Saturday, November 26, 2005

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

I posted the following link on November 14:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynsational News & Links

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

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

Friday, November 25, 2005

Cynsational News & Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

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


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

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

Cynsational News & Links

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Author Interview: Brent Hartinger on the Banning of Geography Club

Author Interview

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

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

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

Has it ever been challenged or banned before?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They've Banned My Gay Teen Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I think my critics really miss the point.

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

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

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

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

Reprinted on cynsations with permission of the author.

Read the Coverage

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

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

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

Learn More About Brent Hartinger

Author Profile: Brent Hartinger from teenreads.com.

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

Interview with Brent Hartinger of Geography Club from afterellen.com.

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

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

Learn More About Book Banning and Free Speech

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

Cynsational Notes

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

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

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

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

Read banned books!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Author Feature: Liza Ketchum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What advice do you have for writer-researchers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is Griswold, Vermont? How did it evolve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynsational News & Links

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2005

Oklahoma Fall Arts Institute at Quartz Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynsational Note

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

Cynsational News & Links

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

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

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