Friday, April 07, 2006

Author-Illustrator Feature: Laura McGee Kvasnosky

Laura McGee Kvasnosky is the author of several wonderful children's titles, including the Zelda and Ivy books (Candlewick), One Lucky Summer (Dutton, 2002), and Frank and Izzy Set Sail (Candlewick, 2004). She lives in Seattle.

Laura McGee Kvasnosky on Laura McGee Kvasnosky: "Why write? Because I am the middle of five kids and I am still trying to get a word in edgewise. Because it's a way to figure out stuff I don't understand. Because I can't not write.

"Looking back, I can see I was headed toward writing for a long time. When I was little, I had a stuffed cat named Kitty who starred in stories I acted out for my younger brother and sister. These productions took place on weekend mornings while we waited for the rest of the family to wake up. Kitty had a loud, squeaky voice. He disappeared one day. We looked and looked but never found him.

"As soon as I could read, I became a bookworm. I wish I had a whole other life just for reading. As soon as I could shape letters, I made little books from the paper trimmings Dad brought home from his print shop. In fifth grade I wrote a weekly newspaper, making a copy for each row in the classroom with my careful cursive. My dad was the editor and publisher of the newspaper in our small town, Sonora, California. As each of us five kids went through high school, he taught us to write, by having us compose 'Campus Letter,' a weekly column for the paper.

"I changed my major six times at Occidental College before deciding on a degree in journalism. But I always knew I could tell a better story if I didn't have to stick to the facts, thus preferred writing fiction. While my kids were little, I had a baker's clay ornament making business for six years, then a graphic design business for 15--all which turned out to be good preparation for making children's books.

"I am a fourth-generation Californian, now thoroughly mossed over by 32 years in Seattle rain. I love to bike and garden and play the ukulele. My husband, John, and I have two grown children, Timothy and Noelle."

According to your website biography, you decided when you were 40 to actively pursue your lifelong dream of creating children's books. Could you tell us more about that decision? What shifted you from dreamer to do-er in this regard?

When my kids were young, some of our best times were spent curled up in the big blue chair reading together. What an amazing thing it is to enter the world of a book together.

I dreamt of making my own picture books, but kept putting it off. Then, about the time I turned 40, a friend died of cancer. She was 54. Who knows how long we get to dabble around here? I determined to take a step toward my dream. I signed up for Keith Baker's class in Picture Book Making.

What preparation did you have from your earlier life, and what was your path to publication like?

Like picture book writing, writing for a newspaper is a reductionist task. Both a picture book and a good news story need a hook: a beginning that grabs the reader and sets up what is to come. Every word has to count.

The over-10,000 baker's clay ornaments I manufactured during my kids' preschool years were sculpted little children doing various things, perhaps an initial effort to create characters?

Graphic design comes into play in the design of my books as I consider the flow and pacing of the progression of text and illustration.

Most of all, I guess life itself prepares me to make picture books: like a raccoon, I gather all the sparkling, quirky bits of memories, experiences and observations that can be shaped into stories.

I'm sure everyone would love to know more about the story behind Zelda and Ivy (Candlewick, 1998), Zelda and Ivy One Christmas (Candlewick, 2002), and Zelda and Ivy and the Boy Next Door (Candlewick, 2003). How did you come to find these characters? What was the original inspiration?

As the middle of five children, I have experience being led around by an imaginative but bossy older sister and I took the role of the bossy older sister to my younger sibs. This is probably why the push and pull of sibling rivalry fascinates me.

The original Zelda and Ivy book was a dummy book called "Summer Shorts." I created it in Keith Baker's class. It featured five human children and many of the tense sibling interactions that are familiar to Zelda and Ivy readers. I sent it around to publishers and it was roundly rejected. Five years and six books later, I thought I'd try those sibling stories again. Maybe they'd work better with only two sisters. I was experimenting at the time with gouache resist, the medium that I eventually used for the Zelda and Ivy books. It worked best in bright colors. Thus, the two sisters became bright red foxes. In a way, that first book was a "gift book." It fell whole and complete into my lap. But when I look back, I can see the pieces gathered over years.

Could you give us a sneak peek into Zelda and Ivy: The Runaways (Candlewick, 2006)? What are the fabulous fox sisters up to now?

The Runaways, due out June 2006--marks the first of the Zelda and Ivy books to appear in a new, reader-sized format, similar to the size of Frog and Toad [by Arnold Lobel].

There are three chapters: The Runaways, The Time Capsule, and The Secret Concoction. Each of these stories has its roots in either my childhood or in things my own children did. For instance, Zelda prepares the time capsule with this message: "A gift to the world of the future from the world of the past." When my son was eight, I found that exact note under his rug, on a card with a quarter taped to the bottom.

What about them has drawn you back for book after book? What are the traits of characters who can hold readers beyond one title?

The interaction of younger and older siblings amuses me. There is endless material in the play of one against the other. Often when I visit schools, students give me further adventures that they have written for these characters. It seems the dynamics of sibling relationships are familiar to many readers.

What advice do you have for writing with animal characters?

I don't think of my characters as animals. Rather, as humans in fox suits.

It's true, though, that there is something about those fox suits that is freeing and makes it easier to get to the heart of things. Plus, it's fun to emphasize their foxy-ness: flips of tails, holding paws.

Your debut novel is One Lucky Summer (Dutton, 2002). What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

One Lucky Summer grew over seven years from a picture book in two voices to its present, published form. It is loosely based on the summer that my cousin Jerry lived with my family in a mountain cabin. Like the characters in the book, Jerry and I went from hating each other's guts to being good friends and back again--often in the space of a day. We, too, nearly drowned in a Siamese Twins swimming race. As I was writing, I was wondering if a 10-year-old girl and boy could be authentic friends. As the story developed, it seemed they could.

I researched pet flying squirrels and Western fence lizards. My friend Julian Snider, who was in fourth grade at the time, provided the illustrations for Steven's Nature Journal.

