Friday, November 10, 2006

Author Christopher Kurtz to Appear at Ethiopian Books for Children D.C. Event

Ethiopian Books for Children is hosting a presentation and book signing by author-board member Christopher Kurtz. It will be held Friday, Nov. 17 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Embassy of Ethiopia, 3506 International Drive NW, in Washington D.C. Light refreshments will be served.

Chris is the co-author of Only a Pigeon, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 1997). He wrote the picture book with his sister, author Jane Kurtz. See background about the writing of Only A Pigeon.

Ethiopian Books for Children is a 501 (c) that works to promote literacy in Ethiopia. For more information about their mission and current projects visit,

Cynsational Notes

Author Interview: Jane Kurtz on the Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation, Memories of the Sun: Stories of Africa and America from Cynsations.

Cynsational News & Links

Howdy to the Reading Rockets at Council Oak Preschool in Round Rock, Texas! They have been reading Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000).

Speaking of Jingle Dancer, readers may want to take note. Full Circle Videos: Native American Art, Cultures, and Music offers a 30-minute DVD, "Jingle Dress" for $19.95. View an interior page from Jingle Dancer.

Congratulations to Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, whose upcoming book, Steady Hands: Poems About Work has been matched to a "fabulous illustration team," even if she won't say who they are yet! Tracie mentions my personal conviction that writers must celebrate all good news--big, small, and in the middle. There's so much rejection in this business. We must embrace joy whenever we can.

Thanks to Cynsations LJ syndication reader Julia Durango for cheering my recent interview with Charlesbridge editor Yolanda LeRoy. Julia's books include Cha-Cha Chimps, illustrated by Eleanor Taylor (Simon & Schuster, 2006) and Dream Hop, illustrated by Jared Lee (Simon & Schuster, 2005)(excerpt). Watch for Angels Watching Over Me, illustrated by Elisa Kleven (Simon & Schuster, 2007). Learn more about Julia Durango.

More News & Links

The Ballyhoo: Writers, Illustrators & Circus Stars: a new blog from author-illustrator Carlyn Beccia. Carlyn is the author-illustrator of Who Put the B in the Ballyhoo? (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).

Ben Franklin's 300th Anniversary: Themed Reviews from Children's Literature. See also Aviation: Themed Reviews.

Good Girls: A Novel; Because Every Girl Is Good: a new blog about Good Girls by Laura Ruby (HarperCollins, 2006)(author interview). Learn more about Good Girls at Backstory (seriously, this is a must-read link).

Lorenzo and the Turncoat by Lila and Rick Guzman (Arte Publico Press) is the winner of the Arizona Authors Association Annual Literary Contest in the published children's literature category. Second place went to Shelby by Stacy A. Nyikos, illustrated by Shawn N. Sisneros (Stone Horse) and third to The Wall by the Phoenix Writers Club, edited by Eileen Birin (Neelie). Read a Cynsations interview with Lila.

Congratulations to Wendy Mass on the publication of Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life (Little Brown, 2006).

Princess Nevermore Fan Site: celebrating author Dian Curtis Regan, the Princess Nevermore Revised Edition (Darby Creek, 2007), and its companion book, Cam's Quest (Darby Creek, 2007). Read a Cynsations interview with Dian.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

First Children's Book Week Great Giveaway Gets An Early Start

The Children's Book Council (CBC) has initiated a nationwide book donation program in honor of Children's Book Week 2006 and, in association with its members, will donate more than one hundred thousand books to charity, it was announced today by Robin Adelson, the Executive Director of the Children's Book Council. Adelson joined the CBC in September with little more than two months before Children's Book Week 2006. When she discussed her dream of a Great Book Giveaway to donate kids books to charities in celebration of Children's Book Week next year, CBC members responded immediately and enthusiastically to the idea and felt there was no need to wait until 2007 to begin the project.

CBC Members were encouraged to donate as many books as possible to the charity or charities of their choice during Children's Book Week, November 13-19, 2006. CBC staff suggested that members work with organizations they had worked with in the past or to contact groups in their local areas, such as women's shelters and free after-school programs.

In honor of Children's Book Week 2006, 18 children's book publishers and the Children's Book Council are donating 137,166 books to 31 non-profit organizations across the country (see complete list of publishers and organizations below). From the smallest to the largest publishing companies in the country have come together as CBC members to support day care centers, Head Start programs, and other local and national literacy programs.

