The World According To Kaley by Dian Curtis Regan

The World According To Kaley by Dian Curtis Regan (Darby Creek, 2005). Mr. Serrano has asked Kaley to write essays about world history, and she’s filling her notebook with them–doodles and all. She’s including FACTS and footnotes and graphs and maps (okay, with maybe a little urging), and, more importantly, she’s including her unique and spirited interpretation of times past. Meanwhile, Kaley has a home to find for a puppy, adjust to her new baby brother (not sister!), and deal with her messy cousin Cal. Smart, funny, vulnerable, and energetic, Kaley’s notebook is a first-rate read, and that’s a FACT! Ages 9-up.

My Thoughts

An example of Kaley’s historical analysis: “The next age was called the Stone Age. It got its name because people made stuff out of rocks. Rock chairs, rock cars, rock TVs. It was during this era that rock-and-roll began.”

And another: “Oddly enough, the word ‘hieroglyphics’ is completely impossible to illustrate. You’d think they would’ve called this type of writing ‘cat’ or something easier to draw.”

One more: “When people hear the term ‘Middle Ages,’ they usually think of grown-ups in their thirties. (No offense, Mr. S.).”

I love, love, love, love this book!

My other favorite book by Dian Curtis Regan is Chance, illustrated by Dee Huxley (Philomel, 2003).

Cynsational News & Links

Reviews are coming in for the anthology Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories For Today edited by Lori M. Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005), which includes my short story “A Real-Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate.” Booklist says the stories, “show teens–lost, loving, funny, uncertain–coming of age on the reservation and in the city.” ITEPP says, “a reader could not go wrong when choosing this wonderful book!”

Ask the Author: Dian Curtis Regan from See also AchUKa special guest Dian Curtis Regan; includes biography, book list, and interview.

Interview with David Caplan, Art Director of HarperCollins Children’s Books from

Nandini Nayar on the children’s literature of India from AchUKa.

Point Well Taken by Kathy Greer, in the Story POV section of Writing Tips (Three points of view on POV) from the Institue of Children’s Literature. See also POV: Pride of Victory? Puffed Out Verbs? by Nancy Julien Kopp, in the Story POV section of Writing Tips from ICL.

Author Interview: Shutta Crum on The Bravest Of The Brave

The Bravest Of The Brave by Shutta Crum, illustrated by Tim Bowers (Knopf, 2005). From the catalog copy: A young skunk heads home through the woods—alone. Or maybe not… Could there be robbers, or pirates, or ghosts, or trappers in the woods? And is our hero brave enough to keep them away? With bouncy rhymes, charming art, a subtle counting theme, and a surprise ending, this story will entertain and reassure any child who’s ever been afraid.” Ages 4-up.

What was your inspiration for The Bravest Of The Brave?

What I like to do periodically is challenge myself to do something with a classic rhythm from a poem or song, or take a piece of writing in the public domain, and play with it to see if I can get inspired to come up with something new.

So one day I start playing around in my head with an old fingerplay that I had done for years in my library storytimes. (Note: I was a youth librarian for 24 years and the recipient of the Michigan Library Assoc.’s Award of Merit as Youth Librarian of the Year, for 2002.) That fingerplay goes like this: (First you make two fists and hold them up high.) “Way up high in an apple tree, two little apples smiled down at me. So I shook that tree as hard as I could, and down fell the apples hmmm . . . were they good!” (Pretend to bite into your fists.)

In my storytimes I take that and make it sillier—I like cranking up the silliness factor whenever I can. After the apple verse I do bananas and catch the kids biting into their pretend bananas (their thumbs) before they peel the bananas. Then I do “Way up high in a donut tree . . .” to great giggles. (One small boy told me, “Donuts don’t grow in trees! They grow in boxes.” What a great idea!) Anyway, I started thinking more seriously about it. What else could be up in a tree? What kinds of trees? And who would be the character seeing what was up in the trees?

I thought of nocturnal animals. And then I wanted it to be a counting book because it was for the very young, but also because I wanted a framework that would provide additional progression to the plot.

What was the timeline between spark and publication? And what were the major events along the way?

This was a very early idea of mine; I had just realized that I really wanted to get back to writing again in the late 1990s. I played with it a good bit in my head before writing anything down, which must have been in 1998 or even the latter part of 1997. It came out in January of 2005 to great reviews—so there was at least seven years from spark to publication.

The manuscript was rejected a couple times. Perhaps the most important event that happened with the book prior to publication (See below for some fun things that have happened after its release.) is one that allowed me to sell it to Knopf, a division of Random House—and that was that I’d gotten an agent in the fall of 2002. It was my agent, Liza Pulitzer Voges of Kirchoff/Wohlberg, Inc. who subbed it to the right editor at Random House, Michelle Frye. Michelle was very enthusiastic.

I just recently learned, when I finally got to meet her in person, that she presented the manuscript to the acquisitions meeting as Meryl Streep. Hah! She told me she held up my manuscript and said: “You know what this is? This is Meryl Streep.”

Michelle went on to elaborate that on the surface the story is smooth and works beautifully. What you don’t see is all the hard work, the fine-tuning and experience that can bring a command performance. Perhaps the most telling fact when she was pitching it to the company was that she said she almost forgot to tell them it was a counting book! That is saying a lot, because usually the most obvious aspect of a counting book is the counting pattern. Sometimes it is super-imposed over the demands of the story, rather than incorporated naturally. She felt there was so much more going on . . . that the counting was only one small part of it, and almost forgot to mention it.

I was glad to hear that! The story does have several layers. In fact, integrating the various aspects of the story so that it read seamlessly was part of what was so challenging in writing this book; which leads me to . . .

What were the challenges in bringing The Bravest Of The Brave to life?

My first challenge was in finding the right hero/heroine. (Note: there are no gender specific pronouns in the book. And I asked that they be taken out of the flap copy as well.) I started out with—don’t laugh—a large moth! Gads! What was I thinking? Then I went to a mouse, and finally realized a skunk would be perfect. That took quite a while to arrive at. Once I had a skunk I realized that I wanted to turn the tables on the reader a bit.

