Thursday, November 12, 2009

Guest Post: Elizabeth O. Dulemba on Writing Bilingual Books

By Elizabeth O. Dulemba

The demographics in America have changed, especially in my corner of the world. Atlanta now hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the nation, and I love it. I am surrounded daily by different languages, foods, and customs. Of course, one of the most prevalent languages in my area is Spanish. Which is why I wanted to learn it.

I had a background in French, but it’s not something I can use every day. I was about to turn 40 (a time to realize goals) and a big fan of Jack Tales, when Raven Tree Press (specialists in bilingual picture books) approached me to illustrate an adaptation of “Jack and the Beanstalk”: Paco and the Giant Chile Plant ~ Paco y la planta de chile gigante (written by Keith Polette).

I took intense Spanish lessons at the Latin American Association for two years in preparation for the release of Paco (I couldn’t have a bilingual book and not speak Spanish!), and the bilingual picture book industry moved high on my radar. Happily, the book did so well, Raven Tree wanted more work from me. This time as the author too, for Soap, soap, soap ~ Jabón, jabón, jabón.

Writing a bilingual picture book is similar to all-English with a few new requirements thrown in. With Raven Tree’s books, the Spanish is embedded in the text so the reader can decipher the meaning of words through context--that can create an interesting puzzle to write.

The Spanish term and its English translation can’t be too far away from each other or the association loses its relevance. For instance, in Soap, soap, soap, the opening line is “...his mamá...handed him some money. ‘Here’s some dinero...'” Hence, “dinero” means “money.”

Repetition also helps so the reader has more than one chance to absorb the new vocabulary. In Soap, soap soap, the line “Soap, soap, soap! Jabón, jabón, jabón!” is repeated throughout the text (and is lots of fun with an audience). By the end of the book, the reader surely won’t forget that “jabón” (pronounced “habon”) means “soap”!

Because of my Spanish lessons, I was able to write most of the bilingual version of Soap, soap, soap on my own (it also comes in all-English), but Raven Tree works with a translation company to make sure everything is correct (or to translate for authors who don’t speak Spanish). We didn’t have to make many changes, but there were some amusing hurdles. There are phrases we use in English which simply don’t translate, and visa versa. Those had to go. And there were some terms that had several options. For instance, the ditch that Hugo jumps over in Soap, soap, soap is called “la zanja.” It also could have been “el arroyo,” but “la zanja” was more specific. Of course, I have to pronounce it correctly when reading aloud, or ‘la zan-ha’ ends up sounding like “lasagna”!

Marketing a bilingual book is a bit different as well. Obviously there are regions of our country where the books will be more popular, like mine.

I’ve had the pleasure of occasionally speaking to all-Hispanic audiences - that’s a treat. I’m not fluent, but I have received amazingly warm reactions to my attempts to speak Spanish. In fact, I’ve often felt flat-out adopted by the Hispanic people I’ve dealt with and their extensive families!

Because, whereas my typical audiences will often be made up of one or two parents with their children, an Hispanic audience will more likely be made up of the entire family--parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, you name it. And they often all participate in the activities I hand out.

The first time I gave out my bilingual word find puzzle (sopa de palabras) to an all-Hispanic audience, I looked up to see adults who, I knew, didn’t speak much English, working out my puzzle right along with the kids. It had become a literacy tool! I about cried with joy.

The head of the Alliance Theatre’s Teaching Artist’s program flipped over Soap, soap, soap after seeing a galley at a recent SCBWI conference. Turned out she’d been scouring bilingual picture books for ones with repetition and embedded Spanish, for the very reasons I mentioned above, and there just weren’t that many to choose from. Soap, soap, soap is now one of the main titles in their programming this year. I’m thrilled!

The need for bilingual picture books is so strong right now, publishers and book buyers alike are scrambling to meet the demand. And it’s not just for Hispanic audiences. I’ve signed books for parents who are raising their children to be bilingual--giving them a strong advantage in our changing society. And because of the educational element of bilingual picture books, they tend to scale up and be used by older children, even adults, trying to learn English. Ironically, they are also being used by Spanish speakers who can’t write in Spanish.

Many publishing houses also now have bilingual or Hispanic imprints to meet this need, but I particularly like Raven Tree’s approach. They especially like folk tales because a familiar story or structure can give a reader something to embrace and offer one less thing to stumble over when trying to learn a new language.

Even the economy hasn’t been able to squelch the momentum for bilingual books. The top Spanish-Language book guide (for English speakers), Críticas, recently folded . . . for about three months. The public outcry was so fierce, I’m happy to say it is back and one of the main resources for teachers, librarians, and book buyers to use when trying to find new bilingual or Spanish titles.