Another of your recent titles was Frank and Izzy Set Sail (Candlewick, 2004). What inspired you to write this story? What was the timeline from spark to publication and the major events along the way?

Frank and Izzy took about a year for me to write and illustrate, then another year for Candlewick Press to bring it out.

Frank and Izzy began with a painting I made when I was playing around with leftover paint. I painted a little rabbit and a bear running in the moonlight. They intrigued me. Who were they? Why were they running? Who were they to each other?

The moonlight reminded me of the last night of a ballroom dancing class my husband John and I took at our community center. As we parked our car that night, we could see a big, full moon shining down Lake Washington. At the end of the class, our instructor threw open the doors and turned up the music. We waltzed out into the parking lot. It was one of those times when ordinary life is transcended. Music and moonlight were part of it.

I decided I wanted to make a story about the rabbit and the bear. Music and moonlight would be part of it. I decided Frank would be a bit like John and Izzy a bit like me. The whole story is written toward that single spread of the starry sky, their little campfire flickering on the island in the middle of the darkened lake, and the text, "Frank and Izzy sang to the stars."

What are the challenges particular to building a career as an author-illustrator?

Mostly, I guess it's a logistical challenge: it takes much longer to illustrate a book than it does to write one.

What advice do you have for beginners with this goal? How about more established book creators?

If you are starting out, good classes can help get you where you want to go. The Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Adults, for one, is an excellent program to consider. I have taught there six winter residencies, and I have learned a ton from the lectures and visiting writers.

Join SCBWI. Go to the meetings and conferences.

Read widely, especially in the genre in which you expect your stories will fall, i.e. picture books or middle grade novels. Read as a reader and then again as a writer, taking it apart, seeing how it works. Note what you think really works and what doesn't. Keep track of publishers you like, too, for when you are ready to submit your work.

I think any advice I give is probably advice I need to hear, so I am listening, too, when I say: Take yourself seriously. Work at it daily. Get the information and tools you need to do the job well. Then allow yourself to play.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

There are so many unexpected bonuses of a career in children's books: speaking opportunities at schools and conferences, teaching opportunities to writers of all ages, and the chance to be part of the amazing resource that is this forum. Thanks, Cynthia. It's an honor to be part of your wonderful website.

Cynsational Notes

Are you a Zelda or an Ivy? Take the Zelda and Ivy Personality Quiz!

Who Wrote That? Featuring Laura McGee Kvasnosky by Patricia M. Newman; published in California Kids (November 2002).

Patricia also offers recent interviews with: Erin Dealey, author of Little Bo Peep Can't Get To Sleep (Atheneum, 2005)(author site); Mini Grey, author of The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon (Knopf, 2006); Loretta Ichord, author of More Cooking Through Time: Pasta, Fried Rice, and Matzoh Balls: Immigrant Cooking in America (Millbrook, 2006)(author site); Jackie Briggs Martin, author of On Sand Island (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)(author site); and Barbara Park, author of Junie B., First Grader: Aloha-Ha-Ha! (from the Junie B. Jones series)(Random House, 2006). Patricia herself is the author of Jingle the Brass, illustrated by Michael Chesworth (FSG, 2004)(a Junior Library Guild selection); learn more about Patricia!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Cynsations LJ Subscribers

Cynsations LJ syndication readers, the author update with Toni Buzzeo for some reason has not posted correctly to you. My apologies. Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with the program (my syndication was set up by a dear friend) to fix it myself, nor do I have even a password to get in.

However, I have republished Toni's interview via Blogger, so hopefully the syndication will pick up a new version that works. If this is not the case, please surf by the interview at Cynsations on Blogger to read it there. This has happened once before and cleared up on its own so my hope is that it will do likewise this time. Thank you for your understanding!

Author Update: Toni Buzzeo

Toni Buzzeo has quickly established herself as a popular picture book author. We previously talked to her after the publication of her debut title, The Sea Chest, illustrated by Mary GrandPre (Dial, 2002)(author interview), which went on to win a 2002 Lupine Honor Award and the 2004-2005 Children's Crown Gallery Award. We spoke again after the publication of Dawdle Duckling, illustrated by Margaret Spengler (Dial, 2003)(author interview), which was named to the New Jersey State Library Pick of the Decade List.

We last talked after the publication of Dawdle Duckling. Since then you returned to Dawdle for another story: Ready Or Not, Dawdle Duckling, also illustrated by Margaret Spengler (Dial, 2005). Picture book sequels are rare. What was it about Dawdle that you know he had more stories to share? Or, more broadly, what qualities/depth must a picture book character possess to make them good candidates for multiple books?

It was actually my brilliant illustrator, Margaret Spengler, who suggested a sequel. As Margaret relates in her interview in my new book, Toni Buzzeo and YOU (Libraries Unlimited, 2005), “I thought the [original] story was cute and charming and I could see creating something really fun. I wanted to do a sequel because I have grown attached to Dawdle and the family. I enjoy working on Dawdle's adventures and hope there are many more.”

Of course, a request does not a story make! It took me a few years to come up with the perfect idea for a sequel. Dawdle would necessarily have to remain a dawdler and dreamer. The challenge was to design a plot in which this core trait would initially hinder but ultimately serve him. A fourth grader in rural Maine came up with hide-and-seek idea and Margaret’s added characters in Dawdle Duckling—the turtle, the frog, and the fish—served up the key plot idea. After all, Dawdle is not simply taking his sweet time, he’s also busy making friends, friends who will be his salvation in the hide-and-seek game.

You diversified your focus to a cousin of the ducks in Little Loon and Papa (Dial, 2004). What inspired you to write this book? What was the timeline between spark and publication? What were the major challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) along the way?

My husband, Ken Cyll, and I own a cabin in the western mountains of Maine on Rangeley Lake. The lake is populated with loons. Sleeping there is an adventure in loon lullabies as they call to each other across the lake. Canoe trips are a treat as loons pop up, swim around, and ZIP! disappear from sight.