Many children view skunks as, if not aggressors, at least fearless problem-makers. But this is a skunk that has its own fears to overcome. And like many young children, it is trying to remember everything he/she was taught to do when confronted with a scary situation.

Also, while doing my research, I discovered that skunks have many ways they communicate and protect themselves in addition to spraying. So it was fun to incorporate a lot of the science.

Once I had the main character and the nocturnal setting, the writing itself was not hard. What was more difficult was getting the editors to really “see” what was happening, because there is the whole element of mistaken identities and self-delusion that is also going on in the story. This was something that was not in the text. So I had to write notes in parentheses on the manuscript—which is usually considered verboten when submitting a story. For example; our hero thinks he has frightened away a robber, when it was only a raccoon. In fact, all the animals he frightens off are later seen at a party at his “house”—a party that is not mentioned until we get past the critical turning point of the story—after he almost has to do the “ultimate.” In the case of this manuscript, I had to do what we are always told not to do—tell the editor and illustrator what was happening by incorporating short notes.

Of the few editors that rejected it, almost all said it would be too hard to illustrate nighttime animals in the woods at night. But I persevered, because I felt it could be done. After all, we watch movies and television shows that take place at night with characters dressed in black—so how is that done? I really felt it could work.

Finally the manuscript found an editor with the vision to see how it could work. Then Michelle and Knopf found the illustrator, Tim Bowers, who knew how to make it work and how to draw animals with a lot of charm. Tim created a light foreground so we can see the action easily as it happens. The background is dark. And I LOVE that skunk—such personality—just tooling along through the woods.

Tim ( also extended the story. For I did not have in the rhyming verse any indication of how my character got into the situation he/she is in. There were several scenarios that could have worked. I’d envisioned that the skunk was sent to a store at the last minute and was running late to get back home to the party and got lost. But Tim introduced a butterfly that the skunk chases in the front matter. And then on the dedication page, we see the skunk going one way and the butterfly the opposite. At the end of the book, the butterfly comes to the party and then settles down on the corner of the skunk’s bed as he/she is falling asleep. I loved it! And I love the endpapers with friendly eyes in the forest, and all the haircuts on the skunk family. This book was truly blessed with a wonderful illustrator.

Finally, as writers we are often told: “Death to adverbs!” or given other sage advice about the overuse of adverbs and adjectives. But this book uses adverbs as part of the rhythm. In fact, it depends upon the use of adverbs. So although more of a delight than a challenge, in a kind of secret naughtiness I was very happy writing my story as “adverbly” as I could!

Would you like to share any fun news that has arisen since the publication of The Bravest Of The Brave earlier this year?

This book took off the minute it came out, and in less than four months had to be reprinted. Always good news to get. But one of the best bits of news I got was when my publicist called to tell me that I had been invited to read The Bravest Of The Brave at the 2005 White House Easter Egg Roll in March. At first I could hardly believe what she was saying. I had to have my husband listen in on the phone so I could be sure I wasn’t just dreaming that call.

The Roll itself had to be cancelled that day due to inclement weather for the outside activities. But my husband and I had a wonderful trip to Washington, D.C. and breakfast in the White House with the other writers and Cabinet members who had been invited to read.

Also, I discovered that Cray School in North Carolina bought a copy of The Bravest Of The Brave for the school library in honor of a soldier pen pal who had been corresponding with the students. He was serving in Iraq.

I am so proud of The Bravest Of The Brave. On its surface it is a simple story of a young one’s journey home. But at its heart it is a story about courage that anyone of any age can relate to.

Cynsational News & Links

Mark your calendars! I’ll be a guest author online at (a discussion group of 650 plus writing teachers, children’s authors, librarians, homeschoolers, etc. who discuss reading and writing strategies, resources, etc.) during the week of Oct. 23, 2005.

Children’s Writer’s Marketplace: September 2005 from This issue contains a “a very abbreviated list of markets for children’s fiction.”

The Virtually Do-It-Yourself Book Tour by Sue Corbett, author of 12 Again (Dutton, 2002) from Lee & Low Books.

Query This: agent Barry Goldblatt on what he looks for in a query. (Note: I first noticed this link on Anastasia Suen’s Create/Relate Blog).

Authors, Illustrators, and Golf Clubs from They Call Me Mr. V (author Varian Johnson‘s blog) on my husband Greg Leitich Smith‘s recent signing. A Very Hot Literary Day: writer/illustrator Don Tate blogs about Greg’s signing, too. And so does author Chris Barton at Bartography in Tofu, T. rex, and a six-year-old with other plans. What can we say? Austinites rule!

Author Interview: Julie Anne Peters on Far From Xanadu

Far From Xanadu by Julie Anne Peters (Little Brown, 2005). Between working out, playing softball, and keeping up the plumbing business her dad left behind, Mike’s days in Coalton, Kansas are if not full, at least familiar. Then one day, she walks into class. Xanadu. The most beautiful, smart-ass, conflicted girl in the world. Mike falls fast, and the two seem to connect. Only problem? Mike’s gay and Xanadu’s…not. A story of family, friendship, and unrequinted love. Barriers that can be broken and those that should be respected. Ages 12-up. See more of my thoughts on Far From Xanadu.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

It’s hard to know the precise moment when an idea implants onto your subconscious and begins to grow. Like sand in an oyster, layer after layer of ochre may produce a pearl, but in the beginning it’s only a mass of guts and goo.

After my young adult lesbian love story, Keeping You a Secret, was published, I was overwhelmed with the passionate response from readers. At the heart of a number of coming out stories, one particular theme began to emerge. Two excerpts from letters are poignant examples:

“Dear Julie,
“This is going to sound ridiculous because well… I think you’re asked this nearly everyday: How do I get over liking a straight girl? I just don’t know how to deal with it. My heart is still hoping and I can’t stop it from doing that…no matter how hard I try, I can’t stop believing things can and will work out for my liking.”

