Author Interview: Melanie Chrismer on Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang

Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang by Melanie Chrismer, illustrated by Virginia Marsh Roeder (Pelican, 2004). From the catalog copy: “Young Phoebe is raised as a Southwestern belle, which made her a genteel gal who was also a great rider and roper. One day she enters the territory rodeo to compete against the ill-mannered Tumbleweed Gang and their reign as champions is over. Clifford, Elmo, and Eustace Tumbleweed decide to get rid of sissified Phoebe Clappsaddle once and for all. But Phoebe fouls their devilish plot and teaches the boys some manners, too. Then, for a time, the desert blooms in the territory again.

“Melanie Chrismer is a fifth-generation native Houstonian who lived her elementary years in New England. She is a former newspaper stringer, who worked in libraries, schools, and bookstores while developing her writing career. Melanie, her husband, daughter, son, and schnauzer live in northwest Houston.”

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

When I started writing for children, I was doing it in my (for lack of better words) “spare time.” But I was still holding down a part-time job and trying to be super mom for my elementary and middle school aged children. So I would go on field trips and volunteer for the school librarians and teachers. Little did I know that I was immersing myself in “just what the doctor ordered.” I was getting the “what kids really want baptismal.”

Along this school bus and cafeteria lunch journey I began to remember what I was doing at that same age and what I liked to read–tall tales! My inspirations were the Paul Bunyons, the Pecos Bills, and Slew-foot Sues of literature. Okay, so what kind of crazy person could I create to entertain, amaze and giggle-fy?… Well just what my grandmothers wanted me to be–a sweet southern belle and a proud, brave Texan. A-ha!–a southwestern belle.

One of my grandmothers was a dainty 4-foot, 10-inch sweetie who wore a Sunday ladies’ suit, pill box hat, and white gloves to the Weingartens grocery store, and drank tea with her pinkies up.

The other was a strong armed, strong willed, former nurse and missionary, and most important to her, the granddaughter of one of Houston’s first mayors, H.D. Taylor. If you combine these two unique women you have the epitome of a southwestern belle.

The story began to stir in my head set in the most desolate yet wonderful part of Texas I could imagine; beautiful and powerful Big Bend. The more steps I took to writing this story the more I knew the main character would be the kind of gal who is unique and didn’t really mind that she is different. She thought of herself as fortunate to have southern manners AND western skills. She might make people laugh but they just don’t see that she is special; the product of two cultures and someone who loved the new combination. So, she needed a name that said it all.

And then there it was. I had the name all along. When I was small my dainty grandmother used to tell us we should never complain about our names. That at least we were not named like one of our ancestors–Phoebe Clappsaddle. The whole family would laugh and agree that no matter what our name was, it wasn’t as bad as that.

Eureka! A perfect name and it honors a muchly maligned ancestor, bringing her to celebrity status. With the publishing of Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang, Phoebe Clappsaddle for Sheriff, and Phoebe Clappsaddle Has a Tumbleweed Christmas, I found that there are plenty of Clappsaddle cousins out there. In fact the continued research and communications with these newly met relatives reveals that there were at least two people in the branches of our family tree, with the name Phoebe Clappsaddle. One was born around 1854 and the other closer to 1825. So again, family and fun continue to be my inspiration, and of course, “what’s in a name”–sometimes treasure!

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

I started the idea of Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang on November 20, 1991 (I keep a journal, and start almost every story in long hand.) It sat in my journal with little editing for several years. Then in 1995 I decided it needed to be polished and seen by editors.

I had it critiqued at conferences and sent it to about four different houses but aside from a few nice compliments–no takers.

Then I met my agent. She took it on, took me on, and the manuscript sold within a year. It took eight years to sell but I truly think it was another case of right time, right place, right editor, right manuscript. Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang (Pelican, 2002).

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

Bringing Phoebe to life and then making it a series were really the challenges of anyone educated in a science field who suddenly decides that they should have been a children’s writer. This book was my first published book so it was a longer start while I “scientifically” analyzed my writing and submitting (with an occasional snarfing of a full bag of Cheetos after a particularly non-informative rejection letter).

I had to re-educate myself to the protocols and professional methods of the children’s literature field. I stubbed my toe along this path, many times, but learned something from each bruise and scrape. And the people I met on this way are some of the dearest friends I have ever known.

Not every children’s author or illustrator is willing to give of themselves and share their knowledge, but many are. Mary Dodson Wade gets full credit for opening my eyes to this. For when I was still trying to be “super mom” and the elementary school PTO’s Author Day coordinator, I met Mary, and discussed my aspirations with her. She didn’t hesitate a blink. She whipped out a flyer for the SCBWI and told me about the next local conference and instructed me–in no uncertain terms–that I should get myself to that conference. Boy, was she right, and I love her for it. Within a few years I was not only published but working on more books, getting more contracts, and meeting the playmates I never met when I was young.

Now at twelve books (and two in the pipeline), the challenges are still there but are now the familiar ones–stay focused, follow professional methods, and write, write, write.

Cynsational Links

Martha Stewart? No, Paul Meisel! from Don Tate’s blog. Brief interview with the illustrator who worked with the “winning” team on a recent episode of “The Apprentice.”

Michelle Meadows: official site from the author of The Way The Storm Stops, illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger (Henry Holt, 2003) and Pilot Pups (Simon & Schuster, TBA).

Religion is the new (YA) black by Donna Freitas, Religion BookLine, from Publisher’s Weekly.

