Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cynsational Books of 2009

Congratulations to the children's-YA authors and illustrators of 2009! And thank you to everyone who discussed and debated and cheered and championed this year's books! Just for fun, here are a few of my favorites.

Picture Books

All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane, 2009). The Chicago Tribune said: "There's a wonderful balanced imbalance between the sweeping largeness of the pictures and the spare script of perfectly chosen words." See curriculum guide.



Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Circle by John Abbott Nez (Putnam, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with John. Peek: "It's a true story of adventure, determination, courage and perseverance. 1907 was an amazing age. It was a period when an obsession with flying swept the nation. For the first time in history, people were flying and even building flying machines in their own backyards."



The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer's Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tony Persiani (Little, Brown, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Chris. Peek: "It occurred to me in the spring of 2001 that a picture book about the invention of Day-Glo colors, using those actual colors in the art, could be really, really cool. So, I got in touch with members of the Switzer family and began my research, and that fall, I began shopping a ridiculously long version of the manuscript around to publishing houses."


New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story by April Halprin Wayland, illustrated by Stephané Jorisch (Dial, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with April. Peek: "During Rosh Hashanah, there is a joyous waterside ritual called Tashlich which helps us clear the slate for the coming year. We walk to the pier, sing songs, then toss pieces of bread into the ocean for each of the mistakes we've made in the past year."



S Is for Story: A Writer's Alphabet by Esther Hershenhorn, illustrated by Zachary Pullen (Sleeping Bear, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Esther. Peek: "S is for Story celebrates the all-important reader-writer connection. It's an A-to-Z journey through a writer's life and process."


Graphic Middle Grade


Joey Fly: Private Eye by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Neil Numberman (Henry Holt, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Aaron and Neil. Peek: "I love bugs and I love mysteries, so this seemed to be a great smash-up of those two ideas."



Middle Grade/Tween

Confetti Girl by Diana Lopez (Little, Brown, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Diana. Peek: "At a dinner last year, a librarian from the Midwest asked, 'So this is a family tradition?' Her eyes got so big when I told her it's something the whole South Texas region does. Maybe cascarones will go mainstream like piñatas and salsa."


The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (Henry Holt, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Jacqueline. Peek: "One summer, I was lying on the daybed in the living room under the ancient air conditioner, which was barely cooling the room, and I thought to myself, how did people stand it in the heat a hundred years ago, especially the women, who had to wear corsets and all those layers of clothing? And with that thought, Calpurnia and her whole family sprang to life to answer the question for me."


The Importance of Wings by Robin Friedman (Charlesbridge, 2009). See excerpt of chapter one. Kirkus Reviews said: "Told in a first-person voice that is both sardonic and sincere, Friedman's novel succeeds in bringing forth some common issues that challenge any immigrant American child who must straddle separate ways of life while striving for that true-blue American image."


The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis by Barbara O'Connor (FSG/Frances Foster, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Barbara. Peek: "The story was inspired by a blog post by Tamra Wight, author of The Three Grumpies, illustrated by Ross Collins (Bloomsbury, 2005)."



Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little, Brown, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Grace. Peek: "It is an Asian-themed folktale-inspired fantasy where a brave young girl named Minli journeys to change her family's fortune, traveling farther than she ever imagined."



Winnie's War by Jenny Moss (Walker, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Jenny. Peek: "In a way, it seemed to me that we'd, as a nation, forgotten the pandemic, and if I didn't depict things as they were, then I'd be doing the same thing, turning from something because it was difficult."


YA Nonfiction

Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Tanya. Peek: "Although they excelled, and, in some cases, did even better than the men, NASA was not ready to allow women into the space program."


YA Realistic Fiction

Border Crossing by Jessica Lee Anderson (Milkweed, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Jessica. Peek: "I would encourage writers to find validation apart from writing. Writing is what we do, but it shouldn't completely define who we are (especially in a business where so much is out of our control)."



The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams (St. Martins, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Carol. Peek: "Long ago, I heard about a girl who had run from her home because she didn't want to marry a much-older family member. The moment I heard that story, I was like, I'll write a book about that some day. But the story stayed just a kernel of an idea for many, many years."


Hate List by Jennifer Brown (Little, Brown, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Jennifer. Peek: "When I finished Hate List, I was afraid to show it to Cori. Afraid she'd hate it and, worse, would be unhappy with me for writing something so very different than the work she took me on for."



Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles (Candlewick, 2009). See awards/reviews/quotes from Candlewick. Publishers Weekly said: "Absorbing from first page to last, this sensitively written novel explores how a teenager's crisis rocks her life as well as the lives of others."


Love You Hate You Miss You by Elizabeth Scott (HarperCollins, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Elizabeth. Peek: "Love You Hate You Miss You did require a certain amount of research, mostly about young women and drinking and how that drinking is perceived. It's strange--there's a lot of worry about it, but there's also a fair amount of 'it's a stage, it's not really a problem because most girls don't drink every day'--and that was something I thought about a lot, and that Amy comes to her own conclusions about in the book."



