Tips for Children’s Authors & Illustrators Week: First Week in February

Check your library copy of Chase’s Annual Events and among such upcoming celebrations as American Chocolate Week and National Week of Student Action, you will find Children’s Authors and Illustrators Week (CAIW), annually the first week in February.

This week was started several years ago by authors and illustrators in Children’s Authors Network (CAN!), who wanted to celebrate the school visits, library programs, and hands-on workshops that authors and illustrators do to inspire a life-long love of reading and writing. Visit www.childrensauthorsnetwork.com for a list of tips to help share your love of books with children.

Parents & Caregivers

TALK with your child’s librarian or a local children’s bookseller. They can recommend the perfect books for your child’s age and reading level.

VISIT independent bookstores and children’s specialty bookstores. These stores typically have a large, diverse selection, as well as books by local authors. See if you and your child can discover a new author this week!

WRITE a letter (or an email) with your child to a favorite author or illustrator. Most authors now have web sites with contact information. If you can’t find an address, send the letter to the publisher. Publishers usually won’t give out an author’s address, but they are happy to forward mail. Just address the envelope to the author in care of the publisher.

ORGANIZE an author visit at your child’s school. Most children’s authors give presentations and/or conduct writing workshops at schools. The school will likely need volunteers to help with fund-raising (fees vary depending on the author) and handling book sales. A step-by-step guide to hosting an author is available on the Children’s Authors Network (CAN!) web site at www.childrensauthorsnetwork.com. A visiting author can inspire even a reluctant reader to pick up a book!

ATTEND a bookstore or library event featuring a children’s author or illustrator. These events are terrific ways for kids to meet an author or illustrator in an informal setting, ask questions, and perhaps come away with some writing or drawing tips.

READ as a family. Reading together is fun and helps create enthusiastic, strong readers. Even older children enjoy being read to, and they may want to take turns reading to younger siblings. So, turn off the TV, gather the family, and spend some time enjoying children’s books together!

Teachers & Librarians

HELP children write letters to favorite authors and illustrators. Most authors now have web sites with contact information. If you can’t find an address, send the letter to the publisher. Publishers usually won’t give out an author’s address, but they are happy to forward mail. Just address the envelope to the author in care of the publisher. Organize an author visit at your school or library. Most children’s authors give presentations and/or conduct writing workshops at schools and libraries. They can talk about their books, give tips for aspiring writers, and host informal question and answer sessions. Fees vary depending on the author. A step-by-step guide to hosting an author is available on the Children’s Authors Network (CAN!) web site at www.childrensauthorsnetwork.com. A visiting author can inspire even a reluctant reader to pick up a book!

CREATE a display of books by authors and/or illustrators in your local area or state. Invite one or more of these authors to give a presentation in your classroom or library.

ORGANIZE a “Mock Newbery” Book Club. These clubs meet periodically to read and discuss books they consider contenders for the Newbery award. Usually, a librarian chooses a few titles, and the children choose the rest (in keeping with the Newbery guidelines). The club votes on a winner in early January (before the actual Newbery is awarded) and awards a “Mock Newbery” prize. The club writes letters to nominated authors and, of course, to the winner.

GENERATE a newsletter or flyer with information on local/state authors and illustrators. Include a list of local events during Children’s Authors & Illustrators Week (such as special library events, author appearances at bookstores, etc.). Enlist the help of older children–they can conduct phone or email interviews with the authors/illustrators and help produce the newsletter.

DISPLAY a list of author web sites next to your computer stations (or have one available at the circulation desk). Encourage interested children to visit these sites and drop their favorite authors an email message. For more information about children’s authors and illustrators, visit the CAN! web site at www.childrensauthorsnetwork.com and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators at www.scbwi.org.

Vermont College MFA Ketchum-Smith Workshop Bibliography

I had the honor of leading a workshop with author Liza Ketchum in conjunction with the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults this past month. The following titles arose during our discussions with students during the sessions:

The Amulet of Samarkand (The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book 1) by Jonathan Stroud (Miramax, 2003).

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick, 2000).

Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan (Scholastic, 2004).

Big Mama Makes The World by Phyllis Root (Walker, 2002).

The Counterfeit Princess by Jane Resh Thomas (Clarion, 2005).

Elephants Aloft by Kathi Appelt (Voyager, 1997)(author interview).

Freewill by Chris Lynch (HarperCollins, 2001).

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (Atheneum, 2002)(35th Anniversary Edition).

Goodnight, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd (HarperCollins, 1947).

Granny Torrelli Makes Soup by Sharon Creech (Joanna Cotler, 2003).

Henry & the Buccaneer Bunnies by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by John Manders (Candlewick, 2005)(author-illustrator interview).

The House That Jill Built by Phyllis Root (Walker, 2005).

How the Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin, illustrated by Marc Simont (HarperCollins, 1982).

Inexcusable by Chris Lynch (Atheneum, 2005).

Inkspell by Cornelia Funke (The Chicken House, 2005).

The Killer’s Cousin by Nancy Werlin (Delacorte, 1998)(author interview).

Knots and Crosses (An Inspector Rebus Novel) by Ian Rankin (Doubleday, 1987).

The Legend of the Valentine by Katherine Grace Bond, illustrated by Don Tate (Zondervan Publishing House, 2002)(illustrator interview).

The Liberation of Gabriel King by K.L. Going (Putnam, 2005)(author interview).

The Long Night of Leo and Bree by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon & Schuster, 2002)(author interview).

Love, Ruby Lavender by Deborah Wiles (Gulliver, 2001).

Muskrat Will by Swimming by Cheryl Savageau, illustrated by Robert Hynes, featuring a Seneca traditional story retold by Joseph Bruchac (Northland, 1996).

Napping House by Don and Audrey Wood (Harcourt, 1994).

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson (Bodley Head, 2005).

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly (Harcourt, 2003).

Peacebound Trains by Haemi Balgassi (Clarion, 1996)(author interview).

Preston Falls by David Gates (Knopf, 1998).

The Queen’s Knickers by Nicholas Allan (Red Fox, 2000).

Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2001).

Rosa Sola by Carmen A. Martino (Candlewick, 2005)(author interview).

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking adult, 2002)(Good Morning America edition).

Sketches from a Spy Tree by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, illustrated by Andrew Glass (Clarion, 2005).

Smoky Night by Eve Bunting, illustrated by David Diaz (Harcourt, 1994).

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).

Subway by Anastasia Suen, illustrated by Karen Katz (Viking, 2004).

A Time of Angels by Karen Hesse (Hyperion, 2000)(revised edition).

The Trolls by Polly Horvath (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech (Joanna Cotler, 1994).