For me, writing (and illustrating) bilingual picture books has opened a new world with rewards I never could have imagined. It is a distinct honor to share some of my favorite stories with a new audience, but better yet, I feel I’ve been embraced by a group of people I have come to adore.

Cynsational Notes

Hispanic? Latino? Or What? Notes from the newsroom on grammar, usage and style. From Philip B. Corbett of The New York Times. Peek: "While both 'Latino' and 'Hispanic' are generally acceptable, some people have a strong preference. We should respect those preferences as much as possible in referring to individuals and groups; reporters and editors should routinely ask."

Here's Elizabeth at The Multicultural Minute from Shen's Books:

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win a copy of The Twelve Days of Christmas in Texas by Janie Bynum (Sterling, 2009)! From the promotional copy:

Welcome to the 12 days of Christmas in Texas! Ready to greet you are 9 leapin' lizards, 8 grazin' longhorns, 7 bass a-swimmin', 6 flags a-flyin'... and much more from the Lone Star State.

José is so excited about his cousin Ashley's visit with him in Texas that he gives her one of these VERY unusual gifts on each of the twelve days of Christmas, and Ashley writes lively letters home to tell her mom and dad all about her trip. Lucky readers are in for a wild Christmas countdown!

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "The Twelve Days of Christmas in Texas" in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message me with the name in the header; I'll contact you if you win).

More Giveaways

Reminder: Enter to win one of two author-signed copies of Soap Soap Soap Jabón Jabón Jabón by Elizabeth O. Dulemba (Raven Tree, 2009), one of three author-signed copies of My Father's House by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Raul Colón (Viking, 2007), an author-bookplate-signed copy of Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French (Amulet, 2009) and a contributor-signed copy of Immortal: Love Stories with Bite, edited by P.C. Cast (BenBella, Oct. 2009)!

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "Soap Soap Soap Jabón Jabón Jabón" and/or "My Father's House" and/or "Operation Redwood" and/or "Immortal" in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message me with the name in the header; I'll contact you if you win). Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 30.

Read a Cynsations interview with S. Terrell French. See also a PDF excerpt of Immortal which highlights my short story, "Haunted Love." The story is set in the same universe as Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) and Eternal (Candlewick, 2009) and features new characters.

More News

Congratulations to Yvonne Wakim Dennis and Arlene Hirschfelder on the release of A Kid's Guide to Native American History: More than 50 Activities (Chicago Review Press, 2009)! From the promotional copy:

"Hands-on activities, games, and crafts introduce children to the diversity of Native American cultures and teach them about the people, experiences, and events that have helped shape America, past and present.

"Nine geographical areas cover a variety of communities like the Mohawk in the Northeast, Ojibway in the Midwest, Shoshone in the Great Basin, Apache in the Southwest, Yupik in Alaska, and Native Hawaiians, among others. Lives of historical and contemporary notable individuals like Chief Joseph and Maria Tallchief are featured, and the book is packed with a variety of topics like first encounters with Europeans, Indian removal, Mohawk sky walkers, and Navajo code talkers.

"Readers travel Native America through activities that highlight the arts, games, food, clothing, and unique celebrations, language, and life ways of various nations. Kids can make Haudensaunee corn husk dolls, play Washoe stone jacks, design Inupiat sun goggles, or create a Hawaiian Ma’o-hauhele bag. A time line, glossary, and recommendations for Web sites, books, movies, and museums round out this multicultural guide."

More Links

Holiday High Notes from the Horn Book Magazine. Reading recommendations. Note: Santa Knows by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman was a HHN and is available through Scholastic Book Club; see ordering information.

Guide to Gift Books: An Annotated List of Books for Youth from The Bulletin from the Center of Children's Books. More recommendations. Source: the Horn Book.

Top 10 Arts Books for Youth: 2009 by Gillian Engberg from Booklist. A bibliography of recommendations. Note: congratulations to Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, author of Diego: Bigger Than Life (Marshall Cavendish, 2009) and VCFA alumnae Micol Ostow, author of So Punk Rock and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother (Flux, 2009).

Congratulations to author-illustrator Annette Simon for signing with literary agent Brenda Bowen and to Brenda for signing Annette!

The Writing Life by Sherryl Clark at Books and Writing. Peek: "You are on a journey that will never end as long as writing is your life. You will stumble, even fall. You will find others on the same journey at different times who will help you up. You will carry on with scabbed knees because the scars will also help make you a better writer." Source: Kristi Holl at Writer's First Aid.

Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2009 by The New York Times Book Review. Note: special congrats to Austin's own Liz Garton Scanlon, author of All The World (Beach Lane, 2009)!

Crossing the country in search of a cure: Libba Bray's picaresque novel takes a new direction: interview by Gavin Grant from BookPage. Peek: "This 'temptation to drift off into solipsism' was what Bray wanted to investigate in Going Bovine (Delacorte, 2009)."

Q&A with Bobbi Katz from Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peek: "We talk about what makes poetry different than prose: rhythm, frequent use of rhyme, and most important (and usually without using the formal terms) poetic devices such as metaphor, simile, and personification. We usually write collaborative list poems."

Once Was Lost (by Sara Zarr) and The Expressologist (by Kristina Springer) Giveaway from Tabitha Olson from Writing Musings. Deadline: Nov. 28. Read a Cynsations interview with Sara.

Interview with Justine Larbalestier
from Color Online. Peek: "For ages I thought writing and activism were separate things. I was a writer, not an activist. But then readers started thanking me for writing about teens who weren't white, girls who liked maths, boys who like clothes. I learned that representation is extraordinarily important." Read a Cynsations interview with Justine.

How To Write About...(Pick a Place or People) by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: "Look at any of half a dozen YA novels set in South Asia and you might conclude that all the girls in the region are trying desperately to flee oppressive marriage or widowhood or sexual exploitation. You will feel pity for them and more, you will be grateful that you are not in their place. The thing is, you can't see people as fully human if all you can feel for them is pity." Read a Cynsations interview with Uma.

Interview with Sara Zarr by Tabitha Olson from Writer Musings. Peek: "Finding publishing success doesn't solve the basic problem: how do I translate an imaginative vision into language?"

Children's Book Illustrator Mike Benny: official site features gallery and bio. Mike's latest book is The Listeners, written by Gloria Whelan (Sleeping Bear, 2009), and he makes his home in Austin, Texas. Find more Austin Children's-YA Authors & Illustrators at IndieBound.

Filipino Books for Children: Old and New Favorites by Neni Sta. Romana Cruz from papertigers. Peek: "Although these books were originally meant for Filipino children, the universality of their themes and the English text (not always available in Philippine publications) allow them to be enjoyed by English-speaking children anywhere in the world."

The Movement You Need Is On Your Shoulder by Christine Deriso at Crowe's Nest. Peek: "Think hard enough, rearrange your words enough, bolster your vocabulary enough, be willing to start from scratch enough, and you’ll eventually complete such an exacting writing task by feeling not that you’ve created something new, but that you’ve plucked an existing, exquisite star right out of the heavens. I love that feeling."

Kid/YA Books About Forgiveness from Mitali Perkins at Mitali's Fire Escape. Peek: "As the year comes to a close, I want to compile a list of novels published in 2009 for children and teenagers that illuminate the difficult task of restorative justice and forgiveness. Any suggestions?" Read a Cynsations interview with Mitali.

The Writers' League of Texas welcomes new staff members Jan Baumer, Bethany Hegedus, and Kate Meehan. Note: "Established in 1981, the Writers' League of Texas is a nonprofit professional organization whose primary purpose is to provide a forum for information, support, and sharing among writers, to help members improve and market their writing skills, and to promote the interests of writers and the writing community. With approximately 1,500 members nationwide, we are composed of published and unpublished writers as well as those who recognize the written word as art and simply love to read." Note: see cute pics of the WLT staff below!

Help YA Author Janni Lee Simner Name Her Characters from Janni at Desert Dispatches. You may win a signed book! Deadline: late January, but earlier entries may have the advantage. Read a Cynsations interview with Janni.

2009 Cybils Nominees: Fantasy/Science Fiction compiled by Sheila Ruth from Wands and Worlds. Note: a first-rate reading list for speculative fiction fans; I'm honored to see Eternal (Candlewick, 2009) in such amazing company.

"Get the Indians Out of the Cupboard" the first in a week-long series of posts about reflections of Native people in youth literature from Nancy Bo Flood and Debby Edwardson. Read a Cynsations interview with Nancy.

Children's and YA Books With Contemporary Native Themes from Cynthia Leitich Smith Children's Literature Resources. An annotated bibliography. Peek: "...we need to open our hearts to excellent stories that reflect contemporary Native American Indian experiences, and I hope to see more of them published in the years to come."