The Morgue and Me by John C. Ford (Viking, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with John. Peek: "Nobody would (or should) care about the 'Double Indemnity' allusion, but it got me thinking. In 'Double Indemnity,' the main character is a jaded insurance salesman. Certainly, an 18-year-old's frame of mind would be much different than his, but how?"


Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr (Little, Brown, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Sara. Peek: "There's been a movement in certain parts of Christendom for awhile now, welcoming artists and creative people back into the religious community and realizing that the safe, pleasant, Thomas Kinkade-esque visions of the world they were previously endorsing in the Christian product marketplace actually have nothing to do with Christianity. (I'm not sure how it is in other religious communities---I can only speak from my experience.)"



So Punk Rock (And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother) by Micol Ostow, illustrated by David Ostow (Flux, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Micol and David. Peek: "It's the story of Ari Abramson, a sixteen-year-old everyguy and junior at Leo R. Gittleman Jewish Day School, who believes that popularity is just a mere verse/chorus/verse away. He recruits his longtime best friend, the charismatic, if self-absorbed, Jonas Fein, to play bass in a band, and thus The Tribe is born. A one-song set at a local bar mitzvah catapults the group to sudden stardom--setting in motion a series of clashing egos, misunderstood friendships, and broken hearts."



Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters (Knopf, 2009). Read an excerpt. Readingjunky's Reading Roost says: "Rage is Julie Anne Peters's most powerful book yet. The focus is on an abusive dating relationship and the toll it takes on victim and villain alike."



YA Fantasy

Ash by Malinda Lo (Little, Brown, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Malinda. Peek: "When I began work on my second draft, I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to turn the story in that direction. Did I truly want to write a 'lesbian Cinderella'?"



Candor by Pam Bachorz (Egmont, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Pam. Peek: "Even with all my preparation, I still ask myself at the start of each chapter: 'What really should be happening next? Does my story wire leave anything out? Can I skip ahead to something more interesting?'"



Evil? by Timothy Carter (Flux, 2009). Publishers Weekly said, "A book that doesn't take itself too seriously, but will leave readers with plenty to consider, as it addresses themes of morality, sexuality and faith."


Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell (Delacorte, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Saundra. Peek: "So Iris settled down with me to think about that--to roll that idea over with me: we don't know what other people contain. And that means no one else will ever know what we contain, either."



Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia by Cindy Pon (Greenwillow, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Cindy. Peek: "I remember my first grade teacher writing my name on the board because I didn't know the alphabet, much less how to spell."



Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill (Greenwillow, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with David. Peek: "The challenge came from the setting, El Paso. I have never been to West Texas, so I needed a ton of information on places, names, locales, smells, sounds, and attitudes."



Watersmeet by Ellen Jensen Abbott (Marshall Cavendish, 2009). Read a Cynsations interview with Ellen. Peek: "In world building, you have to follow your decisions to their natural conclusions. If one of my dwarves lives primarily underground, how can she farm? If centaurs can speak with hoofed animals (as my centaurs can), would they eat them? How much faster would a faun move across given terrain than a human?"


Companions/Sequels

Don't miss companion books/sequels to earlier YA fantasy favorites: Ballad by Maggie Stiefvater (Flux, 2009); Black is for Beginnings by Laurie Faria Stolarz (Flux, 2009)(graphic format); Darklight by Lesley Livingston (HarperCollins, 2009); Dead Girl in Love by Linda Joy Singleton (Flux, 2009); and Fade by Lisa McMann (Simon Pulse, 2009).

Cynsational Notes

Quick caveats: (a) I haven't read every 2009 book published, though I did read 300+ (down from last year; note that picture books are very short); (b) to varying degrees, I know or have met some (but not most) of the creators above--if I cut everyone I knew, potential picks would be significantly reduced in number; (c) I will continue to read and feature 2009 titles in 2010 and beyond; (d) these are highlights, not predictions, not an all-inclusive list of my favorites.

Beyond that, I made an effort to sidestep bestsellers as well as previous ALA and NBA honorees, though one or two may have sneaked in. I decided not to list books by my advisees or that I read in manuscript or contributed to myself. Or put another way, yes, I loved Rita Williams-Garcia's Jumped (HarperCollins, 2009)(author interview), Libba Bray's Going Bovine (Delacorte, 2009)(author interview), VCFA graduate Julie Berry's The Amaranth Enchantment (Bloomsbury, 2009), and Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci's Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd (Little, Brown, 2009), but they don't need the help and/or I'm a bit too close to them for our purposes here.

Likewise, I'd like to cheer my Candlewick editor, Deborah Noyes (Wayshak) on the release of Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists, and Other Matters Odd and Magical and African Acrostics: A World in Edgeways with poems by Avis Harley (both Candlewick, 2009). Note: in addition to my short stories in Geektastic and Sideshow, I also published a YA Gothic fantasy novel, Eternal (Candlewick, 2009).

