Author Interview: Kathleen Long Bostrom on Josie’s Gift

Josie’s Gift by Kathleen Long Bostrom, illustrated by Frank Ordaz (Broadman & Holman, 2005). From the flap copy: “This Christmas will be the most difficult one for Josie, her mother, and her little brother, Bobby Joe. It is the first holiday for this Depression-era family since the death of their father and husband. Papa had always taught this simple family that ‘Christmas is not about what we want. It’s about what we have.’ But this Christmas, all Josie can think about is what she had lost. Josie begs her mother for a new blue sweater she has been admiring in the store window for weeks. She knows they can’t afford it, but she wants desperately to know joy again. In the form of three visitors and a surprise sacrificial gift on Christmas morning, Josie finds the joy she is seeking in the true meaning of Christmas.”

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I wrote the story for a Christmas Eve sermon. I am a Presbyterian minister, and co-pastor a church with my husband. We have a congregation with many children, especially on Christmas Eve, and I decided to write a story to preach, hoping that would be meaningful and hold everyone’s attention! I wrote “Josie” the year my mother died of lung cancer, so I was dealing with the grief of facing my first Christmas without her. My mother had a sister named Josie, so that became the name I used for the character in my story.

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

When writing a sermon, I have a very short timeline! I had the idea weeks before I started writing, and spent a lot of time letting the ideas “percolate” in my mind. The actual writing took place in a matter of days, sporadically fitting it in along with pastoring a church and taking care of my children who were 11, 13, and 15 at the time.

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

The challenge was letting the story change as I wrote it, but that’s always a fun challenge! I had a different idea for the sweater, but as I wrote, the blue sweater and the giving of that sweater took precedence. I remember my mom telling me about one Christmas when she was a young teenager. She lived in West Virginia during the Depression, and had 11 brothers and sisters. The family was very poor. One year, her younger sister opened up her Christmas present (she only got one) and then woke my mother up and told her that she had received a beautiful new sweater! My mother was heartbroken that she didn’t get to open the present herself, as it was something extra special for her that year. Some years, the kids only received oranges in their stockings. A sweater was a precious and expensive gift, and my Mom didn’t even get the joy of opening her own present!

I had to let the characters and plot take on their own lives, and the story turned out better once I let go of some of my own ideas as to how it should be written!

What, if any, special challenges are part of writing and publishing a holiday book?

The biggest challenge is the same as when I’m writing a sermon for Christmas Eve. Everyone knows the story of the birth of baby Jesus. How do I tell the story and give it new meaning, so that people will gain something from hearing it? Plus, there are so many new holiday books every year. How do I write something new, something that hasn’t been done before, that will illuminate the true meaning of the holiday without sounding “preachy” . Believe it or not, as a minister, I try never to sound “preachy.” Let the story tell the story, without pounding the point.

What, if any, special challenges are part of writing children’s books with religious themes?

The last part of the previous answer explains some of this – trying not to sound preachy, especially to children. I take my “audience” seriously and don’t believe in being condescending. Children are so bright, and often have a deeper understanding of spirituality and religious themes than adults. The kids aren’t quite so “jaded” as adults. To kids, questions about spirituality and faith spring forth in an innocent and eager way. Kids are more willing to ask questions about faith, and often I find they have the best answers themselves!

Cynsational News & Links

Author Anastasia Suen just opened enrollment for two online writing workshops scheduled for January. The Easy Reader Workshop is a 21-day workshop, from Jan. 6 to Feb. 6. A five-day Story Design Workshop will take place from Jan. 6 to 13.

Christmas Cheer: Holiday Read-Alouds to Celebrate the Season by Alice Cary from BookPage; features reviews of Josie’s Gift and other picture books.

The Great Blog Experiment: highlighting Teach Me by R.A. Nelson (Razorbill, 2005) from Agent Obscura. Read a recent cynsations author interview with R.A. Nelson on Teach Me.

Kelly Herold at Big A little a reviews Tofu and T. rex by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown, 2005). She writes: “Tofu and T. Rex is really about what it means to be a family and putting up with idiosyncrasies because you have to find the best in the ones you love. A very cute read for the 8-12 crowd.” She also notes: “Freddie is militant in the way only pre- and teenagers can be…” This reminds me of how much I love Freddie and how much I love Shohei for being attracted to a girl with strong convictions. Read the review.

Author Interview: Marilyn Helmer on One Splendid Tree

One Splendid Tree by Marilyn Helmer, illustrated by Dianne Eastman (Kids Can Press, 2005). From the catalog copy: “With Daddy away fighting in the Second World War, Hattie, Junior and Momma have had to move to the city so Momma can take a factory job. Money is tight, and this year a Christmas tree is a luxury the family cannot afford. But Junior finds an abandoned plant in the hallway, and in his eyes, it holds the promise of Christmas magic. If he can only convince Hattie, maybe they can have a tree after all! Marilyn Helmer’s tender story and Dianne Eastman’s richly detailed photocollage art bring this Christmas past to vivid life. Includes instructions on how to make your own snowman decoration!”

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Actually several things inspired me. I like to set writing goals for myself and one of my goals was to have a Christmas book published. The reason – I love Christmas!

Another inspiration came from the many anecdotes my parents told me about life on the home front during World War II. I used some of these in the story, such as the family not being able to afford a Christmas tree and the children having to wear boots and shoes that don’t fit because that was all they had.