An Interview with Alisa Libby by Pam B. Cole from ALAN Online. Peek: "Her first YA novel, The Blood Confession, is based on the life of Countess Bathory, a Hungarian countess who murdered young virgins and bathed in their blood, hoping their blood would preserve her youth. Her second YA novel, The King’s Rose, is a historical account of the life of Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of King Henry VIII."

Marvelous Marketer: Author Alyson Noel: an interview by Shelli at Market My Words. Peek: "...with books getting such a short shelf life these days, the best way to ensure yours books maintain their space is to keep ‘em coming, to build up a nice backlist for your readers to explore and for bookstores to reorder with each new release."

Vampires and Centaurs and Werewolves, Oh My!: An Interview with Francesca Lia Block by Jennifer Hubert Swan from VOYA (PDF). Peek: "I know for myself art has literally saved my life and I see it healing the lives of many of my readers and students. Love, art, and creative expression animate us and make us truly alive."

Books for Military Children & Teens
: "I am a children’s librarian. I created the basis for this site in 2003 as a project for the children’s literature class, LIS 303, taught by Betsy Hearne."

Book Giveaway and Guest Teaching Author Interview with Carolyn Marsden by JoAnn Early Macken from Teaching Authors: Six Children's Authors Who Also Teach Writing. Peek: "The most common problem is being too abstract or general in the writing. I address this by pressing for details. For example, if the student is writing about a flower, I ask what kind of flower? If it's a daisy, I ask what color? If it's a white daisy, I keep inquiring..." Giveaway deadline: 11 p.m. Nov. 14.

Congratulations to new Brown Bookshelf board members Olugbemiosola Rhuday-Perkovich, author of middle grade debut, Eighth-grade Superzero (Arthur A. Levine, 2010), and Tameka F. Brown, author of Around Our Way (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010)!

The Book of the Maidservant by Rebecca Barnhouse (Random House, 2009): a recommendation from Greg Leitich Smith. Peek: "...apparently based on the 15th century Book of Margery Kempe, the first autobiography in the English language." See also Greg's recommendation of I Want to Live: The Diary of a Girl in Stalin's Russia by Nina Lugovskaya (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).

Interview with YA author Jo Knowles from Debbi Michiko Florence. Peek: "Everyone has a story and it’s so rarely the one we assume before we get to know them. I think this is why I love books so much. They make us realize that people are rarely who they seem at first glance. None of us can be put into simple categories." Read Cynsations interviews with Jo and Debbie.

Spellbinders: "Three Young Adult Authors Publish a Monthly Newsletter for Teachers and Librarians to help create lifelong readers. Interviews, curriculum ideas, new book buzz, literacy in the community, and lots more!" November issue includes Kimberley Griffiths Little's peek at books that have attracted Printz Award Buzz. Note: subscribe to the Spellbinders mailing list.

Guest Post by Literary Agent Wendy Schmalz from Children's Author David L. Harrison. Peek: "For my entire career in publishing people have been predicting the death of books. First it was CD ROMS (Boy was everyone wrong about that one!). Now people predict e-books as the beginning of the end. I think it’s the beginning of an expansion of reading, especially for older middle grade and YA novels." Note: Learn more about Wendy from Publishers Marketplace.

Cover Stories: Vamped by Lucienne Diver from Melissa Walker at readergirlz. Peek: "I don't know if the girl on the Vamped cover was hired specifically for this photo shoot or whether the art department used a photo from their arsenal which they modified; hard to come by natural fangs, at least in a model that actually shows up on camera!" Read a Cynsations interview with Lucienne.

Fragmented? Or Focused? by Kristi Holl at Writer's First Aid. Peek: "I need to accept the fact that (except for the lessons and critique), none of the other things will get finished today. I need to make my to-do list reflect this, and yet move each project closer to completion."

When Is a Good Time to Submit? by Kim Norman at Stone Soup. Peek: "Well, here’s good news – about December and summer, anyway. Some big sales have happened during those months, so don’t be daunted by nay sayers." Read a Cynsations interview with Kim.

Austin Scene

Local childrens-YA literature lovers gathered at Mangia Pizza on Lake Austin Boulevard last week to celebrate authors Ellen Howard, a fellow faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts, and Austin's latest YA author, Bethany Hegedus, who recently moved to town from New York.

Ellen makes her home in Salem, Oregon, and her latest book, The Crimson Cap (Holiday House, 2009), is a historical novel set in Texas.


Jan Baumer is the new publicity & programming manager at the Writers' League of Texas, and Bethany is the new office manager.

Cyndi Hughes is the executive director of the League.


Bethany with author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell and author Lindsey Lane.


