Tuesday, December 07, 2010

New Voice: Blythe Woolston on The Freak Observer

Blythe Woolston is the first-time author of The Freak Observer (Carolrhoda Lab, 2010). From the promotional copy:

For eight years, Loa Lindgren's world ran like one of those mechanical models of the solar system, with her baby sister, Asta, as the sun. Asta suffered from a genetic disorder that left her a permanent infant, and caring for her was Loa's life.

Everything spun neatly and regularly as the whole family orbited around Asta. But now Asta's dead, and 16-year-old Loa's clockwork galaxy has collapsed.

As Loa spins off on her own, her mind ambushes her with vivid nightmares and sadistic flashbacks—a textbook case of PTSD. But there are no textbook fixes for Loa's short-circuiting brain. She must find her own way to pry her world from the clutches of death.

The Freak Observer is a startling debut about death, life, astrophysics, and finding beauty in chaos.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage in 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 plunger. I write in modules that arrive in no particular order--it's like getting a jigsaw puzzle one bit at a time. The corners and edge pieces may not arrive until the very end.

Honestly, this is how I've always written. Since I'm older than dirt, I used to write my college papers on a typewriter. I'd stick a piece of paper in, and whenever I'd have an idea, I'd write about it for a few minutes.

Since I was usually working on several papers at one time a single sheet of paper might have stuff on it about Grendel, Old Testament politics, and pineapple cultivation.

Then I'd take scissors and tape and build a paper out of the scraps. The last thing I would do was write my intro, because until that moment I had no notion what my thesis might be.

The really insane thing about this is that I became a writing teacher. I only suggested my personal method to a couple of students over the years. I always said that an outline could be either descriptive or prescriptive, that an outline should bend to follow the curve of the writer's ideas, and ideas might--should--change.

As far as plotting advice: Read myth and fairy tales. Actually, remember the myths and fairy tales you know. I'm not suggesting that you should retell them, but the bones of plot are exposed in those stories, easy to see.

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 adolescent? How would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

[Photo depicts Blythe's workspace.]

I have a huge advantage; I share my home with some very interesting people, my kids and their friends. I enjoy observing and interacting with them, and the single most important thing I've learned is this: There is no monolithic "authentic" voice.

"I tried Borscht today. I said it tasted like communism. Good in theory, but the human element is bound to mess it up."

That's a recent Facebook status posted by my 17-year-old. He really does talk that way. And if he were a character in a book, he'd still talk that way, because that's his personality. That's how he thinks. Sure, he can carry on a complete conversation using only one word (rhymes with "cluck"), but when he does, there are shades of emotion and nuance that couldn't find an expression elsewhere.

You could transcribe an overheard conversation word for word, and the result could be dull, damp cardboard unless those words belong to a personality, a context, a setting.

I sometimes feel that "voice" is being overly mystified. Trust me, you've got it. Everyone has command of many voices.

The voice, the discourse, you use varies with your audience. Listen to yourself. Notice how words morph and meanings develop during conversation. It's a natural response--all you need to do is open up a new channel and listen.

Cynsational Notes

The Freak Observer has just been named a 2011 finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, given by YALSA. The other finalists are: Hush by Eishes Chayil (Walker, 2010); Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey (Little, Brown, 2010); Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride (Henry Holt, 2010); and Crossing the Tracks by Barbara Stuber (McElderry, 2010).

Monday, December 06, 2010

Guest Post: Lisa Westberg Peters on Volcano Wakes Up!

By Lisa Westberg Peters

On one of my visits to Kilauea Volcano on the island of Hawaii, I drove down to the coast just before sunset. I started to walk across the lumpy, black lava fields toward the spot about two miles away where the volcano's fresh torrents of lava were spilling into the sea and sending up a huge plume of steam.

Walking across a lava bed is crazy hard. Its rough surface is marked by deep cracks and razor sharp edges, and you tend to keep your eyes on the ground. But when I finally looked up, I saw an enormous orange ball shimmering behind the steam plume.