A few quick observations... It's arguably the year of the debut author, I have an ongoing commitment to supporting new voices, and the combination of those forces definitely shows here. Likewise, I'm drawn and devoted to Texas voices and settings. I did hesitate briefly at the sight of four Austinites on my list, but quickly realized that three of their respective books are consistently appearing on "best" lists as well as that the fourth clearly deserved to be in their company. In terms of titles by and about diverse folks, the big news is a tentative foothold in YA fantasy, including high fantasy, and people of all backgrounds writing cross-culturally.

See also Favorites of 2009 (updated) from Greg Leitich Smith at GregLSBlog.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Voice: Jill S. Alexander on The Sweetheart of Prosper County

Jill S. Alexander is the first-time author of The Sweetheart of Prosper County (Feiwel & Friends, 2009). From the promotional copy:

Almost-15-year-old Austin Gray is tired of standing at the curb and watching the parade pass her by. Literally. She decides this is the year she'll ride on the hood of a shiny pickup truck in the annual parade, waving to the crowd and finally showing the town bully that she's got what it takes to be the Sweetheart of Prosper County.

But far from simply being a beauty contest, becoming Sweetheart involves participation in the Future Farmers of America (FFA), raising an animal, and hunting or fishing.

Austin will do almost anything to become Sweetheart, and has the support of her oldest friend, Maribel, her new FFA friends (including the reigning Sweetheart, and a quiet, cute cowboy), an evangelical Elvis impersonator, a mysterious Cajun outcast, and a rooster named Charles Dickens. If only her momma would stop overprotecting her, and start letting Austin live her own life. But Austin can’t move on until Momma moves on, too—and lets the grief of losing Austin’s daddy several years before out into the open.

Here is a bighearted story that will leave readers agreeing with Austin that sometimes, it's not what you ride, it's how you roll.


What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

Well, let's just open wide the door to the skeleton in the closet. Unlike most authors I've heard speak, I wasn't much of a young reader. I'm always a little embarrassed to admit I never read Charlotte's Web [by E.B. White (HarperCollins, 1952). I never read the work of Judy Blume.

By the age of twelve, I was playing cards for money and bussing tables at the truck stop by the interstate. I grew up in a rural community with no public library and few books at home, but I found my way--my connection to the world and to writing--through a colorful family of storytellers and the country music story-songs coming across my grandfather's AM radio. Books didn't save my life; stories did. I learned very early on that stories, whether told or sung or written, tether us to this life.

Having a rich, oral storytelling tradition certainly influences my work. When I sat down and started writing The Sweetheart of Prosper County, I told the story as if I were back at home, around the kitchen table, sharing a tale with family. I can't begin to count the number of times I read The Sweetheart of Prosper County out loud. The sound of a story, the delivery and timing in the syntax, is critical to me.

Similarly, music has probably had the most profound influence on my work. My grandmother taught me to write by copying down the words to my favorite country song "The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia" [see video below]. That's also my earliest memory of reading.



I was raised on the lyrics of Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings.

Today, I'm a fan of Texas storytelling songwriters like Robert Earl Keen and even the very young Miranda Lambert. What's great about songwriters and how they have influenced my writing is that, in a brief two or three hundred words, they can tell an emotion-packed story with a gripping narrative arc.

With this in mind, I write a very short synopsis when I'm starting a new novel. A brief, but focused synopsis helps me wrap my head around the heart of the story.

Although I came to some of the great works in children's fiction later than most, I'm really grateful for the background I have. It is the backbone of who I am as an author. As Maya Angelou said, "I wouldn't take nothin' for my journey now."

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest other tap into that power in their own writing?

Magic! I’m going with magic.

When journaling, I usually start with an image--something real or imagined that I just can't let go of. With the Sweetheart of Prosper County, I began journaling about a small town parade with floats and bands and, of course, queens and sweethearts.

Out of that image, the line "Being a sweetheart must give a girl that kind of confidence," spilled onto the page--organically as if by magic. I knew when I wrote that line that the image had given me a story and a first-person narrator who was done with being stuck on the curb while the parade rolled on by.

For me, journaling functions like an artist's doodling or sketching. My journal is the one place where I allow myself to write free with reckless abandon. No spell check. No structure. But it's in the journal where the magic seems to happen.

I don't approach a story with a narrator or point of view or message (ack!) in mind. I just latch on to a word or an image or an idea that moves me and put pen to paper. The voice grows out of that seed.

Cynsational Notes

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.

Books Come From Attending SCBWI Conferences: A Video Interview with Ann Haywood Leal, author of Also Known as Harper (Henry Holt, 2009), and Jill S. Alexander from Jolie Stekly.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Guest Post: Author Jessica Blank on Adapting a Novel to a Screenplay

By Jessica Blank

My new YA novel, Karma for Beginners (Hyperion, 2009), came out this August; I was writing that novel at the same time that my husband Erik Jensen and I were adapting my first YA novel, Almost Home (Hyperion, 2007), for feature film.

(Jon Bon Jovi's production company optioned Almost Home, and Erik and I were lucky enough to be hired as the screenwriters!)

Erik and I also write plays together (our latest one, "Aftermath," ran Off-Broadway in N.Y.C. this fall) so we're used to collaborating. We have a great time at it, and we're a good team.