Authors Jessica Lee Anderson, Debbie Gonzales, and Greg Leitich Smith.


Author-illustrator Emma J. Virjan with Greg and the BookPeople BookKids' super staffers Mandy Brooks (kids events), Meghan Dietsche Goel (kids buyer), and Topher Bradfield (YA events).


Illustrators Mary Sullivan and Eric Kuntz.


Jill Sayre is a VCFA graduate who studied with Ellen.

VCFA student Meredith Davis with writer Erin Edwards and Jessica.

More Personally

Why Cynthia Leitich Smith Is So Awesome...: a post- Spooky Cynsational October Giveaway follow-up report by winner Courtney Lewis, Director of Libraries at Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School in northeastern Pennsylvania from The Sassy Librarian. Peek: "The coolest cover award goes to How to Be a Vampire: A Fangs-On Guide for the Newly Undead by Amy Gray (Candlewick, 2009)--what must the publisher have gone through to make one so cool?" Notes: (1) after a day of vexing revision, it was lovely to be greeted by that post headline; (2) see two Courtney's LAB members posing with their prize; (3) Courtney also includes some lovely thoughts about Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008); (4) it's so happy-making to see great books find a loving home!

Cynthia Leitich Smith on living in a multicultural world from Tu Publishing. Note: I talk about influences, my journalism background, favorite foods and new authors, world-building, writing cross-culturally and more. Peek: "To the extent possible, step into your fictional world. Walk the streets (or their models) that your characters walk, find wardrobes for them, sketch or identify a physical model for each."

Thanks to Liz B at A Chair, A Fireplace, and A Tea Cozy for featuring the Native American Youth Literature Widget on her blog this month! The support is appreciated.

Cynsational Events

Texas Book Festival 2009 Recap from YA author Jennifer Ziegler. Terrific pics, including a peek at one of Austin's smokin' hot children's-YA writer critique groups. Peek: "It was another beautiful fall day--the gentle breezes flowed, the trees rained down leaves, and book lovers of all ages came out in droves."

Destination Publication: An Awesome Austin Conference for Writers and Illustrators is scheduled for Jan. 30 and sponsored by Austin SCBWI. Keynote speakers are Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson and Caldecott Honor author-illustrator Marla Frazee, who will also offer an illustrator breakout and portfolio reviews. Presentations and critiques will be offered by editor Cheryl Klein of Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, author-editor Lisa Graff of FSG, agent Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary, agent Mark McVeigh of The McVeigh Agency, and agent Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown, Ltd. Advanced critique break-out sessions will be led by editor Stacy Cantor of Bloomsbury. In addition, Cheryl and author Sara Lewis Holmes will speak on the editor-and-author relationship, and Marla and author Liz Garton Scanlon will speak on the illustrator-and-author relationship. Note: Sara and Liz also will be offering manuscript critiques. Illustrator Patrice Barton will offer portfolio reviews. Additional authors on the speaker-and-critique faculty include Jessica Lee Anderson, Chris Barton, Shana Burg, P.J. Hoover, Jacqueline Kelly, Philip Yates, Jennifer Ziegler. See registration form, information packet, and conference schedule (all PDF files)!

2010 Houston-SCBWI Conference is scheduled for Feb. 20, 2010, at the Merrell Center in Katy. Registration is now open. The faculty includes author Cynthia Leitich Smith, assistant editor Ruta Rimas of Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, creative director Patrick Collins of Henry Holt, senior editor Alexandra Cooper of Simon & Schuster, senior editor Lisa Ann Sandell of Scholastic, and agent Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, Inc.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Craft, Career & Cheer: Nikki Grimes

Learn more about Nikki Grimes and her recent releases, Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel and Rich: A Dyamonde Daniel Book, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (both G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009) and Voices of Christmas, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Zonderkidz, 2009).

How do you define professional success?

The notion of professional success is a sticky-wicket. It is almost always defined by those outside of ourselves.

I prefer to focus on defining and achieving personal success, and I judge that in a few ways.

Am I reaching my intended audience? By and large.

Am I having a positive impact on the thinking of my readers? Yes.

Am I introducing reluctant readers to the joy of literature? Yes.

Do I enjoy the respect of my peers? Thankfully.

In the world's eyes, of course, the most important proof success is that I'm making a living at my chosen profession and that I have achieved a degree of acclaim in doing so. But I think anyone who steps out in faith to answer the call of her heart can consider herself on the road to success, because that is where true success begins.

Could you tell us about your writing community—your critique group or critique partner or other sources of creative support?