At first, I thought it was just the glow of lava reflecting off the plume, but it was the full moon providing spectacular backdrop to a volcanic eruption.

That evening the moon seemed like a powerful witness to this astonishing scene in the middle of the ocean. I didn't doubt that it might have something interesting to say. The moon was the reason I wrote Volcano Wakes Up! illustrated by Steve Jenkins (Henry Holt, 2010), a story for children told in poems.

I need powerful momentum to propel me through the frustration that I know is coming on any given writing project. This manuscript took years to write, and I flailed around with several approaches.

I had kept a journal on the several trips I made to the island. I took geology classes on an extended stay and wandered around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park so much, I could offer wisdom on the park's attractions to confused tourists.

In a way, my explorations were essential, but they also made it harder. I almost knew too much about Kilauea. I had lost some of that writerly distance.

But time cures a lot. I ultimately decided to tell the story of a day in the life of an imaginary volcano with poems written from the points of view of several "characters" -- the volcano, irrepressible ferns, carnivorous crickets, a small black road, and the sun and moon.

In my mind, the characters range from the young and impetuous to the old and wise. They interpret and reveal the volcano in different ways.

I love to write persona poems. They seem automatically fun. I especially like Paul B. Janeczko's anthology of persona poems, Dirty Laundry Pile, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (HarperCollins, 2001). Who can resist wanting to know what a washing machine and a vacuum cleaner have to say?

In Volcano Wakes Up!, two lava crickets chat about the prospects for dinner, a young volcano boasts about getting the most attention by throwing the nastiest tantrums, and a nervous road frets about that darned volcano's red hot paving operation.

I'm a big fan of encouraging children (and their parents!) to see things from different points of view.

But lots of writers want that. I have to aim for something a little higher. I have to try to write a story that no one else can write, and that leads me back to the moon.

I hope the poems in Volcano Wakes Up! convey, at least a little bit, the connection I felt between an erupting volcano and its fascinating surroundings that night on Kilauea.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Illustrator Interview: Daniel Jennewein on Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten?

Daniel Jennewein is the debut illustrator of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? written by Audrey Vernick (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Your buffalo is growing up. He plays with friends. He shares his toys. He's smart! But is he ready for kindergarten? (And is kindergarten ready for him?)

Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? is a hilarious look at first-day-of-school jitters.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters?

When I was approached by Martha Rago, the Creative Director at Harper Collins, the book in question was about a buffalo who wants to learn how to play drums (which is now the second book, Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums, planned for Spring 2011).

Martha had seen my work at the SCBWI Bologna Symposium & Showcase in 2008 and thought my style would complement the very zany story. I knew that the Buffalo would have to look a lot friendlier than actual buffaloes, and I wanted to give him very exaggerated expressions.

Originally, I imagined him as an Asian buffalo, but the publisher preferred to have him be an American Bison.

When I began the character design, I studied the anatomy of a real buffalo by visiting a wildlife park nearby and doing a ton of sketches of wisents, the smaller European cousin of the American bison. Then, I read the manuscript carefully to gain inspiration for his oversized personality.

The secondary characters include the girl who “owns” the Buffalo as well as her classmates and teacher. I modeled some of them on close friends and family of mine. The Asian girl and red-haired “naughty” boy are based loosely on the looks and personalities of best friends of mine, the boy with glasses resembles my father, and the pig-tailed owner of the buffalo is based on my host sister when I was an exchange student in the U.S. This little girl is a fun and confident character, just like I remember my host sister being.

It was important both to me and the publisher to show the growing diversity of kindergarten classrooms in the U.S. That’s why the children are all different races. It’s part of showing that everyone can feel comfortable in kindergarten, even an enormous Buffalo - who is the only one in the group with horns, a mane and a hump!

As a picture book illustrator, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

Ever since I learned how to pick up a pencil, I’ve been drawing--whatever my imagination comes up with. Illustration is something that cannot be forced. It’s unpredictable. Sometimes, even trying very hard doesn’t lead to good drawings. It just has to happen, which makes it the process rather mysterious and difficult to explain.