Author Interview: L.D. Harkrader on Airball: My Life In Briefs

Airball: My Life In Briefs by L.D. Harkrader (Roaring Brook, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Kirby Nickel loves basketball. He loves watching basketball. He loves talking about basketball. The only problem is he can’t play basketball. But coach has a plan for Kirby and the supremely untalented seventh-grade team. It involves the guys playing nearly naked — only in their briefs. Maybe the so-called Stealth Sportswear (think: The Emperor’s New Clothes) will really inspire the team. Maybe. And maybe, just maybe, Kirby will find out who his real father is.” Ages 8-12.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I had written a short story called “Rudy and the Prince” for Meadowbrook’s anthology, Newfangled Fairy Tales, and was playing with ideas for other fractured fairy tales. I love fractured fairy tales, probably because most real fairy tales never made much sense to me. (I always thought people long ago in fairy tale times must not have been very bright. I mean really, who’s stupid enough to mistake a wolf in a nightie for her own grandmother?) But I always liked “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and I kept thinking, what if this story were updated to a modern middle school? What would be important enough to keep people there from speaking the truth? And who would be the brave soul who finally told the emperor he was naked?

That’s how Kirby and his basketball team–the seventh-grade Stuckey Prairie Dogs–were born. The first drafts were much more like “The Emperor’s New Clothes” than the final book turned out to be, right down to the two con men who come to town selling invisible sportswear. Fortunately my brilliant editor, Deborah Brodie, pointed out that Airball had evolved beyond the initial ispiration and that much of the scaffolding holding up that original story wasn’t needed any more. So I let go of the fairy tale during my revision and I think the book is stronger because of it.

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

Oh, gosh, it took a long time to write Airball. I started the story in 1998 and finished the first complete draft at the end of 2003. I revised it on spec and sold it to Roaring Brook in 2004, and it was published in September 2005. Seven years total. In my defense, I was also writing other things during that time–three ghostwritten series novels, seven nonfiction reference books, and many short stories and articles–so, while I admit to a certain amount of sloth, I’m not quite as lazy as I sound!

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

I knew I was walking a fine line between a contemporary realistic story and complete fantasy, and I worried that my story wasn’t enough of either to keep it believable. A couple times I almost talked myself into just burning it and starting a new, easier story (as if there’s such a thing as an easy story). But I loved Kirby and my other characters so much that I couldn’t give up on them. I was lucky that my editor saw enough in them to love, too, and was willing to help me hammer the story into a more believable shape.

Why do you think books set in the midwest are so rare? Off the top of my head, I can think of fewer than ten with contemporary, Kansas settings. What can we do to encourage more heartland literature?

I’m so glad you asked this because it’s something I thought about a lot as I was writing Airball. I prefer stories that have a concrete setting, rather than ones that take place in Generic Anywhere, USA, so I specifically put Kirby in Kansas. I did wonder whether that was such a great idea. I mean, there are libraries full of books set in the south, or in the northeast, or just in Manhattan (Manhattan, New York, not Manhattan, Kansas, because yes, there is such a place!), but nobody sets books in Kansas unless they’re historical. And I wondered if all those other writers knew something I didn’t. But since I’d lived almost my entire life in Kansas and didn’t know any place else even half as well, I had no choice.

I think one of the reasons people don’t set books in Kansas, or in other Great Plains states, is the perception that it’s boring here. That nothing about it stands out. And I admit that I’m guilty of thinking that, too. But people in the heartland really do have a character all their own that’s different from that of people in the south or the northeast or New York or Boston or California or Texas. So that’s what I focused on–the way the setting shapes the characters. I think Kirby’s grandmother is the character in Airball who best personifies the character of the people in this part of the country. She has her quirks and obsessions, but beneath those lie a bedrock of common sense, practicality, and hard work.

So maybe that’s the key to encouraging more literature set in the middle of the country: Help writers look beyond the physical elements of setting, such as mountains, oceans, islands, or cosmopolitan city-scapes (all of which are in short supply here in the heartland), and see it as the way the physical place shapes character. Viewed in that way, I think the setting here is as rich as it is anywhere.

Cynsational News & Links

Laura Bowers: Writing Without The Reins: a LiveJournal from the author of an upcoming YA novel, Beauty Shop for Rent (Harcourt, 2007).

“100 Best of the Best for the 21st century” from YALSA. Number I’ve read: 47. Of those, number I would’ve picked, too: 40.

Author Interview: Heather Vogel Frederick on Spy Mice

Spy Mice: The Black Paw by Heather Vogel Frederick, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport (Simon & Schuster, 2005). From the catalog copy: ” At the Spy Museum, creatures of all sizes are stirring twenty-four hours a day. Join skateboarding Private Eye Glory Mouse and double-o-detective a.k.a. Oz Levinson in an undercover tail. It’s mice vs. rats. Kids vs. bullies. Good vs. evil. And all the power lies in one paw.” Ages 9-up. Read an excerpt. See also Spy Mice: For Your Paws Only (Simon & Schuster, 2005).

What was your inspiration for creating this series?

Would you believe leather pants?

I’m serious! I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which was the heydey of “Spy-Fi” TV. I spent most of my childhood either with my nose in a book or glued to such shows as “Mission: Impossible,” “Get Smart,” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” And then of course there were all the James Bond movies.

