Author Update: Lisa Wheeler

We last talked to noted picture book and easy-reader author Lisa Wheeler about the publication of Sixteen Cows, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Harcourt, 2002, 2006)(author interview).

Could you tell us a bit about your backlist titles published since 2002?

Oh, my. 2002? Really? This’ll be a long list, so you may want to truncate it. Of course, I didn’t write all these in such a short amount of time. It just so happens, they all came out en mass.

From Harcourt, Inc.: One Dark Night, illustrated by Ivan Bates, 2003; Avalanche Annie, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus, 2003; Farmer Dale’s Red Pickup Truck, illustrated by Ivan Bates, 2004; and Mammoths On The Move, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus, coming out April 1st, 2006.

From Little, Brown & Co.: Porcupining: A Prickly Love Story, illustrated by Janie Bynum, 2003; Te Amo, Bebe, Little One, illustrated by Maribel Suarez, 2004; Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith, 2004; and Hokey Pokey: Another Prickly Love Story, illustrated by Janie Bynum, 2006.

From Atheneum: Sailor Moo: Cow At Sea, illustrated by Ponder Goembel, 2002; Turk And Runt, illustrated by Frank Ansley, 2002, 2005; Old Cricket, illustrated by Ponder Goembel, 2003, 2006; Seadogs: An Epic Ocean Operetta, illustrated by Mark Seigel, 2004; Uncles And Antlers, illustrated by Brian Floca, 2004; Castaway Cats, illustrated by Ponder Goembel, coming out June 1st, 2006.

Fitch & Chip Easy Readers Series, illustrated by Frank Ansley: #1 New Pig In Town, 2003, 2005; #2 When Pigs Fly, 2003, 2005; #3 Who’s Afraid Of A Granny Wolf?, 2004, 2006; #4 Invasion Of The Pig Sisters, coming out March 2006.

Congratulations on winning the Texas Bluebonnet Award for Seadogs: An Oceanic Operetta, illustrated by Mark Seigel (Richard Jackson/Atheneum, 2004)! What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

It started in July of 2000, right after the death of my dear friend, Linda Smith. My family took a trip to our cabin in northern Michigan, where I was very withdrawn and, understandably, didn’t feel like taking part in any of the 4th of July festivities. I recall sitting in the car and hearing this voice in my ear. I knew it was a character speaking to me. He was an old seadog, and he kept begging me for one last sail. Well, you know how persistent dogs can be. I had to write his story.

I feel that Seadogs is a combination of the things I love best: Dogs, music, stage plays and musicals, friendship, adventure, and family.

What was the timeline from spark to publication?

Nearly four years. It took me a year and a half to write the book. Then, Mark had to do the art. Which is so wonderful! How lucky I am to have such an artistic genius bring my words to life.

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

The biggest twist came after I worked on the book for a year. I sent it to my editor, Richard Jackson. I hoped he liked it because I was so in love with the book, and I knew he might be my only editor who would connect with it. He did like it, but he asked for more. Dick felt that the book was for older readers (smart man!) and he asked if I could write more songs so this could be a 40-page book. That got me so excited! I’d wanted to write more about the pirates and this gave me the opportunity to do just that. Many of my favorites were written in the six months after I initially showed it to Dick.

What do you think Mark Seigel’s art brought to the book?

Because I had written this as an operetta, I had the songs in an order that I felt could not be veered from. When Mark got the text and began dummying up the book, he found that a rearranging of some of the songs worked best. I was skeptical until I saw the dummy. Yes! It all worked wonderfully his way.

Plus, Dick Jackson is the type of editor who allows authors to see work in progress and give input. Not that the dummy needed my input, but I was able to make a few suggestions and Dick and Mark agreed to use them. I was so blown away by the end result, that I actually stood up and applauded when I got to the end of the book.

So I give credit to Mark Seigel for making a good book a book great. And, of course, to Richard Jackson for giving us both a chance to create something unique.

In addition to picture books, you’re writing the Fitch & Chip easy reader series, illustrated by Frank Ansley (Richard Jackson/Atheneum, 2003-). What inspired this project? What advice do you have about writing easy readers? What is it like to work on a series?

I got the idea for Fitch & Chip when I began to think seriously about anthropomorphism and how I, as a writer, must be careful not to stereotype animals (examples: sly fox, big bad wolf, lazy pig).

I decided I wanted to write a buddy story, wherein one child was a wolf, and the other a pig. But in this case, Fitch the wolf is mild mannered, shy, thoughtful, and a vegetarian. Chip, the pig, is a big irrepressible ham. I loved all the possibilities of where that friendship could lead.

Before I began writing this, I went to my library and checked out a stack of easy readers. I read them for two weeks. By the time I sat down to write, those easy reader rhythms were in my head. I couldn’t not write an easy reader. One of the things I learned by all that reading was that if I wanted to introduce a difficult word, I had to be sure to repeat it. So, in the first book, you will see the word shoulder repeated many times.

I enjoy working on this series. Not only have I gotten to know these characters better, but I see them evolving and their friendship growing and changing. It’s fun!

I just finished reading your Mammoths on the Move, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Harcourt, 2006) and loved it! Could you tell us a little about the story behind this story? Why mammoths? How did you go about doing the research? What do you think Kurt Cyrus’s art brought to the book?

I always knew I would write a mammoth book. I have loved these creatures since eying Mr. Snuffleupugus for the first time on Sesame Street. They’ve always seemed so grand to me. So majestic.

I knew I could not anthropomorphize them. I knew that if I ever wrote about them, it would be non-fiction and it would be with reverence. But, since I generally write young rhyming books, I wasn’t sure how I would ever find a way to combine my love of mammoths with my writing style.

Then one day, as I was reading an adult non-fiction book on mammoths, I got to a part about mammoth migration. My mind immediately began to wander and wonder. I could see this herd of mammoths moving across the steppes. I could see the mothers and babies, foraging for food on the way. I got goosebumps, and I knew that this is what I would write about. These wonderful wooly mammoths on the move!

I went to the library, sure that it had been done before. There are many books out about mammoths for kids, but I didn’t find any like the one I envisioned.

Mine would be in a marching rhyming beat, like mammoths walking. Mine would be factual, yet fun. Mine would be for younger children, who might not be ready to sit for a heavy non-fiction book.

Since I am not a non-fiction writer, I checked my facts over and over and over, because it worried me that a) I might make a mistake; and b) reviewers might not take me seriously; and c) I’d let my readers down.

The art for Mammoths On The Move was a bonus. I already loved the text. Kurt makes those mammoths look so real, I want to reach out and touch them. When the art arrived on my doorstep-Wow! I was blown away. So very, very beautiful.

Also, I recently purchased my very own mammoth tooth. It is from the Pleistocene era and was found in the Netherlands. It means so much to me to have a part of history. I cannot wait to share this book (and the tooth) with school students.

You’re a successful picture book author in a tight market. What advice do you have for beginners? For those of your colleagues who’re struggling right now?

If you study your craft, read everything that is out there, write the books only you can write, good things will happen. Yes, it is hard to break into print. We all pay our dues. Some work longer than others. But I have to believe that the cream rises to the top. If I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t keep doing this.

The picture book market, like the tides, ebbs and flows. If picture books are not selling well now, just give it a few years and it’ll come around again.

There was a nearly two-year period where I did not sell a manuscript. Everything I sent in got rejected. While this was happening, I had books being released that had sold back in ’98, ’99, and 2000. I thought maybe I had lost my mojo. Maybe I had only been lucky. Maybe it had all been a fluke and I must now rest on my laurels and accept the fact that I was a has-been. Fortunately, for both me and my self-esteem, things picked back up and I sold several manuscripts last year. My mojo is intact.

Editors often say they don’t want books in rhyme, yet you’re known for your skill in this area. How do you go about writing a story in rhyme? What are the considerations? What are the challenges?

This is a whole discussion in and of itself. I have a talk on rhyme that takes about an hour, so it is a subject I can go on and on about.

