Saturday, January 07, 2006

Author-Illustrator Feature: Grace Lin

Grace Lin is the creator of several picture books for children, including Robert's Snow (Viking, 2004) and Dim Sum For Everyone! (Knopf, 2001). This month she celebrates the release of her debut novel, The Year of the Dog (Little Brown, 2006). Grace also offers one of the most beautifully designed and informative author-illustrator sites on the Web. Be sure to visit her online for more information!

What training prepared you to be a children's book illustrator? Have you done other illustration work?

I have a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in illustration; and I was a bookseller at children's book store, Curious George Goes to Wordsworth, which actually taught me more about children's books than my college education...

I've done other types of illustration (Seventeen Magazine, Nickelodeon, etc.), mainly earlier on in my career. People told me you couldn't make enough money to live off of doing children's books, so in the beginning I attempted to find work in all the illustrations fields--editorial, giftware, etc.

It was only when I focused on books, what I loved, that I found success (and I do make a living off of it, thank you!).

Why did you decide to write and illustrate children's books?

I always had a love of books and stories since childhood. This is something I've always wanted to do.

What was your path to publication and its timeline?

After I graduated from RISD, I sent millions of samples with minimal responses. One of the few responses was from an Assistant Editor at Orchard books, Harold Underdown.

A year and a half later (while I was still toiling away, depressed at my lack of publishing credits), Harold became the Senior Editor at Charlesbridge Publishing and contacted me. He asked if I had any stories to go with my illustrations and even though I didn't, I said yes! I was desperate to get any kind of foot in the door and wasn't going to let any opportunity slip. I quickly started writing.

The story I wrote was, The Ugly Vegetables (Charlesbridge, 1999) and, after a couple of revisions, it became my first book. So that was three years after graduation.

How does your heritage inspire/influence your work?

I grew up in Upstate New York where there were few minorities, especially Asian. My parents wanted us to blend; they wanted us to grow up really "American" and made the decision to speak to us only in English. So, my sisters and I grew up very Americanized. There were always subtle differences, like Chinese food or red envelopes, but most of the time we glossed over them.

A lot of my books deal with Chinese culture because, in a way, I'm trying to find the culture I lost. When I was younger, I was ashamed or sometimes even angry about being Chinese. Most of the time I forgot that I was Chinese. Sometimes I would see myself in the mirror and be surprised to see a Chinese girl looking back at me.

It's only now, after becoming an adult and I realized that there was something I lost, ignoring these parts of my heritage. There were a lot of things that we did, traditions like eating ginger soup at a baby shower, which I never bothered to learn more about. So now, I research these kinds of things about my heritage. I'm making the books I missed when I was younger.

Do you do school visits, and if so, what kind of programs do you offer? How can planners contact you?

I have a variety of programs. Usually I do "How a Book is Made" an interactive presentation that explains the steps of publishing to the students. This also includes a book reading, drawing and Q&A session. Sometimes I do slide lectures (usually for adults) about being a multicultural author-illustrator and/or my path of publications. Other times I do a craft workshop with the kids, something inspired by my books (for example, kite making with my book Kite Flying (Knopf, 2002)). You can see all my suggested curriculum at my website:

Planners can contact my manager/sister Alice at

Could you briefly tell us about each of your picture books and what inspired them?

All of my books have some sort real-life inspiration. The Ugly Vegetables was based on the memories I had of my mother growing Chinese vegetables. Dim Sum For Everyone! is based on memories of my family eating dim sum in Chinatown. Robert's Snow, was written when my husband Robert wasn't allowed out in the snow--just like the mouse in the book.

How about your latest book, The Year of the Dog?

My newest and first novel, The Year of the Dog, is almost a memoir. It features my family, our family stories and memories-though a bit fictionalized. On my new-and-improved website, you can see "behind the story" of the book where I post photos of the real parts.

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

The Year of the Dog began as a sequel to my book The Ugly Vegetables. However, as I began to write, the book would just not fit in a picture book format. There were so many memories--funny stories that needed to be told, poignant stories that couldn't be left out, family stories that insisted on being written... They just couldn't be contained in 32 pages.

Finally, I realized that it wanted to be a novel and let it become The Year of the Dog. It took me only five years to come to this conclusion. But once I let it happen, things moved fairly quickly.

I brought the first rough draft of the novel to Kindling Words in January of 2004. My good friend Alvina Ling, who is an editor at Little Brown, read it. We have been friends since childhood (she was a bridesmaid at my wedding) and are coincidentally also in the same business. (We actually started in children's books at the same time, my first book published when she became an editorial assistant. But that is another story).