The gadgets, the intrigue, the glamour – I was completely hooked. I wanted desperately to be a spy when I grew up (instead I became the next best thing: a writer). I wanted to be Agent 99, Maxwell Smart’s sidekick. I wanted to be the girl from U.N.C.L.E. More than anything, though, I wanted to be Emma Peel of “The Avengers.” She was beautiful, she was brainy, and best of all, she wore extremely cool black leather pants in which she kicked some serious spy butt. All of which geeky preteen suburban me was not and didn’t!

Technically, my sisters and I weren’t allowed to watch the show because my mother deemed those leather pants far too racy for her impressionable daughters. I managed to sneak and watch it anyway, though, which was fortunate because those pants obviously made an indelible impression. Here I am, many decades later, writing espionage fiction for children.

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

The initial spark for the series was a news item I read a few years ago that mentioned a new museum being built in Washington, D. C. – The International Spy Museum. Bingo! Lightbulb moment. I instantly knew I had to set a book there, a la From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

I ran the idea by my agent, Barry Goldblatt, who was instantly as enthusiastic as I was, despite the fact that I had no plot, no characters at this point, just a setting. The idea incubated for several months, and then the words “Spy Mice” floated into thought one day, and that was that. I was off and running.

I am most fortunate in having a brilliant and amazingly supportive editor, Alyssa Eisner at Simon & Schuster. She was as crazy about the idea as I was, and thanks to her efforts, the first book (“The Black Paw”) sold pretty much on the strength of the title alone.

They requested a quick turnaround for it, though – six months – which was a bit daunting. The books I had written prior to this were research-intensive historical fiction. The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed and its sequel, The Education of Patience Goodspeed both take place on a whaling ship during Victorian times, with settings ranging from Nantucket to Maui, and each took over a year to write.

Spy Mice was a completely different ballgame. I didn’t have that kind of luxury in terms of time. But I soon discovered that aside from “location scouting” – visiting the story’s setting to get the details just right – and brushing up on some espionage terminology, the research was minimal. Mostly it was just me and my imagination. So that helped streamline the process.

Location scouting took me to Washington in the fall of 2003, where I spent a week exploring the Spy Museum and the city. It was a memorable trip – I got stranded there during Hurricane Isabelle! For the second book (“For Your Paws Only”), I brought my husband and our teenage sons along to New York City. We spent last Thanksgiving in Times Square, researching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. As they say, a tough job, but someone has to do it… This whole thing has just been a blast, and quite surreal for someone whose travels up until now have mostly consisted of camping. Christmas found us in London, which will be the setting for the third book (“Goldwhiskers”). I just finished writing it, and it’s slated for a Summer 2006 release.

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

Cyn, this whole project has been such fun from the very first moment that I hardly dare call anything a “challenge.” Mostly I just sit at my desk, or in my armchair where I write, and laugh!

Aside from having to pick up my writing pace, there were two hurdles worth noting, however. First, as I mentioned before, was finding a plot. I had the setting, I had the title, but what the heck was going to happen? To be honest, I never plot my stories ahead of time. I just sit down to work each day and tell myself a story. Keeps me interested! I do make notes of things I think might be fun to have happen, but I think it’s fair to say that my books are largely character-driven. For me, the writing process is a very organic one. I noodle around, and as the characters come into focus, so does the plot. And that’s what happened here. There’s an old story about a boy from the Carolinas who was an extraordinary woodcarver. He was especially adept at carving dogs. When asked once what his secret was, he shrugged and said, “I just whittle away all the bits that don’t look like dog.” I think that’s what I do as a writer – I have an overall impression of what the story should be, and I just keep whittling away at it until it emerges.

The other hurdle was switching gears from the voice I had adopted for the Patience Goodspeed books – that of a young Victorian lady – to the sharper, snappier present-day personas of fifth-grade loser Oz Levinson and secret agent mouse Morning Glory Goldenleaf. Oh, and the Spy Mice Agency’s arch-enemy, of course, megalomani-rat Roquefort Dupont. The books alternate story lines and POV’s between that of humans, mice, and rats.

Additionally, there was a brief, initial struggle in giving myself permission to just cut loose. You know – how wild and improbable can I get here? How many inside jokes can I shoehorn in for my own amusement, and that of parents and other adult readers? How much fun can one writer have? (Answer: A lot!) I’ve spent some time reviewing the Bond movies and ‘60s TV shows that I loved as a kid, and was struck by how delightfully far-fetched many of their plots and gags were. (Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone comes to mind here.) By the way, I recently discovered that the “Get Smart” series was co-produced by Mel Brooks. No wonder it was such an inspired spoof, for pete’s sake! I see the Spy Mice books as a bit of an homage to all of this – 007, the Spy-Fi shows I watched growing up, my own clandestine childhood ambition to be a secret agent, an ambition that Oz, my main human character, shares.

In the end, none of this was necessarily easy – writing is never easy – but the process was and continues to be truly a delight. I think most writers would agree that there are some stories we struggle with, and some that are gifts. Spy Mice has been a gift.

What kind of reception has the series received?

It’s early days, of course, what with the second book debuting just this week (October 1st). But the response has been most gratifying. Loads of enthusiasm from readers and booksellers, and a number of lovely reviews.

The first two titles were auctioned to Puffin in Britain ( UK has the British book jacket for “The Black Paw” up already, if you want to take a peek). Germany and Italy are also on board, and there’s interest from other countries as well, along with some nibbles from the film industry. It’s all very exciting. And to think it started with a pair of leather pants!

Cynsational Notes

Getting to Know Heather Vogel Frederick by Barb Odanaka from SCBWI.

Cynsational News & Links

Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes by author/editor Marc Aronson from The Horn Book, May/June 2000. “A critique of identity-based awards, such as the Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpre Awards.”