What I Believe by Norma Fox Mazer (Harcourt, 2005)(author interview).

What Is Goodbye? by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Raul Colon (Hyperion, 2004).

What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman (Front Street, 1995).

A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck (Dial, 2000).

Additional authors mentioned: Jane Kurtz (author interview); Linda Sue Park (author interview); Valerie Worth.

Cynsational Notes

Unfortunately, the above listing isn’t complete due to title fragments, inaccuracies, and/or my occasional inability to read my own handwriting.

While I’m on the subject of bibliographies, please note that I’m seeking suggestions for a list of young adult novels featuring a protagonist from the United States whose story takes place in another country. Any suggestions appreciated. Thanks!

Cynsational News & Links

An excerpt of Hugging the Rock by Susan Taylor Brown (Tricycle, 2006) is now available as a PDF file on her Web site.

Author Interview: Cecil Castellucci on The Queen of Cool

The Queen of Cool by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2006). From the promotional copy: “a funny, incisive look at a teenage girl who becomes bored with her popularity and dares to take off her tiara and do something really cool with her life.” Ages 12-up.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I had just handed in Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005)(author interview)(a Cynsational Book of 2005), and I was just kind of obsessed with the L.A. Zoo. I had gone to visit one day when I was having an emotional freak out. I was wandering around and I noticed there was a big picture of the Condor near the aviary only there were no condors to be seen. They keep them hidden away. That made me really sad. I got the idea for a scene, in a flash, about this girl who was totally cool who goes on a field trip to the zoo and sees a baby condor die while it’s hatching and her life is changed. For some reason, she was sitting next to a girl who was a dwarf. I went home and wrote the scene. I called the girl “Libby,” and she was so bored with her routine. And she was trembling because she (and I) knew that she was as rare a bird as that condor, and as rare a bird as Tina (aka Tiny) who was sitting next to her.

I started seeing everyone around me as these kind of endangered species. Then one day I was at this function (Forest Ackerman’s 88th birthday party, if the truth be told) and before I’d gotten there, I was totally worried that I wasn’t going to be cool enough to be there but then when I got there, I kind of felt like I was actually one of the coolest people in the room. That got me thinking about how it’s pretty amazing that you can feel both totally cool in one situation and like the biggest loser who can’t fit in no matter how hard you try in another social situation.

By the way, the Field Trip is not in the book. At all. Neither is the Condor. Just FYI. It turned out to be just a jumping off point. It was the core of the whole story, but not what made the book.

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

So this was like January 2004. I had met Aimee Bender, who is a fabulous L.A. author, at a literary speakeasy. When I told her that I had sold my first novel, she said “Write your second one before your first one comes out.” I was like, “Why?” and she was like, “Because that way you won’t freak out.” She’s kind of an L.A. literary Goddess, so naturally, I trusted her, and I just got to work. I kept scratching away at it but honestly, I was really busy working on my first indie feature film “Happy Is Not Hard To Be,” because that’s what a girl does sometimes, she makes a feature film. Meanwhile, Kara LaReau, my editor, kept asking me if I had anything else kicking around in my head. I wasn’t finished with this cool zoo Libby/Tina thing. I only had like a skeleton of a story but I asked Barry if he thought it was worth sending. He thought it was pretty OK TOMATO. Kara bought it that Summer 2004. Only she changed the title, I had called Rare Birds and Animal Magnetism.

I was just finishing it up when I went to ALA in January ’05 when Boy Proof came out and I was like WHOA! Good thing I listened to that smart Aimee!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life? I’m especially interested in how you found out about working behind the scenes at a zoo!

Literary challenges, as always for me is – plot, plot, plot! I had all of these characters! But what was going on? How do they get from here to there? Intertwining all the characters was challenging. I had one of my screenwriter friends read it and he was like YOU HAVE NO PLOT!!!!! I actually called Kara’s office voice mail at like 2 in the morning in a panic about it. She called me the next day and laughed at me…with love and comfort.

Research wise I joined the L.A. Zoo. I went there a lot. I walked around. I talked to the docents. I talked to the animal services people if they were hanging around the cages. I talked to the student volunteers. I observed. I read the information signs in front of the cages! I called the head of animal services. He let me ask him questions. I also talked to the Zoo Librarian. They have a library there! Anyone can go and look stuff up! She really helped me with the nitty gritty of the animal stuff.

For the dwarfism stuff, which was mostly background-y kind of stuff so I really knew Tina, I did things like I went to the LPA (Little People of America) site and to a couple of LPA meetings. I also watched a great documentary called “Big Enough” (2004), which was on PBS. Also I watched the film “Tip Toes,” which is a fiction film.

Queen of Cool follows your smash debut novel Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005). It doesn’t seem you suffered at all from The Dreaded Sophomore Novel Block that plagues so many authors. Tell us about your momentum! What gets you up and writing and feeling the story each day?

Ha! Ha! Ha! Does it really look like I didn’t suffer the dreaded sophomore novel block! It must be my regiment of salt scrubs, sleight of hand, balloon twisting and the art of mesmer! Honestly, I think it helped that I sold it before my first novel hadn’t come out yet because I didn’t know enough to be terrified. I told my agent Barry Goldblatt that what I was working on might just be a palette cleanser.

I don’t feel it everyday. Sometimes I lay around staring at the ceiling thinking, “OK that’s it. I’ve had my last idea. I’m done. It’s over. I’m a big fat fraud. And I might be ugly, too.” But Jennifer Richard Jacobson, who wrote the terrific book Stained (Atheneum, 2005)(author interview), once said that she tries to just write 9 lines a day. So I would have to say that it’s not momentum that gets me writing, it’s puttering. I leave the page open and I try to show up to it all the time. Sometimes that means taking a bath, or a walk, or slacking off. It’s all a part of the process.

Romantic that I am, I just adored two of your supporting chracters, Tina and Sheldon. Though marked as nerds by the popular kids at their high school, it’s clear to me that they’ve got cool to spare. How did these characters evolve?

Sheldon comes of my love for boys with gorgeous brains. I’ve liked some boys that are eccentric huge brained geniuses like Sheldon, and I know they certainly didn’t make it through high school being thought of as cool. But now, they are so friggin’ cool I can’t believe it! I want to kiss them all!

