Author Update: Ellen Wittlinger

Ellen Wittlinger wrote poetry and plays before settling on writing fiction for teenagers. She’s published ten novels, one of which, Hard Love (Simon & Schuster, 1999), won a Michael L. Printz honor award and a Lambda Literary Award. Many of her books are on the ALA Best Books lists. Her most recent novel is Sandpiper (Simon and Schuster, 2005). Read a February 2000 Cynsational interview with Ellen Wittlinger. For more information go to her website: www.ellenwittlinger.com.

We last spoke in February 2000, shortly after the announcement that your YA novel Hard Love had been named a Printz Honor Book. Looking back, in what ways did that recognition change your career? How about your own attitude and approach to your books and publishing?

Maybe the most important thing that winning the Printz Honor Award did was make me feel legitimate in my own eyes. Even though it was my third YA novel, winning a major prize gave me a feeling of acceptance in the field that I hadn’t had before. Suddenly I felt confident about saying, “Yes, this is what I do–I write novels for teenagers.”

I’m not really sure how it changed my career. I guess it gave me a certain amount of clout with my publisher that I didn’t have before, but then, clout is not anything I know what to do with anyway, so I probably wasted it.

And I was as proud, if not more proud, of winning the Lambda Book Award that year too. That was flabbergasting. It made me believe that I could go outside the boundaries of my white, straight, female, middle-class self and write about the characters who really interested me.

Since then you’ve published several titles, all with Simon & Schuster–Gracie’s Girl (2000)(read excerpt); What’s In A Name (2000); Razzle (2001); The Long Night of Leo and Bree (2002); Zig Zag (2003); and Heart on My Sleeve (2004). Could you give readers a very brief summary of each, and a line or two as to what inspired each story or the greatest challenge in writing it?

Gracie’s Girl is the story of 11-year-old Bess whose wonderful parents are so busy helping the less fortunate that they sometimes don’t have time for her. Bess reluctantly gets involved with the building of a homeless shelter in her town and meets Gracie, an elderly woman who’s been sleeping on the loading dock of a furniture store and eating out of the supermarket dumpster. Despite her misgivings, Bess has to help Gracie. This idea was born because my own children regularly spent time helping out at a local soup kitchen, and I realized just how much helping other people was also helping THEM.

What’s in a Name is a novel in ten short stories, each of which is narrated by a different teenager at Scrub Harbor High School. The town has been divided into those people who want to change its name to the more classy-sounding “Folly Bay” and those whose families have lived in Scrub Harbor for generations and have no intention of changing it to anything else. This battle reaches down into the high school and kids find themselves lining up along class lines. It’s also a book about stereotypes. The chapters are written by “the jock,” “the gay kid,” “the artist,” “the new guy,” “the politician,” etc. But as the reader gets to know what the person is really like underneath, how they feel personally, it’s harder to pigeonhole them. The impetus for the book was to take some of the high school stereotypes and break them down. Kids so often deal with each other as their stereotypes and not as real people, so I wanted my characters to confront each other and find out the truths behind the stereotypes.

Razzle was an entirely character-driven book. I’d been spending time on Cape Cod, in Truro and Provincetown, where I used to live, and I wanted to set a book there and people it with some of the offbeat characters who live in a place like that, at the end of the earth. I was at the town dump when I began to imagine Razzle working there, who she was, where she lived, and how she became an artist. The book grew entirely from that character–a girl who has little money, few friends, and a sparse and oddball family–but a great imagination and a lot of heart.

The Long Night of Leo and Bree is loosely based on an incident that happened to a friend of mine. After the tragic murder of his sister, Leo’s family falls apart, his mother becomes a drunk, and Leo himself begins to feel more than a little crazy with guilt. On a particularly bad night, he sees Bree out walking alone and kidnaps her with the initial idea of killing her as a kind of replacement for his sister. Instead, the two spend a long night locked together in a basement, figuring out what’s gone wrong and whether there is any way to save themselves.

Zigzag is the road trip novel I’d been wanting to write for awhile. There’s nothing like piling a group of people into a car and taking off for the great, empty western states. Of course, when the people are your grieving, crazy aunt and two cousins, the results could be unexpected. Robin is not in good shape herself as she tries to come to terms with the possibility that, between her boyfriend’s summer in Europe and his beginning college halfway across the country, she may be losing the love of her life. I wanted to show Robin (and my readers) that there’s always more excitement in life than you might think–you just have to look for it and grab it when you see it.