Awards that Stand on Solid Ground by author/editor Andrea Davis Pinkney from The Horn Book, May/June 2001. A response to Marc’s article immediately above.

Author Interview: Varsha Bajaj on How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight?

How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? by Varsha Bajaj, illustrated by Ivan Bates (Little Brown, 2004). From the catalog copy: “As the day comes to an end, each precious little animal nestles into its cozy place and waits to be tucked in by its parent. Bears, horses, bunnies, ducks and even snakes request the required number of goodnight kisses to get them to drift off to sleep. From one to ten (and then some!) these tender kisses are part of a reassuring bedtime ritual for animals and people alike.” Ages 4-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

My inspiration was a bedtime ritual I began with my son, when he started counting way back in 1996. Being a children’s writer was not even a gleam in my eye then. I would ask him how many kisses he wanted, and it would lead to much kissing, counting, and laughter. My daughter was born in 1997. We had another player in our bedtime game!

In 1999, I was trying to finish a doctoral thesis on “The Ethical decision making process” as it applied to counselors (A 10 on the exact, dry and boring scale). I found myself doodling and scribbling about hugs and kisses and bedtime instead. I decided to give in and learn about writing for children.

I also remember nights when I was bone tired and just wanted to get through bedtime. The words of Goodnight Moon or Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You would lift my fatigue and make bedtime special.

I wanted to create a bedtime book that was warm and sweet and reeked of unconditional love! Not easy, given that I have a dark side prone to depressive thoughts!

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

I wrote the first draft in 2000. I made the decision that I wanted the book to have a universal appeal. Animals are ultimately “multicultural.”

I wanted a succession of animal parents to ask the question, “How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight?” of their children. Most of the animals chose themselves; they sat in my daughter’s stuffed animal hammock! My son, by this time was six. I threw in the spider and the snake to satisfy his boyish fascination with all things icky! He was also developing a sense of humor and would ask for an impossible number of kisses on the occasional night! It gave me the idea for the twist in the end, with the girl and boy asking for hundred and million kisses each. The story ends with the question being posed to the reader. I wanted to ensure that the reader joined in the fun! The first draft had only Mom animals posing the question. Rajeev (my husband) was offended. The second draft had Moms and Dads!

After many revisions, and invaluable help, and encouragement from a very patient critique group, I had a completed manuscript in 2001. There I was an unpublished, unagented writer with a manuscript! Most publishing houses were closed to me! Houston SCBWI hosted Editor’s Day in February 2001. Editors from closed houses, including Little Brown, agreed to accept one manuscript each from attending writers. It was my golden ticket! That day two out of five editors talked about how difficult it was to sell a bedtime story and five out of five editors cautioned against writing in rhyme. I was depressed! I came home and binged on shrimp curry and rice (my ultimate comfort food).

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

Mary Gruetzke from Little Brown & Co. called in Sept 2001 and offered to buy my manuscript! I was an Editor’s Day success story! The publication date was April 2004.

I understand now why editors and seasoned writers caution against writing in rhyme. It is incredibly difficult. Mary, my editor was patient yet demanding in her quest for getting the rhythm and rhyme as perfect as possible. My nightmares rhymed! I often wonder if I would have chosen rhyme had I been more aware, but then Ignorance is bliss. The opening lines wrote themselves, and I just followed their lead.

My biggest psychological challenge was separating from the characters I created. Ivan’s (Ivan Bates) fabulous illustrations made me fall in love with them all over again. I wondered what each animal would do after they woke up the next morning, what would they “feel” like doing that day? Unfortunately, the manuscript didn’t sell! The rejection forced me to move on!

Cynsational Notes

Awards for “How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight?” include: Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award (2004); NAPPA (National Association of Parenting Publications) Gold Award, 2004-2005; Texas Library Association’s 2×2 list 2004-2005; Finalist, Texas Institute of Letters, Austin Public Library Award. Congratulations, Varsha!

Editor Mary E. Gruetzke, formerly of Little Brown, left Scholastic for Walker this month. Her title is “senior editor.” Source: The Purple Crayon.

Cynsational News & Links

Apologies for any recent code glitches. In particular, the interviews are loaded in with coding from other programs, and sometimes, my clean-up efforts go better than others.

“My Washington D.C. Adventure” from author Linda Sue Park on the National Book Festival.

Six Simple Ways to Make the Most Out of Any Writing Workshop or Writing Class by Suzanne Lieurance from Ezine Articles.

Writing Backward: Modern Models in Historical Fiction by Anne Scott MacLeod, “professor at the University of Maryland and the author of American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (University of Georgia Press),” from The Horn Book, January/February 1998.

Author Interview: Kelly Milner Halls on Wild Dogs: Past & Present

Wild Dogs: Past & Present by Kelly Milner Halls (Darby Creek, 2005). An extraordinary look from the ancient miacids (ancestors of cats and dogs) to the family poodle with an focus on the Canidae family. Readers are drawn into the world of the wolf, fox, dingo, and jackal. A feast for the eyes and mind. Ages 7-up. A Junior Library Guild selection.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Oddly enough, my editor Tanya Dean had to slam on her breaks driving to work in Ohio one day because a wild dogy — a coyote she thought — ran across her path. She called me and said, “I think we should do a book about wild dogs.”

She’s a dog lover. I’m an animal lover, dogs and cats (and yes, Wild Cats is in the works). So we decided I’d slip on the writer shoes. That was the inspiration.

