Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Cynsational News & Links

Big thanks to author Tanya Lee Stone (author interview) for highlighting my fall 2006 release Santa Knows (Dutton), which is co-authored by Greg Leitich Smith and illustrated by Steve Bjorkman.

Cheers to Cynsations LJ reader Tammi Sauer (Tammi's LJ) on her thank-you comment about my linking to the ICL article "How to Write a Picture Book an Editor Will Love" by Gwendolyn Hooks, which featured Tammi's picture book Cowboy Camp (Sterling, 2005).

Cowboy Camp also was a finalist for the 2006 Oklahoma Book Award in Children's/YA. The other finalists were: Clabbernappers by Len Bailey (Starscape/Tor, 2005); Dancing with Elvis by Lynda Stephenson (Eerdmans, 2005); Czar of Alaska: The Cross of Charlemagne by Richard Trout (Pelican, 2005); and Pick of the Litter by Bill Wallace (Holiday House, 2005). The winner was Assassin by Anna Myers (Walker, 2005)(excerpt)(author interview). See descriptions of the finalists. See all the winners. Cyn Note: two of my books have been finalists for the OBA--Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (HarperCollins/Morrow, 2000)(feature illustration) and Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001).

Esmé Raji Codell (author interview), bestselling author of Sahara Special (Hyperion, 2003) and Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year (Algonquin, 2001) and one of the country’s foremost experts on children’s literature, is launching a unique blog with a special mission: getting America to read a book a day to its children. A long-time maverick in the field of literacy and education, Codell runs one of the most highly trafficked independent children’s literature websites on the Internet and for the past two years has operated an offbeat literary salon housed in a Chicago storefront. The blog, http://planetesme.blogspot.com, is scheduled to launch on June 1st, and aspires to make everyone a children’s book expert one day at a time through pithy reviews and a pithier literary advice column. "Children's trade books are our best hope for creating equal education in our country," Codell explains. "We need to create informed consumers in order to unleash this tremendous potential in the bindings." Cyn Note: Esmé has my vote for queen O the world.

Interview With Ally Carter by Liz B. at Pop Goes the Library: Using Pop Culture to Make Libraries Better. Ally is the author of Cheating at Solitaire (Berkley, 2005) and I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You (Hyperion, 2006). See more from Liz B at A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy.

South Asian Stories to Tell by Pooja Makhijani, a guest column at Chicken Spaghetti: Books for Children and the Rest of Us, too. Pooja discusses Mixed Messages, a literary festival sponsored by the South Asian Woman's Creative Collective.

Illustrator Interview: Joe Morse on Casey at the Bat

Casey at the Bat by Ernest L. Thayer, illustrated by Joe Morse (Kids Can Press/KCP Poetry, 2006). From the catalog copy: "...about a proud and mighty slugger who strikes out during the big game." "Illustrator Joe Morse sets the poem on gritty urban streets with a multiracial cast of characters. It’s a startlingly fresh approach that not only revives the poem for a new generation, but also brings it new richness and depth." Cyn Note: an excellent picture book for YA and younger readers.

From Casey at the Bat: Joe Morse's art is "exhibited in numerous private and public collections in North America and has won many international honors..." He lives in Toronto.

Congratulations on the publication of Casey at the Bat! Though the poem has been illustrated before, wow! This version is fresh and fierce. I was blown away. What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the book. Casey is part of the [KCP] "Visions in Poetry" series and each book is an illustrated interpretation of a classic poem. I was given incredible freedom from the number of pages to the direction of the narrative. Each time I read Casey at the Bat, I was struck by how relevant this 1888 poem had become.

The cartoon characters of Thayer's creation were now playing in a contemporary game where 1/4 of a billion dollars for a ten-year contract is no joke.

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

The book from meeting 1 to delivery of twenty-two spreads was sixteen months. Fourteen months for concept and two months for execution of final art. I completed all the art in oil paint first (the blue/black color). I wear a gas mask and work in a ventilated shed because of the toxic materials I use. I then painted all the color areas to ensure consistency.

I was so relieved when I delivered the final art, then Designer Karen Powers asked what about the speech balloons? We agreed they needed to be painted as separate pieces and two days and twenty-five balloons later I was done.

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

I could write a novel based on this question.

I love baseball. This was a problem.

I researched an incredible amount on baseball, urban playgrounds and dozens of characters. After my first round of sketches, editor Tara Walker felt I had created a book about baseball and had not gotten inside the poem. She was right and I was back to square one.

The first thing I did was put away all my baseball reference. I then sat down infront of one of my paintings and noticed that all the ingredients were there, I had been trying to 'book illustrate' Casey instead of illustrate the book.

I started the new sketches by creating a narrator to tell the story of the poem. He enters the book by retrieving a foul ball and in the final spread he leaves the book and puts his headphones back on. I returned to my first readings of the poem; the audience, the spectator and the fan as central to the narrative, we join them on the bleachers.

The character of Casey needed to be real, because he stirs real passion in the spectators. But this fierce, collective connection is fleeting as he is left starkly alone after his failure.

Casey at Bat is the rare read/visual feast that really does work for kids of all ages, in part because of the graphic-novel style. It would be a particularly strong choice, say, for those building a general YA collection and/or reluctant teen readers. Did you envision this broad readership when you first started the project. What audience did you see in your mind's eye?

I definitely saw this book as engrossing to teens as adults. I think this is the power of graphic imagery, it allows so many people into the narrative. You know it is working when a fifteen-year-old says it's "cool" and a book reviewer says it's "thoughtful."

What advice do you have for beginning illustrators?

Draw all the time. Get a sketchbook and start really looking at the stories that surround you. We live in a frenetic, over saturated world--we need more people who are awake and looking in the other direction.

How about those building a career?

Don't sit still. The illustrator Craig Frazier is a great example, his third Stanley book, Stanley Goes Fishing was published by Chronicle in March 2006. He also has self published a book of sketches, launched a website on graphic ideas, written a book on illustration, The Illustrated Voice (Graphis, 2003) and I'm sure he has another half dozen plans he's hatching. Don't wait for the phone to ring.

As a reader, what are your favorite recent titles for children/young adults and why?

I have two children, seven and four years old, so I am immersed in kids' books. I also lead a bachelor program in Illustration at Sheridan Institute and teach narrative illustration.

Recent titles include Craig Frazier's Stanley Goes for a Drive (Chronicle, 2004), an imaginative journey in looking at the world. One of my favourite kids' books ever is The Slant Book by Peter Newell, originally published in 1910. Tuttle Publishing has republished it in a beautiful edition. A runaway baby carriage flies down a hill created by the actually slanted book. Finally, Maira Kalman's Ooh-La-La (Max in Love) (Viking, 1994). A dog poet finds love in Paris. Wonderfully written.

Cynsational Notes

See more author/illustrator interviews, multicultural literature overview, themes and communities, and multicultural bibliography.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Author Feature: Susan Goldman Rubin

Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of several books, including Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children and Terezin (Holiday House, 2000), a Sidney Taylor Award Honor Book and a National Jewish Book Award finalist. She lives in California.

What is it about writing, storytelling that calls to you?

I originally wanted to be an illustrator of children's books. I had studied art and did paintings that showed in galleries. But living here in a suburb of LA with young children and no money for traveling back to NY to show what I thought was a portfolio, I decided to write my own stories to have something to illustrate. Then I sent those out and, to my surprise, got as much if not more interest in my writing from editors than in my art.

In my writing, I wanted to break cliches. Starting out with picture books about family, I portrayed my mother, an active widow, as a delightful grandma who invited her grandchildren (my kids) to sleep over--one at a time.

What put you on the path to publication? What were the ah-ha moments?

The excitement of having fine editors and agents take my stories seriously and helping me make them stronger and more marketable. I still find the process the most exciting part of writing.

Any memorable sprints or stumbles along the way?