Tina came about because I think a lot about being small. I am quite small, though not as small as Tina and I wondered about how that would be, to be smaller than I am and yet be so big. Tina, is a pretty big girl on the inside. When I look back now, I think in part two things made Tina be in that field trip scene I wrote. At that time I was doing this writing assistantship at the New Works Festival at the Taper and I was working on this one woman show written by this differently-abled actress named Anne Stocking. She’s like this powerhouse, sexy, amazing, talented writer performer. She’s smaller than I am, but ballsier. I had also just gone to a wedding and my friends Uncle has achrondoplasia. He was trying to encourage me to join the LPA so I could get blocks for my car since I have trouble reaching my pedals. At 4′ 10″, I actually make the cut. So I did. It’s been so interesting!

As I was finishing the novel, it struck me that I couldn’t think of another YA title that included a character who, like Tina, is a little person. Are there some I’m forgetting or missed along the way? I wish they weren’t so rare.

I can only think of Funny Little Monkey [by Andrew Auseon (Harcourt, 2005)] and Freak the Mighty [by Rodman Philbrick (Scholastic, 1993)]. Or A Prayer for Owen Meany [by John Irving (Ballantine)], which I guess isn’t YA. I wish they weren’t so rare either. In those two books, the little characters go to hospitals a lot, which of course, does happen in life. I wanted Tina to just be a normal teen, who happens to be a dwarf. This story doesn’t take place during any hospital stay that Tina might have had to / or would do later. In this story, Tina’s dwarfism was a way to sort of have Libby be confronted physically with a difference. A way for Libby to have to see past that and into the true meaning of cool. ‘Cause Tina’s pretty friggin’ cool.

Of the young adult novels you’ve read of late, which are your favorites and why?

Well, I just read Nick and Norah’s Ultimate Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan [(Knopf, 2006)]. E. Lockhart‘s The Boyfriend List [(Delacorte, 2005)(author interview)](really moved me with that whole carnation scene. It was like I had an Aha moment! I’ve read a draft of Holly Black’s Ironside and WHOA! It’s amazing! Honestly, I am ashamed I haven’t read more. I am a really slow reader so I’m terribly behind on my reading.

What strikes you as “cool”? How would you define it in your own life–past, present, and future?

People who are their genuine authentic self are cool. That’s always the case. Past, present and future. If you are yourself, true to yourself, 100% then that is cool. Always.

Were you the Queen of Cool as a teenager? You certainly are now!

I don’t know if I was! I think I was in the middle. I wasn’t the coolest person I knew but I wasn’t the dorkiest. For me, I had this big personality, and I was sensitive and emotional and raw. (Uh, I might still be those things) (Don’t tell)

I think now, the advantage of being an adult is that I can manage myself a little better, and I also can see the cool thing inside of pretty much everyone. In my opinion, everyone has something deliciously, exquisitely, divinely cool in them.

But I still have those social situations where nothing I do is cool enough and I guarantee you, I’m the biggest loser in the room. Then I remember that really, truly, I am a Queen. (And so are you!)

Author Interview: Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts on M or F?

M or F? by Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts (Razorbill, 2005). From the promotional copy: “Frannie and Marcus are best friends-brain twins, in fact. They share a love of Bollywood movies, an unbridled passion for pizza, and the fact that neither of them has ever had a boyfriend. At least Marcus has an excuse-eligible gay boys are hard to come by in their small Illinois town. Frannie is desperate to get the attention of her crush, Jeffrey, but she’s way too shy to make a move. Marcus insists that Frannie chat with Jeffrey online, but Frannie won’t type a word without Marcus’s help. In the chat room, Marcus and Jeffrey hit it off. The whole plan seems to be working! But the more Marcus writes, the more he’s convinced that Jeffrey is falling for him, not Frannie. But if that’s true, what does it mean for their friendship?

“Co-authors Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts tell the story from two different points of view-giving the reader he-said/she-said insight into troublesome issues like lying by exclusion, coming out to your family, the humiliation of minimum-wage jobs, assumptions about sexuality, living with an embarrassing grandmother, what it means to be a “perfect date,” and the ever-pressing questions: Does this guy like boys or girls? M or F? Gay or straight? What’s the deal???”

Lisa Papademetriou is the author of Sixth-Grade Glommers, Norks, and Me (Hyperion, 2005)(named one of the Best Books of 2005 by FamilyFun.com)(read excerpt) and co-author (with Chris Tebbetts) of M or F? (Razorbill, 2005). She has written and/or adapted over thirty books for children and young adults, including titles in the Lizzie McGuire, That’s So Raven, Kim Possible, and Sweet Valley High Senior Year book series. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with her husband, where she enjoys quilting, dancing around the house to eighties music, playing the guitar (badly), and drinking large amounts of coffee. Her next book, The Wizard, the Witch, and Two Girls from Jersey will be published in May 2006.

Chris Tebbetts is a writer of middle grade and young adult fiction, as well as creative nonfiction. His books include The Viking (Puffin, ongoing), a middle grade fantasy adventure series, and M or F? (Razorbill, 2005), a young adult romantic comedy co-written with Lisa Papademetriou. He lives with his husband in Hinesburg, Vermont.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

Lisa’s answer

LP: Actually, the publisher came up with the idea. They wanted a “Will and Grace” for high school. Then they hired Chris and me to write it. It was an arranged marriage–Chris and I had never met (or even heard of each other) before we started working together.

Chris’s answer

CT: The idea behind the story is Cyrano-inspired. We knew we wanted one character helping another to spark a romance, only to get sucked further into it than he originally intended. Then there was the gay-straight twist layered onto that. Then there was the idea that two characters (and two authors) should tell the story. All of it was a natural launching pad for Lisa and me to create a plot that was intentionally as complicated as possible, with unanswered questions and loaded situations thrown in at every turn. In a way, I was inspired by those old weekend-in-the-country farces, where someone’s always coming into a room just as the person they’re looking for is exiting through another door.

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

Lisa’s answer

LP: I guess the book took about a year to write and another to publish. Because we were essentially writing two stories that had to intertwine and eventually dovetail, Chris and I were very careful about plotting and outlining together. We each started with a character sketch of our main protagonist, worked on a skeleton plot, then hammered out an outline. At that point, I came up to Vermont and met Chris in person for the first time! We spent several days going over that outline, page by page and line by line until we felt it was right. Then we started the long haul of actually writing the manuscript. Three revisions and many months later, we finally
had it.

Chris’s answer

CT: We started the project by exchanging a long string of emails and phone calls, getting to know each other while we were also getting to know our characters. It was time well spent. After that, we created our plot together, over a weekend, and then spent about eight months playing writer tennis: I wrote Chapter One, sent it off to Lisa, who then wrote Chapter Two and sent the whole thing back to me. Once we had a first draft, we spent another weekend together identifying issues for the rewrite, and then another month in a less structured back and forth, getting the whole thing done.