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

This one was very interesting because in a sense, the topic is VERY broad. It’s not like dogs that don’t bark or dogs too small to survive in the wild. It’s just wild dogs, and that’s a global proposition. Couple that with the fact that it was Tanya’s vision first, and there is degree of challenge to master. How do you carve such a broad topic down to children’s book size? And how do two people sync their visions? The two made this book take a little longer than the other two I’ve done with Tanya (Dinosaur Mummies and Albino Animals). But it wasn’t so long, even with that factored in. I think it was a seven month gestation, spark to final revision.

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

Ooops, I guess I kind of answered this above. Deciding what NOT to include was the biggest challenge. And that comes from another challenge of nonfiction — how much research is too much? How much is not quite enough? That balance is difficult in children’s books, especially for me, because I think they deserve as good as adults get. Another challenge, anytime you write nonfiction is the impossible task of pleasing everyone.

Pick one zoologist’s theory to spotlight or endorse, and his arch enemy will call your work inaccurate. And from his point of view, he’s right. When it comes to science, that’s a tough pill to swallow. No matter how hard you try to be factual, some expert may take issue, if he or she disagrees. But you do the best you can do. In that case, I admit I’m a journalist reporting on a topic, not an expert. And they can always write a book of their own if they feel strongly enough about their cause.

But when I hear from experts with opposing viewpoints, I do try to find some forum to research and write about their ideas too, whenever possible. It seems only fair.

Though the ALA’s Sibert Medal is an important step forward, I worry that children’s non-fiction doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. Am I right to be concerned? If so, what are the challenges, and what can we do to help?

You are absolutely right. And here’s the irony. It’s not the KIDS who ignore it. It’s the adults. Kids LOVE nonfiction, if it’s written with kids in mind — sparky rather than textbook driven. But I think many adults think the only valuable stories to consider are fiction. They miss a world of possibility when they speed walk past nonfiction. From Grossology to Wild Dogs, there is a lot of magic between those nonfiction pages. I hope someday the collective mindset shifts.

A lot of authors are promoting banned book week, but you have a big logo on the front page of your site and several pages dedicated to fighting censorship. Could you tell us more about your passion for free speech and youth literature?

When I was in high school, I was on the staff of the school newspaper. The editor was my best friend. He wrote a story about a Vietnam veteran and used a direct quote that included a tough, culturally unpleasant slang term. But it was the guys quote. And it was crucial to the feature. Our principal censored the story…cut the quote. And it didn’t even make sense without it.

We were enraged. We were being schooled in journalism, the importance of a free American press. And they censor us. So we called the ACLU and they agreed to take the case. We were set to go as far as we had to for the cause. But when the principal threatened to disband the journalism program, rather than face a lawsuit, we had a tough choice to make.

Do we win on principle and lose the paper? Or do we protect the paper for classes yet to come, and pie the principal on graduation day? We opted for the pie — $25 bought a senior from a rival school who sort of force fed our principal banana cream on the quad. It was AWESOME.

I learned a valuable lesson about the reality of censorship that year, and it stayed with me. That same sense of urgency and principle re-immerged when I discovered young adult literature and the propensity for its being challenged and banned. Except this time, I could fight a little harder. And this time, the pie option didn’t apply — at least not so far.

In addition to writing your own books, you’re also a journalist who frequently covers children’s/YA literature. What inspires you to spread the word about other authors’ work? What do you learn from them?

Man, the brilliance of story inspires me to write about other authors. The fact that we as an industry are so underappreciated doesn’t hurt. I grew up feeling not quite good enough, so there is an ache in watching OUR books slip into that same secondary ranking. I like the idea of trying to help boost it up. I like the idea of demanding our place — of insisting we really DO belong.

What have I learned? Countless things…the most important being relativity. Reviews suggest that some books are good and some are bad. But every book is good to the one kid who falls in love with it, for reasons that will always be expressly his or her own. I love that very private relationship, one kid with one author, every page of the book. I have learned that THEY have the only opinions that really matter, and I have learned that by interviewing authors. They are as different as fall and spring, these authors, and that’s just how it should be. That way every kid has a chance to fall in love with a book no one else would understand. Diversity makes the world a better, richer place — in every element of life.

Cynsational Notes

While an all-around dog fan, I have a particular affection for wolves. My office actually features a photograph of a gray wolf and a painting of a howling wolf by Donald Vann. I enjoyed pouring through Wild Dogs and intend to keep it handy as a research reference.

Cynsational News & Links

“Endings that Excite: How to Make Your Readers Keep Reading” by Loretta Acosta Russell, in the Story Plot section of Writing Tips from the Institute of Children’s Literature. See also “The Power of Books Upon Kids:” a guest chat with Uri Shulevitz from ICL.

Short Talk with a Prospective Children’s Writer by author Astrid Lindgren of Pippi Longstocking fame from The Horn Book, June 1973.

Author Interview: Kelly Bennett on Not Norman

Not Norman (A Goldfish Story) by Kelly Bennett, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones (Candlewick, 2005). From the catalog copy: “‘Don’t think that just because you made me laugh, I’m going to keep you,’ I tell him. ‘Tomorrow, you’re outta here.’ Norman the goldfish isn’t what this little boy had in mind. He wanted a different kind of pet–one that could run and catch, or chase string and climb trees, a soft furry pet to sleep on his bed at night. Definitely not Norman. But when he tries to trade Norman for a ‘good pet,’ things don’t go as he planned. Could it be that Norman is a better pet than he thought?” Ages 4-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Did you ever receive a gift that you didn’t want? Well I have, although I’ll never tell who gave it to me…(Hi, Mom!)

