Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Author/Illustrator Interview: Ed Young on Beyond The Great Mountains

Beyond The Great Mountains: A Visual Poem About China by Ed Young (Chronicle, 2005). From the catalog copy: "Ed Young's spare prose, as lovely as a rice-paper painting, describes in measured detail the beautiful and mystical land that the author so clearly loves. The unique format and gorgeous paper-collage illustrations, highlighted with Chinese characters, combine to convey the many facets of China to form a poetic picture of the land’s grace, depth, and majesty."

Publisher bio: "Ed Young was born in Tientsin, China, grew up in Shanghai, and later moved to Hong Kong and finally to the United States, where he lives today with his wife and two young daughters. He has illustrated more than eighty children's books (some of which he has also written), and his work has received many awards, including the 1990 Caldecott Medal and two Caldecott Honors."

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

This book is a spin-off from a workshop on Chinese calligraphy that I did in Boulder, Colorado, in 1983. I composed a poem made up of Chinese symbols on natural elements. The poem was written with sumi brush on a scroll of paper towel. I never thought at the time that this was going to be a book, let alone a children's book.

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

It is now 2005 - so twenty-two years from beginning to end - during which the poem lay in my drawer, dormant. In 1990 my Caldecott Medal for Lon Po Po (Philomel, 1989) coincided with the Horn Book Award. My reception talk for the Horn Book Award, Eight Matters of the Heart, was sparked by my work ethics. The talk inspired a book called Voices of the Heart, and the success of Voices made Beyond the Great Mountains possible. I approached Scholastic, HarperCollins, and Philomel before it was accepted by Chronicle. First, it was in an accordion format, which turned into this step-down method, a vertical book.

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

I've been interested in the ideograms for many years. The challenge was to understand their evolution, since there are no ready-made answers, even among experts. Also to find the right format, which completes the book. The rest was easy.

Could you describe your artistic process for the illustrations?

When it was in the scroll format, it was simply sumi ink written with brush on paper towel. Then it was in a collage with limited colors in a tall and narrow accordion format. At Chronicle, it was finalized into the step-down format. Afterward, I redid the illustrations within a few months, by rounds and rounds of negotiations between mediums and sizes, until all the pages became a family. Then it's a book.

What would you say have been your biggest influences, both as a writer and an illustrator? Or can you separate the two?

I never thought I was a writer until Pat Gauch, my editor at Philomel, encouraged me to record my voice telling my stories, and to transcribe them. That was in 1989, for my first written book, Lon Po Po. I have been an illustrator all my life and was influenced by illustrators from the U.S. before I could read or speak English.

As the creator (or co-creator) of more than 80 books for young readers, what have been your career highlights?

White Wave (Harcourt, 1996) was a book for which I opened myself up to the idea that for a book to be great, one has to accept the greater mind of the team in the making. Also Foolish Rabbit's Big Mistake (Putnam, 1985), for which I allowed myself to use a medium appropriate to the story that was outside of its tradition, which in this case would have been Indian miniatures.

What advice do you have for author/illustrators--beginners and those who've published a book or two?

Know that picture book illustration is not a money-making profession. Do not allow that to hold the "artist" in you on a leash and lead you astray. (It even happens to some of the successful people.) Challenge yourself to resist shortcuts and complacency or to fall prey to trendy books. Anything worth making deserves your best effort. The richness is in your spirit, not in your pocket.

How would you describe the landscape today of Asian American children's literature? What changes have you seen over the course of your career?

Overwhelmingly challenging in technology, in mediums, in styles, in standards. The sky is the limit. It's exciting.

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

Many. One I saw recently is Shark God by Rafe Martin, illustrated by David Shannon (Arthur A. Levine, 2001). It's noteworthy.

What can your fans expect from you next?

My Mei Mei (Philomel, 2005) will be in bookstores by mid February. It's a personal story. Tiger of the Snow (Atheneum, 2006), a poem to celebrate Norgay and Hillary's climb of Mt. Everest, will be out in May 2006.

Cynsational News & Links

An Excerpt and Q&A with Ed Young on Beyond The Great Mountains from Chronicle Books.

Ed Young from Teachingbooks.net: includes book guide and interview information.

Combating Censorship from NCTE. See also Censorship Challenges: What To Do, also from NCTE.

Horn Book Fanfare List: Best Books of 2005.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Author Interview: Greg Leitich Smith on Tofu and T. rex

Tofu and T. rex by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown, 2005). From the catalog copy: "Militant vegan Frederika Murchison-Kowalski is back at the Peshtigo School after a brief stint in Texas (where she torched an artificial turf field to save Angus the Fighting Angus from the “rabid and inhumane cult” of football). The bad news is that now Freddie has to live with her cousin, Hans-Peter, a diehard carnivore, and grandfather, who happens to own a butcher shop and sausage deli. Having never had a sibling, Freddie and Hans-Peter are soon at odds with each other over bathroom sharing, dinner menus, and more. To complicate matters, Hans-Peter needs Freddie’s insider knowledge to get accepted into the Peshtigo School himself." Ages 10-14. This novel is a companion book to Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005).

