Cynsational News & Links

Cheryl Klein, editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, has arranged that her e-book, The Rules of Engagement: How to Get (and Keep!) a Reader Involved in Your Novel, be made available for free by the organization Children Come First.

The Austin Public Library Foundation is holding a “Read-in” from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 16, 5-7 p.m. at the John Henry Faulk Central Library at 800 Guadalupe. The first hour of the program Austinites will take turns reading for five minutes from a much-loved children’s book. During the second hour, readers will read from any favorite title. Local authors participating so far include Emcee Spike Gillespie, Sarah Bird, Michael Maguire, David Rice and Janice Shefelman.

Reading the World: an annual conference sponsored by The University of San Francisco Department of International and Multicultural Education. The conference features guest speakers, as well as workshops by educators, librarians, authors, illustrators, and scholars. This year, it is scheduled for March 11 and 12, 2006. Keynote speakers are: Alma Flor Ada, Matthew Gollub, Linda Sue Park, Katherine Paterson, Joyce Carol Thomas, Tony Watkins, and Ed Young. Learn more about Reading the World VIII. See also the list of past speakers, which includes me and my husband, author Greg Leitich Smith.

Author Interview: Josephine Nobisso on Show; Don’t Tell! Secrets of Writing

Show; Don’t Tell! Secrets of Writing by Josephine Nobisso, illustrated by Eva Montanari (Gingerbread House, 2004). An interactive picture book. Gorgeously illustrated. Ages 7-up.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

For eighteen years, I’d been going into schools, speaking at conferences, etc., limiting myself to conducting 100 writing workshops per year. These figures suggest that I travel quite a lot, but the fact is that I have never had to leave my home turf of Long Island to get that many bookings. It was clear that I had come up with some very serviceable and accessible insights on writing that could help so many people. Putting these strategic tips into book form seemed the logical outreach.

Show; Don’t Tell! Secrets of Writing explores the intrinsic nature of nouns and their modifiers. The next book will cover another of my workshop topics: verbs, adverbs–and surprisingly, perhaps–prepositions, to give writers more tools for expressing what they intend.

My approach is grammar-based: applying grammar in its most elegant and authentic way in order to become the most creative and individual writer.

I used to think what I have heard many writers say–that writing is somehow magical or miraculous. Well, wrangling story (fiction or non) into a communicable and interesting form is certainly one of the mysteries of human life, but the tools for accomplishing that are neither magic nor miracle, and once internalized, they liberate the writer to speak in his own voice.

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

I was the child of hard-working immigrant parents who provided me with an education that today would be called “classical.” I attended Catholic schools where the nuns taught me the architecture of language. Later in life, when I was working on my fourth novel and wanted to take a blow torch to it, it occurred to me to diagram some sentences to see why I was boring myself. Bingo!

I published many books and short pieces before I was able to isolate and articulate the precepts that became so clear to me on that day. These insights seemed too much to put into an appealing picture book form, but that was the dream I had for them–to become a book that was artistically illustrative, one that connected writing to reading to visual arts.

One Spring evening, my daughter (Maria Nicotra, whom I’ve affectionately dubbed our “Art Dictator”) handed me a portable tape recorder and suggested I take a walk along my favorite dirt lanes. I hadn’t been gone ten minutes before I called her with the triumphant news that I had the format figured out. So, how long did it take? A lifetime. Or ten minutes.

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

My workshops progress sequentially. They go from a quick diagnostic, to verbal proofs about the tendencies that weaken our writing, to a modeled experiment that tests my points, to the participants’ putting pen to paper, to editing and rewriting. I wanted the book to take readers on that same sequential journey. That challenge was the easy one.

The larger challenge was to take a text that has no characters, no plot, no setting, no nuthin’ but a lesson that could be converted into a conversation, and work with the artist to create story elements from just the underlying thrust of the precepts. It took Maria, Eva Montanari, and me over 300 emails back and forth–this is largely how Maria learned Italian, this, and Italian rock songs–to bring it all into shape. Eva did a such a marvelous job of creating a self-referential universe that one doesn’t much notice that there is no story.

Then, there were the challenges with sourcing the touch and feel swatches, the scratch and sniff patch, the sound module, etc., but those are the challenges of the publisher and of the printer, and not of the writer.

Cynsational Notes

Awards and Honors for Show; Don’t Tell! Secrets of Writing: an International Reading Association-Children’s Book Council “Children’s Choices Award,” a National Parenting Publications “Honors Award,” a Learning Magazine “Parents’ Choice Award,” and it has been named to the American Booksellers’ Association’s Book Sense “Picks List,” and is a ForeWord Magazine “Book of the Year” Finalist.

Cynsational News & Links

“Do I Need an Agent and How Will I Know If I Do?”: a chat with Sharene Martin, co-founder of the Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency from the Institute of Children’s Literature. See also Wylie-Merrick Literary Agency.

“It’s Only Pink on the Outside” by Rosemary Graham from Not-So-Terrible After All. Rosemary talks about pink cover art, feminism, the associations of the “chick lit” label, and acknowledges its market power and limitations. Rosemary is the author of Thou Shalt Not Dump The Skater Dude (And Other Commandments I Have Broken)(Viking, 2005). Read a recent cynsations interview with her on the novel.

