Absolutely Positively Not by David LaRochelle Receives 2005 Sid Fleischman Humor Award

David LaRochelle‘s novel Absolutely Positively Not (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2005) is the recipient of the 2005 Sid Fleischman Humor Award.

From the flap copy: “Steven doesn’t know if he’ll pass his driver’s test or if he’ll ever understand his parents, but there’s one thing he knows for sure: He’s absolutely, positively NOT gay. How could he be, when he conscientiously collects photos of girls in bikinis and makes a point to sit at the jock table? So what if he takes a golden retriever to the dance because he can’t face telling his mom that he doesn’t have a date? So what if he thinks Coach Bowman is, well, extremely, unnervingly handsome. Who wouldn’t? Right? David LaRochelle’s first novel is a riotously funny look at the life of a regular boy who’s finding out what it takes to be a real man.”

The award, presented by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, is given annually to an author whose work exemplifies excellence in humor writing. LaRochelle is an author and illustrator of twenty-five books, including The Best Pet of All, illustrated by Hanako Wakiyama (Dutton, 2004), a Children’s Book Sense Top Ten selection. Absolutely Positively Not is LaRochelle’s first novel for young adults.

The award will be presented on Sunday, Aug. 6 during the Golden Kite Awards Luncheon, which is part of SCBWI’s 35th Annual Conference on Writing and Illustrating for Children. It will be held at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel from Aug. 4 to Aug. 7, 2006.

Cynsational Notes

Absolutely Positively Not also was named a Booklist Top Ten Novel by a New Author; a CCBC Choice; a Booklist Editor’s Choice; and an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. See a review of the novel by Brian Farrey of Teenreads.com.

Learn more about Sid Fleischman.

Cynsational News & Links

Enter to win one of 10 copies of Nothing But the Truth (and a Few White Lies), a new novel by Justina Chen Headley (Little Brown, 2006)(author interview)(excerpt) from YA Books Central.

Author Interview: Cynthia Kadohata from Downhomebooks.com. Cynthia 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.Read a recent Cynsations interview with Cynthia Kadohata.

Author-Editor Dialogue: Rita Williams-Garcia and Rosemary Brosnan from CBC Magazine. See also An Interview with Rosemary Brosnan from SCBWI France and Rita Williams-Garcia. Rita’s books include No Laughter Here (HarperCollins/Amistad, 2003).

A Bibliography of Novels in Verse by Susan Taylor Brown from Once Upon a Time There Was A Girl Who Wanted to Write (That Would Be Me). Look for Susan’s upcoming middle grade novel in poems, Hugging the Rock (Tricycle Press, 2006)(PDF excerpt).

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Knopf, 2006): reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke from BookLoons Reviews. See also Endgame by Nancy Garden (Harcourt, 2006)(author interview): reviewed by by Lyn Seippel from BookLoons Reviews.

The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus

The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus (Candlewick, 2006)(excerpt featuring Philip Pullman)(audio reading). Features in-depth interviews with thirteen acclaimed fantasy authors: Lloyd Alexander; Franny Billingsley (author interview); Susan Cooper; Nancy Farmer; Brian Jacques; Diana Wynne Jones; Ursula K. Le Guin; Madeleine L’Engle; Garth Nix; Tamora Pierce; Terry Pratchett; Philip Pullman; and Jane Yolen. Includes author photos, including childhood photos, copies of marked manuscripts, etc. Ages 12-up.

My Thoughts

A gorgeously designed and crafted book.

I wouldn’t be surprised if most readers, as I did, turn first to their favorite authors and then take the opportunity to learn more about the rest. In my case, I turned first to Franny Billingsley and Jane Yolen.

I took particular note of Jane’s comment that “We know ourselves by the stories we tell about ourselves. If you can’t remember the stories, then who are you?”

I also was struck by Franny’s declaration that “…I might live a life of words.” I love that–“a life of words.” The next time I’m feeling overwhelmed by my writing and writing life, I’ll remind myself that not only do I have a life, I have a life of words.

By the way, Brian Jacques has beautiful handwriting.

Recommended to fantasy readers and writers; makes a lovely gift.