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I had finished up Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005), and I was going through old notes and jotting new ideas, but nothing was really exciting enough to spend the time to write a novel about.

Somewhere along the line, though, I began playing around with comic opposites (e.g., "The Odd Couple") and decided you could not get more opposite than a sausage maker and a vegan. The idea was intrinsically funny, had a built-in conflict, and a lot of possibilities.

Another idea I had been playing with involved applications to “elite” schools – having applied to and attended several universities in that category, believe me, the comic possibilities there are endless.

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

Tofu and T. rex was the second book in a two-book deal I had signed with Little Brown when I sold Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo. I hadn’t initially intended to write a companion to Ninjas, but as I was trying to develop my vegan character, I realized I already had one, in Freddie, who has a minor role in Ninjas. Once I had Freddie as a character, it was inevitable that the school which would be the subject of application horror would be the Peshtigo School, and that the person applying would be Freddie’s cousin, Hans-Peter.

So now I had a couple of premises, a couple of characters, and a deadline. I didn’t really have a plot, though, but this didn’t stop me. I began writing and eventually had something novel length, with an acceptable arc, but there was something wrong --- it seemed a bit passionless and unremarkable and not hugely funny. I really needed to do something radical, so I packed it off to my editor, Amy Hsu (who, sadly is no longer in publishing).

Several weeks later, I received a three page letter from Amy. In addition to several things I already knew but didn’t want to face the consequences of, she asked two extremely important questions.

First, perhaps the most profound question of all: Where was T. rex?

The manuscript had gone to her under the title “Tofu and Tyrannosaurus Rex,” which had always been the title – and Amy was right – there was no T.Rex in the actual story. I had always sort of figured that T.Rex was just a metaphor for carnivore, thought that the title was clever, but hadn’t ever presented an actual sauropod.

So, I get this letter, with this question, and I knew I had to answer it.

And for some reason, the first thing that came to me was “Well, obviously, it’s in the basement. Life-sized.”

Which is why Hans-Peter has a life-sized tyrannosaurus rex head in the basement of the family bungalow. This was sort of the key to making the novel work -- the presence of the T.Rex head led to other changes in the plot – it inspired, for example, the entire storyline of the homecoming parade.

The second question from Amy was a little more problematic. Basically, it was “What happened to Freddie?” Amy’s concern was well-founded. In Ninjas, Freddie appears as a minor character was is, shall we say, a bit strident with regard to her animal rights activism, kind of comic relief, but definitely strong-willed. She wasn’t however, necessarily the most likeable character, particularly to have as a protagonist.

So in the draft I’d sent Amy, I’d toned Freddie down a bit, figuring that her point of view was different from that of the characters in Ninjas. The problem was, she came out being an entirely different person.

So I went back to my computer, with my T. rex head, my recidivist Freddie, and started re-writing. The re-write was so comprehensive that I think the only scene in the published book that was in the draft I’d originally sent Amy was the scene with the bees at Castle Brandenburg.

After another few months, I sent this draft off, Amy liked it a lot better. And so did I.

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

The biggest challenge was self-imposed: I wanted Freddie to remain a vegan at the end of the novel and I also wanted Hans-Peter to remain a committed carnivore at the end of the novel. (I really, really, hate novels where the character’s epiphany is along the lines of “Why, yes, [insert: cousin, friend, Mom], you were right all along. I am so much more enlightened now that I’ve learned the lesson you’ve been trying to teach me.”) Both characters were so strong, no one would have believed it anyway. This meant, though, that I had to find a way for them to both change and grow while being true to themselves. Consequently, the novel became more a story of family conflict than “political” conflict, and the extent to which family matters.

Beyond that, the characters’ voices were hard to get right. This was especially important because the novel is told in alternating point of view between Freddie and Hans-Peter.

Freddie was hard to write, for reasons noted above, but also because I wanted to make her a fully rounded person, one you could respect, even if you didn’t agree with her. I also wanted to make her the sort of person who chose veganism because of its inherent logic, not simply for feel-good reasons. I think it makes her a stronger character, although perhaps, in some ways, more frightening.

With Hans-Peter, the voice issues were more subtle. Basically, he started out as more of a “straight” man, but as Freddie became more Freddie, he had to become a stronger character as well. So, he became more “into” the deli and dinosaurs and more intensely interested in getting admitted to the school. In some ways, too, Hans-Peter is a lot like Elias, one of the PoV characters from Ninjas. Giving Hans-Peter a voice distinctive from Elias’s was hard, especially in the scene where they’re together.

Finally, the research was fairly intense. I spent a lot of time researching both veganism and sausage-making (and believe me, sausage makers are just as passionate about wurst as vegans are about their cause). I sampled a certain amount of sausage made by different techniques and I also spent a week on a vegan diet, which was kind of hard, but I suspect easier in Austin than other places. By the way, while I found some sausage disagreeable, I discovered that vegan mayonnaise substitute is possibly the most revolting substance known to humankind.

Cynsational Notes

Tofu and T. rex was a finalist for the TSRA Golden Spur Award.