When I tried to sell my first picture book Grandma Is Somebody Special (Albert Whitman, 2006)(which I originally titled "I Love to Sleep at Grandma's") I naturally thought I would illustrate it. But when I showed it to Robert Kraus, an outstanding editor in NY, and he suggested that Garth Williams could illustrate it and the Jewish grandmother in my story could be a bear, I was thrilled! I had never thought of it. It didn't happen, and I did do the art--full of mistakes--but that little book published by Albert Whitman & Company stayed in print for 20 years.

For those new to your work, could you briefly highlight some of your backlist titles and the inspiration behind each?

I love art so much that I wanted to share my enthusiasm with young people and help them enjoy paintings, drawings, photos and even architecture, by learning the stories behind these great works. So I wound up writing nonfiction for what we call "middle grade" readers.

Some of the titles that I've done that are still in print are these: The Yellow House: Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin Side by Side (Abrams, 2001); Degas and the Dance: The Painter and the Petits Rats Perfecting Their Art (Abrams, 2002); Steven Spielberg: Crazy for Movies (Abrams, 2001); Art Against the Odds: From Slave Quilts to Prison Paintings (Crown/Random House, 2004).

The Spielberg book came about because I too am crazy about movies. And I share Spielberg's goal to educate the public about the Holocaust. I've contributed a portion of my royalty to the Shoah Foundation in perpetuity.

I also enjoyed researching and writing L'Chaim! To Jewish Life in America! Celebrating From 1654 Until Today (Abrams 2004). At first I was delighted to be asked to do this book in association with the Jewish Museum in New York. But then I discovered how much about the history of Jews in America I didn't know and wondered if I could really finish the project. I looked for individual stories about what it was like for Jewish immigrants to come to America and settle in different regions. Even out West and in Alaska! My father who emigrated from Russia in 1914 was an inspiration and I especially liked working on the chapters about New York's Lower East Side where he lived as a boy.

For many years I had a great desire to make a contribution to Holocaust literature for children. My father was born in Russia, probably the area called Moldova since my maiden name is Moldof, and he went through a pogrom when he was a little boy. His stories of hiding in the cellar and going up on the street afterward to see the dead bodies haunted me. I believed the same could happen to me even though I grew up safely in the Bronx. But I didn't find the story that was the right one for me to tell until I stumbled upon the art and remarkable work of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.

The result was my book Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin (Holiday House, 2000). Once I started reading about Friedl and the extraordinary ghetto/concentration camp called Terezin (Theresienstadt in German) I couldn't stop. I had never heard of it and knew this was my story to tell. But I felt that I needed permission from survivors. So I went to Prague and Terezin and met remarkable people who had been children at Terezin and they enthusiastically urged me to go forward with the project.

I'd like to focus on two of your picture books, The Flag with Fifty-Six Stars: A Gift from the Survivors of Mauthausen, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth (Holiday House, 2005) and The Cat with the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin, with Ela Weissberger (Holiday House, 2006). Let's talk first about The Flag with Fifty-Six Stars. What about this particular story called to you?

When I saw the actual flag at the Museum of Tolerance I was deeply moved. To think that former prisoners at Mauthausen, one of the worse of the concentration camps, had the spirit and drive to create this gift for their liberators despite their weakened and miserable condition. This was a testament to the dignity and humanity of people.

My friend, Adaire, Director of Library & Archives at the Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance, showed me he flag and told me that children who came through to see it were interested in the mistake: the flag has fifty-six stars although the flag had forty-eight stars at that time, 1945, representing the states in the Union. Who made the mistake and why? I felt this was the basis of a true story that had to be told. No one else had done a book about Mauthausen and I wanted to do it.

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

The research took quite a while. Some of the information that the Museum of Tolerance had was not accurate. I tried to find out who exactly had made the flag and how. Although I never found out for sure, I did uncover information previously unknown.

I wrote to Simon Wiesenthal who was alive at that time. He had been in the Death Block at Mauthausen and I thought he might remember the flag with fifty-six stars. He didn't but he sent me a wonderful letter about what the American flag and his liberators meant to him and gave me permission to quote.

I also spoke to survivors who could tell me more--Prem Dobias, a lawyer in London, and Mike Jacobs, a survivor from Poland who now lives in Texas. I looked through articles about liberation written by members of the 11th Armored Division and I spoke to the group's historian who had made videos on the day of liberation. The whole process took a couple of years. And writing about this dreadful place for young readers was difficult. I needed to be truthful yet not horrific.

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

The challenges were many. How to write this story for young people without a child as the main viewpoint character? There were no children at Mauthausen. I later found out in reading Simon Wiesenthal's memoirs that perhaps there was one, maybe two. The youngest person I could question was Mike Jacobs who was a teenager during his imprisonment.

Some of the people I interviewed, such as Prem Dobias, told me not to write this book. He said that Mauthausen was too terrible a place and children should not know about it.

On the other hand, my editor and I felt the story needed to be told. The making of the flag in our opinion was life affirming and full of hope.

Mike Jacobs' message in his own book Holocaust Survivor (Eakin, 2001) is that he never gave up hope. He always believed that one day he would be free. And he encouraged me to do the book. He even came to LA with his wife for the launch at the Museum of Tolerance and I had the great pleasure of meeting him in person.

I just have to add that the research continues even now. I keep getting letters from relatives of former prisoners and their liberators. It's so moving and gratifying to know that these people like the book and are glad that I wrote it. And sometimes they add information that is new to me and that we can incorporate in future editions.

What did Bill Farnsworth's illustrations bring to your text?

Bill Farnsworth's paintings are glorious. I feel so lucky that my editor chose him as the illustrator and that he accepted. His art enriches the story and gives it warmth and emotion. We never spoke or exchanged letters until the book was published. And then I found out that Bill's father was a G.I. and a photo of him was a reference for the beautiful double spread at the end of the book.

The Cat with the Yellow Star is a middle grade memoir in picture book form. For those who've yet to read it, could you tell us a bit about Ela Stein's story and your collaborative process with her?

I met Ela while I was researching Fireflies. She was one of Friedl's favorite art students and we used many of Ela's paintings and drawings in our book. I couldn't help but admire Ela's strength and vitality and felt that hers was a story to be told. For friendship and music were tools for her survival as well as art.

Ela was chosen to play the role of the Cat in the children's opera "Brundibar" that was performed at Terezin 55 times. To this day whenever it's performed anywhere in the world she's invited to attend and sing the final Victory March with the children who perform.

In fact, I met her in person when I went to see a performance of "Brundibar" that was given at UC Irvine in Southern California. I had seen Ela in so many videos that I immediately recognized her--and her voice--before we were properly introduced. We became friends and kept meeting at conferences, then visiting at each other's houses.

Over a period of about five years we developed the shape of this book which tells her story. In addition to interviewing her many, many times, I watched her videotaped interview for the Shoah Foundation to help me understand the events of her life.

When I finished the first draft she went over it to check for accuracy and, of course, to give her approval. We went through her family photo album to select pictures for the book and when the first proofs were ready, she went over captions and text to make corrections.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Write from the heart. Choose those subjects that truly excite you, move you, that you feel need to be told. Read, read, read. See what other authors do and try to understand good writing and what makes it good.

How about those interested in non-fiction? Could you pass on any tips to beginning researchers?

Try to use primary sources--interviews, letters, diaries, newspaper articles and so on in addition to reading. Find an angle, a bit of information, a detail that is fresh.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I read. A lot. Many different kinds of books and The New Yorker, which is a terrific magazine for fiction and non-fiction. Also love movies, concerts, theater and working out at the gym. And spending time with my family.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Andy Warhol: Pop Art Painter (Abrams, Fall 2006) and Delicious: The Work and World of Wayne Thiebaud (Chronicle Books, spring 2007), and a few other projects in the works.

Cynsational Notes

See more author/illustrator interviews and Jewish and Holocaust-related themes in children's and YA literature. See also the picture book and multicultural book bibliographies.