Heart on My Sleeve is written entirely in emails, Instant Messages, letters and postcards. It began as almost an exercise, to see if I could do it. And it was loads of fun. Chloe meets Julian at a college pre-frosh weekend in the spring. They like each other a lot and begin an email correspondence that lasts over the summer until they see each other again in August. They also correspond with friends and relatives during this time, both of them excited about what they feel is their burgeoning romance. I wanted to write a story about how we reveal ourselves to other people. When and how we tell the truth, and how we can misread each other’s words so that we hear what we want to hear.

I’d like to focus on your latest release, Sandpiper (Simon & Schuster, 2005). Could you tell us a bit about the story?

Sandpiper is a girl whose been in a downward spiral the last few years. In an attempt to attract boys, she began having oral sex with them in middle school, but somehow her relationships never seemed to move past that point. By her second year of high school, she’s sick of herself, sick of the boys, and furious with her father who also has trouble seeing beyond her suddenly voluptuous body. She meets a mysterious boy who she’s seen walking all over town. He won’t tell her his name so she just calls him The Walker. It’s clear he has secrets he won’t tell anyone, but Sandpiper is ready to divulge her secrets, and, because he seems so serious, even wise, she decides maybe The Walker is person who can help her figure things out.

What was the initial inspiration for creating this book?

There’s been so much written lately about middle-school age girls performing oral sex on boys. It seems to have become almost an emotionless rite-of-passage. It seemed to me this couldn’t be good for these girls in the long run, for their self-esteem, or for their feelings about their own bodies. I wanted to follow it through and see what happens to a girl like that when she’s a little older. The story of The Walker is based on a story I heard (not to give anything away) which also seemed to be the kind of trauma a teenager would be hard pressed to recover from.

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

Most of my books take a year, more or less, to write. I didn’t do much research for this book, so it may have taken a little less. It was fairly smooth sailing until the end which I rewrote several different ways. I wanted drama, but not melodrama–sometimes that’s a difficult line to walk. And what kind of relationship did I want these two to have by the end? Would I make it clear or leave it up in the air? Would there be a trial? Those were the hard questions.

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

One of the challenges was to write a poem in Sandpiper’s voice to end each of the chapters. I’d really wanted to do this in a book for a while, and I thought it suited Sandpiper better than any other character I’d had. I started my writing life as a poet, so it was fun to dig back into that way of expressing myself. But, of course, it wasn’t really “my” poetry, it was hers, so that was sometimes a struggle. Did the poems sound too much like MY poetry? What was HER voice like?

The other difficulty was deciding how much to say about Sandpiper’s sexual experiences. I didn’t want to shy away from that aspect of things because, after all, that was the impetus for the book. But I think, as a YA writer, you’re always very aware of where the line is. Will this sentence keep the book out of high schools? Middle schools? Is it worth that? I want the book to be widely read–I think this topic is very relevant to kids today–but dealing directly with a subject like this can whittle down the number of kids who ever have access to the book.

Of your own recent reads for the children’s/YA audience, which are your favorites and why?

I loved Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins (HarperCollins, 2005), Totally Joe by Jim Howe (Atheneum, 2005), Looking for Alaska by John Green (Dutton, 2005), and Margaux with an X (Candlewick, 2004)(or just about anything else) by Ron Koertge (author interview).

I also love the new stuff by Brent Hartinger, David Levithan, Rachel Cohn, and Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2005). There are some fabulous new young writers coming along. Oh, and Feed [by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 2002)], though not so new, is one of my all-time favorites.

As you can probably tell from this list, character is ALL for me. Well, character and humor, which all of these writers do very well. I don’t care what the character is doing (although I know I should) as long as they invite me into their engaging minds. Oh, and my very, very favorite YA book, now 15 years old, is Celine by Brock Cole (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989). Every character in that book is fabulous and hilarious, even when they’re poignant and sad.

What can your fans expect from you next?

In summer 2006 a novel called Blind Faith will be out. It’s about how people deal with death, and particularly about the MCs mother who turns to a Spiritualist church to try to contact her dead mother’s spirit. Then in 2007, Parrotfish will be out. I can’t wait for this one–it’s the most fun I’ve had writing a book in ages. It’s about a female-to-male transgendered boy coming to terms with his identity in high school. And it’s funny.

Cynsational Notes

An Interview with Ellen Wittlinger from Authors Among Us: Children’s Writers Who Are Or Have Been Librarians.

Author Profile: Ellen Wittlinger from Teenreads.com.

Ellen Wittlinger Chat from the YA Authors Cafe, hosted by YA suspense author Nancy Werlin.

Cynsational News & Links

Best of 2005: Illustrators’ Gallery from PaperTigers.org. Featuring children’s literature of South Asia and the Pacific Rim.

