Author Update: Jane Kurtz

I last interviewed author Jane Kurtz in 2002 about her picture book River Friendly, River Wild, illustrated by Neil Brennan (Simon & Schuster, 2000). It was inspired by her own family’s experiences surving a devasting flood in Grand Forks. See The Story Behind The Story: Jane Kurtz on River Friendly, River Wild. We’d also recently talked about her writing life, favorite reads, and body of literary trade fiction and resource books in An Interview With Children’s Book Author Jane Kurtz. (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 see scary trends in the children’s book world around me.

The kinds of things I’ve been drawn to write about…the Ethiopia of my childhood…stories of kids from Africa now living in the U.S…a fantasy that explores questions about nationalism and where is home?…have gained critical acclaim.

The New Jersey School Library Association recently came up with a list of their “pick of the decade” books for various grade levels, and five of my books were on it–at the kindergarten, second, fourth, and sixth grade levels.

But schools and libraries are in an enormous budget crunch all over the U.S. My editors are telling me that they can’t make most picture books work financially, and when I study lists of what is selling, it mostly isn’t my kind of book.

I worry a lot about the whole multicultural book scene–and, beause of my own passions–I worry particularly about books that connect with Africa.

The future from where I sit looks grim. One result is that, when I can, I urge people to take the power they do have to loudly speak out for books that matter. Another is that I’ve started to cling with determination to the deep-down love of writing that sustains me even when the atmosphere around is unremittingly gloomy.

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

For the first time since the early 1990s, I don’t have a picture book under contract. That means my life is all about novel-writing these days. My brother and I spent most of last year working on a fun one, and I’m about to dive into a revision of a more serious one set in ancient Egypt.

I’m not giving up on picture books, though. Since Pulling the Lion’s Tail (Simon & Schuster, 1995) is out of print, I’ve been talking with Yohannes–my friend who moved back to Ethiopia to put books into the hands of Ethiopian kids–about how we might do an Ethopian version with new illustrations in three different languages.

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

Since we grew up in Ethiopia without television and movies, my siblings and I sang together all the time. One of our favorites was a boisterous pirate ballad. A year ago in Kansas, my brother [Christopher] (co-author of Only a Pigeon and Water Hole Waiting) and I wandered into a spooky-feeling glade of trees that made us think about that song. My brother asked, “Do you think we could write a story using the slight plot in the ballad?” We were intrigued by the challenge and jumped in to try. I’ve never laughed so hard and often while writing a book. Now we have to see if an editor likes it as much as we do.

What are your writing goals for the immediate future?

My main goal is to savor the writing itself–that frustrating, fascinating, messy, infuriating, thrilling process that traipses me endlessly down wrong canyons and–blessedly–up the other side again.

In the past couple of years, I’ve had the delight of watching Ethiopian kids reading. Kids who’ve never had a chance to hold a book in their hands before. It has reminded me of just how much in love with books I was as a kid and how glad I am to have had a life of writing them.

Cynsational News & Links

Meet Jane Kurtz: Author, Traveler, Teacher by Sue Reichard from Suite101.com.

Magical Things: An Interview with Julianna Baggott by Nikki Tranter from PopMatters Books.

Three Against That Which Is The Peshtigo School by Kimberly Pauley (YA Books Goddess) from Young Adult Books Central. A review of Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown, 2003, 2005). See also Tofu and T. rex by Greg Leitich Smith from Booktalks — Quick and Simple. (Happy anniversary, Greg!)

Author Update: Diane Gonzales Bertrand

Author Diane Gonzales Bertrand writes award-winning books for family reading. Even her novels that feature adult characters, such as Sweet Fifteen (1995) and Lessons of the Game (1998), as well as her romantic novel, Close To The Heart (2002), have found a strong readership among teens and senior citizens alike. Her novels for middle school readers, Alicia’s Treasure (1995)(PDF file), Trino’s Choice (1999)(PDF file), and Trino’s Time (2001) were inspired by requests by Texas teachers and librarians who wanted more variety in the literature for their students. She has also published bilingual picture books, Sip, Slurp, Soup, Soup/Caldo, Caldo, Caldo (1997)(PDF file), Family, Familia (1999), The Last Doll (2001), and Uncle Chente’s Picnic (2001). Diane’s books are published by Arte Publico Press in Houston. She lives in San Antonio.