We had never worked together on anything before, and this seemed like the perfect project (especially as she is in it). We went through many revisions over the next six or so months and Alvina finally brought it to pub committee. She gave an impassioned speech for it, and it went through with flying colors (and I did a happy dance).

The only thing was that since it was about the Chinese Year of the Dog, they wanted the book to come out for Chinese New Year. So it was a little bit of a rush-but I didn't mind. I hate the waiting in between creation and publication.

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

The biggest writing hurdle was crossing over from being picture book writer to a novel writer. The first time Alvina sent back my manuscript she wrote on it, "You need to add at least three descriptions per page." That was because I hadn't written any! I was so used to having pictures tell that part of the story, it was a challenge to paint the images in words.

Psychologically, having a first novel published is a fingernail-biting experience. All of my books are a part of me, but this book, because of all the details and family history shared, is more than any of the other. While I have slowly developed a thicker skin for criticism on my picture books, I'm on pins-and-needles about this novel. Just crossing my fingers that people like it and it makes some sort of splash.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Kissing Brendan Callahan by Susan Amessé

Kissing Brendan Callahan by Susan Amessé (Roaring Brook, 2005). Sarah wants to be a writer. She wants to enter a local writing contest, judged by her idol--romance writer Antonia DeMarco, and she wants to win first place. Unfortunately, her just-the-facts mom says she's ineligible to enter and has a less-than-stellar opinion about Antonia herself. But Sarah has a solution, a pen name, and an offer to act as Antonia's assistant. What's more, she has inspiration in a certain Brendan Callahan. A comedic story of a young girl with a dream. Ages 10-up.

My Thoughts

This is a wholesome, upbeat, and humorous 'tweener with a romantic subplot.

It reminded me a bit of Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2005) in that both protagonists are disillusioned by an idol only to find their heroes closer to home.

In terms of my personal identification with the characters, the conflict between the journalist mom and fiction-writing daughter reminded me of different bits of myself--the recovering journalist (who finds relief in this blog) and the author. Both sides rang true!

Cynsational News & Links

Author Uma Krishnaswami is offering two classes in January via to Writing for Children (Jan. 9) and Advanced Workshop for Children's Writers (Jan. 23). I know Uma personally, have spoken with her at children's literature events, and have been fortunate enough to have her critique one of my manuscripts. She's highly recommended. To learn more about Uma, visit her Web site and read my most recent interview with her.

Attention Central Texans: David Clement-Davies will be speaking and signing his latest book, The Telling Pool, at 7 p.m. Jan. 19 at BookPeople in Austin. In addition, Jonathan Stroud will be signing Ptolemy's Gate (Miramax, 2005), the third book in The Bartimaeus Trilogy, at 10 a.m. Jan. 24 at BookPeople.

Best Books of 2005 from A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy. See the sidebar for the list. See also recent interviews with these featured authors: E. Lockhart; Brent Hartinger; Libba Bray; Mary E. Pearson; Elise Broach; Jennifer Richard Jacobson; and D.L. Garfinkle.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Author Update: Esmé Raji Codell

Esmé Raji Codell is an award-winning author, a legendary teacher, a premier literacy and literature ambassador, a show-stopping speaker, the queen of Planet Esmé, and quite possibly the greatest force for good in children's literature. Everything she does is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Read a previous interview with Esmé on Sahara Special (Hyperion, 2003).

We last spoke in conjunction with the release of your debut novel, Sahara Special (Hyperion, 2003). How was the book received? I seem to recall some starred reviews and a major award or two!

This story--about a fifth-grade girl who is mislabeled as a special education student in the Chicago Public Schools--was very well received (phew!).

I was very fortunate and honored to receive the International Reading Association award for Fiction for Sahara Special and starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal. I am most gratified, though, by the letters I receive from kids who suggested that they “see themselves” in the characters.

In this, my first novel for kids, I really wanted to portray the experience of children at risk for slipping through the cracks of an inner-city school in a way that would be both genuine and hopeful. I actually just finished the companion novel, the working title is Vive Paris!, about an African-American girl (Paris, one of Sahara’s classmates) who gets a lot more than she bargains for when she starts taking piano lessons from an elderly woman with a secret in her past. I’m really excited about it.

All of my books seem to contain some aspect of the school experience, and I always try to include some sort of strong teacher or mentor in my stories.

Growing up in the “Judy Blume” era of children’s literature, I remember it really bothered me as a kid to read about situations in which there wasn’t an adult around, noticing at least out of the corner of their eye what was going on. It didn’t seem realistic. So I try to suggest that there are grown-ups out there who can help even when it doesn’t seem like it. Even if it doesn’t feel true to a particular reader who might be having a hard time, I think it’s an important thing to suggest.

