Saturday, August 21, 2010

Guest Post: Alma Alexander on Revising a Novel She Wrote at Age 14 (Now With Teen Advisors' Input)

By Alma Alexander

More than thirty years ago, I wrote my first original novel.

In longhand. In pencil. In three hard-cover notebooks.

Approximately 200,000 words of it.

I was fourteen years old.

It was not the first novel I had written, but it was the first one which wasn't a "practice" one, derivative of the authors whom I loved at the time.

It proved to me several things - that I was capable of writing something of this length that was purely my own, that I was capable of keeping a large plot arc in the back of my head while I juggled subplots, that I was capable of writing characters who live and change as the circumstances dictate.

To be sure, looking at the actual writing, after more than three decades of living and ten years as a professional author, it shows, sometimes painfully, how very young I was when I wrote this thing. But the story is still good. The story still stands. The characters still live.

So I launched a new project. I would post this novel online, chapter by raw and terrifying chapter, and then - with the commentary and suggestions of a panel of teen advisors who will weigh in on the original chapter and all of its flaws as they see them - I will edit and rewrite this novel with all the experience of my years as a professional, and see that story re-born in a new and glittering guise.

I have four Teen Advisors, ranging in age from 14 to 19, scattered across the length and breadth of the United States (and one from Australia!), and they and I will lick this thing into shape - and then I will be posting a new and shiny chapter, rewritten and repurposed. We will continue doing this, chapter by chapter, until the novel is done.

My young friends and I think this will be quite an experience. For all of us. And I'm hoping that lots of young writers interested in process and craft will join us for the ride.

The first chapter is now live, and awaiting commentary. We are here.

Cynsational Notes

Alma Alexander is the author of 10 books, including the internationally acclaimed The Secrets of Jin-shei (HarperOne, 2004)(published in 14 languages) and the HarperCollins young adult series, Worldweavers.

Bellingham teen to advise on rewrite of early novel by Alma Alexander by Dean Kahn from The Bellingham Herald. Peek: "Steiger did wonder if she was up to the task of advising an author she admires - "I feel like I don't have a right to do that," she said - but decided working more with Alexander was worth the challenge."

West Richland teen helping fantasy author rewrite novel by Sara Schilling from the Tricity Herald. Peek: "The author said the project will benefit both her and her young collaborators. She'll get insight into what teen readers want in books, and they'll get a window into the writing world and experience they can tout as they apply to college or pursue careers."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Guest Post: Rosemary Graham on Online Breakups and Stalker Girl

By Rosemary Graham

Last week someone sent me a link to an article about The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media (Cornell University Press, 2010), a new book by communications professor Ilana Gershon.

Among her findings, Professor Gershon reports that after a breakup, a certain amount Facebook stalking is considered normal among the generation that’s come of age with social media. College students readily admitted to repeatedly checking the Facebook pages of their exes, noting every new friend, every status update.

They did it regardless of which one of them had initiated the breakup, and they described it as compulsive but rarely satisfying behavior.


My new novel, Stalker Girl (Viking, 2010), tells the story of Carly, a girl who engages in the “normal” activity of on-line stalking, but with a twist and with legal as well as unforeseen psychological consequences.

Instead of compulsively checking on her ex, a musician named Brian, she becomes fascinated with his new love interest. Online, this new girl--Taylor Deen—seems perfect. She’s pretty, of course. She comes from a well-known, arty New York family and wins awards for her own photography. After learning all this through the Internet, Carly decides she needs to see this perfect girl herself.

As in, live and in-person.

As in, donning a disguise and casing out the girl’s neighborhood.

All she wants is a glimpse. But that one glimpse of Taylor—laughing it up in a West Village café with her mother—isn’t enough. Soon Carly is following Taylor around the streets of Manhattan. She knows what she’s doing is beyond normal. And she knows she should stop. But she can’t.

Carly’s suffering an extreme case of what I think of as the “Greener Grass Syndrome,” the false belief that your life would be perfect if you had . . . fill in the blank: the cute boy, the cool mom, the great house. To some extent, we all do this. (Right?) But in Carly’s case, with all this information at her fingertips, things get out of hand quickly.

A while ago, I sat in a friend’s backyard debating with other parents about whether today’s teens experience more social pressure than we did when we were growing up.

At first I argued no. After all, we agonized about our thighs, our hair, our clothes. We compared ourselves to the coolerthinnerricherhappier kids. We were just as miserable!

