Cynsational News & Links

I’m working hard with Lisa Firke of HitThoseKeys.com on the redesign of my Web site today. Soak in the yellow while you still can!

Attention Censors by Colleen Mondor from BookSlut.com. Features interviews with authors Natasha Friend and Brent Hartinger. See also Inside Brent’s Brain: a chat at connectforkids.org. Brent’s wonderful YA books include: Geography Club (HarperTempest, 2003); The Last Chance Texaco (HarperTempest, 2004); and The Order of the Poison Oak (HarperTempest, 2005).

Former President (Bill Clinton) to Appear at Texas Book Festival from Austin360.com. He’s speaking Oct. 29, 2005.

Muhammad Ali, Andy Warhol, and Cesar Chavez by children’s author Chris Barton from Bartography. A round-up of recent U.S. history related reads.

Southwest Texas chapter of SCBWI invites you to find out that “Dreams Do Come True” at its fall conference November 12th in downtown San Antonio. Speakers will include editors from Hyperion, Boyds Mills Press, the art director from Hampton-Brown, author Rick Riordan and illustrator Layne Johnson. Planners are offering a special early bird rate for $75 for members if they register by September 12. Note: as of Aug. 18, critiques were still available.

Patrol: An American Soldier In Vietnam by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Ann Grifalconi

Patrol: An American Soldier In Vietnam by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Ann Grifalconi (HarperTrophy, 2002). A poetic, hearwrenching look at one soldier’s mission. Emotionally evocative, sufficiently sophisticated, appropriately accessible. Illustrations are in collage. Ages 8-up; also a good picture book choice for middle grade and high school.

My Thoughts

I’ve received a number of requests of late for war/military related titles, so I thought I’d pull this one from the backlist.

The soldier depicted is African American. That’s more of an observation, but there you have it.

The illustrator offers thanks to “all who brought this book into being and to all those who died in Vietnam.”

I seem to be feeling unusually alliterative this morning.

Cynsational News & Links

How’s the Weather? The Current Climate for Publishing Children’s Books by Harold Underdown from The Purple Crayon.

Focusing Your Editing and Revision Lenses by Christa Exter from the Institute of Children’s Literature.

Motivational Speakers and Authors: The Secret To Their Success by Francine Silverman, editor/publisher of Book Promotion Newsletter, a bi-weekly ezine for authors of all genres, and author of Book Marketing from A-Z (Infinity Publishing 2005), from Open Horizons.

Happy Feet by Richard Michelson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Happy Feet by Richard Michelson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Harcourt, 2005). A celebration of a father-son relationship and of the Savoy, told from the point of view of a young boy born the day “the earth’s hottest, coolest, most magnificient, superdeluxe dancing palace” opened for the first time. Includes an author’s note detailing more history of “Harlem’s most famous dance club” as well as brief biographies of some of its most prominent figures. Ages 4-up.

My Thoughts

I instantly pick up any book illustrated by E.B. Lewis. His titles include When You Were Born by Dianna Hutts Aston and Faraway Home by Jane Kurtz.

In this market, it’s a rare treat to see an African American father-son story, especially one with historical resonance.

Cynsational News & Links

Kristi Gerner: illustrator of more than 20 published children’s books. Her latest book “It’s Bedtime, Joshua!” can be purchased at Trafford. Many of her books, including a nursery rhyme series, were published by Seedling Publications and are available on the publisher’s website. Kristi also has samples of her fashion illustration, graphic design, and web design on her Candleflame Designs Web site. She lives in College Station, Texas.

Letters to NBC: New Trends in Teen Fiction: Racy Reads: scroll for 2002 Newbery winner Linda Sue Park‘s response to the recent NBC coverage of YA literature.

Writing Dynamo: Jane Yolen has published more than 300 Books but She’s Got Plenty More Stories To Tell by Karen Springen from Newsweek. Jane comments on her own work as well as that by J.K. Rowling and celebrity authors. Check out the related Blog Talk. See also Jane’s thoughts on reader mail generated by this article.

Kansas SCBWI

Tuesday night I had the pleasure of speaking at the quarterly meeting of Kansas SCBWI. It was held in Prairie Village at a church on Nall, about 20 minutes from my mother’s house. I spoke about the role of culture in crafting children’s and YA characters.

What a charming group! My thanks to regional advisor Sue Ford. I met many great folks, including Lisa D. Harkrader, author of Airball: My Life In Briefs (Roaring Brook, 2005) and J.B. Cheaney, author of My Friend, The Enemy (Knopf, 2005), who graciously gave me a copy of her book to take home.