Cynsational Notes

Franny Billingsley’s next release will be her picture book debut, Big Bad Bunny, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Atheneum/Richard Jackson, 2008).

Author Feature: Ellen Howard

Ellen Howard on Ellen Howard: “I’m a late-bloomer. Although I told and wrote stories from childhood (and gained some familial notoriety for keeping my little brother and sister awake after bedtime with said stories), there was an 18-year hiatus between the last story I wrote in high school and the first story I wrote for a college creative writing class in 1978 or so.

“But I was reading continually and compulsively from first grade right up to this afternoon. I’m told I traded my new tricycle for a picture book on the very day it was given to me. The unending battle of my childhood had to do with grown-ups wanting me to ‘go out and play,’ when all I wanted to do was curl up with a book.

“All that reading had to lead somewhere, and in my case it led to learning, on my fortieth birthday, that my first book would be published. I’ve been contentedly writing ever since–not for fame or fortune (which is a good thing), but for simple joy. I write to amuse myself, more than for any other reason, and stories have kept me happy all my life.”

As a young reader, were you enthusiastic about books? Do you recall your favorite(s)? What were the early signs of your fruitful imagination?

I figured something out pretty early, I think. In stories, we can live many, many lives. I feel almost sorry for people who live only their own life in their own time and place.

I’ve lived all over the world, in many different eras. I’ve been a girl and a boy and a rabbit and a man and a woman and an angel. I’ve been young and old, strong and weak, good and wicked. I’ve had countless adventures, faced tremendous odds, been in danger again and again. All in stories.

It’s not that I don’t love my own life. It’s simply that I want more, and I can have that more in the stories I read, the stories I write.

I wrote my first story in fourth grade, and illustrated it myself. I heard my first story before I could talk and read my first story when I was six. So many stories I can’t remember them all: But I do remember these: Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink, Twig by Elizabeth Orton Jones, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Only the other day, I read another good story: Where the Great Hawk Flies by Liza Ketchum (Clarion, 2005)(author interview).

What put you on the path to publication? What were the ah-ha moments? Were there any stumbles along the way?

I was so lucky: I wrote my first book, Circle of Giving, about 1981. I began sending it out to publishers in 1982. A wonderful writing teacher steered me to the great editor, Jean Karl at Atheneum and, on May 8, 1983 (my fortieth birthday), I received a letter from Jean accepting the manuscript for publication.

That’s much, much faster than most writers achieve publication. It has very little to do with the quality of my work and a great deal more to do with the loving support of several people–my husband Chuck, who made it possible for me to attend my first writing conference, where I met Zola Helen Ross and began writing my first story for young people; Zola, who referred me to Jean Karl; my mother who first told me the stories of her childhood which inspired Circle of Giving; and, of course, Jean Karl, who was my editor for sixteen years and eleven books.

Jean’s death gave me my first “stumble,” I must admit. It has been hard for me to write, knowing that she is no longer there to read it. But I have worked with other fine editors, Pamela Pollock, Margery Cuyler (interview), and Regina Griffin, and little by little, I’ve regained my confidence that there are other editors who will like my work.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Well, I’m afraid my advice isn’t particularly original. The truth is, we learn to write by reading and writing. We can be supported along the way. I often think that this is my function as a faculty member of the MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College. I can teach a few basic story-telling principles, but mostly I’m there to nurture the talent of others, a role I treasure.

My only real advice to new writers is to try to do something for a living that takes up as little emotional energy as possible. We can always make time to write, if we care enough to do so. But we need to leave ourselves the energy, the emotional stamina and the quiet that are the real necessities of the writing life.

You’ve served as SCBWI regional advisorin Oregon and Michigan. First, thank you for this service to the children’s-YA writer-illustrator community. I know RA positions require a lot of thought and work. What inspired you to take on these roles? What did you learn from them?

My terms as SCBWI regional advisor in Oregon and Michigan were tremendously helpful to me in becoming part of a writers’ community. But I didn’t know that would be the case. The truth is that I took the position in Oregon out of gratitude to SCBWI for receiving a Golden Kite Honor Award for my first book. I thought I should try to give back to the organization that so honored my book.