“The girl I was in love with is now going out with the boy who has been my neighbor since I was two. I’m giving up on her, obviously, but here is the bad part. She kind of knows about me. Not outright KNOWS, but still… And she is always touching me and saying stuff, and my mind wants to follow her but I know it’s just an illusion.
“I know you won’t know, but WHY IS SHE DOING THIS TO ME???”

Oh, but I do know. We have a term in our community: Lesbian baiting. Baiters are straight women who lead lesbians on, who play with our emotions and allow us to believe there’s the possibility of a romantic relationship. They have no intention of pursuing or sustaining a relationship, of course. They’re curious. They’re confused. In the extreme, they’re sexual predators.

I have a lesbian friend who’s been obsessed with a straight woman for twenty years. This woman is flattered by my friend’s attention, I’m sure. Who doesn’t want to feel attractive and desirous? The straight woman finally got married and I thought, Great. This is fantastic. Now she’ll free my friend from her self-imposed bondage of unrequited love. But no, this straight woman still calls and says, “I miss you. I think I made a mistake marrying a man.” Oh brother. Could someone please take her out?

Naturally, the phenomenon of preying on a person’s vulnerability and need isn’t confined to our community. I did think it’d be an interesting topic to explore in YA literature – loving someone who can’t love you back. Manipulation versus obsession. The distance between people, psychological and biological, that never can, and never should, be crossed.

Theme, in this case, was the genesis for Far from Xanadu. The main character, Mike, had been growing inside me for a while, augmented by the ochre of irritation, frustration, and anger.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Far from Xanadu was eighteen months in the research and writing, then another three months in revision after my critique group thrashed the manuscript.(Just kidding. They’re kind, astute and trusted readers.) Revisions with my editor, Megan Tingley, took another five or six months. Twelve months in the publication process. Total the column; carry the one; a three-year-plus project. That’s actually the fastest I’ve ever written and published a book.

The major events, as always, were revision, revision, revision.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Here’s the weird thing about Far from Xanadu. I don’t remember writing this book. I have the first draft on Big Chief paper if the government comes to check, but I have no recollection of sitting down and putting words on paper. What I remember is the research.

You know how writers are always advised to write what they know? Why don’t I listen to that advice? In this book there were so many situations and areas of expertise where I was lacking basic fundamental knowledge, it was ridiculous. Girls’ softball, strength training, morbid obesity, water towers, wheat farming, Kansas, alcoholism, stock car racing, plumbing…plumbing for God’s sake. I can’t even spell pipe wrench. Why Mike had to be a plumber is a mystery to me. I spent hours in Home Depot, sitting on the floor in the plumbing aisle, taking notes, drawing pictures, making lists of parts and figuring out how they fit together. I talked to plumbers. I asked them, “How can you tell when someone does a half-assed job at installing a shower fixture?”

Originally I wanted to set this book in eastern Colorado, in a small town. But when people think of Colorado, they envision mountains and ski resorts. Those unfamiliar with western geography and lifestyle don’t realize the eastern half of Colorado—and the western slope too—is comprised of farming and ranching communities. I didn’t want to spend a third of the book having to educate or overcome mindsets, so I jumped the border and set the story in Kansas.

I’ve never been to Kansas, other than to drive through. I had to buy maps and gazetteers, study the flora and fauna, the weather patterns, the towns, cities, streets and highway systems. Kansas was the perfect setting for wheat farming. But wheat farming? What’s that about? Bread comes from King Soopers, right?

Secondary research doesn’t always bring your details to life, so I queried all my friends and acquaintances to see if I could find someone who knew someone who knew Kevin Bacon’s relatives in Kansas. One Sunday morning I got a call from this nice man, Dan Depperschmidt (no relation to Kevin), a wheat farmer in western Kansas. He said, “I’m supposed to call this gal and tell her everything I know about growing wheat and living on a farm in Kansas.” I screamed, “I’m that gal!” I grilled Dan for hours about the color and size and smell of wheat. About farm equipment and growing seasons. How farm roads are marked and how people spend their time and money. I had pages and pages of notes, hundreds of invaluable details, which were incorporated into maybe five or six paragraphs in the book. I’ve never infiltrated setting so thoroughly in a story and authenticity was crucial. The town of Coalton, Kansas became a character in my mind—of nonspecific gender.

I’m a systems engineer by trade and I love architecture and design, the science of systems and dynamics of logic. Weaving disparate elements into a cohesive theme is what I consider the intellectual challenge of creating a novel. Details add dimension. Language and style add artistry and texture. Far from Xanadu was an exhilarating exercise in bringing order to chaos. Practical application of research is a different branch of science. Don’t ever ask me to replace the ballcock assembly in your toilet.

Cynsational Note

Recent YA author interviews of 2005 titles include: Cecil Castellucci on Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005); Louise Hawes on The Vanishing Point (Houghton Mifflin, 2005); Jennifer Richard Jacobson on Stained (Atheneum, 2005); Ron Koertge on Boy Girl Boy (Harcourt, 2005); David Lubar on Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie (Dutton, 2005); R. A. Nelson on Teach Me (Razorbill, 2005); Mary E. Pearson on A Room On Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005); Lara M. Zeises on Anyone But You (Delacorte, 2005).

Cynsational News & Links

Austin writer Sean Petrie is a finalist for the ABCs Book Competition for his manuscript, “This Class Is A Zoo.” (Yes, that was a hint). Read all the stories, and vote.

The June Franklin Naylor Award for the Best Book for Children on Texas History: “Given annually to the author/illustrator of the most distinguished book for children and young adults, grades K-12, that accurately portrays the history of Texas, whether fiction or nonfiction.” The award is “endowed by the family of June Franklin Naylor and sponsored by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library.” Scroll for more information and 2005 entry guidelines. Note: The deadline is Jan. 31, 2006.

Not Everyone Has A Novel Inside Them by Tim Clare from The Guardian. Not for the uber sensitive.