It’s really tough because you appreciate the gift and the thought behind it, so you try to like it. Well, I thought to myself, what if the gift was something you couldn’t just hide in the back of your closet and forget? Like those not-even-close-to-the-right-brand jeans I was given for my fifteenth birthday.

What if that gift was alive? So I set about writing a story about a boy who received a pet he didn’t want. For the story to work, my character had to be unable to interact with this pet in any physical way. I eliminated every pet my character could pet, sleep with, exercise, tease or play with. That meant no dogs, cats, lizards, snakes, rodents or bugs.

What was left? Fish! Which was perfect because I love fish. Fish are funny, loveable and fun in spite of the fact that you can’t really play with them. Just watching fish make me laugh, however, the moment I try to touch my fish they scatter. And if you want to feel unwanted, try swimming with your pet goldfish–they’ll hide for hours after. The perfect pet for Not Norman.

Do I have a goldfish named Norman? Of course. He was named after my cat. In fact, I bought my first goldfish just to tease my cat. That Norman the goldfish lived in a glass percolator on top of my stove. He’d swim around and around and around the glass percolator stem and I’d watch and laugh. One day I came home and my cat was laying on top of the stove with his arm draped around my goldfish’s coffee pot–that’s when I decided needed a new home. So my son Max and I created a fish pond in our back yard. Max dug the pond. I built the waterfall and filter system. And about two weeks later Norman the Goldfish had a new home. Ever since then, I have had a goldfish pond. I have one now in my home in Jakarta.

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

The idea for Not Norman first met paper on February 16, 1999. Back then it was a very different story with a completely different title. It was much more of a list-book, and the pet was the main character. Then, thanks to an editor who took the time to write a person note on my rejection letter–one that pushed my buttons and made me mad enough to try something else, Not Norman: A Goldfish Story was born.

The manuscript went through went through three stages of revisions with my agent, Erin Murphy, before we felt it was ready to send out. As luck would have it, at an SCBWI Conference my editor Sarah Ketchersid of Candlewick Press mentioned that she loved goldfish. My agent, Erin, happened to be at that conference and the rest is history.

I need to mention that Sarah isn’t just my editor, she’s Not Norman’s birthing coach. Along with my critique buds who urged me on every step of the way, Sarah coaxed, coerced, encouraged this final manuscript into being. I have five complete revisions of the story in my file as well as a good handful of e-mail notes about tiny changes. Thank heavens Sarah loves goldfish, too. Hers is named Lucky–we know who the lucky one really is!

Sarah called with an offer to buy Not Norman on April Fool’s Day 2003. I was driving in my car when Erin reached me. I jerked the car off the side of the road and made Erin swear it wasn’t some kind of sick joke.

Even after it Not Norman was purchased the manuscript went through some revisions–minor tweaks. Then it was time to choose an illustrator. I had one request. I wanted the main character to be brown-skinned. I didn’t specify an ethnic group, but I did want him to have dark eyes, dark hair and dark skin–like most of the world!

This is Noah Z. Jones’ first book. Sarah had seen his art and thought Noah’s style was perfect for the book. One of his first sample illustrations was a version of the cover illustration–a boy looking through the fishbowl, and the goldfish is where his nose and mouth should be. I loved it! I still do. And boy does Noah work fast! Thanks to his speedy, perfect, fun illustrations the art was ready in record time and the picture book was released in less than two years–a record for a picture book!

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

I’d love to pretend there was some research or deep soul searching that went in to Not Norman, but honestly, my inner self isn’t much older than eight, so it’s not difficult for me to think and act like a child–my family says I do it all the time! But it was hard figuring out how the main character was going to learn to love Norman. After all, when someone really wants a cat or dog, it’s tough to settle for a fish.

At one point I had the main character treating Norman like a stuffed animal and taking him everywhere. In one scene, I had him climbing a tree with the fishbowl slung over his shoulder and Norman sloshing around all googly-eyed. I thought it was funny. But it didn’t fit, so I had to cut it.

That’s the toughest part of writing picture books, unlike longer fiction, you can’t have any extra scenes. You can’t include something for a laugh or other effect. Every word has to move the story forward. As anyone who knows me will tell you I am wordy, so it is hard for me to keep it short. I spent loads of time cutting words, words, words. It’s hard for me to take out phrases I think are “wonderful.” Those cuts really hurt–and the first cut was the deepest…

Writing in first person present tense isn’t usual for a picture book, either. It feels right for me, very much the voice I use when chatting with friends, and that’s what I wanted this book to read like, a kid telling a story to a friend. Still, it took some extra work to keep the story reading smoothly.

One last little challenge, not for me, but for everyone else: In the book, the main character doesn’t have a name. Since he’s the one telling the story, it wasn’t hard to write the book that way, but it poses difficulties for folks writing the jacket and catalogue copy and for reviewers–they don’t know what to call the boy in the book. I do, but I’m not telling!

Cynsational Note

Not Norman, A Goldfish Story is a 2006 Oppenheimer Toy Award Gold Medal Award Book.

Cynsational Links

Kidding Around: Follow these tips for weaving the various types of humor into your children’s stories by Kathryn Lay, author of Crown Me! (Holiday House, 2004), from

Kimberly’s Wanderings: Thoughts, Musings, Inner Angst, Favorite Things and the Crazy Life of Author Kimberley Griffiths Little: new blog from the author of The Last Snake Runner (Knopf, 2002); Enchanted Runner (Camelot, 1999); and Breakaway (HarperTrophy, 1998).