But in a nutshell, not every book should rhyme. Not every writer should use rhyme. In unskilled hands, rhyme is not a pretty thing. People who write gorgeous prose have been known to mutilate meter. Friends don’t let friends write bad rhyme.

I’m afraid the reason we hear so many negative things about rhyming books from publishers is because they have seen the worst of the worse.

If you can’t, don’t.

What can your fans expect next?

I have fans!?


Newly released is Hokey Pokey: Another Prickly Love Story illustrated by Janie Bynum. This is the sequel to Porcupining, one of my most popular books. Cushion and Barb are still in the petting zoo and Cushion is still clueless and hilarious. Oh, and he also has a new song in this book.

Next up is Invasion Of The Pig Sisters, the 4th Fitch & Chip title. This will be released in hardback and soft-cover simultaneously. In this book, Chip and Fitch share the joys and pains of younger siblings.

On April 1st, Mammoths On the Move is released (see above) and then in June is Castaway Cats, illustrated by Ponder Goembel. This is the third book Ponder and I have done together. The first two won various awards and I am hoping this book, which I describe as Cats meets Survivor, will be no exception. Ponder is an amazing talent.

That’s it for 2006, but 2007 will bring a few more titles. Maybe you can ask me back then. This has been fun.

Cynsational Notes

Debbi Michiko Florence also offers a new author interview with Lisa Wheeler and another with author Vivian Vande Velde. See also her review of Rules by Cynthia Lord (Scholastic, 2006), which I’ve just read myself and agree is fantastic.

See more author interviews, and check out my picture books bibliography. Note continuing pages in the sidebar.

The Edge of The Forest: A Children’s Literature Monthly

The Edge of The Forest: A Children’s Literature Monthly, volume 1, issue 1, debuts February 2006. Under the guidance of editor/webmaster, Kelly Herold of Big A little a, this new online magazine will seek to publish on the 15th of each month.

The editorial board is comprised of: Liz Burns of A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, contributor to Pop Goes The Library; Michele Fry of Scholar’s Blog; Anne Boles Levy of book buds; Camille Powell of Bookmoot; and Susan Thomsen of Chicken Spaghetti. See also submissions and advertising information.

The debut issue features include: “Black History Month Roundup” and “Top 10 Picture Books of 2005,” both by Anne Boles Levy of book buds; “An Interview with Sue Halpern” by Kelly Herold of Big A little a.

Additional highlights include: reviews of picture books, middle grade fiction; non-fiction; young adult; and fantasy; Best of the Blogs; and Kid Picks.

I’m also honored to announce that Kelly Herold interviewed me as the “Blogging Writer.”

Congratulations to Kelly and her board on the launch, and thanks to all of them for this wonderful contribution to our online children’s/YA literature community!

Cynsational News & Links

In The Break by Jack Lopez (Little Brown, 2006): a recommendation from Greg Leitich Smith.

Judging for the [SCBWI] Golden Kite Fiction Award by Uma Krishnaswami (author interview) from Writing with a Broken Tusk. Congratulations to winner Mary E. Pearson for A Room On Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005)(author interview)(recommendation) and honor winner Deborah Wiles for Each Little Bird That Sings (Harcourt, 2005)(recommendation). Incidentally, both Golden Kite honorees also were named among my Cynsational Books for 2005.

Look for “David Lubar: A Passion for Stories: An Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith” in the winter 2006 issue of YALS: Young Adult Library Services, the official journal of YALSA. See also my recent Cynsations interview with David Lubar.

SCBWI Bologna 2006 Agent Interview: Rosemary Stimola

Children’s/YA literary agent Rosemary Stimola will be speaking at SCBWI Bologna 2006. Other speakers include: Authors and illustrators Scott Westerfeld (author interview), Justine Larbalestier (author interview), Sara Rojo, Doug Cushman. Editors: Victoria Arms/Bloomsbury, Judy Zylstra/Eerdmans, Anne McNeil of Hodder UK, Mary Rodgers/Lerner. Agents: Rosemary Canter/PFD, Barry Goldblatt/Barry Goldblatt Literary. Hands-on workshops and roundtable discussions: SCBWI Bologna, 25-26 March 2006.

What inspired you to become an agent of children’s and young adult authors?

Children’s books have always been at the core of my evolution as a person and a professional. My first work life as a Ph.D. linguist, teaching Language and Literature, with a specialization in Children’s Literature, steeped me in the aesthetics of narrative and the written word. My second work life, as the owner of an independent children’s bookstore, educated me in the business of children’s books. Now, in my role as an agent, I combine the fruits of my previous work lives focusing on a body of literature that has pleased and sustained me from day one. I do believe it was my destiny to become a children’s literary agent.

What do you love about it? What are the challenges?

The thing I love best about it is the very thing that poses the greatest challenges. That is, publishing is not a science. For every rule you can create, there is an exception. As such, no matter how planned and calculated you may be, there is always a dimension of unpredictability that looms. One never really knows what is going to be in the next submission envelope. One never really knows what is going to happen to a book once it published. You can’t “control” it all, but the possibilities are very exciting.

Why do you think it is important for authors to have such representation?

First, with so many publishers today not accepting unsolicited manuscripts, the number of houses to which a writer can directly submit is very limited. An agent, who knows the personal likes and dislikes of various editors, can put a manuscript in front of those people most likely to acquire it. Beyond that, an agent is an advocate, representing the writer’s interests from acquisition, to production, to marketing and promotion, to bookkeeping. Writers should do what they do best…writing; and look to agents to do what they do best…attend to the business of writing, which, in this world of global publishing, grows more complex by the day.

What should writers look for in identifying prospective agents?

I often liken the selection of an agent to the selection of a spouse (without the romance, of course!). All writers deserve to work with a person they like and trust, a person with whom they communicate easily and share sensibilities and goals. Reputations exist for a reason, so I always recommend to potential clients that they interview editors and clients with whom the agent has worked. Some writers prefer being part of a large house; others prefer the intimacy of a small, independent agency. No matter which, there is a level of attention and follow-through that should be expected and delivered.

Are you open to new clients/receiving submissions?

I always welcome submissions. At different times, I may be looking for different things…more YA, fewer picturebooks; less fantasy, more contemporary realism. But with a very well-established client base, no matter what the genre or age group, I have to be blown away by the writing, the story, the characters.

What do you look for in prospective clients?

Certainly, a demonstrated (and not necessarily published) ability to write in a way that provokes, inspires, excites. I must see that the writer is capable of the kind of flexibility and patience that will be needed as we move through the publishing processes. I look for a person who understands the value of collaboration, when to compromise and when to stand strong. And most importantly, I look for a person who is a deep well of stories, with the first one representing just the tip of the iceberg.

Is your list made up of writers or illustrators or both?

I represent writers. I also represent writers who are illustrators. I do not represent illustrators only. It is a very different kind of representation, requiring different sensibilities and business approaches. There are others out there who specialize in such representation and do it far better than I ever could.

Do you find you are stronger in one area (say, fiction or non-fiction or picture books) than another?

While market trends may dictate what sells better at any given time, my previous backgrounds in education and bookselling have helped me to be eclectic in taste and strong in all areas of trade publishing for children. I represent, and feel equally comfortable with everything from preschool to upper YA that pushes the boundaries of the adult realm, in both fiction and nonfiction.

The picture book market has been depressed for some time. Do you see any improvement on the horizon? Why or why not?

I do see the wheel turning a bit, which is not to say we are on the way back to where we were. Nor should we be. We were publishing far too many picture books, many of them not very good. A correction was needed. True, the pendulum swung to the opposite end for a period, with very few acquisitions in a very tentative market. But with creative approaches to formatting and design, greater selectivity, and a focus on texts very spare in language, we are seeing glimmers of a comeback. Certainly, the creation of a new imprint at Random House devoted to picture books is symbolic of this renewed market.

Do you have a website? If so, what is the URL?