See also Author2Author: Megan Crane and E. Lockhart from Beatrice. See recent cynsational interviews with E. Lockhart on The Boyfriend List (15 guys, 11 shrink appointments, 4 ceramic frogs and me, ruby oliver)(Delacorte, 2005) and Fly on the Wall (Delacorte, 2006).

Star-Lit: A Children’s Literary Festival

My husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, and I had the honor of speaking yesterday at Star-Lit: A Children’s Literary Festival benefitting the Dallas Bethlehem Center at the Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas.

Other featured authors and/or illustrators were: Newbery winner Christopher Paul Curtis; illustrator Tracy Dockray (originally from Lubbock, now living in NYC); author “Farmer” Ted Dreier; author/illustrator Will Hillenbrand; author Sharon Robinson (daughter of baseball legend Jackie Robinson); author Dee Scallan; author Toni Simmons of Dallas; author Anastasia Suen of Plano; and author G. Clifton Wisler of Plano.

The festivities opened Friday night with a private party for the authors, donors, and volunteers, at the lovely home of one of the donors. Highlights included sparkling company, a Tex-Mex buffet, and a first-rate collection of classic and contemporary children’s illustrations. We left with “goodie bags” that were so heavy I had to ask Greg to carry mine.

After a good night’s rest at The Adolphus Hotel, the Festival opened with a breakfast with the authors and illustrators, which featured pancakes, eggs, autographing, and a magician.

Greg and I then spoke to three sessions of attendees at the events, autographed even more books, and made sure to purchase at least one book by each of the other speakers.

Because his plane was late getting in Friday night, I only had the opportunity to speak with Chris Curtis briefly, but he graciously purchased signed copies of my Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000) and Greg’s Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005).

Greg and I would like to send out our special thanks to event planner Jeff S. Morton of Frito-Lay and our gracious author liason Susi Grissom, the librarian at Travis Vanguard and Academy, a magnet school for gifted and talented 4th – 8th grade students in Dallas ISD.

All in all, it was one of my favorite events ever!

Cynsational News & Links

This weekend, I was pleased to learn that Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002) and Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) both were featured as American Indian Education Program Book Club Titles in the DISD Communicator.

PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship

The PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship of $5,000 is offered annually to a North American author of children’s or young-adult fiction. Eligible candidates are writers in financial need, who have published at least two books, and no more than five, during the past ten years, which have been warmly received by literary critics, but which have not generated sufficient income to support the author.

Previous winners have included Deborah Wiles, Graham McNamee, Lori Aurelia Williams, Franny Billingsley and Amanda Jenkins.

Submissions for this year’s award are due by January 16, 2006, and the Fellowship will be presented in May 2006 as part of the annual PEN Literary Awards.

Writers must be nominated by an editor or a fellow writer. It is strongly recommended that the nominator write a letter of support, describing in some detail how the candidate meets the criteria for the Fellowship. The nominator needs to provide:
— a list of the candidate´s published work (preferably accompanied by copies of reviews, where possible).
–a description of the candidate´s financial resources, such as a summary of recent earnings, or some articulation of why monetary support is particularly needed at this time (the need for child care, research expenses, etc.).
— three copies of no more than seventy-five pages of current work, intended as part of a new book.
— a self-addressed, stamped envelope of a suitable size if the candidate wishes return of the manuscripts.

All inquiries and nominations should be sent to:

Naylor Fellowship/PEN American Center
588 Broadway, Suite 303
New York, NY 10012

For more information, please call 212-334-1660 ext. 108 or email

Cynsational News & Links

Arthur’s blog from children’s book editor Arthur A. Levine.

BBYA Nominees 2006: (especially if you’re an LJ subscriber) take another look at this post, which now reflects updates for nominees since the last ALA update.

In Celebration of Books, Writing, Art, and The First Amendment from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 10 at the Chapin Auditorium at Mount Holyoke College is located on 50 College Street in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Featuring M.T. Anderson, Natalie Babbitt, Susan Cooper, Steven Kellog, David Macaulay, Gregory Maguire, Patricia MacLachlan, Fredrick and Patricia McKissack, Katherine Paterson and two-time Caldecott winner David Wiesner. “Following the discussion the NCBLA will host A Reception With The Authors, offering an opportunity for a limited number of guests to meet with the NCBLA authors and illustrators in an informal setting, with light fare, convivial beverages, and a chance to have your books autographed!”

Author Interview: Jennifer J. Stewart on Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind

Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind by Jennifer J. Stewart (Holiday House, 2004). From the catalog copy: “‘Think of it as an adventure,’ twelve-year-old Annie Ferris’s father tells her when he announces that the family will be spending the next two months in Nepal on a medical mission. But what sort of adventure is it if you have to leave behind your friends, sleep in a tent with your bratty little sister and actually be expected to eat something called yak cheese? Not an adventure Annie wants any part of. Then Annie meets Nirmala, a local girl, and she begins to get to know the real Nepal. Before long, Annie, her little sister Chelsea, and Nirmala embark on a journey, and the girls find themselves lost in a real-life obstacle course–with a snarling dog, a creaking rope bridge, and a darkening night sky. Will Annie be ready to handle the adventure she finds after all? In this warm and comic tour of self-discovery Jennifer J. Stewart gets to the heart of what it truly means to be a family.” See review excerpts and awards information. See also teacher’s guide.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

In 1999, my husband and I yanked our kids out of school and headed halfway around the world to the kingdom of Nepal. People said we were crazy, but he had always wanted to do medical volunteer work, and we realized that if we were to make it happen, we should do it before we had kids in high school, when they aren’t so easily uprooted.

