Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Author Interview: Marina Budhos on Ask Me No Questions

Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos (Atheneum, 2006)(excerpt). Nadira, 14, has always been the plump one, the less-bright one, the dim light behind the shining star of her older sister Aisha, 18. After September 11, their family of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh seeks asylum in Canada. They are turned away at the border, and Abba (father) is arrested. As time passes and hope grows dim, it's Nadira who must find her voice and make people see her, believe in her--and accept. Ages 10-up. See more of my thoughts on Ask Me No Questions.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

It came out of a few impulses that all came together in a kind of rush.

I had written a book several years ago, Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers (Henry Holt, 1999)(scroll), where I had interviewed and profiled immigrant teenagers. In the course of speaking with them, I became very aware of the experience of being a Muslim in America, especially, at that time, in the wake of the Gulf War. Out of those interviews, I crafted a section called To Be Young, Muslim and Female in America Today: Three Stories.

Fast forward to 9/11 and the swirl of events in that aftermath--I was reading about the effect of the Patriot Act, the detainments and deportations. Out of my prior book, I kept in touch with immigrant groups and asked about what was happening with these families. I could not stop thinking about the kids I had interviewed years before. I was on a panel with an activist who told me that the Bangladeshi community in New York City had been shattered by this experience, since so many of them were undocumented. Then one morning I opened the paper to read about families fleeing to the Canadian border, in hopes of getting asylum there; how their children had been growing up in America and believed this was their home. It was as if overnight, everything, their future, had been taken from them.

Suddenly, I remembered something else: a memory of my own father, a Guyanese immigrant, who really never lost the fear that his citizenship could be taken away from him. Every time we crossed a border, he would panic, fumble with his passport, forget essential information if they asked him questions. One foggy night we were in driving in Canada, to visit relatives, when we were stopped by the Canadian police. They asked my father to go into the car with them -- I'll never forget the look of terror on my father's face. While we waited, my mother grew hysterical. In fact, they were stopping us about a broken tail light, and had brought my father in the car, to stay out of the rain. But that experience brought back how under the surface, for an immigrant, particularly one of color, that sense of being an outsider, of having something taken away, is never very far away.

So literally, the story came to me, all in a rush, out of my research and my own personal memories. I actually wrote the first chapters in one week, and the book flew out of me, fueled, I think by outrage, pain, and a desire for this story to be told.

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

Again, as I mentioned, I wrote it rather quickly, while these events were swirling around. I wrote the book in about ten weeks. Then I got some comments and let it sit a while before revising. I spent about another six weeks revising. We then sent it out to several publishers, almost all of whom were interested in publishing it.

In fact, during this time NY Times reporter Nina Bernstein broke a story about an illegal Bangladeshi girl who was imprisoned for being a suspected terrorist. The authorities claimed they had found “something” on her computer. For me, this was the strange experience of life imitating art. I sent the book to Nina, and she called me up to say that I had no idea how perfectly I had captured that experience—and that there are so many kids out there, experiencing exactly this—their lives in limbo, their situation invisible. Indeed, she sent the book to those girls who were eventually deported to Bangladesh—the younger sister, especially, who is very Americanized, has been really having a hard time of it.

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

I think the greatest challenge was making sure I had the balance between the political and social pressures and the family dynamics. I did not want this to be seen as an “issue” or “problem” novel—it needed to be as rich in literary and psychological dynamics. I also wanted the characters to be recognizable to an American audience—and potentially an audience outside the States, too. At the same time, I wanted American kids to feel what it’s like when you want the same thing—a future here--and yet it’s somehow just out of your reach, or taken away from you.

Certainly I wanted to be very specific to this culture—I had chosen Bangladesh as opposed to other potential cultures because I had lived in Calcutta, which is in West Bengal, and also visited Bangladesh, so I felt comfortable with Bengali culture. At the same time, I wanted these characters to be kids that we all could know: the know-it-all, high achieving older sister and the left-in-the-shadows younger sister. Nadira was pretty clear to me, from the get-go (perhaps because I’m a younger sister) but I had to work at Aisha, in understanding the arc she goes through, and especially her internal breakdown. I had to force myself to get more inside her character and understand how she would be the one who would crumble. That took up a lot of my revision time.

