Author Interview: M.T. Anderson on Whales On Stilts

Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson (Harcourt, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Lucky for Lily Gefelty, her two best friends are the stars of their own middle-grade series of novels: Jasper Dash (better known as the Boy Technonaut) and Katie Mulligan (beloved by millions as the heroine of the Horror Hollow series). It’s going to take all their smarts to stop this insane, inane plot from succeeding. This first installment of a riotous and wonderfully weird new series marks the Harcourt debut of award-winning author M. T. Anderson. With Whales on Stilts, he’s entering new territory, creating a smart, sassy, and self-aware comedy that fans of Lemony Snicket will snicker and snort over.” Read an excerpt.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Michael Stearns, then working at Harcourt, came up to Vermont College to lecture. It was the summer. The air was golden with pollen. The trees were green. I had hay-fever. We sat around and talked about how there was a particular kind of book we had read as boys in the summer: books with a sense of freedom and release. Books where there were hijinx, adventures, playfulness, and a very thin line between reality and fantasy.

Shortly after the residency finished at Vermont, I went up to a cabin in Canada to recooperate. I found myself wanting to write a book of the kind we had discussed — something that expressed pure joy in the act of creation and friendship. I wrote the book very quickly, in a burst of enthusiasm between kayaking sessions and washing the dishes in the lake (because there was, for some reason, no running water in the cabin). It provided a very welcome break in my work on a historical novel that has gone grindingly slowly and which still is not finished.

In a neat little postscript, Whales on Stilts was mentioned on NPR in a list of summer reads — in the company of many of the books which Michael and I had specifically discussed years before!

So there it is. Whales on Stilts ain’t great literature — in fact, it’s basically puerile — but I hope its puerility is its charm.

I hope.

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

As I mentioned, I wrote the book very quickly (for me) in the summer of 2002. It has just been released in the spring of 2005, three years later. Therein lies a tale not worth telling.

Actually, come to think of it, there is one portion of the process worth mentioning. I wrote the book right after hearing Marion Dane Bauer and Norma Fox Mazer talk about the traditional plot structure–which they said in its most formulaic incarnation meant, for example, a problem, a protagonist, and three attempts to solve that problem–with the problem getting more acute in each instance–and the last attempt to solve the problem being the most spectacularly successful or unsuccessful.

This is, of course, only a formula…but I liked the idea of using a die-cut, pre-fab design. After all, I had envisioned three main heroes, one of whom (Lily) was kind of the center of the novel… So it made sense, then, to give each of the heroes a chance to solve the problem of the novel, culminating in Lily’s plan to bring all of them together to finaly defeat the cetacean menace.

I always enjoy writing line-by-line–creating character and detail. What stumps me are plots. So having a pre-arranged structure to work around made writing the book much easier.

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

I spent a great deal of time in a bathyscape, of course, doing research, and taped hours of interviews with dolorous, even bitter, whale/human hybrids.

That’s right, Cynthia, no lame-ass I, for I have probably miles of reel-to-reel tape sagging half-unspooled around my little office next to my careful diagrams of mechanized stilts and a full set of flensing tools. I hope that my extensive research doesn’t show, though, but just fits in seamlessly with the story.

My neighbors complained a lot about the blubber-rendering, which, in the warmer months — it must be admitted — was accompanied by heavy smoke, sticky ichor, and something of a pinguid pong.

Better, though, than those who render fats in the Antarctic seas, who often are accompanied by a pinguid penguin pong.

Frankly, I can’t stand rendering fats in the cold of the Antarctic. That intense chill just makes me want to return to my sleigh and flee to someplace warm, like the jungles of Thailand — a pung-ward pang, or even, I suppose, a pung-ward, Ping-ward pang.

As you can see, if there are any psychological challenges to writing, I am clearly not up to them.

Cynsational Notes

Michael Stearns is now working at HarperCollins; M.T. Anderson is the former department chair of the M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College.

Cynsational News & Links

Author Profile: Norma Fox Mazer from teenreads.com. August 2000.

Excerpt: Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson from NPR. “Hear author M.T. Anderson read from Whales on Stilts.”

Life-and-death competition in an enchanted world: interview by Heidi Henneman from BookPage with M.T. Anderson about his book, The Game of Sunken Places (Scholastic).

Marion Dane Bauer: Teacher Resource File from the Internet School Library Media Center.

Author/Illustrator Interview: Jean Gralley on The Moon Came Down On Milk Street

The Moon Came Down On Milk Street by Jean Gralley (Henry Holt, 2004). The moon has come down softly, and who will put it up again? Who will make things right? The fire chief, the rescue workers, the people. This brilliantly simple book speaks to our universal need for comfort, for heroes, for hope. It’s perhaps the best “crisis” book ever published, as resonate and necessary for young readers as their grandparents. A must-buy for every school, household, and library. Ages 3-up. Highest recommendation.

What was your inspiration for The Moon Came Down on Milk Street?

Without a doubt it came September 11th, 2001. A few days later I drove through Washington D.C. to attend a regular meeting of the Children’s Book Guild. The town was still in emergency mode. The military was everywhere; everyone was shaky. One member quoted Fred Rogers, and the story idea clicked into place. It was that quick and definite.

Unlike other 9-11 books I knew this one wasn’t going to be “commemorative.” I didn’t want it to look back but look ahead, giving kids as realistic an answer as possible to the question: what if something bad happens again?

Subsequently, grown-ups have told me they’ve found it helpful for times when the news has made kids worry. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of that since September 11th. Terror alerts, natural disasters, and local emergencies closer to home have increasingly set everyone on edge. When we find it hard to talk to children about difficult situations or answer their questions, I’ve heard that Moon shows a way in.

