Saturday, September 25, 2010

Guest Post: Cinda Williams Chima on Violence in Teen Books

By Cinda Williams Chima

"What’s all this about violins on television?"

Gilda Radner as Emily Litella, "Saturday Night Live."

A few years ago, one of my colleagues at the university loaned my first novel, The Warrior Heir (Hyperion, 2006), to her mother to read.

“Oh, my,” Sue’s eighty-something mother said. “So bloody. And you seemed like such a nice girl.”

“But I am a nice girl,” I protested. I am. I’m carry-the-spider-outside nice. For a while, I was running a rabbit relocation program from my backyard, in a nonviolent attempt to keep them from savaging my lilies. I’ve given IV fluids to a guinea pig. Horror movies scare me, and I still won’t set foot in a haunted house.

That’s when I realized—each of my Heir novels begins with a prologue. And each of the prologues involves some kind of violent event--a murder, accident, or attack.

In my Seven Realms series (Hyperion, 2009-), Raisa ana’Marianna, the heir to the troubled Gray Wolf Throne, is the target of several assassination attempts. Another of the viewpoint characters, Han Alister, is accused of a series of grisly murders. When he gets in the way of a powerful wizard dynasty, they strike back ruthlessly. I don’t dwell on graphic, onstage violence, but it’s definitely there.

Hmm. Raise your hands, and step away from the keyboard.

The issue of violence in YA lit came to the fore recently with the publication of the wildly-popular Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008-2010). In a near-future dystopian world, a dictatorship maintains its grip on power by forcing children to fight to the death in televised tournaments.

In a post on Shelf Awareness, bookseller Sheryl Cotleur raised questions about the violent content of the series. Cotleur’s point was that we often focus on keeping sexual content away from young readers—should we be worried about violence as well?

The thing is, violence cannot be avoided in a story about war. Anything else is condescending. We owe it to readers to tell them the truth about that, or why should they believe anything we say? War is sometimes necessary. It is a stage on which myriad compelling stories are acted. But it is always horrible, especially for those who suffer collateral damage.

Authors who want to sidestep violence should tell a different kind of story.

I guess I’m more worried about violence without reflection—about media content that implies that those who die can be resurrected for the next episode or game. And that the good guy never ends up dead, maimed or disabled. And that we can inflict death from a distance and never pay a price for it.

Some readers aren’t prepared for a realistic depiction of war. In the Heir Trilogy (Hyperion, 2006-2008; box set 2009), wizards dominate the other magical guilds, forcing magical warriors to fight to the death in a series of tournaments known as the Game. When one of my main characters dies in battle, I was deluged with emails from unhappy readers.

Depending on how it’s handled, violence in media can either encourage or discourage violence in real life.

Are intense scenes in screen media like movies and video games more disturbing than those in books?

I guess I’m torn. In movies, viewers are passive recipients of the director’s vision, while readers are partners with writers in creating story. Because readers are more deeply embedded in the world they’ve helped create, they might be more affected by violence on the page.

On the other hand, whether the issue is sex or violence, readers self-edit to a degree, based on their experience, imagination, and personal tolerance. So it makes sense for authors to use a light hand when it comes to graphic onstage violence in books for teens.

Finally, parents, librarians, booksellers, and teachers should consider what kinds of stories will suit individual YA readers and recommend accordingly.

Cynsational Notes

The Demon King (Hyperion, 2009, 2010) is now available in paperback, and The Exiled Queen (Hyperion) releases Sept. 28.

Excerpts from each of Cinda's books are available on her website. Help for writers can be found under Tips for Writers, including a document called, “Getting Started in Writing for Teens” (PDF).

At her blog, you’ll find rants, posts on the craft of writing, and news about Cinda and her books.

In the video below, Ed Spicer interviews Cinda at the Rochester Teen Lit Festival.

Friday, September 24, 2010

New Voice: M.G. King on Librarian on the Roof! A True Story

M. G. King is the first-time author of Librarian on the Roof! A True Story, illustrated by Stephen Gilpin (Albert Whitman, 2010). From the promotional copy:

When RoseAleta Laurell begins her new job at the Dr. Eugene Clark Library in Lockhart, Texas, she is surprised that the children of the town think the library is for adults.

She vows to raise the money for a children's section and spends a week living and working on the library roof, even surviving a dangerous storm.

With the help of the entire town, RoseAleta raises over $39,000 from within the community and across the country.

Today if you look through the front window of the Dr. Eugene Clark Library, you will see shelves stacked full with children's books and tables and chairs just the right size. You will see artwork on the walls, and a row of busy computers.

Best of all, you will always find crowds of children who love to read and learn inside the walls of the oldest library in Texas.

As a nonfiction writer, what first inspired you to take on your topic? What about it fascinated you? Why did you want to offer more information about it to young readers?

Tree houses, mountaintops, and skyscraper view decks – magical things happen in high places.