While all of my work seems to carry a certain non-fiction element (my next young adult novel as well) I try not to over-research. I try to go with my gut and artistic intuition, and then use the research as I need to. With respect to the immigration details, I did interview an immigration lawyer. I also had the manuscript vetted by a Bangladeshi friend, who is also an activist around issues such as this, and was familiar with what was going on in the community at the time.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Author Interview: Sue Corbett on Free Baseball

Free Baseball by Sue Corbett (Dutton, 2006). Felix loves baseball and longs for the day when his father, who's a baseball star in Cuba, will join him and his mother in Florida. When a team with a couple of players who might be Cuban comes to town, Felix takes advantage of being mistaken for the bat boy to stow away in the team bus. Exciting and heartfelt--a home run! Ages 8-up. See more of my thoughts on Free Baseball.

Sue Corbett on Sue Corbett: "I define myself, principally, in these ways: I am one of four children of two highly dysfunctional Irish immigrants. I am the mother of three hooligans, each of whom was born with an extra chromosome for personality. Someone who writes for children could not ask for material better than the stuff they are constantly providing me with, mostly unintentionally. This is doubly fortunate since I put writing in the same category of essentials as food, air, and water. I write every day. Sometimes all day, with breaks for snacks, reading, laundry, baseball games, reading, piano lessons, homework, and reading. And tennis. Tennis is my drug.

"Lastly, you probably need to know that my husband married me because, on our first date, I launched into a long, impassioned screed about how the Mets' front office was trading away young talent for quick fixes that weren't going to be enough to get us a pennant. This speech was all he needed to convince him that I was his bashert, EVEN THOUGH, he roots for the Twins."

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I took my oldest son, Conor, to a Florida Marlins game a few years ago. It was "Jersey Night." Every kid under 12 got a teal blue team shirt upon entering. After the game, these same kids were invited to do the "Diamond Dash," which meant they were allowed to run around the bases once, pretending they had just hit home runs. I dropped Conor off on the first base side of the field and the usher instructed me to go to the third base side to pick him up. I scurried over there, but when I looked down at the infield to watch him run, I couldn't pick him out. Every kid was wearing the same teal blue shirt! I worried aloud about this to the woman standing next to me who was also trying to figure out which ambulatory munchkin belonged to her and she said, "Boy, if a kid wanted to run away, this would be a good time to do it."

And, I swear, it was like being struck by lightning. Felix Piloto (his first name was one of the very first things he told me) whispered in my ear at that very moment. He told me he was running away. He was beyond angry at his mother, who never had time for him anymore, and he needed to find somebody who would tell him more about his absent father - why, in particular, his father the star baseball player, was still stuck in Cuba, and when, specifically, he would finally be coming to America.

And when I did find Conor we did the Diamond Dash to the car where I always keep a reporter's notebook, and I quickly scribbled down everything Felix had told me.

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

The first draft of this story came quickly -- it was only about 100 pages and I wrote it in a few months. But I revised it twice, with excruciatingly long periods of waiting in between each revision letter. We're talking years.

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

My first book hewed so closely to my autobiography that the biggest challenge for me in this one was trying to write authentically from outside my culture without feeling like I was appropriating somebody else's story.

As it turned out, however, a lot of Felix's mother's concerns are my concerns, too, and a lot of the first-generation experience is similar no matter which country your parents hail from. This is generalizing, but I have met the children of immigrants from many different countries and there's almost always this refrain about the pressure to excel, to prove we belong here, and to make it economically - to take advantage of having been among the lucky who landed inside the American dream.

Tucked within Free Baseball is also this gushy valentine to my husband, Tom, because the ballpark and team that Felix runs away to is based on a real place and team. There was a team called The Miracle (they are now based in Fort Myers, FL) that, in the 1990s, had lost its major league affiliation and played in this crummy little stadium in Pompano Beach, Florida. This stadium is pretty much where our entire courtship took place, since we both loved baseball, and loved minor league baseball most of all.

Of course, the book is also dedicated to Mike Veeck, who owns the Miracle, and anybody who knows him knows that, like Vic Mench, the general manager of the Miracle in Free Baseball, Mike, too, had a very famous baseball dad. (However, Mike's wife is alive and well!) Homer is also based on a real dog. You can see a photo of that darling pooch on my website, www.suecorbett.com.