Of course, getting a good artistic foundation can really enrich your personal drawing style. That’s why I value my art school background and also try to draw realistic animals, people, houses or landscapes from life as much as I can.

I also draw from my years of experience as a graphic designer for discipline and integrating the feedback of others into my work.

I buy a ton of picture books and study the work of artists I really admire, such as Tomi Ungerer, William Steig, and Disney and Pixar animators.

Impressions from my childhood, traveling, and people-watching are a big source of inspiration.

SCBWI has been essential to my development as a picture book illustrator, and I’ve been so grateful to be mentored by fellow illustrators there such as Bridget Strevens-Marzo (interview).

My natural strength is to make people laugh through my drawings. The Buffalo is enormously large and exuberant. He sometimes has a slightly wild expression, but I tried to convey that he is well-intentioned and a good pal. Kids not only find him an endearingly funny character, they also seem to be convinced that he belongs at kindergarten by the end of the book.

One challenge for me is not to get discouraged. There are so many amazing artists around, which can be very intimidating, especially for a new illustrator like me. I feel very lucky for the wonderful opportunities I’ve had so far, and I look forward to growing as an illustrator and meeting new challenges in the years to come.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Banished by Sophie Littlefield (Delacorte, 2010) is now available. From the promotional copy:

Sixteen-year-old Hailey Tarbell can't wait for the day she'll leave Gypsum, Missouri, far behind, taking only four-year-old Chub, the developmentally-delayed little boy her cruel drug-dealing grandmother fosters for the state money.

But when a freak accident in gym class leaves a girl in critical condition, Hailey feels drawn to lay her hands on the injured girl and an astonishing healing takes place.

Before Hailey can understand her new powers, a beautiful stranger shows up...just in time to save her and Chub from hired killers. A desperate race begins, with Hailey as the ultimate prize: there are those who will stop at nothing to harness her gifts to create an undefeatable army of the undead.

Now it is up to Hailey and a small but determined family of healers to stand up to the unbelievable and face the unthinkable.

Scroll to read an excerpt.

Book Club's 31 Days of Giveaways

It's a bounty of book-and-bling giving from Book Club! Each day this month, visit Book Club's facebook page and Twitter tweet deck for a clue as to which author's blog/facebook/Twitter account to check for the question of the day.

Then surf over to answer in the comments section of the corresponding daily prize post at Crissi's Blog, which will include an image of the prize.

Notes: (a) due to the number of authors who contributed, some days feature more than one author, (b) winners fwill be randomly selected from the correct answers and awarded within 24 hours of the respective day, (c) Cynthia Leitich Smith's Grand Prize Giveaway will be Dec. 17!

More News & Giveaways

Dana Reinhardt's The Things a Brother Knows (Wendy Lamb, 2010) has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, and School Library Journal. It also has been named one of Kirkus Reviews 2010 Best Book for Teens. From Dana's site: "Unfortunately, the first print run of the book is missing three pages: 41, 168, and 222. New copies are being printed now. If you have already ordered yours, or if you have a copy with the missing pages, you may read the missing pages by clicking here." Read a Cynsations interview with Dana.

Agent Spotlight: Ann Behar by Casey McCormick from Literary Rambles. Ann is looking for picture books through YA. Note: if you're in the market, you may want to peruse all of the Casey's spotlight posts (conveniently linked in sidebar of her blog).

Four Ways to Deal with Fictional Parents by Anna Staniszewski. Peek: "I have two new projects in which there's at least one parent in the picture -- wow do I spend a lot of time figuring out how my characters can do certain things without their parents finding out."

What Do Editors Do at Conferences? by Alvina Ling from Blue Rose Girls. Peek: "My main duty while at conferences is author care. I'll usher authors from place to place so that they don't have to worry about anything logistically-speaking, and generally make sure they're happy."