Greg is my husband. I read his manuscript several times while it was in progress, and I adored Freddie. In fact, she and her conviction to veganism were sufficiently persuasive to me that I've stopped eating mammals altogether. I know Freddie would say I've still got a long way to go, but I also suspect she'd count me as at least a partial victory. In any case, my die-hard beef-eating husband is respectfully, if grudgingly, adjusting to the shift in the family diet, and in any case, he really has no choice but to take it as a compliment to his writing.

Surf by GregLS Blog.

Author Interview: Greg Leitich Smith on Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo from cynsations.

Interview with Debut Children's Book Author Greg Leitich Smith from Debbi Michiko Florence. Fall 2003.

Greg Leitich Smith Interview from Downhomebooks.com. Fall 2003.

Greg Leitich Smith Interview at YA Books Central.

Spotlight on Greg Leitich Smith by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Smart Writers. July 2005.

"Of Tofu and T. Rex" by Greg Leitich Smith from Time Warner Bookmark.

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to Liz Gallagher for signing with agent Rosemary Stimola. And congratulations to Rosemary Stimola for signing writer Liz Gallagher! Liz is a fourth semester student at the Vermont College/Union Institute & University MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Congratulations to Austin author Jerry Wermund, whose picture books, The World According To Rock (Rockon Publishing, 2004) and Earthscapes: Landforms Sculpted by Water, Wind, and Ice (Rockon Publishing, 2003), were recommended by the National Science Teachers Assocation!

How To Write a Picture Book with Fabulous R&M by Margot Finke from The Purple Crayon. note: R & M = rhyme & meter.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Publisher Miriam Hees on Blooming Tree Press

Blooming Tree Press is a relatively new children's book publisher based in Austin, Texas. Could you offer us some insights into how this company came to be? What was the initial inspiration? What were the challenges?

Blooming Tree Press came about for several reasons. First, I had the desire to see different types of books on the shelves than I was seeing...especially for children.

Second, the majority of our authors and illustrators have never been published. I wanted to give talented people a chance that they might not get otherwise get with the big publishers. We all need that first leg up, and I wanted to be a part of that.

Finally, my reason for starting BTP is my love of books. Writing, reading, and publishing books is my passion. You won't find me shopping in a clothes store or shoe store or picking out jewelry for that matter. You will find me at least once a week in a bookstore. It's like a candy shop to me.

I have always had plenty of inspiration to do what I set my mind to do, and having been a business woman for more than 20 years, I had the know-how and street smarts. But just like any small business, a small press is a major challenge. Some people as skeptical and don't think you know what you are doing; others think only the big presses can give an author or illustrator the attention they deserve. Also, just making sure you have all the marketing and sales connections that big guys have is a challenge. It's takes a constant stream of phone calls, emails and personal visits to see it done, but we have risen to the challenge quite nicely. People in the publishing and book world are starting to recognize Blooming Tree Press. But most importantly, authors, illustrators and readers now know we are here.

Also note, you will see that we publish mainly children's books, but we do have an adult press that we're in the process of opening.

Who are the people behind BTP? What are their respective backgrounds? What is the role of each today?

Blooming Tree Press in filled with wonderful people! Let me start by listing the staff and their backgrounds.

Miriam Hees - Publisher:Miriam has been a writer for more than 15 years and business woman for more than 20 years. She has started and ran many businesses in that time period. She began her business plan for Blooming Tree Press almost 10 years ago. Today, her role as publisher is a full-time, seven-day-a-week pursuit. She continues to write in that free time between 3 and 5 a.m. and will release a new guardian angel book as well as a WWII historical fiction middle grade in the next 18 months.

Bradford Hees - Senior Editor - Adult Division: The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Bradford Hees is an excellent writer of SciFi/Fantasy as well as graphic novels and Manga. He has studied Japanese, writing, and publishing for many years. He is currently working on opening the adult division of Blooming Tree Press as well as awaiting the release of his first graphic novel/Manga entitled "The Light of Nor."

Madeline Smoot - Senior Editor - Children's Division: Madeline Smoot has been reading children's literature her whole life but has been editing for one year. She has BBA in Marketing from Southern Methodist University and is finishing her MA in Children's Literature from Hollins University. Her first book, Frog on Vacation, is scheduled for release in the fall of 2006.

Meghan Diestche - Associate Editor - Children's Division: Meghan Dietsche graduated from Smith College in 2000. She has worked in publishing for five years, most recently for HarperCollins Children's Books.

Judy Gregerson - Editor - Children's Division: Judy grew up on the eastern end of Long Island and attended SUNY Oswego and Stony Brook with a major in journalism and communications. Once out of college, she worked as a copy editor at The (Syracuse) Post-Standard and then as a copywriter for S.T. Preston & Son's nautical mail order catalog.

While in New York she wrote her first book, a memoir, Save Me! A Young Woman's Journey Through Schizophrenia To Health. Doubleday published the book in 1980 to excellent reviews, and Judy was listed that year in Who's Who in America.

She eventually tired of New York and moved to Seattle, Washington. There, she worked in the housing industry, married, and raised two girls. She gave up writing for eighteen years but took up her keyboard in 1997 and started crafting novels. She came on board as an associate editor at BTP in 2004.