Cheryl Harness, author-illustrator of The Remarkable Benjamin Franklin (National Geographic, 2005), is the featured author of the month at Embracing the Child. See also the featured illustrator, Frank Ordaz.

I’m blogging lately on Spookycyn about chocolates, Christmas, tea, and the perils of brainstorming a manuscript while walking on the treadmill.

Cynsational News & Links

Favorites of 2005–Older Readers: year-end picks from author Greg Leitich Smith. Greg is the author of Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003) and Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005).

The Goddess of YA Literature blogs of late about Double Identity by Margaret Peterson Haddix (Simon & Schuster, 2005)(read excerpt); Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg by Gail Carson Levine (Disney Press, 2005)(read interview); M or F? by Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts (Razorbill, 2005); Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money by Christopher Paul Curtis (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2005); Rebel Angels by Libba Bray (Delacorte, 2005)(author interview); Wild Roses by Deb Caletti (Simon & Schuster, 2005); and more.

Greg and I gave signed copies of Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money to our critique group for the holidays. We spoke on a program also featuring Christopher Paul Curtis at Star-Lit: A Children’s Literary Festival in Dallas this past November.

Meet Marla Frazee from BookPage. Marla is the author-illustrator of Santa Claus: The World’s Number One Toy Expert (Harcourt, 2005).

Teen Comments on Books Eligible for 2006 Awards and the 2005 Teens’ Top Ten from Genrefluent. See also Teen Comments on Books Eligible for 2006 Awards. (Nominee authors, this is a great exercise, but please note that the teens are not always diplomatic).

Author Interview: Rick Riordan on The Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (Hyperion, 2005). From the promo copy: “What if the gods of Olympus were alive in the 21rst Century? What if they still fell in love with mortals and had children who might become great heroes — like Theseus, Jason and Hercules? What if you were one of those children? Such is the discovery that launches twelve-year-old Percy Jackson on the most dangerous quest of his life. With the help of a satyr and a daughter of Athena, Percy must journey across the United States to catch a thief who has stolen the original weapon of mass destruction – Zeus’ master bolt. Along the way, he must face a host of mythological enemies determined to stop him. Most of all, he must come to terms with a father he has never known, and an Oracle that has warned him of betrayal by a friend.” Ages 10-up.

Rick Riordan was a middle school teacher for 15 years in Texas and California. His first adult mystery novel, Big Red Tequila, was published in 1997. Since then, his Tres Navarre private investigator series has won the Edgar, Anthony and Shamus Awards. His short fiction has appeared in Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. His first book for children, The Lightning Thief, was named a New Times Notable Book for 2005 and one of the best books of the year by School Library Journal and Child Magazine. It has been optioned for feature film by Twentieth Century Fox. Rick now writes full time. He lives in San Antonio, Texas with his wife and two sons.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My son was eight years old at the time, and having a hard year in school. He’d just been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, and he didn’t like much in school except Greek mythology. I’d taught the Greek myths for years in sixth grade, so I tried to capitalize on his interest by telling him bedtime stories from the myths. When I ran out of myths, he asked me to make up a new one. Off the top of my head, I created Percy Jackson, a modern kid with ADHD and dyslexia who finds out that his real father is the god Poseidon.

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

After I told the story, my son asked me to write it down. I spent a year doing that. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it except my immediate family. It was surprisingly easy to write. Some stories just come out more naturally than others. When I was done, I sent it out under a pseudonym, because I wanted the book to stand or fall on its own merits. I immediately got agent, who got multiple offers within a few weeks. I wish publishing was always that easy!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life? Were your experiences as an author of adult mysteries and/or as a classroom teacher helpful? If so, how?

The main challenge was finding time to write, since I was already doing a book a year and teaching full-time. But as I tell aspiring writers all the time, if you really want to do something, you somehow manage to find the time.

Writing adult mysteries before The Lightning Thief was certainly helpful. I knew I could write a novel. I understood the mechanics of creating scenes and dialogue. My teaching experience was also indispensable.

While I was writing the book, I imagined my students as my audience. It helped me get the pace and the tone right. I knew middle school kids well. I knew what they found exciting and funny, and what they found boring.

In addition to your Web site, you also offer a blog to your readers. How would you describe the overall content and your approach to it?

The blog is nothing fancy. I add things to it as I have the time. I like the blog format because it’s less formal — like an on-line journal/scrapbook where I can store random thoughts, pictures, reviews, interesting news articles. I have fun with it, but I don’t spend a lot of time with it. I imagine my readers would rather have me spend my time finishing the next book, not writing blog articles!