I’m glad for that. It’s important to approach kids about things that worry them and listen to their thoughts, questions, and feelings about them.

I write and illustrate my books. This was the first one that wasn’t funny. Generally, I can’t abide “message” or “moral” books for young children and don’t think this is one. It’s just a good, simple story that can stand on its own or be a springboard for important talks with kids.

In any case, this book absolutely popped out of the head whole and begged to be brought to my editor right away.

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

The timeline was unusually short. My wonderful editor Laura Godwin (Sr. Editor and a VP at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers) loved Moon and okayed setting aside other books on the drawing table so it could be completed ASAP. I finished it in record time.

I guess a “major event” came at the end when the illustrations were done and ready to be shipped. I invited about 40 friends over for a big party to celebrate.

But while hanging the artwork in my studio the night before, I absent-mindedly stepped right off the ladder and spent the night in the emergency room. Greeting my guests the next day on crutches was a nicely dramatic touch, I thought. Art is a dangerous business! So is stepping back to admire one’s work while on a ladder.

My covers are always done at the very end of the process so I had to paint Moon’s while parked in a wheelchair. Seriously, being disabled for months was an eye-opening experience. There’s a picture book there.

What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

Other than risking life and limb, The Moon Came Down on Milk Street presented few challenges until it was finished. Then I realized it was unlike any other book I’d done, unfunny and looking like one of my early schoolbooks. I could have had an identity crisis about that. Luckily, Moon had such urgency about it, I didn’t have time to worry about it until the book was done.

I’m glad. It’s freed me up. The book I’m completing now, Yonderfel’s Castle, (also for Henry Holt) is a medieval fable and calls for yet another style. I love responding to a story however it wants.

I also like playing with the physical form of the book, itself. Why not create a story that requires turning the book in the hands? Why not create a book that can be read backwards as well as forwards? I create stories and dummies for fun, trying out these quirky ideas; it’s one of the perks of being a writer / illustrator. I’m also interested creating stories for kids in digital, which I find extremely interesting for story-telling. This means leaving the codex form altogether. I hope you’ll read (and see) more about this from me early next year.

Challenges are always there, for artists as well as writers. There are business challenges (especially in picture books these days, as we all know) and creative challenges.

For me, the Moon experience was about being so inside the story that there was no angsting about letting it tell me what it wanted to be, even if that meant stepping outside anything I’d done before. That was untypical for me. But I welcome more of those experiences and look forward to where they’ll lead.

Cynsational News & Links

Continue reading for an author update with Printz Honor winner K.L. Going.

How to Reel in a Children’s Book Editor with Your Writing by Margot Finke from The Purple Crayon. See also Where To Go When You Are Desperate for Information or Help by Margot Finke. I’m honored that my site is listed among the recommended resources.
Latinos, Spanish Speakers, and Books: The Barahona Center for the Study of Books in Spanish for Children and Adolescents by Isabel Schon, Director, Barahona Center for the Study of Books in Spanish for Children and Adolescents, California State University San Marcos from CBC Magazine.
Who’s Moving Where? News and Editorial Changes at Children’s Book Publishers from The Purple Crayon. Updated for September.

Author Update: K. L. Going

When we last visited K.L. Going in 2003, she shared with us the story behind the story of her debut novel, Fat Kid Rules The World (Putnam, 2003), which went on to be named an ALA Printz Honor Book; School Library Journal Best Book; to the list of Booklist Top Ten First Novels; to the list of Top Ten First Novels For Young Listeners; and a Blue Ribbon Book of the Bulletin of Children’s Books. (Note: my site is being redesigned in fall 2005, so if these links don’t work, simply check the site guide and/or search engine).

What is new in your writing life since we last chatted?

I am working on my third novel which is a return to the older age group. It’s tentatively titled Saint Iggy. It’s a voice-driven novel with a quirky main character who gets kicked out of school on page one. This book will come out with Harcourt, hopefully in the fall of 2006. My editor moved houses this past summer and I moved with her, which is why I’m no longer with Penguin Putnam.

Do you have a new/upcoming book(s) to tell us about?

Other than Saint Iggy, my latest novel is The Liberation of Gabriel King (Putnam) which hit stores in June 2005. Liberation is for the 8-12 age group and it’s about two kids who decide to overcome all their fears in the course of one summer. It takes place in 1976 down in Georgia when Jimmy Carter is running for President. The two main characters, Gabe and Frita, have very different types of fears. Gabe’s are often humorous and childlike, while Frita’s are a bit more sophisticated and deal with issues of race and growing up.

If so, could you give us some insights into how this book(s) came to be?

The Liberation of Gabriel King had its beginnings after 9/11 when I was working in a literary agency in Manhattan. We were overwhelmed with submissions from people who wanted to write about 9/11 for kids. I kept wishing that someone would write about the more general issue of fear because it is something all of us deal with all the time, whether during times of crisis when it is magnified, or simply in the course of our every day lives. I tried to imagine how kids might decide to tackle their fears and what the results would be of their efforts.

When I look back at The Liberation of Gabriel King as a finished product, I feel like it is a very personal novel because I drew on so many of my own fears as a child, and even those fears I have now as an adult.

How about children’s or YA books that you’ve read lately? Which are your favorites and why?

I just read How I Live Now [by Meg Rosoff (Wendy Lamb Books, 2004)(2005 Printz Award winner)] and thought it was very well written. The voice was great, and the author takes you from a world that feels familiar into one that feels totally foreign without faltering.