Kay Pluta - Assistant Editor - Children's Division: Kay Pluta is a former middle school Language Arts teacher who graduated from Georgia College with a BA in English. She was on the editorial staff of literary magazines from high school through college. After leaving teaching to raise a family, Kay published dozens of articles and stories for both adults and children in various print and online magazines. She sold her first children's book, There's A Yak In My Bed, to Blooming Tree Press in 2004, and joined the staff a year later.

Kelly Bell - Layout and Design: Kelly Bell has 20 years (print) 10 years (web) of design, development and production experience in all phases of traditional (print) and new (web) media, from concept through delivery. Her skills include human-computer interface design, concepting, layout, design, scanning, photo retouching and montage, illustration. She is currently working for Blooming Tree Press as Art Director. Her responsibility is for all company marketing communications products, book design and production, Interactive (Audiobooks, Mediabooks) media, web site design and maintenance for this small but growing children's book publisher.

What is your target market? Direct sales, institutional (school/library sales), bookstores, catalogs/specialty, a combination of several? As a new, small press, how are you gaining awareness and competing with larger, more established publishers?

We target multiple markets. Bookstores, obviously are a big market. We are with Baker & Taylor, the second biggest distributor in the world. This allows to have our books stocked in any bookstore worldwide. We also love librarians! We are members of the Texas Library Association and will be at the TLA annual conference in 2006, will be listed in the 2007 Children's Writers and Illustrators Market (CWIM)(Writer's Digest Books), are members of the national and local Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators as well as local writers leagues.

We offer two catalogs a year that are mailed to all markets announcing upcoming titles. Word of mouth, the Internet and personal visits all help us get our name out there.

Also, all of our authors are provided, shortly after their publication, with a marketing and publicity binder. These binders are personalized with data of local stores, schools, libraries, book awards, specialty stores and reviewers that will help us and them make their book a great success.

What is the scope of your publishing program? Do you publish picture books, chapter books, middle grade and/or young adult novels? Do you specialize in any particular genres? Are there areas you avoid?

We currently publish five-to-seven titles a year. We publish picture books (personally requested only at this time), early readers, chapter books, middle grade, young adult and adult. We do mainly fiction but will look at non-fiction. We don't accept any subjects having to do with horror, the occult or explicit sex.

What are your submission guidelines for writers, for illustrators? What are you especially looking for? Do you have an interest in new voices, and in the case of illustrators, visions?

We are always looking for new voices. As I said earlier, most of our authors and illustrators were unpublished before they came to us. Guidelines for submission are listed on the website. But here they are are:

For children's division, please send a query to:

Blooming Tree Press
Children's Submissions
P.O. Box 140934
Austin, Texas 78714

If we like what we see we will immediately ask for more.

For the adult division, we ask for synopsis and first three chapters to same address only - Adult Submissions.

For illustrators send samples to same address, only specify Art Department. Also note we do take worldwide submissions. One of our newest books in written by Leslie Carmichael, who hails from Canada.

I noticed that you're sponsoring a short story competition in conjunction with SmartWriters.com. What inspired this decision? Why is it a good opportunity for writers?

I received a call from Roxyanne Young of SmartWriters.com, who was ecstatic about their latest short story competition. She wanted to be able to offer winners and runners up of the competition a publishing avenue. She asked if I would be interested in using these stories for a published anthology.

Well, of course! Writing competition winners tend be the highest quality work and that, combined with the opportunity to work with Roxyanne, was a win-win situation for me.

This is an excellent opportunity for writers to get their foot in the "publishing" door. Having a writing credit can catch the attention of many an editor. When an author/illustrator is published in any form or fashion alerts an editor to the fact that this writer is able to edit and revise. A big key to a "yes" or "no" of an acceptance of a manuscript is can an author revise.

[note: see link below to Smart Writers announcement of the winners]

Could you tell us a little about your new books for fall 2005?

We have a great lineup for this fall:

1.) Callie and the Stepmother by Susan A. Meyers, illustrated by Rose Gauss. An easy reader in paperback (ISBN 0-9718348-0-6).

When Callie's father remarries, Callie knows exactly what her life will be like. After all, she's read all the books. She's going to be stuck cleaning floors, expected to sweep the fireplace, forced to eat poisoned apples and most likely abandoned in the woods. And there's not just the new stepmother, Pam to worry about. There's also an annoying stepbrother and an evil stepsister.

What's Daddy's Little Princess to do? In this delightful rendition of a modern day Cinderella, Callie learns not all stepmothers are wicked and every fairytale has a unique ending.

2.) Lyranel's Song by Leslie Carmichael, illustrated by Elsbet Vance. An upper middle grade hardcover (ISBN 0-9718348-5-7).

Lyranel has never thought much about Singing. Her mother had been a famous Singer years ago, but she died when Lyranel was very young. Since then, Lyranel's father, the Duke of Trioste, has banned all Singers from his Duchy. Those that remain live in secret, Singing their Songs of healing and life.

