Friday, March 27, 2009
Ah, yes! 2006. I was still adjusting to suddenly having time to write. Now I get up and start reading and writing.
I've finished One Crazy Summer (HarperCollins, 2010), a middle grade novel set in 1968, that reunites three sisters with the mother who abandoned them and is now living in Oakland and involved with the Black Panthers.
I've written a small play for the War Is... anthology, edited by Marc Aronson and Patty Campbell (Candlewick 2008). That inspired me to go back to "Captain Bowman," a longer play about a Vietnam vet. I've written a romantic comedy screenplay that BET has shown some interest in. My latest picture book, Bottle Cap Boys of Royal Street (Marimba Books, 2009), will be out this August.
When a novel isn't working, I focus on shorter pieces until I can work out my problem with my original set of characters and larger story. It's hard to see issues when you're knee deep in them. But stepping away, doing something different always sparks the "aha!" moment. Then I'm back on the scent of the novel.
Congratulations on the release of Jumped (HarperCollins, 2009)! Could you tell us, in your own words, a little about the story?
An opportunity to talk about my story? Suddenly I'm twelve again.
Okay. Jumped is a story that takes place in the span of one school day. Leticia, forced to take a make-up math class during the early pre-hours of school, cuts out, only to witness Dominique target the oblivious Trina for a beating at 2:45.
If this were a Shakespearean tragedy, Leticia would torture herself pondering what to do. But alas, Leticia is concerned with gluing on her false fingernail tip and getting a good seat to the fight at 2:45.
What first inspired you to write this novel?
The rise of girl-on-girl violence. It's so out of hand that the newspapers have stopped reporting it. I'm always looking at girl culture, so this type of violence stands out to me. The statement the attacker seeks to make. How brutal. How random.
But let's not forget the ever-present spectator! Most books deal with the bully and victim, but the spectator also plays a large role in promoting the prowess of attacker. I was more interested in the spectator point of view, so I leaned on Leticia a lot. It didn't matter. She couldn't care less.
What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?
Getting through Jumped was a trek through the desert. I thought I'd have this thing wrapped up in six months, tops. It took two years to submit the manuscript to my most patient editor, Rosemary Brosnan. Thereafter, Jumped went through editing and was placed on the publisher's calendar for release two years later. So altogether, it's been four years from spark to print.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in writing this novel?
Jumped was my hardest novel to write to date. These three girls kicked me at every possible turn. They were uncooperative. So many drafts. So many restarts. A ton of pre-writing that belonged only in a journal.
Although the novel is slim, maybe even my shortest novel, I have a huge "unused" folder. So much had to be scrapped.
I also had personal things going on. Managing my life without a full-time salary, my youngest daughter's unforeseen long-term hospitalization—she's now fine and back in school—and the passing of my father.
I doubt that I liked either girl in the beginning. I doubt that I knew them. It was only when I began to respect who they were and what was important to them—regardless of my own thoughts—did I gain some entry.
These are archetypal characters. The spoiled daddy's girl, the tough girl, the pretty girl who believes she's the pretty girl. I wanted them to be distinct, but I didn't want to delve so deeply into their lives and give the reader an out, to sympathize with them. I wanted the reader to see what's important to these girls but I didn't want to let any of them off the hook because of what's happening in their home lives or what has happened in their pasts. No cuing the violins.
How do you balance your writing against the responsibilities of being an author (business, promotion, etc.)?
Prior to Jumped, I had no time to think about promoting my books. My job let me off to do appearances, but to sit down and have a marketing plan for my books...it just didn't happen. My marketing plan was, "Gee. I think it's a good book. I hope they like it."
I'm now more involved. I've done some online chats. I've sent out my postcards. I've introduced myself to booksellers. I run around to libraries and say, "Hey! I've got a book out."