The downside of my trip is that I missed Brian Yansky’s talk to Austin SCBWI members on “What Do Your Characters Want?” His YA novel, My Road Trip to the Pretty Girl Capital of the World (Cricket Books, 2003), was named the Texas Institute of Letters’ Best Young Adult Novel. It was also a University of Texas Libraries Staff Pick for fall 2004.

Cynsational News & Links

Happy birthday to my very cute husband, author Greg Leitich Smith! He is 38 years old today! Surf over to his blog and wish him the best!

Congratulations to Kathi Appelt, whose memoir, My Father’s Summers (Henry Holt, 2004), is a finalist for the PEN USA Award for Children’s Literature.

Could you be the next J.K. Rowling? by Martha Brockenbrough from MSN Encarta. Check out what Ellen Jackson and I have to say about this burning question. (By the way, my critique group has a total of 5 members–me, my husband, two up-and-comers, and a rising star).

Cynsational News & Links

I leave tomorrow to spend a week in Kansas City, and my email access will be thin to nill. Please contact my husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, if you need to get in touch with me. Thanks! Also, over at spookycyn, I offer a myriad of thoughts on the Time magazine special report on “Being 13.”

Linda Sue Park was awarded the 2005 Chicago Tribune Prize for Young Adult Fiction for Project Mulberry (Clarion, 2005).

YA Authors E. Lockhart and Libba Bray will be featured at the YA Authors Cafe on Tuesday, August 16 at 8:30 Eastern time, 7:30 Central, 5:30 Pacific. It’s easy! Simply go to www.yaauthorscafe.com and click the cafe chatroom icon (which is a brownish and slightly obscure box, located on the lower right hand side — it says Cafe Chatroom, but not “enter chatroom” so you have you just have faith and click on the thing), and join the chat by logging in with a screen name, kind of like AIM. E. Lockhart is the author of The Boyfriend List (15 guys, 11 shrink appointments, 4 ceramic frogs and me, ruby oliver)(Delacorte, 2005); Libba Bray is the author of A Great And Terrible Beauty (Delacorte, 2004) and Rebel Angels (Delacorte, 2005).

The Oklahoma Center for the Book has released its 2006 Call for Entries for the 17th Annual Oklahoma Book Awards. Eligibility criteria is: any individual, organization or company may enter in any category; books considered must have an Oklahoma-based theme, or entrants (authors, illustrators, designers) must live or have lived in Oklahoma; books must be published between January 1 and December 31, 2005; books (hardcover or paperback) previously entered are no long eligible. Categories include: Fiction; children/YA; design/illustration; non-fiction; and poetry. The deadline is Jan. 6, 2006; finalist will be notified in February; winners will be announced at the awards ceremony on March 11, 2006. No entry fee is required; entrants are responsible for shipping fees. Download entry form (PDF file); note: the Web site hasn’t been updated but OCB has sent out a mailing requesting entries. Write with any questions or comments. Note: two of my books, Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) and Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), were finalists for the Oklahoma Book Award.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:” A Teacher Movie Review by Jay Fung from CBC Magazine.

For Young Readers: Picture Books For Late Summer from the August 7, 2005, Washington Post. Includes Kindergarten Rocks by Katie Davis (Harcourt, 2005).

Padma’s book page: official author site features a short description of books of particualr interest to South Asians, South Asian Americans, Teachers and Librarians interested in multicultural juvenile literature. Padma’s latest book is: The Forbidden Temple, a collection of short stories set in India’s historical past.

Author Interview: David Lubar on Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie

Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar (Dutton, 2005). An insider’s look at Scott’s freshman year of high school as he tries to win a girl, finds another, stumbles into sports reporting, is unfortunately successful at politics, joins a theater crew, loses and gains friends, dodges bullies, seeks inspiration in English class, sometimes stands up for what’s right and sometimes doesn’t, and chronicles the highlights for his still in utero baby brother AKA “you quivering sack of viscous fluids” (p. 44). Ages 12-up. Highest recommendation. See more of my thoughts on Sleeping Freshman Never Lie.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Fear of poverty. I knew that if I could write a really funny book, I’d win all sorts of major prizes and get taken to lunch every day for the rest of my life by really cool librarians. (It’s a little-known fact that librarians nearly always know where to find the best brewpub in any town.) I tried this a couple times before, but I kept forgetting to kill a major character. I think I might have messed up that death part again, but we’ll see. And I probably made the parents way too nice. Beyond that, I was just playing around with the idea of a kid writing a journal to his unborn sibling.