But then I thought about the book I’d just written, where a girl’s obsessive behavior is maybe not caused by social media, but certainly intensified by it.

And I thought back to when I was seventeen and my first boyfriend broke up with me. I spent the day in bed, smoking cigarettes and tearing through Ordinary People [by Judith Guest (Viking, 1976)].

Putting aside the cigarettes (and I did, a long time ago!) my reaction was a fairly healthy one. I threw myself into a book. An appropriately weepy book that I read cover to cover in one day.

But if access to my now-ex-first-boyfriend’s life had been available to me simply by turning on a computer or phone, I probably would have spent that day (and others after) obsessively clicking and watching and waiting, prolonging and exacerbating the pain.

You’ll have to read Stalker Girl to find out what happens to Carly. But I will share one thing. Early in the book Carly discovers “the worst thing” that results from her behavior.

She tried conjuring up her favorite memory from her summer with Brian . . . Now when she thought about that night—how afterward they lay side by side, watching the sky change from pink and orange to deep, dark blue—she saw Taylor in her place.

It was like she’d been deleted from her own memory.


In an odd way, today I find myself treasuring the memory of that lonely day I spent in bed reading Ordinary People and wondering if anyone would ever kiss me again. That weepy novel assuaged my pain by bringing me deep inside someone else's.

In the perpetual present tense of social media, there is no deep inside. And someone else is always prettierricherthinnerhappier.

Cynsational Notes

Rosemary Graham is a professor of English and creative writing at Saint Mary's College of California. She lives with her family in Berkeley, California.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story (Clarion, Nov. 2010) ARC Giveaway from What I'm Reading - Teachers, Librarians, Book Bloggers! The Reading (Mostly) Journal of Linda Sue Park. From the promotional copy:

A Long Walk to Water begins as two stories, told in alternating sections, about a girl in Sudan in 2008 and a boy in Sudan in 1985.

The girl, Nya, is fetching water from a pond that is two hours’ walk from her home: she makes two trips to the pond every day. The boy, Salva, becomes one of the "lost boys" of Sudan, refugees who cover the African continent on foot as they search for their families and for a safe place to stay.

Enduring every hardship from loneliness to attack by armed rebels to contact with killer lions and crocodiles, Salva is a survivor, and his story goes on to intersect with Nya’s in an astonishing and moving way.


Note: teachers, librarians and book bloggers are eligible to win.

See details from Linda Sue Park.

More News & Giveaways

Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers: "to ensure the voices of Native and indigenous writers and storytellers -- past, present, and future -- are heard throughout the world." At Native Realities, the affiliated store site, you can purchase Wordcraft Circle, "Just Write," and "The Pen Is Mightier Than Genocide" T-shirts and mugs. Proceeds go to support the organization.

Ageless Wisdom by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "While sorting donated books and magazines for a library book sale, I came across a real treasure: a 1956 Writer’s Digest. Priced at 35 cents, it was a far cry from the large glossy print magazine or colorful web site of today."

Fiction? Faction? New Nonfiction Narratives by Bethany Hegedus from Writer Friendly; Bookshelf Approved. Peek: "I wasn’t setting out to tell the facts of Gandhi’s life but to instead capture a moment in time between Arun Gandhi and his grandfather—and that moment of time was two years encapsulated in thirty-two pages."

Writing Under the Influence by Tabitha Olson from Writer Musings. Peek: "So, now we have a dilemma: read and possibly be influenced by other authors, or don’t read and possibly come across as naïve or uninformed. What’s the solution?"

Brain Burps About Books: an all-kidlit podcast from Katie Davis. Peek: "I'm trying to provide content, interviews and reviews, so one episode might focus on sharing writing tips and advice, another might be all about supporting teachers who are passionate about using books in exciting new ways. There will also be shows for illustrators, with accompanying images." School Library Journal blogger and New York Public children's librarian Betsy Bird supplies a regular exclusive review. To be a part of the conversation, feedback and questions for the show can be left in a voice message at 888-522-1929.

Tim Tingle on Saltypie: Tim talks about and reads from his new picture book, Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness Into Light in a 2.24 minute podcast from TeachingBooks.net. See also Tim Tingle on Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom. Source: Cinco Puntos.

Copy Cat by Allison Winn Scotch from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "I’m trying to toe this line, to figure out the balance between recreating my work and challenging myself and not, say, offering a work so different that no one recognizes the threads that tie all of my books together." Source: Elizabeth Scott.