In October of 2000, from the fifty-foot roof of the oldest library in Texas, RoseAleta Laurell brought a diverse town together to achieve something remarkable.

Librarian on the Roof! is a modern “Little Engine That Could" story about a librarian who wouldn’t give up until the generation growing up in her bilingual rural town had a library that served its needs.

These days we expect to find computers and Internet access in libraries, but when RoseAleta Laurell moved to Lockhart, Texas, to become director of the Dr. Eugene Clark Library in 1989, she found a small town on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Ms. Laurell [pictured below] wrote, “for many young people, the library serves as their first exposure to books, reading, art and technology.”

Looking back at my own childhood in a working class community, her words have resonated with me in a deep way. I owe a huge debt to the hard-working librarians who provided my family with an endless supply of books, music, and even oil paintings, which we checked out and hung in our apartment’s entry.

When I first heard the story about Lockhart’s librarian camping out on the roof for a week, I knew I had to write it. The tale had all the elements of a wonderful picture book: a dramatic setting on the top of a beautiful historic building, an unforgettable character who was both daring and tenacious, and a community that came together to exceed everyone’s expectations.

It’s simply a great story that needed to be told and remembered. I hope young readers will be inspired to find ways to make their own communities better places.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2010, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

A twentieth-century manual typewriter squelched my first attempt at publication, back when I was eight. Somewhere I'd heard that if you wanted to submit a story to an editor, it had to be typed. I struggled to scroll the paper in straight, mashed keys together, hunted and pecked for over an hour, and covered myself in white-out. The results proved decidedly worse than my southpaw scrawl. I gave up.

But always, I wrote: stories about rocketing to other worlds, poems for homemade birthday cards, and articles about cats for my friend's newspaper, The Cat Courier (which we sold up and down the block for five cents each).

Later, I filled journals with the complicated thoughts and feelings of growing up.

Writing never felt like an optional activity, I'm most myself when I'm stringing sentences together. But publication never seemed inevitable either. Articles and stories thrown into the submission pool were always met with silence or rejection. I failed to rocket over that impossibly high wall to the world of The Published.

In my twenties I became a nurse. R.N.s are a very practical bunch, if not by nature, by necessity. A fast-paced, demanding job where people's lives are on the line is not conducive to dreamy, writerly introspection.

But nothing places you in the middle of the human story like critical-care nursing. I found it humbling to be intimately involved in some of the most pivotal and stressful moments of my patients' lives. Some of their stories will be with me forever.

After my children were born, I picked up my dream of being a writer again. I began waking at four a.m. to get in at least two hours of writing each day. I took a creative writing class at Rice University, joined SCBWI, and found a critique group of fantastic writers in my neighborhood, which we now call the Will Write For Cake Friends. (We celebrate each success with generous amounts of carbs and chocolate).

And even though my engineer husband's eyes glaze over when I ramble on about character and plot, he has instilled in me a wonderful belief in the power of persistence. He lives out the words of Winston Churchill who said “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” I’ve learned to give myself freedom to fail, because although publication may always be a gamble, the joy that comes from creating is certain.

Cynsational Notes

Here's the poster M.G. made when she was in sixth grade for the Jeffersonville (Indiana) Township Public Library's book cover contest.

M.G. won 1st place, and the children's librarian presented her with a hardcover copy of Robert C. O'Brien's Newbery Award winner, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh (Atheneum, 1971).

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Across the Universe by Beth Revis (Razorbill, Jan. 11, 2011) ARC Giveaway from P.J. Hoover at Roots in Myth. From the promotional copy:

A love out of time. A spaceship built of secrets and murder.

Seventeen-year-old Amy joins her parents as frozen cargo aboard the vast spaceship Godspeed and expects to awaken on a new planet, three hundred years in the future. Never could she have known that her frozen slumber would come to an end fifty years too soon and that she would be thrust into the brave new world of a spaceship that lives by its own rules.

Amy quickly realizes that her awakening was no mere computer malfunction. Someone-one of the few thousand inhabitants of the spaceship-tried to kill her. And if Amy doesn't do something soon, her parents will be next.

Now Amy must race to unlock Godspeed's hidden secrets. But out of her list of murder suspects, there's only one who matters: Elder, the future leader of the ship and the love she could never have seen coming.

Contest deadline: Oct. 1. See details.

More News

What's in a Fictional Name? by Brian Meehl from Crowe's Nest. Peek: "Intriguing names should definitely be tucked somewhere in a writer’s pigeon holes. The last name I added to my list was from a New York Times article about one of the first holdouts in the NFL: Pudge Heffelfinger."

Reprise: Should We Bowdlerize Classic Children's Books For Racism? by Mitali Perkins from Mitali's Fire Escape. Peek: "Nobody wants to be didactic these days, but all stories are laced with values. It's the nature of the beast." Read a Cynsations interview with Mitali.

Author Website Tip: make sure it's easy to find the publisher name, illustrator name, and publication date information for each of your books. It's also gracious to include related links.