Congratulations to fellow Texas author Dotti Enderle on the release of Crosswire (Calkins Creek, 2010)! From the promotional copy: "A teenage boy experiences the danger and struggle of the taming of the Texas plains when his family's ranch is threatened by violent gangs who cut fences, kill livestock, and threaten ranchers in a war to keep the plains open. In a time and place where the law doesn't really exist, it is a man, his gun, and the courage to use it that stands between life and death, but is Jesse really ready to stand up and be that man?" Kirkus Reviews says,"Enderle writes with restraint, her research neatly woven into the story, her characters carefully drawn. A small gem of a story." Read a Cynsations interview with Dotti.

Crafting Powerful Sentences by Tabitha from Writer Musings. Peek: "An added preposition is just padding, and your prose won’t be as sharp or clean. Avoid adding a preposition when it’s not needed, such as 'at about,' or 'order up.'" Note: good advice, but keep in mind voice.

Marketing Intern Wanted by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "The internship is part-time, with a weekly commitment of about five hours. It is also unpaid, but I will sign for university credit, if applicable. The ideal candidate for this internship is a current student or recent graduate who is a Communications or English major and wants to go into marketing, PR or publishing. Recent graduates of publishing programs, MA programs or MFA programs could also be a great fit, as long as they enjoy the practical and business aspects of the industry." Read a Cynsations interview with Mary.

Cynsational Marketing Tip: emphasize what is special and exciting about your book in promotional materials. Avoid minimizing competing titles or latching onto like-reads for comparative purposes (it blurs the focus and may inadvertently serve to alienate your targets).

Congratulations to Mary Amato on the release of Edgar Allan’s Official Crime Investigation Notebook (Holiday House, 2010)! "In this humorous and touching mystery, fifth grader Edgar Allan tries to catch a thief who leaves poetry instead of fingerprints at the crime scenes." See discussion questions, vocabulary list, and poetry writing activities.

10 Checkpoints for a Scene by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Read a Cynsations guest post by Darcy on Creating Book Trailers.

Historical Fiction Is A-Changing AKA How An Author Researches by Kimberley Griffiths Little from Librarian By Day. Peek: "I only stop obsessively researching when I get to the point that the material has become repetitive. I get to the point where I start thinking, I could have written this book! I stop when the details have become ingrained in my own brain and psyche that when I start drafting I almost never have to stop and look something up." Read a Cynsations interview with Kimberley.

Time To Pray by Maha Addasi, illustrated by Ned Gannon (Boyds Mills, 2010) Picture Book Giveaway from Jama Rattigan at Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup. Peek: "The bond between Yasmin and her grandmother makes for a warm, satisfying story that's not in the least bit didactic, and it resonates on a universal level." Deadline: midnight EST Dec. 12. Note: Maha and Ned will be featured on Cynsations in mid December.

Putting Out Feelers Before Leaving Your Agent by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "If you make the decision to break with your spouse or your representation, you do have to get it over with, and only then can you go out into the uncertain world and hope to get someone else lined up." Read a Cynsations interview with Mary.

Coffee Break Tuesday with Author Kathryn Erskine: an interview by Debbi Michiko Florence from One Writer's Journey. Peek: "Fortunately, my new (very smart and wonderful) editor, Tamra Tuller, told me the day before that I'd better come up with some remarks in case I won, so I did. And fortunately, I remembered them when my name was called! Wow!"

Q & A with Anita Silvey on the Children's Book-A-Day Almanac from Leda Schubert: Writer and Teacher. Peek: "When I go to sleep at night, I know at least I have done something to help one author or illustrator, one book, one editor, and one publishing house." Read a Cynsations interview with Anita.

For YA Publishers (Or Librarian's Have It Covered) by Deena Lipomi from Author2Author. Discusses cover qualities that do and don't resonate with librarians. Peek: "Because as much as places like B&N and Borders can have 'control' over the cover decisions and are probably often correct in their assessment about what will or will not sell, publishers should not underestimate the power of librarians to spread book love that teens will spread from there."