When, in July 2002, my editor Lauri Hornik mentioned that booksellers were often in search of Father’s Day books and asked me whether I’d consider writing one, I said I’d love to write another historical fiction like The Sea Chest (Dial, 2002), but that wasn’t what she had in mind. As I began to explore other ideas, I wondered about animal fathers who take care of their babies, and Ken suggested that I consider looking for a bird, since many mate for life.

Birds, I thought! What about loons with their haunting calls on Rangeley Lake? As I began to research loons (I am, after all, a librarian!), I learned that loon fathers take equal care of their babies. Perfect!

My research yielded such wonderful facts about what little loons have to learn—most especially to dive—that I was able to incorporate intriguing factual information in my young picture book. For instance, loon chicks are such little puffballs that they can’t just SQUEEZE TUCK ZIP and disappear from sight as their elders do. Instead, they have to wiggle their feet and waggle their wings before they’re able to disappear beneath the water! I love to teach kids about new things (I am, after all, a teacher too!) as they read and enjoy fiction.

I knew that Little Loon would be afraid to dive, much as my son Topher (23) and I were both afraid of water when we were young. So I didn’t have to struggle to find Little Loon’s defining character trait. The final challenge, though, was plot. Plot is always the most difficult aspect of a story for me. Luckily, Topher is a brilliant partner when I need to discuss plot. While waiting for an oil change at the local quick lube, we came up with the idea of Little Loon wandering off and encountering a trio of northwoods animals along the shore.

Back to my research I went, to find three animals who would be large and imposing without presenting a danger to the loon chick. That research brought me the idea of a beaver who would have felled a tree, making it necessary for Little Loon, desperate to find his Papa, to dive in order to reach him.

My process, generally, is to research extensively, gathering the facts I’ll use on large stacks of color-coded notecards, and then decide on the outline of plot. From there, I let the whole idea simmer. If you were to ask me if I were thinking, plotting, planning, I’d say no, and yet I know that I am, for when it’s time to sit down to the page, I often have a relatively easy time of the writing. The incubation period is often about three months. So, when in October 2002 I attended my annual fall writing retreat, the story spilled out of me onto the page. The first draft was a convolution of the final draft, but with my writing partners there, most notably Jane Kurtz (author interview) and Canadian children’s author Joanne Stanbridge, I left retreat with a submittable manuscript!

Looking over these titles and your debut picture book, The Sea Chest, illustrated by Mary GrandPre (Dial, 2002), it occurs to me that you are a water writer! Is this a product of your surroundings, your childhood, or a passion for all things splash?

Students always point this out to me. Honestly, I didn’t set out for it to be so, and, in my family, it’s Ken who is the Pisces and the water-demon, rarely so happy as when he is in a kayak, on a Coast Guard Auxiliary vessel, or simply riding the Casco Bay ferry in Portland harbor. I did, however, grow up in southern Michigan—the Great Lakes state—and now reside in Maine not far from the magnificent Atlantic Ocean. I think there’s just water in my veins!

I am pleased to report that my next picture book, Our Librarian Won’t Tell Us ANYTHING! (Upstart, Fall 2006) has not a drop of water in it. Nor does its sequel, Fire Up with Reading (Upstart, forthcoming).

Since our last chat, I believe you've also retired after a distinguished career as a librarian to become a full-time writer. What has that transition been like? What gifts has your librarian's expertise offered to your writing life?

Were I not so very busy speaking--traveling across the country to schools and conferences--I would probably be bereft. I do still feel very connected to my librarian identity as I speak at state and national library conferences and write books for librarians, as well. But I miss the kids terribly. Luckily for me, my local school, Jewett-Hanson School in Buxton, Maine, has taken me in as a volunteer library media specialist. When I am not traveling, I work closely with library media specialist Laurie Dunlap and her teachers and students. And I continue to see the world from a librarian perspective as well as my author perspective which, I hope, makes me smart about a lot of things in children’s literature.

Toni Buzzeo and YOU (Libraries Unlimited, 2005) sounds like a must-buy for your fans. What does this title offer as related to you and your work?

Toni Buzzeo and YOU is a guide to me and my books. It offers lots of biographical material not found anywhere else as well as invitations for kids to think and write about their own lives in similar ways.

It also gives readers—teachers and librarians—insight into the inspiration, structure, and themes of each of my children’s books. In addition, it is just chock full of really rich standards-based curriculum activities to accompany each of my books. The activities extend into many areas of the curriculum, including language arts, science, social studies, and information literacy. As an educator, I have a strong background in writing curriculum, and it sure was fun to bring it all to bear in writing curriculum for my own children’s books!

You have done a great job of building a career as a picture book writer in a tough publishing market. What advice do you have for beginning writers?

My best advice for beginning authors of all genres is to build relationships with editors over time. I think this is essential to finally finding the editor who is eager to work with you. This means that you should commit to sending new/additional work to editors who offer you feedback in their rejection letters. If an editor takes time to give you personal feedback, consider it a gift and him/her a fan.

Any advice for picture book writers specifically?

Read current picture books. The field is changing by the minute. What was published only five years ago might now be quite outdated and not a match for the current market if it were submitted today. So spend time in an excellent library every month or your local bookstore’s children’s department. Read picture books aloud (they are, after all, written to be read aloud!) and take time with the illustrations. Think about the language (word choice and sentence fluency), the structure, and the subject matter. Make choices about all three things very deliberately and with great care.

How about authors who're just now gaining a footing? What would you like to tell them?

I would tell them to be realistic about the need for authors to also be marketers. This doesn’t mean that there is a one-size-fits-all perfect approach to doing that marketing. Rather, it’s a matter of talking to other authors to learn where there successes have come, reading books, websites, and listservs devoted to the topic, and assessing your own areas of comfort and challenge. But regardless, it is important to understand that we are publishing in an era when publishers have smaller marketing and publicity budgets and more of the burden rests on the author to promote and keep the books alive and long in print. Develop a plan for doing that for your books.