We went with an organization called Helping Hands Health Education, and we worked in three villages: Khandbari, Kusma, and Bandipur. We were part of a medical team made up of American volunteers and Nepali staff. I learned on the job to be a scrub nurse (my husband is a surgeon), and, much to my surprise and his, found that if it wasn’t my vomit, blood, or pus, I could deal with it. We provided medical care and surgery using local anesthesia, without access to a lab or an operating room, only a pharmacy and a can-do attitude. (Duct tape was infinitely useful.) My husband and I shared a journal, taking turns writing in it, and our three daughters–then age ten, eight and five–also kept journals, although our youngest just drew pictures in hers.

I think I knew right from the start that the experience had the potential to become a book, so keeping a diary was my way of making it stick. I listened carefully when people told me stories. I was sure it could become a book when I found that many of our translators at the hospital were schoolchildren, and because our children worked alongside us.

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

My first novel, If That Breathes Fire, We’re Toast! (Holiday House, 1999), came out while we were in Nepal (I remember the surreal experience of reading my first Kirkus review in an Internet cafe in Kathmandu; my editor had emailed it to me). After we returned to the United States, I found I wasn’t ready to write the Nepal novel. I suppose I wanted the experience to marinate in my head, to get some distance from it, so I wrote The Bean King’s Daughter (Holiday House, 2002) next. But after that, I pulled out all our journals, and I wrote the beginning of what would become Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind in 2001.

In September 2001, I took the first five pages with me and work-shopped them at an Arizona Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators working writers retreat. I was lucky enough to have Bruce Coville read those pages, and buoyed by his comments, and telling myself to quit being chicken, I mailed off three chapters in February, 2002 to my editor at Holiday House, Regina Griffin. I applied for a Work-In-Progress Grant from the SCBWI, because I very much like entering contests, especially when I win. Anyway, even though I did not include the outline the option clause in my contract required, my editor made me an offer one month later. After debating a little bit with my conscience, I withdrew the ms from the SCBWI competition, because the contract offer came four days after the grant deadline. Technically I didn’t have to withdraw the manuscript, but it felt right.

Then I had to finish the book. I had seven months to do it. I had three chapters. They were good chapters, but it’s not like I had a plot. However, I had never had a plot before, so it wasn’t that worrisome.

You see, when I write a book, it’s like I’m hopping in my car, and I’ve decided I’m going to visit Alaska. I have only a vague idea where Alaska is, and an even vaguer idea of how I’m getting there, because I don’t have a map, and why would I stop for directions? Eventually I do arrive, and although I’ve made a lot of detours, this is the way writing works for me.

Chapter by chapter, I ran it by my critique group: C.S. Adler, Patricia McCord, and Janni Lee Simner. They would tell me what was wrong with the chapter; I’d fix it, and move on. The chapters were really rough, and I give them lots of credit for keeping me going, and not complaining too much about not seeing revised chapters, which would have taken twice as long. I turned in the manuscript in September 2002.

My Queen of Editors got back to me with comments in June 2003. Mostly, I had to go deeper into my main character’s head, keeping the focus squarely on my 12-year-old narrator Annie, and not her mother (a somewhat natural tendency, as I had lived that role). I also had to remember my readers were not planning a trip to Nepal, not to be a travel guide. So it was mostly cutting, but some interweaving of more layers, to give the book more emotional depth. I rewrote and sent back the manuscript in September. I had one more minor tweaking after that.

Then, there came one final, eleventh hour revision in the galley stage. My editor said that outside readers were objecting to the climactic scene where Annie, Chelsea, and Nirmala confront a growling dog protecting its territory. Nirmala throws rocks at the dog, but my editor said that the outside expert readers were claiming that action would cause American kids to become copycats. And that when American kids threw rocks at menacing dogs, they would get bitten.

I argued that Nirmala was not an American child, and she did what a Nepali child in her situation would do, but to no avail. I had to find a way for Nirmala to run interference for Annie and her little sister without throwing rocks, and I had to do it in the 110 lines allotted for that section in the galley proofs, no more, no less, if possible. I did, and I am so proud of that scene. It’s better than the original.

The book was delayed because the cover artist gave the creature on the cover blue-eyes instead of brown. That had to be fixed. I do love the cover, though!

Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind came out in November 2004. It has had lovely reviews, and I’m pleased to report it’s up for an Arizona Young Reader Award in 2007.

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

Usually I just make everything up when I write a book. But this book was different, more personal. It wasn’t going to work that way.

I had thousands of details in my head of Nepal, covering all five senses. In my initial draft, and even in my second one, I had the tendency to try and stuff them all in, and it made my manuscript sound like a travelogue, and a lot of that had to be cut. I also was a bit heavy on the medical stuff, and kids wouldn’t be interested in that. To bring this exotic place alive to my readers, I had to look for the telling detail, and only use one or two of those telling details per paragraph to make it real for my readers.

I did not only rely on my memory; I read every book on Nepal I could find, and I talked to everyone I could find who had been to Nepal about their experiences. I even met Sir Edmund Hillary, but he’s not in my book.