2005 Short Story Competition: Because the annual Write It Now! Competition has been so successful in helping new writers and illustrators get their work in front of the editors who helped launch their careers, wants to do that for short story writers, too! Three Categories: Young Adult Readers, ages 15+; Mid-grade Readers, 11 – 14; Young Readers, ages 7 – 10. Grand Prize: $200, plus a 2006 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market; First Prize, each category: $50, plus a 2006 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. Entry Fee: $10 per manuscript. Plus, the 1st – 3rd place finishers in the MG and YA categories will be published in a 2007 anthology by Blooming Tree Press. Entry Deadline: Oct. 31, 2005; Email entries are welcome and encouraged. See Rules, FAQ, submission guidelines, and entry form.

Jose! Born to Dance by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Raul Colon

Jose! Born to Dance by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Raul Colon (Simon & Schuster, 2005). Vibrantly illustrated, this picture book biography chronicles the life of Jose Limon, one of the greatest dancers of all time. It begins with his birth in Culiacan, Mexico and continues through civil war and immigration to the New York stage. Includes Historical Note and Bibliography. Ages 5-up.

My Thoughts

Jose! Born to Dance reminds me of El Chino by Allen Say (Houghton Mifflin, 1996). Both are lively, well written and illustrated picture book biographies that defy expectations and stereotypes.

Learn more about Jose Limon.

Apologies for my electronic inability to make the appropriate accent marks!

Cynsational News & Links

My husband Greg Leitich Smith‘s signing at the Barnes & Noble Round Rock (TX) was a great success. He had an enthusiastic crowd, including Austin area writers/illustrators: Chris Barton, author of The Day-Glo Brothers (Charlesbridge, 2007); Tim Crow; Frances Hill, author of The Bug Cemetery (Henry Holt, 2002); Varian Johnson, author of Red Polka Dot In A World Full Of Plaid (Genesis Press/Black Coral, 2005); April Lurie, author of Dancing In The Streets of Brooklyn (Delacorte, 2002); Mark Mitchell, author of Raising La Belle (Eakin, 2002); Nancy Jean Okunami; Sean Petrie; Don Tate, illustrator of numerous picture books; and Brian Yansky, author of My Road Trip To The Pretty Girl Capital of the World (Cricket, 2003). Greg sold out of the new paperbacks of Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005) and almost sold out (three, four stock to sign?) of Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005).

Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith from The Marion Star (OH); focus on multicultural children’s/YA literature. (Yes, they spelled my name as Cynthis Leitich, and I believe I said 1980s for the boom; I’ve already written the Web designer with the correction).

An Interview With Greg Leitich Smith at

Downhomebooks, which interviewed my husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, about his debut novel, Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003) a couple of years ago, has posted an update in which Greg answers questions about his latest title, Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005) (read the whole, two-part interview or scroll to see the update).

Greg talks about food tolerance, what happens when beliefs/goals conflict with loved ones’, inspiring readers to think, character development, and using exaggeration in writing comedy.

Congratulations to Greg also on his Kliatt review, which heralds, “The story is a witty farce, perfect for gifted and talented students who probably rarely find a book about people like themselves.”

Cynsational News & Links

Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo: reviewed by Adria Balgassi at “Read Books. They Are Good For Us.” A teen review blog.

Children’s Writing Update for August 24 from Includes magazine market news, manuscript and expense tracking charts (a giveaway for writers!), and an article by Laura Backes on what she’s learned in her past 15 years on the job.

On Writing Nonfiction for Kids: a collection of 11 articles from Fiona Bayrock.

On A Scale of 1 to 5: Author Chris Barton on categories of rejection letters. Chris’ debut title, The Day-Glo Brothers, is a picture book biography, scheduled from Charlesbridge in 2007.

Why Genre Matters by David G. Hartwell, Senior Editor at Tor/Forge Books in New York, and is the publisher of The New York Review of Science Fiction, from Libraries Unlimited.

Author Interview: R. A. Nelson on Teach Me

Teach Me by R. A. Nelson (Razorbill, 2005). From the catalog copy: “What happens when a high school student and her teacher cross that line? From the very first page, Nine speaks in a voice that is at once raw, honest, direct, and unusually eloquent. ‘There has been an earthquake in my life,’ she says, inviting you inside an experience that fascinates everyone-an affair between teacher and student-and giving a personal answer to the question: How does this happen? A novel about a love so intense that the person you’re with becomes your world, and when you lose that person, you lose your world.” Ages 14-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

At the time I started Teach Me, I had just taken a break from writing for a couple of months after an intense period of activity. I wrote something like 150,000 words in the year leading up to this lull, and before that I had spent three years writing an earlier novel [manuscript] called “The House Of Novembers.” I was pretty much wrung out, and had become the poster child in our little online writing group for the writer who “oughta be published.” I’m not sure I ever seriously considered giving up, but I knew I needed a break.

Then one day the character of Nine appeared to me out of the blue – a girl from a two-parent family who is doted on by her NASA engineer father and overprotective mother. Nine is very responsible, focused, and driven to achieve scholastically; so much so, she hasn’t had much time for boys along the way. I was intrigued with this character because Nine cuts against the grain of so many characters you see in YA fiction – bored, angsty kids who come from dysfunctional families, broken homes, and/or who are simply mad at the world, sometimes for no discernible reason. It really interested me to write about a character who is EXCITED about life, passionate about her pursuits, a dreamer with her head in the clouds, but feet planted firmly on the earth.

But what was this character up to? I wrote around 5,000 words in Nine’s voice, the first time I had ever written anything in first person, present tense. I loved the immediacy of the writing. Also, I wrote in a style that was fast-paced with lots of short, choppy sentences and paragraphs, almost like lines of poetry, that was a lot of fun to play with. I’ve always liked experimenting stylistically with writing, trying things that feel completely new.

Then I stopped. I just wasn’t sure where this was all going – I loved the character, but I’m used to starting my books with an interesting idea, and maybe a hint of a storyline. So I put the book aside for several months, from the fall of 2003 to the spring of 2004. Then I showed it to several friends who got excited and said I should keep going. Keep going where? I wanted to know.