I do not. There is one in the works, but I can’t say I really feel the need for it. All one need do is Google my name and there is lots of web-presence for the Stimola Literary Studio.

Which international book fairs do you attend?

I went to London last year. I am going to Bologna this year. Trying to figure out if I need to be present at both.

Do you take care of your clients’ foreign rights or work through an intermediary?

I generally hold on to the rights for fiction and work with subagents to represent foreign rights in different territories. They attend Frankfurt, as well as the conferences above as I do. Picturebook rights are often best handled via publisher, in light of illustration issues.

With which countries have you had the best luck selling your US clients’ work? Why do you think that is?

I must say, I find the German market has been a welcoming and active territory. Part of it, is certainly due to the efforts and knowledge of my German subagent. But, I also think it is simply a vibrant market looking for good juvenile and YA fiction at this time.

Do you attend Book Expo?

I always go to Book Expo when it is in NY, which lately, has been every other year. I find the film and international people are in greater attendance when the convention is in the Big Apple, making my time there more productive as well. I will travel to other venues if one of my authors is being celebrated or featured and my presence is warranted.

Would you like to highlight some of the backlist and new books you have ushered into the market?

I love all the titles I have helped to find homes on bookshelves out there. If I had to single out a few…

On the fantasy front, I’m very excited to see the Underland Chronicles fantasy series (Scholastic Press) by Suzanne Collins building so beautifully. With Book I receiving First Runner Up in this year’s Texas Blue Bonnet, and enjoying awards from just about every state in the union, we have set the stage for later books and a gripping and powerful denouement in the life of young Gregor and his adventures in the Underland.

On the Young Adult front, there have been a number of striking debuts. Black and White (Viking Press/Penguin) by Paul Volponi was a BBYA selection, a top-ten Quick Picks selection, and winner of the IRA Award for Young Adult Fiction. Teach Me (Razorbill/Penguin), by R. A. Nelson (author interview), was featured in a segment of NBC Nightly News and acknowledged in many fine reviews for its treatment of a subject many find a bit unsettling. There are more wonderful books in the making by these two fine writers.

And, as careers build and develop, Mary Pearson’s, A Room on Lorelei Street (Henry Holt)(author interview), was a BBYA selection. Brava!

On the picture book front, I am particularly excited about two books coming out this coming year. The first, A Raisin and a Grape (Dial Books/Penguin), co-authored by Tom Amico and James Proimos and illustrated by Andy Snair, gives a whole new look to intergenerational stories for the very young. The second, An Egg Is Quiet (Chronicle Books) by Dianna Hutts Aston (author interview) and illustrated by Sylvia Long, is a joyfully informative and poetically illustrated look at one of nature’s most miraculous creations.

In the tubes, there are some exciting new talents and debuts coming down the road, so stay tuned!

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Only that, I love my job and the people I work with, clients, editors, everyone who makes children’s publishing their world. It’s a joy and a blessing, and I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to contribute to such an important and prestigious body of literature.

Author Feature: Leda Schubert

Leda Schubert on Leda Schubert: “I was born in Washington, DC, and lived in Southeast Washington until I was nine, when my parents took me along with them to suburbia. Thoughtful of them. They also, however, sent me to summer camp (they both worked more than full-time, all year round; my mother owned a store and my father was the head of the chemistry department at American University), which changed my life forever. The camp had an ‘outpost’ about ten miles from where I live now, and I spent most of the years from 15 to 24 trying to figure out how to get back to camp. I moved to Vermont more than thirty years ago as a result.

“I have taught school, been a school and public children’s librarian, and run a small parent-cooperative day care center, but for the seventeen years until 2003 I was the school library consultant for the Vermont Department of Education. A huge chunk of the job involved working with children’s books in one way or another.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to serve on the Caldecott Committee, the Arbuthnot Committee, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Committee, as well as on both of Vermont’s state book awards committees (though I have now left both after many years).

“I began to hang out a little bit at the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program, which is right in Montpelier (only two towns away from my humble abode), and soon I applied for a post-graduate semester (I didn’t really need another degree). I was on campus for about five minutes when I realized I should do the whole program. After the first year of juggling work and school, I left work and became a student again, and I graduated in January ’04, having thoroughly enjoyed studying with four outstanding teachers (Phyllis Root, Marion Dane Bauer, Tim Wynne-Jones (author interview), and Liza Ketchum (author interview)) and my outstanding fellow students.

“Throughout my life I’ve been involved in traditional music and dance, and I met my husband at Pinewoods Camp, a Brigadoon for dance lovers. He lived on Long Island, so I made him move here. I was the oldest bride in history. He has grown-up children; together we have infantile dogs.”

What was your initial inspiration for creating Ballet of the Elephants (Roaring Brook, 2006)?

The evil periodontists (Hello, Dr. S) told me if I didn’t floss I’d have gum surgery, so I began flossing full-time. I turn on the TV while doing so to offset boredom, and one night caught two minutes of a re-broadcast documentary on George Balanchine. I heard the phrase, “He also choreographed a ballet for elephants,” and immediately became obsessed. I didn’t even know if there was any kind of story to be found; I’d never heard of the event. But I barely slept and began research the next morning. This is true.

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

I really don’t remember precise details (about anything, for that matter), but I began the book right after graduation, in February 04, and finished it by May, putting in very long days. My agent had suggested that I stop writing picture books since the market seemed rather unforgiving, but I pleaded with him (slight exaggeration) to read just one more. The first publisher rejected it very quickly, saying they had a book about elephants coming out, and the second publisher, Roaring Brook, took it even more quickly. I don’t remember much else about that period, though of course I continued to feed my email addiction while I was writing.

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

Logistical: I live in a small town; there is no large research library within many, many miles. I started by reading books on Balanchine, which soon led to books on Stravinsky, which then led to John Ringling North and Vera Zorina. I read about elephants. I found books online, in used bookstores, and in our local library, and each one took me somewhere else. I studied a little bit about the history of St. Petersburg, became lost in Balanchine’s childhood, circus memorabilia, etc., and I spent hours online with Stravinsky, Balanchine, and the circus; I found old LIFE magazines on ebay with photos, and I kept having the thrill of discovery.

But I couldn’t figure out how to tell the story for a long time (see next question).

Research: The book was accepted as a picture book, but then my superb editor at Roaring Brook thought it should include actual photos of the event and the principal characters. Doing photo research was a huge challenge; I’d never done it before and I started from scratch. Now I’m a mini-expert. It took more months to ask the right questions (and I’m often shy) and find the right photos and I made lots of new best friends at various places (The Circus World Museum, Getty Images, etc.).

Psychological: I hate traveling, and I was resistant about leaving Vermont. I could have simplified my efforts if I had only gone down to NY to the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library, but I didn’t really know about the huge resource there (even though I am a librarian, shame on me) until long after I’d finished the book. They have an entire dossier on the ballet. The contradiction is that if I’d known about it first, I never would have had so much fun doing all the research, and if I hadn’t discovered everything by myself, I probably couldn’t have written the book. So my antediluvian research habits paid off.

Literary challenge: next question.

The story opens with the incoming circus, tells what’s to come, and then offers backstory (“This is how it happened.”) before taking readers to the ballet itself. Most picture books don’t include flashbacks, but this one feels seamless and builds anticipation for the show. How did you arrive at this structure?

All of you writers have probably had that “aha” moment, when everything you’ve been struggling with falls into place. I had many drafts beginning in different places, but I couldn’t figure out how to assemble the material in a way that felt exactly right. Then I came across one sentence in a biography of John Ringling North about his wild childhood; he had taken a pony into the attic of one of the five uncles’ houses. Somehow it all came together at that moment: I knew I should begin with an overview of these three towering figures and then move back to North. It became clear that I wanted to begin with the circus train and the elephant parade through Manhattan. Even now, in our jaded time, when the circus hits New York, the New York Times sometimes publishes photos of the elephants coming through the tunnel from NJ into NY. The authorities actually close the tunnel, divert traffic, and let the elephants march through. What a sight that must be!