When Lyranel awakens upon her twelfth birthday bursting with Song, she is horrified and tries to hide her new gift from her father. Worse still, a terrible plague threatens her land and the Singers that remain. Lyranel must learn to come terms with her new talent. If not, her land and her people may not survive.

3.) Little Bunny Kung Fu by Regan Johnson. A picture book illustrated in black and white (ISBN 0-9769417-8-3).

Regan Johnson takes the classic children's nursery rhyme and provides it with a new twist. Set in China, this bunny doesn't like to play with field mice. Instead, he prefers chopping down bamboo. Unfortunately for Little Bunny Kung Fu, many creatures in the forest rely on the bamboo. Eventually, Great Dragon must come down and set Little Bunny Kung Fu straight. Join Little Bunny Kung Fu in his romp through the Chinese forest.

An exciting note for Regan and for us is that Barnes & Noble is considering releasing Little Bunny Kung Fu nationally!

4.) One-Eyed Jack by Paula Miller, illustrated by Chris Forrest. A hardcover middle grade (ISBN 0-9718348-8-1).

The first in the Faces of History Series, this story tells the tale of a boy, Nate, on a cattle ranch in 1880's Montana. Nate has always wanted a dog, but his Pa does not. Only grudgingly does Pa allow Nate to keep the nearly dying puppy he finds. Nate must struggle to control his new dog and allow the Lord the time to sway Pa's heart.

Faces in History is a series dedicated to showing children and teens of faith during different periods of history. The hero of each tale must overcome personal obstacles with perseverance and faith in the Lord. Written to entertain, these books also serve as an inspirational tool for any child of faith.

We have seven titles slated for next year which include: Jessica McBean, Tap Dance Queen; Summer Shorts Anthology; There's a Yak in My Bed; Robo Rescue; Frog on Vacation; and The Light of Nor.

You're a writer and publisher! What is it like, wearing two hats? Was it a natural progression?

It really was a natural progression and one I feel that is an advantage for all involved in the company. When you have been a writer for many years, sending submissions and playing the game, you know how the writers submitting manuscripts to you you feel. Their hopes, dreams, fears and concerns are easy to understand. I feel I have more compassion and I try to show extra respect because of it.

Could you tell us a little about your own titles?

Angel Eyes and Angel on my Shoulder are from my guardian angel series. This is a wonderful series about girls and their guardian angels.

Noises in the Attic is a mystery adventure. Just plain fun and excitement as a brother and sister solve a mystery.

I always wanted to write fun, exciting, and wholesome reading for kids. There is so much bad out there that kids have to deal with every day. I wanted something for them to read where they might escape...if just for a little while.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I just want all writers and illustrators to remember that the publishing business is a tough one whether you are a publisher, editor, writer or illustrator. If it is your passion, don't ever give up. You will find your place. I guarantee it. Just keep your dream alive!

Cynsational News & Links

Smart Writers Journal December 2005 features include: "The Day After" by Stacia Deutsch and Rhody Cohon on marketing your book after its release; announcements of literary agents seeking writer clients; announcement of winners of the short story contest in conjunction with Blooming Tree Press (see above); "Short Story Tips from a Judge" by Marilyn Singer; and a listing of upcoming writers' retreats and conferences from Margot Finke. Congratulations to Debbi Michiko Florence who received an "honorable mention" in the young readers division for her story, "Megumi's Gift!"

Congratulations also to Sarah Aronson on the sale of her debut novel to Deborah Brodie at Roaring Brook Press!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Writing the YA Novel

My husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, and I spoke yesterday to a crowd of about 40 on Writing the "Young Adult Novel" at the Barnes & Noble, Westake (TX) in conjunction with the store's "Year of Writing" program.

My focus was on what the YA novel is and how to write it whereas Greg talked about getting published and led a character-building writing exercise.

The crowd was enthusiastic and included such local authors as: Frances Hill; Varian Johnson; Austin SCBWI RA Julie Lake; Lindsey Lane; April Lurie; Jerry Wermund; JoAnne Whittemore; Brian Yansky; as well as illustrator Don Tate.

After the event, Greg and I swung to the front of the store for Regan Johnson's signing of her picture book Little Bunny Kung Fu (Blooming Tree, 2005). For more on the substance of the event, see the participant notes immediately below.

Cynsational Notes

"A Swift Kick in the Rear" from They Call Me Mr. V, author Varian Johnson's blog, in which he discusses the substance of mine and Greg's presentation.

"The Smiths Workshop on YA" from Devas T. Rants and Raves!, illustrator Don Tate's blog, in which he does the same. (Note: Though he's well-known as an illustrator, Don has begun writing now, too!).

Cynsational News & Links

Fuel for the Writer is a cookbook made up of recipes from alumni, students, and faculty of Vermont College/Union Institute & University MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. All proceeds go to benefit the alumni scholarship fund. It's a fantatic book full of recipes, memories, anecdotes, quotes, and artwork, all related to the wonderful world of food and writing. Purchases can be made at www.fuelforthewriter.com. Or call 1-888-573-3902.

Interview with Tracy Wynne, co-owner of Cover to Cover Bookstore in San Francisco, from PaperTigers.org.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Out of Print, But Not Forgotten

From the CBC Web site:

"Is there a children's book you absolutely love that has gone out of print?