Three Tips for Character Relationships by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "Do you know someone who aggravates you, even while you enjoy their company?" Read a Cynsations guest post on creating book trailers by Darcy.

An Inside Look at Leap Books by Bonnie Doerr from the Class of 2k10. Peek: "We opened during the economic downturn because we believe in the authors we’ve contracted. Some of the most vibrant publishing houses today began during the depression, and, as they discovered, there’s only one way to go and that’s up."

Cindy Callaghan, Author: new website from the debut author of Just Add Magic (Aladdin, 2010). See discussion guide, writer tips, recipes, events information, and more about Cindy.

For Those We Lose Along the Way by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violets. Peek: "I know of three authors who simply gave up after their first book, completely disillusioned and demoralized by the publishing process and the lack of support they got from their publisher, the lukewarm sales and reviews their book received." Highly recommended.

Theft is Not a Higher Form of Flattery by David Macinnis Gill from Thunderchikin. Peek: "The book is being downloaded faster than Rotarians have pop down a stack of pancakes. The difference is, the Rotarians paid for the pancakes." Read a Cynsations interview with David.

Resubmitting a Revision by Mary Kole from Kid Lit. Peek: "So if I don’t ask you for a revision outright, what can you do? Emailing me immediately to ask if I’d be interested in seeing a revision down the line is probably not your best bet." See also Mary on Specificity of Setting.

New Agent Alert: Logan Garrison of The Gernert Company by Chuck from Guide to Literary Agents. Note: Logan is seeking children's-YA fiction.

Finalists for the 2010 New Mexico Book Awards from New Mexico Book Co-op. See finalists in the picture book, activity book, young readers book, juvenile book, and YA categories. Note: especially recommended to those with a love of southwestern settings. Scroll to read an interview with finalist Kimberley Griffiths Little about The Healing Spell (Scholastic, 2010) from the Mother-Daughter Book Club.

Not Recommended for Younger Readers? by Kate Milford from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek: "Obviously there’s an ongoing argument between writers, young readers, and their parents about what they can handle. Or maybe the disagreement isn’t so much about what they can handle, but what they should even be thinking about. Or maybe it’s both. It’s probably both. So let’s chat."

Bill Martin, Jr. Picture Book Award of the Kansas Reading Association. Nomination criteria: appropriate for grades K-3; published during the three years preceding the one in which the final selection is made; must be in print; books which are not Caldecott winners; only one title per author/illustrator from the U.S.

TLA 2011 Texas Authors and Illustrators Speakers Source Book from Austin SCBWI. Peek: "The fee for this year’s Speakers Sourcebook listing is $45 for 1/3 page or $100 for a full page. Sourcebook ad specifics are detailed on page 3 of this registration packet." Deadline: Feb. 19.

Attend to Your Work by Deborah Heiligman from I.N.K.: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Deborah talks about the words her grandfather left her. Peek: "I hope you will indulge me and let me tell you about him. I think it relates to what we are all trying to do here."

Video Interview with Kate DiCamillo from the Minnesota Legacy Fund. Peek: "Newbery award-winning children’s author Kate DiCamillo shares her thoughts on writing, dogs, fan letters, and embarrassing first drafts." Read a Cynsations interview with Kate.

Writing on a Unicycle: Making Time for What You Love in a Life out of Balance by Deborah Brodie. Peek: "Unless writing is your day job, these tips are for you. And if you have other ideas, and the time to write them down, please send them to me so I can share them with others."

Kidlitosphere Blogger Tip: Looking to build your readership? Register your blog at JacketFlap, "a comprehensive resource for information on the children's book industry. Thousands of published authors, illustrators, librarians, agents, editors, publicists, and publishers visit JacketFlap every day."

Interview: Don Tate on Illustrating and the Brown Bookshelf by Aaron Mead from Children's Books and Reviews. Peek: "Lee & Low’s New Voices award is the one that has meant the most to me. I received it for a book that I wrote, which will publish next year. I’ve been an artist all of my life.... But I wasn’t confident in my writing abilities." Read a Cynsations interview with Don.

Books on Islam for Teens and Children: an annotated bibliography from ALSC. Peek: "This list was developed by the Quicklists Consulting Committee of the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association." Source: Confessions of a Bibliovore. See Exploring Diversity Through Children's and YA Books and Exploring Diversity: Themes and Communities.

Suzanne Collins Completes the Hunger Games from the Associated Press. Peek: "Inspiration, like a sudden phone call, began at home. A few years ago, Collins was surfing channels late at night and found herself switching between a reality program and news reports about the Iraq war. The images blurred in her mind. She wondered whether other viewers could tell them apart."

Do Political Beliefs Impact Representation? by Jessica from BookEnds, LLC. Peek: "Wouldn’t it be nice if I could say, 'No, absolutely not,' but let’s be honest."