You're also the author of one of my other favorite books, 12 Again (Dutton, 2002)(teaching guide). Could you briefly tell readers a bit about that novel and how you transitioned from one project to another?

Cyn, did you know that 12 Again (Dutton, 2002) is in its seventh hardcover printing? This book is like The Little Engine That Could. I think it must be you, telling people how much you like it, who is fueling sales.

12 Again is a very different book, a very indulgent book, if you will, since I never thought it would be published and I wrote it as an exercise in sanity when I had three children, including a newborn, and had just moved to Virginia from Florida when Tom got transferred.

It was my way of thinking about the choices we make and whether we would choose differently if we got a "let," as they say in tennis (at least they say that a lot when I am serving.) It's hard for me to believe how many kids have told me they love this book since the professional criticism there was of it was that it had more appeal for grownups than middle readers. But maybe kids like walking in Bernadette's shoes as she realizes how much her sons mean to her and how empty her life would be without them. Maybe every kid knows -- or hopes -- that's the way their sometimes difficult mother feels about them.

Plus, there's the magical bunny.

Sometimes you wear another hat, that of children's book reviewer. How do your roles as author and reviewer inform one another?

As I tell school groups, you simply cannot be a writer if you are not a reader.

By this yardstick, I ought to be the world's best writer but . . . alas. So I keep reading, hoping that one day I will get it, the words, and the story, and the emotion will all click into place and something truly wonderful and powerful will emanate from my keyboard.

Meanwhile, I have read many worthy and great books, the privilege for which I am actually paid. Really, I have a magical job.

I also tell the school kids, "I lie on the couch and read and I am paid to do that," and I have to pinch myself sometimes to remind myself that is actually true. It is a fabulous gig.

Is there anything you would like to add?

No: I still don't have an agent. (People are always asking me that.)

At this point, I don't really have an editor, either, since the acquiring editor, Meredith The Divine Mundy Wasinger, left Hudson Street for the Park Avenue pastures of Sterling Publishing Co.

I do, however, have the world's most astute and competent assistant editor, Dutton's Margaret Woollatt, without whom Free Baseball would be in a cardboard box in an office somewhere, yellowing. Huzzahs to assistant editors everywhere who do all the work and get none of the credit! Long live the Margaret Wollatts of the publishing world!

Friday, February 03, 2006

Cynsations LJ Subscribers

Cynsations LJ subscribers, my apologies for the odd coding issue that affected the LJ posting of Lisa Firke's wonderful interview on her redesign of my site at www.cynthialeitichsmith.com.

Please do surf over to Blogger directly to read it at: http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/

Thank you!

Web Designer Interview: Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys on the Redesign of www.cynthialeitichsmith.com

It is my pleasure to announce the redesign and relaunch of my award-winning website, www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, and an interview with the design guru behind it, Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys.

I would like to invite Cynsational readers to surf by and check out the redesign. [If you don't see a major difference from original yellow design, hit reload]. You can learn about me, my books, forthcoming titles, awards and honors, anthologies and journals, essays and articles, in-person and online events, check out the media kit, peek into my writing life, and study the teacher guides.

Another major focus is the children's/YA literature resources. This section includes bibliographies, author and illustrator interviews, a celebration of the Texas youth literature community, writer resources, state and national award listings and more. Don't miss the search engine!

According to SmarterStats, my site attracts 40,000 to 60,000 unique visitors monthly. Read more about the site. And now let's hear from Lisa...!

What inspired you to accept the daunting task of redesigning www.cynthialeitichsmith.com?

I was very pleased and flattered to be asked to work on it. I've been visiting the site for years, and have always admired it.

How vast of a job was it? Did you feel it was a big responsibility?

Some telling statistics:

Total size, in megabytes: 75
Growth during development, in pages: 31
Number of finished HTML pages: 265
Number of image files: 1,108
Number of external links: 13,496
Number of internal links: 47,071
Number of "FONT" tags removed from the old markup in favor of a one-time style sheet declaration: 155,376
Ranking in Google among sites found using the search terms "children's YA lit": 1

Gulp.

How would you describe the site today?