Many companies chose to work with First Book because of CBC's long standing relationship with the organization. Candlewick Press, the first CBC member to sign up for the Great Book Giveaway, creatively decided to make their donation to First Book a double celebration for Children's Book Week and Candlewick's 15th Anniversary. Other companies donating to First Book include Bloomsbury USA Children's Books, Gingerbread House, HarperCollins Children's Books, National Geographic Children's Books, Peachtree Publishers, Penguin Young Readers Group, and Random House Children's Books.

By working together as an industry, children's book publishers are making a real difference in the lives of children. Through the auspices of the Children's Book Council and its member publishers, over 130,000 books will be delivered to charities, schools and local organizations during the week of November 13-19. This year's Children's Book Week will mean something substantial and practical to a large number of children, but as that something is a book, Children's Book Week will also bring the fantastical, the amazing, and the fun to kids all over the country.

Cynsational Notes

Participating CBC Members

As Simple As That Publishing (
Bloomsbury USA Children's Books (
Brown Barn Books (
Candlewick Press (
Celstumo Publishing (
Charlesbridge Publishing Inc. (
Children's Book Council, Inc. (
Gingerbread House (
HarperCollins Children's Books (
Henry Holt Books for Young Readers (
Holiday House, Inc. (
Houghton Mifflin Company (
National Geographic Children's Books (
Peachtree Publishers (
Penguin Young Readers Group (
Random House Children's Books (
Roaring Brook Press (
Scholastic Inc. (
Sylvan Dell Publishing (

Organizations Receiving Book Donations

Bridgehampton (NY) Head Start (
Bridgeport (CT) Public Schools
Carmelite Child Development Center, St. Louis, MO
Carondelet Day Care Center, St. Louis, MO
Central Catholic/St. Nicholas Childgarden, St. Louis, MO
Cradles to Crayons (
DeSales Day Care, St. Louis, MO
Father Dunne's Newsboys Home, St. Louis, MO
First Book (
Guardian Angels Settlement, St. Louis, MO
Hartford (CT) Public Schools (
Lisa Libraries (
Marian Hall Residential Care, St. Louis, MO
Marine Toys for Tots (
Marygrove, St. Louis, MO
New York Cares (
Operation Santa Claus (
Queen of Apostles Day Care, St. Louis, MO
Reader to Reader (
Sacred Heart Villa, St. Louis, MO
St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf, St. Louis, MO
St. Louis (MO) University Day Care
St. Martin's Child Center, St. Louis, MO
St. Patrick Center Day-Care, St. Louis, MO
St. Peter Day Care and Early Learning Center, St. Louis, MO
St. Vincent's Home, St. Louis, MO
Stella Maris Child Center, St. Louis, MO
Villa St. Joseph Child Care & Education Center, St. Louis, MO
Visitation Child Development Center, St. Louis, MO
A South Carolina charity for families of Qatar-stationed soldiers

The Children's Book Council is a nonprofit trade association that promotes the use and enjoyment of children's trade books and related literacy materials for young people, and is the official sponsor of Young People's Poetry Week and Children's Book Week. The CBC's membership is made up of U.S. publishers and packagers of trade books for children and young adults, and producers of related literacy materials. Proceeds from the sale of CBC materials help support the Council's literacy efforts.

Author Interview: Laura Ruby on Free Speech Challenges to Lily's Ghosts

Lily's Ghosts by Laura Ruby (HarperCollins, 2003) has been challenged in Florida. The Tampa Tribune has covered the story.

I previously interviewed Laura on Lily's Ghosts in January 2005 and visited with her for an update interview in May 2006 on her more recent titles, the children's fantasy The Wall and the Wing (HarperCollins, spring 2006)(excerpt), and the young adult novel Good Girls (HarperCollins, fall 2006).

When did you first hear that Lily's Ghosts was being challenged? Could you update us on the situation?

Lily's Ghosts was chosen for Florida's Sunshine State Award list for grades 3-5 and grades 6-8, something I was really excited about. Then, six or eight weeks ago, an author friend heard from a Florida librarian that there were a few complaints about my book. After that, a Tampa-area parent wrote to tell me that the situation had been written up in the Tampa Tribune. Apparently, my book and two others were removed from a battle of the books contest held for 4th graders in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, a contest that normally included all Sunshine State list selections. Another parent in a third county told me that there had also been complaints in her area as well.

Has it been challenged or banned before?

No. The book's been out for more than three years, has been offered in Scholastic Book Fairs and Clubs, and to my knowledge has been used very successfully in many 4th grade classrooms. As a matter of fact, right after I heard about the challenge, I got a note from another Florida 4th grade teacher who wrote to tell me that his whole class loved the book.