Vision Is Ahead of Execution by Lindsey Lane from This and That. Peek: "You see, I have never written a novel before. A whole 24,000 plus word novel. I am fretting because I’ve never done it before. And because I’ve never done it before, I am thinking I will fail because I have never done it before."

To Multi-book or Not to Multi-book by Jennifer Laughran from Jennifer Represents. Note: a discussion of pros and cons. See also Jennifer on option clauses in book contracts. Source: Elizabeth Scott. Read a Cynsations interview with Jennifer.

Series Books: a new curriculum resource center from Teaching Books. Note: focusing on series published for elementary-aged students. Note: featured books include The Birchbark House trilogy by Louise Erdrich (Hyperion-HarperCollins, 1999-2008)(author audio, related resources).

In Defense of Dead/Absent Parents in Children's Literature by Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent. Peek: "I am a former twelve-year-old, and I can remember how thrilling it was to read books where the kids were off on their own, fighting and outsmarting adults, dealing with harsh landscapes, facing their deepest fears, making unforgettable friendships, and, while I didn't know it at the time, learning how to be adults." Note: for the counterpoint, see Leila Sales on Ol' Dead Dad Syndrome from Publishers Weekly. Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan.

Slattery to Become Agent with Pippin from Publishers Weekly. Former Knopf editor Joan Slattery joins Pippin as literary agent and contracts manager.

Speak Loudly

In an article in the Springfield, Missouri, News-Leader, Wesley Scroggins opines that Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak (FSG, 1999) is "soft porn." In fact, Speak is a sensitive and victim/survivor-empowering novel about rape. See Laurie's initial response and wrap-up. Consider pairing Speak with Every Time a Rainbow Dies by Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad/HarperCollins), which likewise touches on the aftermath of rape.

From there, check out Sara Ockler's response On Book Banning Zealots & Ostriches to Scroggins' characterization of her novel Twenty Boy Summer (Little, Brown, 2009). Then in celebration of the freedom to read, enter to win one of 100 paperback copies of the book in a giveaway sponsored by Little, Brown and the Debs. Deadline: Oct. 2.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for The Haunted by Jessica Verday (Simon & Schuster, 2010). Read an interview with Jessica from Mundie Moms.

Author Diane Stanley talks about Saving Sky (HarperCollins, 2010).

More Personally

For those who missed it, I unveiled the cover art for Blessed (Candlewick, Jan. 25, 2011) this week. The novel crosses over the casts of Tantalize and Eternal and picks up where Tantalize leaves off. For news release with flap copy, a new author Q&A, and more information on the series, check out the official media kit (PDF).

This shelf shot of Eternal (Candlewick, 2009, 2010) was taken at the Houston airport and comes from Kathi Appelt.

Giveaway Winners

The winner of an autographed Goddess Girls: Aphrodite the Beauty by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams (Aladdin, 2010), plus an Aphrodite the Beauty swag bag, featuring: 24-color eyeshadow from Claire’s; seven lip glosses with faux rhinestones; multicolor bracelet; Goddess Girls bookmark is Jennifer in Wyoming! Read a Cynsations guest post by Joan and Suzanne about the series.

The winners of The Dark Deeps: The Hunchback Assignments 2 by Arthur Slade (Wendy Lamb, 2010) are Vivien in Kansas, Janine in Utah, and Nancy in Texas. Read a Cynsations guest post by Arthur on How to Put the "Steam" in Steampunk.

Texas Book Festival

Check out the schedule for Texas Book Festival on Oct. 16 and Oct. 17 in Austin.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will be reading Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010) from 2 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Oct. 17, in the Children's Read Me a Story Tent. Her signing will follow immediately afterward at the Children's Signing Tent (13th and Colorado).

Greg Leitich Smith will moderate a panel, "Portals to Imagined Worlds," from 11 a.m. to noon Oct. 17 in Capitol Extension, Room E 2.014. Featured panelists include Brian Yansky (Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences (Candlewick, 2010)); Ingrid Law (Scumble (Dial, 2010)); Carolyn Cohagan (The Lost Children (Aladdin, 2010); and Cinda Williams Chima (The Exiled Queen: A Seven Realms Novel (Hyperion, 2010)). Greg will also introduce M.T. Anderson at 3 p.m. Oct. 17, in Capitol Auditorium, Room E1.004.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Guest Post: Susan Fletcher on Waiting to Fly

By Susan Fletcher

When I was five years old, I loved stories about magic carpets, stories where people turned into swans, stories about people so light, they wafted like feathers into the air.

One day, watching a TV commercial, I saw a kid eat a bowl of Jets cereal, then hold out his arms, like wings...and fly.

Somehow, the commercial seemed real to me. I talked myself into believing that there might be a loophole in the rules that governed my world. That if I ate the right breakfast cereal, I could maybe lift off from my back porch and soar up into the sky.

I still remember standing at the edge of the porch after eating a bowl of Jets. Leaning forward: knees loose, arms stretched wide. Wishing with all my might.

