In Memory of Francess Lantz

I’m sad to report that children’s and YA author Francess Lantz died earlier this month. She will be missed. Below is an excerpted interview with her from my site that was conducted by email in September 2000.

Francess Lantz was the author of numerous titles, including the novels FADE FAR AWAY (a highly acclaimed young adult novel), STEPSISTER FROM PLANET WEIRD (which was recently made into a TV movie on the Disney Channel), and the YOU’RE THE ONE series. Visit: Planet Fran

What kind of reader were you as a child? What were your favorite books?

I was a serious tomboy, so I liked non-fiction books like the Colby series (titles like Navy Frogmen) and True Stories of the FBI. I also loved scary books, like the Alfred Hitchcock short story anthologies. When I got older, I remember reading James Bond books, comics, and Mark Twain

Who are some of your favorite authors today?

Betsy Byars, Daniel Pinkwater, S.E. Hinton — many more. Some favorite books are MAKE LEMONADE, THE GOATS, MY TEACHER IS AN ALIEN, and TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN (a diverse list!).

Did you begin writing early or were you a late bloomer? What inspired you to write for children and young adults?

I made up stories before I could write. All through childhood I wrote stories and illustrated them. They were usually bloody, violent, and disturbing. But I had a wonderful fifth grade teacher who encouraged me.

Then I got into music and began playing the guitar and writing songs.

I didn’t come back to fiction writing until my rock career fizzled and I became a children’s librarian. Suddenly, I was hanging around kids, reading kids books, and I thought, “Maybe I can do this!”

Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication?

I started writing while I was still a librarian. I didn’t know what I was doing. I wrote some picture books, a mystery, and fantasy novel. I sent them out and for 2 1/2 years I got rejection after rejection. But some of them were quite encouraging so I kept at it. Then I got smart and wrote about something I really knew about — a 15 year old girl who wants to be a rock star. That was my first sale: GOOD ROCKIN’ TONIGHT (Addison-Wesley, 1982).

What part of novel writing comes easiest to you? Plotting? Characterization? Theme?

I’m a good plotter — or so my writing group tells me. I’m also good at thinking up the basic ideas for stories. I’ve always got an idea, or can come up with one fast. I think characterization is harder. Writing FADE FAR AWAY and STEPSISTER FROM PLANET WEIRD helped me go to the next level with my characterizations. Before that, all the main characters were really just versions of me.

Which of your characters do you feel closest to and why?

Fifteen-year-old Sienna in FADE FAR AWAY. The story was inspired by my father’s death from cancer when I was fifteen. I drew on the real feelings I had at the time. So in some ways, Sienna is me and writing her story was very intense. But in other ways, she’s very, very different from me, and for the first time in my writing career, I had that experience where I was almost channeling this girl, and she was telling me what she wanted to say and do in the story. It’s was very exciting!

Which of them was the most difficult and why?

Sienna again. Because she was a very unhappy person, and a very frightened one. That’s not me. So I had to get inside her head every day and learn what it’s like to be unhappy and frightened. It wasn’t fun, but it was so rewarding to get her story on paper.

Can you talk a bit about the art theme, how Sienna’s father Hugh had abandoned his painting for his more critically acclaimed sculpture and how Sienna’s work was criticized by her parents as “mere illustration?”

I suppose I deal with this issue in my own life. I’ve written fun, light novels like SPINACH WITH CHOCOLATE SAUCE and NEIGHBORS FROM OUTER SPACE, and I’ve also written “serious” novels. I struggle with the question of whether I should be writing more serious books. But they’re hard, and you can’t usually sell them without writing the whole thing. No guarantees! The light stuff is more fun, and easier, and I can usually sell it from an outline. So it’s like a quick fix and very rewarding. So maybe I was writing about myself a little bit.

In STEPSISTER FROM PLANET WEIRD, you tell the story from the alternating viewpoints of Ariel and Megan. Alternating viewpoint is one of the most difficult tasks for an author to take on. How did you decide to take this tack? Did you ever consider telling the story from the perspective of one girl or the other?

I sold this book from an outline, and my plan was to write the book from Megan’s point of view, the Earthly view. Then when I got ready to write, I realized Megan couldn’t tell the whole story. I wanted/needed Ariel to have her say. My editor said, “Go for it.” At first I just planned to put in three or four short Ariel chapters. But Ariel took over! She had a lot to say, and she was funny (she didn’t mean to be, but she was). So her diary entries got longer and longer, and pretty soon the book was from both girls’ POV.