As a reader, what have been your favorite children's/YA titles of the past year and why?

My very favorite young adult title of the year was Mary Pearson’s A Room on Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005)(author interview). This story, told in a compelling first person voice, is one of the most subtle stories of parental dysfunction and neglect I have ever read. It is an amazing read, and I was thrilled to hear that it had won the Golden Kite Award.

Gentle’s Holler by Kerry Madden (Viking, 2005)(author interview) was my favorite middle grade novel of the year. What an extraordinary ability Madden has to create a time, place, and family of characters one longs to know for a lifetime. Set in the hollers of Tennessee, this quiet story resonates with the wisdom and love of a young protagonist who knows the truths of life at a very young age. I am delighted to know that Madden is busy writing sequels to this emotionally evocative story.

Living so near to Portland, Maine, an immigrant intake city with 52 languages in the school system where I taught for eleven years, I am always on the lookout for rich picture books that capture the immigrant experience. My favorite of the year was Jane Kurtz’s In the Small, Small Night, illustrated by Rachel Isadora (Amistad, 2005). In this warm and sensitive sibling story, Kurtz captures the loneliness and longing of an immigrant child in a new country and the necessity of remembering home and the stories that ground us in our much-loved places.

Your website now offers its own online store so that readers can buy customized and autographed books directly from you. What led you to this launch this feature? Would you suggest that other authors do the same?

I have had so many e-mail requests over the past four years from people across the country wanting autographed copies of my books that I simply decided to formalize the process, giving people a quick and easy way (using Paypal) to order the books they want. It’s proven to be a great idea, so yes, I would recommend that other authors do the same.

What can your fans look forward to next?

My next two picture books will be published by Upstart Books and feature a librarian character--Mrs. Skorupski. I suppose it was inevitable that a librarian would creep into my work! Our Librarian Won’t Tell Us ANYTHING! illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa (Fall 2006) features Mrs. Skorupski doing what librarians do best—creating independent library users. Fire Up with Reading (forthcoming) centers on a year-long reading incentive program that culminates in a dragon dance featuring the top readers of the school parading in a dragon costume on Read Across America Day. Each book, told in first person by a different narrator, has a fresh feel at the same time that Mrs. Skorupski occupies a consistent central role in the plot. There’s also a delicious, grumpy foil in the books named Carmen Rosa Peña. Plans are underway for a third volume in the series but it’s too soon to divulge the plot.

Fall 2008 will see the publication of my long-awaited picture book, A Lighthouse Christmas (Dial), illustrated by the fabulously talented Nancy Carpenter. I can’t wait to see how she renders the story of Frances and Peter, awaiting Christmas and the long-delayed supply boat on a small lighthouse island in 1929!

Is there anything you would like to add?

I’m very excited about a brand new professional book, published in March and entitled Read! Perform! Learn! 10 Reader’s Theater Programs for Literacy Enhancement (Upstart 2006). It features ten fabulous picture books as Reader’s Theater, including Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000), as well as ten author interviews and exciting curriculum activities to accompany each book.

Cynsational Notes


Authors Among Us - Children's Writers Who Are or Who Have Been Librarians: Toni Buzzeo from Ravenstone Press. See also Author Answers with Toni Buzzeo from Debbi Michiko Florence; Picture Books Waiting to Be Written with Toni Buzzeo from the Institute of Children's Literature; The Reading Tub: Featured Author--Toni Buzzeo; Write Baby Animals and Get It Write by Toni Buzzeo from Smartwriters; and Who Wrote That? Featuring Toni Buzzeo from Patricia Newman.

Kerry Madden's Gentle's Holler (Viking, 2005), read by Kate Forbes, is now available from Recorded Books.

Other Cynsational authors who've recommended A Room On Lorelei Street by Mary E. Pearson (Henry Holt, 2005) include Gail Giles, Marlene Perez, and me!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Author Feature: Jo Whittemore

Jo Whittemore is the debut YA fantasy author of Escape from Arylon (Llewellyn/Flux, 2006). She lives in the Austin area. Read Jo's LJ.

Escape from Arylon (Book One from the Silverskin Legacy) by Jo Whittemore (Llewellyn/Flux, 2006). In the first book in the Silverskin Legacy trilogy, debut novelist Jo Whittemore introduces high school freshmen and ex-friends Megan Haney and Ainsley Minks. A freak accident transports them from their sleepy suburb to the land of Arylon, where someone has stolen the powerful Staff of Lexiam. Before they can return home, they must help the wizard-king Bornias recover the Staff, or else both worlds will be in jeopardy. The author creates likeable and intriguing characters and a fun and fantastic fantasy world. The cliffhanger ending will have readers eagerly anticipating the second book in the trilogy, which scheduled for publication in July 2006. Ages 12-up. Recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith.

Jo Whittemore on Jo Whittemore: "I was born on Halloween night at a military base in Kentucky. My parents initially thought I was going to be a boy, so my father had the names 'Jedediah' or 'Jeremiah' lined up for me. Thank goodness I was a girl! The first years of my life I can recall are living in Boise, Idaho, and wishing every day that I could go to school like my big sister did.

"We weren't there long before we moved to southern California, where I fell in love with the sun, sand, and sea. We lived in Carpinteria right on the beach, so every day after school, we could run out the door and boogie board until dinnertime. When I was in second grade, we moved to Santa Barbara, and that's when I really fell in love with books. The local library had a program where you could go to the zoo for free if you read ten books and could give a summary on each one. I think it took me two weekends to get that free pass. One of my favorite memories was being chosen to attend the Author-Go-Round. I met Laura Numeroff when she was just getting started!