Flash forward: Last July, at Vermont College of the Fine Arts, I heard Martine Leavitt talk brilliantly about the power of wish fulfillment in fantasy literature. Holly Black – also brilliant -- discussed the idea that magic in fantasy novels should make our characters’ lives harder, not easier. The idea that magic should have a price.

I think that the combination of those two things – wish fulfillment and magic with a price – underlies the appeal and the power of fantasy.

Where else but in fairy tales and fantasy can we live out our most impossible longings – to fly, to be fairest of them all, to be powerful enough to slay dragons? To have or be or do whatever we want – at the flick of a wand, the recitation of a spell, or the touch of a magic lamp?

And yet, to me, fantasy novels in which the wish fulfillment is too easy...feel hollow and unsatisfying.

In my new book, Ancient, Strange and Lovely (Atheneum, 2010), I indulged my old yearning to lift off the ground and take wing across the sky. There’s a dragon involved and a soaring flight across the mountains. So much fun to write! Vicariously, it was thrilling.

But it’s not a pleasant journey. It’s painful and cold and cramped. It’s terrifyingly dangerous. And the very gifts that make the flight possible for my protagonist, Bryn, exact a painful price: ostracism. A huge burden of responsibility. A life of isolation.

What a spoilsport! Why couldn’t I just go with joy?

Well, it’s partly about plot and tension. Superman without Kryptonite is like tennis without a net: What’s the point? If your protagonist can simply fly blithely away from danger, where’s the suspense? Who really cares what happens?

The other, deeper part has to do with that hopeful, earthbound five-year-old we left waiting at the edge of her porch. It’s about how she’s going to feel when she realizes that, no matter how desperately she yearns to lift off and swoop above her backyard, it’s never going to happen.

It’s about the fact that we, and all of our readers, hail from this same, unmagical tribe. And it’s our characters’ struggles and weaknesses and disappointments – more than their extraordinary gifts -- that make them believable and dear to us.

Cynsational Notes

Susan’s new fantasy novel, Ancient, Strange and Lovely, is the fourth in her Dragon Chronicles series. She is a member of the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of the Fine Arts.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

New Voice: Jessica Leader on Nice and Mean

Jessica Leader is the first time author of Nice and Mean (Aladdin MIX, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Nice and Mean by Jessica Leader is a hilarious story about two girls--one nice, one mean--facing off in their middle school video elective.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I’m a plotter. A definite devotee of outlines. It started several years ago when an editor said to me, “60,000 words? That’s way, way too long for middle-grade. Do you outline?”

I admit that the comment made me huffy at first, but when I went back and outlined what I had written, I saw the redundant scenes immediately and hacked my way to a much stronger draft.

In future projects, starting with an outline has allowed me to spot problems in advance, like dropped characters or unclear motivations. They’ve clarified my goals and my characters’, too.

This is not to say that outlining produces fully workable drafts in one go. (Are you reading this, Agent E? Are you saying, "Yup?")

In addition, there’s not always a clear order of operations. Sometimes I can only create partial outlines before drafting, and often, I halt the drafting to re-jigger the outline I’ve made.

But in general, the time I spend outlining is time saved on dead-end drafts. I may have to create a Facebook Fan Page for Outlining.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

I have always been in touch with my rebellious kid’s voice, and in my early days of teaching, rebellious kids made a quick showing on my radar.

What I was surprised to find, though, was a huge swath of kids who were actively concerned with being loved and being good people.

An athletic golden boy wrote all year about how he wanted his older sister to be nicer to him and how he wanted more time with his mom. An effervescent, well-liked girl went far out of her way to draw a seriously awkward one into the crowd.

I know from Ingrid Michaelson that everybody—everybody!—wants to love; everybody—everybody!—wants to be loved.

I just hadn’t remembered noticing it when I was growing up, so I was surprised to see it expressed so openly by my students. Sure, they could be cruel, careless, and have crappy attitudes; I was not blind to that. But it coexisted with the goodness, which inspired me as a person and broadened the range of characters I considered myself able to inhabit.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Last spring, I was a little nervous about self-promotion. The audience of readers, bloggers, teachers and librarians seemed so vast and uncatalogued; I didn’t know where to start reaching them.

Varian Johnson--friend of yours, mine, and writers everywhere--gave me great advice: You only have to do two things: create a website and finish your next book. You could make other efforts, sure, but you should stick to things you feel enthusiastic about. If you try to pursue things that don’t feel right, it will show and possibly backfire.

It was all so true. I could spend all my free time promoting Nice and Mean, but it wouldn’t satisfy me the way writing does, and what would I do after the book came out? Promote the e-book?

The advice to pursue what excited me led me to some really fantastic resources and one major coup. I didn’t feel enthused about trying to rope in Twitter followers or give away trinkets. Some people have success with that, but it didn’t feel like me.