As an author, how do you react emotionally, professionally?

At first, I was shocked. I'd just published an edgy book for older teens called Good Girls, so I was expecting some flak for that one. But I never imagined any challenges to Lily's Ghosts. I was really upset. After thinking about it for a while, though, I realized that I was in good company. J.K. Rowling, Chris Crutcher, Robert Cormier, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Katherine Paterson, Judy Blume (author interview), and Lois Lowry (among many others) have all had their books challenged repeatedly.

So, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and wrote a letter to the editor of the Tampa Tribune. I wrote another letter to the administrator who'd had Lily stricken from the battle of the books list and sent her signed copies of my other middle grade title, The Wall and the Wing. And then I did my very first (very snarky) podcast on the subject of book banning and Teen Read Week.

How do you respond to concerns that children and/or their belief systems might somehow be affected by a book that features ghosts? (Have other ghost stories been targeted?)

Right now, there is a Georgia mom who is trying to have Harry Potter removed from schools across her entire county because she feels the books promote witchcraft. So, yeah, I think there are a few people who have issues with fantasy novels about witches or ghosts.

I want to say that I think it's perfectly appropriate for these parents to select books they feel are right for their kids. What I have a problem with is when parents try to choose books for everyone else's kids. I think the only response is to keep writing the kinds of books you need to write. And to acknowledge to those who complain that no single book is going to be right for every child.

What advice do you have for authors who find themselves in this situation?

You can go to [scroll] and see the long list of authors who have been challenged before you and see the kind of excellent company you're keeping. And then I would join an organization like AS IF (Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom) to stay up to date on the issues. I would make sure to support other authors whose titles are challenged by writing letters of support to newspapers and blogs, where appropriate. Chris Crutcher's website ( has a lot of material relating to censorship and book challenges that is very helpful.

How can readers support free speech as related to youth literature?

Readers can also go to school board meetings and speak when decisions about books are being made. They can write letters to their newspapers. I had a wonderful parent go to bat for me in Florida. She wrote letters to the school administrators. She emailed friends and colleagues about my book and the challenges. It was so gratifying that a woman who didn't know me would fight so hard for my book.

But the most important thing I think people can do is to keep reading to and with their kids.

Cynsational Notes

Highlights of the Sunshine State Award List for grades 3-5 also include: Runt by Marion Dane Bauer (Clarion, 2002)(Yearling, 2004)(author interview).

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Editor Interview: Yolanda LeRoy of Charlesbridge

Yolanda LeRoy is the editorial director at Charlesbridge, an independent publisher of children's books since 1989. Authors she has worked with include Linda Sue Park (author interview), Eve Bunting, Kathryn Lasky, Martha Alexander, Caroline Arnold, Tony Johnston, Sneed B. Collard III, Grace Lin (author-illustrator interview), Iza Trapani, and Jerry Pallotta. She began her career in publishing at Charlesbridge and has also worked as an editor at Candlewick Press. Yolanda is a former executive board member of the Foundation for Children's Books, a Boston-based non-profit organization for children's literacy, and is the founder of the Boston Children's Publishing Group, a social and networking organization for children's publishing professionals. Yolanda studied Russian language and literature at Harvard College.

What kind of young reader were you?

Voracious. I was a big nerd and classic overachiever from an early age, and reading was my salvation. I read with the flashlight under the covers so my mom wouldn't know how late I was staying up. I read on car trips; on one family trip to Newfoundland I remember being yelled at for burying my nose in the fantasy book I was reading instead of taking in the culture and scenery around me. I read books cover to cover as fast as I could. It was addictive. I remember going to the library with my mom every few weeks and checking out stacks and stacks of books. I went through a big mystery phase, first Nancy Drew, then Agatha Christie. I collected every title.

What inspired you to make children's book editing your career focus?

Well, actually I fell into it in a really odd way. I was a Russian major in college and had planned on working for the CIA. After going through the year-long application process, including a polygraph test and background check, I received a politely terse rejection letter in the mail. Signed by "Crystal" (no last name). I was devastated. My then-boyfriend was going off to study at Oxford, and I had to decide whether to go off with him or try to find some last-minute job in Boston.

Not a big one for change at that point in my life, I decided to stay, and I somewhat randomly figured publishing might be a good field for me. I sent out dozens of resumes and started my follow-up phone calls a week or so later. I got put on the phone with someone at Charlesbridge and was transferred around to the human resource director, who said the only opening available was for a temp in the front office, but they had been thinking of creating the position of assistant to the president and maybe I'd be interested in that. I went in for an interview with Brent Farmer. Turns out his daughter was a few years older than me, had gone to Harvard, and was a Russian major. I got the job. I had never thought about children's books before and knew next to nothing about the industry. But I was in the right place at the right time.