Cheers to the finalists for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults: Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel (Amulet/Abrams, 2010); They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010); Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement by Rick Bowers (National Geographic Society, 2010); The Dark Game: True Spy Stories by Paul Janeczko (Candlewick Press, 2010); and Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw (Charlesbridge, 2010). Read Cynsations guest posts about their respective books by Ann and Susan.

Congratulations to Helene Boudreau on the release of Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings (Sourcebooks, 2010). From the promotional copy: "'Freak of nature takes on a whole new meaning...' If she hadn't been so clueless, she might have seen it coming. But really, who expects to get into a relaxing bathtub after a stressful day of shopping for tankinis and come out with scales and a tail? Most. Embarrassing. Moment. Ever. Jade soon discovers she inherited her mermaid tendencies from her mom. But if Mom was a mermaid, how did she drown? Jade is determined to find out. So how does a plus-size, aqua-phobic mer-girl go about doing that exactly? And how will Jade ever be able to explain her secret to her best friend, Cori, and to her crush, Luke? This summer is about to get a lot more interesting..." Read an interview with Helene from E. Kristin Anderson at The Hate-Mongering Tart.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a illustrator autographed copy of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? by Audrey Vernick, Illustrated by Daniel Jennewein (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, 2011)!

The book will include a customized drawing--the winner can pick the buffalo's pose!

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type "Buffalo" 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: Dec. 31. Sponsored by the illustrator; world-wide entries.

In other news, the winner of Love Drugged by James Klise (Flux, 2010)(author interview), is Vivien in Kansas! Congratulations, Vivien! Thanks again to Jim for hosting the giveaway!

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes (Annick Press, 2010). Source: Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children's Literature.

Check out the book trailer for Nightshade City by Hilary Wagner (Holiday House, 2010). Download and print Nightshade City bookmarks for your library or bookstore.

Because of Mr. Terupt (Delacorte, 2010), a video conversation with bestselling author John Irving and debut author Rob Buyea. See also teachers guide.

More Personally

On Nailing the Kid-Friendly: Author Cynthia Leitich Smith — With Lots of Art from Barry Gott from Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Note: includes interior illustrations and even sketches (!) from Barry. Peek: "I was stymied. But that summer I attended a 'special day' on the picture book at VCFA. Editor Melanie Kroupa spoke about various manuscripts that she’d acquired of late and focused for a while on the tall-tale tradition. I can’t tell you what it was exactly that Melanie said, but I was already scribbling my revision before she finished talking."

BCCB says of Holler Loudly, "This original tall tale is a readaloud dream, full of big, brazen shouts and playful homey dialect. There’s hilarity in the chaos Holler’s volume causes, and the ending, wherein Holler learns the value of quiet and the townsfolk learn the value of loudness, is satisfyingly even-handed and logical."

An Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Stacey O'Neale from The Young Adult Fantasy Guide. Peek: "...I'd definitely have a hug waiting for Quinice, Kieren, and Zachary. Miranda. I'm not so sure. It would depend on when I met her. I'd rather not become dinner to the vampire princess."

The first reader-created trailer for Blessed (Candlewick, Jan. 25, 2011) is up. Tom Cruise as Bradley Sanguini? Why not? Thank you, novelinspection!

Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith: a review from Steven R. McEvoy from Book Reviews and More. Peek: "She has created a world and stories that are compelling and real, and yet she manages to humbly nod her hat to the original [AKA Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897), which largely inspired the series]." Note: some spoilers.

Thanks to Annette Simon for this shelf shot of paperback copies of Eternal (Candlewick, 2010) and Tantalize (Candlewick, 2008)! The photo is from Books Plus, an independent bookstore in Fernandina Beach, Florida.

Thanks to Tammi Sauer for this shelf shot of her Mostly Monsterly, illustrated by Scott Magoon (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2010) and my Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010) at Best of Books in Edmond, Oklahoma! Read a guest post by Tammi on Word Choice in Picture Books.