I belong to a unique arts fellowship called Montage. We've been together for about 22 years, so long, in fact, that we now have a second generation of members. A few children of our original members are now budding artists themselves, and have joined our circle as equals! That is very exciting.

Montage is not a writers' group, though. It is a community of artists crossing many mediums. Members include composers, filmmakers, visual artists, performing artists, columnists, essayists, poets, and children's authors. Some of us are professional, but not all.

Ours is a refreshing mix of genres and ages. That mix serves us well. In particular, it benefits me. When I ask for critique of a work in progress, I enjoy feedback from artists who are also teachers as well as artists who are students.

It's an amazing piece of luck for a young adult author to have an articulate 16-year-old in the room when she reads a chapter of her newest YA manuscript.

In addition to Montage, I have a small circle of readers I rely on to critique entire manuscripts. A few of them are members of Montage, but others are writers and literature professors outside of that group.

I cannot imagine achieving the same level of success in my manuscripts without such support! Montage, in particular, is critical to my artistic development in that it encourages members to explore mediums outside of our natural genres.

As a result, I've ventured into the realm of visual art. Whether or not I ever illustrate a book, I am enriched by art, and that cannot help but enrich my writing as well.

What can your fans look forward to next?


There are two new books I'm excited about. One is the second title in my new chapter book series, Rich: A Dyamonde Daniel Book, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (G.P. Putnam's Sons, Oct. 2009).


The second is Voices of Christmas, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Zonderkidz, Oct. 2009)--the story of the first Christmas told in the voices of those who participated in it. This book marks a first for me. It comes with an audio CD of my reading the book, along with vocal artist Craig Northcutt.

This will be a great book for family sharing, I think. At least, I hope so!

Cynsational Photos


Here's Nikki (above) with fellow author Linda Sue Park at the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles.


Nikki (above) signs a copy of Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Simon & Schuster, 2008) in D.C. during the week of the presidential inauguration.

Nikki (right) steps out with a friend on the way to the NAACP Image Awards earlier this year.

She won for Outstanding Literary Work, Children for her biography of now-President Obama.

From the promotional copy: "Ever since Barack Obama was young, Hope has lived inside him. From the beaches of Hawaii to the streets of Chicago, from the jungles of Indonesia to the plains of Kenya, he has held on to Hope.

"Even as a boy, Barack knew he wasn't quite like anybody else, but through his journeys he found the ability to listen to Hope and become what he was meant to be: a bridge to bring people together.

"This is the moving story of an exceptional man, as told by Nikki Grimes and illustrated by Bryan Collier, both winners of the Coretta Scott King Award. Barack Obama has motivated Americans to believe with him, to believe that every one of us has the power to change ourselves and change our world."


Cynsational Notes


Voices of Christmas - Nikki Grimes: a video from Zonderkidz. From the promotional copy: "New York Times Bestselling Author Nikki Grimes beautifully composes the unfolding Christmas story through the voices of those who witnessed the Messiah's birth. Listen to Joseph's struggle...Rejoice with Elizabeth and Zachariah...Worship with the magi...Hear the fear in Herod's voice...Receive the blessing of Simeon and Anna...and like the shepherds, shout for joy! Illustrated by Eric Velasquez." Note: a peek at Nikki's gorgeous new picture book.

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children's-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Co-Authors Interview: Michael Hemphill and Sam Riddleburger on Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run

Michael Hemphill: "I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, but didn't know much about the Civil War until my wife and I moved to Virginia in 1997.

"Here in Virginia, I worked as a newspaper reporter (where I met Sam) until 2000 when the first of our three daughters was born. Since, I've been a stay-at-home dad, directed a nonprofit, worked in public relations at a local university, co-owned a Civil War battlefield tour company, and now have written--er, co-written--my first children's book."

Sam Riddleburger: "I've been a weed boy, a scientist's assistant, a librarian, a prep cook, a lawnmower parts factory worker, a semi-pro juggler and a reporter. Now, I'm a newspaper columnist, a restaurant critic and a kids' book writer.

"My first book is called The Qwikpick Adventure Society (Dial, 2007). No time travel, just three friends having the smelliest and best day of their lives." Visit Sam, and read Sam's blog.

What led you to write for young readers?

MH: I've always loved YA books--starting of course with The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (Harper, 1950-1956) and Tolkein but also the Walter Farley Black Stallion series (1941), Madeleine L'Engle, etc.

For some reason, my writing projects have tended to be more Serious (capital S) and Adult (capital A). They were also quite Unsuccessful and, quite frankly, Unenjoyable.

But then Sam and I got to talking, Stonewall came into being, and I loved every minute of the writing.