"From November to February the Children's Book Council is asking librarians, teachers, parents, and kids to name a book they would love to see reissued. The poll is a project of the ALA-CBC Joint Committee, and the top ten books will be announced in the spring."

You'll find a form on the site, asking for the title, author, and illustrator.

Traditionally, children's books used to build by word of mouth, passed on to each set of young readers as they came of age for picture books, chapter books, middle grades, and YA novels. But the shift to big business has us leaning more in the quick hit-or-miss direction of television shows and movies.

Today, titles are known to go into and out of print, even before the traditional three-year cycle for state awards passes. In fact, a friend of mine had a novel make two state lists at about the same time her tweener went out of print, a factor insufficient for her big-house publisher to reconsider its decision.

Within my own body of work, I had a short story, "The Naked Truth," published in In My Grandmother's House: Award-Winning Writers Tell Stories About Their Grandmothers, edited and illustrated by Bonnie Christensen (HarperCollins, 2003). This wonderful anthology, which includes stories by Alma Flor Ada, Beverly Cleary, Gail Carson Levine, and Diane Stanley is already out of print.

The book I'd most like back...

Muskrat Will Be Swimming by Cheryl Savageau (Abenaki-French Canadian), illustrated by Robert Hynes, featuring a Seneca traditional story retold by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki) (Northland, 1996). When a young Native girl is called "Lake Rat," she is comforted by Grampa who both reveals how he was once called "Frog" because of his French-Indian heritage and shows how those intended insults are signs that the bullies don’t appreciate the joy of the frog and wonder of the lake. Ages 4-up.

How about you?

Cynsational Notes

See Keeping Books in Print by Harold Underdown from The Purple Crayon.

Cynsational News & Links

Holiday shopping? How about an "Allen Say's Journey" T-shirt (in adult and children's sizes) from the Japanese American Museum? Also see the museum's picks for kids' fiction and non-fiction.

Or surf over to Storyopolis and shop for a children's book illustration. If I had $4000, I'd buy Chicago by E.B. Lewis. Um, Santa?

The December issue of Kid Magazine Writers features: quotes from Spider editor Heather Delabre; an article on "sentence length and editing for younger readers;" an article on "getting in the right mindset for connecting with young folks;" "an annotated list of nonfiction articles taken from magazines targeting very young readers," and more.

Between the Lines: An Illustrator's Viewpoint: "Texture Creates Feeling in Pencil Works" by Kevin Scott Collier.

Children's Bookwatch from the Midwest Book Review. December 2005.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Department Chair Kathi Appelt on the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults

Kathi Appelt, department chair of the Vermont College/Union Institute & University M.F.A program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, is the author of numerous books for young readers. Her recent titles include: Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers: How A First Lady Changed America, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein (HarperCollins, 2005) and Merry Christmas, Merry Crow, illustrated by John Goodell (Harcourt, 2005). She lives in College Station, Texas.

What is a low-residency master of fine arts program?

In a traditional residential degree program, students typically attend weekly or bi-weekly seminars or workshops on campus. A traditional degree usually has a set or series of classes that are required and may or may not include one-on-one instruction or mentoring. A masters level degree normally takes anywhere from two to four years. In a low-residency program, students congregate only once or twice a year on campus for two-four weeks. During these residencies, students attend lectures and workshops. They are then assigned to an advisor who will work with them on an individual semester plan. So, during the course of a semester, the student works with only one instructor.

What are the advantages of a low-residency program?

There are a lot of advantages. For one, students don't have to uproot themselves or their families in order to attend a particular college. The low-residency idea is designed to accommodate working adults, people who have regular jobs and can't simply stop working in order to return to school. They're also designed for those who can't or don't want to relocate. They can also design their own course of study for the most part. A student who primarily wants to work on picture books can do so; likewise someone who is mainly interested in poetry can focus on that. Of course, we encourage our students to use their time with us to explore areas in which they're unfamiliar, to tap into the faculty's expertise in a variety of genres.

In addition, each student works intensively with one advisor at a time. The student to faculty ratio is very small, usually five to one or fewer. During the course of a student's career within the program, he or she will work with up to four separate advisors.

Could you give us some insight into the history of the VC program?

The VC degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults sprang out of the long-established low-residency program in creative writing. A handful of alumni from that program, including Louise Hawes (author interview) and Sharon Darrow, who have been on our faculty all along, joined forces with Marion Dane Bauer and some other well-known children's authors to start our unique program. We'll celebrate our tenth anniversary this summer! At the time that we started, ours was the only low res program that offered a specific degree in writing for children and young adults. There are a handful of others that are coming along now, many of which have our alums among their faculty.

How is the VC program structured--number of semesters, thesis requirements, balance of critical and creative work?

VC is designed on a two year timeline, consisting of four semesters and five residencies. Each semester is a little over five months long. In that time, students are required to turn in five packets, one each month.