Last year I bid for and won the services of Through The Tollbooth. So they're always coming up with neat things for Jumped, like a book trailer on YouTube. Aren't those things incredible?! I love watching them. I'm giving out Jumped T-shirts to the first fifty who do a thirty-second video reading of Jumped as one of the girls.
For the first time, I'll be writing up a discussion guide. But the record, I do believe the book belongs to the reader. That what they get from it is always right—even when they don't like the book at all. It's their book to not like. I feel a little false about leading the reader to topics and themes, but I'll give it a shot.
Who are your first manuscript readers and why?
I used to have the same two readers for my first four novels. Friend and teacher Rashamella Cumbo and author-librarian Monalisa DeGross (Donovan's Word Jar (HarperCollins, 2007)).
These days, I pick readers by the questions I have about my portrayals. Two high school teachers read Jumped. They claim to have Leticia, Dominique, and Trina in their classes.
If you could go back in time and talk to your beginning writer self, what would you tell her?
My message to third-grade Rita would be to pay attention to tenses in grammar so her 50+ year old counterpart wouldn't have all this gray hair.
Jumped had to be written in present tense for immediacy, but to not deal with the headache I felt coming on... "She's relaying events in simple past, now she's speaking of what occurred in her distant past, but she's also speaking of what would always happen but no longer happens, etc."
I know the rules and caveats, but applying the proper tense isn't what I do naturally.
Foundation, foundation, foundation!
But if I could tell my beginning-published-writer self something, I would say clearly and slowly, "Money is not a bad thing. When they offer lots of money to write a project, take it. That money will enable you to write the thing you love."
What do you do outside the world of books?
My father gave my brother, sister, and I boxing gloves when we were kids. I have a pair of bag gloves, and I go to the gym and hit the speed bag or body bag. I also knit. I used to dance, but not so much these days.
What can your fans look forward to next?
One Crazy Summer (HarperCollins 2010) will come out next year this time. It's a novel for younger readers, say, 9-12, for a change.
Right now I'm digging into a gaming novel. It's just time to step away from the estrogen and tap into boy-head. Having fun with this.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
For example: Cynthia Leitich Smith is the author of several books and short stories for young readers. Her latest release is Eternal (Candlewick, 2009). She is also on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Reasons behind this tip:
(1) My realizing only after a couple of years that one of my favorite authors was one of the voices behind one of my favorite blogs (the sidebar links may be too subtle, especially from those reading a syndication).
(2) In considering blog posts, it often helps to know the source. Who is the author? What does she know about the topic? What perspective does she bring?
(3) I know there are folks who worry about being too promotional, but trust me, you can overcompensate. A while back I received an email from a university professor of children's literature: "Oh, I didn't realize you were an author yourself, and I've been using your website for years." Ow.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
At a grateful dead concert you need:
Acid: two windowpanes taped to chest
Tape deck for recording shows
Wad of cash
PB&J sandwiches for the munchies
Tickets to the show
Scotty Loveletter is in big trouble. He's about to be expelled from school, but all he cares about is getting to Freedom to see Jerry Garcia—even though he doesn't have tickets. But if dedicating his life to Jerryism has taught him anything, Scotty knows he's got to keep on trucking and smile, smile, smile.
In a stunning debut novel, J. T. Dutton crafts a brilliant story about an unforgettable teen finding himself in the music of one of the world's most beloved bands.In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach "edgy" behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?
Both Freaked (Harper, 2009) and my second Stranded (Harper, TBA) plunge into pretty dark territory. Freaked deals aggressively with drugs, Stranded with sex. Both stories are told from the point of view of a teen deeply immersed in self-destructive behavior.
I wouldn't want my own kids doing what my protagonists do, but both stories are, in my opinion, "true." We'd like the world to be better than it is, but kids struggle with hard things and are sometimes forced to grow up sooner rather than later.
I try to be honest about what kind of temptation both maturity and immaturity entail--why sugarcoat? Why lie?