I last interviewed Diane in March 2002. At that time, she was taking a year off school visits to work on a novel manuscript. That summer, Arte Publico had scheduled the release of an updated reprint of Diane’s novel Close To The Heart. See An Interview with Children’s and YA Book Author Diane Gonzales Bertrand. (Note: my site is being redesigned in fall 2005, so if this link doesn’t work, simply check the site guide and/or search engine).

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

At the American Library Association meeting held in Chicago in late June 2005, I was presented with the Schneider Family Book Award for my book, My Pal Victor (Raven Tree Press, 2004).

This award recognizes a book that depicts a positive look at the disability experience for children. This manuscript was rejected by a variety of publishers before tiny Raven Tree Press in Wisconsin took it, so I was very pleased by the response of the library committee to this story. It is a bilingual book with one of the first Latino characters who is a child with a disability.

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

Three new books are in the process at Arte Publico Press. In Fall 2006, my new novel, The Ruiz Street Kids, will be published. In spring 2007, my first picture book biography, Ricardo’s Race will be published. In Spring 2008, another bilingual picture book, We are Cousins/Somos Primos will be out.

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

The Ruiz Street Kids celebrates the neighborhood where I spent my childhood. It was a multicultural mix of kids. It’s a humorous story, just meant for the readers to enjoy.

Ricardo’s Race is the story of Dr. Ricardo Romo, president of the University of Texas at San Antonio. He earned recogition as a runner and after an injury, became an educator. He is also a San Antonio native like me, so I am thrilled to share his inspiring story.

We are Cousins/Somos Primos is a simple book for preschoolers about a group of cousins who explain the relationship they share as family.

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

I got a sneak peek at Pat Mora‘s new picture book about St. Francis of Assisi and a book called Dona Flor (Knopf, October 2005). Beautifully illustrated!

The Meaning of Consuelo by Judith Ortiz Cofer was another favorite YA title I read this sumer.

However, my favorite book for my summer reading was Zorro by Isabel Allende (HarperCollins). I can’t remember when I was so charmed by a book.

What are your writing goals for the immediate future?

I am still being rejected by New York publishers, but the library groups keep me so busy with speaking engagements, I can’t dwell on it for long. Lucky for me, Arte Publico is publishing my work, understands my goals, and continues to maintain an excellent reputation for distribution and promotion.

Cynsational News & Links

Meet the Authors and Illustrators: Diane Gonzales Bertrand from Children’s Literature. See the Diane Gonzales Bertrand Teacher Resource File from the Internet School Library Media Center. See also Diane Gonzales Bertrand from Arte Publico Press.

Interview with Joanne Yates Russell, Associate Art Director of Random House/Golden Books from childrensillustrators.com.

Writer’s Block Begone! by Kimberly Pauley at Young Adult Books Central.

Seventh Annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers’ Conference

The Seventh Annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers’ Conference will take place Sunday, Nov. 20 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the 92nd Street Y at 1395 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan (New York City).

The event is co-sponsored by the 92nd Street Y Buttenwieser Library and the Jewish Book Council. The cost is $80 before Nov. 1, and $95 after Nov. 1. The fee includes a kosher breakfast and lunch.

Featured speakers are editor-in-chief Regina Griffin of Holiday House, editor Jodi Kreitzman of Delacorte Press, marketing and sales director Michael J. Miller of Pitspopany Press, publicist Susan Salzman Raab of Raab Associates, literary agent Rebecca Sherman of Writers House, and production editor Aviva Werner of BabagaNewz magazine.

Author Michelle Edwards, winner of a National Jewish Book Award, will give opening remarks, and the day will include the popular “Query Letter Clinic and First Pages” with the editors, sessions on Sippurim: Israel Books for Kids and the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition, and door prizes.

The registration form is available for download (PDF file). Call 212-415-5544 or e-mail library@92y.org for additional information or to request the form by mail. The final registration deadline is Nov. 14. The conference filled up quickly last year, so register early.