You've been really busy these past couple of years. Let's talk about your new books. First, tell us about How To Get Your Child To Love Reading (Algonquin, 2003). I know it's a wonderful resource, but why don't you tell readers why? What inspired you to offer such a tremendous resource book? How is it different from other guidebooks?

If I may pull up a soapbox, here, Cyn, I really feel that children’s literature is our best hope for equalizing education in America; after all, a great book in the hands of a rich child is the same book in the hands of a poor child (provided they can read).

So I guess the power of How to Get Your Child to Love Reading is that it can make anyone who reads it a children’s book expert. My goal was that anyone who picks it up should feel confident and positive about their role as a character in a child’s reading life story, and that they can be inventive about that role.

I think (or I hope!) it’s a very empowering book.; I wanted to create something that would serve as a kind of hands-on follow-up to one of my favorites, Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin, 2001). I think it’s different from other resources in that it suggests that reading is more than a skill, it’s a lifestyle, and offers up pretty much everything you need to live “la vie en reading.”

I field tested about 14,000 books to find the 3,000 or so recommended in this volume, and besides thematic lists, there are hints for reading aloud, literature-based parties and fundraisers, recipes, instructions on how to build a literature-based Time Machine to travel into the world of non-fiction…this book was seriously a labor of love, Cyn.

I know my memoir, Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year (Algonquin, 2001), has been really popular with first-year teachers, but I hope they find their way to this one as well; I think it’s a lot more pragmatic. I also think it’s a great way for aspiring authors and illustrators to get to know the genre.

Speaking of memoirs. How about Sing A Song of Tuna Fish: Hard to Swallow Stories from Fifth Grade (Hyperion, 2004)? What are the special challenges of writing a memoir? What inspired you to take the plunge?

One day, kids gathered around me for a story, but this time, they didn’t want me to read from a book that someone else had written, they wanted exciting true stories about when I was a kid. “Tell us about when you were bad!” Since it’s been a while, and goodness knows I was NEVER EVER bad (well, not hardly), I was having a hard time coming up with some good narratives, but I promised if I could have a little time, I could come up with something they might like to hear. This book is the result.

I tried to make the chapters fun to read aloud, and I also started every chapter with a simple writing prompt. “Let me tell you about school.” “Let me tell you about the weather.” “Let me tell you about my neighborhood.” (Additional prompts at

I wanted the book to be called Let Me Tell You Something Stories, but my editor thought that sounded too bossy! I think teaching kids to write is a challenge; I know when I taught, I got a lot of descriptions of car chases and haunted houses and space aliens. I hope Sing a Song of Tuna Fish will help children to see that their everyday experiences are worth writing about, too, and maybe inspire them to start a journal or blog.

Memoirs are kind of a pleasure to write because you don’t have to make anything up, you just have to describe what happened, but they are hard in some respects, too.

First of all, you have to have lived it and have paid attention while you were living it, and that always takes some doing…kind of like that thing where you rub your belly and pat your head at the same time.

When you write a memoir, I think you have to appreciate that as real and accurate as it is to you, it’s still one person’s perspective, and you have to allow the reader the option of considering you what I guess in literary circles is known as “the unreliable narrator,” and the people you write about, well, they may call you worse names than that.

And the hardest part of writing memoirs is that real people change, but characters don’t, so when you put someone in a book, you kind of “freeze” them, you can’t show how they change over time or tell their whole life story.

My mother, for instance, is a very different person today than she was twenty-five years ago, when I describe egging a car with her one warm city night, and my sneaky little friend who gave “butt switching lessons” for fifty cents probably went on to other more successful business endeavors.

I myself am a fairly different than the person I write about at 10 (Sing a Song of Tuna Fish) and 26 (Educating Esmé). Things change and people change; memoirs can keep these ephemeral moments alive, and close to the heart.

I really appreciate when readers of memoirs understand that this is the power of memoir, not “I really feel like I know you because you shared something personal.” I know I write memoirs to help people think about who they are or who they could be now, not about how I was then.

I believe Diary of a Fairy Godmother (Hyperion, 2005)(read excerpt; visit tie-in site) is your first fantasy. In terms of the writing process, how was that different than writing realistic fiction? What tips do you have for other writers?

Oooo, that was fun. But my process was not that different than what I use for realistic fiction: I started out with something I wanted to say, and in this case that was, “be the one with the wand.” I used the device of a little witch girl who is in the top of her class at charm school but decides to drop out and pursue her dreams of being a fairy godmother to tell the story of a girl who is a catalyst toward making her own dreams come true. In part, this story is a school story and a friendship story, maybe even a little romance, and all of those are part of realistic fiction, too. Fantasy is tricky because you do have to invent an alternative world, and to do so, you have to make a lot of decisions and stick with them…no small order for a Libra like me.