As someone with a MFA in Writing, how did your education help you advance in your craft? What advice do you have for other MFA students/graduates in making the transition between school and publishing as a business?
There are programs out there who do a much better job of teaching the publishing "tricks of the trade" than my MFA program did; and yet, I received three important things from my MFA. I made a lot of writer friends whose work and talent influenced mine. I read books and studied theory with successful faculty who taught me to "read" as a writer. I learned to teach and my academic career dovetails nicely with my writing career.
But here's the kicker: my classmates 10 years later have produced an exceptionally large percentage of award-winning books even without guidance about how to find an agent, etc. So really, at least in my case, just having a place to study and be for a while helped.
The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. First-timers may also be featured in more traditional author interviews over the course of the year.
Chiotti and Decker will be responsible for expanding the Firebrand list into the nonfiction and adult fiction book markets. Authors interested in representation should check the Firebrand website for details on how to submit.
"The addition of Danielle and Stacia broadens Firebrand’s reach dramatically, transforming us from a primarily children's books–focused agency into an agency that can represent every kind of author and every kind of project," said Michael Stearns, partner and co‐founder of Auden Media, the parent company of Firebrand Literary.
See more information about Firebrand Literary and biographies of its agents. Read a Cynsations interview with Michael.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Congratulations to the finalists for the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Best Young Adult Book: Varian Johnson for My Life as a Rhombus (Flux), Anne Estevis for Chicken Foot Farm (Arte Publico/Pinata), and Jo Harper for Birth of the Fifth Sun (Texas Tech Press). The TIL winners in all categories will be announced at the organization's annual meeting in April.
Marvelous Marketer: Harold Underdown (Author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books) from Shelli at Market My Words: Marketing Advice for Authors/Illustrators from a Marketing Consultant & Aspiring Children's Book Author. Peek: "Some books can be effectively and efficiently promoted by their authors, while others can't. Some authors aren't good promoters. There are times when writing is a better use of your time, and writers shouldn't feel guilty about that."
Check out NYPL's Stuff for the Teen Age 2009. Categories include The Undead, Girl Drama, For Real, Urban Stories, It Hurts, For Guys, LOL, Sci Fi/Fantasy, and RIP.
Attention Young Readers: vote in the Children's Choice Book Awards. Note: teachers/librarians may also want to highlight this link to their students/patrons.
Writing and School-Age Kids by Kristi Holl from Writers First Aid. Peek: "You may also work full- or part-time. More demands are made on your evenings and weekends. At this stage, the key is to be flexible and disciplined."
A Rotten Resolution from Stephanie Green at Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "The ending is where you tie up loose ends. The resolution is the moment when your main character realizes the circumstance she has created and accepts the consequences of her actions and acts accordingly."
Fairy Tale Contest from Cyn Balog, author of Fairy Tale (Delacorte, 2009), at the B-log Blog. Peek: "Grand Prize: A signed copy of Fairy Tale (hot off the presses, before you can buy it in stores!) AND A hand-crafted, silver fortune cookie necklace with a special message, Believe. This is just like the one that Morgan wears in Fairy Tale!"
Parent Ex Machina from Editorial Anonymous. Peek: "Parents swoop in to solve kids' problems, give them things they couldn't have gotten by themselves, and save them from danger. That's real life. But it's not real storytelling."
A Chart & A Checklist from Helen Hemphill at Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "So let's randomly say that a novel is 200 pages. If it's longer or shorter, you can figure out the percentages on your own. Here's a story sequence chart that I made up from my notes..." Note: tons of insight into pacing a novel! Read a Cynsations interview with Helen.
Skype an Author Into Your Library or Classroom from library media specialist Sarah Chauncey and author Mona Kerby. Peek: "This Wiki provides a page for each author who joins the network. A template has been designed to ensure consistency of content among authors and to keep things simple for authors, teachers, and librarians. The author pages provide procedural and contact information." Source: Elizabeth O. Dulemba.