Also I’m a firm believer in the inventiveness, creativity and perseverance of children, especially in difficult times. This theme crops up over and over again in my books and short stories.

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

That is difficult to say because I tend to work on more than one manuscript at a time. I do this so that, if I run into difficulty with one story, I can switch to another and thus avoid the dreaded writer’s block (well, most of the time anyway). If memory serves me correctly, I began writing “One Splendid Tree” about five years before it appeared in print.

Once my publisher accepted it, I went to work with a wonderful and talented editor, Debbie Rogosin. Together we edited, revised and polished. Then we got down to the nitty gritty of switching a word here and changing a phrase there to create the best story we possibly could. Believe it or not, that is my favorite part of the publication process. My publisher, Kids Can Press, is fastidious about the quality of their books which is one reason why I am delighted to have them as my publisher.

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

When Kids Can Press first read the manuscript, they suggested that I add more wartime atmosphere and references. “One Splendid Tree” was already on the lengthy side for a picture book, so the challenge was not only to add these to the story but to do it in an economy of words. I did a lot of research on World War II, especially about life on the home front.

Victory bonds, war savings stamps, Salvage Drives, rationing and the necessity of saving anything that was reusable are all referred to in the story. At a recent reading, when I came to the part about Hattie saving the brown paper from a package, an elderly gentleman in the audience called out, “I remember doing that!”.

I even researched the children’s names to be sure that the ones I had chosen were popular in the 1940s. I have to say though, that if I did a lot of research for the story, just imagine how much more the illustrator, Dianne Eastman, did for her exceptional photo-collage artwork!

Psychologically, and this holds true for any story you write, the author needs to get into the mind and psyche of the characters to decide how they will act and react in various situations. I wanted Junior, the youngest, to be the leader and his sister, Hattie, to create conflict with her initial reservations about the plant decorating. Though the mother and father appear as minor characters, my goal was to show it was their love and caring that made Hattie and Junior believe in the magic of Christmas and spread that belief to those around them.

What, if any, special challenges are part of writing and publishing a holiday book?

Holiday seasons come and go quickly so there is a much shorter time frame than usual in which to publicize the book. In the case of a Christmas book, you basically have from mid-November until Christmas.

I was very fortunate in that my publisher scheduled a number of bookstore reading events for me. As an added attraction I demonstrated a snowman craft (the pattern appears at the back of the book) at one reading and at others I made decorations like the ones Hattie, Junior and their neighbours make and invited the audience to help “turn a plain old plant into one splendid tree.” These ideas were the brainstorm of Kids Can’s publicist, Melissa Nowakowski, and the children were only to happy to help.

One event included me reading with Santa at a large mall. Santa and I taking turns reading alternate pages of the book. The children loved it – they thought I was Mrs. Claus!

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to Kerry Madden, whose novel, Gentle’s Holler (Viking, 2005) , was listed among NYPL’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing, selected by the New York Public Library, 2005. The NYPL also offers a newly revised list of 100 Picture Books Everyone Should Know.

Narnia Chronicled: The Lion, The Witch, and The Horn Book; see also Roger Sutton’s blog.

Who’s Moving Where? from The Purple Crayon. Cricket’s offices are relocating from Peru (IL) to Chicago, and some staff members are leaving. See details.

Cynsational News & Links

The Blue Review: a monthly newsletter from aimed at helping children’s writers of all experience levels. In addition to articles about craft, it features regular columns that include: Children’s Market News, Q&A, Inside Scoop, The Write Way, Bragging Rites, Writing Non-Fiction, New Member Welcome, Contest Corner, and Book Talk. See sample articles, “Continuing Your Education: The Low-Residency Model” and “Children’s Market News: Multicultural Writing.” See sample issue. See writers’ guidelines. Non-members can subscribe for $10. Or join Boost for $25.

Catherine Atkins LJ on a challenge at a Texas school to her book, When Jeff Comes Home (G. P. Putnam, 1999). See study guide. Visit Catherine’s site.

Kahani’s First Young Writers Contest: Kahani is a South Asian literary magazine for children. It invites all storytellers between the ages of 6 and 11 to write a 500-word short story. The theme is up to the writer but the story must use the words “rickshaw,” “mango,” and “elephant.” Entries will be divided into 6-8 and 9-11 age groups. Sangeeta Mehta, an editor at Little Brown, will be the judge. The deadline is Dec. 31, 2005. See complete rules and entry form. Note: Pooja Makhijani, author of Mama’s Saris (Little Brown, 2006), is the Kahani book reviewer and author Uma Krishnaswami is on the advisory board.

What Would Aslan Do?: a recap via spookycyn of my own holiday weekend and theater recommendation for Austinites planning to see “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.” As for the film itself, loved it!

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to Anjali Banerjee, whose novel Imaginary Men (Downtown Press, 2005)(grown-up novel, which I read and found adorable!) has won the 2005 Book of the Year Award (romance) from, an Urban Entertainment, Celebrity Interview and Pop Culture Website. Anjali also is the author of Maya Running (Wendy Lamb Books, 2005). Contact her for free signed and personalized book plates.

Brain Lint: author Laura Ruby’s blog of late discusses the banning of Carolyn Mackler‘s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things (Candlewick, 2003) in Baltimore. Laura is the author of Lily’s Ghosts (HarperCollins, 2003)(read related interview).