I guess my advice to writers would be to start with something true and real, even if you are writing fiction or fantasy. Then you can invent around the truth, and it will always have that heartbeat that the reader can recognize, no matter how wild you get.

Hanukkah, Shmanukkah!, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Hyperion, 2005) is a Jewish retelling of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. What a fascinating idea! How did you reinvent Dickens' vision?

As funny as it may seem to turn a Christmas story into a Hanukkah story, it seemed like a natural fit. What I liked about Dickens’ work was that his stories were always about people finding a home, a place where they belonged, a stature in a social that was not always welcoming. These same themes reverberated in the lives of Jewish people during the mass migration of immigrants in America at the turn of the twentieth century, and so that is the historical setting of this book..

I used his outline of three visits to create a story that focuses on a different cultural experience, and I used real letters from “The Bintel Brief,” an turn-of-the-century advice column featured in a newspaper called the Jewish Daily Forward, as conflicts that I hoped people of the time would consider true-to-life. I also used a lot of a Yiddish throughout, which is a lively, largely colloquial language widely used by Jewish people of that time and setting, that I happen to be familiar with myself; I hope the glossary in the back can help these unusual words feel comfortable on the tongue.

I think when an author tells a story, he lights a flame, and just like on a Hanukkah menorah, one flame lights another. When Dickens wrote his story, he lit a flame in me.

Rumor has it that PlanetEsme now offers a reading room in Chicago. Tell us all about it. What happens there? Where is it located?

The PlanetEsme Bookroom is “Chicago’s literary living room,” a unique literary salon dedicated to getting great books into the hands of great children.

This little storefront houses a private non-circulating resource collection of 12,000 children’s books, and I host a popular monthly gathering called “Wish List Wednesday” in which I booktalk some of the best new releases and reissues in children’s literature.

We also have family events and storytimes, and have been lucky enough to host presentations and signings by guest authors and illustrators of a remarkable caliber, like Mordicai Gerstein, Brian Selznick and Mem Fox to name a few (you have an open invitation, Cyn!).

I have a lollipop tree growing there, a real candy mosaic, a mermaid to keep you company in the bathroom and a fantastic, really loud band-organ we call the “glonkenshponkel,” which we play at storytimes. We also always have tea and cookies.

It’s open when I’m around to open it; I fly green flags in front, a symbol of children’s freedom, to alert the community to come on down. People also schedule use of the space for book clubs, SCBWI meetings, homeschooling and teacher support groups.

Though I don’t charge for anything or sell anything, I do accept home-baked goods and greasy take-out, and I do partner with independent booksellers when talents come to town.

My thinking was, with the increased pressure to put technology at the forefront in libraries, there needs to be a place where books always comes first.

With the amount of books being published so far greater than the demand and precious few buyers in charge of so much of what the public encounters, consumers need guidance in finding the golden “needles” in the bookstore shelf “haystack,” and make informed choices.

There is a lot competing for children’s attention and time these days, so the hours they do spend with books should be quality time, vicariously spent with creative artists that have something to share. So even though the Bookroom looks very cheerful and kids love to flop there, my real goal was to make sure grown-ups have the inspiration and information they need to make children’s literature a daily and delicious part of classroom and family experiences; kind of a real-world extension of my place in cyberspace,

It’s a funny little experiment, I guess, but it has garnered the support of the James Patterson Pageturner foundation ( and enough enthusiasm that I am currently working on a guide so that others can replicate the salon, wherever they live. I think the good thing about it is, you really can create one using whatever you have. That’s sort of my philosophy (and I guess James Brown’s, too), “you got to use what you got to get what you want.” What I want is for people to know and love children’s books.

I have a lot of exciting visions for expansion, if I can secure the space to do it. Oh, well, I guess even Wonka had to start small.

Like me, you're well known as a big mouth (in a good way) spreading the word about great books. What are some of your favorites in 2005?

My very favorite this year was The Giants and the Joneses by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Greg Swearingen (Holt, 2005), a chapter book about three siblings who are “collected” by a zealous but irresponsible giant girl. When I read it, I wanted to grab kids off the street and read it aloud to them. There is a whole invented language throughout, and by the end, readers will be bilingual in “Groilish.” It was cliffhanging, fresh, inventive, provocative…have I mentioned that I like this book?