Erik Kuntz-One Bad Mouse from Lindsey Lane at This and That. Peek: "I blog about my art, I create tutorial blogs for computer graphics and web issues, and I sometimes write about pop culture. I also post a regular webcomic, which is sort of a blog."
Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith: About Writing and Researching the Book from Deborah Heiligman. Peek: "I have been to England and visited Down House. I loved to be able to walk in the rooms where Charles and Emma sat and worked. Walking into Charles's study was amazing and walking on the Sand Walk with my husband and children was a true experience. But when it came time to write the book..." Note: Charles and Emma, a YA nonfiction book, (Henry Holt, 2009) has received starred reviews from School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Horn Book and The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books." Source: Deborah Sloan at The Picnic Basket.
"Dying to be Thin" a podcast reading and interview with Laurie Halse Anderson from Boston NPR.
Online Social Networking for the Busy Writer: How to Blog, Tweet, and Friend (and Still Have Time to Write): an online class from author Susan Taylor Brown. Note: " May 4th – May 7th That’s Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday." Cost is $60.
Library-lovin' challenge from Jennifer R. Hubbard. Peek: "Why not open up a blog post in which I promise to donate 25 cents per comment (per unique commenter, that is--no getting 100 comments from the same person!) to my local libraries?" Also: "I'm going to do this starting the evening of March 26 and ending around noon on March 28." Note: Bloggers, let her know if you'd like to host a challenge, too. Source: Jama Rattigan.
Getting All Blogged Down by David Lubar. Peek: "A great trailer or a killer essay might get attention. But even then, I'm not sure it translates into increased book sales or even return blog readers. I'm pretty sure it is much better to have a blogger with tons of readers mention your book." Learn more about The Battle of the Red Hot Pepper Weenies (Starscape, March 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with David.
Maggie Stiefvater: the newly designed official author site. Read a Cynsations interview with Maggie.
Writing the Query Letter: a Q & A with Wendy Burt-Thomas, author of The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters (2009), from The Stiletto Gang. Peek: "I remember telling someone about a really high-paying writing gig I got and he said, 'Wow. You have the best luck!' I thought, Luck has nothing to do with it! I've worked hard to get where I am." Source: Susan McBride's Blog.
The Writer Mama Two-Year Anniversary Blog Tour Giveaway: each day in March, Christina Katz, author of Writer Mama: How To Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids (Writers Digest) is blogging and offering a giveaway copy at a new location. See schedule. From Zook Book Nook: "So, whom will you lean on while you write your book? Pick a few people so you don’t wear any one person out. And don't include your agent, your editor, or any of the others on your professional team on your list."
Lisa Yee talks about Absolutely Maybe (Arthur A. Levine, 2009) at readergirlz TV. See a related interview with Lisa from Teenreads.com.
New Voices Award: "Lee & Low, award-winning publisher of children's books, is pleased to announce the tenth annual New Voices Award. The Award will be given for a children's picture book manuscript by a writer of color. The Award winner receives a cash grant of $1000 and our standard publication contract, including our basic advance and royalties for a first time author. An Honor Award winner will receive a cash grant of $500." Note: "Manuscripts will be accepted from May 1, 2009, through September 31, 2009 and must be postmarked within that period." See eligibility, submissions, and announcement information. Source: The Brown Bookshelf.
Encouragement For Writer Wannabes a video interview from Mitali Perkins. Peek: "Each rejection means you can learn. Each rejection means you can pick yourself up and try again." Read a Cynsations interview with Mitali.
First Color eBook Reader is Here! from Tracy Marchini at Curtis Brown. Peek: "...does mean that perhaps we'll see beautiful e-picture books? Or maybe, depending on the resolution, beautiful books on the arts that can reproduce an image as well as the print edition?"
The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones: a recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith of GregLSBLog. Peek: "...a richly atmospheric story of stalking, suspense, lies, and family ties."