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

Lisa’s answer

LP: The greatest challenge, for me, was to make sure the book had flow. We wanted it to sound like it was told by two different characters…not two different authors.

Chris’s answer

CT: Besides the logistics of collaboration, we also wanted to create a gay character whose “problem” wasn’t his own sexuality. This book was always meant to be a light comedy, so it was a balancing act to set aside some of the heavier aspects of being a young, out, gay man in a homophobic world, without completely ignoring that reality. In the end, it was much harder to combine comedy and substance than I thought it was going to be.

What were the special challenges, if any, of collaboration? Are you two “brain twins” like your alternating protagonists?

Lisa’s answer

LP: That term “brain twins” actually came from our experience working together–we referred to each other as brain twins before we referred to Marcus and Frannie that way. Chris and I are on the same wavelength to a degree that is borderline freaky. There were surprisingly few challenges in working together–whenever we didn’t agree on something, we just talked it
through. I think we both accepted the fact that sometimes you have to sacrifice your beloved idea in the interest of creating a story that works.

Chris’s answer

CT: I think the major challenge was logistical-keeping track of plot details and two different, but dovetailing, arcs for two different protagonists. Any changes to one character’s story affected the other character’s story, and of course, the other writer, so the process was more cumbersome than usual. It was like going from juggling three balls on your own, to juggling six balls with a partner. Having said that, I feel the same way Lisa does: our chemistry, as friends, made all the difference. This project was a pleasure, beginning to end.

What can your fans expect from you next?

Lisa’s answer

LP: I’ve got a novel called The Wizard, the Witch, and Two Girls from Jersey due out in May with Razorbill/Penguin. And, of course, I’d love to work with Chris again. We’re talking about what that will look like… We’ll keep you posted!

Chris’s answer

CT: I’m working on a middle grade novel that doesn’t have a home yet, and I’m too superstitious to say more than that. Meanwhile, I’d love to work with Lisa again, so our fingers are crossed for a sequel, or who knows, maybe something totally new.

Author Update: Annette Curtis Klause

Annette Curtis Klause is the award-winning author of Alien Secrets (Delacorte, 1993), The Silver Kiss (Delacorte, 1990), Blood and Chocolate (Delacorte, 1999), and most recently, Freaks: Alive on the Inside (Simon & Schuster, 2006).

When I last interviewed you, you’d just had a short story, “Summer of Love,” published in the anthology, The Color of Absence: 12 Stories about Loss and Hope edited by James Howe (Atheneum, 2001). It was a tie-in story to your acclaimed YA vampire novel, The Silver Kiss (Delacorte, 1990). Have you continued writing short stories? If so, what can your fans expect on that front next?

I don’t write a lot of short stories, although I have a few stashed away unpublished as yet. Last winter I was asked for a short story for an anthology of teen horror stories called The Restless Dead, to be published by Candlewick Press. I realized I’d been hoarding a title which would be perfect for this theme–“Kissing Dead Boys.”

All I needed was a plot to go with it. I had already jotted down some ideas when I received shocking news–my younger sister, Julie, who lived in England, had died unexpectedly. This was the sister I shared a room with while we were growing up; the sister I shared fantasy friends and adventures with. I began to write the story to try and take my mind off my depression.

I had wanted to write a zombie story, but it kept on insisting it was a vampire story, so I went with the flow. The writing was slow going at first, but then, after a few pages, the narrator mentioned her sister. I didn’t even know she was going to have a sister! That’s when I realized I was really writing a story about my feelings for Julie, and the story took off and almost wrote itself. The editor was happy with what I sent her, and the story will be published next Halloween, and dedicated to my sister.

Your last gothic fantasy novel, Blood and Chocolate (Delacorte, 1999), which featured werewolves, was a smash hit, a Top Ten BBYA, a Top Ten Quick Pick, a Booklist Editors’ Choice, and a School Library Journal Best Book (among other honors). It also received stars from Booklist and SLJ. Is it right that a movie is currently in the works? What can you tell us about it?

Yes, the movie was filmed in Romania this past fall and I believe it’s in post production now. I’m not sure how much it will be like the book, however. They seem to have made the characters older, as well as setting the story in Eastern Europe which kind of negates the whole point of the plot–werewolves could be sitting right next to you in your high school homeroom. I am flattered by the outraged posts on the Internet Movie Database message boards and sympathetic with the posters, but I’m afraid that if you aren’t Anne Rice, J.K. Rowling, or Stephen King you don’t get much say in what the film companies do. The producers don’t even keep me up to date–I find my information on the Web.

I knew there was a good possibility that the film wouldn’t resemble my story, but how often do you get a chance to have something you wrote made into a movie? It had to be a laugh, at least, right? A glimpse into a whole new world. We can at least pray that the movie works on it’s own terms, and hope that it inspires the viewers to read the book. It might be fun, despite being different. The script writer is Ehren Kruger (“The Ring,” “The Skeleton Key”), so it’s got a good chance of working. Aiden will be played by Hugh Dancy, who’s done British TV as well as a few films; Vivian is played by Agnes Bruckner; and Gabriel is played by French heartthrob Olivier Martinez (who’s handsome but seems a little short to be a kick-ass werewolf dude, but what can you do?) You can read the full cast and crew on www.imdb.com.

Your soon-to-be released novel is Freaks! Alive, On the Inside (McElderry, January 2006). Could you tell us a little about the story? What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Okay, you asked for it, this is my handy-dandy, all-purpose, sumptuous, far-too-long annotation:

“When a boy’s first romantic interlude is with Phoebe the dog faced girl, he feels a need to get out into the world and find a new life.

“However, the increasingly possessive Phoebe is only one of seventeen-year-old Abel’s reasons for wanting to leave the Faeryland Revue of 1899.

“Abel is born into the world of sideshow performers. His parents, and most of the inhabitants of the entertainment resort they live and perform in, are human oddities—-‘freaks’ many call them—-people with physical differences that set them off from most of the population.

“But Abel has no interesting physical difference, and he feels that he will never have a chance to excel until he goes out into the world among people more like him. ‘Why would someone want to come see an ordinary boy like me throw knives when there are such wonders around me?’

“He is just dependable, kindly Abel, the lad who runs errands into town and who helps back stage, the one who is stuck minding twelve-year-old Apollo, an irrepressible puppy boy who can’t stay out of trouble. Abel doesn’t want to be good, however. He yearns for adventure–the sort of adventure a young man can only have when not surrounded by people who know his parents.

“When the Siamese twins depart the show, one of them gives Abel an Egyptian ring as a gift to remember her by, and Abel starts to have disturbing, delicious dreams of a beautiful dancing girl. She seems the physical embodiment of the adventure he craves, and where would he ever find a woman such as that?