In the first and second semesters, students must submit a combination of new creative work, revisions, and one or two short critical essays on some aspect of the craft. During the third semester, a student must continue to turn in creative work, but he or she is also required to write a critical thesis. During the fourth semester, the student concentrates on his or her creative work and must turn in a creative thesis. The creative thesis may be comprised of a novel or part of a novel, a work of non-fiction, several picture books, or a combination of all of these. During the last residency, the graduating student has to present a lecture to his or her classmates and faculty members, as well as a reading.

For writers, what is the benefit of doing critical work?

Critical work gives the writer a more intimate and in-depth look at both matters of craft as well as issues in the field of children's literature. We encourage our students to look closely at the ways in which writers use characters, plot, theme, research, etc., and to then translate that knowledge into their own work. In order to be full players in our field, our belief is that our graduates should be able to look analytically and critically at the work in front of them, both their own and that of other writers. As well, we hope that our students will consider teaching, and in order to be prepared for this, they have to have a solid grounding in the critical aspects of children's literature.

What takes place during a typical residency?

The residencies are action packed. Each day is filled with a combination of workshops, readings and lectures. The lectures are led by both graduating students and faculty members. In addition, some faculty members lead seminars that are often hands-on. Guest speakers are brought in too. This January, Caldecott winner Mordecai Gerstein will join us, along with Wendy Watson and April Pulley Sayres. Students are also encouraged to do their own readings during the residencies.

Why would a children's/YA writer want to pursue an MFA degree? What doors does it open, creatively and professionally?

I've heard from folks in the industry, especially editors, that the introduction of the MFA in writing for children has raised the level of writing. That's not to say that the level was ever low, but in the past ten years, children's books have become more competitive than ever. Another benefit that I see is in the perception that our society has about anything really that has to do with children, that if something is designed for kids then it must be easy or superficial or whatever. The degree all by itself can't change that. But I do believe that it lends an air of credibility to our profession.

I really believe that our degree raises the standard for children's literature. That people both inside and outside the field have taken notice is testament to that.

An MFA is also considered a "terminal" degree. By that, our students are qualified to teach in a college setting, and many many of our grads do just that.

Who comprise the faculty of the VC program? What credentials are required? Preferred?

We currently have twenty faculty members: myself, yourself, Marc Aronson (author interview), M.T. Anderson (author interview), Marion Dane Bauer, Norma Fox Mazer, Phyllis Root, Jane Resh Thomas, Ellen Levine, Ellen Howard, Laura McGee Kvasnovsky, Tim Wynn-Jones, Louise Hawes, Sharon Darrow, Liza Ketchum, Ron Koertge (author interview), Carolyn Coman, Alison McGhee, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Margaret Bechard.

As recently as three years ago, the credentials required for faculty members were a B.A. plus a history of publication. Currently, a faculty member must have an advanced degree plus a history of publication. In addition, to remain on the faculty, we have to continue to publish.

As importantly as publication history and credentials, however, is a history of teaching. We look very closely at a candidate's teaching record. In addition, we also require a teaching sample, along with a candidate's c.v.

Could you describe the campus at Montpelier, Vermont?

The campus is very old. Vermont College is one of the oldest colleges in VT, and many of the buildings have been there for the 100 years that the school has been in existence. There's a certain charm about that. And I confess that at times, it feels a lot like camp, especially in the dorms. But many of the buildings have been upgraded. There's a fully equipped computer lab, for example. And a very fine library. The cafeteria is operated by the New England Culinary Institute, so the food is a notch above standard cafeteria fare. And just down the hill, is the wonderful town of Montpelier, complete with bakeries, boutiques, and a movie theater, not to mention a wonderful book store.

Could you describe the culture of those involved in the program?

We are a community of people who are dedicated to writing for children. It's our heart's work. Who shows up is folks right out of college, fresh from their undergraduate programs, to people who have had a long career in teaching or something else and haven't been in school for fifty years. We have students who have already begun to publish and who have found some success but want to stretch their writing muscles, and we have students who are just starting out. We have folks in every income bracket and from a variety of backgrounds. At the end of the day, we're all there for one thing. To become better writers. And interestingly, that ties us together. Our graduates become life-long friends even though they may live on opposite coasts. There's a "we're all in this together" mentality that permeates our community.

How much does the VC program cost to complete (or per semester)?

Tuition for each semester is around $6300. There's no question that our program is a large financial investment. We understand that, and it's why our faculty and staff work so hard to make sure that our students get the highest quality of education that is available to them.

Why do you teach at VC? How does it compare to other teaching environments you've had?

I teach there for the people. My colleagues on the faculty and in the office are as close to me in many ways as my family. I also think about the people with whom I teach and I'm in awe, not only by the work they do, but also by their commitment to their students. I feel so honored to be in their company. But we also have amazing students. We're crazy about them. And we learn so much from them! There is nothing more gratifying than watching a student grow in his or her work and then embark upon a successful career. I got a message just the other day from a student who just sold a novel that I worked on with her during her first semester. How wonderful is that?

How competitive is admissions?

Fairly competitive. I don't have the exact numbers, but I think we're accepting about 30% of our applicants. We have a limit of 70 students at any given time, and the numbers that we can take each semester vary with the number of graduates, the number of folks taking a leave, etc. We typically accept around 30 new students each year. That's a guess, but I think it's close.