I mostly work in film, theater and TV--I'm an actor and occasionally a theater director---and I actually taught myself how to write fiction so that I could have a project that I didn't have to collaborate with anyone on!

I adore the collaborative process of theater, film and TV--whether I'm acting in it, writing it, or directing it--but I also wanted something that I could just work on by myself at the computer. My first fiction project was the YA novel Almost Home.

One of the biggest differences between writing fiction and writing screenplays is that with fiction, you have the luxury of being able to describe the characters' thoughts and feelings, to really get inside their heads and hearts and talk about what's in there.

As a screenwriter, you don't get to describe anything in a screenplay that wouldn't be visible to the audience watching the film. You have to show those thoughts and feelings, in visible, externalized actions. The actors fill in the nuance and feeling---what the screenwriter provides is a structure of action, a framework that the actors can hang their performances on. Also, a conventionally structured movie needs a single protagonist--or two, tops--on a linear journey, with one point of view that the viewer can follow.

Almost Home (the novel) isn't structured at all like a movie---it's a novel-in-stories, about a group of homeless teenagers in L.A., with each chapter told from a different kid's point of view.

The reader gets to piece together the story through different characters' points of view about it, and not every kid is a totally reliable narrator--each of them has fears, crushes, addictions, loyalties, etc, that affect how they view the events in the book.

It was a challenge to streamline the events and characters in Almost Home into a more cinematic structure, focusing in tightly on the friendship between the two main girls in the book, while keeping the dynamic of the group of kids, who are kind of a little tribe.

It was a huge help to be adapting it with Erik---first of all, he's brilliant and a wonderful writer and full of great ideas, and second of all, he didn't write the novel, so he had a sense of perspective and distance from the material, and a great eye for whether something in the novel was helpful for the movie version or not.

I was writing my new novel, Karma for Beginners, at the same time Erik and I were adapting Almost Home. Maybe coincidentally (or maybe not), Karma for Beginner has a more film-like structure. While Erik and I had to do a little wrestling with the structure to make Almost Home into a movie, I can already see the movie version of Karma for Beginners in my head.

Karma for Beginners (a funny coming-of-age story about 15-year-old Tessa, her hippie single mom, and the older guy Tessa falls in love with, set on a meditation ashram in 1987) has a single protagonist, a story that progresses in a linear way, etc.

There's more external action in Karma for Beginners--it's less reliant on internal character monologue---which is really important for movies, and Tessa's journey follows a pretty cinematic structure. There's also lots of dialogue (which is what screenplays are made of!)

Karma for Beginners hasn't been optioned for film yet, but I would love to adapt it (with Erik as well)--I think it would make a terrific, quirky, indie-type movie along the lines of "Adventureland" (2009), "Juno" (2007), and "The Squid and the Whale" (2005). I can already see it in my head!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Craft, Career & Cheer: David L. Harrison

Learn about David L. Harrison.

How do you define artistic success?

Perfection is the goal. Writers see in their imagination what they intend to create--a finished piece without blemish, a stunning accomplishment that holds readers close and thrills them with an astonishing experience. Results rarely match the dream that beckons us on, but some sort of internal scale determines how close we think we came.

Everyone else along the tortuous route from concept to book judges artistic success by their own rules. What I think ranks up around the eyes might fall nearer the ankles for someone in editorial, sales, promotion, reviewing, buying, or reading.

The only scale the writer can trust is his own, but only if he's telling himself the truth. Until a writer learns to tell himself the truth, artistic success isn't a likely issue.

However, not every writer measures artistic accomplishment the same way. Some of us come to the pen from the classroom. We were teachers; therefore, we are teachers and will be teachers. What we seek to create may reflect our belief systems about what children need to learn. Does this book encourage fluency? Comprehension? Does it build vocabulary? Phonemic awareness? If I've embedded teachable moments into my work and done it at a high level of artistic achievement, isn't that a success?

Some of us come from other backgrounds. We may have grease under our nails or pencils behind our ears, deer heads on the wall or guitars in the corner or keyboard calluses on fingertips. It might not occur to us that readers need anything more than to be entertained, and our brains sing with ideas like birds on a wire.

Our sternly judgmental muses hold us up to great writers in our chosen genres and mutter in our ears that we could do better even if the current effort is a good one.

It would be wrong to say that every writer uses a different scale to determine his or her degree of artistic achievement, but I believe there are many scales that are equally valid. Were it otherwise, the wonderful diversity of children's literature would be jeopardized.

Having said all this, I've left out perhaps the truest measure of artistic achievement: time. There are reasons why classics are classics. When generations of readers rediscover a story or poem or nonfiction book and love it, we are in the presence of creative genius.

Times change, language becomes dated, but somewhere at the core of a classic piece of writing, the author still lives. A voice that speaks across generations draws readers back again and again to sit still for a while to relish and wonder. Which books will last fifty years? Which will disappear like snow by next spring's list? The writer can't know in advance, but the dream of matching reality to vision keeps us trying harder.