"When I was in sixth grade, we moved to Montgomery, Texas where my competitive side reared its ugly head. I joined every honors class and UIL competition I could. The only class I had trouble with was driver's education. I graduated third in my class and went to college at Texas A&M University where I majored in business administration. I wrote for the school paper, The Battalion, and drove campus buses for spending money. After I broke off a mirror, broke a set of doors, got a speeding ticket and hit two cars while driving the bus (all the events occurred at different times, by the way) I decided I probably needed to get out from behind the wheel. I started working at a hotel where I met my future husband, and when I graduated in December of 1999, we moved to Austin where I've been living ever since."

What were you like as a young adult?

Very, very bookish. I think I was probably the only kid my age who read the required reading books for fun!

What inspired you to write for teenagers?

The teenage years are difficult, and many teens turn to various outlets for comfort, one of them being literature. I like the idea that someone having a rough day at school could pick up my book and happily lose themselves in its pages, able to forget about the bullies and peer pressure for a little while.

Could you describe your path to publication, any sprints and/or stumbles along the way?

I'm embarrassed to admit that I started writing at 23 with the full intention of being published by 25 and a bestseller by the time I was 27. Talk about lofty goals! I’m 28 now, and only now seeing my book published (and that’s actually even quicker than normal).

It’s important for writers to understand that this is not an overnight business. Nor is it an easy one.

After I attended a booksigning in 2000 where my favorite fantasy author, Terry Brooks, was speaking, I was inspired to start working on a fantasy novel of my own. The success of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling was encouraging because it meant not only that fantasy novels were doing well but also that children’s fantasy novels were doing well. It took me roughly a year and a half to get my first copy of the manuscript written to send off to agents and publishers.

When I received my first pile of rejection letters, I was shocked and personally hurt that everyone didn't like my story. My ego was shattered, and I considered just trashing the whole project and writing a different story. Then, in 2003, I went to the SCBWI annual summer conference and had my work critiqued by Q.L. Pearce, an author, former editor and SCBWI advisor. She gave me encouraging advice and complimented my work, which made me feel a bit better.

At the same conference, Megan Atwood, the acquisitions editor for Llewellyn Worldwide at the time, stood up and announced that her publishing house was looking for middle grade and young adult fantasy novels. With a bit of my confidence restored from my meeting with Q, I walked up to Megan and spoke with her about my book. She gave me her business card and told me to read their submission guideline and send in my work. When I got home, I sent her my manuscript. In 2004, I got a response that they had enjoyed the work but couldn’t publish it in its current state. They suggested a few changes, and after I did a bit more revision, I got “the call” in 2005 with an offer for a contract. Roughly a year later, my first novel is now in stores.

Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel, Escape from Arylon (Book One from the Silverskin Legacy)! Could you tell us a little about it?

Thanks! Escape from Arylon is the first book in a trilogy entitled "The Silverskin Legacy." It chronicles the adventures of two Earth teens, Ainsley and Megan, who find themselves transported to a world of magic with their only way home residing in a magical staff of elements. Unfortunately, the staff has been stolen, and it’s up to Ainsley and Megan to find it so they can escape from Arylon. The end has a bit of a twist that lets their adventures in Arylon continue to the next novel.

What was your initial inspiration for telling this story?

I've always loved fantasy novels, but my favorites have been the ones where the hero leaves this world for another. It's not only the discovery, it's also the fact that when you first enter a new world (or school or city), nobody knows who you are yet, and you can break out of any mold in which people have placed you in the past. No longer are you Megan, the plain tomboy. Now, you're a sword-wielding heroine!

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

One of the main challenges was finding time. I had (and still have) a day job and working a writing career around that can be difficult. It was occasionally a challenge to the wallet as well because I would want to go to so many conferences and buy so many literary resources that didn’t exactly benefit the entire family. And patience. I have never had to be so patient in my entire life.

What is it like being a debut author in 2006? Any butterflies, surprises, learning curve?

This has been an incredible year so far. I’ve met so many excellent, supportive people, and since the book was released in March, butterflies have been putting up houses in my stomach. I’m surprised at how excited my friends are for me, and I’m surprised that I’ve become so passionate about what happens to my book. It might sound cheesy, but I’m still learning something new everyday.

Could you tell us more about Flux, the YA fiction department at Llewellyn?

Llewellyn is at a very exciting point in its YA life. They’re establishing a new imprint, Flux [PDF submission guidelines], that will handle all forms of YA fiction (currently, Llewellyn handles new age and fantasy). The people at Llewellyn are excellent to work with, are enthusiastic about their authors and they love what they’re doing, all good traits for a publishing house to have.

What advice do you have for beginning YA writers?

Be patient! That actually applies to all writers. When writing for young adults, you have to remember they are young adults. Don’t insult their intelligence by talking down to them in your writing. Young adults are smarter than many people give them credit for, but they also have a vulnerability you don’t want to forget.

How about those who write fantasy specifically?

Have fun with it. If you’re doing high fantasy, your world is yours to create as you wish, but remember that everything still has to have a logical order. Your magic needs to have rules, your civilizations need some form of governance, people still need a way to travel from place to place. Also, magic can’t fix everything. Your characters will need to rely on some internal strength (courage, wisdom, love) that helps them defeat evil in the end. Avoid using a deus ex machina, something that appears suddenly and provides a solution to an unsolvable problem (i.e., suddenly the main character develops the power to reverse all evil and he saves the world).

Are there any craft books that you especially recommend, and if so, why?

For learning about writing in general, I suggest the Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books by Harold D. Underdown (Alpha, 2004) [look for the second edition].

For tips on where and how to submit, I suggest the current year’s Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market by Alice Pope (Writer’s Digest Books, 2006). For tips on writing fantasy, I suggest How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001).

What tips do you have on writing a trilogy?