Tenners, Writing Communities, and a Tsunami Story: "an interview with Heidi R. Kling, author of the upcoming novel Sea and a co-founder of the Tenners, a group of debut novelists" from Jennifer R. Hubbard. Peek: "It's rare, even in live writing groups (which I’m a member of locally) to find other writers in your exact same stage of writing. We are going through the same things at the same time. I liken it to a new mommy group. I mean, no one else can relate to you the same way as someone experiencing the same exact thing."
For Children's Authors: Need a teacher's guide for your book? Ideas for school visits? from Natalie Dias Lorenzi. Peek: "I'll show you how to present your book as an essential link to learning, not merely an 'extra.'" See sample guides, highlighting A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (HarperCollins, 2004) and My Father The Dog by Elizabeth Bluemle, illustrated by Randy Cecil (Candlewick, 2006), both PDF files. Source: Liz Garton Scanlon. Peek: "eachers are given less and less discretionary time to devote to these sorts of non-standards-based enrichment activities. And PTAs, librarians and districts are likely to see less and less discretionary funding made available for the same. I'm lucky in that I actually love doing school visits. They exhaust but inspire me and remind me of exactly what it is I'm doing and why."
Mark McVeigh has announced the formation of The McVeigh Agency. Mark has a long career in publishing as an editor and was most recently at Simon & Schuster/Aladdin. Mark may be contacted at: email@example.com Note: Mark was the editor for Santa Knows (Dutton, 2006)(available from Scholastic Book Club).
Cynsational Tip: if you are running a giveaway contest, please include the deadline. Note: at least for me, when I'm trying to decide whether or not to feature the link, it helps to know whether the online promotion is still ongoing.
Celebrating Joy Fisher Hein
Congratulations to illustrator Joy Fisher Hein on her recently redesigned website! Peek: "Joy and Kathi [Appelt']s, Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America [(HarperCollins, 2005)], has received numerous awards, including, Growing Good Kids Award 2006, June Franklin Naylor, Honorable Mention 2006, Children's Crown Award Finalist 2006, Teddy Award 2005." Read a Cynsations interview with Joy. Note: an interior painting from the interior of Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers is featured in the header at Cynsations at Blogger.
Congratulations also to Joy on her artwork being featured in celebration of 2009 Texas Reading Club Libraries: Deep in the Heart of Texas! ¡Bibliotecas: En lo más profundo del corazón de Tejas!, a project of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Peek: "The Texas Reading Club is designed to encourage youth to read for pleasure and to promote library usage. A statewide theme is selected each year. The theme for 2009 is Libraries: Deep in the Heart of Texas! The artist is children's book illustrator Joy Fisher Hein."
Via the Native American Student Services' program (NASS), I'm thrilled to report that Native students in Lawrence (KS) public schools will be reading Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002). Note: "565 students [are] enrolled in Native American Student Services, (Pre-K-12) which is about 5% of the total population of the school district." See a free readers' theater for Indian Shoes.
Walker U.K. has tentatively slated Eternal for a fall 2009 release. It will also be published in hardcover by Walker Books Australia and New Zealand in May 2009. See more information.
At Writers Read, Kathi Appelt says of Eternal: "Romance, sorrow, longing ... lots of longing ... all lead up to a story of redemption in the darkest place imaginable, the soul."
Thanks so much to everyone at the Tuscson Festival of Books for their hospitality, especially my escort, Aimee! Thanks also to author pals Janni Lee Simner and Jennifer J. Stewart for making me feel extra welcome!
Highlights of this week included R. L. LaFevers signing at BookPeople. See R.L.'s and P.J. Hoover's reports.
Monday, March 23, 2009
"Our days were spent riding bikes on trails down by the creek, skating with keys around our necks, putting on plays in the backyard, building sheet-tents on clotheslines and elaborate forts in the snow.