Cynsational News & Links

Black Males in Children's Books by Don Tate from Devas T. Rants and Raves. See also my comment on Don's post.

Guardian Children's Fiction Prize 2006: "long list" finalists include Tim Wynne-Jones (author interview).

Roaring Brook has slated the YA anthology Boy Meets Girl, Girl Meets Boy for spring 2008. The anthology will feature sets of companion short stories by Jim Howe and Ellen Wittlinger (author interview), Terry Trueman and Rita Williams-Garcia, Joseph Bruchac (author interview) and Cynthia Leitich Smith, Terry Davis and Alex Flinn (author interview), Randy Powell and Sara Ryan, and Chris Crutcher and Kelly Milner Halls (author interview). Learn more about my short stories.

Scandal points to real teenage story of mimicry: Kaavya Viswanathan did a disservice not only to readers but to herself in following a chic-lit formula too closely with her first, and possibly last, novel. By Marina Budhos, special to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune. Cyn Note: A thoughtful analysis by someone who knows YA fiction. Authors that Marina references include: Mitali Perkins; Kashmira Sheth; Tanuja Desai Hidier, author of Born Confused (Scholastic, 2002)(excerpt); Jacqueline Woodson; An Na (author interview); and Karen Hesse. Marina is the author of Ask Me No Questions (Atheneum, 2006)(excerpt)(author interview), which is recommended.

Surfed by Spookycyn lately? I've blogged recently about "X-Men: The Last Stand" at the Alamo Draft House; an Austin band called "The Hudsons" at Waterloo Ice House; my Grandma Dorothy's bluebird collection; my quandry over eating mammals; and more.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Cynsational News & Links

Thanks to my webdesigner/master/guru Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys. My site is now updated in synch with Cynsations through the March posts. If you haven't already, read the Story Behind the Redesign. See also Wild Keys, Lisa's recently redesigned blog.

Thanks to Cynsations LJ reader Colleen Cook for expressing appreciation at my post on the 2006 CLN conference. And to Gregory K of Gotta Book for his kind words and to A Fuse #8 Production for the shout out about the Susan Taylor Brown interview.

More personally, my husband and co-author Greg Leitich Smith shows off our fluffy white cat Blizzard at GregLSBlog. Blizzard's full name is Blizzard Bentley. He's named after the Caldecott Medal Book Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian (Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

Greg's debut novel, Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005)(author interview) was recommended as a "Try these too" book by the Texas Library Association Lone Star committee. Ninjas--along with Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen (Knopf, 2001) and Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time by Lisa Yee (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 2005)(author interview)--was suggested to fans of Never Mind!: A Twin Novel by Avi and Rachel Vail (HarperCollins, 2004)(excerpt), which made the final list. Greg also is the author of a companion book, Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005)(author interview).

Speaking of TLA, the Texas Library Association invites contributions to the Library Endowment & Advancement Fund (LEAF). The LEAF is a restricted fund that provides money for special projects benefiting Texas libraries and librarians. You may direct your gift to the area of greatest need or to a number of special funds, including: the Spectrum Scholarship Fund for minority recruitment to the profession; Texas Bluebonnet Award Endowment Fund for TBA activities; Wayne Williams Fund for library grants to purchase children's books; and Whitten Fund for defense of intellectual freedom. Cyn Note: support your local libraries.

Bookshelves of Doom: "Book reviews, book news, my life and anything else I think is interesting." Recommended posts include a review of Between Mom and Jo by Julie Anne Peters (Little Brown, 2006)(author interview).

Congratulations to Uma Krishnaswami (author interview) for Honor Certificate for her poem "Lifeline" in Cicada via the SCBWI 2005 Magazine Merit Awards.

David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, the co-authors of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (Knopf, 2006)(excerpt) will be speaking and signing at BookPeople at 6th and Lamar in Austin, Texas at 7 p.m. June 10. Cyn Note: this is one of the novels on my nightstand; I look forward to it!

Does Everything Fit? by Shari Lyle-Soffe from Out of My Mind.

Katz Connects: connecting authors, illustrators and musicians to school and library events. Clients include: Dr. Alma Flor Ada; Lynn E. Hazen (author interview); Heather Hepler and Brad Barkley (co-authors interview); and Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff. Learn more about Susan Katz.

Oz and Ends: "Musings about some of my favorite fantasy literature for young readers" from J.L. Bell. Cyn Note: I learned of this blog from the fabulous Book Moot.

Tracy Vaughn Zimmer blogs about Rules by Cynthia Lord (Scholastic, 2006)(author interview) and Good Girls by Laura Ruby (HarperCollins, 2006)(author interview).

YA Author Gail Giles has redesigned and updated her website. Learn more about Gail, her books, check out readers' guide and teacher info, and see links. Gail's latest book is What Ever Happened to Cass McBride? (Little Brown, 2006). See a recent Cynsations author update interview with Gail Giles. Cyn Note: don't miss the great picture of Gail and her puppy, iPod.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly Wins Daughters of the Republic of Texas Award

Anne Bustard, author of the picture book biography Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 2005), and its illustrator Kurt Cyrus received the June Franklin Naylor Award for the Best Book for Children on Texas History from The Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library Committee on May 19 at the DRT annual conference in Dallas.

"Kurt Cyrus and I loved telling the story of a young boy from Lubbock, Texas, who dreamed big," Anne said. “Buddy Holly’s passion changed the world of music forever.”

Kathi Appelt, author of Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein (HarperCollins, 2005), received honorable mention.

"Lady Bird Johnson's story is one of courage, determination and love," Kathi said. "When Joy and I embarked upon it, we wanted to show how one person could make a difference in this world. Lady Bird is such a person."

Greg Roza's book, The Karankawa of Texas (The Library of Native Americans)(PowerKids Press, 2005) also was commended.

The award is given annually to the author/illustrator of the most distinguished book for children and young adults, grades K-12, that accurately portrays the history of Texas. Both fiction and nonfiction are eligible.

Anne and Kurt split a cash prize, and Kathi received a certificate.

The award is named for Odessa schoolteacher and DRT President General 1989-1991, June Franklin Naylor.

Cynsational Notes

Author Interview: Anne Bustard on Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly from Cynsations.

Author Kathi Appelt and Illustrator Joy Fisher Hein on Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America from Cynsations.

These two picture book biographies and their authors also were recognized last October by the Writers' League of Texas. Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers was named winner of the Teddy Award for short works and Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly was a finalist in the same division. Buddy also is a 2006-2007 nominee for the Children's Gallery Award.

Learn more about Buddy Holly and Miss Lady Bird.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Author Feature: Laura Ruby

Laura Ruby is the author of the children's novel Lily's Ghosts (HarperCollins, 2003)(excerpt), the children's fantasy The Wall and the Wing (HarperCollins, spring 2006)(excerpt), and the young adult novel Good Girls (HarperCollins, fall 2006). She also looks forward to a collection of short stories for adults, I'm Not Julia Roberts (Warner Books, January 2007). She is originally from surburban New Jersey and now makes her home with her family in Chicago.

We last talked shortly after the release of Lily's Ghosts (HarperCollins, 2003)(author interview), which is now available in paperback (HarperTrophy, 2005).
The debut novel earned an Edgar Award nomination from the Mystery Writers of America and received a Parent's Choice 2003 Silver Honor for Fiction (among other honors).

Congratulations on your recent bounty of success! You have a new middle grade fantasy out this spring, The Wall and the Wing (HarperCollins, 2006). What was your initial inspiration for writing this story?

When I was younger, I used to ask people lots of nosy questions like: "If everyone in the world was either a jerk or a creep, which one are you?" and "If you had to choose between riding a Ferris Wheel for two years straight or having a thumb 21 inches long for the rest of your life, which one would you pick?" My favorite was a question that everyone has considered at one time or another and everyone seems to have a strong opinion about: "Would you rather have the power of invisibility or the power to fly?" It always seemed to me to be a question that separated the introverts from extroverts.