How do you define professional success?

My advice to those who want to write professionally is to set realistic goals and celebrate each victory along the way, no matter how small.

First, start thinking and acting like a writer. Write something. It doesn't matter what. The mind can't revise a blank sheet of paper. Until you lay down a track of words, nothing is going to happen. Once you have committed your first thoughts to paper as a conscious act of writing, celebrate your first victory.

Celebrate your first rejection slip. If you have finished a piece of writing, submitted it, and received a rejection slip, you have already gone farther than ninety-nine percent of the population. (Okay, not everyone wants to be a writer, but more do than you might suppose.)

On the way to selling my first story, I got to celebrate rejection slips sixty-seven times in a row over six years. I thought that was rather too much of a good thing.

Is professional success measured by number of publications? Wilson Rawls decided at an early age to write his way out of poverty. I heard him say how many novels he wrote--dozens as I recall--before one was finally accepted. But one is all you need when it's Where the Red Fern Grows (Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1961). Fifteen years later he published Summer of the Monkeys (Doubleday, 1976), but his reputation was already established.

Barbara Robinson has also written a number of other wonderful stories, but mention her name and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (HarperCollins, 1972) comes to mind.

Exceptional literature doesn't need to surround itself with numbers. It lives on its own merits. A writer who can create one memorable book may be more successful professionally than a writer who pumps out ten books to add to a list of publications.

Professional success develops over time--article by article, story by story, poem by poem. It comes from learning about the craft. It comes from attending meetings, visiting schools, speaking at conferences.

Many an emerging writer has longed for a publisher who loves untested authors, a generous soul with a big heart and a deep wallet who isn't as picky and demanding as those tradition-bound, agent-only, you-have-to-have-been-published publishers.

There is no such publisher. Deep down no one really wants there to be. When you eventually sell something, you'll celebrate, not because a publisher cut you some slack and let you slip by, but because he didn't.

Can you tell us about your latest release?

My latest trade book is Vacation: We're Going to the Ocean, illustrated by Rob Shepperson (Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 2009). Some of you will remember Rob's brilliant work in bugs: poems about creeping things (Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 2007).

I love to work with talented artists. Rob invariably comes from an unexpected angle that adds value and humor to every poem. For example, in bugs, I wrote about bugs moving under my welcome mat. Rob drew the bugs and the mat in such a way that together they spell out "we home." In another poem, I wrote about how unfriendly the centipede is. Rob drew him opening a heart-shaped box of candy and throwing out all the chocolates. People seemed to like our combined efforts, and bugs was chosen as one of the best books of poetry in 2007.

Now Rob and I have a new collaboration. In Vacation, we take Sam and his family on a driving vacation to the ocean. Sam describes the trip, often from the back seat, as they drive along. Early in the trip, Sam starts a refrain that's familiar to anyone who has ever traveled with children.

Are We There Yet?

My foot's
asleep,

my seat
is sore.

You said
"another hour"
before.

You say
"an hour"
every
time.

Your
hours
are much

longer
than
mine.

Also out this year is a teaching strategy book co-authored with Tim Rasinski and Gay Fawcett: Partner Poems for Building Fluency, Grades 4-6 (Scholastic, 2009).

Tim is one of the nation's foremost authorities on reading fluency, and he writes that sharing aloud poems for two voices is an effective tool for building reading fluency. I had fun writing 40 new poems for two or more voices for the book. Gay, who is another leader in this field, wrote student activities to follow each poem.

I'm already using the book at conferences and school visits. Kids and adults, individually or in groups, enjoy reading the poems aloud.

Cynsational Notes

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

Pirates by David L. Harrison, illustrated by Dan Burr (Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 2008) was named to the Texas Library Association Bluebonnet List.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Stick Man and Christmas Book Picks by Esme Raji Codell from The Planet Esme Plan. Peek: "if I could have one Christmahanukwanzaakah wish, it would be that children's books wouldn't go out of print quite so quickly, and publishers would back artists instead of titles." Read a Cynsations interview with Esme.

Agent Lauren Macleod Strothman Agency by Kathleen Temean. Peek: "Looking for: Contemporary YA & MG, narrative nonfiction for young adults, graphic novels, YA Dystopian with strong world-building..."

An Interview with Rabbi Jacobs from Jewish Books for Children with Author Barbara Bietz. Peek: "The Two Kings book series actually evolved from a play we performed for many years in front of tens of thousands of youth in Israel."

An Interview with Marilyn Singer from Children's Author David L. Harrison's Blog. Peek: "Poems to me are about capturing moments in time, answering questions I ask myself, exploring emotions I feel, or, if I’m writing narrative poems, capturing the essence of characters. They're also about playing with language in ways that are impossible to attempt in prose." See also Marilyn on What Makes a Good Young Picture Book? and What Makes a Good Poem? and What Is a Short Story?

Children's Books: Alarmingly Bright Futures by Rich Cohen from the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Peek: "The book, which explains the whys and hows of Day-Glo and is illustrated with tremendous Pop Art verve, began with [Chris] Barton's perusal of The New York Times’s obituary page, proving that the dead really do tell the best tales." Read a Cynsations interview with author Chris Barton.