I think what scared me the most about writing this novel is that I was writing outside my culture. I had done it before with Rick Morales, the main character of If That Breathes Fire, We’re Toast!, but that felt natural because I’ve lived in southern Arizona most of my life, and Hispanic culture has been part of my upbringing.

But with Nepal, everything is different: terrain, religion, language, even the way you look at life, which appears more fatalistic to American eyes. I knew I would be crossing lots of lines, not just the racial one. Because my narrator, 12-year-old Annie, is traveling with her parents and her five-year-old sister to work as medical volunteers, I had a frame of reference from my own experience, so that’s what I started with. Annie and Chelsea befriend a Nepali girl, Nirmala, and it was Nirmala’s character that I knew would be crucial to the heart and soul of the book. If I didn’t get her right, I knew I would blow it. I did not want to do a disservice to the country and the people I had loved so much. Sometimes, when I read a book written by someone outside the culture it’s written about, it feels phony, or what’s worse, totally wrong-headed, and I did not want my book to feel fake.

The other thing that could have proved difficult was keeping the tone appropriate for my young readers. I had witnessed heartbreaking things in Nepal, but I didn’t use too much of that, except for when Annie puts her hand to a girl’s ribcage. Her heartbeat feels like a small frog trying frantically to escape, and Annie realizes that the girl will die, because there is no way she can have heart surgery. I didn’t want to get too grown-up for my readers, and I wanted it to be a funny adventure story, which it is, but it’s a whole lot more, too.

The hardest part was how to end the book. I was going to either have to leave Nirmala behind, or find a way to bring her to America for a visit. Eventually, I broke Nirmala’s arm in a way that required surgery to set it properly. With her mother’s blessing, and knowing it was her father’s wish that she continue her education to become a teacher, Nirmala leaves for America with Annie’s family. It is left open-ended as to when she will return, but I did not intend to have Annie’s family adopt her. I expected that someday they would return to the village with Nirmala.

It’s funny how your characters become so real, isn’t it?

What can your readers expect next?

I am working on another funny middle grade novel, due next May and if all goes well, that one should be out about a year later, in the summer of 2007. It is with a new publisher, one which I shall not name here, as I am still waiting for the contract to arrive. This one sold on the basis of two chapters and no outline, so I have my work cut out for me. Looks like I’m heading for Alaska again!

Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind and its characters still tug at my heart, though. I would enjoy the challenge of writing a sequel, a Nirmala in America type book, and maybe I will tackle that in the future.

Cynsational News & Links

Enter to win a Lara M. Zeises Prize Pack from Young Adult Books Central. Read a recent cynsations interview with Lara on Anyone But You (Delacorte, 2005).

Get ready for Children’s Book Week, Nov. 14-20! For related materials, information on celebrating, help promoting, its history and more, visit the Children’s Book Council.

DC Green Yarns: official site of award-winning and very funny children’s author, DC Green. Includes: first chapters, reviews, links. The author’s books include: Erasmus James & the Galactic ZAPP Machine.

Master Plots from Suggested on author board by Alex Flinn; suggestion passed on with permission.

BBYA Nominees 2006

Looking over the Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) nominee list, I thought it might be a good time to review those books on the list that have been recommended (see title links) and/or whose authors were interviewed (see author links) on cynsations:

Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking, 2005);

Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson (Harcourt, 2005);

Rebel Angels by Libba Bray (Delacorte, 2005);

Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War II by Joseph Bruchac (Dial, 2005);

Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2005);

Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You by Dorrian Cirrone (HarperCollins, 2005);

Shelf Life by Robert Corbet (Walker, 2005);

Fade to Black by Alex Flinn (HarperCollins, 2005);

The Vanishing Point: A Story of Lavinia Fontana by Louise Hawes (Houghton Mifflin, 2004);

Stained by Jennifer Richard Jacobson (Simon & Schuster, 2005);

Boy Girl Boy by Ron Koertge (Harcourt, 2005);

The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart (Delacorte, 2005);

Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie: A Novel by David Lubar (Dutton, 2005);

Pinned by Alfred C. Martino (Harcourt, 2005);*

A Room on Lorelei Street by Mary E. Pearson (Henry Holt, 2005);

Far From Xanadu by Julie Anne Peters (Little Brown, 2005);

Keep in mind the BBYA nominees list doesn’t reflect all books nominated–only those up to the last posted update. New nominees include cynsations featured:

Anyone But You by Lara M. Zeises (Delacorte, 2005);

The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence by Marc Aronson (Houghton Mifflin, 2005);

Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl by D.L. Garfinkle (Putnam, 2005).

Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today by Lori M. Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005). Features my short story “A Real-Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate.”

*GLS read and recommended.

Cynsational News & Links

Attention Austinites: As part of its “Year of Writing” program, my husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, and I will be speaking on “Writing the Young Adult Novel” at Barnes and Noble Westlake on Dec. 3, at 10:30 a.m.

An Interview with Sam Swope, author of The Araboolies of Liberty Street, from

Rick Riordan: debut children’s author of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Hyperion, 2005), which made the Texas Bluebonnet list. Rick lives in San Antonio and has previously published mysteries for adults. Visit Myth & Mystery, Rick’s blog.

Writing and Publishing Board Books by Harold Underdown of the Purple Crayon.