Funds for Writers edited by C. Hope Clark; emphasis on adult markets but worth checking out.

Highlights from the new HarperCollins summer 2006 catalog include: A Small White Scar by debut author K.A. Nuzum; In the Company of Crazies by Nora Raleigh Baskin; Doppleganger by David Stahler Jr.; Jumping the Scratch by Sarah Weeks; The Return of the Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac; Vampire Kisses 3: Vampireville by Ellen Schreiber. And from Greenwillow: Play, Mozart, Play! by Peter Sis; The Secret of the Rose by Sarah L. Thomson; Store-Bought Baby by Sandra Belton.

In The Artist’s Studio: The Thing Itself by Ann Grifalconi from Children’s Book Council. Highlighting her collage art work for Patrol by Walter Dean Myers (HarperCollins, 2002), which is recommended.

The SCBWI 7th Annual Winter Conference will be Feb. 4-5, 2006 at the Hilton New York. The faculty includes my agent, Ginger Knowlton, vice president, Curtis Brown, Ltd.

Thanks to cynsations LJ syndication reader Lisa Yee for her comment on Elise Broach’s thoughts on controversial books for young readers.

Writing for Children Competition: offered annually to discover developing Canadian writers of unpublished children’s/young adult fiction or nonfiction. Open to Canadian citizens or landed immigrants who have not been published in book format and who do not currently have a contract with a publisher. This contest has a deadline of April 24 and prize of $1,500. See also Children’s Book Publishing in Canada by Bev Cooke from The Purple Crayon.

YA Authors Cafe Chat: join guest host Catherine Atkins and special guest A.M. Jenkins, author of Damage, Out of Order, and the upcoming Beating Heart: A Ghost Story, for a discussion on “Keeping It Real: Creating Real Teens in YA Lit” on Dec. 13. All YA Authors Cafe chats are held at 8:30 p.m. EST, 5:30 Pacific on Tuesday evenings. Go to and click the cafe chatroom icon to enter.

Cynsational Books of 2005

What a year in books it has been!

Young adult novels in particular really shined (so many of them in pink that I’ve labeled one of my bookshelves the Malibu Barbie YA Fiction Collection).

Across the age ranges, humor was strong, and, hopefully, will finally receive some overdue critical recognition. What’s more, debut voices were among the brightest and best.

It’s always hard to pick favorites, but then again, why not take advantage of the opportunity to highlight?

The following is not a list of predictions for ALA or other award programs, but rather the top choices I’m recommending to cynsational readers.

That said, I stand behind all of this year’s recommendations and urge you to also consult the archives on this blog and the bibliographies on my site. And of course, as always, I’m only one person with so much reading time. I’ll continue reading 2005 and other backlist titles even though the 2006 ARCs have begun to arrive. I encourage y’all to do likewise.

Cynsational Young Adult Novel

Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar (Dutton, 2005).


Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2005).

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

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

Cynsational Middle Grade Novel

Three Good Deeds by Vivian Vande Velde (Harcourt, 2005).


Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles (Harcourt, 2005).

Last Dance on Holladay Street by Elisa Carbone (Knopf, 2005).

Shakespeare’s Secret by Elise Broach (Henry Holt, 2005).

Cynsational Picture Book

Hotel Deep: Light Verse from Dark Water by Kurt Cyrus (Harcourt, 2005).


Beyond The Great Mountains by Ed Young (Chronicle, 2005).

Henry & The Buccaneer Bunnies by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by John Manders (Candlewick, 2005).

Jerusalem Sky: Stars, Crosses, and Crescents by Mark Podwal (Doubleday, 2005).

Cynsational Notes

I’m not the byline author on Tofu and T. rex by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown, 2005) or Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today edited by Lori M. Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005). But the former is by my husband and the latter includes one of my stort stories, “A Real-Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate.” Therefore, however much I appreciate those books, it seems a conflict of interest to consider them for purposes of picking the Cynsational Books for 2005. That said, I do hope you’ll seek out those titles and that you enjoy them as much as I do.

While I enjoyed a bit of excellent non-fiction this year, I don’t feel as though I read enough of it to give a thoughtful endorsement of a slate of books as “cynsational.”

I’d also like to point out that many of this year’s pink books are absolute literary gems!

Finally, Louise Erdrich’s The Game of Silence (HarperCollins, 2005) seems like the best shot at a Native American authored Newbery novel in some time. I would be thrilled.

See Cynsational Books of 2004.

Cynsational News & Links

Advice from a Caterpillar: Writing for Children by Peggy Tibbetts from December 2005. Focus on: “Understanding “Reluctant Readers,” Fighting Writer’s Block, Getting Online Reviews and Interviews.” Note: the mention of my site is most appreciated. See also What Every Writer Needs To Know About Titles by Julie K. Cohen.

Congratulations to Austin author Chris Barton, who is signing with agent Erin Murphy! And congratulations to Erin for signing with Chris!

“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 her blog, not-so-terrible after all for “Gift Ideas for the Reading Teens in Your Life.”

Thanks to those readers who’ve commented of late on my cynsations LJ syndication: Tanya Lee Stone on the interview with author/illustrator Ed Young; Debbi Michiko Florence on critiquing first drafts (see post on her related insights) and personalized picture book protagonists; Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci on Miss Cecil’s upcoming release, Queen of Cool (Candlewick, 2006); Monique Madigan on agents. Thanks to all my LJ readers for their interest, participation, and support!