I also knew that I wanted to tell it in lineated prose. I don’t know why. That’s how it first came to me–the sentence I began with, which is of course no longer there (you writers will understand), was, “George Balanchine loved to dance/and he loved to tell others how to dance/even elephants.”

What do you think Robert Andrew Parker‘s art adds to the story?

When I dreamed about the book and fantasized about my favorite illustrators for this project, Robert Andrew Parker was right at the top. I believe my editor called him first, and when he said yes, she called me to accept the manuscript. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I love the looseness and energy of his line, I love his use of color, I love his interpretation of the story. I wanted the book to have that sense of flight and magic. He’s brilliant, isn’t he?

Obviously, an elephant ballet is a big event! One of the pages even folds out to offer a greater scale. Was this in your original plan? If not, who arrived at it and what did you think?

I believe this was Robert Andrew Parker’s idea; he asked for a gatefold for the entire ballet. The publisher did the figures and said yes. I know librarians don’t always love gatefolds, which can fall apart, but I think this one adds a sense of wonder and space. Imagine! 50 elephants!

You’re also the author of two early readers, Winnie Plays Ball (Candlewick, 2000) and Winnie All Day Long (Candlewick, 2000), illustrated by William Benedict. What are the particular challenges of such books? It seems to me that they’re underpublished for the existing market. Am I right about this? Other than your own, which do you particularly recommend?

I wrote the Winnie books for two reasons. First, at the time I was completely dedicated to improving early literacy in Vermont (which I preferred to call “reading,” but I was part of a bureaucracy), and I was a member of the Department of Education’s early literacy team. I knew what books were out there from the testing/reading establishment, which were levelled readers that didn’t really tell memorable stories. Second: I wanted to write about my dog, Winnie, who is enormous, enormously spoiled, and could practically dictate her stories to me. I hoped that kids would find lots of humor in a book about a spoiled dog, and indeed they do. They love “Yucky Ball,” “In and Out,” and “Winnie’s Birthday.”

Fortunately, Candlewick was thinking along similar lines. Candlewick’s designer put lots of time and effort into coming up with a look that would work for new readers—format, type on a separate color, simple lines moving from left to right, illustrations that can be read along with the text, etc. Amy Ehrlich, David Martin, and I kicked off the series in the spring of 2000, and I think it’s been fairly successful. They’ve repackaged some of the stories into kits, which also seem to be doing well.

I think there are lots of good early readers. I love all of Cynthia Rylant‘s books about Mr. Putter, Henry and Mudge (obviously), and Poppleton. I love Amanda Pig. I love Gus and Grandpa, James Marshall‘s Fox books, etc. There are lots of older books to love as well. I’m very happy with the new ALA/ALSC Theordore Seuss Geisel Award for early readers–I think it will help the field as a whole to have a major award for these books, which are very difficult to write and are so important. To have a story with so few words that’s memorable, that delivers real characters, that’s even funny—I salute them all.

Your recent picture book Here Comes Darrell, illustrated by Mary Azarian (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), features a snowplow driver. What inspired you to tell Darrell’s story?

Darrell was a real person, who did plow our driveway, dig our basement, and dig our pond, and he did so selflessly for many other people in this community for a long time. When he got cancer, we went to visit him, and I realized I needed to write about him. Just needed to. I asked his family if it was all right. I wrote many, many drafts, and I had a difficult time creating tension. It’s more of a quiet book than a jump-in-your-face book, but I’ve actually seen people cry when I read it, which then makes me cry, and then we’re all crying, and that’s good. Of course Mary’s illustrations make it work. I think her work is so full of truth and heart.

You’re having great success as a picture book writer in a tough publishing market. What advice and/or words of encouragement do you have for your fellow writers in the field?

Thank you, but can we define terms? I don’t think I feel successful–I’m always just a step away from therapy. Writing is so hard! And I’ve got enough rejections to ride to the moon and back (we can no longer wallpaper the bathrooms with cyberspace rejections, so I am creating an alternative), but I do admit that I’ve been very lucky in this slightly static picture book market. I have two more books coming after Ballet of the Elephants, and needless to say I hope to have more.

Words of encouragement? Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Probably you’ve all heard this before. Don’t wait for inspiration; make yourself write every day even if you’d rather eat chocolate or check your email. Do the work. Talk to other writers, because they understand. Read like a writer–try to figure out how books work. Ask yourself questions as you read. Go as deeply as you can every day. I have convinced myself that if the writing is wonderful, the book will get published. Ah, how naive.

Your strong background in education and library science certainly seems related to your creating wonderful books for young readers. Did one lead to another? What does your breadth of background in literature offer you as a writer?

I’ve read so much that I’m not sure it’s always helpful. I’ve read as many bad books as good books, and sometimes both get in the way of my own writing. Conversation in head: “There are so many books published, does the world really need to see a book by me, why am I subjecting myself to all this self-loathing every morning in front of the computer, etc., etc.” On the other hand, I have a truly defective memory, so I’ve already forgotten much of what I’ve read in the last six months (sorry). But I digress. So perhaps the breadth of experience means that I have high expectations for myself–that maybe I can actually write something I haven’t read a thousand times–and simultaneously it makes me bemoan the possibilities of ever writing anything fresh, and I will just write the thousandth and oneth book. There are so many amazing writers working now in children’s books!

On the other hand, I have always read voraciously, and I could no more stop reading than I could stop breathing. I read grownup books, too. They often have more words. I believe it’s crucial to read widely and analytically. I find books that do things I want to do and I put them in a pile to examine more thoroughly. Now I must find the pile.

How do writers do what they do? I keep looking for the key. The rope trick.

What may your fans look forward to next?

Hi fans! I blow countless kisses your way.

FSG will bring out Feeding the Sheep, illustrated by Andrea U’Ren, of Pugdog and Mary Smith fame, and I can’t wait to see what she does with my unusually sweet story. The Vermont Folklife Center, under the editorial guidance of Anita Silvey, will eventually publish Donna and the Robbers, based on a very brief transcript in the Folklife Center archive. It’s about a horse in Maine who foils a robbery in 1902, and I love the story.

I’m working on a young adult novel about a girl growing up in a leftist family under McCarthyism, which I started approximately thirty years ago but hope to actually finish soon (I was the runner-up for an SCBWI work-in-progress grant for this, so the pressure is on) and my middle grades novel, Ice Out, is out with an editor.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Thanks, Cyn, for giving me this opportunity to ramble on. You have more energy than any other twenty people put together. You’ve asked probing questions, too.

Cynsational Notes

Leda Schubert from Authors Among Us: Children’s Writers Who Are or Have Been Librarians.

Author Feature: Cynthia Kadohata

Cynthia Kadohata is the author of numerous books, including the 2005 Newbery Medal novel, Kira-Kira (Atheneum, 2004)(excerpt) and Weedflower (Atheneum, 2006)(excerpt), a Junior Library Guild selection.

Cynthia Kadohata on Cynthia Kadohata: “Oh, well….I was born in 1956 in Chicago and moved in 1957 to a couple of small towns in Georgia, where my father worked as a chicken sexer. Then from 1958 to 1965 I lived in Arkansas. I had a very strong Southern accent. My parents divorced, and my sister, my brother, my mother, and I moved to Chicago while my father stayed in Arkansas. By the way, I still keep in touch with nearly my entire eighth grade graduating class from Chicago. I love dogs and live in Long Beach, California, with my Doberman Shika Kojika (which means ‘deer, little deer’ in Japanese) and with my 2 1/2-year-old son, whom I adopted from Kazakhstan in 2004. My adult books are The Floating World (1989), In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992), and The Glass Mountains. My children’s novels are Kira-Kira and the upcoming Weedflower (March 28, 2006). I also have a children’s book about the Vietnam War scheduled for Spring 2007.”

How exciting it was when Kira-Kira (Atheneum, 2004) won the Newbery medal! Looking back, how did that change your writing life? Your daily one?