"Cynsational."

In what way is it aesthetically and logistically more pleasing to visitors?

I’ll let some of our "beta-testers" speak to that:

“Really nice—I love the color palette.”

“What a feast for the eyes...it is gorgeous....”

“It works easily—even for me, typing with one hand (the other was broken at the time).”

“You have created a crisp, clean, more sophisticated look, yet very warm and inviting.”

“There is a much better balance of text/visuals/white-space.”

“The language is smart, hip and fun in the navigation bar and other areas.”

“You have made a ton of information appear much more digestible and it is all awesome.”

“What a resource for teachers!”

“It has prompted us to add all of the author’s books to our school library. We’re also looking into bringing her to campus to speak.”

What was the timeline from contract to relaunch, and what were the major events along the way?

I hesitate to admit it was over a year. This is not typical, however. For a small to medium site—say 3-25 pages—it takes between two and four months.

We began by discussing what you wanted for the site and drew up an agreement and a detailed spec. I then spent some time getting familiar with the contents and sketching designs.

After you approved the prototype, an interval of rumination followed, as logistical aspects of the site were refined and tested. During this time both of us went through life events that forced us to put the work down for weeks at a time, and I started over from scratch at least twice.

Just about when we both thought it would never be done, enough of the site was roughed out for you to preview, and we entered into what I feel was a remarkable collaboration. My arrangements of your content let you see it in some new ways, and you came back with new content and arrangements... It was quite exciting.

After several massive rounds of proofing and having outside "beta testers" sample the site, everything—HTML pages, images, style sheets, javascripts, etc—were moved from my web server to yours.

That may be the scariest, most exciting moment of a redesign: everything old gets erased and the new material takes its place…without a hitch. Phew. Woohoo!

What were the challenges (technical, logistical, psychological) in bringing the site new life?

Every job has its exciting bits (color schemes! logos!) and it's tedious bits (converting old pages). I knew going in that you had amassed a great deal of content, but I didn't realize how active you are about adding to it. Trying to hit a moving target was new for me, but it taught me a lot.

How did you conceive of the redesign concept? What special considerations did you have to factor in?

It was crucial to develop a navigation menu that would be straightforward to use, but encompass all the complexity and the sheer quantity of the site’s contents. I also wanted to update the HTML code and employ cascading style sheets, which gives you the ability to change the look completely in the future should you want to.

As for how the site looks now, I tried to listen well. You wanted something fresh and fun, but not something that would quickly go out of style or rely on cliched symbols of the southwest, or native culture, or children’s and teen’s interests.

So, as I created the graphics and color scheme for the site, I was imagining fresh prairie grass and worn blue jeans and the rich tones of canyon rocks and precious turquoise, trying to evoke these things without being trite.

Could you give us an idea of your design and other services? What other sites have you designed?

“Hit Those Keys” began as a writer’s resource site—it’s best-known feature is the “blockbusters” http://www.hitthosekeys.com/block.html section—that evolved into a consultancy. I mentor fellow writers and artists and make websites for them.

Two of my designs have been for authors you’ve featured here on CYALR: Nancy Werlin http://www.nancywerlin.com (author interview) and Dorian Cirrone http://www.doriancirrone.com (author interview). I’ve also designed galleries for artists and photographers, a portal for a comedian, professional pages for university professors, e-learning sites, and blogs.

What do you think makes a good author site? What elements are essential? Optional?

Perhaps the most important thing is something the average site visitor never sees—the underlying markup and coding. (The most engaging content in the world won't be appreciated if it shows up mangled or not at all.)

Second, the purpose of the site should be clear from the first glance. It's about a person, an author, and that author's work. It should look particular and unique and it should suit the person it's about.

Third, a site shouldn't be too fancy for its own good. Links should look like links, and sections of the site should have clear labels. Think of it this way: as a writer you work hard to make your meanings clear and valuable. Your website should reflect the same kind of care.

As for whether you should have teacher's guides or a blog, or whatever, the specific elements of a site really should be decided on a site-to-site basis. Chances are you don't need Flash animation or a shopping cart, but you should display the covers of your books and link to reviews and bookstores. It also helps bring people back to the site if you share something you know about your subject matter, or what it's like to be an author or illustrator.