SR: When I was in the fifth and sixth grade I was a reading maniac. The stuff inside the books by people like John Christopher, Daniel Pinkwater and Helen Cresswell was just blowing my mind. That's who I want to write for--kids like me.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

SR: Stumbles? More like plunges and freefalls. It was hard. Incredibly hard. I was going crazy and would have given up if Michael hadn’t gotten us an agent. A great agent.

MH: The sprint was writing the first draft. We spent the first year trying to sell Stonewall directly to publishers, got some strong nibbles, but it never sold.

So we spent some weeks revising and then began sending it to agents. Thankfully, one of those agents was Caryn Wiseman with Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She gave us hope in Stonewall again, and here we are.

Looking back on your apprenticeship, what was most helpful to you in developing your craft?

SR: Before writing my first book, I wrote hundreds and hundreds of news stories. You learn a lot about setting up a story, pacing, transitions and that sort of thing. And you get used to being edited.

MH: Like Sam (whose daily antics I had to endure working on the other side of the cubicle wall in the newsroom), I learned a lot from writing news stories...particularly the importance of a strong lead and tight sentences and graphs.

While at the newspaper I also took a screenwriting course at nearby Hollins University and came to appreciate the art of snappy dialogue and shifting perspectives in moving a story along.

Congratulations on the release of Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run (Dial, 2009)! In your own words, what is the book about?

MH: Stonewall Hinkleman is your typical 12-year-old kid who gets dragged along to all of his parents' Civil War reenactments. He hates reenactments, he hates the Civil War, and he's not too fond of his parents either. He's got a bad attitude and isn't afraid to show it...until at the reenactment of the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), he's magically transported back in time to the real battle.

Suffice it to say, he gets an attitude adjustment and comes to a better appreciation of the war. Oh yeah, and he meets a girl along the way...and his great-great-great-great uncle, who turns out not to be the coward of family lore...and an evil Confederate reenactor who has also gone back in time to help the South win.

SR: Civil War Time Travel Extravaganza!

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

SR: When I started, Michael already had the idea of writing about reenactors. The name popped into my head. The name brought forth the character almost instantly.

What would a kid with a name like "Stonewall Hinkleman" be like?

Sick to the gills of the Civil War, for starters.

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

MH: Five years from writing chapter one to the release of the book.

SR: Spark. Email x 500. Book done. Everybody happy. Book rejected. Book rejected. Book rejected. Book revised for agent. Book sold to editor. Book revised for editor. Editor quits. New editor. Book revised for new editor.

We’re talking about major revisions, too. And the book got better and better thanks to those people pushing us to make it better.

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

MH: Having to convince Sam on a daily basis that I was right.

SR: Excuse me?

I loved the book's sense of fun, but also its sophistication. At the risk of stating the obvious, we don't see a lot of humorous boy-friendly adventure fantasies that also take the topics of real-life war and racism. What were the toughest decisions you had to make in framing the historical context?

SR: Here in Virginia, you grow up thinking that Stonewall Jackson and Turner Ashby were heroes. Grant and Sherman? Bad guys. You learn about the battles, and there's a feeling that the South should have won.

And somehow when you grow up you have to reconcile all that with the simple fact that the South was wrong as wrong can be.

We stuck Stonewall Hinkleman--and ourselves--right in the middle of all that. Anything less would have been dodging the question. But I don't feel like we answered it, either.

MH: The discussion of the Civil War in today's school goes something like this: "North good. South bad. North hated slavery. South loved slavery. North won. Hurray!"

But the story is obviously so much more complicated and rich and compelling when you explore all the "grays" instead of looking at it in black-and-white terms. Sending Stonewall back in time to the Confederate army allows for this exploration.

Giving kids a more nuanced racial and historical understanding of our past can only help them grasp the complexities of the America of today.

Could you describe your collaborative process?

SR: Ever see that "Wild Kingdom" episode where Marlin Perkins’s assistant waded into a river and wrestled a tapir?

MH: All joking aside, Stonewall would not have come to life without the equal contribution of each of us. I must credit Sam, though, for setting the tone of the book and giving Stonewall his voice.

SR: And I must credit Michael with actually knowing something about the Civil War.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fantasy?

MH: It's tough to strike the right balance between remaining historically accurate to an event while at the same time feeling free to shape the event to your own plot designs. You don't want to get bogged down with all the historical details, but I know I wanted our readers to know which moment--or which character--was indeed historically authentic.

What special considerations must be taken into account with a time-travel story?

MH: What we did not want was the novel to be a "Back to the Future" meets the Civil War.