“Not at home.

“That’s when Abel decides to creep out at night and walk across the Maryland countryside to join a traveling circus as the first step on his way to find his fortune. But fortune, in the shape of the voluptuous dancing girl who haunts him in twilight and in sleep, has her own plans for Abel, and through misadventure and mishap (complicated by a little problem he thought he’d left behind) she leads him back to the freaks—a raggle-taggle band of traveling performers very different from the proud, independent souls he grew up with, held in thrall to a manipulative showman and his thugs. They break his heart. Faced with kidnapping, abuse, and murder, it is only by using the qualities he thought were unimportant and mundane, that Abel can help them and, through that, finds his place in the world and the love of his life.”

As to what inspired me–well, I just gave a half-hour speech on that last November and still didn’t fit everything in. I’ll try to summarize. I’ve always been interested in outsiders because I’ve often felt like one myself. My books reflect that. The ectoplasm of this book comes from a variety of sources–my father’s medical books, featuring bizarre illnesses, which fascinated me as a child; the 1930’s Tod Browning movie, “Freaks,” which I discovered in college; two wonderful medical museums I visited as a teenager which featured skeletons of dwarfs and giants, and deformed babies in jars; a book a room mate lent me called Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, originally published in the 19th century; and the wonderful 19th century fantasy adventures of H. Rider Haggard.

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

Yikes! You do ask tough questions. The idea for this book came to me probably a little before Blood and Chocolate was published in 1997. It’s all blurry and far away now. I was visiting New York and told my idea to my publisher who then offered me a contract based merely on my vague synopsis. I was stunned.

I’m not sure I should have signed that contract–in one way, it forced me to write the book; in another way, it panicked me and froze me at times. It meant I was committed to deliver a book. WHAT IF I COULDN’T DO IT?

Before that, I usually waited until I had a book to turn in before I signed anything. I think I’m going back to that method, then we will see if that was just an excuse.

Anyway, as you can tell, it took at least eight years to come up with another book. I really, really, really, really hope the next one doesn’t take as long. In the meantime: that publishing executive retired; I am on my third agent with the same agency; I’m on my third computer; my editor was fired; my editor was hired somewhere else; Random House was generous enough to release me from the original contract; and I’m now published by a totally different publisher (and back with my editor). Whew!

Three or four summers ago I took several months off from my job as a librarian in the hopes of finishing the book. Ha ha ha ha ha! You can tell that worked. I did love that taste of being a full-time writer, though. I wish I could afford it. But, as you can tell, my output is a little iffy.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life? I’m especially interested in the research you did on the lives of people who worked in “freak shows” and circuses as well as that related to ancient Egypt.

Well, I touched a little on the psychological hurdles above. The main logistical problem was that I have a full-time job and as I get older, I have less energy when I get home from it.

The other problem/joy was research, research, research. I needed to know the history of the circus and sideshows, and after I decided on my time period, I had to not only find out about everyday life in the 19th century, but the particular life in the shows at that time. I wanted to discover the lingo and the lives of the performers. I was curious about all the physical possibilities there were and how they would effect people’s lives. I obsessed about knowing enough true facts to weave a believable plot within a realistic setting. And I am very hard on myself–I researched tiny details that my readers would probably never catch me out on, but I would know if I was slipshod, wouldn’t I? I found way more information in books and on the Internet than I could ever use in one work. My head was bursting with characters, anecdotes, weird trivia, and a new vocabulary, and my library of strange items grew every day. There are still books in my house that I didn’t get around to reading, and those unbought that I still might pursue, and I own my personal set of throwing knives, although I can’t throw them straight.

I’m sure I was using research as a form of procrastination because I was afraid I couldn’t pull the whole thing off–the trick of spinning the straw of notes into the gold of a satisfying story. I finally had to force myself to stop the research and start the writing.

I have a large cast of unusual characters in this book , and while the people in my story are imaginary, their physical differences are often inspired by those of people who really lived, and many characters are composites of people I came across in photographs and accounts. A bizarrely compelling postcard on eBay of a sweet little boy with a huge head dressed in Chinese costume and entitled “Master Handsome—Hydrocephalic Mind Reader” was responsible for my creation of a small child called Minnie whose stage name is Little Beauty and whose powers might be more than carnie bunkum. Mr. Bopp’s appearance is based on a real life performer in the movie Freaks, Prince Randian, who performed as The Human Torso for forty-five years, starting in the late 1800’s. Abel’s father is patterned on Johnny Eck, the Half Boy also featured in “Freaks,” a Baltimore native and already a sideshow star in his own right before the making of the movie, but Mr. Dandy also has a little Eli Bowen in him. I have some wonderful family pictures of Mr. Bowen with his wife and son–physical anomalies didn’t stop many of these performers from finding love and raising a family. And while there was a four-legged woman called Myrtle Corbin, Albert Sunderland, the four-legged man is mostly based on Francis Lentini, a famous three-legged man who also kicked a soccer ball around on stage, and I have photographic evidence of his…ahem…other extras.

Yes, I read up on ancient Egypt, too–the role of women was one of my focuses. I chose an era that suited my needs and gave historical background to a little piece of business I needed for the plot. I was especially interested in the idea of the ka and the ba, aspects of the human soul–the spiritual parts of us that transcend the body. One of my favorite books was a reproduction of a 19th century study of Egyptian magic. The Egyptian ideas about the magical power of words and symbols gave shape to my plot.

Another challenge was writing a book with the flavor of the style of the time without being exactly the style of the time which might have turned off contemporary readers because of it’s complexity. I use slang and expressions of the 19th century and try to convey a certain formality without losing the immediacy today’s reader needs. Writing this book also required suggesting the prejudices of the time without using the blunt language that would be accurate, but make contemporary readers very uncomfortable and open the way for misinterpretation of my motives. My main character needed to be more formal and polite than today’s teens without appearing stuffy or too good to be true. I probably made him more liberal than is strictly accurate but I needed him that way for a modern reader to identify with him, so I had to make his attitude believable within the constraints of the time period.

The book touches on the question of insiders, outsiders, and the relative perspective on who is odd. Abel Dandy, your protagonist, for example, feels that he is unusual because unlike his extended “family,” he is physically like most people. What is your thinking on this subject, and how does the question resonate with you? Why did you think it would be an interesting theme to explore for the YA audience?