Other favorites of the year have been: Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, with those incredible pictures by Hudson Talbott (Putnam, 2005); The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty G. Birney, illustrated by Matt Phelan (Atheneum, 2005)(read excerpt)(author interview), which has that Kate DiCamillo kind of bittersweetness and all sorts of potential for great classroom extensions; and to tell you the truth, I really adored a book called Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Neal Layton (Candlewick, 2004), which is an outstanding example of a great non-fiction read-aloud…I’ve read it to myself three times, it’s so darn interesting and tastefully done.

I thought And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole (Simon and Schuster, 2005)(image gallery)(teacher guide), was really brave and also a great read, and…and…well, I have quite a few favorites this year, and they can all be viewed at

Cynsational Notes

Esmé Raji Codell Expounds on Potato Pedagogy and the Power of Books from Bookselling This Week. September 2003.

Planet Esmé features include: contest Details for Diary of a Fairy Godmother fashion contest (everyone who enters wins something!); video commercials for Esme’s own books and other recommendations; a downloadable Reader’s Theater script Hanukkah, Shmanukkah!; additional writing prompts from Sing a Song of Tuna Fish: and a teacher's guide to Sahara Special.

Reinventing the World: One Reader at a Time by Deborah Wiles from BookPage. June 2003.

Teachers.Net Author Chat with Esmé Raji Codell, author of Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year.

Cynsational News & Links

Interview with writer Rachna Gilmore by Marjorie Coughlan from "Award-winning writer Rachna Gilmore talks about moving continents, the difference between writing for children and adults, and the storypods that make up her new book, The Sower of Tales (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005)."

Author-illustrator Annette Simon will be signing Mocking Birdies (Simply Read Books, 2005) at 2 p.m. Jan. 21 at BookPeople in Austin, Texas.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Author Interview: Justina Chen Headley on Nothing But The Truth (and a few white lies)

Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen Headley (Little Brown, 2006)(read excerpt)(author photo). From the promotional copy: "Hapa (half Asian and half white) Patty Ho has never felt completely at home in her skin. Life at House Ho is tough enough between her ultra-strict Taiwanese mom (epic-length lectures and all) and her Harvard-bound big brother. But things get worse when a Chinese fortuneteller channels Patty's future via her bellybutton...and divines a white guy on her horizon. Her mom then freaks out and ships her off to math camp at Stanford. Just as Patty writes off her summer of woe, life starts glimmering with all kinds of probabilities. Written with the perfect balance of humor, poignancy, and sharp wit, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) is the debut of a bright new talent." Ages 10-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Let’s just say that nothing much is fiercer than a writer-mom. One day, when I took my very young hapa (half-Asian, half-white) kids to the Children’s Museum in Seattle, a few pre-teens hung-twung-wung’ed us (you know, mocked us with pseudo-Chinese). For the next couple of months, that incident stayed in my head, which must have primed me to write Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies).

A day after an inspirational SCBWI conference, this character started soliloquizing about what it feels like not to fit in either at home with her ultra-strict Taiwanese mom or at high school with its predominantly white student body. Her observations were so wry, I started to laugh while I was jogging, which probably accounts for why the other runners on my path veered out of my way (or not).

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

Isn’t it funny that going from brain to bookshelf is actually shorter with a novel of a couple hundred pages than a picture book with a couple hundred words? At least that’s been my experience. My picture book, The Patch, which I sold three years ago to Charlesbridge, is being published February, 2006, just a few months before my novel, which has been in the works for two years.

My novel’s odyssey began at my first SCBWI conference where an editorial consultant conducted a first-page critique. That session was my master’s class on writing. It showed me how quickly someone could assess writing and pinpoint problems. After the former editor lacerated a few first pages, she got to mine. I cowered in my seat, wondering how she was going to eviscerate my picture book manuscript, because she was so silent after reading my page out loud. Then like an oracle, she pronounced, “This is a voice I have never heard. Whoever this is should be writing novels.”

That was the shove I needed to write something longer than five pages. So the next day after going for a run, I wrote the first chapter of Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies).

I will be honest: it scared me how fully formed that first chapter flowed out of me. I know writers relish the moments when the character talks. But this outpouring, frankly, was frightening, especially when I thought I would just, you know, try out a novel.

Worse than being scared, I didn’t think I was up for the task: write about a girl who was grappling with her self-identity, particularly where it intercepted with her ethnicity? No, thank you. I’d rather write about dancing jellyfish (which I did and the manuscript is still looking for a home in case anyone you happen to know is dying to publish a picture book about an undersea jelly jubilee).

So I shelved the chapter for six months, but signed up for a novel-writing class, taught by the incredible Janet Lee Carey, which catered to adult fiction. Since the other writers in that class looked decidedly unimpressed with my fairy novel—compared to their high-concept tales of espionage and kidnapping—I decided to focus on Patty.