YA Fantasy Showdown: "There are 32 characters, all present and accounted for. That means sixteen battles. Half of them will not be making it to the next round (yes, you may shed tears for them. We will). BUT. It is up to you to vote on who moves on."

The Contemps: YA Authors Keeping It Real. Peek: "a group of YA authors with contemporary novels releasing over the course of a year. We are passionate about realistic fiction because these are the books that remind us we're not alone in this real world. Our mission is simple - to spotlight contemporary fiction for young adults through blog posts, author events, and (over)sharing from our teen years."

OpenSky helps authors develop their brands: The website gives them the chance to make money by selling books, as well as their favorite products, directly to consumers. By Geraldine Baum from the Los Angels Times.

Visit with Jessica Lee Anderson from Teens Read Too Book Club. Peek: "Here is my Tweet for my upcoming release (Calli, Milkweed, 2011): When Calli retaliates after her foster sister steals her stuff and kisses her boyfriend, the consequences are overwhelming."

Writers Against Racism: Get Caught Reading an Author of Color's Book by Amy Bowllan from Bowllan's Blog. Peek: "I was hoping to end the summer, catching everyday people, reading books by Authors of Color. Please send these jpeg snapshots to me, via e-mail, with a short blurb about the setting and who is in the picture, name of the book, author etc..."

Agent Interview: Erin Murphy by Brenda Sturgis from suite101.com. Peek: "Picture books have to have enough layers that their genius only becomes truly apparent through multiple readings. Which is not the same as having a lot of words--not by a long shot."

Kimberly Marcus: new site by the author of Scritch-Scratch a Perfect Match, illustrated by Mike Lester (Penguin, 2011).

How to Create a Dystopia by Parker Peevyhouse from The Spectacle. Peek: "Since the point of a dystopian novel is usually to magnify a current flaw in society, it works best to create a world based on one main flaw."

Marianna Mitchell: Writer for Children and Young Adults: newly redesigned site from the author of Gullywasher Gulch, illustrated by Normand Chartier (Boyds Mills, 2002), Joe Cinders, illustrated by Bryan Langdo (Henry Holt, 2002), and more.

Random Acts of Publicity - Sept. 7 to Sept. 10 by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "a week when you do something to promote a friend’s book, or to promote a recent book you’ve read. Four days of promoting others’ books should be great fun."

Mary Kole - Agent Interview and Pitch Contest by Shelli from Market My Words. Peek: "So when you do any kind of promotion -- running a blog/Twitter feed, a contest, having a reading or event, doing an interview -- make sure the reader gets something out of it, too." Pitch contest begins today at 9 a.m. EST and ends Aug. 22 (Sunday) at 9 a.m. EST. Winner gets a query critique from Mary."

Ads and E-Books: Money Should Still Flow Toward the Author by Saundra Mitchell from Making Up Stuff for a Living. Peek: "Product placement should be treated as a subright- I propose, on the same percentages as foreign rights subrights. Approximately 25% to the house, 75% to the author." Read a Cynsations interview with Saundra.

Onward Through the Fog by Brian Yansky from Brian's Blog - Writer Talk. Note: Brian talks about the temptation to quit writing and holds up "The African Queen" as a model for reconsidering.

Congratulations, K.A. Holt

Congratulations to author K.A. Holt on the release of Brains for Lunch: A Zombie Novel in Haiku?! by K.A. Holt, illustrated by Gahan Wilson (Roaring Brook, 2010)! From the promotional copy:

The difference being that this middle school novel is written entirely in Haiku. Loeb, its zombie protagonist has a problem: the object of his affection, Siobhan, is a lifer (i.e. human). What to do? In scenes set around a lunch table (the menu: brains) and around the school, eyes roll and jaws drop (literally). Also featured in the cast of characters is Carl, a chupacabra (bloodsucking critter) and Mrs. Fincher, a sympathetic and seductive librarian.

The launch party for Brains for Lunch will be at 2 p.m. Sept. 12 at BookPeople in Austin.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for Livvie Owen Lived Here by Sarah Dooley (Feiwel and Friends, 2010).



Learn about the history of the Writers' League of Texas by Blake Perkins and Chris Haynes, featuring Sarah Bird and Suzy Spencer.



Austin Scene

In the BookKids department of BookPeople, children's author Pamela Ferguson shows off her debut novel, Sunshine Picklelime, illustrated by Christian Slade (Random House, 2010).