A couple of years earlier I had had an idea that intrigued me – the thought of turning the stereotypical “stalker” situation on its head. I thought it would be interesting to write about a teenage girl who was stalking an older man. I was talking this over with my friend, writer Kathleen O’Dell, who said, “But Nine seems so ANGRY. What is she mad about?” And I said, “Maybe she’s been sleeping with the guy and the guy dumped her? And that’s why she’s stalking him.” And Kathy said, “But who is this guy?” And then she answered her own question — “It’s her TEACHER! She’s been sleeping with her TEACHER!” It was one of those goose-bumpy moments. I said, “I can’t write about THAT!” And I didn’t mean I didn’t have enough ability, I meant I was AFRAID to do it…that it was just too much. I remember telling Kathy, “I live on a road with seven churches!”

But Kathy wouldn’t let me give up on the idea. She told me over and over to do it, that it was too good a marriage of character and idea NOT to write it – the thought of this scholastically obsessed, tunnel-vision girl falling hard for the teacher who introduces her to the poetry of Emily Dickinson. So I swallowed hard and kept going.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

It took me another six months, writing every day, to complete the draft that eventually sold to Razorbill. Of course, I took it through many additional drafts along the way, reworking the structure and expanding on the love story that is the heart of the book. When I was getting underway again in earnest, I happened to notice that it was only about a week until the SCBWI deadline for the Work In Progress grant competition. I thought why not send them 2,500 words of what I already had? So I polished the first three chapters, filled out the application, and barely made the deadline literally by a handful of minutes.

In the meantime I kept plugging away on the novel, and when I was about 30,000 words into it, I queried literary agent Rosemary Stimola, who I thought would be a perfect fit for this book. I sent her a one page synopsis, and she requested the whole MS. I promised to send it to her when it was complete. Then I found out in early September of 2004 that I had won the SCBWI Dona Vaughn Work In Progress Grant, which had been established in memory of a generous, giving writer by the members of the YAWRITERS online list. Winning this grant was a wonderful boost that helped me push my way through to the end of the book.

In October I submitted the entire novel to Rosemary, and just before Thanksgiving she sent me an email saying she loved my book and wanted to take me on, but because the subject matter was pushing the envelope, she wanted to run it by an editor first. A friend of hers had mentioned Razorbill editor Liesa Abrams, thinking she would be perfect for the book. The day Rosemary emailed me, she had lunch with Liesa to make her pitch, and a couple of days later, they negotiated a two-book contract with lots of amazing clauses. I don’t think my feet touched the floor for a month. I might still be floating. Rosemary is incredible – I tend to think of her like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in ever way.” She has since sold the foreign rights, at auction, to the German publisher Ravensburger.

Liesa was very excited about the book, and the Razorbill marketing people wanted to get it out in time to be the lead title for their fall list. So I had almost exactly one month to complete her suggested revisions, which was an incredible experience. I work full time, so in the evenings I was in daily, sometimes HOURLY, contact with Liesa, working to get the book into galleys by January. I can’t say enough about her as an editor – I’ve known the revision process with other writers to take months, sometimes YEARS, but we got it done in a little over 30 days. Liesa didn’t ask for many cuts or changes, but mostly made wonderful suggestions for expanding scenes, more fully drawing out the relationship between the star-crossed lovers. Her input was key into making our book what it is. She’s a dream and a joy to work with, and someone I believe is one of the rising stars of the New York publishing industry.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

A lot of people have asked me how in the world I wrote a book in the voice of a teenage girl? Somebody once said, “Writers are failed actors,” and I tend to believe this. When I’m writing I completely inhabit the character, see the world through her eyes. I can’t imagine writing any other way. I see the story in front of me as I’m walking around inside of it, experiencing it as it unfolds, so that what I type almost seems more like “reporting” on something real that I’m observing. In the case of writing from a young girl’s perspective, from my way of thinking this is probably identical to an actor taking on a part that is very different from his own reality – once you begin to “think” with the character’s mind, it becomes more a process of letting go, of just getting out of your own way and describing what you see and feel as things happen. Usually this requires a little “throat-clearing,” sometimes several thousand words of it, to get to this point of “letting go.” I have a quote next to my desk from Franz Kafka that I found on a calendar a few years ago. It’s this: “From a certain point onward, there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.” I love that kind of thinking.

To handle scenes that were emotionally or sexually charged, I let myself tap into what I think of as universal representations of these feelings, rather than feelings that might be specific to one gender.

One of the challenges I particularly enjoyed that became integral to the structure and theme of the book, was creating the character of the thirty-something male teacher, Mr. Mann. I never saw him as one dimensional, a slimy predator preying on young girls. To me, it was important that I liked him as a person, especially given the fact that I was living in the role of Nine, who was falling for him. I had to portray Mr. Mann as offbeat and interesting enough to galvanize her attention, while at the same time preventing his quirky self-confidence from translating into “deceiver” or “cad.” He needed to be a “good” man – a real human being with real human weaknesses. In early drafts of the novel, I had intended to give the reader only a tiny taste of the love story between teacher and student, say maybe a single chapter, while for the most part following Nine’s anger and obsession as she stalked him, with each incident growing more and more serious. But the love story kept expanding, and Liesa had me expand it even further until it became all the more poignant for the loss of this love. Liesa likes to call our book a “love story between the right people at the wrong time.”

What reactions have you received to the novel so far?

All the early reviews have been very positive, including Kirkus, and Teach Me was just picked by Booksense to be on their list of Fall 2005 Kid’s Picks.

My book has also been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal and on the NBC Nightly News, along with many regional publications and TV programs. Given its controversial subject matter, I expected the book to have tough sledding in some quarters, and there has been a little bit of this, though to my knowledge no one who has actually READ the book has given it a bad review. I think when readers give my book a chance, they will be pleasantly surprised at how I’ve handled this sensitive issue.

I like to call Teach Me “emotionally” graphic rather than sexually graphic.

As Beth Reynolds remarked in her Booksense comments, “I never thought I would become so emotionally involved in a book about a student’s affair with her teacher. Highly recommended to teens wanting something more from their books than just pretty pink covers.”

Cynsational Notes

I love a folksy, Southern novel as much as the next person, but it was refreshing to read a book set in the south that wasn’t characterized by such affectations. It seems that in youth novels, southern equals either bigot/hick or homespun darlin’.