How did you prepare for this career?

As the above shows, I really didn't! I learned as I went along, with a few good mentors along the way. Brent Farmer, president of Charlesbridge, and Mary Ann Sabia, associate publisher, taught me about business and management, and I learned the craft from several talented editors along the way: Juliana McIntyre, Kelly Swanson, Harold Underdown, Dominic Barth, and Liz Bicknell (at Candlewick).

In my early career, I think I learned mostly by making lots of mistakes. I used to keep a file actually--every time a new book came in, I would dissect it mercilessly and write down everything that I wished I had done differently. Then I'd file the list away and forget about it. It was kind of like purging evil sprits or something. Nowadays, I'm more accepting of the fact that books are imperfect creatures and that's why we love them.

So I say I was completely unprepared for this career, but when I look back at my early life, I see that really I wasn't. I'm an older sibling, and one of my favorite games as a child was making my poor little sister diagram sentences so I could correct her work. I was always a little bit of a perfectionist (okay, a lot of one), and my LP and cassette collection was meticulously organized. Friends used to come into my room when I was a teenager and subtly shift my belongings around to see how long it would take me to move them back to their proper place. When I was feeling particularly frazzled or buffeted by teenage angst, I would delight in taking everything out of my closets and shelves, throw them in a heap in the middle of the floor, and put them back where they belonged. I was a strange child.

But I often think of that image now, because isn't that analogous to the editing process? We take what's there, throw it on the floor, and put it back (mostly) where it belongs, with a few subtle improvements along the way.

What do you see as the job(s) of an editor in the publishing process?

The editor is the lens through which the separate creative visions of the author and the illustrator are focused. Editors are behind-the-scenes facilitators. I personally feel that editing should be invisible. I don't need or want my name on a book. We don't edit for our egos. Ultimately, editing should be something of a selfless job. You give and give and give, all in the service or the books, the authors, illustrators, and their careers.

I think it's important to remember at all times that as an editor, it is not your book. You take care of it, you nurture the author/illustrator, but your name's not on the book.

Of course you're trying to build your own career, but I do believe the best editors are humble and respectful of the integrity of a work. That doesn't mean we don't have strong opinions, of course! But you have to know when you're holding onto something too tightly.

What are its challenges?

Editing requires the ability to juggle many balls in the air. I have to balance managing my staff, running the department, editing over thirty projects in various stages of development, acquiring new books, analyzing the list balance, keeping abreast of sales figures and overall profitability, keeping all the books on schedule, attending more meetings that there are hours in the day, building up a network of key contacts, attending conferences and exhibits, and many more responsibilities. It's a lot. And I'm supposed to keep myself cheerful, decisive, and above all, creative. But call me crazy, I wouldn't change careers for the world.

What do you love about it?

I love working with all the creative voices that I do. Not only the authors and illustrators, but the fabulous art directors and designers. With my staff. With the marketing and sales team. I love how all these voices contribute to the final work of art, the book.

It's my job to sort through the din and help determine which ideas require implementation. I enjoy the management duties of my position, and helping our editors find their strengths and watching them grow is so akin to the creative process of working with authors and illustrators.

I love how a book comes together. Each journey is different, and you can't have too many firm expectations or you'll be disappointed; I love how books surprise me along the way. I love how, at the end of the day, I feel like what I do matters. I make a difference. Books make a difference. That's a great feeling.

For those unfamiliar to Charlesbridge, could you offer an overview of the list and its philosophy?

I think our mission statement says it best (and I admit I'm biased as I was on the mission statement committee): Charlesbridge publishes high-quality books for children from birth to age 12, with a goal of creating lifelong readers and lifelong learners. By integrating reading and discovery, our books connect to the classroom, library, and home. We believe that books for children should offer accurate information, promote a positive worldview, and embrace a child's innate sense of wonder and fun. To this end, we continually strive to seek new voices, new visions, and new directions in children's literature.

If you had to pick just three--hard, I know--what are Charlesbridge's don't-miss titles of 2006? And why?

You can't ask me to pick just three! Here are a few of my recent favorites:

Aggie and Ben by Lori Ries, illustrated by Frank W. Dormer, is our first foray into the early reader genre, and I think it's a perfect little book about a boy and his dog. It's already been starred by PW and The Horn Book.