What can your fans look forward to next?

The next Percy Jackson book, The Sea of Monsters, will be out in April 2006. There will be three more books in the Percy series. I’m also working on two more Tres Navarre adult mysteries.

Cynsational Notes

Awards and Honors for The Lightning Thief include: A Best Book of 2005, School Library Journal; A New York Times Notable Book of 2005; A Best Book of 2005, Child Magazine; Bluebonnet Award Nominee 2006, Texas Library Association; Askews Torchlight Award Shortlist, 2006.

Learn more about Rick Riordan’s books for adults. See also an Interview with Rick Riordan and read his advice for aspiring writers.

Cynsational News & Links

This past week most of my Web site visitors were from California and Virginia, so here’s a special howdy to them! The top search phrases (with links to related pages) were: young adult novels; Indian Shoes; writing for children; children’s book illustrators; young adult books; writing books; adult books; interracial children; and illustrators.

Children’s Picture Books with Librarians and Libraries: An Annotated Bibliography from Matthew Z. Heintzelman, School of Library and Information Science, University of Iowa Foundations of Library and Information Science. Subpages include: librarians and control; non-fiction books; spinster librarians; librarians as facilitators; miscellaneous librarians; maternal librarians; feline librarians; fearsome librarians; and reference bibliography.

Greg Leitich Smith blogs about Close Encounters of a Third-World Kind by Jennifer J. Stewart (Holiday House, 2004)(recent cynsational author interview).

Diva by Alex Flinn (HarperCollins, fall 2006): see the cover art, take a sneak peek, and read an excerpt. Diva is a companion to Alex’s Breathing Underwater (HarperCollins, 2001). See also Alex Flinn on Breaking Point (HarperCollins, 2002).

“How to Stay Sane When Nobody Within A Thousand Miles Believes in You :” an Institute of Children’s Literature chat with R.A. Nelson, author of Teach Me (Razorbill, 2005)(recent cynsations author interview).

Happy Holidays

Many blessings of the holiday season to all my Cynsational readers!

My husband, Greg Leitich Smith, and I plan to stay in Austin and have a quiet holiday at home. We’re having chicken-and-lobster cooked together for dinner on Christmas Eve and turkey on Christmas Day. Our guests this coming week include my cousin Elizabeth, who’ll be arriving from New York City where she works as a teacher. I dedicated my first novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), to Elizabeth.

I also look forward to my 38th birthday on New Year’s Eve. When I was a little girl, I thought that the whole world was celebrating me that night.

Guess who was an only child?

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to illustrator Don Tate, whose picture book manuscript was an honor winner of the Lee & Low New Voices Award Honor winner!

Best Children’s Books of 2005 from Kirkus Reviews (PDF file). Highlights include: Me, All Alone, At the End of the World by M.T. Anderson, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick, 2005)(author interview) and The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence by Marc Aronson (Clarion, 2005)(author interview).

Madame Esmé’s 2005 Recommendations for New and Exciting Children’s Literature from Planet Esmé. Highlights include: Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by John Manders (Candlewick)(author-illustrator interview); Bubba and Beau, Best Friends by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Arthur Howard (Harcourt)(author interview); Ready Or Not, Dawdle Duckling by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by Margaret Spengler (Dial)(author interview); The Happiest Tree: A Yoga Story by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Ruth Jeyaveeran (Lee and Low)(author interview); Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles (Harcourt); Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson (Harcourt)(author interview), and Beyond the Great Mountains: A Visual Poem About China by Ed Young (Chronicle)(author-illustrator interview). See also Esmé’s Holiday Picture Book Picks!

Author Interview: Jordan Sonnenblick on Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie

Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick (Scholastic, 2004)(read excerpt). Thirteen-year-old Steven’s life is all about playing drums for the All-Star Jazz Band, worshipping queen bee Renee Albert, and enduring the annoying attentions of his baby brother Jeffrey. But then Jeffrey is diagnosed with leukemia, and everything changes–the family routine, family finances, parent-son relationships, even Steven’s popularity at school. Funny and touching, this tremendous debut novel is a story of life and death, loves lost and found, and an affecting inner journey. It doesn’t miss a beat. Ages 10-up. CYALR HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I teach 8th grade English in New Jersey. One of my students had a younger brother who was being treated for cancer. I wrote this book because when I went to find a book that would help my student to deal with her family’s crisis, I couldn’t find one.

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

I wrote the novel very quickly: two weeks of research and ten weeks of frantic word processing. For those twelve weeks, life was a whirl of teaching all day, parenting all evening, and then writing from the time the kids went to bed until I finally collapsed into bed myself.