What are your writing goals for the immediate future?

I want to keep things fresh and keep expanding my skills, and learning new things. You learn something different from every genre, so I am working on a picture book to see how that will turn out. We shall see.

Cynsational News & Links

Glen and Karen Bledsoe: authors of children’s fiction, children’s non-fiction, books for the school and library market, fantasy, and articles. They offer articles on writing, resources for teachers, and information for young authors.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of hearing illustrator Erik Kuntz of 2 Bad Mice Design speak at the monthly meeting of Austin SCBWI on “How To Build A Better Web Site.” Erik is Greg Leitich Smith‘s Web designer, and we highly recommend him. In related news, author/illustrator Janie Bynum is moving from Wimberly, Texas; back to Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Author Carolyn Crimi and Illustrator John Manders on Henry & the Buccaneer Bunnies

Henry & the Buccaneer Bunnies by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by John Manders (Candlewick, 2005). It’s a pirate’s life aboard the Salty Carrot with its crew of buccaneer bunnies, but Henry–son of the Barnacle Black Ear–would rather read than count his booty, swab the deck, or shout “Shiver Me Timbers!” And then . . . suffering sea dogs! Here comes a huge storm! What can booksmart Henry do to help the crew? A lively, hilarious adventure that’ll speak to readers both avid and reluctant, brought to life in storytelling illustrations bursting with humorous detail. Ages 4-up. Highest recommendation.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Carolyn’s answer

I have always wanted to write a story about bunnies. I’ve written about mice, dogs, rats, and beavers already, so I felt it was time to tackle Bunnydom. And really, what kind of picture book writer would I be if I never wrote a bunny book? It’s practically a law.

I also happen to adore bunnies. I take long walks every day, and I usually spot one or two hopping around, twitching their cute little noses. Ooo, I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to write a sweet, cozy book about them? A gentle, bedtime book for parents and toddlers to snuggle up to? Perhaps I’d even toss in a chick or a fluffy lambie. Helen Oxenbury would illustrate it, and it would shoot up to the bestsellers list in no time.

It would be the next Goodnight Moon!

But then, well… Something happened when I sat down to write. Suddenly my sweet, innocent bunnies were wearing eye patches and saying things like “Great blimey bilges!” You see, I had also always wanted to write a pirate book. When I thought about combining the two, it just sort of clicked. It was so very Moi.

I suppose I never will write a sweet book. I admire writers who can do it well without being saccharine. Martin Waddell comes to mind. He writes poignant, lyrical, succinct books and is one of the most underrated picture book writers I know of.

But I am not Martin Waddell. Sweetness does not come naturally to me. I must do what comes naturally, even if that means I write about bloodthirsty bunnies.

John’s answer

My inspiration came from two sources: Carolyn’s manuscript, and a life-long devotion to sea-going, swashbuckling adventure novels and movies.

Carolyn is one of those writers whose words can make you laugh out loud. As soon as I read her manuscript, I was itching to draw. I knew exactly how I wanted Henry to look—I wanted every member of the Salty Carrot crew to have a personality, a character. And there were so many opportunities for sight gags! I tried to add visual jokes that kept in tune with the story’s sense of humor—the rats abandon ship with pool noodles and snorkels, the ship is riddled with cannonball holes, the jolly roger has long ears and buck teeth.

My other favorite writers are Rafael Sabatini, Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Defoe, C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian and the great George MacDonald Fraser. My illustrations for Henry are heavily influenced by those great old pirate movies whose casts often include Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone or Maureen O’Hara hamming it up to a soundtrack by Eric Wolfgang Korngold.

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

Carolyn’s answer

Ummm, here’s the thing. I really have no idea when I started this. I always write first drafts of my picture books in longhand, and I don’t date those drafts. I believe I wrote it “sometime in 2001.” The first *typed* draft in my computer is dated February 2002. I know I wrote an awful draft before that in which Henry was an extremely curious bunny who asked a lot of questions and wound up defeating a bad bunny pirate by driving him slowly insane.

Like I said, it was an awful first draft.

After I had completed roughly two billion revisions, I sent the manuscript to some of my editors. One editor asked for changes and then turned it down. The next editor asked for changes and then turned it down. Blah, blah, blah, same ole same ole. I knew it was good, though, and I knew it would get published. I certainly don’t feel that way about all my manuscripts, but I really felt this one was a slam dunk (a home run? a hole in one? a field goal?) or some sort of very good thing.

It was because I believed in this book that I decided to send it to one of my favorite houses, Candlewick. Oh, how I love their picture books! It had always been a dream of mine to have a Candlewick book. Unfortunately, it had never been a dream of Candlewick to have a Carolyn Crimi book. But I kept trying. The brilliant author Tobin Anderson said he had spoken to one of their editors about me and encouraged me to send a manuscript their way. What an incredibly generous gesture on his part. (Thanks Tobin!) So I put his name in the very first line of my cover letter, said a few prayers, ate a few carrots, and tossed it in the mail.

It was accepted in…May? Yeah, sure, let’s say May of 2003. I still have the voice mail message from my editor. In fact, I’ve saved all the happy voice mail messages from my editors. I like listening to them over and over again. It’s an annoying habit of mine that keeps me sane.

The not-so-happy ones are deleted immediately.