It’s wise to have a basic idea of how you want the trilogy to play out before you start sending it off to publishers because one of their questions will be, “Do you know how it ends?” Plus, if you know how the series flows, you can work elements of foreshadowing into each book, which your audience will love. It’s important to maintain consistency throughout the trilogy because your audience trusts you and has come to see the world and characters in a certain way. In other words, you can’t have the evil cousin from one book suddenly become loveable and kind in the next without good cause.

It’s also helpful to consider that your audience lives outside your series. While you’re familiar with everything that’s happened in the past books, your audience might only remember the key points, so you’ll need to work brief summaries into the text of subsequent novels.

What are your favorite recently published fantasies for young adults and why?

I’m a big fan of The Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, Ptolemy’s Gate), The Midnighters series by Scott Westerfeld (The Secret Hour, Touching Darkness, Blue Noon)(author interview) and The Faerie Wars Chronicles by Herbie Brennan (Faerie Wars, The Purple Emperor). I love stories that continue a character’s adventures, and all of these authors blend the real world with the magical world.

How about other YA titles that you've recently read and recommend?

I like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares and Follow the Blue by Brigid Lowry (Holiday House, 2004).

You're a member of AS IF! Could you tell us more about this organization? Why are its efforts important to you?

I am very proud of AS IF! (Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom). The goal of our organization is to make certain that literature, especially for teens, remains free of censorship. Sadly, as far as we've advanced in society, there are still certain topics that people consider taboo (teen sexuality, homosexuality, magic). Instead of letting our children read books on these topics and educate themselves, we're encountering adults who would rather ban the books and leave children in the dark. AS IF! crusades against that. An uneducated mind is a dangerous mind.

Are you available for school visits, conferences, and other speaking engagements? If so, how should planners contact you?

I am available for speaking engagements. I love to talk to people! You can contact me directly at jo_whittemore@hotmail.com.

I love the drawing of you on your website! Do you do that yourself, hire someone, etc.?

Thanks! An artist/writer friend of mine, Kip Farrar, actually did the illustration. He was my boss at a past job, and when I wasn't working, I was always writing and not the most pleasant person to approach at those times. The original drawing has me with steam coming out of my ears, but with lovely picture-altering software, I now just look like I'm concentrating really hard.

You're one of the many author-bloggers. What can readers expect from your blog? What purpose does it fill in your writing life?

I've kept journals since I was a kid (though, back then the big news of the day was winning a game of tetherball), but my experiences have never been something that I felt the need to share with other people. Becoming a writer was a turning point for me. Now, I have a public outlet to let people know about my journey to becoming an author so they can get an insider’s perspective on how everything works. It’s also an excellent source of procrastination.

What blogs do you read?

I'm a blog maniac! I read the blogs of about 50 different people, all in the writing community, but the ones by published authors that I read religiously belong to (alphabetically): Holly Black, Meg Cabot, Debbi Michiko Florence, D.L. Garfinkle, Brent Hartinger, Sarah Darer Littman, Cynthia Leitich Smith (you!), Greg Leitich Smith, Cynthia Lord, Linda Joy Singleton, Maggie L. Wood, Lisa Yee and Sara Zarr.

What can your fans expect next?

The next book in the trilogy, Curse of Arastold, will be coming out in July.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I love to read, play games (board games, computer games, you name it), travel, spend time with my relatives, and eat! As I’m breaking away from my college years, I’m discovering food exists beyond hamburgers and French fries.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Cynsational News & Links

My website attracted a record-setting 80,000 unique visitors for the month of March 2006. Thanks to all for your enthusiasm and support.

Congratulations to author Toni Buzzeo on the publication of Read! Perform! Learn! 10 Reader's Theater Projects for Literacy Enhancement (Upstart, 2006). "It is a collection of ten fabulous picture book reader's theaters with accompanying author interviews and rich standards-based curriculum activities to accompany each book." Featured picture books include Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000). Look for an upcoming Cynsations author update with Toni!

The third Carnival of Children's Literature celebrates National Poetry Month at Semicolon.

Brad Barkley and Heather Helper: official site from the co-authors of Scrambled Eggs at Midnight (Dutton, 2006)(sample chapters). Brad is the author of two novels and two short story collections for adults. He lives in western Maryland. Heather is a debut author, long-time reviewer, and lives in Texas. Learn more about Brad and Heather. Visit their online journal.

Shelley Bueche: official site from the author of two books in the Parasites! series, The Ebola Virus (KidHaven Press, 2003) and Bedbugs (KidHaven Press, 2005). Shelley is a freelance writer, living in Austin. Dog fans, scroll to see her co-workers Brownie and Belle.

Recent interviews with children's/YA editors from Robin Friedman include: Alexandra Cooper, assistant editor at Simon & Schuster--edits novels and picture books, likes "spunky female protagonists;" Rebecca Davis, formerly senior editor of Greenwillow Books--edits picture books and middle grade/YA fiction (although no longer at Greenwillow, likely to land elsewhere soon); and Joan Powers, editor-at-large of Candlewick Books--looking for "originality, heart, an honest voice."

Registration for Anastasia Suen's summer writing workshops is now open. She offers an intensive picture book workshop May 1 to 26 and July 10 to August 7; an easy reader workshop June 5 to 30; a character workshop May 1 to 26; a young nonfiction workshop June 5 to 30; a poetry workshop July 10 to August 7. She also offers five-day summer workshops: school visits 101 from May 1 to 5 and July 10 to 14; the children's book publicity workshop May 8 to 12 and July 17 to 21; and the story design workshop May 15 to 19 and June 5 to 9th.

Meet Kevin Henkes from BookPage. April 2006. An illustrated snapshot interview.