17 Reasons Book Manuscripts are Rejected by Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen from Quips and Tips for Successful Writers. Peek: "These 17 reasons book manuscripts are rejected are from a panel of editors, literary agents, and publishers at the Surrey International Writers' Conference in British Columbia, Canada."

Holiday Survival Guide for Introverts by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: "If your time is too frazzled to actually make progress on your manuscript, consider personal journaling or maybe even character journaling."

Steal These Books by Margo Rabb from the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Peek: "At BookPeople in Austin, titles displayed with staff recommendation cards are a darling among thieves. 'It's so bad lately that I feel like our staff recommendation cards should read: 'BookPeople Bookseller recommends that you steal ________.' Apparently the criminal element in Austin shares our literary tastes, or are very prone to suggestion," Elizabeth Jordan, the head book buyer, wrote in an e-mail message." Read a Cynsations interview with Margo.

Attention Shoppers

Books Make Great Gifts from IndieBound. Find Austin Children's-YA Authors & Illustrators at IndieBound. See also my IndieBound page.



Shades of the Season by Kelly Starling Lyons from the Brown Bookshelf. Peek: "...what if you're looking for a tale that celebrates the season and African-American culture? Here are 10 picture books to consider adding to your holiday book list that salute Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year's Day." See a video below, celebrating Shante Keys and the New Year's Peas by Gail Piernas-Davenport, illustrated by Marion Eldridge (Albert Whitman, 2007).



Check out this book trailer for Fallen by Lauren Kate (Delacorte, 2009), suggested to fans of Eternal (Candlewick, 2009). Note: more on Fallen in 2010.



More Personally

Look for the paperback edition of Eternal (Feb. 2010) in the spring-summer 2010 Candlewick Press catalog! See page 108.

A Gift for Readers and Writers by JoAnn Early Macken from Teaching Authors: Six Children's Authors Who Also Teach Writing. Note: JoAnn kindly recommends my main website. Peek: "The massive Children’s & YA Literature Resources section includes interviews, bibliographies, and links to additional valuable resources: information about censorship, diversity, children’s book experts, guides for readers and teachers, state and national awards, recommended books, and writing for children and teenagers."

Look for the illustrated reader's theater, "A Real-Live Blond Cherokee," adapted by Christy Damio, on pages 4 to 9 in the Nov. 9 to Nov. 23, 2009 issue of Scholastic Action Magazine.

The reader's theater is an adaptation of my YA short story "A Real-Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate," which appeared in Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today, edited by Lori Marie Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005).

Thanks to Christy for asking great questions and thoughtfully applying my answers. It's a treat, too, to see these YA short story characters brought to life in the illustrations. I'm especially loving the Wonder Woman boots and cowboy boots up front in the first one.


I've been busy revising Blessed (Candlewick, Feb. 2011), trying to get as much done as possible before leaving for the Vermont College of Fine Arts winter residency. Sometimes I move around the house to get a new perspective. Here's my set up earlier this week in the guest room, with Mercury (gray kitty) and Blizzard (white kitty).

Meanwhile, Greg was working on a novel of his own down in the kitchen. Aren't those bangs hilarious in this picture?

But just because we're busy doesn't mean that there's no seasonal cheer to be found. Cynsations will be taking a brief holiday hiatus and resume posting on Dec. 28.

But first, here's a peek inside my house. Below is one of my newest ornaments, created by children's book illustrator Joy Fisher Hein--an angel kitty reading a book (does she know me or what?). The rest are self-explanatory. Enjoy and happy holidays!



Giveaway Reminder

Enter to win one of three signed copies of Watersmeet by Ellen Jensen Abbott (Marshall Cavendish, 2009), one of three copies of The Pillow Book of Lotus Lowenstein by Libby Schmais (Delacorte, 2009), and/or one of three signed copies of Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo by Greg Leitich Smith (Little, Brown, 2005)!

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "Watersmeet" and/or "The Pillow Book of Lotus Lowenstein" and/or "Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo" 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 write you for contact information, if you win). Note: one copy of each book will be reserved for a teacher, librarian, or university professor of youth literature; those eligible in these categories should indicate their affiliations in the body of their entry messages. The other two will go to any Cynsations readers!

Deadline: midnight CST Dec. 31.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Craft, Career & Cheer: Michelle Markel

Michelle Markel is the author of Tyrannosaurus Math (Tricycle/Random House, 2009).

What’s the most fun you’ve ever had working on a book? Why?

Tyrannosaurus Math was a pleasure for many reasons. It was a quick and easy conception. I was substituting in a second grade classroom, we'd run out of math activities, we'd covered a very dry dinosaur story in the morning, and the classroom library books were uninspired. We were all pretty bored.

I invented some word problems using dinos that the kids loved. Voila, there it came--math + dinosaurs = a fun idea for a children’s book!

They say creativity often comes from joining two or more disparate ideas; that's a good example.