We both were attending a panel on "Diversity in Children's Literature," sponsored by Austin SCBWI. Regional advisor Debbie Gonzales led the discussion with author Varian Johnson, author/illustrator Don Tate, author/librarian Jeanette Larson, and author Lila Guzman.

After the meeting, a bunch of us met for lunch at Frank and Angie's Pizzeria.

More Personally

Jeepers! I received nine blurb requests last week, most of them from folks who had some kind of connection to me. Here's the scoop: I require that all book blurb requests come from editors or agents. I do not want to hear via email or in person from the author, no matter who it is.

Writers Against Racism: Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith: a review from Amy Bowllan from Bowllan's Blog at School Library Journal. Peek: "This is Bowllan’s top pick for your home, or library collection." Side illustration by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying Hwa-Hu; used with permission.

U.K. readers: you can find Tantalize and Eternal at WHSmith. Happy shopping!

Speaking of international releases, thanks to Curtis Brown for sending more copies of the Polish edition of Eternal and this copy of Sanguine (Tantalize) from Intervista Editions in France. Note: Tantalize was featured as a Random Recommendation at A Simple Love of Reading. Peek: "Although Kieren doesn't have the largest part in this book, his feelings for Quincie are unmistakable, and I hope that in Blessed, the next book in the series, they are able to overcome what happened to Quincie in Tantalize." I'm not giving out any spoilers (yet), but I will say that I suspect Quincie-Kieren fans will be pleased with what happens next.


Giveaway Reminders


Surf over to Mundie Moms to read the latest interview with me, and enter to win bookplate-signed copies of Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) and Eternal (Candlewick, 2009, 2010)! With Blessed (Candlewick, 2011) coming soon; now is a great time to get caught up on the series, if you haven't already. Or enter to win a book to give to your local high school or public library. All you have to do is fill out a short form. Deadline: Sept. 15; U.S. entries only.

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Busing Brewster by Richard Michelson, illustrated by R.G. Roth (Knopf, 2010). To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type "Busing Brewster" in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post). I'll write you for contact information, if you win. Deadline: Aug. 31. Sponsored by the author; U.S. entries only. Read a Cynsations interview with Richard.

Enter to win Vampire High: Sophomore Year by Douglas Reese (Delacorte, 2010)(author interview). To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type "Vampire High: Sophomore Year" in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post). I'll write you for contact information, if you win. Deadline: Aug. 31. Publisher review copy; U.S. entries only.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Author Interview: Richard Michelson on Busing Brewster

Richard Michelson is a poet and children’s book author.

His poetry has appeared in many anthologies, including The Norton Introduction to Poetry (W.W. Norton). Clemson University named Michelson the R. J. Calhoun Distinguished Reader in American Literature for 2008, and new work has recently appeared in The Harvard Review.

Michelson’s fifteen books for children have received many honors including the 2009 Sydney Taylor Gold Medal from the Association of Jewish Libraries. He has received two Skipping Stones Multicultural Book Awards, and had his work listed on Publishers Weekly’s Ten Best Picture Book List. He has been a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award, and twice for the National Jewish Book Award.

Amazon.com recently cited As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel's Amazing March Toward Freedom, illustrated by Raúl Colón (Knopf, 2008) as one of the 12 Best Children’s Books of the Decade.

Michelson has lectured, and read from his works in India, Eastern Europe, and throughout the United States. He represented the United States at the Bratislava Biennial of Children’s Books in 2005. Michelson is the owner of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts where he represents many of the country’s most accomplished book illustrators.

Tell us about your new picture book, Busing Brewster, illustrated by R.G. Roth (Knopf, 2010).

Most of the time I drive my agent crazy. “Why won’t you at least try to write a best seller,” he complains. “Maybe a funny story about your dog. Or cute zombie bunnies from outer space.”

But here I am again, writing about racial politics for the picture book set.

Busing Brewster is based on the story of many young African-American children in the 1970s, who were bused to previously-segregated all white schools.

How did the original idea arrive on your doorstep?

Like all my ideas, I stole it from elsewhere.

Tuttle’s Red Barn: The Story of America's Oldest Family Farm, illustrated by Mary Azarian (Putnam, 2007) was based on an article I read in the Wall Street Journal about America’s Oldest Family Farm.

As Good As Anybody came about when I happened upon the historic photograph of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, arms linked, marching together for civil rights.

To me, originality is beside the point. My excitement comes from hard labor of putting words together in an interesting order, and making a story, or a life-story, come to life.