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

I write tons of first chapters. It’s a shotgun approach. Thank goodness hard drive capacity keeps growing. After I finished Dunk for Clarion, I showed my editor there some of my works in progress, and she liked that one. So I wrote the rest of the book, mostly in the spring of 2002.

The first draft was completely in journal form. Actually, it would be more accurate to call it epistolary, since the journal is written directly to the unborn sibling.

Soon after it was finished, my editor moved to Dutton and asked me to submit the book there. But she also asked me to consider rewriting it, or at least major parts of it, as a traditional narrative since the journal voice tends to distance the main character from the reader. I played around with that and liked the approach.

The book went through various revisions all the way through fall of 2002 and most of 2003. I was traveling a lot, which slowed things down. I think it went into copy editing in February of 2004. It was scheduled for a March release in 2005, but we ran into a snag.

I wanted to call it Flux Sux. We were all set to do that, but a couple months later, my editor got cold feet and said we should change the title. I agreed, but we couldn’t find a title we both liked. She decided to delay the book until July to give us time. Then left Dutton, orphaning me for a second time. On the positive side, she did come up with the new title.

Despite the delay, some nice stuff has already happened. Bruce Coville’s Full Cast Audio company acquired the audio rights. They’ll be recording it in October. Read Magazine is going to excerpt the first chapter. The book got a BBYA nomination from the ALA and a star from School Library Journal. And it got a very cool review from a teen on Di Herald’s site. The only negative event so far is that Kirkus Reviews liked it. I usually depend on them to be nasty as a sign I’m on the right track. But I think the book is strong enough to survive a bit of praise from the dark side.

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

The major challenge for me was the structure. I had narrative and journal entries, along with the creative writing that Scott did. (Bit of trivia – the last item on Scott’s list of reasons not to wrestle is the only things I’ve ever written that is guaranteed to get a laugh from an auditorium filled with 7th graders.) I had to make it all flow, and make sure that the journal was distinct. If the journal was similar to the narrative, there would be no point in having it.

Some of the literary aspects were inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses. (I knew all those college English courses would come in handy some day.) In there, each chapter plays with a different form of rhetoric. I didn’t exactly do that, but instead had the rhetoric play with the form of some of the chapters. (As much as I’m a comic guy and a goofball, and as much as I’d hate to be taken too seriously, I really hope people notice that there’s some very cool stuff going on here at many different levels. I’m sickeningly proud of the point-of-view chapter.)

The writing process involved a lot of moments of giddiness and joy. I had fun, and I’m not about to apologize for failing to suffer for my art.

The other huge challenge was to keep track of all the plot threads and characters. I made a chart that marked the appearance of characters in each chapter, just to make sure I didn’t let anyone stay off stage for too long. But I’d managed to pull of a pretty complex structure with Flip, which had five third-person viewpoints, and I’d woven together various non-narrative elements in Hidden Talents, so I wasn’t in uncharted waters as far as complexity.

Research wasn’t much of a problem since I was doing so many school visits at the time, and my daughter was still in high school in 2002. Besides, this is fiction, so I just make up facts when I need them. I’m pretty sure nobody will notice that the mother is pregnant for thirteen months, or that the Delaware River now flows to Ohio. The ultimate challenge was to make the book as funny as possible, while still keeping it real.

Cynsational notes: see the CLSCLR search engine for a 2002 interview with David. By the way, he coins the word “cynterview;” do we love it? Yes, we do!

Don’t miss other recent cynterviews with: Anne Bustard on Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 2005); Kathi Appelt and Joy Fisher Hein on Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America (Harper, 2005); Elisa Carbone on Last Dance On Holladay Street (Knopf, 2005); Mary E. Pearson on A Room On Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005); Cecil Castellucci on Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005); Kerry Madden on Gentle’s Holler (Viking, 2005); Jennifer Richard Jacobson on Stained (Atheneum, 2005); Lara M. Zeises on Anyone But You (Delacorte, 2005); and Betty G. Birney on The World According To Humphrey (Putnam, 2004) and Friendship According To Humphrey (Putnam, 2005).

Cynsational News & Links

Frogger’s Main Man: An Interview with David Lubar by Peggy Tibbetts from Writing-World.com. See also Peggy’s colum, Advice from a Caterpillar: Writing for Children on the advantages of POD publishing over self-publishing.