Cynsational News & Links

Thanks to author Lisa Yee for complimenting yesterday’s author interview with D.L. Garfinkle on Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won The Girl (Putnam, 2005)!

“Nonfiction in its Infinite Variety” by Shari Lyle-Soffe, in the Writing Nonfiction section of Writing Tips from the Institute of Children’s Literature.

“Children’s Writing: Poetry, Plays, Picture Books, and Middle-Grade Novels:” a chat with Sue Alexander from the Institute of Children’s Literature. September 2005.

Author Interview: D. L. Garfinkle on Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won The Girl

Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won The Girl by D.L. Garfinkle (Putnam, 2005). Told in a diary format by high school freshman Michael “Storky” Pomerantz, this sparkling debut novel chronicles its hero (1) befriending a Scrabble geezer, (2) embracing a family that “includes” Mom’s boyfriend “Dr. Vermin” and Dad’s rotating bimbos delight, (3) landing a first girlfriend (which one?), and (4) finding self-acceptance. It’s funny, real, and unapologetically boy-like with a solid heart. Great for avid readers and reluctant ones. Strongest on voice and humor, jam-packed with “life lessons,” Storky is a must-read from a novelist to watch. Ages 12-up. Highly recommended. See more of my thoughts on Storky.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I’ve always been a bookworm. Three novels in particular inspired Storky: Catcher In The Rye, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and Anne Tyler’s A Patchwork Planet. All three books have great humor and sweet but misguided characters, which is what I attempted. I tried to capture a strong voice like Salinger had done, the journal format of Bridget Jones’ Diary, and A Patchwork Planet’s plot twist in which the main character fails at his goals but realizes they weren’t the right goals for him anyway. Of course, I don’t claim to have succeeded as well as Salinger, Fielding, or Tyler. But their novels inspired me.

Also, I wanted to do more than entertain readers. I didn’t want to write a preachy book, but I didn’t want to write pure fluff either. It took me into my mid-twenties to learn a very important truth: that if people treated me poorly, it was a reflection of their personalities rather than my shortcomings. Storky learns this at the end of the novel. With this lesson, I hope to shave a few years and maybe some therapy sessions off of my teen readers’ learning curve.

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

Sigh. Would you believe 21 years? Okay, but from starting to write in a dedicated manner to getting an offer from Putnam was “only” four years, so I guess that’s not too bad.

The spark began in 1984. My creative writing teacher gave us seven words to use in a one-page short story. I wrote about Mike, a teenage boy who was spending his first Thanksgiving without his father. The teacher liked the story so much, she kept it as an example for future classes.

Years later, after concentrating on law school and beginning my legal career, I took another creative writing class and wrote a ten-page short story about Mike going out on his first date while grieving for his father.

A few years later, I decided to write a novel. I told it from the points of view of Mike and his sister, Amanda. Because I wanted my book to be humorous, I decided to make the father absent by divorce rather than by death. I wrote 40 pages, got frustrated, and stopped writing.

In 1997 I had a 3-year-old and an infant. I was working part-time as a lawyer. I had given away my maternity clothes, confident that I didn’t want a third child. Then I was diagnosed with cystosarcoma, a rare form of breast cancer. Typical symptoms are the discovery of a very large tumor while pregnant in the upper, outside quadrant of the breast. I had all the symptoms. Fortunately, cystosarcoma has a very low mortality rate. But I figured with my luck I was a goner.

I re-evaluated my life. I realized I was most proud of my children and a short story I’d gotten published in 1985. I decided to quit my job, have another baby, and finish writing my novel. The doctors removed the tumor and surrounding tissue, and then discovered the tumor was benign. Of course, I was thrilled. I still quit my job and started writing my novel. I got pregnant a few months later and borrowed a bunch of maternity clothes. My friends were so generous that my borrowed wardrobe was much bigger and better than the wardrobe I’d given away.

I wrote my novel in a weekly critique class, titling it “Michael A. Pomerantz’s Lame Journal.” I finished it fourteen months later and set out to get an agent. Instead of querying, I bound my 200-page manuscript at Kinko’s and sent it to agents listed in a directory. My agent signed me up in February 2001.