Where Ideas Really Come From by author Tim Wynne-Jones from The Horn Book, September/October 2002.

Jerusalem Sky: Stars, Crosses, and Crescents by Mark Podwal

Jerusalem Sky: Stars, Crosses, and Crescents by Mark Podwal (Doubleday, 2005). Celebrating faith and the city itself, poetic prose and vivid paintings evoke peace and hope. Respectful and inclusive, the author/illustrator acknowledges that “no place has been fought over more” and suggests, “[p]erhaps possessing Jerusalem is like trying to own the sky.” Yet the upraised prayers to one God suggest a belief in a brighter future. A miraculous book that more than meets its great challenge of expressing both the sacred and humanity’s potential. Ages 4-up.

More on Jerusalem Sky

It’s not every book that’s blurbed by Elie Wiesel and Maurice Sendak.

An excellent choice for Christian, Jewish, and Muslim families as well as religous studies classes and multicultural collections, not mention anyone (and isn’t that everyone?) who’s in some way affected by the history of Jerusalem.

Cynsational News & Links

Against Borders by noted Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman (The Horn Book, March/April 1995).

Age is an Asset by Pamela Mingle from the Rocky Mountain chapter of SCBWI.

Banned Books Week is September 24 to October 1. 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990 to 2000 from the ALA. See also Top Ten List of Most Frequently Challenged Books, also from the ALA.

Author Interview: Kathy Whitehead on Looking For Uncle Louie On The Fourth Of July

Looking For Uncle Louie On The Fourth Of July by Kathy Whitehead, illustrated by Pablo Torrecilla (Boyds Mills Press, 2005). Joe and his parents are among those at the parade celebrating the Fourth of July. It’s a wonderful, patriotic celebration, but where is Uncle Louie? And what would it be like to be part of the parade instead of just watching from the sidelines? Whitehead’s tribute to Independence Day has a strong Texas twist, brought to life in Torrecilla’s vivid illustrations. Ages 4-up. Read more of my thoughts on Looking For Uncle Louie On The Fourth Of July.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Looking for Uncle Louie on the Fourth of July was a 4th of July parade in Corpus Christi, TX in 1986. It was my son’s first 4th of July. I thought the lowriders were fascinating and would be great in a children’s book.

Personalizing a mass-produced vehicle through the elements of color and movement seems like such an American expression of individual freedom to me – perfect for the 4th of July!

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

Although I got the idea for the book in 1986, I didn’t write my story until 2001. I finished it in the fall of that year and sent it off to an editor I had seen at a conference, but was rejected with a form letter. I believed in my story though, so I promptly sent it out again, this time to Kent Brown at Boyds Mills Press. I had met him at an SCBWI conference that fall. My manuscript was accepted in February, 2002. They did a wonderful job of finding the right illustrator, Pablo Torrecilla, and the book’s publication date was April, 2005.

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

I started writing for children in the fall of 1989 when I took a community ed course on writing. The years that I’d spent teaching fourth grade led me to focusing my writing on middle grade novels. My daughter was born in 1988 so my writing time was limited.

Ideas for picture books surfaced through those years, but I resisted starting them. I was afraid of having a lot started but nothing completed. I filed the ideas away and finally came to a point when I felt I could turn my attention to the picture book format.

Parades I had attended in College Station always included lowriders so the idea had remained fresh in my mind. I researched lowrider magazines during the actual writing of my story to add concrete details to it. Adding Joe, my main character, and “Uncle Louie” to the 4th of July parade of lowriders seemed natural to me since I associate the 4th of July with family celebrations. Family and freedom seem to be two of our most basic needs – both are cause for celebration!

I think studying novel writing through the years, as I worked on middle grade manuscripts, helped prepare me for writing a picture book. The same elements are necessary in order to create a story children will enjoy over and over. The turning points are just more subtle sometimes.

Cynsational News & Links

An Exchange With An Agent: featuring Linda Pratt, a literary agent at Sheldon Fogelman Agency from Don Tate.

Meet the Author: Steven L. Layne from CBC Magazine. Condensed from the bio: Steven L. Layne serves as a professor of literature and education at Judson College in Elgin, IL. His books include This Side of Paradise (Pelican, 2002) and The Teachers’ Night Before Christmas (Pelican, 2001). Steve lives in St. Charles, Illinois.

Author Interview: Dorian Cirrone on Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You

Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You by Dorian Cirrone (HarperCollins, 2005). Kayla is one of the strongest dancers at her performing arts school, but there’s just one problem. Or, well, two. Kayla’s busty–in a double D/needs-to-wear-three-bras kind of way–and the world of ballet has a very specific body type preference. Will she get surgery? Push back against societal expectations? Find relief in the company of the cute new guy or find out that he’s really somehow sinister? Ages 12-up. See more of my thoughts on Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

The original inspiration came all the way back in the seventies when I studied and taught dance with a friend who had trained at American Ballet Theater. Following puberty, she was told by her teachers that she would never be a ballerina because of her large breasts. She went to Las Vegas and danced for a while, but eventually had breast reduction surgery and became a ballerina. I always thought it was an interesting anecdote, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it into something more.

Years later (actually decades), I read an article in our local newspaper about a teen who was told she couldn’t display her art project at school because it showed a man’s penis – even though female nudes were approved for display. I had been studying a lot of feminist theory in graduate school, and it occurred to me that these two stories could be woven together to say something about the cultural construction of gender and how we literally and figuratively view male and female bodies. I wanted to raise questions, rather than answer them, which is why there’s sort of a tug of war of opinion between the two sisters in the book. I left the ending somewhat open regarding Kayla’s decision so readers could debate the issue.