Author Elise Broach on Controversial Books for Young Readers

“Most controversial books are really about moral choices, and what makes them controversial is the necessity of presenting the other option. It’s not a choice unless the reader understands the alternative.

“You can’t meaningfully discuss values and morality without the broader context of what you’re choosing against, whether that’s profanity, sexual violence, drug use, whatever.

“As a parent, I believe so much in the dialogue, the endless conversation with my kids about difficult situations and how to do the right thing. Books are a crucial part of that dialogue.”

— Author Elise Broach

Cynsational Notes

Elise made the above comment in the context of a discussion on one of my author list servs. I found it so insightful that I asked her permission to share it with cynsational readers, and she graciously agreed. Thanks, Elise!

See Author Interview: Elise Broach on Shakespeare’s Secret (Henry Holt, 2005).

Cynsational News & Links

Gift Ideas for Children’s Book Professionals from The Purple Crayon by Harold Underdown. The site also features reviews of the classic Writing with Pictures by Uri Shulevitz and a recent complimentary book, Illustrating Children’s Books: Creating Pictures for Publication by Martin Salisbury. See also Who’s Moving Where? for recent publishing news from Scholastic, Zonderkids, Little Brown, and Boyds Mills.

Open Ice by Pat Hughes (Random House, 2005) from Greg Leitich Smith’s blog.

“We’re number 16!” by author Chris Barton from Bartography. On Austin ranking 16th among, America’s Most Literate Cities.

Author/Illustrator Interview: Ed Young on Beyond The Great Mountains

Beyond The Great Mountains: A Visual Poem About China by Ed Young (Chronicle, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Ed Young’s spare prose, as lovely as a rice-paper painting, describes in measured detail the beautiful and mystical land that the author so clearly loves. The unique format and gorgeous paper-collage illustrations, highlighted with Chinese characters, combine to convey the many facets of China to form a poetic picture of the land’s grace, depth, and majesty.”

Publisher bio: “Ed Young was born in Tientsin, China, grew up in Shanghai, and later moved to Hong Kong and finally to the United States, where he lives today with his wife and two young daughters. He has illustrated more than eighty children’s books (some of which he has also written), and his work has received many awards, including the 1990 Caldecott Medal and two Caldecott Honors.”

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

This book is a spin-off from a workshop on Chinese calligraphy that I did in Boulder, Colorado, in 1983. I composed a poem made up of Chinese symbols on natural elements. The poem was written with sumi brush on a scroll of paper towel. I never thought at the time that this was going to be a book, let alone a children’s book.

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

It is now 2005 – so twenty-two years from beginning to end – during which the poem lay in my drawer, dormant. In 1990 my Caldecott Medal for Lon Po Po (Philomel, 1989) coincided with the Horn Book Award. My reception talk for the Horn Book Award, Eight Matters of the Heart, was sparked by my work ethics. The talk inspired a book called Voices of the Heart, and the success of Voices made Beyond the Great Mountains possible. I approached Scholastic, HarperCollins, and Philomel before it was accepted by Chronicle. First, it was in an accordion format, which turned into this step-down method, a vertical book.

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

I’ve been interested in the ideograms for many years. The challenge was to understand their evolution, since there are no ready-made answers, even among experts. Also to find the right format, which completes the book. The rest was easy.

Could you describe your artistic process for the illustrations?

When it was in the scroll format, it was simply sumi ink written with brush on paper towel. Then it was in a collage with limited colors in a tall and narrow accordion format. At Chronicle, it was finalized into the step-down format. Afterward, I redid the illustrations within a few months, by rounds and rounds of negotiations between mediums and sizes, until all the pages became a family. Then it’s a book.

What would you say have been your biggest influences, both as a writer and an illustrator? Or can you separate the two?

I never thought I was a writer until Pat Gauch, my editor at Philomel, encouraged me to record my voice telling my stories, and to transcribe them. That was in 1989, for my first written book, Lon Po Po. I have been an illustrator all my life and was influenced by illustrators from the U.S. before I could read or speak English.

As the creator (or co-creator) of more than 80 books for young readers, what have been your career highlights?

White Wave (Harcourt, 1996) was a book for which I opened myself up to the idea that for a book to be great, one has to accept the greater mind of the team in the making. Also Foolish Rabbit’s Big Mistake (Putnam, 1985), for which I allowed myself to use a medium appropriate to the story that was outside of its tradition, which in this case would have been Indian miniatures.

What advice do you have for author/illustrators–beginners and those who’ve published a book or two?

Know that picture book illustration is not a money-making profession. Do not allow that to hold the “artist” in you on a leash and lead you astray. (It even happens to some of the successful people.) Challenge yourself to resist shortcuts and complacency or to fall prey to trendy books. Anything worth making deserves your best effort. The richness is in your spirit, not in your pocket.

How would you describe the landscape today of Asian American children’s literature? What changes have you seen over the course of your career?

Overwhelmingly challenging in technology, in mediums, in styles, in standards. The sky is the limit. It’s exciting.

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

Many. One I saw recently is Shark God by Rafe Martin, illustrated by David Shannon (Arthur A. Levine, 2001). It’s noteworthy.

What can your fans expect from you next?

My Mei Mei (Philomel, 2005) will be in bookstores by mid February. It’s a personal story. Tiger of the Snow (Atheneum, 2006), a poem to celebrate Norgay and Hillary’s climb of Mt. Everest, will be out in May 2006.