There were few complications at birth (unlike my other books, where I spent hours, months, in protracted labor). I just amused myself creating the character--a bone-munching, number-crunching dinosaur.

(On reflection, I think the Tyrannosaurus was a way of channeling my violent disinclination to math. That, plus I've always had a weakness for T-Rex. I mean, he’s so vicious, but those short arms make him comical).

I also had a terrific editor, Joanne Taylor, who gently pushed me in the right direction. The revisions she suggested led me to deepen the emotional part of the story. The sibling conflict figures into the climax and resolution, which it hadn't originally. And Joanne found the perfect illustrator, Doug Cushman, who totally got the humor.

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

Well, in flagrant disregard of marketing wisdom, I haven't branded myself. I've got a wide range of interests, and I've doggedly written and published about just a few of them: social issues, cultural diversity, art, history. I wanted to get the stories out, even if it meant sometimes going with smaller presses.

The old saw is that "a good book will find its home." Finding that home, i.e. the editor who falls in love with your story, is key, but it takes patience and perseverance (oh, if only there was Match.com for writers and editors! ).

When I started writing back in the '90s I couldn’t search the Internet--or Cynsations--for information about the publishing industry like you can now. I managed to snag the right editors by joining SCBWI, reading Publishers Weekly, going to conferences, book fairs, and later being on listservs.

But I also inadvertently sold a book because of my careless tracking system. I submitted two different picture books to two editors at Houghton Mifflin, which is bad form. As soon as I discovered my mistake, I alerted the editors. When one of them rejected the manuscript I'd sent to her, the other found out and snapped it up. I have an agent now, who is discouraging me from wantonly spreading myself around at the houses.

In a competitive industry, the manuscripts that take chances (either stylistically or by choice of subject matter) are going to be noticed. I thought I was going out on a limb in writing a book about a labor organizer most people haven't heard of, but the story was compelling. The heroine had to be honored. (See below). To be successful, you need to take risks and you have to be generous. Writing is a gift, an act of love.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Brave Girl: Clara Lemlich and the Shirtwaist Makers Strike of 1909--about a young Jewish/Russian immigrant who started the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history (HarperCollins, 2011). I'm delighted that Melissa Sweet, who received a Caldecott Honor for River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Eerdmans, 2008), will illustrate.

And a biography about Henri Rousseau from Eerdmans. The story is all about a highly unlikely triumph over relentless rejection, so lots of writers will relate!

Cynsational Notes

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

From "The Rex Green Show:" in the video below, Dino-host Rex Green interviews author Michelle Markel about her new math book for kids. Note: Michelle does a great job of holding her own versus the host, a T. rex hand puppet.

Monday, December 21, 2009

New Voice: Penny Blubaugh on Serendipity Market

Penny Blubaugh is the first-time author of Serendipity Market (HarperTeen, 2009). From the promotional copy:

When Toby breathes on Mama Inez's bird-shaped invitations, giving them the power to fly, plans for the Serendipity Market begin. Soon, eleven honored guests travel from afar and make their way to the storytellers' tent to share their stories.

Each tale proves what Mama Inez knows—that magic is everywhere. Sometimes it shows itself subtly—a ray of sun glinting on a gold coin, or a girl picking a rose without getting pricked by the thorn—and sometimes it makes itself known with trumpets and fireworks.

But when real magic is combined with the magic of storytelling, it can change the world.

This is a breathtaking debut novel written with elegance and grace.


What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you're debuting?

The first book I remember loving was a big green book filled with fairy tales and fantasy poems. I don't remember the title, just the large format and the endpapers with princesses and fairy creatures with tiny wings, all cavorting in a glade of primal trees filled with rich spring flowers. I could pour over those endpapers for hours.

The next book that comes to mind is actually a two volume, slip-cased set of illustrated Grimms' and Andersen's Fairy Tales, published in 1955 (Grimms' Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm, translated by Mrs. E. V. Lucas, Lucy Crane, and Marian Edwardes, illustrated by Fritz Kredel (Grosset & Dunlap) and Andersen's Fairy Tales by Hand Christian Andersen, translated by Mrs. E. V. Lucas and Mrs. H. B. Paull, illustrated by Arthur Szyk (Grosset & Dunlap)). One red, one green, and again, gorgeous illustrations in full color.

After that, Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie (Peter and Wendy; Margaret Ogilvy by J. M. Barrie, illustrated by F. D. Bedford (Scribner, 1913)). This one was a treasure, published in 1913 with black and white illustrations by F. D. Bedford. Each illustration was protected by an onionskin flyleaf, and even as a kid, I recognized the beauty in this old brown book with the gilt edges.

And one more, a double like the Grimm/Andersen set. This one was Barnaby and Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley, both by Crockett Johnson (Barnaby (Henry Holt, 1943) and Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley (Henry Holt, 1944)).

Set during World War II, these are the stories of Barnaby, his "little friend Jane," his talking dog Gogon, Gus the Ghost, and Mr. O'Malley, Barnaby’s fairy godfather. Mr. O'Malley wears a homburg, smokes cigars, gambles, drinks and sports pink wings. Absolutely perfect! And completely on par with Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, with decorations by Ernest H. Shepard (E. P. Dutton, 1950) for showing the fantastic as completely normal.