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

In between my original inspiration and then finally figuring out a way to tell the story, I worked as a journalist, went to graduate school, taught college writing, had two children, and wrote copious amounts of practice work.

In the early nineties, I met my mentor, Joyce Sweeney. That was a major event for me in that I not only began to take fiction writing more seriously, but I was also able to hone my craft in her weekly writing workshop.

I wrote the first chapter of the novel about seven years before it was actually published. I put it aside for several years, not quite knowing where I was going with it. When I came across the line, “Dancing in red shoes will kill you” while researching an ill-fated doctoral dissertation, everything fell together. I wrote the first five chapters over a period of about nine months, and then I learned about an agent looking for new clients. I sent him some other manuscripts and the first five chapters of the novel. He liked some of the other stuff, but he loved the novel and took me on as a client. I wrote the rest in about four months and he sold it in six weeks. It was published by HarperCollins a little over two years later.

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

My first challenge was to thematically weave together the three plot lines (Kayla’s decision, Paterson’s censorship issue, and the mystery of who was leaving the red shoes around school).

The fairy tale motif provided me a solution to that problem. My second and biggest challenge involved making sure that the novel could be read on many levels. I knew I wanted to write it in a humorous way, but I also wanted a depth that readers who were familiar with various critical and feminist theories could also appreciate.

The fairy tales had to work within the plot as well as the subtext, which demonstrates the many ways dominant discourses influence us without our knowing. For example, the fairy tale The Red Shoes is meant to be a cautionary tale against pride and ego. But as Atwood notes in the poem mentioned in the novel, it is really a subversive story designed to curtail the freedom of girls and women.

In addition, Kayla’s plotline had to work on both the literal and metaphorical level. I wanted to say something about the way we seem to be unaware as a society at the way we’re constantly manipulated to change the way we look, be it fashion, make-up, or plastic surgery, how women, in particular, relinquish power so easily to the whims of Madison Avenue, the media, etc. It’s not an indictment, but rather a call to awareness. Kayla possibly might have the surgery one day, but it should be her own decision.

In addition, I wanted to touch on Peter Berger’s notion that women through the ages have been depicted differently in art because the “ideal” spectator was always assumed to be male and the image of the woman was designed to flatter him. Creating a balance between telling a funny story, and also layering it with serious undertones was my greatest challenge.

Cynsational Notes

Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You is a BBYA nominee, a Quick Picks nominee, and a Teens Top Ten nominee. Dorian’s next book will be Lindy Blues and the Missing Silver Dollar (Marshall Cavendish, spring 2006).

Other recent YA interview highlights: Holly Black; Joseph Bruchac; Lori M. Carlson; Cecil Castellucci; Alex Flinn; Nancy Garden; D.L. Garfinkle; K.L. Going; Rosemary Graham; Louise Hawes; Jennifer Richard Jacobson; Ron Koertge; David Lubar; R. A. Nelson; Julie Anne Peters; Mary E. Pearson; Lara M. Zeises.

Cynsational Link

Narrative and Violence by Jennifer Armstrong (author)(The Horn Book, March/April 2003). “The value of literature in dangerous times.”

Golden Spur Award Nominees Announced

The Texas State Reading Association has announced nominees for the Golden Spur award in the children’s literature (K-3) and intermediate divisions. The nominees are:

Children’s Literature: Ima and the Great Texas Ostrich Race by Margaret McManis of Angleton (Eakin Press, 2002); Bats Around the Clock by Kathi Appelt of College Station (HarperCollins, 2000); The Cotton Candy Catastrophe at the Texas State Fair by Dotti Enderle of Houston (Pelican, 2005), Finding Daddy – A Story of the Great Depression by Jo & Josephine Harper (scroll) of Houston (Turtle Books, 2005); Isabel and the Hungry Coyote by Keith Polette (scroll) of El Paso (Raven Tree Press, 2004); Way Up High in a Tall Green Tree by Jan Peck of Fort Worth (Simon & Schuster, 2005); Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang by Melanie Chrismer of Houston (Pelican, 2004).

Intermediate Nominees: Angel of the Alamo – A True Story of Texas by Lisa Waller Rogers of Austin (Eakin Press, 2000); Lorenzo’s Secret Mission by Lila and Rick Guzman of Round Rock (Arte Publico Press, 2001); Katherine Stinson – The Flying Schoolgirl by Debra Winegarten of Houston (Eakin Press, 2000); Tofu and T. Rex by Greg Leitich Smith of Austin (Little Brown, 2005), Crown Me! by Kathryn Lay of Arlington (Holiday House, 2004).

Cynsational News & Links

Texas Authors’ Newest Endeavors are Child’s Play by Glen Drumgoole from The Bryan-College Station Eagle. Features The Alley Cat’s Meow by Kathi Appelt (Harcourt, 2002), a nominee for Bats Around The Clock, as well as two nominated books, Phoebe Clappsaddle and the Tumbleweed Gang by Melanie Chrismer and Ima & the Great Texas Ostrich Race by Margaret McManis.

A Series of Fortunate Events: an Interview With Lois Gresh, author of Eyeballs, Leeches, Hypnotism and Orphans: The Truth Behind A Series Of Unfortunate Events (St. Martin’s Press, 2005) by Susan VanHecke from