I finished the book in April of 2003, and signed the original publishing contract on July 1 of that year — so the path to publication looked rosy.

Then my first publisher, a lovely small literary press called DayBue Publishing, went out of business in June 2004, just three weeks after they released Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie in hardcover.

Thankfully, the book was nominated for BBYA and selected as a Fall 2004 BookSense pick within days of my publisher’s closing, so I was able to turn around very quickly and negotiate a deal with Scholastic to reprint it. They also bought my second novel for young adults, which I had just finished, so things turned out better than I could have imagined.

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

The research task was massive; I wanted to write about cancer realistically enough that the book would stand up to the most intense scrutiny from people who knew EVERYTHING about cancer. Fortunately, my childhood best friend is a pediatric oncologist, so he was my research guru. The literary and logistical challenges were no different from those faced by any first-time novelist with a family and a demanding day job.

The psychological part was the real kicker. When I was writing this book, I “borrowed” the wonderful personality of the younger brother from my son, Ross, who was five at the time. It was truly wrenching to put this beautiful paper child, who “felt” like my son to me, through the agonies of cancer treatment.

You do a wonderful job of balancing comedy and tragedy. What is the role of humor in a novel with serious themes?

Well, Frank McCourt was my high school creative writing teacher, and what I learned in Mr. McCourt’s class (and, later on, from reading Angela’s Ashes [Scribner, 1996][winner of the Pulitzer Prize]) is that people laugh a lot during the saddest times in their lives — or at least, resilient people do. And that laughter is the cornerstone of the healing process, at least for me.

Plus, thankfully, I’ve never met anyone who was sad 24/7/365. So even the most serious novel should have some humor in it, I think, if only for veracity!

Your protagonist, Steven, is age 13, which arguably puts this novel in the ‘tweener category. What are the particular challenges of reflecting this age group? How about marketing a book that isn’t clearly middle grade or upper YA?

You know what? When I told my older sister I was writing a funny novel about a 13-year-old whose little brother has cancer, she said, “Sounds like a real commercial blockbuster. Let me know how that goes!” So, needless to say, marketing was the farthest thing from my mind. I wasn’t thinking “middle grade” or “YA” — I just had to tell this particular story. The fact that the book is actually selling well is just a cosmic bonus.

This is one of the most intensely internal novels I’ve ever read, even though it has a strong external arc. Your technique of using italics for speech only heightens that sense of reader-character intimacy. Then in the last chapter, those quotation marks for the dialogue sound so loud, so alive, so much a part of the world. Could you talk about your process?

I truthfully have no idea how or why I chose the italics throughout, capped off by the quotation marks at the end. I just knew while I was writing that the italics were adding to the internal intensity. Then when I got to the last chapter, the quotes felt right.

I know that sounds horribly anti-analytical, but I was concentrating so hard on polishing the cancer parts and the actual wording of the dialogue that everything else was either secondary or just decided unconsciously. Just please don’t tell my students or my editor that I didn’t have it all 100% planned, with a detailed rationale for every move up front…

Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie is your debut novel. Could you describe your path to publication? What advice do you have for other writers traveling along the way?

As I said above, my path to publication was completely bizarre — so I’m not sure anybody should ever get any publication pointers from me! The only real advice I have is to read a ton of books on publication, especially Judith Appelbaum‘s How to Get Happily Published [HarperCollins, 1998]. Also, network; tell everyone you know that you’ve written a book and are looking for a publisher. If nothing else, you will certainly find out who your true friends are.

What can your readers look forward to next?

I’m thrilled to announce that my second novel for young adults, Notes from the Midnight Driver, will be published by Scholastic Press in September 2006. You can read the first chapter at www.jordansonnenblick.com. For what it’s worth, both my mom and my dad liked Notes better than Drums. And the author’s parents must be totally unbiased, right?

Cynsational News & Links

Author Interview from Jordan Sonnenblick’s Web site.

“Some Stories are Meant to be Heard: Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie” from Bookselling This Week. September 2004. Offers more insights into the novel’s publication history.

Summary and Commentary: more on Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie from the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database. See also a review from Teenreads.com.

Super Sibs: “To Honor and Recognize Brothers and Sisters of Children with Cancer.”

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to one of my Vermont College/UI&U MFA students, Marguerite Houle, recipient of the Houghton Mifflin Scholarship, as well as to Stephanie Green, recipient of the Anita Silvey Scholarship and Sarah Sullivan, recipient of the Harcourt Post Graduate Scholarship!

Congratulations to Tanya Lee Stone, whose upcoming novel, A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2006), is a School Library Journal Book of the Week (read the review)!