Virtual Tour of the Musuem of the American Indian Exhibitions "Creation's Journey" and "All Roads are Good:" created by students from the Four Directions Schools: Santa Clara Day School; Pueblo of Santa Clara, New Mexico; Nah Tah Wahsh PSA; Hannahville Potawatomi, Michigan; and Marty Indian School, South Dakota.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Author Feature: Margot Finke

Margot Finke hosts a writing for children website, critiques fellow writers (for a fee), and is the author of a series of fun, educational e-books about U.S. and Aussie animals. She also has a monthly writing/publishing column, "Musings," which appears on The Purple Crayon. In addition, she covers "Writer's Retreats and Conferences" for SmartWriters. She's an Aussie, who's lived in Oregon for the past 25 years. She discusses e-publishing, writing about children's writing, being part of the children's literature community and more.

Let's start with your own writing for children! Could you tell us about your educational series and the latest of the books?

My rhyming series of seven picture books features wild critters found in the U.S. and Australia. The rhymes are fun and educational, allowing kids from kindergarten to higher grade-school levels to enjoy learning about animals. They can be bought direct from the publisher, Writers Exchange E-Publishing or from the BOOKS page on my website.

All seven books in the series are published by Writers Exchange E-Publishing using the FlipBook system. This means that each one looks like a book, and kids can hear the pages as they "flip" over--totally cool! Kids can also link to my "Down-Under Fun." This is where they go to read more about the Aussie animals in my books and giggle at the "Nutty Notes."

"Wild US Critters" is where kids can read more about the US animals in my books, "Nutty Notes," and link to other in-depth animal sites.

My first, "Kangaroo Clues," published in 2004, is beautifully illustrated by Turkish artist Mustafa Delioglu. It received great reviews. After that, there was a year's delay. My second book, "Never Say BOO to a Frilly" (+ 2 other rhymes), has cool illustrations by famed Turkish artist Aysin Eroglu, published late 2005.

The next three in this series were published early in 2006: "Don't Eat Platypus Stew" (+ 2 other rhymes), charmingly illustrated by Rebecca Holdsworth. "Humdinger Hummers," delightfully illustrated by Amy Morano. And "Mama Grizzly Bear," with striking illustrations by Gloria Swan.

Your books are electronically published, and I don't know enough about that to fit in a thimble. What advice would you give a writer considering e-publishing? What are the benefits? What are the challenges? Where can readers learn more about e-publishing (on the Web or elsewhere)?

Oh dear, mate, this is a HUGE subject. I feel there are three vital elements that make up a quality e-book:

# 1 - Choose your e-publisher with care. Do in-depth research on those you select as possible publishers. Ask questions of your listmates, and scrap any e-publisher that pops up with too many complaints against them. The web is a great tool for gathering information. It is up to the author to weed out e-publishers that are unreliable or scammers. When you have one or two finalists lined up, go to town on them. This is when you look for others who have gone the e-publishing route, and pick their brains. Ask your finalists the hard questions, and make sure the answers are clear and understandable. If they waffle, cut them loose.

# 2 - Know the services your e-publisher provides, which ones are free, and which ones you must pay for.

# 3 - One of the main reasons e-books (and self-published also) have a bad reputation, and like Rodney Daingerfield, "get no respect," is the lack of polish. A good edit provides polish and professionalism. Unless your publisher offers good editing services, have your book edited by someone professional. A PB won't cost much, but editing midgrades or YA will take big bucks. Don't wimp out because of the money. If you want a quality book that stands up to hard copy competition, a good edit is mandatory.

Also: Make sure you have a contract, and understand and know the small print. If in doubt, wait. Have someone who knows about such matters check your contract--a literary lawyer or such. Ask on the CW or other writing list for a referral to someone who can help.

Sandy Cummins, CEO of Writers Exchange E-Publishing, is based in Northern Queensland, a small town I know very well from my youth. It sits on the edge of the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest rainforest in the world. I don't know about other e-publishers, but I lucked out. Sandy is easy going, never gets ruffled, and is honest to a fault. I am a perfectionist and a do-it-yourself freak.

When Sandy discovered I had a good eye for illustrations, she let me look for my own artists. After I found them all (it's amazing what a few posts to the various CW lists will offer up), I sent each artist the stories they were to illustrate, with my suggestions attached. At first, I sent Sandy sample pieces of artwork for her approval. Time passed, and Sandy told me that my judgment was excellent, and to just send her each final illustration for approval. (This might not work for everyone.) The artists and I worked together, with Sandy having the final say. I don't know how we managed it, but the problems that cropped up occasionally were sorted out amicably. Sandy also did a terrific job of setting up and laying out each book in the FlipViewer program.

This all sounds idyllic, I know, and maybe, if I had tried another e-publisher, or different artists, things would have turned out differently--snarky and angst ridden. Who knows? I got exactly the sort of illustrations I wanted. With a traditional publisher I would have had no say at all. The thought of that freaked me out! The experts in my rhyming critique group helped me with editing. Sandy sent me each finished book, and I proofread it before publication. The whole process took far longer that I hoped--I thought e-books were published in weeks. LOL! And all that work. Doing tweaks & rewrites on all 7 books, as well as keeping track of multiple artists and illustrations, was monumental. Whew!

Hey, I would do it again in a moment. You can read all about these wonderful artist/illustrators on my site.

The plus side of e-books is that they are great for kids. Children today are immersed in school programs that make them computer savvy. They have grown up with computers the same way we grew up with the telephone and the radio.

I feel strongly that many e-books get a rough deal. Sure, some are terrible--but so are a lot of hard copy books. Check out those e-books before you turn up your nose. Like mine, some of them are darned good!

I'm a fan of your "Musings" column. What was your initial inspiration for launching it? For those unfamiliar with it, could you offer them some insights into the kinds of subjects you discuss?

Thanks for those kind words, Cynthia. The credit for "Musings" goes to Jan Fields. She suggested I write a column for beginning writers, something like. . . "Margot's Musings?" I was nervous at first, and I had Jan look over each one before publication. She was a terrific mentor. Time passed, and Jan needed the space for her new and wonderful, Kid Magazine Writers. I dropped my name from the column's title, and "Musings" is now under the umbrella of Harold Underdown's Purple Crayon. Harold is terrific to work with, and his website is a treasure trove on writerly information, great interviews, plus snippets of his own wisdom.