However, I love finding thought-provoking kidlit blogs, and I love online dialogue that’s focused around a particular topic. So I decided to go for it with MotherReader’s Comment Challenge, in which bloggers commit to making five comments on various blogs every day for a month.

I didn’t meet that goal by any stretch of the imagination, but I did find some great sites, including Reading in Color, which reviews YA books by people of color. How does blogger Ari know about all these titles? How does a high-school student have the moxie to lead a campaign against the publishing industry for white-washing their covers? I didn’t know, but I commented with fervor, and though it wasn’t my goal at all, my enthusiasm for the blog led Ari to Nice and Mean. She was excited to learn about it, and she became one of the people to host my blog tour.

Another thing I found I enjoyed were the Tuesday night kidlit talks on Twitter. Those led me to a teacher, Paul Hankins, who happens to live near me and invited me to do my first school visit. He mentioned me to his friend Andy Terrell, the owner of Destinations Booksellers, who invited me to do a reading, and when he read my ARC, he nominated me to the Summer 2010 IndieNext List. (Thank you, Paul! Thank you, Andy!)

Is this one-in-a-million story? Maybe. Would it have happened if, instead of drafting my work-in-progress, I’d sent postcards to every indie bookseller in the country? Perhaps.

Will I need to reexamine my promotional approach in a year? I’m sure.

But the difference for me was that instead of grumbling through these tasks, I felt like me and enjoyed myself. I can’t imagine those feelings are anything less than crucial in sustaining a life as a writer.

Cynsational Notes

From Jessica's website: "Jessica Leader grew up in New York City. Like her characters, Marina and Sachi, she had many important conversations in the stairwells of her school and on the cross-town bus. In addition to being a writer, she has taught English and drama in New York and in Louisville, Kentucky. Jessica graduated from Brown University and has an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith Cover Art, Flap Copy & New Pub Date

Here's the cover art for my YA Gothic fantasy, Blessed!

The publication date has been moved up. The novel will be available beginning Jan. 25, 2011 from Candlewick Press.

If you're a die-hard, no-spoilers person, you may want to stop reading now. If not, continue on for my latest YA author bio, followed by the flap copy.

And if you'd like even more information, check out Candlewick's Blessed media kit (PDF), featuring a news release, my latest Q&A, and extra series scoop.

About the Author

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the acclaimed and best-selling author of Tantalize, Eternal, and several other books for young readers.

About Blessed, she says, “Who hasn’t felt like their life is over? Like they’re all alone, facing an infernal storm? That’s when a little faith can save you, when you’re fighting the hardest to believe in yourself.”

A member of the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in writing for children and young adults, she lives in Austin, Texas.

Flap Copy

With a wink and a nod to Bram Stoker, bestselling author Cynthia Leitich Smith unites the casts of Tantalize and Eternal in a delicious dark fantasy her fans will devour.

Quincie Morris, teen restaurateur and neophyte vampire, is in the fight of her life — or undeath.

Even as she adjusts to her new appetites, she must clear her best friend and true love — the hybrid-werewolf Kieren — of murder charges; thwart the apocalyptic ambitions of Bradley Sanguini, the seductive vampire-chef who “blessed” her; and keep her dead parents’ restaurant up and running.

She hires a more homespun chef and adds the preternaturally beautiful Zachary to her wait staff. But with hundreds of new vampires on the rise and Bradley off assuming the powers of Dracula Prime, Zachary soon reveals his true nature — and his flaming sword — and they hit the road to staunch the bloodshed before it’s too late.

Even if they save the world, will there be time left to salvage Quincie’s soul?

Cynsational Notes

In related series news, two graphic novels Tantalize: Kieren's Story (Aug. 2011) and Eternal: Zachary's Story (TBA), both illustrated by Ming Doyle, are in the works as is with a fourth untitled (prose) novel that will conclude these Dracula-inspired storylines.

Readers also may want to look for two short stories set in the universe, both of which feature new characters. These are "Cat Calls," which appears in Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists, and Other Matters Odd and Magical, edited by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick, 2009) and "Haunted Love," which appears in Immortal: Love Stories with Bite, edited by P.C. Cast (BenBella, 2009). If you can't find them on the shelf, ask your local bookseller or librarian for help ordering copies.

Monday, September 20, 2010

New Voice: Shari Maurer on Change of Heart

Shari Maurer is the first-time author of Change of Heart (WestSide, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Shortly after her sixteenth birthday, popular varsity soccer star Emmi comes down with an ordinary virus. But when she doesn’t bounce back as always, she gets the worst possible news—she’s had myocarditis that’s destroyed her heart, putting her into congestive heart failure.

This formerly energetic teen can now barely walk across a room without having to stop and rest. And the prognosis is bleak: without a heart transplant, she’ll die in a matter of months.

It’s only her growing friendship with Abe, the funny, smart boy she meets in the cardiac clinic, that finally cheers her up.