Kat’s Eye: musings, rants, and raves on writing, balancing work and family, and life after the MFA: from Kim Winters.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: a CBC Teacher Movie Review by Monica Edinger.

Clara Dunkle’s Advice On Storytelling and Writing Fiction offers articles on the Basics of Fiction Writing, Writing Fictional Characters, Composing Dialog, Creating Fantasy Worlds, Suggestions for Adult Writers, and Suggestions for Young Writers.

Excerpt: Broken China by Lori Aurelia Williams (Simon & Schuster, 2005): hear the author read from the novel from National Public Radio. Lori is from Austin.

Author D. Anne Love’s Web site is newly redesigned by Erik Kuntz of 2 Bad Mice Design. D. Anne’s books include The Puppeteer’s Apprentice (Simon & Schuster/McElderry, 2003); The Secret Prince (Simon & Schuster/McElderry, 2005); Semiprecious (Simon & Schuster/McElderry, 2006); and Of Numbers and Stars: The Story of Hypatia (Holiday House, 2006)(note: Hypatia the first woman mathematician).

I was heartened to read on Big A little A about an event sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, which involved Muslim, Jewish, and Roman Catholic children in New York coming together to paint pictures of Jerusalem. The event was inspired by Jerusalem Sky: Stars, Crosses, and Crescents by Mark Podwal (Doubleday, 2005), which was one of my picks for Cynsational Books of 2005.

The YA Novel and Me: author Gail Giles‘ LJ weighs in on recent reads, including Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (Knopf, 2006), Sandpiper by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon & Schuster, 2005)(read excerpt), Rainbow Party by Paul Ruditis (Simon & Schuster, 2005), and Open Ice by Pat Hughes (Random House, 2005).

“When Are You Going to Write A Novel for Adults?” by Gennifer Choldenko from Children’s Book Council Magazine. Gennifer is the author of 2005 Newbery Honor Book Al Capone Does My Shirts (Putnam, 2004), and Notes From A Liar And Her Dog (Putnam, 2001). Her debut picture book, How To Make Friends With A Giant, illustrated by Amy Walrod (Putnam, 2006), will be followed by a new novel in spring 2007.

Doña Flor by Pat Mora, illustrated by Raúl Colón

Doña Flor: A Tall Tale About A Giant Woman With A Great Big Heart by Pat Mora, illustrated by Raúl Colón (Knopf, 2005)(look inside). In this heartwarming and humorous original tall tale, Doña Flor is a giant woman living in a tiny southwestern village. She shows great kindness to her neighbors, especially children, and loves to read. One day, an enormous roar echoes, frightening all those Doña Flor loves. Whatever will she do? Ages 4-up.

My Thoughts

Pat Mora has brought to life an original tall tale that feels as fresh as it does timeless. The story itself is an inspiration, and her language in telling it is vivid and enchanting. Likewise, the art is breathtaking.

What’s more, I cannot reveal the surprise twist in this story, but I have to say that I love it!

In addition to its charm as a story, this book would be wonderful for those seeking varied images of strong girls and women, especially given Doña Flor’s giant status. She’s a large, big-hearted, and beloved woman who uses her strength to protect and nuture others.

Pat Mora and Raúl Colón also are the creators of another wonderful picture book, Tomás and the Library Lady (Knopf, 1997). It received the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, an IRA Teacher’s Choice Award, a Skipping Stones Award, and was also named a Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List title and an Americas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature commended title.

Pat is a native of El Paso, Texas, and now makes her home in Santa Fe.

Raúl lives in New York City.

Cynsational News & Links

Meet the Illustrator: Raúl Colón from Houghton Mifflin. Includes photo. See also Raúl Colón’s art at Storyopolis Art Gallery.

Meet the Author: Pat Mora from Houghton Mifflin. Includes photo.

Another new giant book is Walter The Giant Storyteller’s Giant Book of Giant Stories by Walter M. Mayes, illustrated by Kevin O’Malley (Walker, 2005). Read a recent cynsational interview with the author and illustrator!

Seasonal Notes

I’ve already highlighted some 2005 holiday picture books and featured author interviews with Kathleen Long Bostrom on Josie’s Gift, illustrated by Frank Ordaz (Broadman & Holman, 2005) and with Marilyn Helmer on One Splendid Tree, illustrated by Dianne Eastman (Kids Can Press, 2005).

But I’d also like to mention Santa Baby by Janie Bynum (Little Brown, 2005) and one of best of the backlist Fancy That (scroll) by Esther Hershenhorn, illustrated by Megan Lloyd (Holiday House, 2003)(see teacher’s guide).