Midway through that class, Steven Malk, a literary agent, called me and told me he liked but didn’t love the picture book manuscript I had shared with him. Thankfully, he asked me what I was working on and I mentioned my novel. I sent him three chapters and a synopsis. About two weeks later, Steve called asking for the rest!

On the day I went into reconstructive surgery for my knee (stupid ski injury; inspiration for Girl Overboard, novel number two), Steve sent out my manuscript to a bunch of publishers. Four days afterwards, Steve called with news: “We got multiple offers!”

Those words were and still are so utterly unreal to me. Steve mentioned the word “auction,” and I laughed out loud, because, really, he couldn’t be serious and I must be suffering the hallucinatory effects of too many pain meds. But Steve meant it and held an auction for my book that next week.

Surreal, isn’t it? I mean, just a few months before, I was writing groveling cover letters to editors, begging them to glance at my work, and now a bunch of them were vying for the same manuscript?

For two days, the bidding whittled from four publishers and then down to pinging back and forth between two publishers. The natural high I got from the auction worked better than any prescription painkiller for my post-op knee! That auction is an experience that I wish I could gift to all my writing buddies.

I count myself as incredibly fortunate to have Alvina Ling for an editor. She welcomed me to my publishing home (Little, Brown) with an enormous box of books, which is the way to this writer’s heart.

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

To be honest, I had to do a ton of research to write the book, which is a good thing because I adore research, right down to going to a climbing gym. I, however, did not do any buildering (climbing on buildings). For that, I located one of the remaining extant copies of Freedom of the Quad, a guide book to the climbing routes at Stanford University on eBay, went onsite to scope out the routes, and then interviewed two avid Stanford builderers.

Math camp? Okay, to tell the truth, I resisted that one, trying to sweet talk Patty into a different summer experience since I had never been to math camp, never wanted to go to math camp, and didn’t know where to start. Call it coincidence or fate, but my first writing teacher, Meg Lippert, and I were talking one day and she reminded me that her husband not only coached the national-award winning math champion, but was the director of a summer math camp!

When Patty, the protagonist, kept creating new terms, I had one of those a-ha moments that makes writing so much fun. I just knew that she would somehow end up in the naming field, and in my Microsoft days, I had worked with a naming company for one on my products. Anyway, I remembered how I thought it was fascinating (others thought it was scandalous) that people could make that much money slapping a name onto a product or a feature.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to experience Belly-button Grandmother for real. She’s back in Korea somewhere!

I noticed a mutual friend, Janet S. Wong, mentioned in your acknowledgments. Could you share with us a little bit about the connection that led you to describe her as someone "whose belief heartened and humbled me from the very start"?

A few months after I started writing picture books, Janet read three of my manuscripts and then invited me over for tea. Before I could even utter a “thank you,” she led me to her dining room where my manuscripts were sitting on the table. Of course, I tried to see if she had written all over them—you know, things like, “God, this sucks! You think you can write?” Instead, laying a hand on them like a benediction, Janet told me, “You are going to be published.” And only after that did she ask me what kind of tea I wanted.

Her unwavering faith in my writing sustained me during the very lean first year when I was submitting but not selling. I got lots of invitations from editors to share more work, but no one was offering a contract. Still, over a lot of dim sum and sushi, Janet kept predicting that I would be published. She is one of the most generous, talented women I know, and I count her as a very, very dear friend.

What is it like to be a first time author in 2006?

Can you say, "wonderful, scary and busy?" Did I mention "scary"?! I am truly blessed that in addition to Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies), I have a picture book, The Patch, coming out a few months earlier. But that of course, means it’s an extra busy time for someone who’s totally new to book marketing, not that I’m complaining!

What’s helping me over that huge mental hurdle of eek-my-words-are-going-public are the authors—my publishing heroines, Meg Cabot, Julie Anne Peters (author interview), Lisa Yee (LJ)(author interview), and Deb Caletti—who wrote blurbs for my novel. With them on my cover, I feel flanked by a posse of fellow authors who are supporting me.

And to be honest, what’s keeping me grounded right now are my two new novels with all these characters who are clamoring for me to spend time with them in the wild, wonderful imagination stage.

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

Every conference you attend, every market report you read, every author you talk to, you’re probably going to hear the same doom-and-gloom. You know, editors aren’t acquiring! Readers aren’t buying! Well, just remember that behind every spoken No, there is a whisper of a Yes. You bet editors are still looking for new voices. You bet readers are still clamoring for good stories.