It was was shocking and purely joyful. I’ve never experienced a feeling like it. The joy was just so incredibly intense. One analogy I can think of is that it was like in Chicago when we would go to Lake Michigan on windy days and the waves would hit us so hard we would fall over and even get bruised. And yet it was so much fun. The feeling when the waves hit you was thrilling and yet also a strong physical feeling.

The main way it changed my writing life was I had a lot less time to write for a while. It changed my daily life in many ways. For instance, now while I’m walking my dog I ALWAYS, literally always, think to myself at some point, I actually won the Newbery. I was also able to pay off my staggering credit card bills, since I basically adopted my son by building up credit card debt. Crazy, I know, but I wanted to raise a child so badly!

Kira-Kira followed two novels published for adults. What inspired you to write for younger readers? How would you compare writing for children versus writing for grown-ups?

Really it was my editor and long-time friend, Caitlyn Dlouhy (editor interview), who encouraged me pretty strongly to write for younger readers. I don’t know if she’ll like my saying this, but I happen to believe she’s psychic. I can say that because I’m from California and we talk like that! My previous novels were from the POV of young narrators, so the jump from adult books to children’s books wasn’t extreme.

What was the initial inspiration for Kira-Kira?

I’m not sure. I did once keep a journal when a friend of mine was dying, and I did use some of that journal in Kira-Kira. Also, for some reason the South inspires me more than the North or California. I would love to be able to write about California in the evocative way Raymond Chandler did. But for whatever reason, I haven’t been inspired in that way, at least not yet. Another inspiration was that I had sent my editor a list of ideas for children’s novels and the idea for Kira-Kira was one she especially liked.

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

The cancer research was fairly straightforward. I have a good friend who is head of an oncology lab and knows a lot about cancer. She put me in touch with a doctor who is an expert on cancer from that time period. I will also add that he thought my questions were basic and beneath him and I could tell that I was kind of annoying him with my lack of expertise in comparison to his. But this is just one of the minor humiliations you endure when you write a book! I appreciate his help immensely, actually, and I’m sorry I annoyed him with my lack of expertise. I think what bothered him was that I was so dogged. If I didn’t understand exactly what he was saying, I would ask over and over. The other challenges really just have to do with my having an extremely rigorous editor, or, as I call her, The Great Torturer.

You’re upcoming book is called Weedflower (Atheneum, 2006). Could you tell us a bit about the novel? What is it about?

It’s about a friendship between a Japanese American girl and a Mohave boy. The Colorado River Relocation Center was one of two Japanese internment camps located on Indian reservations. The book is the based-on-real-life story about how the meeting of these two groups of people changed the futures of both.

What inspired you to tell this story?

My father was interned in that camp. The other reason has to do with my belief that it is not just the sharing of values but the sharing of this amazing land that makes us Americans. So I wanted to write about how two groups of people sharing a land can change the world.

It’s often said that writers are readers. What are your favorite recently published books for young readers and why?

I loved Saffy’s Angel [by Hilary McKay (McElderry, 2002)] a lot because it made me laugh and cry. I know, that sounds cliche, but it’s the truth.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Walk my dog and take walks or play with my son. Period. I really don’t even have the opportunity to watch movies any longer.

SCBWI Bologna 2006 Author Interview: Justine Larbalestier

From SCBWI Bologna 2006:

Justine Larbalestier will be speaking at the SCBWI Bologna 2006 conference in Bologna, Italy, March 25-26, 2006. Other speakers include: Authors and illustrators Scott Westerfeld (author interview), Sara Rojo, Doug Cushman. Editors: Victoria Arms/Bloomsbury, Judy Zylstra/Eerdmans, Anne McNeil of Hodder UK, Mary Rodgers/Lerner. Agents: Rosemary Canter/PFD, Barry Goldblatt/Barry Goldblatt Literary, Rosemary Stimola, and others. See registration information.

Justine Larbalestier was born in Sydney, Australia, and has spent the majority of her life there, though she and her husband, Scott Westerfeld, travel whenever possible. Her first book was the Hugo-nominated Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (Wesleyan University Press, 2002). She has published two novels, Magic or Madness (Penguin/Razorbill, 2005), and its sequel Magic Lessons (Penguin/Razorbill, 2006). The final book in the trilogy will be available in March 2007. Magic or Madness has been nominated for an Aurealis Award for best YA book of the year and was a best book of the year selection for School Library Journal, Tayshas (the Young Adult Round Table of the Texas Libary Association), and the Australian children’s literature magazine, Magpies. Lawrence Schimel interviewed her in December 2005.

Lawrence Schimel: How and why did you begin writing YA?

Justine Larbalestier: The idea for the Magic or Madness trilogy had been brewing for a long time, but the opportunity to write it didn’t come until Eloise Flood was offered her own imprint, Razorbill, at Penguin USA. She was looking for inventory, so I pitched her my trilogy idea. She was interested but needed to see a proposal and first three chapters pronto. I put everything else aside and went to work writing and rewriting them over and over. Luckily, she liked the partial enough to buy the whole trilogy. A very lucky break for a first-time novelist.

I’ve been reading YA for a long time. Obsessively, when I was a kid, but I stopped when I considered myself too grown-up for them (at age thirteen!). I took them up again in my twenties when a friend, Lawrence Schimel, introduced me to Philip Ridley’s In the Eyes of Mr. Fury and the many books of M. E. Kerr. I was hooked. The idea of writing one of my own occurred to me pretty early on.

LS: Not having kids of your own and no longer an adolescent yourself, what do you do to find or recreate an authentic teenage voice in your fiction?

JL: Like many people, my teenage years weren’t exactly fabulous. They are etched deep in my memory, accessing them is dead easy. It’s being an adult that’s hard.

LS: Name one book (adult or YA) you wish you had written.

JL: Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen.

LS: What is your favorite book from your childhood?

JL: The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton.

LS: As an adult now, what is your favorite children’s book (as a reader)?

JL: Can I name a YA book? If so, Black Juice by Margo Lanagan (HarperCollins, 2005). If not, Slugs by David Greenberg and illustrated by Victoria Chess.

LS: Any advice for new writers?

JL: Write, write, write! And then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite!

LS: Any advice for more-experienced writers?

JL: I think that’d be a bit presumptious, given that I’m right at the beginning of my career with only two novels published and one of them just this month. There’s still so much I need to learn about writing, about the publishing industry. But really the write, write, write advice holds for everyone at all stages of their career. Most especially for me!

LS: Something you wish you hadn’t done?

JL: Worn pretty much any of the clothes I wore in the eighties. In paricular I’m thinking the bronze slippers teamed with a blue satin puffy sleeved jacket over a torn white T-shirt and bright red ski pants. Shudder.

LS: You spend part of the year in New York and part of the year in Sydney. Do you write differently on the “other” side of the world?

JL: Actually, I seem to write best in Mexico! Too many distractions in my hometown of Sydney and in New York City. I definitely think that travelling, and writing in different places (so far we’ve done writing holidays in New Zealand, Mexico and Argentina), has made me a better writer. It pulls me out of my everyday and when I go home I see Sydney and Australia with fresh eyes. That’s part of where Magic or Madness, which is half set in Sydney, came from. Living overseas made me see my country and compatriots much more clearly.

LS: What are some of the differences in children’s publishing, and/or being a writer, in Australia as opposed to the US?

JL: I’m still learning what they are. Because my publishing career began in the US I know more about the New York publishing scene than the Australian one.

LS: What is it like living with another writer? Are you competetive with one another? Supportive? Are you each other’s first-reader?

JL: Living with Scott is a blast. I adore it. We’re competitive about stupid things, like, who can spit the farthest, bounce the highest, predict cricket scores, stuff like that, but never about writing. Scott’s amazingly supportive of my writing, as I am of his. We’re not only each other’s first readers, we’re each other’s biggest fans.

LS: Have you thought about collaborating on a book together? (Or would that be a bad thing for your relationship?)