Cynsational News & Links

Geography Club Banned! The Final Chapter from Voices in My Head, author Brent Hartinger’s blog. See Dec. 16, 2005 update post. Read a recent related cynsations author interview with Brent.

“JK Rowling in Full:” the full transcript of Jeremy Paxman’s exclusive interview. Broadcast on BBC Two in June, 2003. Surf over to spookcyn for my thoughts on the film “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

The New York Public Library has announced it’s recommended children’s books of 2005 in the following categories: folk and fairy tales; non-fiction; picture books; poetry and song; stories for older readers; and stories for younger readers.

Highlights included Bee-bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Ho Baek Lee (Clarion, 2005)(see my related thoughts)(Linda Sue’s Project Mulbery (Clarion, 2005) also made the list), Sketches From A Spy Tree by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, illustrated by Andrew Glass (Clarion, 2005)(see my related thoughts); Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles (Harcourt, 2005)(see my related thoughts); Gentle’s Holler by Kerry Madden (Viking, 2005)(see author interview); Where The Great Hawk Flies by Liza Ketchum (Clarion, 2005)(see author interview); and Spy Mice by Heather Vogel Frederick (see author interview).

The NYPL also offers recommended “Books for the Teen Aged 2005” (full PDF available). Highlights included Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Cinco Puntos, 2004), which was my pick for Cynsational YA Novel of 2004, and The Vanishing Point by Louise Hawes (Houghton Mifflin, 2005)(see author interview).

Spacer and Rat by Margaret Bechard (Roaring Brook 2005): a recommendation from Greg Leitich Smith’s blog.

“Working Together as a Writer and Illustrator Team” with Linda Lowery and Richard Keep from the Institute of Children’s Literature. An ICL guest chatlog.

Author Update: Jane Yolen

Biography quoted from Jane Yolen Official Web Site: “Jane Yolen is an author of children’s books, fantasy, and science fiction, including Owl Moon [Philomel, 1987], Devil’s Arithmetic [Viking, 1988], and How do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? [Scholastic, 2000]. She is also a poet, a teacher of writing and literature, and a reviewer of children’s literature. She has been called the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the twentieth century. Jane Yolen’s books and stories have won the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, two Christopher Medals, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, the Golden Kite Award, the Jewish Book Award, and the Association of Jewish Libraries Award.”

CYN NOTE: publication information added for your ordering convenience.

Your last interview on my site centered on Hippolyta and the Curse of the Amazons (HarperCollins, 2002), and I corresponded with both you and your co-author, Robert J. Harris. That was four years ago. What have been your publication highlights since?

Pay The Piper [Tor/Starscape, 2005] with son Adam [Stemple], a rock ‘n roll fairy tale, which has some movie interest.
The Salem Witch Trials: An Unsolved Mystery from History [Simon & Schuster, 2004] with daughter Heidi Stemple, which teachers say they love.
Fine Feathered Friends [Boyds Mills, 2004] with son Jason Stemple, which was an Honor Book for the 2005 Massachusetts Book Award.
Baby Bear’s Chairs, illustrations by Melissa Sweet [Harcourt, 2005] because it stars a favorite character of mine.
How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?, illustrations by Mark Teague [Scholastic, 2004] because it hit the New York Times bestseller list.

I was particularly taken with your recent release, Soft House, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halprin (Candlewick, 2005). It reminded me of my own childhood, playing with my next-door-neighbor Kathryn. Could you offer some insight into the initial inspiration behind that book and any challenges you faced along its path to publication?

My children used to play Soft House and I first wrote it back 30 years ago. It went to about five editors who said nice things and didn’t buy it. Five years later, I rewrote it, tried again. Same results. Five years on, ditto. Fast forward five years ago–and I sold it to Liz Bicknell at Candlewick who had me rewrite it about seven times and found the ever wonderful Wendy Halperin to illustrate. Since my children all have children of their own, I chose to name the characters after two of them, the only brother-sister pair.

Your latest bestsellers are How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? illustrated by Mark Teague (Scholastic, 2000) and its sequels. I enjoyed reading “How the Book How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? Came to Be Written” on the Booksense site. It got me thinking about what makes a book really successful in terms of reaching a broad audience. While a manuscript is in progress and/or production, do you ever have a sense that the book will be a big one in terms of sales?

My editor called it a slam dunk but I have been in the business 40 years and know there is no such thing. Normally I am your high end midlist author. But not this time. She was absolutely right. And has been right on each of the sequels as well.