David Lubar: Award-winning Writer with a Sense of Humor by Sue Reichard from suite101.com.

Legal Writes: Writing About Family Members by Kohel M. Haver, Attorney, Kohel Haver & Associates from The Purple Crayon.

Recommendation of The Perfect Shot by Elaine Marie Alphin (Carolrhoda, 2005) from genrefluent.

Recommendation of A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl by Tanya Lee Stone (Wendy Lamb Books, 2006) from The Goddess of YA Literature, who incidentally refers to me as her “fairy godmother and mistress of the best darned web site around.” I’m still preening.

And speaking of my site, the redesign is going full-steam ahead thanks to the fabulous Lisa Firke. Expect greatness (and far less yellow) soon.

Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar

Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar (Dutton, 2005). An insider’s look at Scott’s freshman year of high school as he tries to win a girl, finds another, stumbles into sports reporting, is unfortunately successful at politics, joins a theater crew, loses and gains friends, dodges bullies, seeks inspiration in English class, sometimes stands up for what’s right and sometimes doesn’t, and chronicles the highlights for his still in utero baby brother AKA “you quivering sack of viscous fluids” (p. 44). Ages 12-up. Highest recommendation.

My Thoughts

Disclaimer: I’ve never been a freshman, so this was all alien territory to me. My junior high (Hillcrest Junior High in Overland Park, Kansas) went through ninth grade. So for my peers, ninth grade was a time of supreme power. We were almost driving by the time we hit high school. Now, however, the school has changed over to Westridge Middle School, allegedly due to various studies about what’s best for kids that age. I’m not convinced those studies are right.

Author tidbit: Last time I spent time with the genius that is David Lubar, it was at the Signature Room at the 95th during ALA in Chicago.

On The Novel:

I love Lee, fangs and all (I’m sure you’re surprised). The daughter of two blood suckers, only one of whom is a lawyer. Likewise, dig the vampire poem on p. 127.

I disagree with Scott that short stories are harder than novels. To me, it’s more like the difference of running a sprint and running a marathon. Both use most of the same muscles, but the psychology is different.

Characters include an English teacher cool enough to study comics with the class. (By the way, I rec my favorite comic of the week over at spookycyn).

This novel heightened and deepened my interest in language and writing, especially poetry. I was tempted to list all of the books, poems, etc., mentioned with links to more information, but of course, that would totally ruin/oversimplify countless readers’ future homework.

Sleeping Freshman Never Lie is one of the top YAs of the year in a strong year for YAs and sort of like “My So-Called Life” for boys. The novel represents the best of comedy–balanced at times against tragedy, at times against the ridiculousness of daily life, and always fully engaging the heart and mind. It would be an excellent choice for fans of Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl by D.L. Garfinkle (Putnam, 2005). It also deserves mega ALA and especially NCTE attention; what more could English teachers (or teen readers) ask for?

Memorable Lines

p. 37 (under “Scott Hudson’s Guide To Things That Are Worse Than Gym”)
“5. Getting your head stuck in a bucketful of dead worms that’s been baking in the sun for a week.”

p. 67 “Have you ever noticed that Piglet looks like some sort of larval grub with ears?” (Actually, I find Piglet much cuter, but then again, I’m a girl).

p. 104 (re: running for Student Council) “I could have promised to try to replace gym class with Victoria’s Secret fashion shows.”

p. 123 “If ‘music hath charms to soothe a savage breast,’ then why are there so many hyperactive geeks in the band?”

p. 136 (under “Seven Reasons Why Scott Hudson Shouldn’t Join The Wrestling Team”)
“7. Any activity that produces that much grunting should probably be performed in private.”

p. 214 “Easter is by far the best holiday for chocolate. Halloween is probably second. They have little else in common.”

Cynsational note: surf back tomorrow for an interview with author David Lubar on Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie.

Cynsational News & Links

Thanks to my very cute husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, for adding links to the sidebars of my cynsations and spookycyn blogs. Greg’s latest book, Tofu and T. rex was released in July 2005 along with the paperback of his debut novel, Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo.

Author Tanya Lee Stone wrote me a couple of days ago, asking for a list of my favorite author Web sites. It was a fun question I hadn’t been asked before. These are the authors whose sites I highlighted for her: Laurie Halse Anderson; Heather Vogel Frederick; K.L. Going; Jennifer Holm; Jennifer Richard Jacobson; Patrice Kindl; Graham Salisbury; Nancy Werlin; Janet Wong. Tanya is the author of numerous books, including the upcoming YA hit, A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl (Wendy Lamb Books, 2006).