The Legend of Hong Kil Dong is a fantastic "graphic picture book," written and illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien. Based on the first book published in the Korean language, it tells the story of a young boy denied his birthright who studies martial arts, swordplay, magic, and the wisdom of the Book of Changes to discover his destiny and claim his role as a wise and just leader. It's an exciting adventure tale--an earlier version of the western Robin Hood story--that is stunningly illustrated.

Little Lost Bat is a companion book to the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award honor book A Mother's Journey. Written by Sandra Markle and illustrated by Alan Marks, it tells the story of a baby Mexican free-tail bat (you know about those, Cynthia, don't you? [Yes, I do!]) whose mother disappears one night. At the brink of starvation, he is rescued by another mother bat who has lost her child. You'll need tissues when you read this one.

Lastly, Pirate Bob, written by Kathryn Lasky and illustrated by David Clark, is a unique pirate story that stands out in the sea of pirate books riding the wave of popularity associated with Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean." You'll follow Pirate Bob and the rest of his crew as they sail the high seas and plunder ships for treasure. But Bob is also introspective, and he wonders about the nature of friendship while contemplating the pros and cons of his chosen profession. Ultimately, it's a story about the fleeting nature of happiness. I think there's nothing else out there quite like this book.

What new directions should we know about?

We are very excited to be branching out beyond picture books. We're not cutting our picture book program at all (we haven't been affected by the much-discussed downturn of the picture book market), but we are now publishing early readers, young chapter books, and middle grade books. Our first list of what we are affectionately calling our "bridge books" was published this past July. These books are for the newly independent reader who is ready to bridge the gap from picture books to more sophisticated literature. Including nonfiction and fiction, the bridge books are meant to challenge, entertain, and engage today's reader. With these added titles, we will now be publishing about 30 to 35 books each year.

In the age of bigger and bigger big houses, smaller publishers shine on. What are the benefits of working with and within a smaller house?

I really believe that smaller independent houses are where it's at. I think they are the hope of the publishing future. Charlesbridge has an informal, collegial, and creative environment. I feel very much a part of a team. There is no competition among editors, which is unique. I think that's because in some ways Charlesbridge is still a smaller fish in a big pond, and we feel united in our mission to get the word out about the good books we're doing. Another major plus is the job security that we enjoy. We've never had the rounds of layoffs you'll find at other houses, and I can't imagine we ever will. It's just not that type of business. Decisions are made by taking more than numbers and percentages into account. I think eventually publishers like Charlesbridge will step into the void left by the fiscal irresponsibility and shortsightedness of the entrenched publishing establishment, that has become increasingly influenced by its multi-media corporate partners.

As far as the benefits for an author or illustrator working with us, I like to think there are many: individual attention, a greater proportion of our focus on each person's book (one of fifteen per list, as opposed to one of 150), the flexibility to publish projects that might not work elsewhere, not being beholden to shareholders or large governing boards, and a team-oriented, family business atmosphere, to name a few.

Do most of your manuscripts come directly from writers or through agents?

I'd say I get maybe 70% from writers and 30% from agents.

In what ways do you work with teachers and librarians in support of your titles and their efforts?

In the context of the whole company, we have a dedicated sales rep for the school and library markets. We've grown this segment of our business quite significantly over the past five years. For grassroots work, we host a series of open houses here in the office where local teachers and librarians come in to meet our staff and our authors.

As far as the editorial department goes, we all try to cultivate our own network of key industry players, and we meet in person whenever possible at conferences, exhibits, and the like. Never underestimate the power of one opinionated librarian!

In addition, one of our editors works part-time in her local library, and another is active on the board of ALSC (American Library Services for Children). We're very eager to do whatever we can to support the good work that teachers and librarians are doing out there on the front lines.

How about booksellers?

Cultivating bookseller relationships and support is the third supporting leg of the tripod of book promotion. We attend all the major bookseller trade shows, and we all try to speak and present at various council and board meetings. Booksellers face many challenges that are different from those facing teachers and librarians, but all are united, along with publishers, in our love for good literature and our passion for promoting childhood literacy.

What do you do outside your editorial/publishing life?

I am quite active in community and some professional theater in the Boston area, and I also sing with a few different ensembles, including an Afro-Cuban Armenian salsa band. I own a hundred-year-old house in constant need of some renovation or the other, and I live with my two beloved cats and my sweet German scientist boyfriend who does sex research. It's an eclectic life, never dull.

Cynsational Notes

See also another interview with Yolanda, this one by Lisa Lodholm Gilman from the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI.