So I’d say to people who are actively working on their craft (and I do mean, actively--as in writing more than they’re talking about writing) to think hard about what’s compelling them to tell that particular story instead of another one.

I love this quote from Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter (Putnam, 2001)(reading guide): “…when you push an inkstick along an inkstone, you take the first step to cleansing your mind and your heart. You push and you ask yourself, What are my intentions? What is in my heart that matches my mind?”

Know the answers to those questions, and you will write the Truth that will speak authentically and directly to an editor and an agent somewhere. I believe that.

What insights do you have to share about writing humor?

This is a hard question to ask someone who doesn’t think of herself as particularly funny and who laughs inappropriately at inopportune moments. But by wonderful happenstance, I happen to have just finished John Irving’s A Widow for One Year (Ballanatine)(excerpt) and this is what he says: “…comedy is ingrained. A writer doesn’t choose to be comic. You can choose a plot, or not to have one. You can choose your characters. But comedy is not a choice; it just comes out that way.”

So I’d have to say that comic moments, which can be the most poignant ones, simply present themselves. When they do, write it fast. During the editing process, watch the wording and pacing to see what can be cut or rewritten to heighten the humor. A quick quip sometimes accomplishes more than an endless page.

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

Well, I’d say publishers are pushing into the Great Unknown, taking lots of literary risks in all of children’s/YA literature, not just stories that feature any specific ethnicity.

I think editors—and readers—are hankering to hear new voices, explore new experiences, and inhabit new lives within the safe boundaries of a hard-bound book. It’s exciting that we’re in a time where David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (Knopf, 2003)(excerpt) and Julie Anne Peters’ Luna (Little Brown, 2004)(author interview) are being met with critical and audience acclaim at the same time that authors are exploring other previously taboo topics.

Given the growing population, why do you think YAs with interracial characters still so rare?

Already, I think that’s changing. I’m seeing more kids with different background in stories, and not just in books that are written by authors of color. In other words, I see more diversity in the supporting cast, which is now trickling into starring roles.

Here’s the exciting thing: as more writers of different backgrounds are being published, we are going to get an even richer, more varied cast of characters. And we’re going to see authors pushing storytelling itself, incorporating different traditions, whether it’s magical realism from South America or the griot’s oral stories from Africa.

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

I don’t know about other writers, but after turning in my second novel, I’ve been binging on books. It’s like my one-story diet these last couple of months with my own plot has made me ravenous for other stories.

So for Young Adult, I finally read Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade, which my agent has raved about since I’ve known him. She creates character and tension in such an economical way. Another living genius is Marilyn Nelson whose A Wreath for Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) should be required reading for young adults everywhere. The craftsmanship of her interwoven sonnets is something worthy of study. Deb Caletti’s Wild Roses (Simon & Schuster, 2005) is her best book yet. The protagonist’s voice is so sure and smart. And I had a wonderful time with The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp [by Richard Yancey (Bloomsbury, 2005)(excerpt)(author talk). I swear, give that book to any reluctant boy reader and you will turn him into a book lover for life.

For the middle-grade set, the most entertaining book I read in 2005 has got to be Rick Riorden’s The Lightning Thief (Hyperion, 2005)(author interview), and not just because I’m a sucker for Greek mythology. My son and I battled over the book, which speaks for itself.

And then I read Nancy Farmer’s landmark, The Ear, The Eye and The Arm, to my kids who were absolutely riveted. Also, I loved Sally Gardner’s I, Coriander (Dial, 2005), and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy [by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion, 2004)].

As for picture books, my all-time favorite from my recent reading binge is Show Way [by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (Putnam, 2005)]. I loved the topic and intergenerational aspect of this work.

Is there anything you would like to add?

My parents sacrificed so much so that all four of their kids could go to college. In my small way, I’d love to honor my parents and help alleviate the financial burden for a college-bound student. So I am personally sponsoring a Nothing but the Truth Essay Contest for a $5,000 college scholarship. More details can be found soon on my website, and on

And for my picture book, The Patch, I am donating half of my advance to InfantSEE, a program that aims to provide free eye assessments to every baby in the U.S. As well, I’m working with to offer a limited edition eye patch, featuring the characters in the book, with proceeds benefiting InfantSEE.

I am truly lucky to have two publishers (Little, Brown and Charlesbridge) who are in full support of these philanthropic efforts. They have done everything they could to make these programs as straightforward and successful as possible.