John’s answer

I signed the contract for Henry back in July 2003 and began working on the thumbnail storyboard in the summer of 2004. The thumbnails, along with character sketches and setting design usually take 3-4 days. I draw with 2B pencils on layout bond paper. The editorial and art departments at Candlewick then take a look and make revisions to the storyboard. Caroline Lawrence at Candlewick put my thumbnail sketches into layout form which made it very easy to draw the final sketches—the layouts show exactly where the text will fall. The sketches take a week or three. I submitted them to Candlewick, where they were put into layouts in their turn. At this point there were a few small revisions (this project went very smoothly—most of the changes were made to the thumbnails).

While I waited for final approval, I did color studies of all the characters and most of the spreads. This helps me to organize my palette and solve any color problems before I begin actual painting. Once the layouts with the final sketches were approved, I began painting in August, transferring the drawings onto Arches 300 lb hot press watercolor paper. I work with Winsor & Newton Designers gouache and Prismacolor pencils for highlights and accents. I paint in an assembly line fashion, first blocking in all the light and shadow with burnt sienna (this is a classical way of painting and gives the illustrations an added richness). Then I add color. First I paint all the background: the sea, then the ship, then the island scenery—before I paint the characters themselves, which I do one at a time: all Henry, all Black Ear, & c., & c. A book has to look as if I painted it all at once, instead of over a period of 3 months. This method makes it possible to maintain consistency throughout.

After the interior is painted, Caroline & I discuss the cover design. Once again I submit thumbnails, then sketches (including title type design), and paint once everything’s approved. The last piece of art was sent to Candlewick in early December 2004.

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

Carolyn’s answer

Once it was accepted, the challenges were pretty much behind me. I had revised it extensively before I sent it to Candlewick, so I only had one more revision to do after it was accepted. Then the quest for the right illustrator began. I knew John Manders was The One as soon as I saw his work. He’s just so…piratey. I mean come on, the man owns a parrot. His illustrations brought the whole story to life and made the book an exciting, swashbuckling adventure. And they literally made me laugh out loud. Check out the one of Calico Jack Rabbit admiring his tattoo of a cabbage. The cabbage is inscribed with the name “Beatrix.” John was born to illustrate this book.

John and my editor, Deb Wayshak, made the book’s journey a fun one. I had a blast working on it with them. The e-mails that flew back and forth were often sprinkled with Piratese. What terrific shipmates they were. Writing a sequel is definitely on my To Do List.

Along with a sweet little book about bloodthirsty lambies, of course…

John’s answer

I often head to the library when I begin a new book, to gather visual research. Since I’m something of a pirate buff, I already had most of the reference books right here in my studio, so I was ready to draw without so much of the preliminary stage of ‘internalizing,’ when I sketch directly from the reference in order to get a feel for my subject.

Being an illustrator is like being a movie director on steroids: I get to cast all the characters, design the costumes and sets, and stage all the action. I even choose the camera angles. For Henry, I designed many of the characters with actors from seagoing movies in mind—for Black Ear, I cast Robert Newton, who starred in a movie about Blackbeard and unforgettably played Long John Silver in the Disney version of Treasure Island. From the same movie, child actor Bobby Driscoll supplied the look & costume for Henry (with spectacles added!). Jean LeHare is the bunny incarnation of Basil Rathbone in Captain Blood, Calico Jack Rabbit recalls Kirk Douglas in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

I also peopled the crew with individual characters based on real or literary seafarers. There is a suspiciously feminine crew member (the one with abundant blonde curls) named Ann Bunney—based on Ann Bonney, a girl who dressed as a man to serve aboard a pirate ship. Squee-Squeek is a tall, silent Maori bunny who always carries a harpoon in case he sees a white whale. These characters don’t have any lines, but their personalities make the crowd scenes interesting to look at.

The Salty Carrot herself is practically a character in the story. She is a three-masted square-rigger, a caricature of Captain Kidd’s ship, the Adventure Galley—which I embellished with peeling paint, cannonball holes, debris-littered decks and some tastefully-carved bunny mermaids. To help me draw and paint her believably, I bought a model ship at a hobby shop downtown, and spent a day or two gluing the thing together so I could see how a ship looks from different angles and how the shadows fall on her.

“The three-masted square rigger…not so swift and maneuverable as other vessels commandeered by pirates. But she was valued for her intimidating size—350 tons and 110 feet along her main deck…and for her seaworthiness on long voyages.” (from The Pirates, Time-Life Books)

The smaller sloop was more effective for raiding and smuggling, but I felt the big square-rigger would be visually funnier—especially when crewed by bunnies.

Cynsational Note

Deborah Wayshak also is the editor of my upcoming YA gothic fantasy novel, Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007).

Cynsational News & Links

Smart Writers Journal: September 2005 offers a listing of writers’ retreats and conferences, a back-to-school book round-up, and a special report on censorship by Roxyanne Young. Recommended books include: The Order of the Poison Oak by Brent Hartinger (HarperCollins, 2005); Last Dance on Holladay Street by Elisa Carbone (Knopf, 2005); The Truth About Sparrows by Marian Hale (Henry Holt, 2004); Houdini: World’s Greatest Mystery Man and Escape King by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Walker, 2005); and Kindergarten Rocks! by WF alumnae Katie Davis (Harcourt, 2005).

Congratulations to my husband, author Greg Leitich Smith! His latest novel, Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005), has been nominated for the 2005-2006 Golden Spur Award for Texas Authors – Intermediate Children’s Literature division via the Texas State Reading Association. Surf over to Greg’s blog to cheer the good news!

Author Interview: Anastasia Suen on Red Light, Green Light

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

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I wrote this book in 1999 when my son was taking driver’s ed. As I sat in the passenger seat I was very aware of the signs and vehicles around us. I wrote most of this book as I walked in the early mornings. The words came as the cars drove by and the traffic helicopter flew overhead.