Anyway, I was having some trouble trying to find the right project after my first middle-grade novel, Lily's Ghosts, and was feeling pretty restless. I decided to go ask the experts some questions, the experts in this case being my younger stepdaughter, 12 at the time, and her friends. This time, I didn't ask them any of my standard questions. This time, I asked: if you could have any superpower you wanted, which one would you want? Seems that I can't get away from my own questions. Three of them said they’d like to be able to fly, but one little girl said she’d like to be able to turn herself invisible. I thought it would be cool to write a story set in a city where nearly everyone could fly except one girl, who could turn herself invisible.

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

I wrote about 25 pages of the book and a synopsis and showed it to my agent. She loved the idea and gave it to my editor at HarperCollins. At the time, my editor was considering two other projects of mine, neither of which seemed to be exciting anyone (including me!) But this one, she loved. She bought The Wall and the Wing and a sequel based on those 25 pages. Once the deal was done, I wrote the first draft in about three or four months, with many many more months of revisions afterward.

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

There were a lot of challenges in writing this book, most of them psychological. Everything about this situation was new to me. I had a brand new agent. I'd never sold a novel on proposal before and wasn't sure I could deliver the kind of book my editor wanted. I'd just quit my fulltime job and so was home every day, trying to learn how to best use my time, trying to stay organized and generally trying to justify my own existence.

Also, I was ambitious about this book. I didn’t want to do some Harry Potter retread (as much as I like HP!). I wanted to write a distinctly American fantasy with American preoccupations--including the not-so-savory ones like the obsessions we have with wealth, fame and beauty. That's why I wanted to set it in New York City, the quintessential American city, the capital of capitalism. I did a bunch of research on the history of New York--I read The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld [by Herbert Asbury (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2001)], Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 [by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (Oxford University Press, 2000)], and some of the satire of Washington Irving (who was born in NYC). I'm originally from the East Coast, so I made a number of visits back to NYC, soaking up the ambience and the fascinating chaos. This was the best part of the "writing" of the novel, I'd say. Going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Central Park Zoo, Chinatown, Little Italy, The American Museum of Natural History, South Street Seaport, etc., all for "research." That was fun.

I was pleased to read that Laika Entertainment (formerly Vinton Studios) had optioned the novel. Can you tell us more about this?

Laika, an animation company that has done a lot of award-winning commercial work, was apparently looking to get into feature films. They optioned Neil Gaiman's Coraline (HarperCollins, 2002)(excerpt), which is now currently in production, but wanted some new material. The new literary scout went to my editor, Clare Hutton at Harper, who had worked with Neil and asked if she had anything else that she might recommend. Clare gave Laika my book. They seemed to really enjoy it and they optioned if for two years. Right now the project is in development, with Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach") slated to direct.

What do you love about children's fantasy literature?

Oh, wow, what's not to love? The very best fantasy novels have everything--magic, mystery, monsters, adventure. In children's books, and children's fantasy in particular, the heroes are just a little more heroic, the villains a bit more villainous, and the adventures just a little more adventurous.

More than that, fantasy can take very real feelings, events, and situations that happen in the real lives of children and teens and make them concrete, as the writer Franny Billingsley (author interview) has pointed out in her talks on craft. For example, the search for identity that adolescents wrestle with becomes the story of a boy wizard gradually learning about his past (as in Harry Potter), or the tale of a girl who must choose between life as a human or a selkie (as in Franny's The Folk Keeper (Atheneum, 1999)). For me, that is the true magic of fantasy.

What advice do you have for children's fantasy writers?

I think the key is to be as original and as inventive as possible. Explore regions or time periods that no one has thought to explore before. Consider mixing genres in the way that Libba Bray (author interview) recently mixed a Victorian period novel with fantasy elements.

What are your favorites of the recently published fantasy titles for children and why?

Some recent favorites include Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl (Bloomsbury, 2003)(excerpt), which I absolutely adored. I thought The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud was smart, funny and remarkably complex and inventive. Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy, with its blend of fantasy and horror, is something I think I would have loved as a kid. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials hooked me from the first line. My friend Anne Ursu just published a book called The Shadow Thieves (Atheneum, 2006)(excerpt), the first in a trilogy, which is an amazingly funny, Greek-myth inspired adventure. I love Libba Bray's work. And of course Neil Gaiman's.

I look forward to your YA debut this fall with Good Girls (HarperCollins, September 2006). What was the initial inspiration behind that story?

It was weird. I was again between novels, trying to think of what I might work on next. I had this sci-fi-ish inspired idea that I was really excited about, but then I started noticing something. That sex was everywhere. Okay, I knew it was everywhere, but all of a sudden it seemed, literally, EVERYWHERE. I'm addicted to cop shows, and I couldn't watch one without hearing/seeing some lurid sex crime described in unnecessarily graphic detail. Song lyrics and music videos really started to bug me. MTV had a show about plastic surgery that usually featured confused young women who wanted lipo and breast implants to a) please sullen ex-boyfriends, b) pose in "Playboy" or c) become strippers. And don't get me started on Paris Hilton and Maxim and the ads for "Girls Gone Wild" videos. Even the spam I was getting got more and more ridiculous. (No, Rosilly D. Matriculating, I really don’t want to increase my sperm volume, thanks).

Honestly, it felt like an onslaught and I just didn't get it. Why did all these young (and not so young) women seemed to think that objectifying themselves the most public way possible was somehow the road to liberation and/or the only way to relate to men? And with all the technology available--digital cameras, the Internet, etc.--I thought it was only a matter of time when teens would start imitating what they were seeing. That they would start taking their own porn photos and videos and pasting them on the Internet. I wondered what would happen if a compromising photo of a nice, normal teenaged girl was sent via email accounts and camera phones. How would everyone react? And what would a "good" girl do?

I tried playing with the idea for a bit, but it wasn't working for me and I set it aside. A couple of months later, my stepdaughter came home from school upset. Some kid was spreading rumors about her, and she didn't know how to handle it. All of a sudden, I was furious. Not because things had changed so much since I was a teen, but because they had changed so little.

Yet, though rumors were just as horrifying as they had been when I was young, technology had made their dissemination both instantaneous and exponential. And since people could hide behind screen names, the rumors were more vicious than ever. Both my stepdaughters, their friends, and the teen daughters of some of my own friends told me that almost every girl they knew had endured the stigma of some sort of rumor--usually sexual--spread by both boys and girls. People posted awful comments on each other's blogs. They texted and instant-messaged one another. Everyone talked about everyone. Tooling around on Myspace, LiveJournal, and a bunch of other websites confirmed this.

What were the challenges in writing the novel?

I wrote this novel in secret; neither my agent nor my editor knew what I was working on. But being totally incensed worked for me, I guess, because I didn't feel challenged writing the book at all. Even though this book is not about me or about either of my stepkids--thank goodness!--I sat down and wrote the whole thing in a crazed frenzy in just a few months.

I have always been a cranky old feminist, even when I was just kid myself. I think that this book is a culmination of things I have been thinking about for more than 25 years and that's why it wasn't difficult to get down on paper.

The challenges, I knew, would come later. Because I chose to be as honest as I could about sexual intimacy, I understood that I might end up making some people uncomfortable. That said, I believe that Good Girls is about much more than sex. It's about friendship, responsibility, faith, self-respect, and love. It's also pretty funny in places.

Why is it important to you?

Because I think we have done our teens--and ourselves--a serious disservice when it comes to sex. Sex is, as I said, everywhere in our culture, but it isn't sexuality in context. It's sex buried in violence and pornography, and objectification masquerading as liberation.

We have completely bought into the notion that girls have no real desires of their own and that boys can't possibly control theirs, myths that have been around since the dawn of time. And then we seem to be completely shocked when we learn, as we did in a recent sex study done by the CDC, that about 20% of teens have oral sex by the time they're freshman and half have had intercourse by the time they're juniors. Well, if the boys' desires are so very overwhelming and they can't be held responsible for anything they do, and if girls feel as if they have to have sex because the boys want it so much, why are we so surprised that this is going on?