“Painting with Words” by Erin Brady, in the Writing Schedule Section of Writer’s Support from the Institute of Children’s Literature. See also “No Peril, No Glory, No Sale!” by Jody J. Little, in the Story Conflict Section of Writing Tips and a chat with historical fiction writer Linda Crew from ICL.

Author Interview: Betty G. Birney on Friendship According To Humphrey

Friendship According To Humphrey by Betty G. Birney (Putnam, 2005). Humphrey’s still the class pet in room 26, but suddenly, he’s not the only one! Enter Og the Frog. “Boing!” Can these different species become friends, and what about the other relationships in Mrs. Brisbane’s classroom? It can be HARD-HARD-HARD to be a friend, but it’s worth it. Ages 8-up. A companion book to The World According To Humphrey.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Only a few months after buying The World According To Humphrey, (editor) Susan Kochan (cyn: see also this interview) asked for a sequel. I was still basking in the glow of selling my first middle grade and now had a contract for another one! It was a tight deadline to get it out one year after the first book was published but we did it. I was given full rein and I didn’t even have to tell them the subject of the book until it was completed. That sounds like a dream – right? Well, if the first book just poured out of me, the sequel was a somewhat different story. It wasn’t a nightmare, but it was no dream, either.

What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

The big challenge was to keep Humphrey and his friends consistent with the first book but to add new elements to make it fresh. Then there’s always the issue of a child picking up the second book without having read the first book – there has to be some backstory in it but you don’t want to bore the child who did read the first book. Arrgh! I was biting my nails from the start. Although a typical classroom has around 30 students, the first book really only mentioned eight students (plus Aldo, Mrs. Brisbane, Principal Morales and parents). I added four characters to Friendship. Three of them were regular students whom Humphrey didn’t know so well until Mrs. Brisbane rearranged the classroom. The fourth was the new girl, a lonely foster child.

Although The World According To Humphrey is episodic in the way Humphrey has self-contained adventures on the weekends, there was a strong through-line revolving around the idea that Humphrey was convinced Mrs. Brisbane not only didn’t like him, she was out to get him. (He was brought to class by a substitute.) That gave the book a lot of drive. Several children have written to say they were scared when Humphrey had to go home with Mrs. Brisbane. What would give the sequel the same kind of oomph? I rather quickly decided that Humphrey would have the shock of his life when a new classroom pet was added to Room 26: a frog.

Humphrey’s challenge would be to make friends with this frog, called Og, who did not appear to be particularly friendly. I did a lot of frog research but the rockiest part of writing the book was working on Humphrey’s efforts to befriend Og and also cope with his own jealousy. (Now there’s a problem kids can relate to.) Then I decided that friendship would be a general theme linking all the stories. (There was no such link in the first book). The title was up in the air but when I came up with Friendship According To Humphrey, I realized that there could be a whole series of “According To Humphrey” books.

The stories about the children came fairly easily to me, but definitely have more depth than in the first book: dealing with a bully, a lonely foster child, two best friends feuding and two warring stepsisters. Humphrey lends a paw in resolving these problems and stars in a magic show, too. But the ongoing relationship between Humphrey and Og was a constant trial. I had wanted to include Frog Care Tips at the end of each chapter, to mirror the Hamster Care Tips in the first book, but it didn’t work out because there were too many chapters where Og didn’t appear. So I ended up putting in quotes about friendship.

There’s another event that drives the action of the book: a Valentine’s Day Poetry Festival. I had a lot of fun writing good and bad kid poems and even a couple of poems written by Humphrey. The idea for the Poetry Festival stemmed from an event that was held at my son’s elementary school each year. Students didn’t actually have to write their own poems but they had to memorize and recite them at an assembly. They picked and chose each year and it wasn’t until about his fourth go-round that Walshe was accepted, so he had several years of deep disappointment. Happily, I made sure all the children in Room 26 got to participate.

While the stories came easily, making the Og/Humphrey relationship work was grunt work and I revised the sections where they interact many times. However, I had the big climax (which I won’t give away but is dramatic and visual) in mind from the start. I had my map, remember?