Thanks to Lisa Firke at Hit Those Keys for my gorgeous new YA cover art gallery! Read a Cynsations interview with Lisa. See also "Just the Pretty Bits," Lisa's very reasonably priced option for folks just looking for a design punch-up on their site/blog. Peek: "You can commission a splendid treatment of your name or business as a digital graphic, perhaps with other masthead decoration, along with a personalized color palette and detailed suggestions for how to incorporate these elements into your existing blog or web site."

Even More Personally

What a treat to learn about Austin SCBWI RA Debbie Gonzales's holiday tradition in The Austin American-Statesman--Mother and Daughter to Celebrate 25 Years of Nutcracking by John Kelso. Read a Cynsations interview with Debbie. Don't miss Debbie's Simple Saturday: "dedicated to...weekend crafts, activities, games and zany family fun!"

My link of the week is Libba Bray on World AIDS Day. Read a Cynsations interview with Libba.

Finally, congratulations to my fellow Austin authors on our bounty of 2010 children's-YA book releases! Note: list, including covers, compiled by Greg Leitich Smith from GregLSBlog.

Cynsational Events

Jessica Lee Anderson will speak on seven things she's learned through her publishing journey...using songs at the Austin SCBWI monthly meeting at 11 a.m. Jan. 15 at BookPeople in Austin. Read an interview with Jessica and P.J. Hoover.

Save the Date! Joint Launch Party: Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick) and Night School by Mari Mancusi (Berkley) book party and signing at 2 p.m. Jan. 29 at BookPeople in Austin. Read a guest post by Mari on Kids Don't Read Like They Used To...And That's a Good Thing (on connecting books to technology).

Thursday, December 02, 2010

New Voice: Christine Johnson on Claire de Lune

Christine Johnson is the first-time author of Claire de Lune (Simon Pulse, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Claire is having the perfect sixteenth birthday. Her pool party is a big success, and her crush keeps chatting and flirting with her as if she's the only girl there. But that night, she discovers something that takes away all sense of normalcy: She's a werewolf.

As Claire is initiated into the pack of female werewolves, she finds her lupine loyalty at odds with her human heart. Burdened with a dark secret and pushing the boundaries of forbidden love, she will be forced to make a choice that will change her life forever....

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

As a young reader, I was voracious. The first book I remember reading all by myself, up in the little book loft in my kindergarten classroom was Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1970.) There might have been others I read before that, but that’s the first memory I have of picking up a mysterious rectangle-shaped thing, opening the cover, and being transported.

I was hooked. I read everything and anything I could get my hands on, including books that were well within my reading ability but way too mature for me. I read Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel (Crown 1980,) in secret when I was nine. It was, um, educational.

Every night I went to sleep with the light on, and it had nothing to do with being scared of the dark. I simply read every single night until I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to put the book on the bedside table or turn off the lamp.

I particularly loved books that made my very active imagination race to keep up. Things like Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s books, and stories by Roald Dahl.

I am quite sure that if Harry Potter [by J.K. Rowling (1997) had come a few years earlier, I would have devoured the series and then petitioned my parents heavily for an owl.

The biggest thing that always appealed to me about paranormal novels was the way they make something look real enough to touch and magical enough to be impossible at the same time.

Add in the fact that I think that the teen years are not only a fascinating time but that - growing up - there was so little that was appropriate for me to read in that age range (when I should have been grabbing YA fiction instead of, oh, say, Stephen King), and it was only natural that something like Claire de Lune was the sort of book I would write.

I wanted to add something to the shelves that would capture the strangeness and wonder and magic of being a teen, but on a grander scale - and something like a girl who discovers she’s a werewolf had all of those ingredients and then some!

As a fantasy writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

I didn’t sit down to write Claire de Lune with a list of statements I wanted to make about the world we live in or the books we read.

When I started Claire de Lune, it was really just a story I wanted to tell about a girl who was having a very specific set of problems. As I started to build the world around those problems, I found that I had begun, unwittingly, to make some social and literary commentary.