What advice do you have for writers of multiple viewpoint stories. What should they consider?

You have to make sure you’re continuing to move the story along. You don’t want to tell the story from one POV and then retell it from the other character’s viewpoint. And of course, it’s easier if the characters are very different and have different perspectives to share with the reader. And they have to both be essential to the story. Otherwise, why not simply stick with one viewpoint?

STEPSISTER FROM PLANET WEIRD was recently made into a TV movie shown on the Disney Channel. Can you tell us a bit about how that came to be?

An independent producer, Ricka Fisher, read the book and took it to Disney. They passed on it. Meanwhile, my agent sent it to them, and a few more people read it. So it was brought up again at another production meeting, and this time it got the green light. They hired Chris Matheson, the screenwriter of “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” to write the script and they filmed it in Australia. I didn’t learn any of this — except that it had been optioned — until 3 weeks before shooting began! Boy, was I thrilled!

Were there any differences between the book and TV version? What did you think of the show overall?

The first thing the producer told me was, “We stayed true to the spirit of your book.” I thought, “Oh, no, that means they’ve changed everything!”

But they didn’t. There was a lot the same, and they DID stay true to the theme. But there was plenty they changed — like the whole surfing part of the story was changed to windsurfing because it was more photogenic!

And the ending was changed totally to make it more cinematic, more action packed, and to bring in more special effects.

I’m not complaining though. The first time I saw it, all I could see were the changes. But the second time through, I saw it as an original movie, and I was really impressed. The actors are great, and it’s funny.

They’re still showing it on the Disney Channel about once a week. Check your TV Guide.

The year 2000 saw the debut of your YOU’RE THE ONE series. Can you tell us a bit about the premise of the series?

Each book is about a girl who has a hopeless crush on an unattainable idol — and then actually gets to meet him and fall in love with him. The first book (LOVE SONG) is about a rock star, the second (LIGHT, CAMERA, LOVE) is an actor and the third (A ROYAL KISS) is (you guessed it) a European prince.

Kind of hokey, but I made a conscious effort to give each of the girls talents and interests of their own, and to make sure the boys fell for them because of their personalities and talents, not in spite of them. They were fun to write, and pre-teen girls love them.

What’s it like to write for a series as opposed to a single title? What are the special challenges and rewards?

First, you have to write fast. I had a month each to write the YOU’RE THE ONE BOOKS. Second, you usually have to deal with a committee of editors, and everyone wants you to change something.

The good part is the money, and the fact that kids get really excited when they learn I’ve written a HARDY BOYS book or a SWEET VALLEY book. They don’t discriminate like adults do. In fact, they usually get more excited about those books than my original novels because they’ve all heard of them.

You’re particularly wonderful at creating a compelling voice for your characters. How do you find their voices?

I’m not sure! Sometimes I think the voice is just me. I imagine myself in the situation I’ve created for the characters. Or with Ariel and Sienna, it’s a lot like acting. I pretend I’m an alien, or I’m a 15 year old with a famous, distant father. Then I start imagining myself in the plot. What would I say? What would I feel? It’s fun because it’s like acting but you don’t have to get up in front of people and risk making a fool of yourself.

What are the greatest challenges to you as a children’s and young adult book author?

Selling my next book! Every time I finish a book, I’m unemployed again. It’s not like the “old days” when you found a publisher and they promoted you through your career. I’ve published with Avon, Troll, BBD, Random House, Aladdin, you name it. I’d like to stick with one publisher, but it never works out. And I hate the business stuff, like trying to get them to promote your book and they tell you they adore it, but they don’t do anything, and then it doesn’t sell and then they tell you they can’t buy another because the first didn’t sell. And then it goes out of print and they don’t tell you and when you finally find out all the copies of the books have been destroyed. It’s depressing.

What do you love about it?

Coming up with the idea, writing a chapter that “works,” seeing the book with my name of the spine, cashing a check that I earned by being creative, talking to kids at schools and seeing them excited about my books, and getting fan letters. It’s all great!

What kinds of reactions to your work have you gotten from young readers?

All positive, I’m happy to say.

Teen girls were nuts for SOMEONE TO LOVE, my novel about adoption, and I’m so sad that it’s gone out of print. They get sucked into FADE FAR AWAY really fast too.