Because this book was more difficult to write, I am constantly amazed that the sequel got equally positive reviews and many people have told me they like it even better than World. It does have more depth than the first book. And I’ve also queried people who read Friendship without having read World to see if it all made sense without having read the first book and I’ve been relieved that there seems to be no problem with it.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The World According To Humphrey was released in paperback in June. Friendship According To Humphrey will be in paperback next summer. The U.K. version of World will be published by Faber & Faber in February. A Dutch version was just released by Facet. (Only Humphrey is Bertje!) I am writing the third book, Trouble According To Humphrey now. It’s halfway between the first and second book in difficulty. I was nervous when I began, but then Humphrey took over. As I said to my husband, “I don’t have to worry about the book now. Humphrey’s taken over and he’ll do the writing.”

I recently sat in on a hamster examination at the vet’s office (research!) and even held a hamster. I must admit, it was easy for me because he was a pet store reject named Kramer who had one eye and no teeth. He was adorable – looked like he was perpetually winking – but the best part was, he couldn’t bite me. So I guess you can imagine the kind of trouble Humphrey may be getting into soon!

Cynsational Note: see also Betty G. Birney on The World According To Humphrey (Putnam, 2004).

Cynsational News & Links

Read Gail Giles’ LJ (The YA Novel and Me) lately? Recent gems include: “Want to be a writer? Pull up a chair. Seriously, pull up a chair.” and “Am I crazy or just Southern? Or is that a moot point?”

An Interview With Libba Bray from Young Adult Books Central. Ms. Bray is in true wacky form. She also alledgedly has a Web site now (but the splash page image doesn’t show up on my Mozilla or Netscape browsers; perhaps you will have better luck).

realwritingteachers@yahoogroups.com: a discussion group of 650 plus writing teachers, children’s authors, librarians, homeschoolers, etc. who discuss reading and writing strategies, resources, etc. A prolific list with more than 1500 posts last month alone, but any topic or question usually results in learning about great resources, Web sites, etc. Owner/Moderator Robert A. Redmond encourages interested parties to join.

Surf by Austin writer/illustrator Shannon Lowry’s Web site. Learn more about Shannon, check out her portfolio, visit her studio and more!

Author Interview: Betty G. Birney on The World According To Humphrey

The World According To Humphrey by Betty G. Birney (Putnam, 2004). Humphrey is the class hamster in Room 26, and boy, does he learn a lot! Not only is Humphrey keeping up with the kids in their studies, he also visits the home of a different one each weekend. Everyone loves him…except the new teacher, Mrs. Brisbane. Humphrey is a VERY-VERY-VERY open, caring hamster–smart, resourceful, kindhearted, and always true to his own point of view. Ages 8-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Often, I can pinpoint exactly where an idea came from but in this case, I’m not terribly clear. When my son, Walshe, was in elementary school, his science classroom had all kinds of animals including a boa constrictor. That probably made me think of the guinea pigs back in my first grade classroom who were completely boring until they procreated at a highly inopportune time. (This was the fifties and our brand-new teacher was considered a little too progressive for those times.) I got to thinking about how a pet in a typical elementary classroom would view and interpret what he was seeing. I’ve always been interested in point-of-view.

I love all animals (though I’m rodent-phobic) and I’m constantly trying to figure out what my dog is thinking about some of the things we do – which must look pretty wacky to her. So I’m used to musing about what things look like from an animal’s viewpoint.

Once I started working on the idea, it became obvious that there were several other inspirations. When I read Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me in elementary school, I was completely delighted. I thought the idea that Ben Franklin’s great ideas and inventions really came from his pet mouse, Amos, was the cleverest thing I’d ever read. I also adored the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books where a quirky character tries to solve kids’ problems. Stuart Little was another great favorite of mine as a child. So it’s pretty clear that a hamster who tries to help people solve their problems was a natural subject for me.

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

I’m constantly amazed by the process of writing and the way each book has its own unique path. Some are hard to write, some just pop out but for me, it’s never the same process twice. I actually jotted down a few notes about a classroom hamster who goes home with a different kid each weekend and helps solve their problems back in 1996. The original idea was the same as the final product, but it took me a while to make it click.

