story authentic, it forced me to relive a painful time in life. In the end, though, the process was very healing, and it gave me greater empathy for what the adults in my family must have experienced.

But the biggest challenge was actually a technical one. I originally wrote “Rosa’s Prayer” and the first draft of the novel using third-person limited viewpoint. Then, part-way through my final semester at Vermont, my last advisor suggested I rewrite the story into first person. I disagreed. Because Rosa is only 9 years old at the beginning of the novel, and she’s not very precocious, I felt she didn’t have the linguistic skills to tell the story adequately as a first-person narrator. I tried to convince my advisor that the story needed to be in third person, but I couldn’t dissuade her. I discussed the issue with another faculty member and personal friend, Sharon Darrow. Sharon reminded me that I was in the Vermont program to experiment and learn. If I didn’t like the end result, I could always change the point of view back to third person.

I followed Sharon’s advice and rewrote the novel into first person. My advisor was pleased with the result and she felt the first-person voice was just right. So that was the version that went into my creative thesis. But I still didn’t like it. Rosa sounded too mature to me, and she seemed too observant for a young girl struggling with grief and loss.

After graduation, I didn’t know what to do with the manuscript. If my advisor hadn’t liked it so much in first person, I wouldn’t have hesitated to rewrite the story back into third person. But what if she was right and I was wrong?

Fortunately for me, I met Stephen Roxburgh, publisher of Front Street Books, not long after I graduated from Vermont. Carolyn Coman, a Front Street author and one of my Vermont advisors, had already told Stephen about my novel. When I explained my dilemma to Stephen, he agreed to read both versions of Rosa, Sola. Even though he later turned down the manuscript, Stephen gave me some invaluable feedback: He thought the third person version was the stronger. His comments gave me the courage to go against my advisor and rewrite the story my way.

As I revised the novel back into third person, I realized that the process of putting the story into first-person had given me a deeper understanding of my character. So I’m grateful my advisor forced me to try first-person viewpoint. The experience also taught me that there is no intrinsically “right” or “wrong” point of view. What matters, instead, is that the storytelling feels right to me, as the author.
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