SR: Yes, we fought hard to get away from "Back to the Future," which is a masterpiece, after all.

The tough thing about time travel is that if a character could really travel through time at will, they could solve all their problems too easily. So you have to make rules to keep them from doing that.

The problem is you, the author, are stuck following those rules, too. Which can be very hard at revision time. There were times when I started to think things were hopeless.

What do you hope young readers will take away from the story?

MH: That the Civil War remains the most important event in American history and still informs the events of today--all the way to the White House.

SR: There are all sorts of morals you can draw from the book -- most notably that war affects real people, real individuals--but honestly, I just hope kids find it to be a wild ride of a story. We sure worked hard to make it one.

Other than your own, what's your favorite children's/tween novel of 2009 and why?

SR: Right now I'm in the middle of Pinkwater's The Yggyssey: How Iggy Wondered What Happened to All the Ghosts, Found Out Where They Went, and Went There (Houghton Mifflin, 2009), his sequel to The Neddiad: How Neddie Took the Train, Went to Hollywood, and Saved Civilization (Houghton Mifflin, 2009).


What do you do when you're not reading or writing?

MH: Nonprofit work in my community. Raising kids.

SR: Lately I’ve been trying to build robots again.

What can your fans look forward to next?

MH: Hopefully the next installment of Stonewall Hinkleman. The Battle Bull Run/Manassas occurred on July 21, 1861. The war ended in April 1865. There's a lot more to cover.

SR: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (Amulet, 2010).

Is there anything you'd like to add?

SR: I'd like to point out that having a co-author is an amazing experience. Things happen in the book that neither of you ever would have come up with on your own. I recommend it!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Craft, Career & Cheer: Alan Cumyn

Learn about Alan Cumyn.

So far, what's the most fun you've ever had working on a book? Why?

I have to say that working on this latest book, Dear Sylvia (Groundwood, 2008)(excerpt), was the most fun.

I often struggle to find the right voice for a particular project, and when I do a sequel (or, in this case, the third of a trilogy) I'm highly conscious of having to be as or more original than the original(s).

The Secret Life of Owen Skye (Groundwood, 2002) I wrote for my girls when they were young, and the natural voice for those linked stories was a hybrid adult/kid third-person narration--they are told in the spirit of a father exaggerating slightly about a loved but distant past.

After Sylvia (Groundwood, 2004) uses the same voice, but it is more of a classic novel in form and story arc.

In Dear Sylvia, Owen is writing letters to his true love, Sylvia Tull, who has moved way, and it felt awkward to be describing the letters in the old narrative voice.

Once I let Owen's direct voice take over, in the letters, the book began to write itself.

Like me at that age, Owen is no boy-genius writer. His spelling is especially idiosyncratic--trooley atroshus--so much so that my agent balked when she tried to read the first draft.

Oh, how I remember the pain and sweat of early boyhood attempts to read and write! Owen's letters get more elaborate as he progresses as a writer, but throughout it's the same fierce, funny, achingly honest heart that was so joyful to tap into.

How have you come to thrive in such a competitive, unpredictable industry?

It comes back to first principles for me, which revolve around love of story. I grew up immersed in stories, I've always turned to stories when trying to figure out this bewildering life, and I expect I will always write or make stories no matter whether I get paid to do it or not.

I've been an athlete longer than I've been a writer--though never a professional--and I know about competition in sports. The rules are defined and agreed upon, score is often scrupulously kept, there is usually a winner and a loser, but afterward you go out for a beer and talk about other things.

In this sense art is not competitive--it carries the same or greater call to excellence, but it's much freer. Any attempt to make it competitive--by giving awards, by counting and comparing sales or advance dollars--is artificial and probably hurts the art.

Who's the better artist, Shakespeare or Mozart? Who cares? Enjoy, ponder, grapple with their works. The question is absurd.

So I "thrive" by not defeating myself. I don't rely on sales entirely for my income. I apply for grants, I teach, I live simply. My kids' education is not wagered on me getting a big advance.

I don't pre-sell a book--I write it for the love of writing it, because it's the book I really want to read that hasn't been created yet. I try to be true to the characters and the problems they're faced with.

When and if the book gets published I do my best to share it with the world, but with the understanding that a large part of reviews, awards, sales, fame will be beyond my control.

Usually soon enough some other story is pulling me back to my desk. I need to write it down so I'll know what happens...

In the video below, Alan reads from Deer/Dear Sylvia. Note: "Featuring Kimba Gifford as Owen Skye. Directed by Jasmine Murray-Bergquist."



Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children's-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.
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