In this case, I read an article about a child who had been bused from his home in Roxbury, a predominantly African American section of Boston, to the Irish American enclave of Charlestown. He had become a successful politician, and attributed much of his good fortune to the opportunities busing had afforded him, yet he insisted that his triumphs were not worth the trauma he had suffered as a child.

I was curious about the ways we use our children as pawns in our social experiments, however well intentioned. And I wondered how the failed experiment of forced busing affected other children. When I am curious about something, I assume others might be curious, too. There might even be a book in it. So I started researching the subject.

Why tackle this topic in a picture book for young readers?

Because that is how you build a society’s foundation. You start with the children and work your way up. School kids are dealing with the issues of friendship, and the moral complications of wanting to speak out for what is right, and still fit in with the majority.

I try to tap into their issues and give a larger historical context for the things they are already thinking about.

Plus, I am a poet, not a scholar, and picture books allow me to focus on rhythms and individual words.

Can you tell us about your research process?

I love research! It is both fun and the greatest of all avoidance techniques because it allows me to convince myself that I’m not really avoiding the work that needs to be done.

For Brewster, I read voluminously about busing issues in every state and every school. I read contemporary accounts, and reminiscences, both pro and con. I read school committee reports. I read old newspapers. I made notes and more notes.

Then, finally, my long legacy of Jewish guilt kicked in, and I knew it was time to abandon my research and start Brewster’s particular story.

What was the hardest part of writing Busing Brewster?

The hardest part of every manuscript for me is leaving out what I’ve learned. After spending months researching a life or a subject, I want everyone who reads my book to know how smart I am. I want to put in cool facts even at the expense of the story’s flow. So I put in everything even as I know I’m going to have to take it out again.

How do you make history accessible for the intended audience and more importantly, relevant to today’s children, and most importantly, fun to read?

That’s easily answered--though not easily done. You do it be crafting an exciting story. Story is how we communicate, and how we remember. It is how we pass down our culture.

Ask any kid, “What did you do today?” and unless they are being sarcastic, they don’t say: I woke up; I brushed my teeth; I combed my hair. They use literary techniques to make their day interesting and memorable.

If we are going to communicate history in a picture book, you need a poet’s wordplay and a fiction writers tools; narrative, description, plot, tension.

Brewster is a story about leaving home and having to make new friends. It is a story about how to deal with bullies and the prejudices of others. These are issues relevant to every child’s life today, as they were relevant to Brewster and Bryan and freckle-face.

It is also the story about the difference that a teacher or librarian or parent can make in a child’s life.

The historical fact of busing and segregation is my background story, and something children will come to understand as they re-read the book, or encounter the subject in other texts.

A number of your books deal with racial issues. Your book Happy Feet: The Savoy Ballroom, Lindy Hoppers and Me, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Harcourt, 2005) is about the Savoy Ballroom, the first integrated dance hall where, inside the doors, “ain’t nobody better than nobody! Salt and pepper-equals! Cats and chicks-equals! Everybody just coming to dance.”


Across the Alley, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Putnam, 2006), is about a Jewish boy and a black child whose parents do not allow them to play together. But their bedroom windows face each other’s, and they become best friends at night. Their challenge is whether they’ll find the courage to bring their friendship into the daylight.


As Good As Anybody is about the friendship of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, as they try to change society together.

What in your background leads you to this sort of a subject?

When I was born East New York, Brooklyn was 90% Jewish. A short 12 years later, less than 10 percent of those living in the neighborhood were Jews. I grew up thinking blacks and Jews were best friends with a common economic enemy. But I was also comfortable with racial stereotyping, and as I grew older, I understood the tensions and the anger brewing on both sides.

The subject of how we negotiate our differences and heal our wounds interests me in a way that zombie bunnies from outer space do not.

Cynsational Notes

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Busing Brewster by Richard Michelson, illustrated by R.G. Roth (Knopf, 2010). To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type "Busing Brewster" in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post). I'll write you for contact information, if you win. Deadline: Aug. 31. Sponsored by the author; U.S. entries only.

Richard Michelson at the 2009 Sydney Taylor Award Ceremony:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

New Voice: Amy Brecount White on Forget-Her-Nots

Amy Brecount White is the first-time author of Forget-Her-Nots (Greenwillow, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Something—some power—is blooming inside Laurel. She can use flowers to do things. Like bringing back lost memories. Or helping her friends ace tests. Or making people fall in love.


Laurel suspects her newfound ability has something to do with an ancient family secret, one that her mother meant to share with Laurel when the time was right. But then time ran out.