At what level are students when they enter the program? Upon graduation?

Students come to us at varying levels--some are old hands, others are just beginning. One of the bonuses of working one-on-one with an advisor is that each student can begin where they are and go from there. I've seen students make major breakthroughs in their work, including students whom you might consider advanced. I've seen folks who thought they only wanted to write fiction leave us feeling confident about writing picture books or poetry or non-fiction. I've seen people come to us having written many books, and leaving writing better books. Many of our students tell us that their time at VC was transformational, and I believe them. I've seen the program change lives.

Art, whether its writing, painting, music, is extremely personal. The one-on-one nature of our teaching allows a student to delve into their craft in a deep way. One of the catch phrases that it seems we're always telling our students is to "go deep." What this means is to take a piece of writing and really look at what is driving the character, to ask what the deepest underpinnings of a particular story are, to examine the attitudes and controlling beliefs that the author imbues upon his or her work and how they might affect both character and readers. We ask our students to think hard. To become critical readers. To approach their work with curiosity and to examine the longings that provide motivation and conflict within their stories. It's hard work.

Could you give us some examples of VC success stories?


Sure can. April Pulley Sayres is one of the top players in science books for kids. Andy Auseon just had his first novel nominated to the BBYA list. Leda Schubert has a number of picture books listed beside her name. Candice Ransom just signed her 100th book contract. Lauren Myracle's most recent novel made the NYTimes Best Seller List. Carolyn Crimi's (author interview) career is taking off big time. Helen Hemphill's first novel will be out in the spring. And the big news, of course, is Deb Wiles, whose newest novel was a finalist for the recent National Book Award. It hardly gets better than that.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Entering a low residency program, or any writing program for that matter, is a huge commitment in both resources and time. I often think that our students are surprised by the intensity of the program, by the requirements of time, and by the dedication that it takes to makes it through. I think they're also happily surprised by the community itself, how supportive we are, but also how much they come to appreciate their classmates. The classes stay together long after they graduate. They celebrate each others' successes and buoy each others' disappointments.

We offer a strenuous program, with no guarantees at the end. A degree by itself will not get you a publishing contract. Only your stories can do that. But we can promise that we'll push you to do your very best work, and then we'll push you even harder. Our young audience deserves nothing less.

Cynsational News & Links

Holiday promotion: autographed bookplates from Anjali Banerjee, author of Maya Running (Wendy Lamb Books, 2005)(read excerpt) and Imaginary Men (Downtown Press, 2005). Imaginary Men is a novel for grown-ups--funny, romantic, compelling. I'm reading and loving it!

The Path of Least Resistance from They Call Me Mr. V, author Varian Johnson's blog. Varian contemplates that, given censors, it might be easier to reach teen readers by publishing adult books with teen protagonists rather than YAs.

PacyWorks: Chronicles of My Life and Work: Grace Lin's blog. See also Robert's Snow for Cancer's Cure.

Tales from the Slush Pile from Publisher's Weekly.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Critiquing First Drafts

Yesterday, I was processing and applying suggestions from my critique group to my new manuscript, and it occured to me that little is said about feedback on first drafts.

I know some editors and agents will offer to read first drafts, and unless you're sure that'll be in your manuscript's best interests, I don't generally recommend it. Even though the agent works for you, there is still the stumbling block that the agent won't represent the piece unless they approve it. And even if they do sign off, their relative enthusiasm could have an impact on the sale, negotiation, and follow-up effort. Ditto, within a different context, the editor. First impressions matter. Also, there is an implied authority to both that isn't triggered with other writers, and early on, it's well worth it to explore your own path without that kind of direction.

Some writers don't ask for readers until after their first draft, and there's nothing wrong with that, even if you do show up empty-handed to critique group for some months. A new idea can be fragile, and one stray comment may jeopardize the hard-earned faith you need to keep going.

But if you do bring your earlier work and read it for others, here are some guidelines to keep in mind: (1) the piece is in progress; (2) it's the work of the writer, not the reader; (3) the idea should be to help bring out the original vision with the understanding that it's evolving; (4) err on the side of questions rather than comments; (5) show enthusiasm.

Arguably, this applies to a critical reading at any stage, but it is perhaps of heightened importance here.

Cynsational News & Links

Author Answers Interview with Edith Tarbescu by Debbi Michiko Florence. Edith is "the author of four children's books as well as a produced playwright." Focus on Annushka's Voyage (Clarion, 1998).

Frequently Asked Questions from the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection. See also bibliographies (includes: African American, Civil Rights Movement, Holocaust, Women and Gender Studies) and the Cinderella database.

Insatiable Curiosity Fuels Popular Kids' Series, Andrew Lost: An Interview With Judith and Dan Greenburg by Susan VanHecke from Authorlink.com. Latest release: In the Ice Age, Andrew Lost #12 (Random House, 2005).

Secrets of Success: children's author Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff from Ellen Jackson Liz's books include Help! My Life Is Going to the Dogs and the ABC's of Writing for Children.
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