Author Feature: Lisa Yee: Millicent Min, Girl Genius; Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time

Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2003). From the catalog copy: “Millicent Min is having a bad summer. It isn’t easy being a genius. But when she finally puts her mind to it, she realizes just what it will take to make her first friend.” Winner of the winner of the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor from SCBWI. Read excerpt.

Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time by Lisa Yee (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Stanford Wong is having a bad summer. If he flunks his summer-school English class, he won’t pass sixth grade. If that happens, he won’t start on the A-team. If *that* happens, his friends will abandon him and Emily Ebers won’t like him anymore. And if THAT happens, his life will be over. Then his parents are fighting, his grandmother Yin-Yin hates her new nursing home, he’s being “tutored” by the world’s biggest nerdball Millicent Min–and he’s not sure his ballpoint “Emily” tattoo is ever going to wash off.” Read excerpt.

What was your inspiration for creating these books?

My first book, Millicent Min, Girl Genius (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2003), came out of a two-word joke. Child psychologist. I thought that was funny. A kid who was also a psychologist. I wrote an entire novel about an 11-year old who solved problems for adults. The book went through massive changes, including throwing out all the plots, but one thing remained true and ended up in the final version. The MC was lonely.

I had a happy childhood, lots of friends, and loving parents. Still, at times, I felt all alone. I thought that many kids might feel this way, too. So I wrote about it.

After I completed the novel, I was going to write a non-fiction. But my daughter, then about 11-years old, was so down on boys. She was convinced they were stupid and smelly, and could not understand why anyone would want them around. So I asked, “Would you read a book about Stanford?” (He was Millicent’s enemy in my first novel.) And she said, “Yes!”

I think she thought I’d prove her assessment about boys to be correct. But my motivation was different. I really wanted to do was to show her, and others, that boys are kinder and more sensitive and more confused than she could ever imagine. I wanted to give voice to boys who so often have a lot to say, but no forum. And so Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2005) was born.

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

Millicent Min, Girl Genius took years and years and years to write. I had been pulled from the slush pile by Arthur Levine, but was told “this isn’t the one, but I would love to see anything else you have.” So I told him about a story I had about a smart girl. I sent a synopsis and three sample chapters. He loved it and asked to see the complete manuscript. I panicked. I hadn’t written the book. I’d only implied that I did.

When I told him this, I expected to be banished from publishing forever. Instead, I was encouraged to keep writing. I sent in the novel (the one about the child psychologist) and Arthur loved the main character, but not the broad humor. He kept saying, “I want literature.” I wrote two more completely different novels, each time changing everything but the main character, before it became the book that is out today. The entire process took over six years. Although at one point, real life took over and for an entire year I didn’t write at all.

For Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time, I wrote the first draft in three months. By then I had figured out how to write a book. It went through about two or three more drafts until the final version. In all, the process was about two years.

I would like to add that there is an incredible amount of time and effort that goes into producing a book, that has nothing to do with the author. At least work/time-wise. Even though it took Stanford Wong’s novel two years to be released, my writing time was about a year of that. And it was not one continuous year. There is a lot of down time between completing a draft and getting it back from you editor with his/her notes. In my case, I actually work with two editors, Arthur Levine and Cheryl Klein, and I’m proud that both their names are listed in the back of Stanford Wong’s book!

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

One of the main challenges for the first novel was that I felt the weight of high expectations upon me. (I put them there, no one else did.) It wasn’t until I wrote the novel in e-mail format that I found Millicent Min’s true voice. You see, I was always e-mailing Arthur and he loved the humor that came out of our correspondence. But when I’d send book chapters they were so formal. That’s because I got too serious when writing. I really needed to loosen up to do my best work.

I began researching child geniuses quite a bit, then abandoned it. It finally dawned on me that I was writing a book about a child who happened to be a genius. Not a book about a genius who happened to be a child. However, I did Google extensively when looking up Latin phrases, trivia, etc.

Probably the biggest challenge was trying to find the time to write. I co-owned a business with a dozen employees and was working anywhere between 50 – 70 hours a week. I had two young children. And writing was low on priority list, coming in just after laundry and before going to the dentist. I wrote at night when all were asleep, between 11 pm and 2 am. However, once I got a contract, I cut back my career hours to 40 per week, and later to 20, and got really got serious about writing.

Logistically, Stanford’s novel was harder, and easier. I was writing full-time, but still was able to find tons of distractions. (I am excellent at this.) Since his book had the same timeframe as Millicent’s, key scenes and dialog had to overlap, yet each from distinctive points of view. Plus, the novel needed to have divergent plot lines and characters to sustain interested and make it a stand-alone book.

Whereas novel #1 was painful at times to write, novel #2 was a joy.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s novelists?

Read, read, write, read, write, and read and write. Read whatever you can. All genres, even books you are convinced you will hate. You need to know bad literature to appreciate good. And then write whenever you can. Carve out time for yourself and learn to value what you do. Only then can you succeed.

What insights do you have to share about writing humor?

There are two kinds of humor, slapstick and personal. I write personal humor, the kind that comes from life experiences. My novels are character driven, therefore so is my humor. I develop my characters, given them heart, and go from there. The jokes, the funny bits, the humorous scenes, they usually come last.

I taught a humor workshop recently and told the group that your book needs to stand up, even without the funny parts. Humor is the icing on the cake. It can bind a story together and give it a richness that enhances the plot, characters, theme. But without a great storyline and compelling characters, all you’d have are a bunch of random jokes.