Cynsational News & Links

An Excerpt and Q&A with Ed Young on Beyond The Great Mountains from Chronicle Books.

Ed Young from includes book guide and interview information.

Combating Censorship from NCTE. See also Censorship Challenges: What To Do, also from NCTE.

Horn Book Fanfare List: Best Books of 2005.

Author Interview: Greg Leitich Smith on Tofu and T. rex

Tofu and T. rex by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Militant vegan Frederika Murchison-Kowalski is back at the Peshtigo School after a brief stint in Texas (where she torched an artificial turf field to save Angus the Fighting Angus from the “rabid and inhumane cult” of football). The bad news is that now Freddie has to live with her cousin, Hans-Peter, a diehard carnivore, and grandfather, who happens to own a butcher shop and sausage deli. Having never had a sibling, Freddie and Hans-Peter are soon at odds with each other over bathroom sharing, dinner menus, and more. To complicate matters, Hans-Peter needs Freddie’s insider knowledge to get accepted into the Peshtigo School himself.” Ages 10-14. This novel is a companion book to Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005).

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I had finished up Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005), and I was going through old notes and jotting new ideas, but nothing was really exciting enough to spend the time to write a novel about.

Somewhere along the line, though, I began playing around with comic opposites (e.g., “The Odd Couple”) and decided you could not get more opposite than a sausage maker and a vegan. The idea was intrinsically funny, had a built-in conflict, and a lot of possibilities.

Another idea I had been playing with involved applications to “elite” schools – having applied to and attended several universities in that category, believe me, the comic possibilities there are endless.

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

Tofu and T. rex was the second book in a two-book deal I had signed with Little Brown when I sold Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo. I hadn’t initially intended to write a companion to Ninjas, but as I was trying to develop my vegan character, I realized I already had one, in Freddie, who has a minor role in Ninjas. Once I had Freddie as a character, it was inevitable that the school which would be the subject of application horror would be the Peshtigo School, and that the person applying would be Freddie’s cousin, Hans-Peter.

So now I had a couple of premises, a couple of characters, and a deadline. I didn’t really have a plot, though, but this didn’t stop me. I began writing and eventually had something novel length, with an acceptable arc, but there was something wrong — it seemed a bit passionless and unremarkable and not hugely funny. I really needed to do something radical, so I packed it off to my editor, Amy Hsu (who, sadly is no longer in publishing).

Several weeks later, I received a three page letter from Amy. In addition to several things I already knew but didn’t want to face the consequences of, she asked two extremely important questions.

First, perhaps the most profound question of all: Where was T. rex?

The manuscript had gone to her under the title “Tofu and Tyrannosaurus Rex,” which had always been the title – and Amy was right – there was no T.Rex in the actual story. I had always sort of figured that T.Rex was just a metaphor for carnivore, thought that the title was clever, but hadn’t ever presented an actual sauropod.

So, I get this letter, with this question, and I knew I had to answer it.

And for some reason, the first thing that came to me was “Well, obviously, it’s in the basement. Life-sized.”

Which is why Hans-Peter has a life-sized tyrannosaurus rex head in the basement of the family bungalow. This was sort of the key to making the novel work — the presence of the T.Rex head led to other changes in the plot – it inspired, for example, the entire storyline of the homecoming parade.

The second question from Amy was a little more problematic. Basically, it was “What happened to Freddie?” Amy’s concern was well-founded. In Ninjas, Freddie appears as a minor character was is, shall we say, a bit strident with regard to her animal rights activism, kind of comic relief, but definitely strong-willed. She wasn’t however, necessarily the most likeable character, particularly to have as a protagonist.

So in the draft I’d sent Amy, I’d toned Freddie down a bit, figuring that her point of view was different from that of the characters in Ninjas. The problem was, she came out being an entirely different person.

So I went back to my computer, with my T. rex head, my recidivist Freddie, and started re-writing. The re-write was so comprehensive that I think the only scene in the published book that was in the draft I’d originally sent Amy was the scene with the bees at Castle Brandenburg.

After another few months, I sent this draft off, Amy liked it a lot better. And so did I.

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

The biggest challenge was self-imposed: I wanted Freddie to remain a vegan at the end of the novel and I also wanted Hans-Peter to remain a committed carnivore at the end of the novel. (I really, really, hate novels where the character’s epiphany is along the lines of “Why, yes, [insert: cousin, friend, Mom], you were right all along. I am so much more enlightened now that I’ve learned the lesson you’ve been trying to teach me.”) Both characters were so strong, no one would have believed it anyway. This meant, though, that I had to find a way for them to both change and grow while being true to themselves. Consequently, the novel became more a story of family conflict than “political” conflict, and the extent to which family matters.

Beyond that, the characters’ voices were hard to get right. This was especially important because the novel is told in alternating point of view between Freddie and Hans-Peter.

Freddie was hard to write, for reasons noted above, but also because I wanted to make her a fully rounded person, one you could respect, even if you didn’t agree with her. I also wanted to make her the sort of person who chose veganism because of its inherent logic, not simply for feel-good reasons. I think it makes her a stronger character, although perhaps, in some ways, more frightening.