After revising my manuscript at her suggestion, she sent it to publishers and there was a bidding war. Just kidding. Actually, I got a bunch of rejections. Most said they liked the humor and the voice, but that the plot was weak or Mike’s problems were too “ordinary.”

Worried that my agent was going to drop me, I entered the manuscript in the San Diego Book Awards. It won for Best Unpublished Novel. Along with attaining confidence in my book again (one of the judges wrote “sure to be published”), I also got 100 dollars and critiques from the three judges. One of the judges said my manuscript needed a better narrative arc. My agent independently came to the same conclusion. I spent the summer of 2002 revising it solely to build an arc. My critique group jokingly called me “Noah” or “Joan of Arc.”

My agent sent it out again, and an editor from a big publisher requested a rewrite, telling me she hadn’t been so excited about a manuscript in years. I don’t know if that’s her standard line, but it sure got me excited. I spent another few months revising to her specifications. I even changed the title, which she thought was too negative, and deleted my favorite scene, which she thought was too maudlin. She loved the revision. Unfortunately, the acquisitions committee did not.

My agent sent out the revised manuscript, and John Rudolph at Putnam made an offer in August 2003. After I had a contract, I did two revisions for John and one for the copyeditor. The title changed again. When I sneaked back my favorite scene into the first revision and John put exclamation points all over it, I knew that I’d found the right match.

Finally, my first novel, featuring Mike “Storky” Pomerantz, was published in April 2005, 21 years after I first created Mike for the one-page writing assignment.

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

I didn’t have to do a lot of research. Because I was writing about someone of the opposite sex and decades younger than me, for my own sanity I decided to “write what you know.” I made Mike’s mother a law student, I made Mike and his family Jewish, and I made his hobbies Scrabble, bowling, and reading, just like mine. I even included a pregnancy in the book.

It was challenging to write in first person as a male. Luckily, I had two guys in my critique group. They kept telling me to add more sex. And my male editor wanted more added also. Reading aloud the scene in which Mike gets an erection at the whiteboard in Spanish class was really embarrassing. It was also embarrassing discussing it with my editor. It’s not the typical conversation one dreams about when one thinks about publishing a novel.

Writing humor is a lot of fun for me. Getting used to rejection and the slow pace of publishing was not. Seeing my book in stores and getting fan mail from readers makes all the challenges pay off. And it sure beats practicing law.

Cynsational News & Links

“The Child in the Attic” by Katherine Paterson from the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. Presented at the Ohio State University’s Chldren’s Literature Festival, February 2000. See also An Interview with Katherine Paterson by Mary Brigid Barrett from the NCBLA.

The Louisiana Library Association Disaster Relief Fund is now accepting monetary donations to assist school, public, and academic library restoration efforts in southeastern Louisiana. Please make checks payable to: LLA-Disaster Relief and mail to: LLA; 421 South 4th St.; Eunice, LA 70535.

The South Dakota State Library Staff Best Reads Book List for National Library Week 2005 includes Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2001).

Lately on spookcyn, I’m blogging about the Buffy The Vampire Sing-A-Long, and on GLSBlog, Greg is blogging about his Round Rock book signing.

Secrets of Success: An Interview with Greg Leitich Smith

My husband, children’s book author Greg Leitich Smith, is the focus of the September 2005 edition of Secrets of Success, a wonderful column from children’s author Ellen Jackson that each month offers the inside scoop from “a children’s writer who is breaking new ground in his or her career and who is willing to share her secrets with the rest of us.”

Greg talks about my influence (yikes!), how he gets and frames ideas for novels, connecting with a publisher, writing humor, our upcoming picture book, and tips for writers trying to break into the business today.

Greg is the author of Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005)(Recorded Books, 2004) and Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005). The interview is a great read and offers an insightful peek into his experiences as a children’s writer breaking into publishing in the past few years.

Read Greg Leitich Smith’s interview on his Secrets of Success.

Learn more about Ellen Jackson, sign her guest book, and read her blog (September’s post is a must read about Writing Non-Fiction for Children)!

Cynsational News & Links

Meet The Author: T. A. Barron: The Writer’s Magic Wand from CBC Magazine. See also Hot off the Press: New Books from CBC (cheers for Sketches From A Spy Tree by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, illustrated by Andrew Glass (Clarion, 2005)).