How would you describe the landscape today of Asian American children’s literature?

When I wrote MMGG and made the protagonist Chinese American, it was not because of any ethnic agenda. I happened to have an Asian American MC because she reflected who I was. Therefore, I was surprised to get so many letters from girls who said they were Asian and had never read a book about a typical American girl like themselves. Or kids who were drawn to the book because they saw an Asian on the cover of a contemporary novel.

Stanford’s story was interesting to me because he was so anti-stereotype. An Asian kid who is a stellar athlete, but flunking in school. And boy, does he feel the pressure to get good grades. With his novel, I wanted to turn perceptions upside-down.

I like to celebrate a person’s ethnic heritage yet, at the same time, make it part of the fabric of the story, not the core. Since writing that first novel, I have been more aware of Asian American books, or lack of contemporary books featuring Asian American characters. Recently I blurbed a debut novel by Justine Chen Headley called The Truth and Nothing But the Truth (Little Brown, 2006), about a girl who is half Chinese and half Caucasian. It’s funny and touching and contemporary.

Of the children’s/YA books you’ve read this year, which are your favorites and why?

I love Cecil Castellucci‘s Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005), she really captured what it felt like to be an outsider. D.L. Garfinkle‘s Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl (Putnam, 2005) was hilarious. And, Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick (Scholastic, 2005) made me cry.

Right now I’m re-reading A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, 2001). This time it’s out loud to my son, and it’s even better sharing the story with someone you love.

Cynsational News & Links

See recent cynsational interviews with other humor writers: M.T. Anderson; Carolyn Crimi; Bruce Hale; Kathryn Lay; Dian Curtis Regan; Philip Yates. Congratulations to my husband, humor author Greg Leitich Smith, whose novel Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005) was nominated for the ALA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults List (see Books That Don’t Make You Blush).

An Agent’s Advice on Selling Your Artwork by Chris Tugeau from the Purple Crayon. See also The Artist/Agent Team.

2006-2007 Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List

The 2006-2007 Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List has been announced by the Texas Library Association. I’d like to send out a particular congratulations to:

my fellow Vermont College faculty member Carolyn Coman, for The Big House, illustrated by Rob Shepperson (Front Street, 2004);

upcoming visiting Vermont College faculty member Deborah Wiles, for Each Little Bird That Sings (Harcourt, 2005);

Newbery winner Linda Sue Park, for Project Mulberry (Clarion, 2005);

Austinite and illustrator Don Tate, for Sure As Sunrise: Stories of Bruh Rabbit & His Walkin’ Talkin’ Friends by Alice McGill (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). Congratulate Don on his blog!

Author Susan Taylor Brown and Illustrator Mary Sullivan on Oliver’s Must-Do List

Oliver’s Must-Do List by Susan Taylor Brown, illustrated by Mary Sullivan (Boyds Mills, 2005). From the flap copy: “All Oliver wants is for his mother to play with him. But when his mother checks her must-do list, she discovers there are too many things to do and no time for play. When her must-do list keeps filling up, Oliver comes back with his own rollicking solution.” Ages 4-up. See teacher’s guide; arrange a school-visit with Oliver; read Oliver’s blog.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Susan’s answer

STB: This book came about because of one of those things you read about happening to other people, other writers who are famous or make their publishers lots or money or are just so insanely talented that everyone in New York fights for the chance to work with them. (Okay, now you know one of my secret fantasies.) An editor asked me to write it. Gasp. Me? I was flattered and immediately got a giant case of writer’s block.

STB: Here’s the way it unfolded. My first picture book (Can I Pray With My Eyes Open (1999)) was with Hyperion. Knowing it would be better for that book in particular and my career in general if I could manage to sell them another book, I was a writing machine for a while, going over ever picture book in my drawer for possible revisions to make it suitable and beating my head against the keyboard trying to come up with a great idea. After yet another rejection from the editor (I swear I could hear the frustration in her voice) she finally asked if might want to take a stab at a Mother’s Day story because they needed one on their list. Did I? Of course I did.

STB: I spent some time thinking about the things I used to do with my kids when they were little and the things they used to do to entertain themselves. Our house was popular because we had a great staircase for sliding down (carpeted) and the kids all loved to do that and crash into a heap of pillows at the bottom. I was a “cool” mom because I let them do it. The way I figured it they were going to do it anyway when I wasn’t looking so I let them use the couch cushions to protect themselves at the bottom of the stairs. We had a few rules about the game but what my kids remembered most was that THEIR mom let them and other moms didn’t. From there I expanded on other memories and wondered about this mom that did all these great fun things with her kid and wondered if what looked like a good thing might actually be not so good when the kid’s friends started to make fun of him. The original title was Michael Martin Murphy’s Marvelous Mother. Alas, the alliteration didn’t work for the editor who asked for the book and even after a couple of revisions for her it just kept missing the mark and she finally said not to send it back anymore. I was crushed, of course. My big chance to do something an editor had asked me to do and I failed.