And middle grade boys and girls always get excited about my funny books. And now, of course, because one of my books was made into a movie, they think I’m a celebrity.

What advice do you have for aspiring young authors (children and teens)?

Read, read, read. Also watch TV and movies. I learned so much about plotting from watching movies. Then sit down and write. I wrote all the time when I was a kid. It was fun for me. Really, that’s all there is to it — read and write constantly. You will get better and better, guaranteed.

Are you interested in speaking to writer/teacher/librarian groups or to children via school visits? If so, how can interested parties contact you?

Oh, yes! I do about 4 weeks of school visits a year. I put on a really fun, inspiring assembly with a slide show and a reading. Then we write an interactive story called TEACHERS FROM PLANET WEIRD. It’s a big hit, as you can imagine!

I also do writing workshops for elementary and middle school/jr. high kids.

What’s up next for your fans?

I’m writing two sequels to STEPSISTER FROM PLANET WEIRD. The titles are STEPBABY FROM PLANET WEIRD and BLAST OFF TO PLANET WEIRD. I also have a short story coming out this spring in a YA anthology called ON THE FRINGE (Don Gallo, editor). And I’m writing a funny middle grade novel for Pleasant Company called LOVE WANTED: APPLY WITHIN. I’m busy and loving it!

NCTE 2004

Greg and I attended NCTE in Indianapolis earlier this month for four days. I spoke about how technology affects children’s/YA authors and about social justice in Native American children’s literature. We caught up with my Harper editor, Rosemary Brosnan, Greg’s Little Brown editor, Amy Hsu.

We also had a chance to visit with a number of wonderful authors, gurus, teachers, and publishing folks–too many to mention, most of whom are of course long-time fast friends. But some stars I met for the first time included Jacqueline Woodson, Pam Munoz Ryan, Irene Smalls, Bruce Coville, Jim Murphy, and for the first time in person (though we’d met via email) Joseph Bruchac and Ellen Wittlinger.

Book Promotion Newsletter

From a recommended e-newsletter:

All the children’s books by Cynthia Leitich Smith are “set in the Central Time Zone and feature contemporary Native American characters,” she says. “So, for each title, I made an effort to identify those outlets with a related geographic tie and interest.”

Her examples are:

“Jingle Dancer (Morrow Junior Books/HarperCollins 2000) is a contemporary powwow set in Oklahoma. So, I made up a list of Indian museum bookstores throughout the state and sent them promotional information. Many were thrilled to have something that wasn’t just ‘Native American’ but really locally tied to the cultures being highlighted.”

Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins 2001) is set in Douglas County, Kansas and so I sent a round of media releases to nearby outlets, which resulted in a major feature article in the Topeka Capitol-Journal.

Indian Shoes (HarperCollins 2002) includes a short story set at a Chicago Cubs game. When the Cubs were in the playoffs, that was a big selling point at Chicagoland bookstores.”

Reprinted from “Book Promotion Newsletter,” an ezine featuring articles, tips and promotional coups for generating book publicity. franalive@optonline.net. www.bookpromotionnewsletter.com

Laurie Halse Anderson, Holly and Theo Black

The ever effervescent Laurie Halse Anderson‘s official author site is getting a facelift by webdesigner Theo Black, who is married to author Holly Black.

I don’t have the honor of knowing Theo, but if Laurie and Holly’s sites are any indication, he’s a first-rate Web designer.

My fave book by Laurie Halse Anderson: Catalyst (and, yes, I loved Speak, too, but every reader is different)

My fave book by Holly Black: Tithe (which I’ve read in hardover and paperback for reasons that can only be attributed to compulsive fandom)

How To Write A Children’s Picture Book

How To Write A Children’s Picture Book by Eve Heidi Bine-Stock (E&E, 2004). Analyzing more than twenty-five classics such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Sylvester And The Magic Pebble by William Steig, this academic look at picture book and picture storybook structure can offer writers insights into their own work at many stages. Have an idea for a story but not sure how to begin? Read this book. Stuck in the middle and don’t know what to do next? Take a look at this book. Uncertain about the overall plot? Bine-Stock dissects the parts of each example to reveal how its author created the whole. This clinical approach to plotting shows how the masters of the craft have succeeded. Highly recommended. Recommendation by Anne Bustard, author of Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Simon & Schuster, 2005).