I’d like to touch briefly on some books from your extensive back list. Armageddon Summer, co-authored by Bruce Coville, (Harcourt, 1998) centers on religion in the context of a millennialist cult. I remember reading it spellbound when first released. Given it’s global and individual impact, why do you think books that examine faith in any context are so rare on mainstream publisher lists? What are the related challenges and opportunities?

When books were sold mainly to schools, books with faith at the core were hard sells. At first my editor at Scholastic wanted the book, but the bookclub vetoed it on religious grounds so she declined to bid in the auction. Later when it got all those starred reviews and was on everyone’s list, Scholastic bought 60,000 copies for the bookclub. So good sales trumps. . .you name it!

Like many people in the children’s/YA community, I spend serious brain time trying to decide what books to purchase for the children of my own family. My little cousin Alex is a huge fan of your Hop Toad, illustrated by Karen Lee Schmidt (Harcourt, 2003), written for the Pre-K audience and up. What considerations should writers keep in mind when crafting stories for the youngest readers?

Picture books are getting younger and younger, fewer and fewer words these days. I miss the days of the older, more sophisticated picture book. I have about 30 unsold picture books in my files.

The decline in the picture book market has many picture book lovers–writers and readers–fretting their future. Is it right to worry? Is the dip temporary, do you think? Cyclical?

Cyclical (she says, fingers crossed).

It seems that every day a book is banned somewhere for some reason. Have any of your books been challenged or banned? (I thought perhaps your award-winning Holocaust-related fantasy novel, The Devil’s Arithmetic (Viking, 1988), if simply because of the title).

DA has certainly been banned. But Briar Rose [Tor, 1992] was burned on the steps of the Kansas City Board of Education building.

What year was your first book published?

1963. Two books–one a YA nonfiction Pirates in Petticoats, one a rhymed concept picture book See This Little Line, both from David McKay.

Do you still remember that feeling?

Every day.

In what major ways, if any, do you feel publishing has changed over the course of your career?

It has become Hollywoodized. Writers are simply wordsmiths for hire. Celebrity trumps good stories.

How about yourself as a writer?

I keep trying to grow as a writer.

What new Jane Yolen titles should your readers look for in 2006?

Count Me A Rhyme: a poetry book with pohotos by Jason Stemple, Boyds Mills;
Fairy Tale Feasts: cookbook fairy tale book with Heidi E.Y. Stemple, Interlink Books;
This Little Piggy: songbook and fingerplay book with Adam Stemple, illustrations by Will Hillenbrand, Candlewick;
Troll Bridge with Adam Stemple, rock ‘n’ roll fairy tale novel, Tor;
Take Joy revised and enlarged edition, Writer’s Digest Books;
Prince Across the Water, paperback, Speak/Putnam;
Friend: The Story of George Fox and the Quakers, paperback, Quaker Press.

Fall 2006:
Rogue’s Apprentice: novel with Robert J. Harris, Philomel;
How Do Dinosaurs Play With Their Friends, board book, illustrations by Mark Teague, Blue Sky/Scholastic;
How Do Dinosaurs Learn Their Colors, board boook, illustrations by Mark Teague, Blue/Sky Scholastic;
Dimity Duck, illustrations by Sebastien Braun, Philomel and Harper UK;
Baby Bear’s Books, illustrations by Melissa Sweet, Harcourt.

Winter 2006-2007:
Sleep, Black Bear, Sleep with Heidi E.Y. Stemple, illustrations by Brooke Dyer, picture book, HarperCollins.

Cynsational Notes

In addition to those featured above, my favorite books by Jane include the picture book Where Have The Unicorns Gone?, illustrated by Ruth Sanderson (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

Cynsational News & Links

“After 25 Years, Yolen Still Provides Children with’Quiet Friends'” by Lisa Horak from BookPage. January 1999.

A Book Review and Discussion with Jane Yolen, Author by RoseEtta Stone from The Purple Crayon. Focus is on Briar Rose (Tor, 1992), which–as Jane mentions above–“was burned on the steps of the Kansas City Board of Education building.”

Author Interview: Jane Yolen from Downhomebooks.com. January 2004.

Interview with Jane Yolen by Raymond H. Thompson from Interviews with Authors of Modern Arthurian Literature. August 1988.

Congratulations to author Tanya Lee Stone, whose upcoming novel A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl (Wendy Lamb, 2006) received a starred review from School Library Journal. Check out the buzz! Add this title to your must reads for the new year!

Congratulations to D.L. Garfinkle, who just sold her second young adult novel. She is the author of the debut novel Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won The Girl by D.L. Garfinkle (Putnam, 2005), which is one of my featured Cynsational Books of 2005.