Some background: for 20-plus years, I made my living writing children’s television, working on tight deadlines, late nights, seven days a week. But I managed to work on books in between and sold some, too. I wrote books to preserve my sanity but the scripts paid the bills. And there were other rewards, including an Emmy and many other awards. But I had to take the work as it came so there were long lapses between the time I got an idea and by the time I finished it. But ideas do seem to need a long time to ferment with me. I’d jot down thoughts about the book, ideas for titles and the name of the character (He was Wiggins for a while.) I soon settled on Humphrey – but not in honor of Humphrey Bogart. I named him for Humphrey Street in St. Louis, where my parents grew up as neighbors and where my sister and I spent a great deal of time at my grandparents’ house. A few times, I tried a first page or two – with disastrous results. Humphrey sounded too adult – even British in one draft – and I put the pages aside. However, the teacher, Mrs. Brisbane, appeared in these early notes, as did the idea that Humphrey thinks she’s out to get him. Another early idea was that his cage has a lock-that-doesn’t-lock but appears locked to humans, so he could get out and have adventures.

In 2002, after a succession of nightmarish TV experiences, I decided to kick my literary efforts up a notch. My son was about to go off to college and I finally got a literary agent (I have a great Hollywood agent, Barbara Alexander, but needed a book agent as well.)

Nancy Gallt is a fantastic agent and she was quite taken with my manuscript, The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs (Atheneum, June 2005) She was trying to sell that and some picture book manuscripts. One day in June of 2002, I sat down to take another crack at Humphrey and –surprise – the voice was there! It was just as smooth and natural as could be. Humphrey was a kid, not an adult, and as soon as I started writing, I had the idea that he called his fellow classmates in Room 26 by the names he heard the teacher call them: Raise-Your-Hand-Heidi Hopper, Lower-Your-Voice A.J., Speak-Up Sayeh, etc. Humphrey’s habit of repeating words three times, as in, “I was GLAD-GLAD-GLAD,” just popped up out of thin air. (After I finished, I had to go through the manuscript to make sure he doesn’t do that too often, which would be just a little too cute.) Surprisingly, I soon learned that Humphrey is a punster, telling people to “squeak up” or calling someone “unsqueakably rude.” Unfortunately, all that humans hear is “SQUEAK-SQUEAK-SQUEAK.”

Another important idea that emerged was that during the week, he spent his nights at school. Again, I played with point-of-view, giving the readers a taste of what a classroom similar to theirs might be like at night, with the clock sounding very loud and the room very dark. Aldo Amato, the lonely but high-spirited night custodian, soon entered the picture and is one of my very favorite characters. Humphrey even manages to help him find the love of his life!

What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

This book was a relatively easy birth. I did make a rough outline. I’ve heard all those famous writers say they never outline and just start writing without any idea where they’re going. But my TV writing trained me differently. An extensive outline is a requirement for a TV or film script. You get paid first for the outline, then first draft and usually two revisions. It makes sense to have an outline, so that the writer, story editor and producer all know what to expect. Once you have experience, you can tell by the outline whether the script is going to be too long or too short and adjust the length then. It’s a grueling, horrible job and all writers hate writing outlines. However, once it is approved, writing the script is usually a breeze. I wrote out a rough outline for Humphrey, just so I knew where I was going. A lot of things changed along the way, but still, it’s nice to have a little map, as long as you feel free to take detours. This outline was more like a list of events than a TV outline.

I also kept a calendar for The World According To Humphrey, as I do on certain projects. A long time ago, I wrote an award-winning Afterschool Special that was almost perfect except I realized after it was in production that there was a tiny problem of time in it. It was very minor; if I read it today I probably couldn’t find it and no one else ever noticed, though I did tell the producer. But that experience made me more conscious of time. I knew that Humphrey was coming to class shortly after school started and that the story would end at the holidays. In between, he’d be going home with different students. So I had to make sure I had the right number of weekends and that Halloween and Thanksgiving fell at the right place, too. I now make calendars for all the Humphrey books.

Since I do not have a hamster (my dog strictly forbids it), I did plenty of research. I visited the pet store on the corner, which became the model for Pet-O-Rama, and I picked up an enormously helpful hamster care book. I’ve practically worn it out. I did other research online but that one book was key.

Although a hamster who can read and write and think like a human is pure fantasy, I tried hard to make his behavior hamster-like. He can’t physically do things a hamster couldn’t do (a very brave and smart hamster, that is). I put in a Hamster Care Tip at the end of each chapter, something reviewers universally liked, and at the end, added Humphrey’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans. I’m gratified that most people are shocked to learn I don’t have – and never have had – a hamster.

Once I had the voice and my map, I wrote the book REALLY-REALLY-REALLY fast – a chapter a day. It just rolled out of me. I tell people that I channel hamsters (a joke) but I felt as if Humphrey wrote the book and I just did the typing for him. Believe me, I do not think writing is a magical process and I realize that all this comes from the subconscious, but every time I sit down to write Humphrey’s voice, it feels as if it’s coming from outside of me. On the other hand, I also believe that Humphrey actually is me: the observer (or writer) always trying to fix things.