I also wanted to explore the concept of the hook-up. Hooking up is something else that has been around since forever, but I don't think the concept has been quite so celebrated or embraced by adults since the late 60s and early 70s. If adults act as if the ideas of romance or long-term relationships are quaint, then why would we assume teens would act differently?

There is resistance from censors and some parents to books that touch on teen sexuality. What do you think is behind these attitudes?

I can't say how much I sympathize with these attitudes. It's difficult to imagine that sweet child who played dress up in the family room or tag in the yard becoming a sexual being. And that sexual awakening always comes faster than most parents are comfortable with. I read somewhere that by the time parents think their children are ready for "the sex talk," the children have actually needed that talk for a year and a half.

I also think that some people believe that their teens won't be aware of sex and thus won't have sex if they are simply not told about it. But I don't agree. "Just say no" might work with alcohol, cigarettes or drugs because a person really can opt out of these things. But, as the writer Ariel Levy said, "a teen can't opt out of his/her own sexuality." If we want teens to learn to be sexually responsible--whether we define "responsibility" as abstinence or as something else--I believe that we need to be truthful about what sex really is. It's not a video game. It's not porn. It's communication between people.

Do you feel that such negativity is evenly placed on thematic treatments that focus on girls versus boys? Why or why not?

Once again, I think that our culture operates on the assumptions that boys have no feelings and girls have no desire. Therefore, books that depict girls experiencing desire are particularly scary. I think that some people believe if we acknowledge that girls have desires too then the teen world will become one big sexual free-for-all. But I think educating girls about their own desires gives them the power and the knowledge to make decisions that are right for them. And that includes the power to say "no."

I also think that it's about time we start talking to boys about sexual responsibility. And boys do have feelings (as numerous Emo bands demonstrate). But maybe this is a topic for another novel.

What advice do you give to authors who're writing about themes that may make some grown-ups uncomfortable or unhappy?

I don't think there's a book in the universe that's going to make everyone happy or that will be right for every person and writers need to be aware of this. I do hope that grown-ups understand my intentions, but my real concern is that this book speaks to teens. And when I say "speaks to teens," I'm not necessarily implying that all teens will recognize themselves in my book. Some won't. But teens read for all sorts of reasons: to identify with a character or situation, to see the world in a new way, to escape from their own realities, or to quietly, privately, safely reflect upon an issue that they have yet to confront in real life.

I think that too many adults think that reading is prescriptive for teens--meaning teens read novels to learn how to have sex or do drugs or be disrespectful to their parents.

The recent brouhaha over Gossip Girl [series by Cecily von Ziegesar (Little Brown, 2002-)] is a case in point. I've just read one myself and found it to be a plotless, sort of satiric bit of fluff fantasy about snotty rich people. I don't believe that teens are reading Gossip Girl books because they want to be these characters as much as they're reading Gossip Girl books because they are grateful they're not these characters, to see the snotballs get their comeuppance.

Of course parents should have a clue about what their kids are reading and seeing, but I think we should and can trust teen readers a little more. And I think we should ask teens what they think a LOT more.

What are your favorite recent YA reads and why?

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (FSG, 1999) is just amazing. That she managed to make such a tragic situation so blisteringly funny and true...I'm in awe. I thought Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta (Knopf, 2004)(excerpt) was also wonderful. The tender, perceptive depiction of boys in that novel is worth the price alone. Looking for Alaska by John Green (Dutton, 2005) is another book that stuck with me. Also, David Klass's You Don't Know Me (FSG, 2001), which uses second person to brilliant effect in the first chapter. Tanya Lee Stone's brand new book, A Bad Boy Can Be Good For a Girl (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2006)(author interview), is a lovely verse novel. Gail Giles' Shattering Glass (Roaring Brook, 2002)(author interview). An older favorite remains Rob Thomas's Rats Saw God (Simon & Schuster, 1996), which I still reread every once in a while.

Though the focus of Cynsations is children's and young adult literature, I'm also looking forward to your first release for adults, I’m Not Julia Roberts (Warner Books, 2007)(title updated). You do look a lot like her. Seriously, could you tell us just a bit about this title to come?

Ha! I wish I looked like her. The book is a series of connected short stories about blended families--stepparents, stepkids, ex-wives and husbands. Being both a stepdaughter and a stepmom, I've got lots of experience in this area.

The title of the book comes from a short story in which a first wife and a second wife meet for coffee to discuss "parenting" issues. In that story, I poke a bit of fun at the movie "Stepmom." (I don't make fun of Julia though, so if one of Julia's people is reading this, um, love that Julia!!)

You write for different audiences--middle grade, YA, and adult. What are the particular considerations in approaching each? In what way do their challenges and appeal vary? As someone who writes for adults, are you ever asked why you write for children? (This is my theory since people are always asking me why I don't write for adults). What do you say to them?

I'm sitting here laughing because my two published books are for kids and I have been asked when I'm going to write for adults. When I say, "I have and I do," people give me this blank quizzical look, as if to say, "So what are you fooling around with all that kids' stuff for?" Hate. That.

But the reason I write for kids is because it's fun. Simple as that. Kids and teens are the most passionate readers there are; I know, because I was one of those passionate readers. And I'll never apologize for writing for kids or teens and I can't imagine I'll ever stop. (But writing for kids or teens isn't any easier than writing for anyone else, another thing I've heard from people who should know better).

But I've found that each story dictates the age group for which it's written. For example, I could have written Good Girls as an adult novel with a narrator looking back on her high school experiences, but I had no interest in speaking directly to adults about this subject. The story demanded that I tell it for older teen girls. So that's what I did. On the other hand, my short stories about stepmoms demanded I speak to adults, because, frankly, kids could not care less about the stresses their divorced parents feel because they are feeling their own terrible stresses (and I know this because I was one of those kids!). So, to explore the weird, complex world of stepfamilies, I chose to use an adult point-of-view. It just seemed to make sense.

I think that I write for all these age groups simply because I enjoy examining situations from numerous perspectives. Of course, it drives my agent and publishers mad. But to quote Kingsley Amis, "if you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing."

I love your website, especially the kitty! It's somehow swank, sophisticated and kid/teen friendly, all at the same time. Who was the designer, and what were your goals with the intended audience, etc.? Why did you go with the look you did?

Thanks! I have a penchant for that retro, swanky look (plus, I just love the word "swanky," don’t you? Say it with me: swan-kee. Fun.) My fabulous designer, Jonathan Van Geison at Fictional Company is currently revising the website into three distinct sections: books for all ages, books for teens, and books for adults. Each section will retain the same sort of retro look, but we’ll probably change the color palette a bit.

You're one of the many author-bloggers (Brain Lint: Laura Ruby's Blog). What can readers expect from your blog? What purpose does it fill in your writing life? What blogs do you read?

I just started blogging last August, and I'm still finding it to be a bit strange. I'm so used to writing fiction that I find it amazing that anyone might be interested in what I had for lunch or what I was thinking about the latest episode of "Veronica Mars" or why I'd read my horoscope if I don’t believe in astrology. It's so random. And sort of stupid in a fun way. I guess I hope that readers get to know me a little better through the blog.

As for blogs that I read, why Cynthia, I read yours!

I also read Avenging Sybil, Bookslut, The Goddess of YA Literature, E. Lockhart's blog (The Boyfriend List), Laurie Halse Anderson's blog (Mad Woman in the Forest), Jennifer Weiner's blog (Snark Spot), Ms. Snark's blog, Literaticat's blog (Monkeys and Mishegas), and Libba Bray's blog, among many, many others.

As a rising, no, make that shooting star, what advice do you have for writers who're career building?