I wanted to pay back, in some useful way, all the help and advice I received when I first joined the Childrens Writers (CW) list [at yahoogroups], way back in the days of Linda Smith and her PB critique group, "Stars." This list helps so many writers get ahead, and I felt it only fair that I do something for those coming behind me. Everything I write for "Musings" comes from my experiences as a beginning writer, struggling to discover the secret of success. Yeah, I know the rules for success: hard work, a basic knowledge of grammar and punctuation, a little talent, patience, the ability to paper walls with rejection slips, plus a dab of luck - right?

You report on "Writer's Conferences and Retreats" for SmartWriters. Are you an avid conference-goer yourself? What events have you enjoyed most and/or learned the most from and why?

I go to two conferences a year. The SCBWI Fall Retreat, in Silver Falls, Oregon, and the SCBWI, one-day Spring conference near Portland [visit SCBWI Oregon].

As a fan of conferences, I approached Roxyanne Young, of SmartWriters.com, and asked if she was interested in a column on conferences. She was, and my monthly column, Writer's Retreats & Conferences (WR&C), was born.

These days, with so many of the big publishing houses closed to unsolicited manuscripts, and even queries, meeting an editor at a conference is the only in many newcomers have. Writing is lonely work, so meeting occasionally with other writers is a boon to my confidence and creativity. Sharing manuscripts, and having my work critiqued by writers who know what to look for, is a huge plus. And the friendships I've developed at these once-a-year gatherings span the years, with e-mails keeping them fresh and alive. Go to as many conferences as you can afford. Unfortunately, if you live in isolated areas, going to a conference can be expensive, what with air fare, gas costs, and hotel expenses. Still, save your pennies and go! Doing so will energize your creative spirit for months afterwards.

You also offer a critique service. Do you normally work with beginning or more advanced writers? What do you offer to them? What should a writer consider when selecting a critque service?

Again, the credit for this goes to Jan Fields. Critiquing was something I had done as a freebie for newcomers to the CW list. I guess it was another way of repaying the early help I received. Jan convinced me to charge a reasonable fee for my services.

Critique requests come from newcomers, as well as more advanced writers. I offer suggestions and comments, and always give examples, so that clients know exactly what I'm getting at. I stress that nothing should be set in stone, and that looking at their characters and plots, from a variety of different angles (out of the box), often opens up much better writing possibilities. Active and powerful verbs are a must. In the end it is their baby, and the final choices are theirs. I have kept my fees reasonable.

What I hope to impart with an In-depth critique is summed up in an article I wrote on my Critique Service page. It is titled, "What to Aim for When Writing." The contents include: Focus, Story Elements, Plot & Character Development, Sentence Structure, Tight Writing, Character Enrichment, The Art of the Hook, Pace & Tension, Suggestion.

It is always a thrill when a story I helped polish is accepted. And it never ceases to amaze me how nice all these writers are. Here I am, telling them (as tactfully as possible) that their writing is not tight, their verbs need more power, and their dialogue would never come out of any 12 year old's mouth - among other things. Yikes! And they write back thanking me, telling me how they are going to rework it all just like I suggested. I keep waiting for the day when I receive an e-mail that tells me I don't know @#$%, and my advice stinks.

I love how supportive you are of other writers, how community oriented. Your Wahoo page is a tremendous example of your joyous heart! Tell us about your writing world, how it fuels you and inspires you to so graciously give back.

I have always been grateful for the help, support, and encouragement I received from early members of the CW list. I remember vividly how lost and uninformed I once felt about everything to do with writing for children. My website and "Musings" column gives me an opportunity to help newcomers bridge that information gap. The WAHOO page is fun! It helps celebrate writers' successes. Newcomers, or old hands alike, they all get WAHOOS when they sign a contract, their book is published or wins an award, or their article is published. Like the saying goes, "They're worth it!" I love shouting about a writer's success - mine too.

What's on your horizon? Anything you'd like to add?

Only to thank you for this interview opportunity, mate. Your website is a treasure trove of writing insights and valuable information. I have three mid-grade manuscripts out at the moment, each one with a different publisher. I have high hopes for one in particular--part memoir and part fiction. My ultimate goal is to have the three mid-grades published before my eldest daughter has the chance to do it for me posthumously, as she promised she will do, if necessary.

Other than that, I guess it will be more of the same - writing, having patience, hard work, and encouraging WAHOOS whenever possible.

Cynsational Notes

See reviews of Humdinger Hummers and Mama Grizzly Bear, both by Margot, from Suzanne Lieurance.

Cynsational News & Links

Thanks to LJ syndication reader Kellye Carter Croker at Dear Diary for recommending my recent interview with children's/YA book publicist Rebecca Grose of SoCal Public Relations.

ChicagoWrites: debut website from the Chicago Writers Association. "The mission of the Chicago Writers Association is to serve as an incubator for writers. To that end, we strive to encourage a supportive community in which writers at all levels of professional and personal development feel free to express themselves and try out ideas." Note: In the past, I've lived in both in high-rise in Streeterville and a loft in the South Loop/Printers Row. My husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, was born in Evanston and raised in Chicago.

Jo Whittemore, debut YA fantasy author of Escape from Arylon (Llewellyn, 2006) is hosting her first signing at 7:30 p.m. April 5 at the Barnes and Noble, Sunset Valley at 5601 Brodie Lane in Austin. The sequel, Curse of Arastold, is due to hit stores in July.

Wordswimmer: Come dive into a sea of words and swim toward a new understanding of the writing process. "This wordswimmer searches for words and stories on Florida's west coast, only a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico. A writer, editor of children's books, and writing instructor, Bruce Black's stories for children have appeared in Cricket and Cobblestone magazines. See his recent discussion of Barbara O'Conner's writing.
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