With Hans-Peter, the voice issues were more subtle. Basically, he started out as more of a “straight” man, but as Freddie became more Freddie, he had to become a stronger character as well. So, he became more “into” the deli and dinosaurs and more intensely interested in getting admitted to the school. In some ways, too, Hans-Peter is a lot like Elias, one of the PoV characters from Ninjas. Giving Hans-Peter a voice distinctive from Elias’s was hard, especially in the scene where they’re together.

Finally, the research was fairly intense. I spent a lot of time researching both veganism and sausage-making (and believe me, sausage makers are just as passionate about wurst as vegans are about their cause). I sampled a certain amount of sausage made by different techniques and I also spent a week on a vegan diet, which was kind of hard, but I suspect easier in Austin than other places. By the way, while I found some sausage disagreeable, I discovered that vegan mayonnaise substitute is possibly the most revolting substance known to humankind.

Cynsational Notes

Tofu and T. rex was a finalist for the TSRA Golden Spur Award.

Greg is my husband. I read his manuscript several times while it was in progress, and I adored Freddie. In fact, she and her conviction to veganism were sufficiently persuasive to me that I’ve stopped eating mammals altogether. I know Freddie would say I’ve still got a long way to go, but I also suspect she’d count me as at least a partial victory. In any case, my die-hard beef-eating husband is respectfully, if grudgingly, adjusting to the shift in the family diet, and in any case, he really has no choice but to take it as a compliment to his writing.

Surf by GregLS Blog.

Author Interview: Greg Leitich Smith on Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo from cynsations.

Interview with Debut Children’s Book Author Greg Leitich Smith from Debbi Michiko Florence. Fall 2003.

Greg Leitich Smith Interview from Fall 2003.

Greg Leitich Smith Interview at YA Books Central.

Spotlight on Greg Leitich Smith by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Smart Writers. July 2005.

“Of Tofu and T. Rex” by Greg Leitich Smith from Time Warner Bookmark.

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to Liz Gallagher for signing with agent Rosemary Stimola. And congratulations to Rosemary Stimola for signing writer Liz Gallagher! Liz is a fourth semester student at the Vermont College/Union Institute & University MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Congratulations to Austin author Jerry Wermund, whose picture books, The World According To Rock (Rockon Publishing, 2004) and Earthscapes: Landforms Sculpted by Water, Wind, and Ice (Rockon Publishing, 2003), were recommended by the National Science Teachers Assocation!

How To Write a Picture Book with Fabulous R&M by Margot Finke from The Purple Crayon. note: R & M = rhyme & meter.

Publisher Miriam Hees on Blooming Tree Press

Blooming Tree Press is a relatively new children’s book publisher based in Austin, Texas. Could you offer us some insights into how this company came to be? What was the initial inspiration? What were the challenges?

Blooming Tree Press came about for several reasons. First, I had the desire to see different types of books on the shelves than I was seeing…especially for children.

Second, the majority of our authors and illustrators have never been published. I wanted to give talented people a chance that they might not get otherwise get with the big publishers. We all need that first leg up, and I wanted to be a part of that.

Finally, my reason for starting BTP is my love of books. Writing, reading, and publishing books is my passion. You won’t find me shopping in a clothes store or shoe store or picking out jewelry for that matter. You will find me at least once a week in a bookstore. It’s like a candy shop to me.

I have always had plenty of inspiration to do what I set my mind to do, and having been a business woman for more than 20 years, I had the know-how and street smarts. But just like any small business, a small press is a major challenge. Some people as skeptical and don’t think you know what you are doing; others think only the big presses can give an author or illustrator the attention they deserve. Also, just making sure you have all the marketing and sales connections that big guys have is a challenge. It’s takes a constant stream of phone calls, emails and personal visits to see it done, but we have risen to the challenge quite nicely. People in the publishing and book world are starting to recognize Blooming Tree Press. But most importantly, authors, illustrators and readers now know we are here.

Also note, you will see that we publish mainly children’s books, but we do have an adult press that we’re in the process of opening.

Who are the people behind BTP? What are their respective backgrounds? What is the role of each today?

Blooming Tree Press in filled with wonderful people! Let me start by listing the staff and their backgrounds.

Miriam Hees – Publisher:Miriam has been a writer for more than 15 years and business woman for more than 20 years. She has started and ran many businesses in that time period. She began her business plan for Blooming Tree Press almost 10 years ago. Today, her role as publisher is a full-time, seven-day-a-week pursuit. She continues to write in that free time between 3 and 5 a.m. and will release a new guardian angel book as well as a WWII historical fiction middle grade in the next 18 months.

Bradford Hees – Senior Editor – Adult Division: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Bradford Hees is an excellent writer of SciFi/Fantasy as well as graphic novels and Manga. He has studied Japanese, writing, and publishing for many years. He is currently working on opening the adult division of Blooming Tree Press as well as awaiting the release of his first graphic novel/Manga entitled “The Light of Nor.”

Madeline Smoot – Senior Editor – Children’s Division: Madeline Smoot has been reading children’s literature her whole life but has been editing for one year. She has BBA in Marketing from Southern Methodist University and is finishing her MA in Children’s Literature from Hollins University. Her first book, Frog on Vacation, is scheduled for release in the fall of 2006.

Meghan Diestche – Associate Editor – Children’s Division: Meghan Dietsche graduated from Smith College in 2000. She has worked in publishing for five years, most recently for HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Judy Gregerson – Editor – Children’s Division: Judy grew up on the eastern end of Long Island and attended SUNY Oswego and Stony Brook with a major in journalism and communications. Once out of college, she worked as a copy editor at The (Syracuse) Post-Standard and then as a copywriter for S.T. Preston & Son’s nautical mail order catalog.