What considerations do you recommend to authors in selecting a designer?

Start with personal preference: Do you like the designer's other work? (Check for credits on sites you like to locate designers). Sound out the designer. Do you feel comfortable describing what you want and asking questions about how things are done? Hire someone you can talk to, whose taste and judgment you trust.

Look to hire someone who is at ease with HTML and CSS and who can tell the difference between the “golden section” (a design principle) and the “golden arches” (the ugly but well-known branding of a fast food chain).

Consider the practical: what can you afford? Think about this carefully. What’s cheapest up front might not be best. A poorly-made, cookie-cutter site won’t serve you well. Budget carefully, but avoid stinting on costs. Fees vary widely, but a professional will give you an estimate up front.

What mistakes do you see in author sites as you're surfing the Web?

A lot of author sites fall into this tricky abyss where the site looks both mass-produced and amateurish—certainly not what you want.

Pitfalls include:

Problems with type: text that’s too large or too small for comfortable reading; too many different font styles; large blocks of italic or all-capped text.

Problems with color and/or graphics: jaggy images; jarring color combinations; busy backgrounds; unnecessary or distracting animated effects; “school picture”-ish author head shots.

Problems with performance: slow-loading pages; confusing navigation; content that’s inaccessible to visitors with disabilities.

Problems with copy: gross spelling or grammatical errors; or key information falls “below the fold” (the first span of the screen before it becomes necessary to scroll down).

What advice do you have for do-it-yourself-ers?

Take your time and keep it simple. If you’re not intimidated by technology, it can be fun. Invest in a few good tools and references and learn to use them. Some references for do-it-yourself-ers are going up on my site (http://www.hitthosekeys.com) soon, so check back often.

What do you do when you're not working Web magic?

Lately, it seems like I mainly play the straight-man to my family's jokes and antics. We have some stock bits of comedy we enact over and over, and my job is to roll my eyes and pretend it's not funny. When they're all at school (http://www.latinschool.org/)--husband too, since he runs it--I write and make art, as much as I can. And walk the dogs.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Yes: you have been a fabulous (and patient!) client and someone I respect very much for what you give back to the children's book world. Thanks for entrusting me with your magnum opus.

Cynsational Notes

Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your thoughts and for your superhuman design efforts--for your tremendous skill, insight, passion, and appreciation of the site's mission!

Cynsational readers, I highly recommend Lisa to anyone seeking design services. I also ask that after you surf by my site, you drop her a note of much-deserved praise.

I'm interested to hear what you think about the site and its redesign. Live Journal subscribers are welcome to comment via that service. Any Cynsational reader is welcome to write me directly with feedback (if you elect to do so, please let me know whether I have your permission to quote you).

Finally, if you think that this blog, the site, and its redesign are worth highlighting, I'd greatly appreciate your spreading the word via links from your own sites or blogs, on list servs, at meetings of writers, in classrooms, or within any other venue that may be appropriate.

www.cynthialeitichsmith.com became the site that it is because this community inspired me. I only hope that it offers something positive in return.

Thank you!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Cynsational News & Links

Boundless Sky: Kites and Kite-Flying in Children's Books by Aline Pereira from Papertigers.

Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith, read by Jenna Lamia (Listening Library, 2001)(scroll for review) will soon be available to itunes fans.

Cyn Smith Totally Rocks! from Walter M. Mayes (AKA Walter the Giant)(author interview). What can I say? I really liked the blog post header. That said, check out Walter's Newbery thoughts.

Interview with writer Andrea Cheng from Papertigers. She is the author of numerous children's and young adult books, including Shanghai Messenger, illustrated by Ed Young (Lee & Low, 2005) and The Lemon Sisters (Putnam, 2006).

New Voices Interview: Debra Garfinkle from ALAN online. D.L. Garfinkle is the author of Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won The Girl (Putnam, 2005)(author interview).

Now and Forever: The Power of Sex in Young Adult Literature by Tanya Lee Stone from VOYA (PDF file). Tanya is the author of A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2006)(excerpt).

More from VOYA (PDF files): Where's Lubar? Tales from the Melting Pot (author interview) and Get with the Program Extra: David Levithan's Response to His Visit at Kalamazoo Public Library.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

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