In Claire’s world, all werewolves are women - it’s a female-only species. That came about because I wanted Claire to date and fall in love with a human guy, and it initially didn’t make sense to me that she would do that. I mean, why go to the trouble when she could date another werewolf? I toyed with the whole idea of “they’re just meant for each other,” but then I thought of a more practical - and to me, interesting - solution.

If there were no male werewolves, Claire would have to date a human if she wanted to date at all. And with that, I suddenly had a very strongly woman-centric - and maybe even feminist - world in the making.

That one decision led to others. It didn’t seem logical to me that an all female species would worship a male god, so I gave them a goddess, which began some religious commentary I hadn’t originally intended for the book to make.

Once I saw those things, though, I liked them. They gave the story strength and structure and purpose - a skeleton to wrap the flesh of my plot around.

Though the idea for the story came well before the thought of any social commentary, once they were both present, they fed off of each other, cutting away bits of the book that didn’t fit and giving bulk to things that made each of them better. It was a very organic process that happened in the course of drafting and revising.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Guest Post: Jane Sutton on Revisiting a Theme

By Jane Sutton

My friend Fay called after reading my latest picture book. I basked in her praise of its humor and charm until she observed: “All your books have the same message: be yourself.”

I thought, Thanks a lot. You called to tell me I’m repeating myself like a please-continue-to-hold message? Are you trying to cause my self-esteem to nosedive, like the Dow when someone hit the wrong computer key?

Then I considered my oeuvre, mainly to see if my so-called friend had a point but partly because I like the word "oeuvre" for its pretentiousness and the fact that it’s French.

In my newest book, Don’t Call Me Sidney, illustrated by Renata Gallio (Dial, 2010), a pig named Sidney writes a birthday poem for his friend and decides his destiny is to become a poet. When he realizes that the only rhyme for his own name is “kidney,” he changes it to the more rhyme-able “Joe.” His friends dislike the change, and his horrified mother reminds him he was named after his great-great-great grandfather, who invented the mop.

At the end of a sleepless night, earnest Sidney comes up with a compromise: he will be known by his rhyme-able, shortened given name—Sid.

Sorry, Fay, misguided friend, this book’s messages are: rhyming is fun, compromise is cool, and it’s important to honor one’s artistic drive and the wishes of loved ones. Then I reread the line, “When Sidney looked in the mirror, the person looking back at him was Sidney.”

Oh. I guess my new book is about being yourself.

But what about my book, What Should a Hippo Wear? illustrated by Lynn Munsinger (Houghton Mifflin, 1979)?

Before the jungle dance, Bertha paints herself with polka dots, rubs red berries on her cheeks, and pastes on grass eyelashes with mud. When her date doesn’t recognize her, Bertha dives in the river, washing off the make-up and dress and…oh…is “happy to be feeling like herself again.”

All right, two points for Fay. But I have seven published books. They can’t all say the same thing!

My middle grade novel Me and the Weirdos (Bantam, 1983), although out of print, still brings me fan mail and shout-outs that boost my ego, unlike a comment from a certain friend of mine whose names starts with F. (I wrote a Weirdos sequel that I'm trying to sell.)

Anyway, in the original book, Cindy Krinkle considers herself the only normal person in her embarrassing family. Her father, for example, rides to work on a bike with a built-in umbrella, while singing opera off-key. Cindy’s dictionary-memorizing sister packs her school lunches in the “Use in Case of Air Sickness” bags Mr. Krinkle brings home from his airplane-cleaning job. Cindy’s attempts to unweird her family all backfire, and she eventually realizes her family is pretty great. She accepts them for who they are, and I suppose, by extension…herself.

I had to admit it: Fay was right. My other titles, ranging from picture books to a YA, with characters from a koala bear to humans, have similar messages.

But maybe it’s not so bad that I continually revisit the theme of being true to yourself. With all the forces conspiring against kids being able to do that—peers, TV shows, movies, even their own parents—I think it’s a really important message.

Then I remembered the heartening end of my good friend Fay’s comment: "...and no one plays that song better than you."
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