Growing up, I was the odd girl teased for her red hair and glasses who never seemed to belong in whatever neighborhood she moved to. I read lots of books, I was shy, I wrote, I had an imagination, and things popped out of my mouth sometimes that I wished I could retract when I saw the wary looks in other people’s eyes. When I came to this county from England at the age of fifteen, I finally found a group of people I fit in with–we all considered ourselves a bit odd and we decided to make it a positive thing. One of the reasons I loved the movie “Freaks” so much when I was a teenager, was that it treated with respect the people considered freaks by the “normal” world. In the 1960’s the media called the type of people I hung out with “hippies,” and less than kind people called us “freaks” so we took on that title of Freak and wore it proudly. We made it our own to say that being different was acceptable. (I used that title for this book in the same spirit and also to pay tribute to Tod Browning who endured much criticism and censorship for his attempt to show that even those who look very different still have the same feelings as we all do.)

I know there are plenty of teens who feel the way I did. It’s a time when we are so painfully aware of our quirks, exaggerate them in our minds even, and yet we bemoan our mundane qualities. It’s when we yearn to be different, yet are embarrassed by our differences. It’s a time when our bodies seem to betray us with every step we take as they warp and change out of our control (although I have to admit that I’m discovering that middle age is rather like that, too), and yet we are obsessed with our bodies and those of the others around us.

Adolescence is a period when a person is trying hard to define him or herself, and I think that teens are naturally inclined to want to make a study of what is considered abnormal and compare themselves to that standard.

Nowadays I don’t care how weird people think I am, so I thought I’d share my obsessions and make people think about them. There’s a certain repulsion-attraction mechanism in humans. The “oh gross” response compels them to pay attention and gives me the chance to plant the seed of thought. Maybe my book will help people consider the right of people to control their own destiny; confirm for them that it’s character that counts not looks; reassure them that to be unique is valuable; or guide them to a sense of wonder where they least expected it, and bestow a fascination with the mystery of the human body and the strength of the human spirit.

I noticed that Freaks is marked for ages 14-up, which is a relatively new designation in YA, signalling that the book is targeted at the YA/Adult crossover market. What are your feelings about this 14-up category? What are the challenges today in writing, publishing, and marketing upper YA?

I think that this category is right for this book. I would feel uncomfortable offering it to someone younger because I don’t think as many younger kids would enjoy it on the level that it is intended to be enjoyed. I require a certain level of surging hormones in my readers. *grin* I was a little annoyed when one review placed the book at 12 and up. I wondered if the reviewer had read the book properly.

I don’t feel that upper YA is a challenge for me to write–it’s just where I land, both feet together–plop. I do think it’s a tightrope walk for some, however. I think it’s a matter of knowing how far out to push the envelope so one can be honest and true to the kids without alienating the gatekeepers because, no matter how we may not like it, there are adults between the writer and the teen audience who may be more conservative than the teens and may not give the kids enough credit for what they can absorb.

A writer has to remember, too, that there isn’t just one generic teen. People are people, and they have differing sensibilities, they mature at different rates, and some people are just not going to get you however old or young they are. Another challenge is the YA category itself–some teens who are the perfect age for the category are going to reject it as childish just because it is marketed for teens. I would have been one of them. A good cover can help that, and subtle placement in bookstores and libraries. That is out of the writer’s control, however. Another frustration.

What advice do you have for writers who’re interested in crafting horror or gothic fantasy novels?

Be aware of the genre and don’t ignore your predecessors: learn from them, and then make a style of your own. Write in those genres because you love them, not because you feel the genre will sell. You can’t fool a true fan. All the rules of good writing apply–they are not waived because you are writing genre fiction. Remember, the more fantastic your plot, the more important it is to ground the story in reality so your reader believes everything. Your characters must come alive, the details of your setting be real, and your facts based on accurate research. Yes, even fiction needs to be researched.

How has your writing changed over the past few years? What are your goals for the future?

I haven’t a clue as to how my writing has changed. Perhaps it hasn’t. I don’t think my style has changed much, but I do hope my writing has improved. I’d hate to think I was stagnating. (There’s nothing grosser than a green and slimy writer.) My goal is to write faster. LOL! I haven’t gotten very far on that yet. My last short story came out rather fast, though–I do hope the next book I have in mind will, too. All I have are a bunch of notes and a sound track in my head so far. I’m setting it in the here and now so that should give me a head start, but I have to do some research on demons. Ahhhhhhhhhh! Research. Here we go again.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Think about writing. Work full-time as a children’s librarian at the management level. Think about writing. Make a fuss over my six cats–three of which are Siamese but none are Siamese twins. Think about writing. Hang out on a Siamese cat Internet bulletin board. Think about writing. Listen to music that is probably too young for me but who cares anyway. Think about writing. Read when I can but mostly mess about on the computer. Think about writing. Never get around to renovating the house that needs it. Think about writing. Fall asleep on the couch watching TV with my husband. Dream about writing. Sorry, I don’t do extreme sports or travel the world and have adventures–I do stuff in my head.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I didn’t expect to learn old songs when I began Freaks, I didn’t know I’d be printing out glossaries of circus slang, and I didn’t know I would fall in love with my characters as much as I did. I may have started reading about unusual people out of curiosity, but what I brought away was respect—respect for people who fought the odds against them and created lives for themselves. They made the best of what they had, earned a living, loved, married, had children, and left a legacy when they could—just like anyone. We are all different—and how boring life would be if we were all the same—but some of those differences may be more obvious than others, and present greater challenges. Yet one thing unites us—we are all human. Let’s treat each other that way.

Cheers!

Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos

Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos (Atheneum, 2006)(see excerpt). Nadira, 14, has always been the plump one, the less-bright one, the dim light behind the shining star of her older sister Aisha, 18. After September 11, their family of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh seeks asylum in Canada. They are turned away at the border, and Abba (father) is arrested. As time passes and hope grows dim, it’s Nadira who must find her voice and make people see her, believe in her–and accept. Ages 10-up.

My Thoughts

This novel touches on important issues–deportation, residency, asylum, prejudice. Yet it also shines as a story of family–of siblings and parents and children, trying to navigate their way through a dual cultural context as well as a sometimes rushed, sometimes uncaring bureaucracy.

Nadira’s loyalty to her family and her determination to clear her father’s name are especially memorable.

It’s a tremendous challenge to write a novel like this, that strongly relates to a controversial, politically and emotionally charged situation in such a way that it is accessible to young readers and will resonate with them, but Marina does so with great grace and authority.

More informally, the court room scene reminded me vaguely of the closing one in “My Cousin Vinney,” in that She Who Is Least Expected To (But Not Really) makes a difference.

Cynsational Notes

Like me, Marina is from a writing family. Her husband is author-editor Marc Aronson.

