New Voice: Adrienne Sylver on Hot Diggity Dog: The History of the Hot Dog

Adrienne Sylver is the first-time author of Hot Diggity Dog: The History of the Hot Dog, illustrated by Elwood H. Smith (Dutton, May 13, 2010). From the promotional copy:

If we are what we eat, Americans are hot dogs.

We ate them on the way to the moon and served them to the king of England. We name a Hot Dog- Eating Champ!

Garnished with hilarious illustrations and amazing “foodie” facts, this kid-friendly, globespanning history of our favorite fast-food meal offers unique insight into America’s multicultural heritage.

From a hobo’s franks-and-beans to astronaut food, there’s more to the wiener–and what’s for dinner–than you think.

Could you tell us about your writing community – your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

I am blessed to be part of a wonderful, supportive writing community on so many levels. Would I have completed a manuscript without these people? Probably, but I’ll be honest— it would not have been as well written and it certainly would not have been as much fun along the way.

One of the most important decisions I made was to join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I attended my first critique group in Miami, out of which grew a revival of the SCBWI Florida chapter. We meet weekly (I go as often as I can) to read and critique each other’s work.

The group, led by Linda Rodriguez Bernfeld, Florida’s SCBWI regional advisor, is a mix of unpublished and published writers, and I have learned a tremendous amount from all of them. We’ve celebrated success stories and helped each other deal with everything from writing craft problems to rejections and difficult revisions.

The SCBWI-Florida chapter sponsors two large conferences a year, and I’ve volunteered in some capacity at almost every one.

In January, we meet in Miami (it helps that editors and agents don’t mind escaping a harsh winter to enjoy our sunshine), and in June, we meet in Orlando.

We’ve had terrific authors, illustrators, editors, and agents join us, each one a wealth of information and so open and sharing.

In fact, I’m an SCBWI success story. I met my editor at one of our conferences. Mark McVeigh (now a literary agent) was senior editor at Dutton Children’s Books at the time. He had critiqued ten pages of a YA manuscript of mine at the conference. Although that manuscript wasn’t for him, we talked about other things I was working on.

He perked up when I described my quirky, nonfiction picture book, Hot Diggity Dog: The History of the Hot Dog, and asked me to e-mail it to him when he returned to New York. I did, and eventually I got the good news that he wanted to acquire it.

I encourage all children’s writers and illustrators to join SCBWI. The organization not only helps you with your craft, but gives you the opportunity to access the industry’s best and brightest.

Within my weekly Miami critique group, I’ve become great friends with a number of members, particularly Danielle Joseph, author of Indigo Blues (Flux, 2010), Christina Diaz Gonzalez, author of The Red Umbrella (Knopf, 2010), and Gaby Triana, author of Riding the Universe (HarperTeen, 2009). (I’m listing only the most current book by my friends, but check out their entire lists on Amazon or their websites.)

We sometimes meet at Starbucks to write (confession here – they meet way more often than I do), and I credit them with forcing me to get off my butt and back to writing when I went through a period of about a year where everything in my life seemed to interfere.

We brainstorm, we share information about our respective publishing houses and industry news, and we are often the first readers for each other. But our friendship goes even deeper than that. We all have kids and crazy, busy lives, and we’ve helped each other cope with all that comes with that, too, and had plenty of laughs along the way.

Support also comes from my writing mentor, young adult author and teacher Joyce Sweeney, who facilitates several writing classes and critique groups. Not only is she a wonderful role model, but with her leadership and guidance, more than 25 South Florida writers have become published authors.

If you have a question on a manuscript or how to work with your editor, Joyce is the go-to person. If you need someone to tell you to keep going, she’s the go-to person. If you need advice on contracts, she’s the go-to person. She is one of the most giving and positive people I know.

I’m fortunate to be able to call many of her group members friends. Among them are: Marjetta Geerling, author of Fancy White Trash (Viking, 2009); Dorian Cirrone, author of Prom Kings and Drama Queens (HarperTeen, 2008); Debbie Reed Fischer, author of Swimming with the Sharks (Flux, 2008); Alex Flinn, author of A Kiss in Time (HarperTeen, 2009); and Laurie Friedman, author of Mallory Goes Green (Carolrhoda Books, 2010).

Then there’s the online community. You’re a prime example of the support writers give each other. And my friends over at Whatcha’ Reading Now, too. I feel as if I have a whole other family out there in cyberspace, cheering me on through Facebook and other social media sites.

And speaking of family, I have to say that mine is always rooting for me. Most writers know what it feels like to get that rejection e-mail, and when I’m feeling down there’s nothing better than hanging with my husband and two kids to get my mind off whatever is bothering me. And, with two teens in the house, I’ve got great material (I’m mostly writing YA these days), as well as a couple of harsh critiquers who aren’t afraid to tell me that my voice isn’t “teen” or that my dialogue is off.

Finally, I have two other groups who support me in different ways. I work virtually full time for a few select companies, doing freelance writing work.

One of those is Baptist Health South Florida, an organization I’m proud to say I’ve worked for both in-house and independently for 22 years. My colleagues in the marketing and public relations department there have become a second family. They are a smart, creative, hard-working group who never fail to amuse me when I need a boost. And, they’re out there selling my book, too. I bet they’ve told as many people about Hot Diggity Dog as I have.

And my mother-daughter book club, both moms and daughters, have endured far too many stories about the industry than anyone should be subjected to. Yet they’re among my biggest fans and still listen with interest (yes, they’re probably great actors) when I regale them with another unbelievable tale about the book industry.

It’s funny, but I feel as if I have these totally separate worlds—my writing group, my work colleagues, my family and friends— yet they are somehow connected through my writing.

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?

Would you believe that my inspiration came from a snippet I heard on National Public Radio?

I was driving along in my car one evening listening to NPR and there was a segment about July 4th and all it means to Americans.

One fact stuck with me: Americans eat something like two billion hot dogs in the month of July alone. Now I like hot dogs, but that number was just mind-boggling to me.

I was off and running. I started by doing some research on the internet, where I uncovered hundreds of interesting tidbits about the hot dog. For example, did you know that the first astronauts to eat hot dogs in space were the same ones who first walked on the moon in 1969? And would you think it possible for a kid to invent a peanut-butter flavored hot dog? Well, one did when he suggested it to a hot dog maker and they took his idea to heart.

I went to the library and looked through book after book to learn more about where the hot dog was from and how it came to America.

The information I was discovering was fascinating, and I thought if it interested me, it would get the attention of readers, too.

I never considered writing the book for adults. Kids were my audience from day one.

It probably helped that I really like hot dogs. My husband and son are huge hot dog lovers, too. My daughter, well, that’s another story.

So I did a little more investigation, this time from the marketing end of things. Were there other books for kids about the hot dog? I couldn’t find anything recent.

At about the same time that I was delving into my research, I got a little push from another writer friend of mine. The wildly successful Elaine Landau, author of more than 300 nonfiction books for kids, had been encouraging our critique group members to give nonfiction a shot.

As a former reporter, and as a freelance writer, I’d written nonfiction most of my life. I wanted to do something different. But in this case, and with Elaine’s support, I stuck to nonfiction.

I’m so glad I did, especially once I got to see Elwood H. Smith’s illustrations. He’s the genius who made my manuscript come to life.

I hope, through the book, that even kids who aren’t nonfiction lovers see that nonfiction can be fun and interesting. Perhaps they’ll even think about one of their own favorite foods and start doing a little research. Before they know it, they might have a book of their own.