JL: Oh, sure, we have endless plans for lots of books we’d like to do together, but so far there just hasn’t been time. Scott’s been writing books back to back for several years and I’ve been tied up as well. Who knows maybe this will be the year we finally do it!

LS: What is different about writing a multi-volume work versus a stand-alone novel?

JL: With the trilogy (which is the only multi-volume work I’ve tried my hand at thus far) I had to think about how the three volumes would fit together and how to make them stand alone as well. It’s very tricky. I asked several people to read Magic Lesson (book 2 of the trilogy) who hadn’t read book 1 to see if they could follow the story. Arrogantly, I was expecting them to tell me it worked just fine on its own. Nope. I had to do several major rewrites after I got their comments. Very humbling.

But stand-alones, too, have their challenges. Basically, every book is different and tricky in its own way.

LS: Which format do you prefer?

JL: At the moment, still caught up in rewriting the third book of the Magic or Madness trilogy, I definitely prefer stand-alones. But I imagine that when I’m in the midst of my next book, which will probably be a standalone, I’ll start pining for trilogies. I’m always enamoured by whatever my next idea is, rarely by the book I’m in the middle of.

LS: Having written a synopsis and sample chapters as a proposal, how closely do you stick to it when actually writing the book once it has sold?

JL: Pretty closely for the first few chapters, after that I don’t look at the proposal again until I get stuck, at which point it’s of no use because I’ve gone off in a different direction.

LS: Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

JL: I can’t believe SCBWI has invited me to come to Bologna, one of my favourite cities in the world. Thank you!

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to Philip Yates (author interview) on the sale of A Pirate’s Christmas to Sterling Publishing! Cheers also to Betty X. Davis, whose story, “The Magic Needle” was published in the December issue of Spider! Both Phil and Betty are Austinites.

SCBWI Bologna 2006 Author Interview: Scott Westerfeld

From SCBWI Bologna 2006:

YA author Scott Westerfeld, author of Pretties and other top-of-the-chart books will be speaking at the SCBWI Bologna 2006 conference in Bologna, Italy, March 25-26, 2006. His talk and workshop (with Justine Larbalestier) topics include: “Slanguage: Teen Voices and Teen Vernaculars;” “How to Write a Synopsis: Stand-Alones and Multi-Volume Works.” Other speakers include: Authors and illustrators Justine Larbalestier, Sara Rojo, Doug Cushman. Editors: Victoria Arms/Bloomsbury, Judy Zylstra/Eerdmans, and others. Agents: Rosemary Canter/PFD, Barry Goldblatt/Barry Goldblatt Literary, Rosemary Stimola, and others. See registration information.

Scott Westerfeld is the author of five novels for adults and six for young adults. The most recent are Peeps (Penguin, 2005) and Pretties (Simon & Schuster,2005)(excerpt). His books have won the Philip K. Dick Special Citation, the Aurealis Award, and been named NY Times Notable Books of the Year. His YA novel So Yesterday (Penguin, 2004) won the Victorian Premier’s Award in 2005. He has contributed nonfiction to Nerve, BookForum, and the scientific journal Nature, and published short fiction on and in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He is married to the Hugo-nominated writer Justine Larbalestier, is a permanent resident of Australia, and splits his time between New York and Sydney. Visit Scott’s site and blog. Lawrence Schimel interviewed Scott in December 2005.

Lawrence Schimel: How and why did you begin writing YA?

Scott Westerfeld: At the end of a long ghost-writing project, one which had almost destroyed my brain, I had the idea for Midnighters (HarperCollins, 2004-). It came out of nowhere, and was clearly a young adult idea: about a group of teens in a small town where time froze at midnight every night.

I had already ghost-written some choose-your-own-adventure books for kids (Goosebumps, if the truth be told) so I knew some people in the business. I took the concept to 17th Street Productions, who developed that idea with me.

Once I started writing YA, I found myself enjoying it too much to stop.

LS: You also write for adults. Do you have any plans to write something for even younger readers (middle grade or picture books)?

SW: I might write a middle grade series eventually, perhaps collaborating with Justine. I think pictures books are beyond me, though. I need at least 15,000 words to get into second gear.

LS: Is it more challenging for you to write for one age group or another? Not having kids of your own and no longer an adolescent yourself, what do you do to find or recreate an authentic teenage voice in your fiction?

SW: I think YA is my most natural age to write for. I still have a lot of the same reactions about what’s cool and interesting as I did when I was 14 or so. In other words, all the issues that were important to me then—Why is the world like this? What’s really happening at the levels that I can’t see? Are we all robots?—are still vitally important to me now.

I think teens are doing two things at once: questioning the world in a radical way, and inventing various versions of themselves. My teen voices come out of those two problems: What the hell is this world I’ve found myself born into and how do I fit in? That collection of bravura, insecurity, philosophizing, irony, bemusement, and language play (inventing new words to help muddle through all those conflicting emotions) all seem to come naturally to me.

LS: Name one book (adult or YA) you wish you had written?

SW: All the books I wished I could have written are actually quite flawed. That is, I wish I could erase them from history and write them myself, but better. I wouldn’t mind redoing Gossip Girl and adding some vampires, for instance…

LS: What is your favorite book from your childhood?

SW: Charlotte’s Web.

LS: As an adult now, what is your favorite children’s book (as a reader)?

SW: See above.

LS: Any advice for new writers?

SW: In the 1980s, I followed Kasparov and Karpov in their interminable chess duels, and I remember Karpov losing one long match due to exhaustion, because he wasn’t as fit as the younger Kasparov. When I joked about that, saying that they were just pushing little wooden pieces around, a friend chided, “Chess is a sport.”

One thing I’ve realized since then is that writing is a sport too; it takes conditioning. You have to write every day to build your sentence-level craft. You have to write your way out of hundreds of plot-tangles and character breakdowns to develop sufficient problem-solving reflexes. And until you’ve written a novel in one focused stretch, you can’t build up the muscles it takes to keep 80,000 words of plot and character arcs in your head, which is a hard, hard thing to do.

Someone who writes “every once in a while” is like someone who plays chess by mail. It’s much easier, but they don’t really develop the stamina that it takes to fight their way through difficult problems.

All of which only means I’m giving the advice everyone gives new writers: write. Till it hurts.

LS: Any advice for more experienced writers?

SW: Really, it’s an expansion of the above. Challenge yourself with new problems. If you’ve never written from multiple viewpoints, try it. If you’ve never written in first person, make yourself. Figure out which plot/character/technique you’re most afraid of and give it a go.

At worst, you’ll fail and realize that you just can’t do certain things. But even then, when you go back to what you are good at, you’ll generally find have a few more muscles and reflexes at your disposal.

LS: Something you wish you hadn’t done?

SW: I went for too long without an agent. In addition to all the immediate benefits of being represented, you really need someone managing your career in the long run.

LS: You spend part of the year in New York and part of the year in Sydney. Do you write differently on the “other” side of the world?

SW: Sydney’s much more relaxing, less distracting in good a way, and I think that leads to a more disciplined approach: 1000 words a day with a couple of days off every week. In NYC, I have a more pre-industrial process: long periods of inactivity followed by bursts of illness-inducing overwork.

I think both techniques produce interesting ideas and stories, and I can’t claim to know which is better artistically. But the former is definitely healthier.

LS: What are some of the differences in children’s publishing, and/or being a writer, in Australia as opposed to the US?

SW: There is definitely more structural support for writers in Australia. Writers’ conferences, school visits, government awards and grants all provide significant sources of income. In the US, you pretty much only have the publishers paying you. Of course, the much greater population means that you make more money from your books.

One thing I’ve noticed though, is that Australians read much more per capita than Usians, so it’s not nearly as bad as the fifteen-to-one population ration might make you suspect.

LS: What is it like living with another writer? Are you competitive with one another? Supportive? Are you each other’s first-reader?