Thank you, St. Edward's U

Last night I had the pleasure of visiting Dr. Judy Leavell's children's literature class at St. Edward's University in south Austin. Topics included the need for more Spanish-language translations of American children's literature. Thanks to Dr. Leavell and her students for their hospitality.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Cynsational News & Links

While supplies last, Cynsational readers are welcome to request a signed and/or personalized book plate(s) for Santa Knows by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (or any of my other books). Just be sure to include the title, your address, any personalization information, and note "Santa Knows" in the subject line.

More News & Links online retailer offers "a large selection of Chinese children's books, DVDs, and educational products." Includes "Chinese Nursery Rhymes for babies, Chinese bedtime stories, Chinese classics, Chinese workbooks/activity books, bilingual books in both Chinese and English, as well as books with audio CDs and VCDs in Mandarin Chinese." Also offers Chinese DVDs for Children.

Don't miss Trash by Sharon Darrow (Candlewick, 2006). SLJ says: "Readers will appreciate the characters' search for identity and efforts to find beauty in places not obvious." PW cheers: "Amid gritty free verse, Darrow interweaves beautifully crafted forms such as the villanelle, sestina and pantoum, whose intricate patterns suit Sissy's mournful voice." And KLIATT sums it up as: "Excellent poetry, poignant story." Read a Cynsations interview with Sharon.

Entries are now being accepted for the The June Franklin Naylor Award for the Best Book for Children on Texas History. "The book must have been published for the first time within the calendar year, January-December of 2006. The exception to this rule is the reprint of an early book for children that is annotated or revised to make its story accessible to today's students." See 2006 general guidelines. See information on the 2005 winners, author Anne Bustard and illustrator Kurt Cyrus for Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Simon & Schuster, 2005) and honor recipients, including author Kathi Appelt and illustrator Joy Fisher Hein for Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America (HarperCollins, 2005).

Trend Spotting: Sea Dogs: An Epic Ocean Operetta by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Marc Siegel (Atheneum, 2004) was spotted on prominent display under "new books" at Dragon's Lair in Austin, Texas. Good news for older-reader picture books and literary trade in graphic novel format.

Young Adult Author Darlene Ryan: official author site features articles, children's poetry, biography, newsletter and more. Darlene's books include Rules for Life (Orca, 2004) and Saving Grace (Orca, 2006).

Monday, November 06, 2006

Author Interview: Don Mitchell on Liftoff: A Photobiography of John Glenn

Don Mitchell's first book for young people is Liftoff: A Photobiography of John Glenn (National Geographic, 2006).

Don Mitchell on Don Mitchell: "I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and raised in Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, and California. My father's career in marketing and sales in the automotive aftermarket kept our family moving around the country. I graduated from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and received a Master's Degree in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I have worked for more than 22 years in the federal government, serving in the U.S. Senate as well as in the White House on the staff of the National Security Council. I live in Arlington, Virginia with my wife Grace, and our children Logan Adlai (age 4) and Ella Ruth (age 2)."

What about the writing life first called to you?

For as long as I can remember, I've loved to read. I've also always loved to write and thought that being a writer would be a great career. After having written for others over the years, I thought it would be gratifying to write for publication under my own name.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

Books had a great impact on me as a child, not just as part of my education, but also as a source of entertainment as well as inspiration. I've always enjoyed browsing at book stores, and often find myself drawn to the children's book section. Examining the latest children's books brings back happy memories of the books I read as a young person.

As I became increasingly motivated over the last several years to write for publication, I thought more about writing for young readers. After my son was born, my wife and I became immersed in children's literature, checking out many books from the local library and purchasing a fair number of books as well. We both enjoy reading to our children, and more importantly, they enjoy it. Writing for young people just evolved into a natural goal. To know that something you have written for a young person has the potential of making a positive impact on them at such a formative time in their life is an exciting idea to me.

Congratulations on the publication of Liftoff: A Photobiography of John Glenn (National Geographic, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Thanks. Like many others, I was an avid reader when I was growing up of the National Geographic magazine, and other publications from the National Geographic Society. Several years ago, when I was making an effort to write for publication, I came across National Geographic's impressive photobiography series for young people. I had worked for John Glenn in his Washington, D.C. office for the final 15 years of his 24 years in the U.S. Senate, and I thought he would be a logical subject to propose adding to the series.

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

The books in the National Geographic photobiography series for young people follow a standard format. I drafted about 10 pages of a manuscript on John Glenn following that format and sent it off to National Geographic in August 2002. After several months, I heard back that it just wasn't what they were looking for at that time. While I was disappointed in that response, which I assume is fairly common in the publishing business, I sent the manuscript to other publishing firms. While I received some encouraging comments, I was unable to find anyone interested in publishing the book I was proposing.