Cynsational News & Links

A number of people have inquired as to whether my husband Greg Leitich Smith and I will be hosting WriteFest again this year. We have elected not to do so as I’m still settling into my competing responsibilities on the faculty of the M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College/Union Institute and University. However, we may revisit the idea of sponsoring the program in the future.

“Self-editing Your Middle-Grade Book” by Margot Finke, Musings January 2006, from The Purple Crayon.

Four Publishing Presidents to Share the Stage on the SCBWI 35th Anniversary

A typical children’s publisher receives 5,000 or more submissions a year and publishes only a handful, according to editors. With so many people dreaming of writing a children’s book, and fewer than one-tenth of one percent of manuscripts making it out of the slush pile, sometimes it seems almost impossible to break into print. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is an organization that can help open doors.

On February 4-5, the SCBWI holds its 7th Annual Winter Conference at the Hilton New York Hotel. Conference attendees can find out what art directors and editors are looking for and make all-important industry contacts that can pave the way to publication. One highlight of this year’s conference will be a panel on the state of children’s publishing featuring Chip Gibson, Doug Whiteman, Lisa Holton and Rick Richter, children’s division presidents at Random House, Penguin, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster.

This will be the first time that these presidents have appeared together on stage. They will discuss “The Present and Future of Children’s Publishing: A View From the Presidents’ Desk,” a forum that will give attendees a rare glimpse inside the minds of top executives. In addition, four keynote speakers will be featured: Michael L. Printz Award-winning novelist David Almond; Emmy Award-winning author-illustrator Marc Brown; Langston Hughes Award-winning poet Nikki Giovanni; and Francine Pascal, whose books have 150 million copies in print.

When the SCBWI was founded by author and film producer Lin Oliver and author Stephen Mooser in 1971, their original idea was to train young writers in the children’s book field. Today the group has grown to 19,860 members worldwide and counts best-selling authors and illustrators Judy Blume, Tomie dePaola, Jerry Pinkney, Walter Dean Myers, and Jane Yolen as active board members. Newbery Medal winner Linda Sue Park (author interview) and Caldecott Medal winner Robert Sabuda are just two of the many members who joined the SCBWI as unpublished authors or illustrators and went on to award-winning careers. The SCBWI strives to create a non-competitive atmosphere, with authors helping authors, illustrators helping illustrators, and all sharing one common bond, the love of children’s literature.

In recent years, the SCBWI has launched international chapters on four continents, making it the largest children’s writing organization in the world. In addition to writers and illustrators, the organization has evolved into a broad-based community of librarians, educators, publishers, students, dramatists, musicians, filmmakers, and others who create and advocate for children’s literature. A unique network of professionals helps to mentor aspiring writers and illustrators while at the same time helping published authors and illustrators develop their careers. The organization’s eighty-four chapters hold conferences, share resources, provide networking opportunities, and help to organize writer’s groups. In addition, the SCBWI holds two annual conferences in the U.S. – in New York in February, and in Los Angeles in August – and a third meeting in Bologna, Italy, in March.

In addition to the President’s Forum and the keynote speeches, attendees at the New York conference will be able to attend breakout sessions led by top literary agents, artists’ reps, and editors and art directors from eight major publishers.

Illustrators can also participate in The New York Showcase, an art exhibition and auction in which people from the industry can view their work. A pre-conference Professional Illustrators Day on Friday, February 3, features workshop sessions led by illustrators Pat Cummings, Tomie dePaola, David Diaz, Robert Sabuda, and Wendell Minor.

Cynsational Notes

The first national SCBWI conference I attended was the 25th Anniversary celebration in Los Angeles–10 years ago! It was a wonderful event, and I highly recommend this conference to those with a serious interest in a career as a children’s/YA author of illustrator.

Free Baseball by Sue Corbett

Free Baseball by Sue Corbett (Dutton, 2006). Felix loves baseball and longs for the day when his father, who’s a baseball star in Cuba, will join him and his mother in Florida. When a team with a couple of players who might be Cuban comes to town, Felix takes advantage of being mistaken for the bat boy to stow away in the team bus. Exciting and heartfelt–a home run! Ages 8-up.

My Thoughts

Baseball is not my sport of choice, but I found myself falling in love with the game as I read this novel. Felix is such an engaging hero–vulnerable, funny, smart, and assertive. He would be a good model for writers studying likeability at the mid-grade level.

The story has a happy–if bittersweet–ending that’s just right. There’s just a touch of everyday magic to this story–not magic magic but that feeling you get when you’re really living and the world seems to sparkle. Love the dog!

Felix’s mother is strong and loving–an unusual find in youth literature. The story also offers a context for Cuban refugees’ political and human circumstances.

Back matter includes a helpful author’s note, glossary of baseball terms, and glossary of Spanish words and phrases.

Cynsational Notes

Sue also is the author of 12 Again (Dutton, 2002), her debut novel, which is recommended.

Cynsational News & Links

“Lies and Reasons Why Writers Don’t Write” by Elizabeth A. Wright from the Institute of Children’s Literature.

Perspectives: “Are Book Tours Worthwhile?” by Katrina Weidknecht from CBC Magazine.

Skill-Building: Memory, Research, and Observation: Keys To Compelling Children’s Books: An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Jane Kurtz by Susan VanHecke from Authorlink.com. Jane’s books include Do Kangaroos Wear Seatbelts?, illustrated by Jane Manning (Dutton, 2005) and In the Small, Small Night, illustrated by Rachel Isadora (Greenwillow, 2005), “recently named by The Washington Post as one of the five best picture books of the year,” (author interview)(author update). Jane talks about her path to publication, her first sale, being prolific, shopping manuscripts, the multicultural market, her international influences, research, her latest works, and more.

Author-Illustrator Feature: Grace Lin

Grace Lin is the creator of several picture books for children, including Robert’s Snow (Viking, 2004) and Dim Sum For Everyone! (Knopf, 2001). This month she celebrates the release of her debut novel, The Year of the Dog (Little Brown, 2006). Grace also offers one of the most beautifully designed and informative author-illustrator sites on the Web. Be sure to visit her online for more information!

What training prepared you to be a children’s book illustrator? Have you done other illustration work?

I have a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in illustration; and I was a bookseller at children’s book store, Curious George Goes to Wordsworth, which actually taught me more about children’s books than my college education…

I’ve done other types of illustration (Seventeen Magazine, Nickelodeon, etc.), mainly earlier on in my career. People told me you couldn’t make enough money to live off of doing children’s books, so in the beginning I attempted to find work in all the illustrations fields–editorial, giftware, etc.

It was only when I focused on books, what I loved, that I found success (and I do make a living off of it, thank you!).

Why did you decide to write and illustrate children’s books?