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

Susan’s answer

STB: The request for a Mother’s Day book came in February 2001 and was submitted in July 2001. That editor passed on it in about a week (gotta love those rapid email rejections). So I tore it apart and decided to come at it from another direction, to celebrate the joy of a child having an entire day devoted to playing with a parent. I worked on it for over a year, cutting and tightening, cutting and tightening, and then some more cutting and tightening. When I write a picture book I tend to write very long and have do a lot of cutting which is fine with me because I love revision. I ditched the title and changed the name of the main character. I read tons of knock knock jokes so I could write some of my own. I quizzed my kids on their childhood memories of things we used to do together. Then of course there were the numerous go rounds with my critique group and a few other trusty readers. In September of 2002 my agent finally started the submission process, including sending it to Boyds Mills Press. By December 2002 it had racked up 14 rejections and I told my agent not to bother sending it out anymore because it obviously needed even more work. She agreed with me and said the only place she hadn’t heard from yet was Boyds Mills Press. I figured it was lost in a stash somewhere and went on to other projects. In March of 2003 my agent called to tell me it had sold to Boyds Mills.

STB: In October 2003 my editor wrote and told me they had picked an artist and had some sample sketches they were reviewing for the book. Then he asked me how I felt about animal characters in general and rhinos in particular. As always with a picture book I’m amazed at the way an artist interprets my words. When I wrote the book I was picturing me with my kids over 20 years ago but when I saw Mary’s sketch of the little rhino in bunny slippers I felt it was the perfect way to show the story.

STB: I saw the almost final lasers in December 2004 and the color proofs in January 2005, right on track for the October 2005 pub date.

Mary’s answer

MS: Oliver’s Must-Do List was handed to me in October of 2003 at an illustrators conference in Honesdale Pennsylvania. This was going to be my first picture book. My friend Neil Waldman told me to keep the manuscript by my bed for several weeks. “Read it all the time”, he said. “The characters will unfold right before your eyes.” He was right.

MS: Deciding to make Oliver an animal was a no brainer. I wanted every child on the planet to be able to relate to him and using an animal as the character accomplished this.

MS: I went ahead though and created 3 characters just in case Tim Gillner, my art director at Boyds Mills, had something else in mind. I drew Oliver as a boy, a wooden boy and a rhino. I have no explanation for why I chose a rhino for the character. Tim liked the Rhino.

MS: I wanted Oliver to have a pet. There was no doubt about that. My neighbors have two Boston Terriers, Scooby and Shaggy. They are really funny little dogs. I wanted to use a small dog. Oliver is a big boy and I thought that having a really small dog would be a nice contrast. Also, I thought that a rhino boy with a Boston Terrier, living in Africa would be funny. At first I wanted him to have a pet that would be indigenous to the area, but changed my mind.

MS: I tried to give the pet something to do in every scene. He kind of has his own little life.

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

Susan’s answer

STB: Once these words were finally written down and the book was sold, most of my work was done and the next phase of the work fell to the illustrator. I think Mary did a marvelous job of bringing Oliver to life on the page. After the book was sold there were actually only a few minor revisions to Oliver’s story. Then I turned myself to writing Oliver’s next adventure. But that’s a story for another time.

Mary’s answer

MS: To myself, in the privacy of my studio, I admitted that I really had no idea what I was doing. I had only done editorial work. I had to trust Tim though. He had seen something in my work and he chose me for the job. I spent a lot of time in the beginning on self doubt.

MS: The time between getting the manuscript and signing the contract was a couple of months. I used it feverishly reading picture books and exploring different techniques. They say that you shouldn’t start on anything until you sign the contract but I couldn’t help myself. Once that manuscript hit my lap and I had read it once, my brain was illustrating, planning and visualizing……….24/7.

MS: There are so many picture books out there that I loved. Their styles ranged from very simple to fantastic. I loved the odd, sort of strange art in some picture books but Oliver was a simple story. It needed simple art. I really wanted to do it all in a sepia tone, but Tim wanted color.

MS: I chose to work digitally. This worked really well. I was able to go back and make changes if needed. In the end I was able to ftp all the files.

MS: All of my illustrations are initially drawn on paper with pencil. This is my absolute favorite part. I love to draw. The pencil drawings are detailed and totally complete before I scan them.

MS: After scanning, I color them in photoshop. Several commands allow me to paint behind the pencil illustration. Doing this helps the illustration retain it’s hand done look and I don’t loose any of the pencil line. The finished illustration doesn’t have that slick digital look. I didn’t want that stlye for the Oliver book. Also, by doing it this way I get to spend most of my time on the drawing. I love my pencil and I love to draw.

MS: I signed the contract sometime in December 2003. My illustrations were due June 31st 2004. I submitted my sketches asap. Tim approved them all. The only change was “no underwear” and “no faces on any inanimate objects.”

MS: He was very happy with my work. The self doubt lessened a little bit.

MS: It was time to get started. I wrote each page number on a little piece of torn paper and put them all in a jar. I chose the pages to work on randomly from the jar. This worked very well for me.

MS: The next several months were spent drawing. There were no problems or setbacks. It all went pretty smoothly. I finished on time.

MS: I really didn’t get much input from Tim. He seemed happy with everything I did. I guess. I was a little confused by that.

MS: I had envisioned these heated back and forth exchanges between the artist and the art director. I wonder where I got that idea. Anyhow, it wasn’t that way.

MS: My style has changed a lot since Oliver. I am much looser and eager to cross boundries. When I look at the Oliver book, I see a new picture book artist who was a little timid.

MS: But all in all, I think I did a nice job.