Then, out of the blue, on February 15, 2005 (not that I remember any details, mind you), I came home from work to find both a phone message and an e-mail message waiting for me from National Geographic editor Suzanne Patrick Fonda. She stated that, if I hadn't sold the manuscript to another publisher and was still interested in publishing the work, National Geographic "would like to move forward with it at a rather rapid pace!" After carefully considering the matter for a nanosecond, I enthusiastically accepted the offer.

I really enjoyed working with the team of people who were involved in producing the book, and I was fortunate to have such a great experience as a first-time author at National Geographic. I live close to National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., so I was able to participate in some of the meetings where decisions were made about layout and the choice of images to be included in the book. I was grateful that my views were welcome and that I was given the opportunity to provide input into the process, even in areas outside my lane. It was a great learning experience and a lot of fun.

There was a professional and collegial atmosphere at National Geographic and I always felt that everyone on the project team was pulling in the same direction: Nancy Laties Feresten, Vice President, and Editor-in-Chief of Children’s Books; Marty Ittner, who designed the book; Janet Dustin, Illustrations Editor; Art Director David Seager; and Lori Epstein, to name just a few.

I was particularly fortunate to have Suzanne Patrick Fonda as the Project Editor for my book. Suzanne is a meticulous editor with a fine eye for detail. Always polite, responsive and patient with a rookie writer, her suggestions on the text invariably made it better. What more could you ask for?

Writing on evenings and weekends--and fortunate to have an extremely supportive and understanding spouse, I delivered the completed draft in several months. Then, it was a series of rewrites leading to the book being completed in early December 2005. I had a copy of the book in my hands in early 2006, and the book was released on September 12, 2006.

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

While I did a lot of research for this book, I was fortunate in not having to worry about the primary challenge for a biographer--getting to know the subject. Having worked for John Glenn for 15 years in the U.S. Senate, I had a great vantage point for observing who he is as a person and what he stands for. I'm quite comfortable with my interpretation of John Glenn's life as embodied in this book. And my experience and observations are integrated throughout the book.

For example, when the shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff in January 1986 killing all seven astronauts on board, President Reagan asked Senator Glenn to attend the memorial service for the astronauts in Houston, Texas, and help comfort their families.

When he returned from Houston, Senator Glenn summoned all of us on his staff to his office to share his impressions of the service. He talked about how sad it was to comfort the grieving family members, and how dangerous it can be serving your nation. And he recalled how difficult it was to talk to his own children before his flight in Friendship 7 and prepare them for the possibility that he might not survive the mission.

When he described the "missing man" aerial formation of jet fighters at the memorial service, which is performed as a tribute to those who die in service to the nation, Senator Glenn got emotional--something I had never witnessed before or since.

He looked at the staff and counseled us: "If you ever have an opportunity to do something bigger than yourself, seize the opportunity."

Some time after that, a friend and Glenn staff colleague made the decision to donate his kidney to his brother to save his brother's life. Senator Glenn's admonishment was on his mind as he made that decision. That inspirational call to duty and service was a theme throughout the book as it's been throughout John Glenn’s life.

In another example, years ago I had watched an old re-run on television of Jimmy Stewart starring as aviator Charles Lindbergh in the film "The Spirit of St. Louis." I asked Senator Glenn the next day in the office if he'd ever met Lindbergh. To my surprise, not only had he met Charles Lindbergh as a young Marine pilot, but Senator Glenn flew several combat missions with Lindbergh in the Pacific theater of operations during World War II. That anecdote found its way into the book as well.

Senator Glenn was also quite generous in taking the time from his hectic schedule (he turned 85 years old this year) to not only write the Foreword to the book, but also to help me clarify the facts of his life story.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

As a beginning children's author who has just recently had my first book published, my advice should be taken with a grain of salt. But I think, first and foremost, it's essential to read good writing. And it's important to read as widely as you can, particularly in the area you'd like to write about (e.g., history, biography, fantasy, science fiction, nature).

As a general proposition, I don't think you can do better than to read the works of E.B. White--and not just his classic work, The Elements of Style (with William Strunk, Jr.), and his classics for children: Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan. His essays and correspondence are true gems--witty, insightful, and beautifully written (e.g., "One Man's Meat," "The Second Tree from the Corner," "Poems and Sketches of E.B. White," and "Letters of E.B. White"). E.B. White sets a high standard for writing worth emulating.