Clues and signs and secret messages seem to be all around Laurel at Avondale School, where her mother had also boarded as a student.

Can Laurel piece everything together quickly enough to control her power, which is growing more potent every day?

Or will she set the stage for the most lovestruck, infamous prom in the history of the school?


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

I read everything I could get my hands on and always checked out the maximum number of books from the library! My days were filled with Encyclopedia Brown [by Donald J. Sobel (1963-)], Betsy Byars, Madeleine L'Engle, and even Harlequin romances. I've never felt complete unless I'm in the middle of or looking forward to a book.

Later in high school, I was steered into the classics and fell in love with Dickens, Jane Austen, and some Russian novelists. I like to think of my tastes as eclectic, although definitely preferring fiction.

When I thought about my audience for Forget-Her-Nots, I wrote for the girl that I was: someone with endless curiosity about the world who wanted to come away from the last page of a book with more than she started.

So, I gave my readers something that most of them have never encountered before--the language of flowers. Many of them have already told me that they don't look at flowers in quite the same way anymore. I love books that help me connect with the world in a new and creative way. I hope I've inspired readers to do that with mine.

As a magic realism writer, how did you go about building your world?

The world of the Avondale School was tremendously fun to build. The fictional girls school was constructed in the Victorian period (in the U.S.), but it's also set in Charlottesville where I used to live.

So the campus is a wonderful combination of a mysterious, Gothic-type conservatory and neoclassical buildings, like those on the campus of the University of Virginia.

I gave the school a rich history of strong women and fascinating traditions, such as the May Day maypole dance.

Laurel's school had to have extensive gardens that she could wander through and explore her gift, but it's also a modern campus with soccer fields, a dining hall, and a quad with Frisbees zipping across.

Charlottesville has a climate with a long spring and fall -- plenty of time for lots of flowers to show off. Most of the novel takes place in the spring, and I did do a lot of research and observation to make sure that I got the bloom times correct.

I also did a lot of research on the language of flowers and human/flower relations throughout history. The Avondale campus is a place where the language comes vibrantly and unpredictably alive, so the campus seems to reverberate with myths, poems, and stories about flowers.

I had so much fun creating the gardens and conservatory in particular, that I'd love to revisit the campus in a companion novel to Forget-Her-Nots and already have some ideas rooting.

Cynsational Notes

Amy Brecount White has taught English literature and writing to middle school and high school students. She has written numerous articles and essays for publications such as the Washington Post, but Forget-Her-Nots is her first novel.

She can often be found in her garden and gives flowers to her friends and family whenever she can, though none have had magical effects—yet.

Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith; Tantalize and Eternal Giveaways

Surf over to Mundie Moms to read the latest interview with me, and enter to win bookplate-signed copies of Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) and Eternal (Candlewick, 2009, 2010)!

With Blessed (Candlewick, 2011) coming soon; now is a great time to get caught up on the series, if you haven't already.

Or enter to win a book to give to your local high school or public library.

All you have to do is fill out a short form. Deadline: Sept. 15; U.S. entries only.

In the interview, I talk about my inspirations, Austin and Chicago settings, my writing process, my books, and my upcoming releases.

Peek: "Legend has it that if a cat sits on your manuscript, it will sell. (You can't just plop the kitty down on the paper. He must choose to position himself in that spot)."

Here's Sebastian "Bashi," lounging in my writing chair in the reading room.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Illustrator Interview: Nicole Tagdell on Creating Characters and Sense of Place

By Mark G. Mitchell

A native of Detroit, Michigan; Nicole Tadgell moved frequently growing up. She studied studio art at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts; and today has more than fifteen books and numerous educational pieces published. You can keep up with her and her projects on her blog, Studio NT.

I thought it was so interesting what you wrote on your blog about the Horn Book review of your recent book, Lucky Beans, written by Becky Birtha (Albert Whitman, 2010).

You said that the reviewer, Susan Dove Lempke, was someone you had read years ago, that her Horn Book article, "The Faces in the Picture Books," is probably what sparked your career as a children's book illustrator. Can you tell us a little about that?


It took me a long time to develop and accept a black identity because I grew up in mostly white neighborhoods. I did not want to be defined by my race, but by my interests and who I was as a person.

Black history contains a lot of disturbing, horrifying, and sad things. To belong to that history can be uncomfortable, especially to a shy and sensitive child.