SW: When we’re both in full writing mode, we read to each other every few nights. It’s a great system in a number of ways: Because it’s all oral, there’s no low-level editing, which we don’t want with a first draft. The listener’s anticipation creates motivation for us to get that next chapter done. We hear the bad sentences as you say them aloud, of course. We have someone else to nut out plot problems with, who’s only a few days at most behind.

LS: Have you thought about collaborating on a book together? (Or would that be a Bad Thing for your relationship?)

SW: It’s possible we’ll be doing a middle-grade series together. We’ll both be exploring a new age level, so we’ll be less sure of ourselves, which is why I’m not worried about it causing fights.

LS: What is different about writing a multi-volume work versus a standalone novel?

SW: Series give you a lot more room to explore the world you’ve created, to follow up the implications of your speculation in a global way. Standalones are better for getting into a single character’s head, because the main POV character really “owns” the book.

LS: Which format do you prefer?

SW: Really, I prefer series. I especially enjoy writing second books, in which the world is already set up, and yet you still have room to subvert the reader’s assumptions about how everything works. I enjoy pulling back more and more curtains, revealing new sides to everything they thought they understood. Series give you more room for those kinds of maneuvers.

LS: Having written a synopsis and sample chapters as a proposal, how closely do you stick to it when actually writing the book once it has sold?

SW: Uglies (Simon & Schuster, 2005) was sold with a very long and specific outline, which I stuck very close to. That’s the kind of series it is: lots of betrayals, reversals, and complications. With the Midnighters series, I’ve found that those five characters bounce off each other a lot, generating their own heat, so I don’t have to worry about the plotting as much. I hardly outline them at all, just set up one big conflict to get things rolling, then put the characters into various groupings and let their battling egos keep the ball rolling.

Cynsational News & Links

Jo Whittemore — Books for Young Adults and the Young at Heart: debut website from the debut YA author of a fantasy trilogy that begins with Escape from Arylon (Llewellyn, March 2006). Jo is one of the original members of AS IF! (Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom). Check on her LiveJournal!

SCBWI Bologna 2006

SCBWI BOLOGNA 2006: Join Authors and illustrators Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Sara Rojo, Doug Cushman. Editors: Victoria Arms/Bloomsbury, Judy Zylstra/Eerdmans, and others. Agents: Rosemary Canter/PFD, Barry Goldblatt/Barry Goldblatt Literary, Rosemary Stimola. Hands-on workshops and roundtable discussions: SCBWI Bologna, 25-26 March 2006. Register today!

Saturday, March 25th
2 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Welcome and Introduction.
2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. “Slanguage: Teen Voices and Teen Vernaculars:” Scott Westerfeld.
3:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Coffee (and portfolio “walk about” for those who wish to participate).
4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Workshops Part 1.

A) Writing: “How to Write a Synopsis: Stand-Alones and Multi-Volume Works:” Scott Westerfeld & Justine Larbalestier.

B) Illustration: “Creating Characters and Animating Them:” Doug Cushman & Sara Rojo Pérez.
Sunday, March 26th
9:30 a.m. Welcome Back.
10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Workshops Part 2.

A) Writing: “How to Write a Synopsis: Stand-Alones and Multi-Volume Works:” Scott Westerfeld & Justine Larbalestier.

B) Illustration: “Creating Characters and Animating Them:” Doug Cushman & Sara Rojo Pérez.
11:30 a.m. to noon Coffee.
noon to 1 p.m. “You Talk Funny: Regionalism and Voice:” Justine Larbalestier
1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Lunch (and Manuscript Reviews).
2:30 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. “A is for Agent: A Roundtable Discussion:” Rosemary Canter, UK; Rosemary Stimola, US; Barry Goldblatt, US.
4 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. “Where Craft and Acquisitions Meet: A Roundtable Discussion:” Victoria Wells Arms, Bloomsbury USA; Judy Zylstra, Eerdman’s; and others.
6 p.m. Cocktail Party with Industry Professionals.

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to Jo Knowles on the sale of Lessons From A Dead Girl (Candlewick, TBA)! Visit Jo’s LJ and her agent Barry Goldblatt‘s!

Fathers & Daughters: a bibliography from Once Upon A Time There Was A Girl Who Wanted To Write, which is Susan Taylor Brown’s LJ (author interview).

The Michigan Library Association has posted the nominees for its 2006 Thumbs-Up List. Highlights include Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci (Candlewick, 2005)(author interview), Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar (Dutton, 2005)(author interview), Teach Me by R. A. Nelson (Razorbill, 2005)(author interview), A Room on Lorelei Street by Mary E. Pearson (Holt, 2005)(author interview), and Sandpiper by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon & Schuster, 2005)(author interview).

Greg Leitich Smith at GregLSBlog recommends The Wizard, the Witch, and Two Girls from Jersey by Lisa Papademetriou (Razorbill, 2006)(author website). He also showcases our kitties!

Author Interview: Tanya Lee Stone on A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl

A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2006) (PDF excerpt). Promo copy: “Josie, Nicolette, and Aviva all get mixed up with a senior boy–a cool, slick, sexy boy who can talk them into doing almost anything he wants. In a blur of high school hormones and personal doubt, each girl struggles with how much to give up and what ultimately to keep for herself. How do girls handle themselves? How much can a boy get away with? And in the end, who comes out on top? A bad boy may always be a bad boy. But this bad boy is about to meet three girls who won’t back down.” Cyn says: “It’s fantastic–hip, edgy, and addicting. Sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, always real. Sure to be the new Forever.” Ages 14-up. HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.

Tanya Lee Stone on Tanya Lee Stone: “In middle-school, I was big into creative writing and poetry, and worked on the school paper. Ditto, in high school. But my newspaper time was limited because I also went to a performing arts high school, so I traveled between the two schools. At performing arts, I studied music. After high school, I went to Oberlin College where I was an English Major, and continued studying voice at Oberlin Conservatory. I got my first editorial job fresh out of college, at Holt, Rinehart & Winston. I then had a few other editorial positions, including being Jean Reynold’s assistant at Grolier, before becoming the Managing Editor (of course, this was a few years later) at Blackbirch Press. I loved that job, but I had to leave it due to a move out-of-state. That was when I started writing books, which was about ten years ago.”

What was your initial inspiration for creating A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl?

It all started with the title. Oh, the possibilities! As soon as I wrote it down, I was consumed.

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

Spark: January 15, 2004, one of the special weekend sessions at Vermont College when they invite outside guests to attend. George Nicholson was giving a talk and mentioned Michael Cart’s Rush Hour journal, and that the next theme open for submissions was called “Bad Boys.” I took out my notebook and scrawled “a bad boy can be good for a girl.” Back home that same day, I started writing about this girl who was really confident but just starting high school and had met an older guy that was making her feel confused; excited, but definitely confused. I was off and running.

A few weeks later, Kindling Words convened. At the Saturday night Fireside Reading I read five minutes of what I had so far. I remember telling Karen Romano Young before I read that I was nervous, and she was surprised because it wasn’t really like me. I also remember, very clearly, trembling while I was reading, but also hearing those murmurs from the audience when they really connect with something you’re saying, which gives you a lot of confidence to keep going. When I sat back down next to Karen she squeezed my hand and said, “Now I understand why you were nervous; you really put yourself out there.” That night a couple of different people approached me about my reading. They challenged me to think beyond the short story format, which was what Bad Boy began as, and said to them it sounded like the beginning of a novel. Now there was a moment I’ll never forget. I had published plenty of nonfiction books, but I had never really considered writing a novel. I was charged up. I went to my room and wrote until I couldn’t stay awake any more. Then I jolted awake at about 4 am (probably only about two hours later) and wrote until breakfast. I couldn’t stop. The book was pouring out of me. Josie was pouring out of me. I may have written 40 or 50 pages that weekend, I can’t really remember, but it took me over for the next few months. I was on deadline for other things and had to do them, but the desire to get back to working on Bad Boy was palpable.