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

The first editor I sent this book to rejected it but two months later I sent it out again to a second editor. She called me eight days later with an illustrator in mind for the book, and two weeks after that, she bought it! It all happened very quickly!

Then the editor left the company, and the book sat. Several editors later the book was taken off the shelf and work on the illustrations began. By this time both of my kids were driving, so when it was time for the dedication I wrote: “For my two new drivers; it feels like just minutes ago that you were driving toy cars.”

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

At this stage of my life I was writing a lot of poetry. At first I wrote this book as a poetry collection about the different types of vehicles on the road, but the market for that didn’t open up for me. Once I saw the book as a journey, then it all came together.

The path taken in the book is my husband’s commute into the city. I moved a few things around to fit the rhyme, but all in all, it’s the same journey. We just wish that our tollway fare was only 20 cents like it is in the book!

Cynsational News & Links

Anastasia Suen: Prolific Non-Fiction Writer for Children by Sue Reichard from suite101.com.

Writing Easy Readers with Anastasia Suen: Workshop Transcript from Verla Kay.

Interview with Tracie Vaughn Zimmer on Sketches From Spy Tree, illustrated by Andrew Glass (Clarion, 2005) from Embracing the Child. See more of my thoughts on Sketches From Spy Tree.

Blogs I’ve been loving lately include Big A little a: children’s books, writing, and life from Kelly Herold. Her recent posts include thoughts on Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, 2005).

See also You Know You Want To Help The Kids: a report from The Divine Miss Pixie Woods AKA author Cecil Castellucci on Colleen Mondo‘s effort with the Parkview Baptist Church of Baton Rouge to put requested titles in the hands of kids affected by Katrina. Includes mailing information and links to wishlists of books and games available for purchase from Amazon.com. My picks: Jazzy Miz Mozetta by Brenda C. Roberts, illustrated by Frank Morrison (FSG, 2004); Going North by Janice N. Harrington, illustrated by James Lagarrigue (FSG, 2004); Code Talker: A Novel About The Navajo Marines of World War II by Joseph Bruchac (Dial, 2005); Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson (Harcourt, 2005)(2 copies).

Resources To Help Understand and Explain Natural Disasters from the Austin Public Library. Includes links to Web sites and both fiction and non-fiction youth bibliographies. Yesterday I corresponded with the APL head children’s librarian who noted that locally there is a need for books of Africian American authors, illustrators, and themes as well as children’s books and reference materials.

Author Interview: Rosemary Graham on Thou Shalt Not Dump The Skater Dude (And Other Commandments I Have Broken)

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

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Kelsey. Kelsey came to life in my first novel, My Not-So-Terrible Time at the Hippie Hotel (Viking, 2003; Puffin, 2005). She was the pretty, happy girl envied by the narrator, Tracy. When I first introduced Kelsey in that book, I saw her much in the same way Tracy did, as the stereotypical California Girl-blonde, beautiful, and not-so-brainy. The fact that Kelsey’s family was rich made her life seem that much more charmed-and easy-to Tracy (and to me). But at the crisis point in Hippie Hotel, when Tracy lashed out at Kelsey, Kelsey revealed herself to be a much more substantial person than people (including her creator) had assumed. I wanted to get to know that more substantial person I glimpsed in the attic of the Hippie Hotel.

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

Oy. I wrote the first scene with Kelsey in November of 2001, while my agent was submitting Hippie Hotel to publishers. I wrote the last seen in November of 2004. Now, I did work on edits for Hippie Hotel during that time, and I do have a full-time job teaching college English, but it pretty much took me three years to figure this one out. (Compared with the one year it took me to write Hippie Hotel.) The first draft of Skater Dude, which was called Hey, You Never Know, sucked. Big time. Despite my intentions, I didn’t really get beneath the surface of Kelsey. Portions of that book read as satire, like I was more interested in making fun of her than I was in understanding her.

So I wounded her.

This was a huge breakthrough. Once I realized how truly vulnerable she was (as we all are), I was able to see inside this rich, pretty, and sometimes happy girl. Only after wounding her was I able to look at the world through her eyes rather than looking at her through the world’s eyes.

The other major “event” was working with my editor, Joy Peskin, at Viking. I was halfway through a new draft of what I was then calling “Kelsey’s Book” when Viking bought it and Joy became my editor. Joy was tremendously helpful. She helped me find the story by urging me to follow Kelsey’s lead. Rather than superimposing a plot I thought would be “interesting,” I realized that the process of being wounded and surviving was the plot. Finally, “Kelsey’s Book” was truly Kelsey’s.

Cynsational News & Links

Author Talk with Rosemary Graham from Teenreads.com. May 2003.

An Interview with Caldecott Winning Illustrator David Macaulay by Brigid Barrett from the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance.

An Outsider, Out of the Shadows: An Interview with S.E. Hinton from The New York Times.

KidMagWriters.com: September Update: features editor interview with Susan Buckley of Appleseeds; an article on query letters; an article on craft writing; and an article on poetry. See also Inside Markets for the magazine market update.

Thanks to Liz B at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy for mentioning my site, blog, and recent author interview with D.L. Garfinkle!

Author Update: Alex Flinn

Alex Flinn is an award-winning young adult author. Her books include: Breathing Underwater (HarperCollins, 2001); Breaking Point (HarperCollins, 2002); Nothing To Lose by Alex Flinn (HarperCollins, 2004); and Fade To Black (HarperCollins, 2005). Alex is a former attorney who lives in a suburb of Miami.