I know that Teach Me (and the surrounding coverage) has generated a lot of discussion among YA librarians. Any of you who’re among cynsational readers are encouraged to share this URL with your on-and-offline colleagues. R. A. Nelson has offered a wonderful insight into his book.

By the way, I met children’s/YA literary agent Rosemary Stimola when she spoke at a recent Austin SCBWI conference. She works with a number of my friends, including Anne Bustard, Dianna Hutts Aston, and Jane Peddicord. I’m most impressed by Rosemary and hold her in high regard.

I should also mention that I’m on the YAWriter listserv that established the Dona Vaughn Work In Progress Grant that R. A. Nelson won.

Cynsational News & Links

Attention Austinites: remember that Greg Leitich Smith is signing Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005) at the Round Rock Barnes & Noble at 2 p.m. on Aug. 27.

The Southern Breeze chapter of SCBWI is hosting a schmooze featuring author R. A. Nelson Sept. 17 at the Huntsville (AL) Public Library Main Branch from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Review of Teach Me by Amber Skinner from Pele Publications.

Thou Shalt Not Dump The Skater Dude (And Other Commandments I Have Broken) by Rosemary Graham

“I was surprised, because I’d always thought about blogging as a girl thing,
filled with ramblings about crushes and fights about friends and mothers.”
— from Thou Shalt Not Dump The Skater Dude by Rosemary Graham

Thou Shalt Not Dump The Skater Dude (And Other Commandments I Have Broken) by Rosemary Graham (Viking, 2005). Kelsey is trying to adjust to the sudden move to the west coast. She is excited at the prospect of a new school (preferably of her own choosing). Her divorced parents seem to be getting along a lot (too much?) better. And then, boom! A hand reaches out to her as if from on high. It’s supersmooth C.J. Logan, California “It” Boy AKA “The Skater Dude.” At his side, she’s in–into the hottest social scene, in somebody’s arms. But “side” is the key word there, as in “sidelines.” How long can Kelsey endure of C. J.’s accessory, and what if she dares to do the unthinkable? What if she dumps The Skater Dude? Ages 12-up. Read an excerpt.

My Thoughts

(Beware of possible spoilers below; read at your own risk!)

After you read this book, surf over to to read The Skater Dude’s blog and get his side of the story. Loving the whole fictional-character-blogging thing.

Then, if you haven’t already, check into the Hippie Hotel, and learn more about My Not-So-Terrible Time at the Hippie Hotel by Rosemary Graham (Viking, 2003; Puffin, 2005), and read an excerpt.

Thou Shalt Not Dump The Skater Dude (And Other Commandments I Have Broken) was recognized as the “Title That Takes The Most Liberty With Biblical Directives” by Publisher’s Weekly in Silly Salutations of the Season.

Kelsey’s mother attends Boalt Hall, the University of California’s most competitive law school. If I remember correctly, this is one of the schools that was on my list, but I went to The University of Michigan Law School instead. Apparently, I’m allergic to pleasant weather. In any case, it totally rang true to me that as a 1L she sees potential torts everywhere.

Bonus points for Mr. Rundle’s discussion of Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Novel includes many great chapter titles; including: “I’ll Take Skateboarding for $500, Alex

Kelsey’s many insights include one on new/used clothes: “Now that I thought about it, half the stuff at Abercrombie was fake-used. T-shirts with old-fashioned pictures and ads, and jeans made to look like they’d been worn for years. Weird.”

Laura Ruby, author of Lily’s Ghosts (HarperCollins, 2003) blurbs: “Smart, funny, and real, Thou Shall Not . . . is a delicious read, spiced with attitude and packed with girl power. Offers a new commandment to readers: Stand up for yourself, and the world is yours.”

Absolutely! I wish I’d had the chance to read Thou Shalt Not . . . when I was a teenage girl. Kelsey is a witty, likable, totally believable heroine who realizes that she’s complete unto herself. (I think I was about 35 when I finally reached that point).

Cynsational News & Links

Book Talk With Mary Williams, author of Brothers In Hope: Stories of the Lost Boys of Sudan, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Lee & Low).

Laura Ruby has redesigned her site to become far more groovy, updated, and added a blog. Surf over and check it out!

Author Interview: Louise Hawes on The Vanishing Point

The Vanishing Point by Louise Hawes (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). From the catalog copy: “In lush, glowing prose, Louise Hawes’s historical novel draws readers into the life and art of sixteenth-century Bologna with a compelling account of Lavinia Fontana, arguably the most famous female painter of the Italian Renaissance. Here readers will find a coming-of-age story filled with quest, complication, and catastrophe as well as miracles and hope. Although the novel is set four hundred years ago, the hard choices it involves speak to all times, all places, and are sure to tap into readers’ own conflicts between head and heart, real life and dreams.” Ages 12-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

When I talk to a group about the genesis of The Vanishing Point, a lot of folks expect a dusty lecture on art history. What they get instead is a love story, and a juicy one at that! Like anyone who’s fallen hard and fast, I remember all the details: six years ago, on a trip to visit my dad, who still lives where I grew up near Washington, D.C., I heard about a one-woman show at the National Gallery of Women in the Arts. All curious and innocent, I got in my car and drove downtown; still unsuspecting, I went inside and had a look around. ZAPPO! WHAMMO! I was a goner…

The gallery was holding a one-woman show, the work of a painter who lived over 400 years ago in Renaissance Italy. I walked into that show convinced that all the great Renaissance painters were men; I walked out blown away by the tenderness, fun, and sheer talent of the artist whose work I had just seen. Her name was Lavinia Fontana, and she painted with a fresh, wry intelligence that grabbed me from the very first canvas. I couldn’t stop thinking about the expressions on the faces of the women she painted, about the way small dogs kept wandering into her pictures, about she confidence, the sureness of her lines.