Can you tell us a little more about how your discovery after college of the scarcity of children's books featuring black children and black young people might have also influenced your decision to go into children's book art?

I was inspired most by the work of Trina Schart Hyman, Wendy Pini, E.B. Lewis and Jerry Pinkney. I was studying current picture books in bookstores and libraries to find which publishing houses would be more receptive to my work, and I noticed that most of the stories that featured main characters of color were about heavy subjects such as slavery, civil rights, racism and poverty.

Very few of them were just about kids having fun, such as Jerdine Nolan's Raising Dragons (Harcourt, 1998).


I don't recall seeing any fantastical or sci-fi ones, which I'd love to do. There are some now, of course, but I didn't see any at all back then.

Many of your books do feature African-American characters and stories about black families and communities. Is this your choice? Or is it that publishers approach you primarily for these projects?

There's the phrase "write what you know." If you're immersed in your community and a strong ethnic identity, and feel comfortable doing so, go for it.

Artists are chosen based on the work they've already done. If you've got a portfolio filled with black children, that's the kind of work you're going to get.

I do feel that I most often get approached to illustrate books featuring children of color. This is what I want to do. All artists evolve, and I can see my work going in different directions. I'd love to do a completely fantastical story, for example. Or something zany and hilarious.

Can you tell us a little bit about any challenges you faced doing the pictures for Lucky Beans, written by Becky Birtha (Albert Whitman, 2010), and what were the special treats in illustrating it?

Although I'm passionate about illustrating picture books without social issues, I still do some aspects of them. For example, in Lucky Beans, the main character needs to ask the store owner if he's excluded from entering the contest because he's black. I felt that the heart of the book was about Marshall's efforts to help his family, not confronting racism. Besides, the chance to work on a book that takes place in the 1930s was so interesting!

As for special treats, I love subplots, and I know these characters had a life before and after we see them in the book, so I worked on showing an intimacy with Dad and his little girl. You can see them interacting in the background in many of the pages.


How do you approach each new illustration assignment? What are your first steps? Can you describe a little about your "make-ready" process at the beginning of each book? (You've been quoted as saying, "Sometimes I pretend I'm the kid in the book and do the things they do in the story to really get the feel for each book."). Do you gather lots of visual reference materials before tackling each story, and if so, how do you go about collecting your pictorial reference?


As an artist, I'm always pushing myself to grow, to progress, to get better. I kept wanting my artwork to be brighter and have richer color, and I wanted be able to render buildings and architecture better. So I read up on perspective, used lots of reference photos, and did a lot of drawings with rulers for all those vanishing points!

The author had said that she pictured Marshall's town as being something like the Homewood area of Pittsburgh. Worcester, Massachusetts; is also an industrial city, and the Historical Museum is walking distance from where I work! The wonderful folks there knew just what to do when I asked for photos of street scenes with storefronts–particularly furniture stores. It was so fun to walk around downtown Worcester with a photo taken in the 1930s and look around to see how it's changed–and how it's stayed the same.

I love old things, so it was a lot of fun to look at antique sewing machines, clothing, and kitchens from that time period.


My father grew up in a 1920s bungalow in Detroit, so I used photos and memories of the house there, and found reference photos for the more specific details. I imagined a Depression-era family would have a hodgepodge of things inside; mismatched chairs, for example.

Can you talk a little about your individual process? How do you create your illustrated characters? Do you do lots of sketches before you start on a series of illustrations? Do you have a certain way of getting to know your characters--how they'll look and behave and who they'll be in a story? Do you do thumbnails? Do you draw and trace on a light box, then paint, or do you scan your sketch into a computer and paint digitally?

For this book, I bought several bags of beans to use as references. Navy beans, pinto beans and kidney beans. I ate beans (which I love, although they do have a reputation, don't they?!).

Although it was more likely navy beans would have been eaten in those days, kidney beans look much more bean-like with their rich color and shape. Navy beans aren't really navy - they are small, white ovals.

My process is pretty much three stages: thumbnails, tight pencils, final color. Each stage takes roughly three months. The first stage is often my favorite, because the book feels like it can go anywhere in terms of composition and layout. I do character studies and research.

The second stage is harder because I have to figure out how to make it work - details like perspective, getting everything to fit and work together. Exactly how does the sewing machine look at this angle? Things like that.

The third stage is after everything is approved. I print the drawings onto watercolor paper after having scanned them, and paint from there. That way, if I make a mistake painting, I only need to reprint the drawing rather than redraw and repaint. If I've made a mistake in the drawing, then I'm in real trouble!