Effective Aspects

A college student (hi, Meredith!) emailed me a few days ago to ask me about the “effective aspects” of a children’s book. All good, except I had no idea what she was talking about. So, she clarified that she was wanting to know what a good children’s book was. This is from my answer:

What makes a good children’s book depends on the particular book in question.

A story picture book should have all the elements of story, engaging writing, a hero who grows and changes, and the best fit art for the protagonist and tale.

A concept book should convey the concept (be it, say, alphabet, numbers, colors) in a clear and engaging manner, one that will engage young minds.

If rhyme is used, it should be flawless and sophisticated.

Humorous books should be funny. Adventure books suspenseful and exciting. Mysteries intriguing. Fantasies imaginative. Gothics scary.

A children’s novel must do all that an adult novel does, but the hero and sensibility is that of a younger person. They are generally a bit leaner, though, less self-indulgent on the part of the author. The audience tends to have a shorter attention span.

No kid reads a book because of what the New York Times has to say. To them, it must sing.

Basically, a good book should be the best book it can be, in whatever manifestation fits best for its unique nature. The same could be said of what makes a good person–one that lives up to its fullest potential and exceeds expectations.

As an aside, for the most part, literary children’s books are written with a higher vocabulary than adult books, and for the most part, this is appropriate. What matters is the best word for the purpose, not its reader level.

But if the book is designed specifically for emerging or reluctant readers, the author will take that into account. Likewise, if the book is part of an easy reader line, the author’s challenges include crafting a story that is so engaging we fail to notice the limits placed on the prose. It must transcend its form while staying within it.

Janie Bynum

Had dinner a couple of days ago with author/illustrator Janie Bynum at Z Tejas. Janie has just recently moved to nearby Wimberly, and we’re thrilled to have her in the area.

Her titles include Get Busy, Beaver by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by Janie Bynum (Orchard, 2004) and Bathtime Blues by Katie McMullan (Little Brown, 2005).

Anyway, the evening went on to BookPeople, then the Four Seasons, and then she spent the night before heading back to scenic Wimberly. Such a treat.

Madeleine L’Engle Receives National Humanities Medal

Farrar, Straus and Giroux is pleased to announce that internationally acclaimed author Madeleine L’Engle is a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, which was conferred by President George W. Bush in a ceremony at the White House on Wednesday, November 17, 2004. Charlotte Jones, Ms. L’Engle’s granddaughter, accepted the Medal on her behalf. Madeleine L’Engle was cited “for her talent as a writer on spirituality and art and for her wonderful novels for young people. Her works inspire the imagination and reflect the creative spirit of America.” The National Humanities Medal is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). According to the NEH Web site (www.neh.gov), “The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities.” Further information is available on the White House Web site, http://www.whitehouse.gov.

Born November 29, 1918, Madeleine L’Engle grew up in New York City, Switzerland, South Carolina, and Massachusetts. Her father was a reporter and her mother had studied to be a pianist, so their house was always full of musicians and theater people. After graduating cum laude from Smith College in 1941, she returned to New York to work in the theater, thinking it an excellent school for an aspiring playwright. While touring with Eva Le Gallienne and Joseph Schildkraut in Uncle Harry, Ms. L’Engle wrote her first book, The Small Rain (originally published in 1945 and reissued in 1984). She met her future husband, Hugh Franklin, when they both appeared in The Cherry Orchard with Miss Le Gallienne, and they were married on tour during the run of The Joyous Season starring Ethel Barrymore.

Madeleine L’Engle’s science fantasy classic A Wrinkle in Time, now in its sixty-seventh printing, was awarded the 1963 Newbery Medal for “the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature” published in the previous year. The film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time aired on ABC television this past year and the DVD was released on November 16. Two companion novels, A Wind in the Door (1973) and A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), complete what has come to be known as The Time Trilogy, which continues to grow in popularity with each new generation of readers. Troubling a Star (1994) continues the story of Vicki Austin, the budding teenage poet in A Ring of Endless Light (1980), which was a Newbery Honor Book. Kirkus Reviews has declared Ms. L’Engle “a master,” and in a 2004 profile in The New Yorker, Cynthia Zarin observed that, “more than most writers, L’Engle has engaged with her readers.”

For more information on Madeleine L’Engle, please visit the FSG Web site, www.fsgkidsbooks.com and the author’s Web site, www.madeleinelengle.com.