While in New York she wrote her first book, a memoir, Save Me! A Young Woman’s Journey Through Schizophrenia To Health. Doubleday published the book in 1980 to excellent reviews, and Judy was listed that year in Who’s Who in America.

She eventually tired of New York and moved to Seattle, Washington. There, she worked in the housing industry, married, and raised two girls. She gave up writing for eighteen years but took up her keyboard in 1997 and started crafting novels. She came on board as an associate editor at BTP in 2004.

Kay Pluta – Assistant Editor – Children’s Division: Kay Pluta is a former middle school Language Arts teacher who graduated from Georgia College with a BA in English. She was on the editorial staff of literary magazines from high school through college. After leaving teaching to raise a family, Kay published dozens of articles and stories for both adults and children in various print and online magazines. She sold her first children’s book, There’s A Yak In My Bed, to Blooming Tree Press in 2004, and joined the staff a year later.

Kelly Bell – Layout and Design: Kelly Bell has 20 years (print) 10 years (web) of design, development and production experience in all phases of traditional (print) and new (web) media, from concept through delivery. Her skills include human-computer interface design, concepting, layout, design, scanning, photo retouching and montage, illustration. She is currently working for Blooming Tree Press as Art Director. Her responsibility is for all company marketing communications products, book design and production, Interactive (Audiobooks, Mediabooks) media, web site design and maintenance for this small but growing children’s book publisher.

What is your target market? Direct sales, institutional (school/library sales), bookstores, catalogs/specialty, a combination of several? As a new, small press, how are you gaining awareness and competing with larger, more established publishers?

We target multiple markets. Bookstores, obviously are a big market. We are with Baker & Taylor, the second biggest distributor in the world. This allows to have our books stocked in any bookstore worldwide. We also love librarians! We are members of the Texas Library Association and will be at the TLA annual conference in 2006, will be listed in the 2007 Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market (CWIM)(Writer’s Digest Books), are members of the national and local Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators as well as local writers leagues.

We offer two catalogs a year that are mailed to all markets announcing upcoming titles. Word of mouth, the Internet and personal visits all help us get our name out there.

Also, all of our authors are provided, shortly after their publication, with a marketing and publicity binder. These binders are personalized with data of local stores, schools, libraries, book awards, specialty stores and reviewers that will help us and them make their book a great success.

What is the scope of your publishing program? Do you publish picture books, chapter books, middle grade and/or young adult novels? Do you specialize in any particular genres? Are there areas you avoid?

We currently publish five-to-seven titles a year. We publish picture books (personally requested only at this time), early readers, chapter books, middle grade, young adult and adult. We do mainly fiction but will look at non-fiction. We don’t accept any subjects having to do with horror, the occult or explicit sex.

What are your submission guidelines for writers, for illustrators? What are you especially looking for? Do you have an interest in new voices, and in the case of illustrators, visions?

We are always looking for new voices. As I said earlier, most of our authors and illustrators were unpublished before they came to us. Guidelines for submission are listed on the website. But here they are are:

For children’s division, please send a query to:

Blooming Tree Press
Children’s Submissions
P.O. Box 140934
Austin, Texas 78714

If we like what we see we will immediately ask for more.

For the adult division, we ask for synopsis and first three chapters to same address only – Adult Submissions.

For illustrators send samples to same address, only specify Art Department. Also note we do take worldwide submissions. One of our newest books in written by Leslie Carmichael, who hails from Canada.

I noticed that you’re sponsoring a short story competition in conjunction with What inspired this decision? Why is it a good opportunity for writers?

I received a call from Roxyanne Young of, who was ecstatic about their latest short story competition. She wanted to be able to offer winners and runners up of the competition a publishing avenue. She asked if I would be interested in using these stories for a published anthology.

Well, of course! Writing competition winners tend be the highest quality work and that, combined with the opportunity to work with Roxyanne, was a win-win situation for me.

This is an excellent opportunity for writers to get their foot in the “publishing” door. Having a writing credit can catch the attention of many an editor. When an author/illustrator is published in any form or fashion alerts an editor to the fact that this writer is able to edit and revise. A big key to a “yes” or “no” of an acceptance of a manuscript is can an author revise.

[note: see link below to Smart Writers announcement of the winners]

Could you tell us a little about your new books for fall 2005?

We have a great lineup for this fall:

1.) Callie and the Stepmother by Susan A. Meyers, illustrated by Rose Gauss. An easy reader in paperback (ISBN 0-9718348-0-6).

When Callie’s father remarries, Callie knows exactly what her life will be like. After all, she’s read all the books. She’s going to be stuck cleaning floors, expected to sweep the fireplace, forced to eat poisoned apples and most likely abandoned in the woods. And there’s not just the new stepmother, Pam to worry about. There’s also an annoying stepbrother and an evil stepsister.

What’s Daddy’s Little Princess to do? In this delightful rendition of a modern day Cinderella, Callie learns not all stepmothers are wicked and every fairytale has a unique ending.

2.) Lyranel’s Song by Leslie Carmichael, illustrated by Elsbet Vance. An upper middle grade hardcover (ISBN 0-9718348-5-7).