I left the Museum that day with my new favorite postcard (Fonatana’s portrait of a Girl with a Dog) and a head full of ideas that had just been turned upside down. You see, I was raised by parents who were both sometime painters, and our house was full of art books. Those books served as my picture books when I was a child, and I grew up sure of two things: 1) women in centuries gone by had a tendency to lie around without any clothes on, but they always made certain they were wearing lots of jewelry; and 2) all the great painters of the Italian Renaissance had names that end with O (Leonardo, Sandro, Michelangelo, Filippo, Donatellos, and on and on and on). Okay, I got over that first misconception soon enough — trying to sleep with my brand new pierced earrings when I was thirteen convinced me pretty quickly that only Gods and Goddesses could mix nudity and jewelry. But nothing I learned later, even as an art history major in college, did much to dissuade me from the idea that Renaissance art was this beautiful and famous all-male hall of fame.

Imagine how I felt, then, confronted by the extraordinary work of Lavinia Fontana! Someone who painted with the smarts of Carraci and the feeling for textures you see in Titian’s work. Someone who beat so many of the “Great Masters” at their own game, and had a sense of humor to boot. Someone who respected what went on “behind the scenes” in the world of women. No question, I was definitely in love. And I think maybe the feeling was a little bit mutual, because from the moment I set eyes on her, Lavinia kept whispering in my ear: “Luisa! Luisa!” (She tried to teach me Italian from the getgo.) “Andiamo. Tell my story!”

What was the timeline between spark and publication, what were the major events along the way?

You just read about the spark — that was in 1989. But, although I began to read and think about her non-stop, I didn’t decide to tell Lavinia’s story for another couple of years. And I didn’t finish it for another four. Put yourself in my place: I’d published over a dozen novels, every one of them with a contemporary setting and a contemporary teenager as protagonist. But my new crush was different; she was real; she’d actually set foot on the earth; and she’d made her mark there, a big one. I was way out of my comfort zone, and quite frankly, the prospect of trying historical fiction scared me silly. I’d never been hemmed in by facts before – I didn’t want to stop myself in the middle of a story and ask, “Was coffee invented yet? Did they have buttons then? Would there have been a cure for that?”

So I kept busy with other books and projects. My research on Fontana became a sort of background hum — something that went on underneath work that “mattered.” It was a hobby, I thought, a minor obsession that would surely pass. But it didn’t. And in 1992, the universe sent me a sign. The US Department of Defense asked me if I wanted to serve as a Visiting Author in ten American high schools at ten military bases throughout…guess which country?! Yep, Italy. A green light from fate! (Besides, if the Feds were going to choose between guns and me, I wanted them to choose me!) I went, and I toured more than ten cities in Italy in less than two weeks. Way too much, way too fast. But when I finally set foot in Bologna, when I walked the streets of Lavinia’s hometown, she became more insistent than ever.

My new protagonist nagged and teased, begged and pleaded until finally I gave in. What’s the harm of trying? I asked myself. And once I’d begun writing about her, of course, I found I had fallen in love with Vini much too deeply to stop. That’s the kind of crazy tug that keeps you going, the fire that won’t die, not until all the research is done and the story is told. Houghton Mifflin published The Vanishing Point in the fall of 2004. This past winter it was an Association of Independent Bookseller’s pick and a Banks Street College choice. This year, it’s up for BBYA of 2005. And best for last, the book’s gotten top ratings from all the young reveiwers at Yeah Write! and the always wonderful Stone Soup.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

One of the biggest challenges happened fairly early in the timeline I’ve described above. As it turns out, it took very little reserach to find out that Lavinia Fontana came as close as most of us will ever manage to living happily ever after! I discovered that Vini, as she allowed me to call her — probably because she was still trying to sell me on the idea of writing her book, was much more famous than any female painter had ever been before her, and more famous than most who came after. She had a medal struck in her honor; foreign ambassadors fell in love with her; her patrons were kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, even the Pope himself. And as for romance, she lucked out in that department, too: Vini married a mediocre student who studied painting with her father and when her new husband recognized that her talent far outstripped his own, the good man stayed home and raised their ELEVEN (yes, I said eleven!) children. While Vini traveled across Italy and Europe doing what she did best — painting.

It’s not hard to figure out that writing a story when you already know the ending poses a serious problem. Those of you who are writers know that that’s the fun, the free-fall of fiction, after all — going on a journey that surprises you as much as it does your readers. How could I take that kind of journey with Vini, when I was all too aware (and – gulp – a little bit jealous!) of her Happy Ending with a capital H? This didn’t phase her, though, and she kept whispering. (“Luisa, Luisa, oggi! subito!”) Well, sure my Italian was improving under her constant barrage, but I was still thick as a brick. Finally, though, after I got back from Italy, in love all over again, I caught on: The person who’d been whispering in my ear all these years was NOT the famous grownup artist, but the young girl from whom she grew. And newsflash: it’s challenging and fun to tell a backwards story! That happy ending was only a trigger, a diving board; it helped me ferret my way back and back and back, asking, Where? When? How?

That’s what’s involved, you see, in writing about the adolescence of an historical figure whose adulthood has been well documented. That’s the thrill, so different from fiction, but equally fascinating: How did she get there? What made it happen? Where were the seeds planted? There is no historical record of Vini’s teenage years, so I was free to “make up” the early experiences and emotions that might have shaped the historical artist, that might have made her who she was.

So how DID she do it? How did a young girl raised in the strict, patriarchal society of Italy’s Counter-Reformation become a celebrated artist. How did she break the taboos against women studying the naked body? Or working side by side with male artists? Or joining a craft guild? Earning money? How did someone who lived when unmarried women seldom even left the house except to go to church, manage to accomplish what she did? To go, like a distaff Captain Kirk, where no woman had gone before? The answers to these questions led me to the last big challenge involved in telling Vini’s story:

The stuff of fiction is conflict, and there’s plenty of that in the life of Fontana. A young girl’s ambition, her love of painting, set against everything she’s been taught, even against her own family, perhaps even against God’s will. But here’s the catch: I couldn’t turn this book into a feminist triumph. I knew Vini well enough by now to know she would never have achieved her goals by giving up her faith, by turning against her church and society, or by being disrespectful to her parents. She wouldn’t have known the first thing about women’s rights; she was a product of her times, not mine. As such, she would have probably felt that concepts like equal protection and suffrage were sacrilegious, a violation of natural and divine law.