We last visited Alex in 2003 when she shared the Story Behind the Story of Breaking Point and the Story Behind The Story of Breathing Underwater. (Note: my site is being redesigned in fall 2005, so if these links don’t work, simply check the site guide and/or search engine).

What is new in your writing life since we last chatted?

Since we last chatted, I’ve published two new books, Nothing to Lose and Fade to Black. Nothing to Lose is about Michael, who runs away with the carnival to escape his mother’s abusive marriage, then returns a year later to find himself involved in a murder trial. It was chosen a Booklist Top-10 Youth Mystery and is new in paperback. Fade to Black, my newest, is about a hate crime against an HIV-positive student, told in three viewpoints, victim, witness, and suspect. You can find discussion guides for both at my website, www.alexflinn.com.

Do you have a new/upcoming book(s) to tell us about?

Diva will be released in Fall, 2006. It’s a companion to Breathing Underwater and deals with Caitlin, who has broken up with Nick and is going to a performing arts high school to study voice (something I did myself in high school). While it deals with Caitlin’s healing from her relationship with Nick, and also her bizarre relationship with her mother, it is also a funny, touching, coming-of-age story. At least I hope so.

I also have two short stories in upcoming anthologies, What Are You Afraid Of? edited by Donald Gallo (I am particularly proud of this story, both because it is a great story about an agoraphobic trapped in his parents’ home and because it was the inspiration for the anthology itself) and Twice Told, stories based on the art of Scott Hunt. Both will be released in 2006.

If so, could you give us some insights into how this book(s) came to be?

Fade to Black was written because I really enjoy experimenting with viewpoint, so I thought it would be interesting to write a book in several different viewpoints, with each character having a different take on what happened. There’s a saying that a villain is a hero in his own story. In Fade, there is a character who might be considered a villain and one who might be considered a hero. However, I have tried to give each his own voice in a non-judgmental way.

Diva was written in response to hundreds of requests I received for a sequel to Breathing Underwater, and also to many conversations I had with girls about relationships in high school. I realized that a lot of girls stay in relationships like the one in Breathing Underwater because they feel they have to have a boyfriend. I wanted to write a book about Caitlin finding something of her own. I think this is a book I would have enjoyed as a teen. It’s a little different from my other books, because it’s not about violence, but it’s still “realistic fiction” in that it is about things that many teens are dealing with.

How about children’s or YA books that you’ve read lately? Which are your favorites and why?

Sandpiper by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon & Schuster, 2005). Sandpiper is, to me, a book that every teenage girl should read because it deals with a young woman who has tried and failed to find a relationship through sex. I see a lot of young girls going down this same destructive path. But what makes Sandpiper more than a problem novel is the great characters — particularly Sandpiper’s relationship with her mother and sister.

True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet by Lola Douglas (Razorbill, 2005). It’s about a child star who, after an overdose and rehab, is sent to live as a normal teen in a small Indiana town. I love this sort of behind-the-scenes Hollywood thing, so I thought this was a lot of fun.

A Room on Lorelei Street by Mary E. Pearson (Henry Holt, 2005). This is about Zoe, who has been taking care of her alcoholic mother for years, then decides to move out. It’s an intense novel with beautiful prose. While similar in tone to Margaret Haddix‘s Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey (which I also liked) and Heather Quarles’ A Room Near Here, it is unusual in that it offers no easy solutions to a problem many unseen teens face.

I update my website fairly regularly with books I’ve been reading. Visit www.alexflinn.com and click on “Favorite Books.”

What are your writing goals for the immediate future?

I just finished Diva, so I’d like to start something new. I have some ideas, but nothing engraved in granite yet.

Cynsational Notes

See my recent author interview with Mary E. Pearson on A Room On Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005).

Cynsational News & Links

Award-Winning Author Elizabeth Partridge by Sue Reichard from suite101.com. Elizabeth’s books include Dorthea Lange: A Visual Life (Smithsonian, 1993), Clara and the Hoodoo Man (Dutton, 1996), and This Land Was Made For You and Me (Viking 2002), a biography of singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie (Viking, 2002) that won the Boston Horn Book Award. Elizabeth’s latest biography is” John Lennon: All I Want is the Truth (Viking, 2005). See also Elizabeth Partridge’s Web site. September 2005.

The Purpose of Literature — and Who Cares? by Natalie Babbitt from the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. Presented at The Ann Carroll Moore Lecture at the New York Public Library, 1989. See also “We’re All Mad Here” by Natalie Babbit from the NCBLA. Presented as the Zena Sutherland Lecture; Chicago, June 30, 2004.

The Texas Library Association’s Disaster Relief Fund “has been expanded to collect donations for libraries in the Gulf Coast area as well as for libraries providing support for the evacuees. One hundred percent of your donation will be sent to the state library agency or library association in the state of your choice. TLA is also developing a plan to accept book donations…” See TLA Web site for more information.

Author Interview: Lori M. Carlson on Red Hot Salsa

Red Hot Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Being Young And Latino in the United States edited by Lori M. Carlson, introduction by Oscar Hijuelos (Henry Holt, 2005). From the anthologist who brought us Cool Salsa, this new collection reaches farther and deeper, chronicling the perspective of young Latinos today. Includes helpful glossary and biographical notes. Featured poets include Gary Soto. Ages 12-up. See more of my thoughts on Red Hot Salsa.

What was your inspiration for Red Hot Salsa?