Not only did I write a chapter a day, I woke up every morning knowing exactly what the next chapter would be and how it would unfold. This was a unique experience, although I often dream scenes and use the time when I’m halfway between sleep and wakefulness to consciously work out problems in stories. When I’m in this “twilight” time, I almost always come up with a solution or advance the plot. The trick is when you wake up, lie very still while you’re still half-asleep and picture the problem you’re working on. This is a technique I’ve used for years. I also do it in the middle of the night if I wake up and can’t get back to sleep.

I think the fact that I wrote this book so quickly gave it energy and spontaneity. I like to work this way, but believe me, I have manuscripts where every word was a struggle and they turned out okay, too.

Even though I wrote World quickly, I did a lot of rewriting (I always do) and also let it sit for a while before taking that last crack at it. I gave it to Nancy Gallt in the fall of 2002. She liked it and sent it out. It was rejected by one house and then sold to Putnam’s – a very painless process. In January, 2003, I was on jury duty on a very nasty and complicated criminal trial. On break, I went into the jury room and checked my cell phone messages. When I got THE message, I literally jumped for joy. Our jury had really bonded so all 12 of us were jumping for joy within minutes.

I was very fortunate to have Susan Kochan (cyn: see also this interview) as my editor, a truly lovely, dedicated and generous person to work with.

The copy-editing process was complicated because of the way Humphrey talks. The punctuation and capitalization of things like “SQUEAK-SQUEAK-SQUEAK,” and the kids’ names had to be consistent and it was time-consuming. Luckily, I’m a perfectionist about these things, too, so I appreciated all the work Susan and several copy editors put into it.

Cynsational Note: check back tomorrow for Betty G. Birney on Friendship According To Humphrey (Putnam, 2005).

Cynsational News & Links

In The Artist’s Studio: Watercolor by Iza Trapani from CBC Magazine.

“To Hold Up Prisms”: Australian and Canadian Indigenous Publishing for Children by Clare Bradford from papertigers. Clare Bradford is a professor of literary studies at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, where she teaches and researches children’s literature, especially colonial and post-colonial texts.

Cecil Castellucci, Writer: an interview from Torontoist. See my own recent interview with Miss Cecil about her new novel, Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005).

Interview with Lara M. Zeises from Pop Goes The Library. See also my own recent interview with Lara about her upcoming novel, Anyone But You (Delacorte, 2005).

The World According To Humphrey by Betty G. Birney

The World According To Humphrey by Betty G. Birney (Putnam, 2004). Humphrey is the class hamster in Room 26, and boy, does he learn a lot! Not only is Humphrey keeping up with the kids in their studies, he also visits the home of a different one each weekend. Everyone loves him…except the new teacher, Mrs. Brisbane. Humphrey is a VERY-VERY-VERY open, caring hamster–smart, resourceful, kindhearted, and always true to his own point of view. Ages 8-up.

Friendship According To Humphrey by Betty G. Birney (Putnam, 2005). Humphrey’s still the class pet in room 26, but suddenly, he’s not the only one! Enter Og the Frog. “Boing!” Can these different species become friends, and what about the other relationships in Mrs. Brisbane’s classroom? It can be HARD-HARD-HARD to be a friend, but it’s worth it. Ages 8-up. A companion book to The World According To Humphrey.

Cynsational Note: Betty G. Birney has another new novel out, The Seven Wonders Of Sassafras Springs (Atheneum, 2005). It’s in my stack, but I haven’t read it yet. However, you can get a sneak peek online at chapter one.

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to San Antonio’s Lupe Ruiz-Flores, recipient of the second Martha Weston Grant. Lupe will receive $1,500 to defer her expenses to attend the SCBWI annual summer conference in Los Angeles August 5 to 8.

The Children’s Writing Update for August 2 features: Market News from Magazine Maven Margaret; Ask the Children’s Librarian; Julia Ward Howe Awards (for those who live or have lived within a 100 mile radius of Boston); Getting Published with Self-Help for Kids.

Smart Writers Journal for August 2005 features: articles about winners of the Smart Writers’ contest; an author interview with Marlene Perez (“talks about writing edgy YAs and spirited fantasies”); and Writers Retreats and Conferences by Margot Finke. Read my thoughts on Unexpected Development by Marlene Perez (Roaring Brook, 2004).