But difficult questions race through her mind while she waits: Will she get a heart in time? Will she even survive the surgery? What if her body rejects the heart?

When tragedy strikes close to home, Emmi must rely even more on her inner strength in order to carry on.

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

I was lucky to have a series of great writing teachers along the way. First, there was my seventh grade English teacher, Joe Mastropolo, who taught me the fundamentals of grammar--and then taught my daughter when she was in seventh grade, so I got to relive all the lessons again.

Besides giving me an impeccable grammar foundation, he made sure I expunged the word "like" from my vocabulary (as in "I like went down the street and like saw this like totally hot guy.")

I was an English major at Duke University, but also earned a Certificate in Film and Video and took several playwriting classes. Dr. David Ball taught me at least four classes for my Duke degree (including "Intro to Playwriting," an independent study and one of my all-time favorites "The Films of Earl Owensby" focusing on an independent filmmaker in North Carolina).

I still refer to David's book, Backwards and Forwards (Southern Illinois University Press, 1983) and think about his conflict-launch, conflict-launch method of playwriting. He really pushed the message that conflict is essential to drama. David explained that conflict is when a character wants something (motivation), but there is an obstacle preventing that. I find this can be applied to novels, too. Without conflict, books are boring.

To my memory (which I admit is spotty at times), David was also the one who would ask: "What is the major dramatic question?"

If you couldn't figure it out a few minutes into the play (or book or movie), then it wasn't properly done. To this day, my husband and I still use this standard and will often turn to each other part of the way into a movie or play and ask each other what the major dramatic question is (if we have to ask it, it generally means there is no major dramatic question and it isn't working for us).

Next, there was the late Venable Herndon at New York University. More than anything, he gave me the encouragement to believe I could be a writer.

Venable was my screenwriting professor and is best known for having written the movie, "Alice's Restaurant" (1969). His gift was reaching each aspiring writer and finding our emotional core and having us write from there. And his other words of wisdom? "Don't be weighed down by the burdens of others." Which was basically advice to stay away from family drama, office politics, and other distractions and focus on writing.

When I wanted to return to writing after all of my kids were in school, I decided to take a class from the Institute of Children's Literature.

I admit I was wary at first--how legitimate could a school be if they were advertising for students in a magazine? It was beyond legitimate. It was a logical, specific, instructive way to revisit my writing education.

I was lucky to get a fabulous instructor, Susan Ludwig, who guided me through the course and pushed me to make my writing much stronger. Each lesson builds on the next, and while it was mainly geared for magazine writing, they were skills that could be applied in any children's writing. I always eagerly awaited Susan's comments and learned so much by incorporating them into my stories. I even sold two of my assignments, which I credit to Susan's guidance and editing.

Now my greatest teachers are all the wonderful writers whose books I'm lucky enough to read. I find that from every book I read, I can gleam something useful from my own writing.

This includes my crit partners, Jill Arabas and Dawn Buthorn. As I read their work and see how they critique mine, I grow even more as a writer. I don't think you ever stop learning as a writer. At least I hope not--I feel like I have so much more to learn!

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 others tap into that power in their own writing?

In my case, there's the easy answer which is that at any given time there are a bunch of teenagers in my kitchen, car, etc. My kids are 15, 13 and 10, and we always have their friends floating around. I love listening to them--both to get a good feel for authentic voice and also to hear what's important to them.

Confession time: most afternoons when I'm waiting to pick my daughter up at the high school, I roll down my windows and watch and listen (so if you're at the Clarkstown North parking lot and you see a woman in a blue minivan jotting down notes as you pass by--that's me!). It's amazing what you can learn by watching body language (how girls will giggle and lean toward a boy they like as they walk) and listening to how they talk to each other (often far more direct and blunt than we'd think).

When I wrote the first draft of Change of Heart, a friend who is a librarian told me that the girls weren't snarky enough to each other. She was right, and I think it gave Emmi and Becca a much more real give and take, particularly in that Becca keeps up the snark even when Emmi gets sick. Emmi appreciates her for that, it's part of what gets her through.

Sometimes I will pick one of the kids I know and use their voice as a guideline for one of my characters, though I find that even if the voice starts mirroring a real person, as the character becomes his or her own person, the real person's voice fades away.

I also find that some of the real teens I know might actually not sound so believable in fiction. Some of them are cheerleader-gushy, some are slightly spacey and others are tough with thick New York accents. The balance is to find a way to take reality and combine it with the voices in your head to create an authentic-sounding teen.

Having a pool of available teenagers as resources has been invaluable. Whether it's calling my niece to give me a supply of synonyms for "hot" (as in "hot guy") or asking them to update me on the latest social network technology, it's wonderful to have all of them around.

There were several times during my revisions on Change of Heart that my editor would question a word choice from the teen. I was able to turn to my daughter and her friends and run it by them to get the most authentic word for the situation. And my son will be the first to tell me "No one says that, Mom." Certainly the vocabulary I use isn't always the same as the teens--and it's all constantly changing.