"Our backyard backed up to the Indianapolis 500 racetrack, and the entire month of May was filled with the roar of engines. We sold lemonade and cookies to the fans who were lined up for days on the asphalt drive. One time, (or maybe two) we watched the race from lawn chairs on our roof.
"I was enchanted by a big fat book of fairy tales. I wish I still had it. We also had Golden Books that Mom bought us from the grocery for probably 25 cents or something. The Gingerbread Man, The Three Little Pigs, Nurse Nancy and many more. Those are the books I remember reading.
"My father didn't read to us as much as he sat on the bed and made up stories. They were full of nonsense, but we loved them.
"A few years down the road, I started reading the Nancy Drew mysteries and devoured them one by one. I loved the titles. We didn't have a library close, and Mom didn't drive, so we walked to the bookmobile parked a few blocks away. It seemed quite an adventure. I also started reading biographies of famous people. I was curious about their childhoods more than anything.
"I still live in Indiana with my husband. I have two grown children and am blessed with two small grandchildren that I get to read and bake with whenever I want."
What kind of young reader were you--avid, reluctant, encouraged?
I always loved books. My older brother was the avid reader in our family, but I was a close second. And because I was not allowed to touch his books, I touched them plenty whenever
he left the house. I would say I was a good reader, a curious reader.
I think curiosity is a real key. Maybe the key.
Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer?
After having my children, I truly began my life as a writer. I began studying and reading everything I could. I brought home stacks of books from the library, I read articles, I signed up for a local conference, I immersed myself in learning the craft as best I could. Not a day went by that I wasn't writing, or reading about writing. Writing was definitely my passion.
Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?
Oh, the stumbles. Inevitable, I think. Finding rejections in the mailbox for years (my own was a ten-year stumble) was disappointing and always disheartening, for sure.
I don't know all the answers, each writer has to answer this for himself, but for me quitting was not an option. Finally, I began to get acceptances from magazines. My first book acceptance didn't come for a few more years.
I have Kent Brown to thank for publishing my very first book, Sweet Dreams of the Wild (Boyds Mills, 1996) and many more poetry collections after that. He and Bee Cullinan were both strong advocates of mine.
Wordsong, the poetry imprint of Boyds Mills Press, is the only publishing imprint dedicated solely to poetry, and that is a rare and golden opportunity for both poets and poetry lovers.
Could you update us on your back list titles, highlighting as you see fit?
Sweet Dreams of the Wild (Boyds Mills Press, 1996);
Lemonade Sun and other Summer Poems (BMP, 1998);
When Riddles Come Rumbling; Poems to Ponder (BMP, 2001);
Over in the Pink House; Original Jump Rope Rhymes (BMP, 2004);
Castles Old Stone Poems, co-authored by J. Patrick Lewis (BMP, 2006);
What Is Science? (Henry Holt, 2006);
Peanut and Pearl's Picnic Adventure: a My First I Can Read (HarperCollins, 2007).
Congratulations on the release of Bella & Bean, illustrated by Aileen Leijten (Atheneum, 2009)! Could you tell us a bit about it?
I'm over the moon happy with everything about Bella & Bean. It took a long time for me to get these two characters right. Actually, the characters were always right; I knew who they were and their personalities and conversations came effortlessly, but it was the story--the story came slower. I wasn’t sure how the tale of their friendship would unfold.
Aileen Leijten created a magical world for Bella & Bean. I hope one that will enchant the reader. I was completely ecstatic when my editor first sent me her sketches for our book. The house where Bella writes, as PW says, is a 'fairytale concoction.' They also describe her work in the book as having 'offbeat whimsy,' which is absolutely spot on and the thing I love most about her work. I adore Bella for all her gentle grumpiness, but it might be Bean's whimsy and spunk that, in the end, will win reader's hearts.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
Bella just came to me one day, years ago. She was sitting on a bench in a garden (which I have never done, because I've never had a garden, and Bella didn't end up doing it in the book either) with her notepad.