The next major event was a novel writing retreat that was an extension of New England SCBWI, in May. I workshopped the novel there, which was a completed first draft by then, and during that weekend realized that the fourth girl needed to be chopped out of the book and set aside for later. Her story was too complex and needed its own space. I’ll get back to her when I can, although her story is still fresh in my mind.

It was almost two years to the day from when I read it at Kindling Words until A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl appeared on bookshelves. I’ll never forget the rush of that first partial reading. That feeling that you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing at that moment of your life.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life? What were the hard questions you had to ask of yourself?

I guess the hardest question I asked myself was after it was finished—if I was really ready, as Karen had put it to me that first night—to put myself out there. I guess we know the answer, ‘cause I’m out there, baby!

What made you decide to tell Bad Boy as a novel in poems rather than prose?

It really was the different patterns of speech that led me to the verse approach. I liked being able to shape the way the three girls talked, physically shape it, on the page. It worked for me and felt very natural. I had read a lot of verse novels and knew how I felt about why some worked and some didn’t. In my opinion, I think the ones that work well are those in which each poem both stands alone as a good poem and also functions as a part to the whole; moving the story along effectively. In revision, I looked at those components and did cut a few that I might have liked the sound of, but that ultimately didn’t work for the plot or character development.

You’ve written a powerful essay, “Now and Forever: The Power of Sex in Young Adult Literature,” which was recently published in VOYA. What inspired you to go beyond writing your novel to also address the more global context around it?

Someone told me early on, “you’re going to be asked some tough questions; have your answers ready.” That got me thinking about what the questions were surrounding this topic, and how I might explain, if someone did ask me, the importance of dealing with this theme in YA lit. So I went ahead and asked myself! The climate seemed right to address the issue in general and have an opportunity to point out many books that handle these themes well.

Your comments include the observation that books are possibly the safest place for teens to learn about sex–not just as a physical act but also the surrounding emotions. This seemed so smart and true to me, but obviously there are censors who disagree. How do we–a community of readers and writers–respond to their arguments? What would you say if standing before a public school board that was deciding whether to pull your book from the library?

I think most of these arguments come from fear; from not wanting to see that our kids are learning or hearing about things that maybe we’re not ready for them to experience. Censors are generally adults, and that’s not who I write for. I write for kids; in this case, young adults. I trust them to self-censor. We’ve all watched plenty of kids in bookstores and libraries—they pick up a book, flip through it, and put it back if it doesn’t speak to them; if they’re not ready for it. I always think of that scene in “Field of Dreams,” when Kevin Costner’s wife stands up and struts and screams in defense of not banning books. I love that scene! I’d like to think that if I had to stand before a school board I would urge them not to take away the important role YA fiction can play in offering readers a safe place to explore, to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and imagine different perspectives without necessarily having to experience everything first-hand.

I’d like to touch on some of your work for younger readers. I was delighted to read on your site that Abraham Lincoln (DK, 2005) has sold more than 50,000 copies. Congratulations! What do you think makes this book stand out over others about Lincoln? What advice do you have for writers working on biographies?

Thanks! I read this book aloud to a class of 4th and 5th graders, over the course of a couple of weeks. It really worked as a read-aloud, which to me meant that I succeeded in writing his life as a story. My advice is to make your nonfiction subject come to life for yourself as much as possible; make interesting connections, highlight unusual things kids may not know about a topic, and always keep in mind what is important to you, the writer, about your topic while you’re writing. If you’re passionate about the subject, I think that comes through in the writing.

I also was pleased to see that you have a forthcoming picture book biography, Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (Henry Holt, 2007). It seems that power and women may be an emerging theme in your work. Is that the case? Could you give readers a hint of what’s to come in this forthcoming title?

Yes, I do believe you’re right! 😉 Strong girls and women are definitely a pervasive theme in my writing. Elizabeth Leads the Way is the story of how Elizabeth Cady Stanton was inspired by her upbringing and her own internal fire to get the women’s suffrage movement started. Now that you mention it, my next YA novel, as well as the next few nonfiction books I have coming out, all focus on the strength of female characters in one way or another.

You were a children’s book editor for 13 years. Did this inspire you to become a writer? What insights does a background in editing offer a writer?

Ever since I was a girl, I’ve been writing. I think I lost a little of my confidence in my writing abilities during college, of all places. My advisers were tough on me, as they should have been. But I lost some steam. After I was editing for a time, though, it came back to me. I began writing again, for fun, and really enjoyed it. My editorial background has definitely been an advantage in terms of craft. I edited hundreds and hundreds of books before I wrote my first one for publication.

How about your experiences as a reader? What were your favorite two or three children’s and YA books of all time? What made each resonate with you?

My favorite all-time picture book is Harold and the Purple Crayon (HarperCollins, 1955). The idea that life can be anything you create it to be is simple and powerful, just like the book. That book made me feel good the first time I read it as a little kid, and the feeling comes back each and every time I open it again.

My favorite books as a kid were Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (Random House, 1961), Madeline L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time (Bantam Doubleday, 1962), and Julie Edwards’s The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Harper & Row, 1974). I immersed myself in the worlds those authors created and was carried away by their imaginations—which nurtured my own. I just noticed that those are all fantasies, which is not my favorite genre as an adult. I tend to like contemporary realistic fiction or historical fiction.

Is it true that you own a purple leopard coat?

It’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but! I LOVE that coat—it’s purple, warm, cozy, cat-like, and did I say, purple?

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I think what has surprised me most about this process is the things that evolve from writing a particular book. For my launch party, I scripted a stage version of Bad Boy that gave the boy an introductory monologue and introduced the three girls to the audience. I found that I really enjoyed playing with a different form, and that it led me to think of other ways to reach readers. I’m now looking forward to having the opportunity to work with school groups with a visual forum that lends itself to discussion.

I’d also like to add a big thank you for interviewing me so Cynsationally!

Cynsational Notes

School Library Journal gave A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl a starred review, and chose it for Book of the Week. The novel also has received great reviews from the Horn Book, Booklist, and been featured in Ellegirl (along with Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking, 2005)).

Cynsational News & Links

Author Kittens and Dawgs from Maryrose Wood, author of Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love (Delacorte, 2006)(excerpt). From there, go visit my kittens, Bashi and Boo, and check out their picks in Kit Lit.

Hamline University seeks assistant professor of creative writing. The Graduate School of Liberal Studies (GLS) seeks to hire faculty to teach in a new low-residency MFA in writing for children and young adults, to begin in January 2007. Candidates should have substantial publications (four or more books) in the field of children’s and/or young adult literature and should demonstrate a strong, ongoing record of publication. Expertise in more than one genre (e.g., picture books, chapter books, middle grade or young adult fiction, nonfiction, poetry) desired. Evidence of outstanding college-level teaching is required. Teaching responsibilities will include participating in yearly residencies, working collaboratively with 2-5 students per semester, and advising and directing student theses. Send letter of application, c.v., and three references to Mary Rockcastle, Dean, Graduate School of Liberal Studies, Hamline University, 1536 Hewitt Ave. Saint Paul, MN 55104-1284. Application deadline is February 28.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat, professor emerita at the University of Texas at Austin, speaks about “The Origins of Writing” at 5 p.m. April 13 in the Tom Lea Room at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. Denise is the author of The History of Counting (Morrow, 1999)(author interview). Denise has a new picture book forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. She has also signed with agent Rosemary Stimola. Another event of interest at the Ransom Center is a panel hosted by book critic and writer Ed Nawotka: “An Ode to Typewrite,” a discussion of writers who compose on typewriters. Thanks to Anne Bustard, author of Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Simon & Schuster, 2005)(author interview), for suggesting these news items.

“Talking Animal Stories” by Jan Fields from the Institute of Children’s Literature. See also “What Age is Your Reader?” also by Jan Fields from the ICL. Both of these articles are oriented toward writing for children’s magazines.

Thanks to author Haemi Balgassi for announcing the redesign of my website! Thanks also to all those who sent sympathy cards and emails in response to my grandmother’s recent death.