As I begin a project or even when I'm stuck, I often find it's helpful to do character exercises. I might pick one character and write letters or journal entries from them or do a whole backstory for another character.

As I drive my kids around, I often find my mind wandering to imaginary conversations between my characters (I do some of my best thinking in the car--which is good because it feels like I am always in the car!) Some of these make it into the book, and some just give me a broader idea of the characters and their relationships.

Plot often springs from these exercises because they give me a better understanding of each character's motivations. I find it can be helpful while revising to reread the book from different characters' points of view. This fleshes out your story and makes each person in the book more believable.

After my kids are grown, I'll have to find other reasons to drive around so that I can brainstorm. And I wonder if it'll still be okay to sit at the high school and observe. Either that or I'll have to get the strategic chairs next to big groups of teens at Starbucks. I guess I'll figure it out when I get there.

For now, I'm enjoying the process of characterization. And I have a great excuse to eavesdrop on my kids!

Cynsational Notes

Shari Maurer’s life has always been full of "heart." Married to a cardiologist, she is the co-author of The Parent’s Guide to Children’s Congenital Heart Defects: What They Are, How to Treat Them, How to Cope with Them (Three Rivers Press, 2001).

After graduating from Duke University and NYU, she spent six years at the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) working on International versions of "Sesame Street" and other kids’ programs.

Shari lives in New City, New York.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Guest Post: Darcy Pattison on Creating Book Trailers

By Darcy Pattison

Exciting news! School Library Journal has created a new award for book trailers. Dubbed "the Trailie," the awards in each category will be voted on by the public, and the winners will be announced at the School Library Journal Leadership Summit on the Future of Reading on Oct. 22 in Chicago.

For once, I’m ahead of the game, because I’ve been thinking about book trailers this year as I worked on The Book Trailer Manual and discussed book trailers with authors, readers and librarians.

Objections to Book Trailers

I’ve found a couple basic objections to book trailers.

First, some say it’s an oxymoron to use a video, or moving images, to promote a book which is written text. The very idea of a book should rule out the use of a video, right?

Not necessarily. Everyone I know listens to the radio, watches TV and YouTube and reads books. We get our information and stories from many mediums. Why not cross-promote?

School Library Journal says it this way:

“The bottom line is that there are more and more activities that take children and teens away from reading. Book videos are a fantastic way to entice them to read. Multimedia incorporates all types of media into a cohesive whole. It isn’t 'at odds' with the printed word but rather in concert with print, using music, pictures, and words to get people of all ages interested in picking up a book.”

The other objection to book trailers is that they usurp the reader’s role in imagining a story.

I agree: if the trailer depicts the characters or situations, it can do exactly that. But in my opinion, that’s a poor book trailer. Trailers should evoke interest in the book, without putting such images into a reader’s head that they can’t imagine it for themselves.

Once you watch the "Twilight" movies, it’s hard to imagine anything but that Bella, that Edward, that Jacob. Okay, once it gets to the movie stage, I’ll give in; but let’s not do that in the book trailer stage, please.

I came away from the objections with an openness about using trailers to promote books, some guidelines about what to include in a good trailer, and a determination to try creating some.


But I still didn’t know what to put into a video. To answer that, I researched what generally works online, I watched tons of book trailers on YouTube and thought hard.

For me, research usually goes through a couple phases: reading everything on the topic I can; repeating the party line about the topic; and finally, assimilating the information into some original ideas.

One idea that developed is that it’s unfortunate we have the moniker, “book trailer” for these videos that promote books. It evokes the movie trailer in all its splendor. But and online videos have a different aesthetic than movies. They are informal, quirky. Think: talking squirrels. Spoofs. Instead, the typical book trailer is an animated slide show.

In fact, I came away with about fourteen ideas on what to include in a book trailer.

My favorite is the author talking about how his/her aspirations and beliefs have led them to this place. Lois Kelly, author of Beyond Buzz: The Next Generation of Word-of-Mouth Marketing (AMA Com/American Management Association, 2007), says it’s the number one topic that people want to hear about.

As an author, my own aspirations and beliefs are something I can talk about informally.

My second favorite content for a book trailer is using odd quirky things. I have a new picture book coming out next year, Prairie Storms (Sylvan Dell, August, 2011). It’s a nature book about how animals survive a year of storms on the prairie. I’m looking for odd video clips that might form the core of a book trailer.

So far, my favorite is a clip of buffaloes ice skating. For real. They wander onto a frozen pond and have fun skating around. It’s going to be a fun book trailer to put together.

Cynsational Notes

Darcy Pattison is the author of the teen fantasy The Wayfinder (Greenwillow, 2000), now available as an eBook for the Kindle/Nook/ePub. To illustrate different programs for making trailers, she created a couple trailers for The Wayfinder; here's one of them:

For more on how to create book trailers see
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