Oh, geez. I'm probably the last person in the world who should be asked that question. Everything that I've done so far I've seemed to sort of stumble into. The only real advice I have is to write what you're truly passionate about, the kind of book you'd really want to read. If you're not "feeling it" while you're writing it, then nobody's going to feel anything when they read it.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I read everyone else's books. I chase my cats around. I talk to squirrels. I pester my husband. And I troll for new tunes for my iPod. What else is there?

What can your fans expect next?

Anything? Everything? Well, the sequel to The Wall and the Wing, called The Chaos King, will be out in the summer of 2007. And readers should probably expect to see some more realistic YA from me, though I'm waiting to hear from my editor about which project might be next. An adult novel, too.

Anything you’d like to add?

Yes. Thank you, Cynthia, for being the champion of children’s and YA lit that you are!

Cynsational Notes

In this candid, thoughtful interview, Laura offers her insights into the role of fantasy literature and into sexuality--especially as related to gender--as a thematic focus in young adult fiction. Please consider yourselves encouraged to continue this conversation online and off.

Good Girls by Laura Ruby (HarperCollins, fall 2006). From the promotional copy: "Audrey Porter is a "good girl"--a good student, a great daughter, a fab friend. She's also the last person anyone expects to be hanging out with Luke DeSalvio, the hottest guy at Audrey's school. But Luke is a liar, a player, a dream, and Audrey knows it. She dumps him at her friend's Halloween party with no intention of looking back. But everyone else is looking--looking at a mysterious photograph that has popped up on their cell phones and computers. And Audrey's about to find out that life is never what you pictured it to be." Cyn Note: I had the honor of reading Good Girls in manuscript and was absolutley wowed. Check back after I've read the ARC for my formal recommendation. In the meantime, see the jacket copy and blurbs from Libba Bray (author interview) and Michael Cart. Keep your eyes open for the ARC at teacher, librarian, and bookseller conferences. It's coming soon!

Fans of Good Girls might also enjoy A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2006)(author interview)(PDF excerpt).

The Wall and The Wing by Laura Ruby (HarperCollins, 2006) is a wonderfully and ironically zany novel by the author of Lily's Ghosts (HarperCollins, 2003)(author interview). In an alternate New York City, Gurl is the only one who can't fly. What she can do, though, is become invisible, a talent which allows her to escape nightly from the Hope House for the Homeless...until she's caught by the House matron, who blackmails Gurl into stealing for her so she can maintain her extravagant lifestyle (that includes expensive plastic surgery, caviar, and other luxuries). There are a lot of twists and turns, and a lot of quirky characters, including fellow orphan Bug, gangster Sweetcheeks Grabowski, creepy mechanical monkeys, a cat who makes effective use of indoor plumbing, and a mysterious professor. It's enormously fun getting to the bottom of who's doing what to whom and why. Ages 9-up. Recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith.

See also a KidsReads.com Author Talk with Laura Ruby (September 2005) and learn more about her speaking events from SCBWI Illinois.

See more author/illustrator interviews, recommended young adult books, and recommended fantasy novels.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Author Interview: Shirley Smith Duke on No Bows!

No Bows! by Shirley Smith Duke, illustrated by Jenny Mattheson (Peachtree, 2006). "No bows. BRAIDS!" A lively exploration of contrast--pitting expectations for little girls against an individual girl with her own ideas about her preferences. Ages 4-up. See excerpt.

Shirley Smith Duke on Shirley Smith Duke: "Books were always exciting and important to me. It turns out I was a sort of No Bows! girl myself, although I didn’t realize it when I was young. I read constantly. I read in trees, stayed up late reading, and read between classes at school. I liked to take a volume from the encyclopedia and look through it, reading each interesting article. My sons, now at UT Austin, have had great sport with that piece of information from my childhood. That, and being in the Latin Club.

"My mother, Katie Smith, was a school librarian in Dallas, and we went to the public library regularly. The bookmobile and the downtown library were regular haunts until a branch library opened near us. As a child, I heard about her library courses with Siddie Joe Johnson and waited eagerly for news of the latest books. My goal as a child was to read every Newberry and Caldecott Award winner. At Christmas, we received books along with our toys so we’d have something to do that afternoon. Even now, every time I leave a library with a teetering stack of books, I feel rich.

"I'm a Dallas native and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School. I’d probably have been in some kind of sports, but athletics for girls didn't exist then. I played saxophone in the band and became a majorette. I worked on the yearbook and wrote for the school newspaper. Swimming as a sport for girls started my junior year and I swam for my high school. I went to Austin College and received a degree in biology, then completed my master's in education. I taught twenty-five years in reading, science, and ESL at the elementary and secondary levels. Working with the high school ESL students was my favorite part of teaching. "

What were you like as a young child (picture book reader age)?

Apparently I was a natural leader (read: bossy!), according to my family. My sister and two brothers usually followed my directions and we often played school. As the oldest, I always got to be the teacher. I was particular about getting messy and made mud pies with one hand. I've outgrown that to a certain extent. I liked to play alone a lot of the time, too. That part works well for a writer.

What inspired you to write for children?

I reviewed new books for my district and while most of them were good, there were a few that made me say, "I can do better than that!" Little did I know how much work went into writing children’s books. Teaching had an impact on my interest in children's books, along with reading aloud to my students. I had the opportunity to read aloud regularly while teaching and still count Charlotte's Web [by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams] and Old Yeller [by Fred Gipson] among my favorite read-alouds.

While teaching fourth grade early in my career, my family dog died. When I got to the part about shooting Old Yeller, tears rolled down my face and I had to stop reading. A student reached over, took the book from me, and quietly finished the chapter. Seeing the impact books had on my students made me realize their value in a different light from my own. I ended up teaching the young man again in seventh grade, and he wasn’t nearly so sweet!

Congratulations on the release of your debut (picture) book, No Bows! illustrated by Jenny Mattheson (Peachtree, 2006)(excerpt). Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way? Looking back on your apprenticeship, is there anything you're particularly glad you did or would do differently?

I'm really glad I submitted it to Peachtree! The first call from Peachtree expressed interest in the manuscript but wanted me to provide some more exotic choices. "Yes, I can do exotic!" I sent more choices to them and a week later the call came. I couldn’t believe it.

The path to publication took a long time. The search for the perfect illustrator took almost two years with a couple of possible choices suggested, but the match with Jenny was exactly right. She told our editor she was raised as a No Bows! girl herself. I could tell she understood the story from the start. When I saw the thumbnails, I knew she was the best choice to illustrate the book. It was worth the wait. After I told my class the good news and the publication date, one of my high school ESL students said, “You’ll be dead by then, Miss!” Fortunately, I’m still among the living.

I’m glad I took Anastasia Suen’s picture book class, too! I wrote the book during her SMU picture book class and started sending it out right away. She told me it would get published. It took a while, but Peachtree was the right publisher for it.

Looking back, I don’t think I’d do anything differently. Timing, a little luck, and persistence all play a part in getting published, not to mention a good idea.

What was your initial inspiration for No Bows!?

My niece, Monica Dyer, sparked the idea. As the first grandchild and girl, she always liked beige, brown, and braids, even at a very young age. Monica played cymbals and became a vegetarian in a family of meat eaters. Right now she’s in Haiti, working with mothers with AIDS and water supply searches. My son’s dislike for collars and a nephew's pet lizard that he called "Wizard" stirred the mix into a story.

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

From signed contract to publication was four years. Two years prior to that, I took the course, wrote the story, and started sending it out. The actual writing time was about three weeks, which is short. But it’s a short book. The major challenge was wondering if I had made my additional choices exotic enough. Pistachio was changed to tutti frutti and the tyrannosaurus rex appeared in the illustrations rather than the text.

Another challenge was answering everybody's questions about if my book was out yet. After four years, I sometimes got the idea that they thought I was making it up.

What did Jenny Mattheson's illustrations bring to your text?