Second, make a commitment to writing and get in the habit of writing--and rewriting--as regularly as you can. You’re always likely to do better at something the more you practice.

How about those authors building a career?

In addition to the above suggestions, if you aspire to write for young people, I think it's essential to become a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI). I've found it to be an invaluable source of information about children's literature and the publishing world. Participate in your regional chapter's activities. Also, visit the websites of children's authors and websites devoted to literature for young people, like Cynsations, for useful advice on the writing life and inspiration. If you want a career as a writer, work diligently to produce the kind of writing that you value reading. And don't give up in the face of the inevitable rejections from agents and publishers. Persistence is the key to success in any endeavor.

What about biographers and/or those interested in creative non-fiction specifically?

As someone who loves history, I've always enjoyed reading biographies of historical figures, which to me have always made history come alive. It's interesting to see how prominent individuals shaped, and were shaped by, their times. Biographies geared to adult readers are often voluminous. But the best biographies are more than just an endless recitation of chronological facts; they're an interpretation of that life-- what made that individual distinctive, and what motivated them to accomplish what they did in life.

Writing biographies for young people poses an additional challenge. The writer must present the subject's life as fully and fairly as possible, but must usually do so within fairly constrained word limitations. You have to be able to choose from a wide array of facts about the subject's life and select the most important information to convey the essence of the person's life. Being able to compress this data into a compelling narrative takes practice. Again, reading great biographies is helpful preparation for writing biographies. And read biographies geared for young people by wonderful writers like Russell Freedman.

I'm an avid reader of obituaries, which distill the essence of a person's life into a relatively few paragraphs. They're a great way to learn the biographer's art of compression. I think the best obituaries are published in The Times of London, which you can read online.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I'm fortunate to live in the Washington, D.C. area which offers so many family-friendly activities, many of them free. I like to spend time with my wife and children, exploring new places, taking long walks, visiting museums, the zoo, and local parks, and reading as much as I can.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I am currently working on a photobiography of Henry Ford for National Geographic, which is scheduled for release in the Fall of 2007.

Cynsational Notes

Liftoff: A Photobiography of John Glenn by Don Mitchell, foreward by John Glenn (National Geographic, 2006). From the promotional copy: "War hero, test pilot, American astronaut, and U.S. Senator--for John Glenn, serving his country has always been a joyous adventure. This superbly illustrated book follows the life trajectory of a very focused, highly competitive man, driven by a sense of duty to his country and an innate sense of obligation towards others. Readers will find themselves inspired to 'liftoff' to new heights of achievement."

"It’s almost difficult to read in this day and age when messages are of fear, instead of hope and progress. Nonetheless, it’s a powerful message that will resonate with some young readers. Don Mitchell’s text is both straightforward and inspiring." -- The Edge of the Forest, A Children’s Literature Monthly, September 2006.

Read a Cynsations interview with Editor Nancy Feresten of National Geographic.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Cynsational News & Links

How exciting to see Santa Knows (Dutton, 2006) included among "Holiday High Notes" ("best new books of seasonal interest") at the Horn Book Magazine! Praise includes "neatly structured" and readers are urged to "check out Alfie's anti-Santa PJs." You'll also find the title and authors' blogs highlighted at Horn Book's Web Watch with a warning: "Grinches beware!"

In other news, Greg and I had the honor of keynoting at the Fifth Annual Fall Literacy Conference, "Reading and Writing: Not an English Thing, but an Everything!" ("Literacy is the common thread that connects all learning.") on Nov. 4 at Angelo State University. Special thanks to Dr. John Miazga, dean of the College of Education, Dr. Cheryl Hines, director of reading programs, and Selina Jackson, co-director of Pearl of the Concho Writing Project, which is affiliated with the National Writing Project. Read a complete report on Spookycyn.

More News & Links

Children's Book Reviews by Bob Sibert from Bound to Stay Bound. Offers an overview of the history, scope, and approach of the major review sources.

"Rising Star: Lenore Look" by April Spisak from the Bulletin of the Center of Children's Books. Look's titles include: Love as Strong as Ginger (Atheneum, 1999); Henry's First-Moon Birthday (Atheneum, 2001); Ruby Lu, Brave and True (Atheneum, 2004); Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything (Atheneum, 2006); and Uncle Peter's Amazing Chinese Wedding (Atheneum, 2006). See also "Living in the City: An Urban Life Dozen" selected by Cindy Welch from BCCB.

Writing Across Genres with Tanya Lee Stone: a chat transcript from the Institute of Children's Literature. Read a Cynsations interview with Tanya.
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