Yet I also knew Vini had a sense of humor, a love of small, powerless animals and children, a deep understanding of human nature. These qualities, then, must have been her weapons, her tools, as much as the brush and canvas. And these were probably what allowed her to achieve as much as she did. In the end, I had to trust our relationship enough to let her fight her own battles, without rushing to her defense from my own modern perspective of righteous outrage. Otherwise, the book would never be hers. Would never ring true. So I tried very hard to stay out of her way. I hope you like the story she wrote!

Cynsational News & Links

BookSense Fall 2005 Kid’s Picks from Bookselling This Week. Sending out particular congrats to Louise Erdrich, author of The Game of Silence (HarperCollins, 2005); Linda Sue Park, author of Project Mulberry (Clarion, 2005); Cecil Castellucci, author of Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005); Jane Resh Thomas, author of The Counterfeit Princess (Clarion, 2005); Graham Salisbury, author of Eyes of the Emperor (Wendy Lamb Books, 2005); R.A. Nelson, author of Teach Me (Razorbill, 2005); Holly Black, author of Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie (Simon & Schuster, 2005).

“It’s About the Story, Silly!” by K. Pluta, in the Getting Started section of Writer’s Support from the Institute of Children’s Literature. See also “Mining Your Life for the Gold of Children’s Books,” an ICL chat with author Deborah Wiles, author of Each Little Bird That Sings (Harcourt, 2005).

Tofu and T. rex, reviewed by Hilary Williamson from BookLoons Reviews. Tofu and T. rex is by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown, 2005).

Author Interview: Ron Koertge on Boy Girl Boy

Boy Girl Boy by Ron Koertge (Harcourt, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Larry, Teresa, and Elliot are so tight, there’s no room in their circle for any more than three: boy, girl, boy. That’s just how it is. And when they graduate in a few months, they’re moving to California to begin their real lives–together. Or that’s the plan, anyway. But who are they fooling? Larry is gay and still trying to coming to terms with his sexuality. Teresa is tired of hanging out with two boys she loves who aren’t interested in being her boyfriend. And Elliot–sweet, handsome, but not the brightest–is finally considering the idea that he may in fact like himself more when he’s not in the shadow of his two best friends.” Ages 12-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I go to a lot of movies (50 a year is nothing for me), and I always admired the Japanese film “Rashoman,” where the gimmick is to tell/see the same thing from various points of view. BGB is the final version of a book called “Arrowhead Canyon, The Book of Love,” and – probably – “Moby Dick 2.”

I’d write a version, nobody would like it; I’d put it aside, then go back and write another version which nobody would like. Finally I hit on the three-points-of-view angle and everything came together. I’ve put things aside before and never gone back to them. And I’ve given up on projects. But I just kept plugging away at this one.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Seems like about a hundred years. A version of BGB was set in the past, e.g., the 50s because that’s when I was a kid. One editor said to me – wisely, I believe – that she couldn’t see kids getting interested in the 50s and that 40 years in the past for them would be like me reading a book set in 1920 or so when I was living the 50s. True or not, her comment made sense to me, maybe because historical fiction of any sort has never been my cup of tea. I don’t like research; I like to make stuff up.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

I have a hunch BGB is more autobiographical than I know, though (and this is interesting now that I think about it) I never actually knew a gay kid until I was at the University of Illinois. My hometown was pretty small and very parochial. It still is really, and I know because I go back now and again since my very old mother is in a nursing home there. On the other hand, there is still a pasture near where I used to live, and my friends and I did play there, and I made out with girls in an abandoned car, just like Elliot. But – as I said above – any gay kids in my small high school class were so deep in the closet they were right next to being entombed.

I’ve had gay characters in books before, especially Wes in The Arizona Kid* and that makes people ask me how a straight man can write a gay character. No one ever asks how a straight man can write a fifteen year old girl. The answer to both is the same — I make it up. I write and then read out loud what I’ve written until it sounds right to me just like composers fiddle with a score until the dissonance is in the right place.

*note: The Arizona Kid is now back in print (Candlewick, 2005).

Cynsational News & Links

The Art of Writing for Kids by Judy Alter from The Dallas Morning News. Learn more about Judy Alter from Texas Christian University Press.

Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation (EBCEF): a grassroots non profit/non government organization geared toward bringing literacy and literacy related resources to Ethiopia. Its mission is to develop a reading culture in Ethiopia by connecting children with books. Noted U.S. (Kansas) children’s author Jane Kurtz is on the board of this important organization. Find out more and help if you can.

Ron Koertge’s Summer Reading List from

Red Light, Green Light by Anastasia Suen, illustrated by Ken Wilson-Max

Red Light, Green Light by Anastasia Suen, illustrated by Ken Wilson-Max (Harcourt, 2005). An upbeat and colorful rhyming introduction to traffic for pre-K. Told from the point of view of a young boy playing with an extensive and augmented toy set. Ages 3-up.

My Thoughts

An excellent example of simple, effective rhyme for the very young.

Well grounded in a child’s point of view.

Whimsical in its use of additional objects such as a baseball, stacked books to lift roads, chess pieces, and a disproportionately large rubber duckie (bigger than the trolley). These add extra interest and would be fun to identify one-on-one or in groups.

Engaging with its bright colors and bold design.

Anastasia lives in Plano, Texas, and so I often get to see her at conferences. Visit her blog, Create/Relate.

Cynsational News & Links

Anastasia Suen: Prolific Non-Fiction Writer for Children by Sue Reichard from

Congratulations to my husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, on the rave reviews on his new novel, Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005), from Publisher’s Weekly (thrilled to see Shohei back!) and School Library Journal, which gushes “will make kids laugh out loud” and is “well written, witty, and funny.”

Book reviews by students and staff at the Indian Teacher & Educational Personnel Program at Humbolt State University.

The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) is the 2005 winner of the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award for Children’s Literature.