Lyranel has never thought much about Singing. Her mother had been a famous Singer years ago, but she died when Lyranel was very young. Since then, Lyranel’s father, the Duke of Trioste, has banned all Singers from his Duchy. Those that remain live in secret, Singing their Songs of healing and life.

When Lyranel awakens upon her twelfth birthday bursting with Song, she is horrified and tries to hide her new gift from her father. Worse still, a terrible plague threatens her land and the Singers that remain. Lyranel must learn to come terms with her new talent. If not, her land and her people may not survive.

3.) Little Bunny Kung Fu by Regan Johnson. A picture book illustrated in black and white (ISBN 0-9769417-8-3).

Regan Johnson takes the classic children’s nursery rhyme and provides it with a new twist. Set in China, this bunny doesn’t like to play with field mice. Instead, he prefers chopping down bamboo. Unfortunately for Little Bunny Kung Fu, many creatures in the forest rely on the bamboo. Eventually, Great Dragon must come down and set Little Bunny Kung Fu straight. Join Little Bunny Kung Fu in his romp through the Chinese forest.

An exciting note for Regan and for us is that Barnes & Noble is considering releasing Little Bunny Kung Fu nationally!

4.) One-Eyed Jack by Paula Miller, illustrated by Chris Forrest. A hardcover middle grade (ISBN 0-9718348-8-1).

The first in the Faces of History Series, this story tells the tale of a boy, Nate, on a cattle ranch in 1880’s Montana. Nate has always wanted a dog, but his Pa does not. Only grudgingly does Pa allow Nate to keep the nearly dying puppy he finds. Nate must struggle to control his new dog and allow the Lord the time to sway Pa’s heart.

Faces in History is a series dedicated to showing children and teens of faith during different periods of history. The hero of each tale must overcome personal obstacles with perseverance and faith in the Lord. Written to entertain, these books also serve as an inspirational tool for any child of faith.

We have seven titles slated for next year which include: Jessica McBean, Tap Dance Queen; Summer Shorts Anthology; There’s a Yak in My Bed; Robo Rescue; Frog on Vacation; and The Light of Nor.

You’re a writer and publisher! What is it like, wearing two hats? Was it a natural progression?

It really was a natural progression and one I feel that is an advantage for all involved in the company. When you have been a writer for many years, sending submissions and playing the game, you know how the writers submitting manuscripts to you you feel. Their hopes, dreams, fears and concerns are easy to understand. I feel I have more compassion and I try to show extra respect because of it.

Could you tell us a little about your own titles?

Angel Eyes and Angel on my Shoulder are from my guardian angel series. This is a wonderful series about girls and their guardian angels.

Noises in the Attic is a mystery adventure. Just plain fun and excitement as a brother and sister solve a mystery.

I always wanted to write fun, exciting, and wholesome reading for kids. There is so much bad out there that kids have to deal with every day. I wanted something for them to read where they might escape…if just for a little while.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I just want all writers and illustrators to remember that the publishing business is a tough one whether you are a publisher, editor, writer or illustrator. If it is your passion, don’t ever give up. You will find your place. I guarantee it. Just keep your dream alive!

Cynsational News & Links

Smart Writers Journal December 2005 features include: “The Day After” by Stacia Deutsch and Rhody Cohon on marketing your book after its release; announcements of literary agents seeking writer clients; announcement of winners of the short story contest in conjunction with Blooming Tree Press (see above); “Short Story Tips from a Judge” by Marilyn Singer; and a listing of upcoming writers’ retreats and conferences from Margot Finke. Congratulations to Debbi Michiko Florence who received an “honorable mention” in the young readers division for her story, “Megumi’s Gift!”

Congratulations also to Sarah Aronson on the sale of her debut novel to Deborah Brodie at Roaring Brook Press!

Writing the YA Novel

My husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, and I spoke yesterday to a crowd of about 40 on Writing the “Young Adult Novel” at the Barnes & Noble, Westake (TX) in conjunction with the store’s “Year of Writing” program.

My focus was on what the YA novel is and how to write it whereas Greg talked about getting published and led a character-building writing exercise.

The crowd was enthusiastic and included such local authors as: Frances Hill; Varian Johnson; Austin SCBWI RA Julie Lake; Lindsey Lane; April Lurie; Jerry Wermund; JoAnne Whittemore; Brian Yansky; as well as illustrator Don Tate.

After the event, Greg and I swung to the front of the store for Regan Johnson’s signing of her picture book Little Bunny Kung Fu (Blooming Tree, 2005). For more on the substance of the event, see the participant notes immediately below.

Cynsational Notes

“A Swift Kick in the Rear” from They Call Me Mr. V, author Varian Johnson’s blog, in which he discusses the substance of mine and Greg’s presentation.

“The Smiths Workshop on YA” from Devas T. Rants and Raves!, illustrator Don Tate’s blog, in which he does the same. (Note: Though he’s well-known as an illustrator, Don has begun writing now, too!).

Cynsational News & Links

Fuel for the Writer is a cookbook made up of recipes from alumni, students, and faculty of Vermont College/Union Institute & University MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. All proceeds go to benefit the alumni scholarship fund. It’s a fantatic book full of recipes, memories, anecdotes, quotes, and artwork, all related to the wonderful world of food and writing. Purchases can be made at Or call 1-888-573-3902.

Interview with Tracy Wynne, co-owner of Cover to Cover Bookstore in San Francisco, from