Cynsational News & Links

San Gabriel (TX) Writers' League Writingsmarter Contest is accepting entries in: children's; novel; poetry; short fiction; and short nonfiction. They entry fee is $15.00; manuscripts will be returned with the judges' comments. First prize (in each category) is $50, second prize is $35, and third prize is $20. Contest brochures, including entry forms are at http:/ More information about the SGWL can be found at

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Vermont College Bound

Next week I'll be leaving Austin for Montpeiler, Vermont for several days to teach in conjunction with the winter residency of the M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults program from Vermont College/Union Institute & University. At the moment, I'm in packing and preparation mode!

I'll be sure to update my blog readers on my academic adventures on Spookycyn as well as offering what I can on Cynsations. But please understand that if posts are fewer for a while, it's a temporary condition and I'm still doing my part to herald great voices and books.

Cynsational News & Links

Of late, the mail has brought news of new books. Those that caught my eye include Robert Smalls Sails to Freedom by Susan Taylor Brown, illustrated by Felicia Marshall (Millbrook, January 2006) and the Bea and HaHa Board Books by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Tomek Bogacki (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).

Best Books of 2005 from Big A little a. Read related author interviews with Linda Sue Park, Rick Riordan, and Greg Leitich Smith.

GOT BOOKS 2006: Attention Authors and Illustrators

Westlake (Ohio) Porter Public Library's
Summer Reading Program

From Kate Tuthill of the Youth Services Staff, Got Books 2006:

"We're looking for Authors and Illustrators!

"We're patterning our 2006 summer reading program after the Got Milk campaign and are collecting digital pictures, which we'll blow up into posters, of published authors/illustrators holding copies of their book(s) and sporting a 'milk mustache.' We've got lots of wall space, so we'd love to be overwhelmed!

"If you'd like to participate, please send a digital photo of yourself holding your book. Use the highest picture quality setting on your camera (at least 300 pixels per inch). Either take the photo with a mustache (shaving cream or whipped cream works) or send a 'plain' photo and we'll add a mustache digitally.

"Then e-mail your photo, as a .jpg attachment, please, to:, with 2006 Got Books/ (your name and book title) in the subject line.

"Authors/illustrators of all genres are invited to participate (teen or juvenile fiction, picture books, easy readers, non-fiction, graphic novels). We have a large participation in our summer reading program, so it's a great way to build readership.

"We're hoping authors/illustrators will not only provide a photo, but will also send a signed copy of his/her book for our 'top summer readers' grand prize drawing. Please send book donations (and a note identifying it for Got Books 2006) to:

Carolyn Fain, Youth Services Manager
Westlake Porter Public Library
27333 Center Ridge Road
Westlake, OH 44145

"Deadline for photos/books is March 1, 2006.

"Heartfelt thanks to all who participate!"

Cynsational Notes

Memoirs of a Writer's Summertime Reading (PDF file; scroll to read bottom of page 2) from The Bridge, Austin Public Library for Youth.

Cynsational News & Links

2005 Blue Ribbons from The Bulletin of the Center of Children's Books. Featured titles include: That New Animal by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Pierre Pratt (Foster/Farrar, 2005); Coming On Home Soon by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Putnam, 2004); Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Harcourt, 2005)(author interview); and Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar (Dutton, 2005)(author interview). See also the 2005 Blue Ribbon Dissents.

Interview with YA Author Lara M. Zeises by Debbi Michiko Florence. See also Debbi's 2005 reading list and a recent Cynsations interview with Lara on Anyone But You (Delacorte, 2005).

"Louis Sachar's new novel proves there's life after 'Holes'" by Julie Hale from BookPage.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Cynsational News & Links

Happy New Year, and much joy and success to all of my Cynsational Readers in 2006! For a report on my New Year's Eve celebrating, surf over to Spookcyn.

Author Interview: Ellen Jackson by Sue Reichard from She talks about journaling, science writing, writing full time, favorite books from childhood, and more. Her answer to question number 6 quotes some advice from me.

Florida Teens Read: the Florida Association for Media in Education (FAME) offers a new state YA award! Check out the 20005-2006 nominees, which include Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn (HarperColllins, 2001)(related author interview).

Kid Magazine Writers: January update includes: an interview with Becky Ances, editor of Moo Cow Fan Club; an article on goals by author Kathryn Lay; an article on writing poetry about the natural world by Becky Loescher; and an article on how to encourage social consciousness in children without preaching by Rita Milias.

Making Your Writing World Safe by Jane Anne Staw from Focuses on dealing with those negative voices in your head, finding the write audience, embracing the process, and learning to think "small."

Secrets of Success: An Interview with Marni McGee, author of picture books, easy readers, historical fiction and nonfiction, from Ellen Jackson.

Writer's Digest offers a new-year-related writing prompt.

Your Favorite Quotes by Kimberly Pauley from Young Adult Books Central.
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