It's the classic example of a picture book, I think. She took my words and added depth, layers, and another dimension to the character and story. I chose the word "lizard" for the original manuscript, but she painted the lizard frolicking as a true pet throughout the book, joining in the antics of the little girl. She even put a lizard on the girl's tee shirt. She helped define the character. My favorite spread is the park. Even at 20, my son occasionally gives me the "sitting on the duck" look!

Your publisher is Peachtree, based in Atlanta. Could you tell us about the house and its list? How about your experience so far as a house author?

I've found Peachtree a wonderful publishing house, especially as a first-time author. They've been quite patient about my questions and lack of knowledge about the process, and helpful and generous with their time. They've sent me to several conferences and worked with me on other appearances. Their books are beautiful and they seem to stay in print longer than in some houses. I've written teacher guides for some of their nonfiction books that have been out for a while.

What is it like being a first-time author in 2006?

Magnificent—a little like the birth of a child. I feel a surge of joy when I'm out somewhere and run across my book. It's like I've been invited to join an exclusive club of some sort. But then I read a new fantastic book and wonder why I try to write at all when there are so many fabulous children's writers out there. I'm honored to have a picture book out now. The most fun these days is seeing the children's faces when I read the book. It's been one sustained level of excitement for a long time. That's pretty much how I live most of the time, anyway.

What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?

Learning about children's books and children's writing is almost like learning a new language. You have to immerse yourself and be involved with it before it starts to make sense. Being around children are important, too. When people say do your homework, it means: learn about children's writing. I understand why so many writers address this question on their websites. It's a frequent question with an answer too long to sum up in a couple of sentences. Many knowledgeable authors have detailed information about getting started posted on their sites. I recommend beginners start with those writers and branch out from there. I put a few favorites of mine under my links section. Check the sites of your favorite authors. Start reading what those experts say and work on your writing. Read and then write. Doing it makes you better.

What do you do when you're not writing?

Most often I'm reading. I also love to cook, and garden when I have time. I'll read just about any topic, but I've found as I've grown older I'm choosier about reading only good writing. The best surprise is when I pick up a book I don't know anything about and it's so good I can't put it down. My family likes to eat, so the cooking part is their favorite. Homemade pies are my specialty. I'm quite a talker, much to the chagrin of my family at times.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Writing for children has allowed me to see aspects of myself I didn't know were there. I've done many things since I started writing that I didn't know I would or could do. Writing for children has opened up a new world for me. And I do think there's a little of the No Bows! girl in all of us.

Cynsational Notes

Shirley took classes from Anastasia at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, but if that's out of your neighborhood, Anastasia also offers Online Intensive Writing Workshops. See a recent Cynsations interview with Anastasia.

See more author/illustrator interviews and learn about Texas children's book creators.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Author Feature: Lila Guzmán

Lila Guzmán is an "author of young adult novels about the American Revolution, children's fiction and nonfiction, and short stories." Her latest releases are Lorenzo and the Turncoat (Arte Público Press, 2006) and Kichi in Jungle Jeopardy, illustrated by Regan Johnson (Blooming Tree, 2006). She offers a critique service and is based in the Austin area. Learn more about Lila and Rick Guzmán from Arte Publicio Press.

What is it about writing, storytelling that calls to you?

I was raised in Kentucky and remember my grandfather's stories--some of them true, some of them complete fiction. He could spin a yarn and keep the audience fascinated by every word. Kentuckians can talk...and talk...and talk. Storytelling was second nature to me.

What put you on the path to publication?

My husband, Rick. By 1993, I had published two translations of Galdós novels from Spanish to English. Rick said that I should consider writing my own material. I joined the Austin Writers League (now the Writers' League of Texas) and started attending Novel in Progress workshops. Six years later, I had a publishing contract on Lorenzo's Secret Mission (Arte Público, 2001).

What were the ah-ha moments?

Discovering Christopher Vogler's Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (Michael Wiese Productions, 1999)[look for second edition] and the paradigm of the Hero's Journey changed my writing forever. If I have trouble with a piece of fiction, I look back at the Hero's Journey to see what I have forgotten.

Any memorable sprints or stumbles along the way?

When Rick and I sent Lorenzo's Secret Mission out to literary agents, they did not "get it." We became discouraged because we knew that no one had written about the Spanish role in the American Revolution. At Rick's suggestion, we sent it to two Texas publishers. Shortly thereafter, we had two contracts in hand and decided to go with Arte Público.

For those new to your work, could you briefly highlight some of your recent titles?

Lorenzo's Secret Mission (Arte Público, 2001); Lorenzo's Revolutionary Quest (Arte Público, 2003); Lorenzo and the Turncoat (Arte Público, 2006); Lorenzo and the Pirate (forthcoming).

The Lorenzo novels focus on the Spanish contribution to the American Revolution. In Lorenzo's Secret Mission, readers meet fifteen-year-old Lorenzo Bannister, as he becomes drawn into the battle for colonial independence while delivering a message from his dying father.

For his next adventure (Lorenzo's Revolutionary Quest), Lorenzo, now sixteen, goes on a secret mission to drive cattle from the Province of Texas to Louisiana.

Lorenzo and the Turncoat (set in 1779) shows that history does indeed repeat itself. A powerful hurricane levels New Orleans in August 1779 as Bernardo de Gálvez prepares to attack the British in Baton Rouge. Lorenzo’s fiancée Eugenie is missing.

All the information in the "Lorenzo" series is based on fact. Spanish involvement in the American Revolution is rarely discussed in our history books.

Other novels include: Kichi in Jungle Jeopardy (Blooming Tree, 2006). A sacred blue chihuahua in ancient Mayan times braves the dangers of the jungle to rescue a kidnapped slave boy.

With Lorenzo and the Turncoat, what was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

To give you an idea of the timeline for the series:

1996: Rick finds the subject for the series while cruising the Internet.

1998: Lorenzo's Secret Mission is finished in June. We start sending queries out to New York agents.

1998: It is now December and we have received "good" rejections, but rejections nonetheless. Rick suggests sending the manuscript straight to publishers. We pick out two: Eakin Press and Arte Público Press.

1999: April. Eakin Press accepts the manuscript. I pick up the phone and tell Arte Público that we have an offer for the manuscript. A few hours later, I get an email from Arte Público saying, "We want this manuscript. Don’t do anything." So, in a state of complete euphoria, we wait for a contract. We now have two offers on the book. We compare contracts and we decide to go with Arte Público Press.

2001: October. Lorenzo's Secret Mission is released. It is nominated for Book of the Year (Young Adult) by Foreward Magazine.

2002: September. Lorenzo's Revolutionary Quest sees the light of day.

2003: Lorenzo’s Secret Mission wins an award with the Arizona Authors Association.

2004: Lorenzo's Revolutionary Quest in an award winner (Arizona Authors Association).

2005: Lorenzo’s Secret Mission is a finalist for the Western Writers of America Golden Spur Award.

2006: May. Lorenzo and the Turncoat comes out. (In the meantime, Lorenzo and the Pirate is finished and in the mail.)

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

A historical novel is a challenge on many levels. Lorenzo and the Turncoat is set in 1779 New Orleans and Baton Rouge. That meant knowing the larger picture: the names of streets, the laws in effect, society in general. Luckily, I love research. Rick and I both know Spanish and French, a prerequisite for writing about 18th century Louisiana.

The bad part is finding all the information. Sometimes, we simply have to give up. In Lorenzo's Secret Mission, I never found the names of "Gibson's Lambs." Most of them were illiterate men on a secret mission. Likewise, I could not find a description or a picture of William Linn, a lieutenant in the Continental Army in 1776. I had to invent personalities and physical characteristics out of nothing.

One difficulty in writing historicals is feeding the reader information without it feeling like I am "teaching" the reader about the time period. In Lorenzo's Revolutionary Quest, Molly is required, along with everyone else in Washington’s camp, to be inoculated for small pox. (Washington knew that the British intended to decimate the army with small pox. It was an 18th century bioterrorism threat.)