I always had a love of books and stories since childhood. This is something I’ve always wanted to do.

What was your path to publication and its timeline?

After I graduated from RISD, I sent millions of samples with minimal responses. One of the few responses was from an Assistant Editor at Orchard books, Harold Underdown.

A year and a half later (while I was still toiling away, depressed at my lack of publishing credits), Harold became the Senior Editor at Charlesbridge Publishing and contacted me. He asked if I had any stories to go with my illustrations and even though I didn’t, I said yes! I was desperate to get any kind of foot in the door and wasn’t going to let any opportunity slip. I quickly started writing.

The story I wrote was, The Ugly Vegetables (Charlesbridge, 1999) and, after a couple of revisions, it became my first book. So that was three years after graduation.

How does your heritage inspire/influence your work?

I grew up in Upstate New York where there were few minorities, especially Asian. My parents wanted us to blend; they wanted us to grow up really “American” and made the decision to speak to us only in English. So, my sisters and I grew up very Americanized. There were always subtle differences, like Chinese food or red envelopes, but most of the time we glossed over them.

A lot of my books deal with Chinese culture because, in a way, I’m trying to find the culture I lost. When I was younger, I was ashamed or sometimes even angry about being Chinese. Most of the time I forgot that I was Chinese. Sometimes I would see myself in the mirror and be surprised to see a Chinese girl looking back at me.

It’s only now, after becoming an adult and I realized that there was something I lost, ignoring these parts of my heritage. There were a lot of things that we did, traditions like eating ginger soup at a baby shower, which I never bothered to learn more about. So now, I research these kinds of things about my heritage. I’m making the books I missed when I was younger.

Do you do school visits, and if so, what kind of programs do you offer? How can planners contact you?

I have a variety of programs. Usually I do “How a Book is Made” an interactive presentation that explains the steps of publishing to the students. This also includes a book reading, drawing and Q&A session. Sometimes I do slide lectures (usually for adults) about being a multicultural author-illustrator and/or my path of publications. Other times I do a craft workshop with the kids, something inspired by my books (for example, kite making with my book Kite Flying (Knopf, 2002)). You can see all my suggested curriculum at my website: www.gracelin.com.

Planners can contact my manager/sister Alice at manager@gracelin.com.

Could you briefly tell us about each of your picture books and what inspired them?

All of my books have some sort real-life inspiration. The Ugly Vegetables was based on the memories I had of my mother growing Chinese vegetables. Dim Sum For Everyone! is based on memories of my family eating dim sum in Chinatown. Robert’s Snow, was written when my husband Robert wasn’t allowed out in the snow–just like the mouse in the book.

How about your latest book, The Year of the Dog?

My newest and first novel, The Year of the Dog, is almost a memoir. It features my family, our family stories and memories-though a bit fictionalized. On my new-and-improved website, you can see “behind the story” of the book where I post photos of the real parts.

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

The Year of the Dog began as a sequel to my book The Ugly Vegetables. However, as I began to write, the book would just not fit in a picture book format. There were so many memories–funny stories that needed to be told, poignant stories that couldn’t be left out, family stories that insisted on being written… They just couldn’t be contained in 32 pages.

Finally, I realized that it wanted to be a novel and let it become The Year of the Dog. It took me only five years to come to this conclusion. But once I let it happen, things moved fairly quickly.

I brought the first rough draft of the novel to Kindling Words in January of 2004. My good friend Alvina Ling, who is an editor at Little Brown, read it. We have been friends since childhood (she was a bridesmaid at my wedding) and are coincidentally also in the same business. (We actually started in children’s books at the same time, my first book published when she became an editorial assistant. But that is another story).

We had never worked together on anything before, and this seemed like the perfect project (especially as she is in it). We went through many revisions over the next six or so months and Alvina finally brought it to pub committee. She gave an impassioned speech for it, and it went through with flying colors (and I did a happy dance).

The only thing was that since it was about the Chinese Year of the Dog, they wanted the book to come out for Chinese New Year. So it was a little bit of a rush-but I didn’t mind. I hate the waiting in between creation and publication.

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

The biggest writing hurdle was crossing over from being picture book writer to a novel writer. The first time Alvina sent back my manuscript she wrote on it, “You need to add at least three descriptions per page.” That was because I hadn’t written any! I was so used to having pictures tell that part of the story, it was a challenge to paint the images in words.

Psychologically, having a first novel published is a fingernail-biting experience. All of my books are a part of me, but this book, because of all the details and family history shared, is more than any of the other. While I have slowly developed a thicker skin for criticism on my picture books, I’m on pins-and-needles about this novel. Just crossing my fingers that people like it and it makes some sort of splash.

Kissing Brendan Callahan by Susan Amessé

Kissing Brendan Callahan by Susan Amessé (Roaring Brook, 2005). Sarah wants to be a writer. She wants to enter a local writing contest, judged by her idol–romance writer Antonia DeMarco, and she wants to win first place. Unfortunately, her just-the-facts mom says she’s ineligible to enter and has a less-than-stellar opinion about Antonia herself. But Sarah has a solution, a pen name, and an offer to act as Antonia’s assistant. What’s more, she has inspiration in a certain Brendan Callahan. A comedic story of a young girl with a dream. Ages 10-up.

My Thoughts

This is a wholesome, upbeat, and humorous ‘tweener with a romantic subplot.

It reminded me a bit of Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2005) in that both protagonists are disillusioned by an idol only to find their heroes closer to home.

In terms of my personal identification with the characters, the conflict between the journalist mom and fiction-writing daughter reminded me of different bits of myself–the recovering journalist (who finds relief in this blog) and the author. Both sides rang true!

Cynsational News & Links

Author Uma Krishnaswami is offering two classes in January via Writers.com–Introduction to Writing for Children (Jan. 9) and Advanced Workshop for Children’s Writers (Jan. 23). I know Uma personally, have spoken with her at children’s literature events, and have been fortunate enough to have her critique one of my manuscripts. She’s highly recommended. To learn more about Uma, visit her Web site and read my most recent interview with her.

Attention Central Texans: David Clement-Davies will be speaking and signing his latest book, The Telling Pool, at 7 p.m. Jan. 19 at BookPeople in Austin. In addition, Jonathan Stroud will be signing Ptolemy’s Gate (Miramax, 2005), the third book in The Bartimaeus Trilogy, at 10 a.m. Jan. 24 at BookPeople.

Best Books of 2005 from A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy. See the sidebar for the list. See also recent interviews with these featured authors: E. Lockhart; Brent Hartinger; Libba Bray; Mary E. Pearson; Elise Broach; Jennifer Richard Jacobson; and D.L. Garfinkle.