Eleven years ago I published Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing up Latino in the U.S. This poetry anthology took the publishing world by surprise. Not only was it a landmark book–a book of its type had never been done before–but it was critically acclaimed and commercially successful. I have been told by librarians that it is now considered “a classic.” And yet Cool Salsa, for all the enthusiasm and appreciation it generated, never really made, let’s say, a splash. By that I mean, it wasn’t one of those books that was on the radar in the media. It found its way quietly to its readers because the Latino population in those years wasn’t on the radar of the nation’s media, either.

I had been asked to do a companion volume to Cool Salsa by my editor but I never felt compelled to do so, because I don’t like to repeat my book efforts. And yet, a few years ago, I suddenly realized that 10 years seemed like a publishing anniversary of sorts. And so much had changed in the U.S. vis a vis the Latino population–in a good and inspiring way.

One day, while riding the bus down Broadway, I was inspired to do Red Hot Salsa. I experienced an epiphany. Cool Salsa needed a follow-up.

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

The timeline was just over a year. Red Hot Salsa, unlike Cool Salsa, was formed in a very timely fashion. First, because I had a model from which to work and secondly I had a new tool in my office: the internet.

What made Cool Salsa so hard to create was finding the poets and getting their permission to include their work. I remember one poet in particular whom I just couldn’t locate. I had discovered a beautiful poem by him–of a somewhat religious nature–in an obscure little magazine. I don’t remember the name of the publication, but it looked as if it had been published on a shoestring budget. Anyway, after months and months of trying to locate him, I did! It turned out that he was a penitente in New Mexico. And he decided not to let me include the poem because he felt he couldn’t enter into any kind of “commercial” exchange. Fascinating. I still have the poem in a file…and I read it occasionally when I am asked to speak.

Red Hot Salsa emerged in a very different way. I found people quickly online. I found the poems by tootling around in musty libraries, magazines, vanity publications, self-published journals, little bookshops, churches, language institutions, my old folders that contain excerpts, poems, and stories from years of research–I love research–and even friends’ homes (personal libraries can offer up a plethora of literary delights).

What were the challenges in bringing the anthology to life?

Unlike writing a novel–a challenge that both of us have experienced–editing a collection of bilingual poetry is more about sensibility. Of course, there are challenges; particularly in the art of translation. (Translating poetry requires precision of thought as well as faithfulness in one’s own interpretive and writing skills. And I might do six to ten versions of one poem before I settle on the final translation.)

But specifically, regarding Red Hot Salsa, I would say the major challenge to me as the editor of the book was psychological in nature. I was concerned that people who so loved Cool Salsa would not embrace the “second” volume as much. And so I put myself through a very, very rigorous process of selection. I agonized over the choices, constantly second-guessing myself and my instincts. I thought–and there is no better way of saying this than by simply being blunt–that the critics were going to be tough on me because Red Hot Salsa was a follow-up. Cool Salsa got stars from every single major publication that reviewed it. While I know that the quality of the poetry I chose for Cool Salsa is part of the reason for the stars, the other part is simply “the novelty” or invention of something that hadn’t been done before.

But I am very grateful to the reviewers of Red Hot Salsa, as they have been very positive about the volume. And I did get a star–from School Library Journal–which just thrilled me. Really, thrilled me.

Cynsational News & Links

An Interview with Kathianne M. Kowalski from Northern Ohio SCBWI. “Kathi is a prolific writer with over 375 articles and stories to her credit. Her list of 17 books for young people includes titles such as: Order in the Court: A look at the Judicial Branch (Lerner, 2004), The Everything Kid’s Nature Book (Adams Media, 2000), and Global Warming (Marshall Cavendish, 2004). Her topics range from political science to space science to alternative medicine.”

Pooja Makhijani offers a middle/high school teacher’s guide and a reading group guide for her anthology, Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America (Seal Press, 2004). Perfect for middle and high school literature classes.

Authors April Pulley Sayre and Jeffrey P. Sayre Launch Children’s Media Professionals’ Forum

What is CMP Forum?

Children’s Media Professionals’ Forum (CMP Forum) is an online community where media specialists, booksellers, authors, illustrators, agents, educational consultants, publishing industry professionals and television producers can have targeted, professional, friendly discussions of ideas, problems, and solutions for creating, packaging and marketing children’s content. It’’s a place where new media minds–people interested in using new technologies to spread content–can gather and discuss the issues that matter most to them today.

What will we find on CMP Forum?

A meeting place for media specialists, publishing industry professionals, and educational consultants involved in children’’s media;
a meeting place for authors, illustrators, and producers of all children’s genres;
featured authors, illustrators, and media producers who share the stories behind their work and respond to questions about their projects;
a community of colleagues where you can post questions or help answer questions;
fresh information on new books and new media;
frank, professional discussion on the state of the children’s media market;
discussions of new media such as ebooks, DVDs, HD Video programming, website creation;
listings of authors, illustrators, and educational consultants who visit schools, libraries, and stores;
a marketplace subforum for job postings in the publishing industry, to list work-related items you have for sale, to post a link to your resume, to learn of editors accepting manuscripts and producers looking for television programming ideas;
ideas for marketing, sales, and promotional events;
links to research that can help justify funds and information to help satisfy mandates.

Is this another listserve?

No. Listserves, although wonderfully friendly and helpful, are a blunt instrument. They throw lots of information at you and you have to sift through. It’s a process that devours time. This forum is organized into threads that act as living chapters–—places for discussion about grants, books, authors, computer problems, and so on. The site also includes a marketplace where you can advertise your services, request paid services, or ask for volunteer help from other media professionals. You visit the forum which lives on a website and you read the threads you want when you want.

Does it cost to join CMP Forum?