Can you discuss other favorites from among your own books?

In A Day with Daddy, written by Nikki Grimes (2004), I knew I wanted to show a very young father with his son. I wanted to paint a Daddy with deadlocks, and my brother had them, so I used him as a model. That was fun! We got together, and I took photos of him.



Your perspective on the creative process has been described as unique. That certainly sounds fun. Can you tell us more? Is feeling creative as big an issue for an illustrator as it is for a writer?

Probably! I've been working on writing and illustrating, so the perspective is probably different, but I think creativity can be elusive sometimes! It doesn't turn on and off like a faucet, but it's easier to access when you do it daily. You kind of have to get out of your own way.

You've said that, as a child, you loved illustrating stories. And you're also a big reader. Are you also a writer? Can we look forward to seeing a book you've both written and illustrated?

I hope so! I have several stories I'm working on. I keep changing my mind on what should happen, how it should happen, what can make it better. Constant revising, I guess.

I'm very much enjoying the process of exploring creativity in this way – by being able to control both words and pictures. Learning about storytelling. After all, that's what it's all about.

Cynsational Notes

Mark Mitchell, who interviewed Nicole for Cynsations, is an author-illustrator living in Austin Texas. He teaches classes in watercolor illustration at the Art School of the Austin Museum of Art and also runs an ongoing online course on drawing and painting for children's books.

In addition, he hosts the How to be a Children's Book Illustrator blog.

Read a Cynsations interview with Mark.

Photo by Patrice Barton.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Guest Post: Jenny Meyerhoff on What to Do If Your Secondary Characters Multiply Like Bunnies

By Jenny Meyerhoff

Because my debut YA, Queen of Secrets (FSG, 2010), is loosely based on the biblical story The Book of Esther, all the main players were predetermined: Essie Green is Esther; Austin King is the king; Micah is Esther’s relative Mordecai; and Harrison is the villain Haman. That seems like a pretty manageable cast.

However, because I’d decided to tell this story for young adults and set it in a high school, I needed more characters: the football players, the cheerleaders, Essie’s friends and her family.

I wound up with a lot of characters, and a lot of work. First, each character needs to be three dimensional. Second, every time you add a character, you are adding not only one new person into your storyline, but several new relationships. Sometimes I felt like I was writing in a pile of tangled spaghetti!

One piece of writing advice that’s always stuck with me is that every character is the star their own story, just like in the hysterical Tom Stoppard play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead."

This isn’t to say that every character needs their own subplot, but secondary characters can not merely be props for the main character. I consider a couple of tools crucial to getting to know my characters. I always begin with the character brainstorming worksheets I have posted on my website (PDF).

Once I have the basics of my character down, I turn to Victoria Schmidt’s book 45 Master Characters (Writers Digest, 2007). I find it really helpful to think about what personality archetype each of my characters falls into; it’s a good overarching guideline to behavior.

Once I’ve done that, I’ll delve into juicier things like journaling as each character, writing a theme song for each character or interviewing my characters.

As important as all this is, I really think that second item I mentioned--the one about managing all the relationships--is the true headache, I mean challenge, of writing a large cast of characters.

Take, for example, Hayden, a secondary in Queen of Secrets. She’s Essie’s cheerleading big sister. She’s got her own personality, yes. But she’s also subtly different when she’s interacting with Austin versus when she’s interacting with Lara versus when she’s with Essie.

When determining those relationship dynamics I thought about the history between characters. Hayden’s known Austin forever but just met Essie over the summer.

I also looked at the status differences between characters; Austin has the highest status in their group, so Hayden looks up to him a bit, but Essie is rather low on the social ladder at first. Hayden feels quite magnanimous towards Essie and takes her under her wing.

It was also important to note whether there is a power imbalance. Does one character want something from another?

While all this might seem like a lot of extra work, it pays off many times over. It’s so much easier to write when you know your characters well. Hopefully, it also makes your book a more enticing read!

Cynsational Notes

From the promotional copy for Queen of Secrets: "Fifteen-year-old Essie Green cannot believe her luck when Austin King asks her out. He is the captain of the football team and the hottest guy at Pershing High School. Unfortunately, as their relationship heats up, so does a rivalry between Austin’s best friend Harrison and Essie’s estranged cousin Micah, an observant Jew. Essie is forced to decide where her loyalties lie. With a family member she barely knows, or the boy she’s beginning to love?"
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