But in my first drafts her name was Olivia. (We all know why I changed that name, by the time my story found it's way, there seemed to be only one Olivia!).
And I knew her friend (which was always Bean) wanted her attention desperately.
And even though Bella loved her dearly, she had this passion.
I am definitely a Bella. My family and friends are my Beans.
On any given summer day, my husband calls through the window, "it's a gorgeous day, come out!" But like Bella, I get grumpy because I am thinking of words. I think it's something writers have to fight for every moment of every day. I love my Beans more than anything in the world.
But I really just want to write with lots of peace and quiet.
So it's finding how to make peace with both and keep your passion for both.
When my daughter was a teenager she had a few friends over one summer night, and one of her friends said to me, "I wish I had feet like yours."
You do, I asked? Why?
"Because," she said, "they are so cute! Not one of your toes is crooked."
We had a good laugh over that. But I immediately knew that comment was totally Bean. I wrote it down in my notes. Pure inspiration.
What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?
It was a long, long time. Probably eight years. I wrote and rewrote this picture book so many times. I found myself going over and over and over the same paragraphs, the same dialogue, countless times. Revising them of course, but not pushing the story forward. I am a relentless
re-writer, oftentimes to my detriment.
I was on a weekend retreat with two writer friends (Lola Schaefer and Kimberly Brubaker Bradley) when they both demanded I leave the first page alone and move on to page two. Period. After lunch, they said, we'd better see page two.
It made me laugh. I knew it was true. I couldn't get past rewriting that first page. That's also something Bella struggles with, although I'm not sure it is glaringly evident.
Fast forward: I finished the book and a fantastic editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy with Simon & Schuster, loved it and offered me a contract. She has always been Bella & Bean's cheerleader. I did receive a few pages of revisions, but they were so on the mark and not too difficult. I love revision for the most part.
Caitlyn was committed to finding just the right illustrator. This took a few years. And Aileen's art was worth waiting for.
What did Aileen Leitjen's art bring to your text?
Complete whimsy. A fairy tale world in which these two live. But in addition to that, a liveliness, an energy.
What advice would you offer to today's beginners who're interested in writing picture books?
The best advice I can give is to identify the kind of book you want to write: the tone, the length, the theme. Then grab all you can from the library. Bring home stacks of them.
Pour yourself a nice hot cup (or fifty) of coffee or tea, and then pour yourself into them and over them. Take notes. Actually type out a few picture books you admire to see them on the page without illustrations. It's important I think to visually see the text without the art.
How about early readers?
I have always, always adored early readers. I was not one of those people who thought they looked easy. I knew the undeniable truth; these things were hard to write. Every word mattered. My goodness, to come up with a beginning, a middle, and an end (with plot, tension, and good dialogue thrown in) in only a few words was a challenge, and something I admired.
I loved reading them to my children when they were young. I wanted to write one for the longest time.
Do you work with a critique group? If not, who are your early readers?
I am lucky enough to go on a writer's retreat once a year with four other talented writers who are my friends and early readers. (Kathi Appelt, Lola Schaefer, Kimberly Willis Holt, and Jeanette Ingold.)
One year, Kathi invited us to her family's ranch, and we have continued the tradition every year. I take this time to work on picture books, because they are all seasoned picture book writers
and novelists. So they offer me tremendous and solid advice. Besides that we have loads of good conversation and fun.
My early reader of poetry is Pat Lewis. We share and critique many of our poems by email.
And I show most everything to Lee Bennett Hopkins and my agent, Elizabeth Harding with Curtis Brown Ltd. in New York.
My daughter is a writer, and I run some things by her. She has a good sense of the English language and a great eye.
Did you have a mentor who made a great difference in your life? If so, can you tell us about him/her?
Mrs. Bradford, my 11th grade English teacher, was the first to tell me I had a talent for writing, and especially for poetry. She wrote words like "enchanting" and "lovely" in red pen on my papers. Many times she asked me to stop by after school to show her the poems I was writing.