Cynsational News & Links

Australian Authors and Illustrators for Young People from the Australian School Library Association.

The Adventures of the Real Winnie the Pooh at the New York Public Library. “The REAL Winnie-the-Pooh won’t be found on a video, in a movie, on a T-shirt or a lunchbox. Since 1987, the REAL Pooh and four of his best friends–Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, and Tigger–have been living in the Central Children’s Room at the Donnell Library Center, part of The New York Public Library.”

Harry Potter and the Stony Broke Authors by John Erzad from The Guardian.

Author Interview: E. Lockhart on Fly on the Wall

Fly On The Wall by E. Lockhart (Delacorte, 2006). From the catalog copy: “At the Manhattan School for Art and Music, where everyone is “different” and everyone is “special,” Gretchen Yee feels ordinary. She’s the kind of girl who sits alone at lunch, drawing pictures of Spider-Man, so she won’t have to talk to anyone; who has a crush on Titus but won’t do anything about it; who has no one to hang out with when her best (and only real) friend Katya is busy. One day, Gretchen wishes that she could be a fly on the wall in the boys’ locker room–just to learn more about guys. What are they really like? What do they really talk about? Are they really cretins most of the time? Fly on the Wall is the story of how that wish comes true.”

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I was in the shower, trying to think of a fun title, because I have often had trouble titling my work and thought it might be smart to come up with a title first. I thought of that expression, “What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall…”

I liked the title, Fly on the Wall, so I asked myself: Where would a teenage girl want to be a fly on the wall?

The answer was obvious. A boys’ locker room.

Maybe being naked helped me think of the idea, I don’t know. It was my first naked writing experience.

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

I was contracted to do the sequel for The Boyfriend List (Delacorte, 2005), which is called The Boy Book, and comes out October 2006. I had proposed Fly on the Wall to be the book that would come after that. But Delacorte decided they wanted it right away, and the sequel should come later – so all of a sudden I was writing Fly (coming out March 2006), instead of The Boy Book, which was a bit of a shock.

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

Fly on the Wall is about a girl (Gretchen) who’s freaked out about the opposite sex. Through a magical fluke, she turns into a fly on the wall of the boys’ locker room in her high school, and spends a week seeing everything that boys do when no girls are looking. It’s about discovering lust, and about homophobia, and about realizing that boys are just people, too – even if they seem like aliens, sometimes.

I have never been in a boys’ locker room. I have never been in the body of a housefly. The challenge here was to imagine a world and an experience that was completely foreign to me – and to make it believable because I understood the emotions behind the experience.

I have no clue yet whether Fly on the Wall will be considered controversial. Delacorte was completely supportive of my representations of sexuality, and of the language in the book. I think of it as a very sex-positive novel, and that’s a message I think is very much needed by teenagers today. And at the same time, it’s just a romp. It’s racy, it’s ridiculous, it’s romantic.

I worked on the slang a lot – as in The Boyfriend List. I made up a universe of slang for Gretchen’s high school that allowed me to discuss in quite considerable detail things that might be unmentionable without the imaginary slang.

One last challenge was writing a wide range of ethnicities and socioeconomic classes into Gretchen’s New York City arts high school. I wanted Gretchen to be of mixed heritage in order to mimic the half-fly/half-human status she has for much of the book – and to echo the split lives of most superheroes (she’s a superhero fan). I gave her a Jewish mother and a Chinese American father, with classmates who are Irish American, Russian American, African American, Latino, Korean American, and so on – the melting pot of a New York City public school. I worked hard to make the relationships, backgrounds and class differences among the students ring true, and to do so subtly and respectfully. I think there is not enough diversity in lighthearted fiction for teenagers. Not yet.

Cynsational Notes

Read yesterday’s cynsations interview with E. Lockhart on The Boyfriend List (Delacorte, 2005).

My favorite comics include “Ultimate Spider-Man,” which is perfect for YAs.

My husband, Greg Leitich Smith, and I strongly agree with E. Lockhart’s statement that “there is not enough diversity in lighthearted fiction for teenagers. Not yet.” See our related article: “Multicultural Humor, Seriously.”

Humor in Multicultural Literature: A Bibliography: prepared by the EMIERT Children’s Services Committee for the June 27, 2005 Chicago ALA Annual Conference

Cynsational News & Links

Josephine “Joi” (pronounced “Joey”) Nobisso writes with news of two books: Show; Don’t Tell! Secrets of Writing (Gingerbread House, 2004), which presents visionary, grammar-based strategies in interactive, elegant comic book style; and The Numbers Dance, A Counting Comedy (Gingerbread House, 2005), which humorously conveys the not-to-be-trifled-with concept that numbers are fun.

Robert’s Snow 2005 began yesterday, Sunday, Nov. 6. Purchase an original piece of art by your favorite children’s book illustrator. Grace Lin writes that not only are these snowflakes exclusive (each one comes with it’s own certificate of authenticity) and beautiful, 100% of snowflakes sales will go to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/The Jimmy Fund. The 200 snowflakes are divided into 5 seven day auctions. The schedule is as follows:
Auction 1: Nov. 6-Nov. 13
Auction 2: Nov. 13-Nov. 20
Auction 3: Nov. 20-Nov. 27
Auction 4: Nov. 27-Dec.4
Auction 5: Dec. 4-Dec. 11