It is easier to write historicals nowadays, with the Internet at my fingertips. It puts me in instant contact with re-enactors, historians, and other experts. When I needed to send a picture to Arte Público showing the uniform of a Spanish soldier in Galvez's army, I contacted a friend in Louisiana. He sent me a picture from the Baton Rouge Advocate showing him and other re-enactors in uniform. I emailed the picture to Arte Público and the editor there sent it on to the cover artist.

I frequently travel to Louisiana for school visits and other book events. Even so, I find that I do most of my "traveling and research" for the book online. In Lorenzo and the Turncoat, a hurricane devastated New Orleans in August 1779. Online, I found a pre-Katrina website that had a streaming video of what a storm surge would do to St. Louis cathedral and the Ursuline Convent. When writing the scene where Lorenzo nearly drowns in the storm surge, I used that video.

By the way, that brings up one of the difficult parts of writing historicals. In 1779, there was no St. Louis Cathedral. It was "St. Louis Church," a structure that burned down in the 1788 New Orleans fire. At the beginning of the book, I had to put a historical note because I did not want people to "see" St. Louis Cathedral.

What should a writer consider when crafting more than one book with the same protagonist?

Each book in a series should stand alone. A reader should be able to read the books out of order and still understand what is going on.

Lorenzo has to face new challenges in each book and must grow as a character. He is a man of honor who always does the right thing. That often puts him in danger and in difficult situations.

One challenge is that Lorenzo will age from 15-22 years old in the series. The series spans 1776-1783. At the end of the third book, Lorenzo is 18 years old and marries Eugenie. We had intended for them to wed at the end of the book, but readers wanted to see them married sooner. So their courtship came to an end.

The author should not repeat plots. In one book, Lorenzo is on a flatboat. In the next, on a cattle drive. In the third one, he is surviving a hurricane and fighting the British at Baton Rouge.

You've done a lot of collaborative work with your husband Rick. What do each of you bring to the equation? What are the particular challenges and benefits of being married and creating books together?

Rick describes himself as "the concept guy." He originally discovered the topic for the Lorenzo books and wrote the initial outline for the entire series. When we start a new book, we talk about each character's goal and personality. Then we plot the action.

I do the actual writing. When I finish a chapter, Rick reads it and then we discuss it. One of his main goals is to make sure the male characters are acting "manly."

Our poor children, however, have to endure strange conversations. Sometimes Rick and I have to work out plot points and they overhear things like: "Should we shoot him in the hand or in the leg?" (Our kids will probably be in therapy for years.)

You have another new release, Kichi in Jungle Jeopardy, illustrated by Regan Johnson (Blooming Tree, 2006). Congratulations! Could you tell us about this book?

Kichi, a rare blue Chihuahua, has lived his whole life pampered by Fortune-Teller at the Temple in the Mayan city of Chilaam. When Fortune-Teller’s brother captures a new slave from a rival city, Kichi cannot believe his luck. The new boy speaks Dog! Just as Kichi makes a new friend, raiders attack Chilaam and kidnap the boy. Kichi must brave the dangers of the jungle to save his friend.

Kichi meets wise-cracking sea gulls, devious monkeys, a speech-impaired jaguar, and a host of jungle animals and plants as he makes his way through the jungle.

What do Regan's illustrations bring to your text?

Regan's drawings are spectacular! What a wonderful addition her artwork is. Miriam Hees at Blooming Tree Press (publisher interview) told me that I would be thrilled with the artist and her artwork. Was I ever! The setting and time period (pre-Columbian Mayan civilization) is unfamiliar to most people. Regan's drawings of temples, Mayans, animals, and vegetation help the reader visualize an unfamiliar setting and time period and set the mood of the book. The book cover is a masterpiece and shows all the plants and animals that Kichi meets.

You offer a critique service. Could you tell us how it is structured, and what is offered to your clients?

I have very little time between my own writing and marketing novels, so I am very selective when taking on clients.

However, I understand the Catch-22 that most new novelists face. They take workshops, study the craft of writing, produce a first novel, then face rejection after rejection. They wonder what is wrong with the novel and need a published author to read it, offer constructive suggestions to improve it, and help them shape it into a desirable product.

The problem is--most novelists are up to their eyebrows in work.

Gone are the days when an editor at a publishing house worked with a promising new writer. Now, a writer must present a picture-perfect manuscript. I work closely with writers in a long-term relationship to make their fiction the best product possible.

I prefer to work with budding writers who are open-minded and willing to rewrite. A novel is not written. It is re-written. I am looking for fiction writers who have studied the craft and are serious about writing.

I prefer the following kinds of fiction: Adult, Young Adult, Juvenile. Query letter. Synopsis. No picture books. No pornographic material, please.

I cannot guarantee publication, but our writing relationship is not finished until your novel is published. (At tht point, we celebrate with a lobster and champagne dinner. You buy.)

Contact me at lorenzo1776@yahoo.com so we can chat for a bit before sending me a manuscript. I take on five writers a year. Sorry. That's my limit. I have my own writing to do.

I charge $3 per page. A manuscript must be in Courier 12 font. My typical turnaround time on a novel is four weeks. I do a line edit and also edit for content.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Decide on the kind of writing you want to write. Then, read, read, read. Join your local writers group. A small critique group is a "must have." Write every day, even if it is only for ten minutes. Set goals. Concentrate on one project at a time.

How about those authors building a career?

Listen to the advice of other published authors in the field. Network with other writers. Look for opportunities to promote your latest book. Don't expect the publisher to do all the marketing. You have to promote your latest production aggressively while writing your next masterpiece. Above all—PLAY NICE WITH OTHERS.

How about those interested in historical fiction?

Become familiar with all aspects of the time period. What peculiar customs existed at the time? What did people eat? What did they wear? When they stubbed their toes, what did they say? Make the time period come alive. Ideally, the reader will become lost in the novel and will feel like he or she is actually there.

Read documents written at the time. That includes historical documents, diaries, drawings and portraits.

Find the people interested in your time period and contact them. People love to share their knowledge and passion for a particular time period. For the American Revolution, for example, meet re-enactors, people who are members of the Sons of the American Revolution and Daughters of the American Revolution. What historical associations and genealogists are in your area?

As a reader, what are some of your favorite recent reads?

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (author interview), Long Gone Daddy by Helen Hemphill (Front Street, 2006), The Demonata Book 1: Lord Loss by Darren Shan (Little Brown, 2006)(author notes), and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (Hyperion, 2005)(author interview).

What can your fans look forward to next?

Lorenzo will ride again...and again...and again. In his next adventure, Lorenzo and the Pirate, he boards a pirate ship to render medical assistance and finds himself in a naval battle between the pirates and the British. He is shipwrecked on the island of Cozumel with an amnesiac pirate.

Lorenzo's Buried Treasure. In 1780, Lorenzo searches for a treasure chest filled with $20,000 in silver and is captured by the British. He is held captive on the infamous prison ship, the Jersey.

Lorenzo's Battle. When General Gálvez attacks the British at Pensacola, Lorenzo is by his side.

Lorenzo at Yorktown. Lorenzo faces old foes during the final battle of the American Revolution.

Lorenzo at Valley Forge backtracks a bit and takes our hero to that miserable winter when Washington’s forces were hunkered down in the Pennsylvania countryside. Lorenzo’s friend, Red, is killed in the massacre at the Hancock House (New Jersey).

Lorenzo's 355 tells the story of Lorenzo's association with "355," Washington’s female spy.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I have been addicted to backgammon for years and often play it online. Swimming is my main exercise. Sometimes I take my dogs, Lucy and Chance, for a walk.

Cynsational Notes

Regan's Artist Blog: "What goes on in an artist's head? Let's find out together..."

See more author/illustrator interviews and learn about Texas children's book creators.
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