Many years later, my mentor would be Lee Bennett Hopkins.
I had always read and admired his poetry anthologies. I had a copy of Side By Side (Simon & Schuster, 1998) and read it to my children until it was in tatters. Lee gave me a chance to submit a few poems for consideration in his collections. (With a firm admonishment of course, that he was looking for only the best.) So I gave it a shot, and he gave me one.
The first book he accepted my poems for was a book titled Small Talk (Harcourt, 1995). It meant everything to me. I felt validated. He believed in my work. And he has ever since.
I respect him so very much. He is such a champion for poetry, for children, and for new voices in poetry. He's a very giving person. He's made a huge difference in my life.
How do you balance writing itself against the responsibilities of being an author (negotiation, promotion, etc.)?
For any author, there is a healthy bit of paperwork. Some more than others of course. Writing bios, composing session content For conferences, writing talks, correspondence regarding school visits And workshops, and (if we are lucky) book fans. Luckily, my agent takes care of all contracts and negotiations for permissions.
All of it can take away from the writing time and energy, but it's all good, and I always remind myself it's part of the job, the serendipitous adventure and journey of publishing.
I try to admonish myself when I start feeling overwhelmed with both writing and paperwork responsibilities -- it's a lot of work, sure, but like Billy Collins once said in an interview, "Not to a coal miner, It isn't." I love that. (The quote is as close as I can remember it.) It reminds us to keep things in perspective.
For you, what is the biggest challenge of your writing life?
Procrastination and Confidence. Neither is a virtue I possess.
Procrastination is big. Wait, one more...it's something my grandmother became consistently exasperated by: sticking to one thing until it's finished.
Focus is a problem for me. Oh, and disorganization.
Gee, to look at this answer, I wonder myself how I get any writing done.
It must be love.
And the more constant and immediate challenge is finding the time, even with an empty house, to write without feeling the pressure to be cleaning or grocery shopping or returning phone calls. I haven't mastered it. At all. It's a daily struggle.
What do you love about it?
Oh, let me count the ways.
Being a writer gives me an excuse to buy school supplies. Goes back to my Captain Kangaroo days, I believe. Colored folders and pens and sharpies and…
It gives me a reason to collect words. There's nothing better--I mean, what a job!--to spend the day splashing words on the page, moving them, choosing them. Saying something in a way no one has said it before. Or at least trying.
Connecting with the child who may be sitting on a cracked stoop or in a flowered chair-- knowing they are reading something I wrote, I love that. Knowing that words are making them think or smile or wonder.
And other things I love about being a writer...
It makes my family proud. Especially my mother.
It provides me and allows me a passion.
The excitement I feel when the writing is going well.
The way it suspends my worries for a time.
The amazing people I've met.
What do you do when you're not in the book world?
Oh, that's a tough one. Because that and being with my grandchildren is what my life truly centers around. Although I love going to movies, taking long walks (I'm not sure that I love taking walks or the fact that my heart probably loves me taking walks.)
I bake. (But as my daughter just laughingly asked, "You do? When?")
So I reminded her of all those homemade cookies I made when they were young and my very delicious peanut butter cookies and the Christmas cookies we still make together every year and the cherry pies (okay, pie) I bake every summer. So I feel sure that counts as "bake."
I like to play Scrabble. I used to ice skate and play tennis when my children were young, but I don't anymore. Maybe I should again. Mostly I spend time in my writing room.
What can your fans look forward to next?
Well, there is no doubt that if readers like Bella & Bean I am anxious and ready to write them into another story. (They are after me all the time.) I'm working on one, but I'll wait for my editor to decide if I go forward.
I'm always working on new poetry collections and hope to have a few books of poetry out over the next few years. I'm also working on a picture book intended for a boy audience and a beginning chapter book starring a character who keeps me amused.