No. It is free to join and participate in Children’’s Media Professionals Forum. The only paid part of the site is the marketplace section where, for an annual fee of $35, members can post as many listings as they wish. This small, annual fee helps support the cost of running the community. Of course, all members can visit and read the marketplace postings whenever they like, for no cost. The annual fee is charged only to those members who wish to post their own service, item for sale, or job announcement.

Why create CMP Forum?

Because more than ever people who care about the quality of the content that reaches children need help. The challenges of presenting fresh, relevant content, understanding new media, finding grants, creating storytimes, marketing books, working with editors, working with authors and illustrators, teaching writing, presenting talks, setting up promotional events, and programming new media productions are complex.

Who is behind this forum?

In essence, the members will run the forum by bringing quality discussion to it. As the community grows, professional volunteers in each area will moderate selected subforums. Husband-and-wife team April Pulley Sayre and Jeffrey P. Sayre, authors of One is a Snail, Ten is a Crab (Candlewick, 2003) and 50 other children’s books are subsidizing and running the forum with the help of their many colleagues who care about great content for children. The forum will be hosted via April’’s website.

How do we reach CMP Forum?

It’s easy! Just go to www.aprilsayre.com and click on the CMP Forum link. You can always read forum postings as an anonymous guest. But, we encourage you to take a few minutes and become a member. As a member, you’’ll have the ability to not only read postings, but join in, creating your own threads or adding to discussion in on-going threads!

Cynsational News & Links

Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts from The Children’s Book Council. See also relief-related information for national SCBWI members from author Chris Barton and news of SCBWI Austin’s book drive from author Varian Johnson.

“Be Part Of My Next Book–Nominate An Environmental Hero!” a poll on “individuals and organizations who have been making a difference in any environment-related issues” from author Tanya Lee Stone’s LiveJournal. She asks who “deserves to have an environmental spotlight shone on them for their efforts?” Tanya offers suggestions to get you started and says that if you nominate her perfect enviro-hero, you’ll be thanked in the acknowledgements.

Author Interview: Joseph Bruchac on Code Talker: A Novel About The Navajo Marines of World War II

Code Talker: A Novel About The Navajo Marines of World War II by Joseph Bruchac (Dial, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Throughout World War II, in the conflict fought against Japan, Navajo code talkers were a crucial part of the effort, sending messages back and forth in an unbreakable code that used their native language. They braved some of the heaviest fighting of the war, and with their code, they saved countless American lives. Yet their story remained classified for more than twenty years. But now Joseph Bruchac brings their stories to life for young adults through the riveting fictional tale of Ned Begay, a sixteen-year-old Navajo boy who becomes a code talker. His grueling journey is eye-opening and inspiring. This deeply affecting novel honors all of those young men, like Ned, who dared to serve, and it honors the culture and language of the Navajo Indians.”

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I think the thing that inspired me most about the story of the Code Talkers was not that it was a war story or even (important as this aspect of it is) that it is a story that deals with American Indian life in the 20th century.

What most inspired me is that it is a story about the importance of native language and its survival against amazing odds. All the Navajos who became code talkers, using Navajo language in the service of the United States, were sent as children to government boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak anything other than English.

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

I first became aware of the the story of the Navajo Code talkers in the early 1970s. It fascinated me then for the reason I’ve already mentioned. I first thought about doing a story about this more than 20 years ago, but realized I didn’t know enough. Over the years I continued to learn, through reading, through friendships with numerous Navajo people (such as Shonto Begay, Luci Tapahonso, Harry Walters, and many others), through travel, more about Navajo history and culture.

I also was fortunate enough to meet a number of men who were code talkers–such as in Carl Gorman, who I met in 1996. In 1998 I was asked by the National Geographic Society to write a book about the Long Walk of the Navajos and the Trail of Tears of the Cherokees and I spent two years in research that resulted not only in Trails of Tears, Paths of Beauty (National Geographic Books, 2000), but four other books–fiction and nonfiction–that deal with Navajo and Cherokee subjects.

In 2001 I was fortunate enough to spend some time with two more Code talkers, Jesse Samuel Smith and Keith Wilson, when we were all in Washington DC doing presentations for the first National Book Fair. Mr. Wilson was even kind enough to read my manuscript in first draft. I’d better stop here because I could go on for pages about the people who helped me along the way. You’ll find some of it in my acknowledgments In the back of Code Talker.

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

The main challenge, I think, was having the patience to wait until I knew enough before I started trying to write the book–while also trying to be flexible and humble enough along the way to keep learning and be ready to correct any missteps I made when they were pointed out to me.

Fortunately, for my research for this story, this period is extensively documented and there are still many living WW II vets, both code talkers and other vets, who were willing and eager to help. Among them was my own uncle, Jim Smith, a marine who survived many of those terrible landings on such islands as Guam and Iwo Jima.

I should also point out that although this might be described as a book “about war” I tried very hard to neither glorify war nor demonize the enemy, but to see it all through Indian eyes, which is a very different way of seeing. War, as the Navajos and many of our other nations understand, injures the spirit. Those who have been to war, victorious or not, have been damaged by it and must find ways to regain their spiritual and emotional balance.

Cynsational News & Links

Joseph Bruchac: We All Have A Story: Q&A in Flagpole by Elizabeth Deroshia. (Includes author photo).

Author Answers with Nancy Castaldo by Debbi Michiko Florence. Nancy’s debut picture book is Pizza for the Queen, illustrated by Melisande Potter (Holiday House, 2005). See also my own thoughts on Pizza for the Queen.

Literary Vacations: A Wish List from BCCB. Elements the editors find “tired” in fiction.