After those, in rapid succession, came Trixie Belden (1948-1986), Nancy Drew (1930-), Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright, illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush, (Harcourt, Brace, 1957), and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle (Farrar, Straus, 1962).

Mystery, light romance, lost worlds, science fiction with dashes of dystopia and fantasy as part of the everyday world.

It’s not much of a surprise, then, that Serendipity Market is a reality-based fantasy drawing on old fairy tales and fantasy poems. In fact, it seems like it was inevitable!

I love fantasy because it can say so much about what's happening in the world and, at the same time, can do it on a slant. The best fantasy doesn't need to trumpet its intentions (Look! Isn’t it amazing the way the wizard comes out of his bottle in dire times?!).

Instead, it makes the reader feel that, if they turn that corner at just the right time, in just the right way, they'll find that fantasy world, too. It won’t be a world of safety, flowers, and unicorns. But it will be a world where anything can happen, where they have to keep their wits about them, where there's danger but they've never felt more alive.

And if the world is built on a template of our normal everyday world, hopefully that’s exactly what will happen. Fantastic normalcy.

In Serendipity Market, I tried to make all the fantastic seem as normal and everyday as possible. Scrying pieces of metal for their internal forms? Watching stream ripples and knowing there's a story in Texas? Breathing life into origami birds? Mere everyday happenings. No fanfare.

Nothing unusual. All as normal as brushing teeth. Or, reality-based fantasy.

Because who didn't believe, at least for a little while, that Peter and Tink were going to come and take them to Neverland, too? Who didn't memorize the directions (second to the right and straight on till morning) just in case they needed them someday? Who didn’t believe that Pooh could talk to Christopher Robin? Or that Nancy Drew would beat all the adults, including the police, to the criminal?

Just like all of my favorites, Serendipity Marked is fantasy based on the real world. Everything that happens, no matter how amazing, should seem like it could happen, should seem like it's right around the corner. Holding its breath, waiting just for you.

How did your MFA help you advance your craft?

Getting my MFA from Vermont College was the thing that pulled me from the it-might-be-nice-to-write phase of my life into the oh-look-I appear-to-be-a-writer phase. It was also one of the highly good things I've done with my life.

Before my coursework at Vermont, I'd spent years in sporadic attempts at writing. Trixie Belden knockoffs at age 12, journal attempts in college, some professional articles about young adults and libraries which got me published but didn't zoom me on to fame and glory. Then I saw an ad for the brand new MFA program in Writing for Children at Vermont and I applied. To my happy surprise I was accepted–and, wow! What an amazing experience.

During my time at Vermont, I learned what it meant to commit to the writing and to believe that something decent can evolve out of a morass of nothing. I learned to persevere, to believe in myself, and to trust that I have both a vision and a voice that truly are mine and mine alone.

These aren’t things that I'm always aware of. My self-doubt is huge. And the voice thing? I'm just finally starting to understand what that means, to know what my own voice sounds like. (I think it was about a month ago when I realized that I'm a dialogue-heavy writer!)

The self-knowledge, along with the craft, seems to evolve bit by bit, piece by piece. And the only way to keep that evolution going is to write.

By writing, I don’t mean only the physical act of putting pen to paper, which is the luddite way that I start everything--for those who care, it's a Rotring Art Pen and a Clairefontaine grid notebook. I also mean thinking about the work, thinking about writing in general, reading a variety of things--I love poetry and adult nonfiction in addition to kidlit--and analyzing what I’m reading.

The MFA gave me the skills to do this analysis, to read with a fine eye, to know when fine-eye reading is important, and to be able to put pen to paper even when the whole idea of facing that blank page is scary. The finer points of many of these skills didn't float to the surface for years, but when I needed them, there they were, just waiting for me to call upon them.

It’s amazing what can be remembered. Ten years later, I can suddenly hear someone saying, "You can’t 'say' with a roll of the eye." Or "There is absolutely nothing wrong with the word 'said' after a character has spoken." It’s like carrying a little recording around in your head that snaps on and off when you need specific instructions or information

For people who want to write, the first thing I'd say is, writing is hard! It's work. And it's worth every bit of that work when your find the right phrase, the perfect word, the beautifully executed scene.

Then I'd add the old butt-in-chair advice that everyone seems to give. Remember, it’s not a cliché if it’s true. So sit down and write.

It's so hard to silence that inner critic that tells you how terrible you are, that says you should just give up and not even try. But the more you ignore that niggling little voice and keep working, the better you get. Honestly! It can’t work any other way. You will improve.

And publishing? Again, old advice. If you're good, if you can write with style and grace, if you've learned your craft, someone will notice. True?

Probably more truth than untruth here, even when the market is tight and it feels like nothing good will ever happen. Because that's almost exactly when something amazing may happen. And that idea (you know it's going to happen at some point!) should keep you going when things get bad. Keep writing, and someone in the world will find you.

Cynsational Notes

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.
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