For those new to your work, could you briefly highlight a few of your more recent titles and offer some insights into the intial spark behind each?

Although I have published sixteen books since 1984, I’m sorry to say that only three of them are presently in print. The Gate in the Wall (Atheneum, 1999) was inspired by three summer holidays spent on a narrowboat, floating the canals of England. The canals were such a magical place that I knew on the first trip that I wanted to set a book there, but I didn’t find my story until the second trip, when we visited a restored silk mill and I discovered that many of the mill workers in the 1800s were children. Almost immediately, my imagination had created Emma Dean, ten years old, who has been working in a mill since she was seven years old. When Emma flees her hard life, she finds not only another, better life on a narrowboat, but also discovers that life can bring not just pain, but accomplishment, love and joy.

Since 1996, I’ve written four books in the “Log Cabin” series, published by Holiday House. The Log Cabin Quilt (1996) and The Log Cabin Church (2002), beautifully illustrated by Ronald Himler are still in print, and they will be joined by The Log Cabin Wedding in the spring of 2007. The first book, The Log Cabin Quilt, came to me as no other book ever has, almost magically. On a long, boring drive, I “heard” Elvirey’s voice, telling of her family’s struggles in their new log cabin home. This is the way my mind keeps me amused. By the time I got home, I had heard the entire story in my imagination. I had only to type it up! I thought that would be the only “log cabin” story, but you can see that the story continued after that book was published. I think The Log Cabin Wedding is the end of Elvirey’s stories.

You’re an accomplished writer of historical fiction. What is it about the past that calls to you?

I think imaginations work differently in different people. I could no more imagine what the future will be like than fly to the moon! But, from the time when my grandparents, who lived with us, were telling about their childhoods and my mother was telling about hers, I have been imagining the past. Now, even my own childhood is historical! In 1993, I published The Tower Room (Atheneum), which was set in the year 1953, when I was ten years old. I was astonished when reviewers called it “historical fiction!”

What advice do you have for those writing historical fiction?

I’m a very old-fashioned writer (I still write on a typewriter and am computer illiterate.) So I’m an old-fashioned researcher too. Almost always, I go to books first. Those books lead me to other books and articles and sometimes to people. Since I love to read, all this is pure joy! And finding out things may be my second most favorite thing after reading.

My advice for historical fiction writers has more to do with the writer’s sensibilities than it has to do with research. If you are fascinated not only by what was done in the past and how it was done, but also with how it might have felt, then historical fiction may indeed be your forte.

But I am appalled by “historical fiction” that only dresses modern characters in period dress and allows them to think, feel and behave as people do now. People in the past, even people in other places in the world today, saw or see the world and life through very different eyes than ours. They “knew” things we think are silly; they worried about things that don’t even occur to us and didn’t worry about things that obsess us; they used different standards to judge things by. It is true that no one knows for sure just what it was like to live in the past, but we have many clues. I believe it is the responsibility of the historical novelist to explore those differences just as thoroughly as she explores our common humanity.

You were born in North Carolina and have lived in Oregon, Michigan, and Colorado. How, if at all, has your setting inspired those in your books?

You ought to realize by now that I only “live” part time in current home. I am always “living” in the books I read and write. So my books may very well be as much inspired by all those fictional places they are by my actual residence. I lived in North Carolina very briefly, yet the voices of my Southern relatives have influenced my voice, especially in the “log cabin” books. And a house in my neighborhood in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the 1990s inspired The Tower Room. But I don’t think I am in any way a regional writer. Rather, my stories come out of other stories–stories read and heard, stories of real people and stories of fictional ones that made me wonder, what would that be like?

You’ve published several books, writing for the picture book audience through the teen one. Is there one age range that particularly calls to you? Or do you have many “inner children”?

Someone once said that children’s writers were “cases of arrested development.” If that’s true, my development was probably arrested somewhere around the age of ten or twelve. Certainly, writing about the concerns, the feelings, the thoughts of girls from ten to twelve or so seems most natural to me. I’ve been writing a book about a ten year old boy, and that has been hard. And writing about contemporary teenagers is hard, because I don’t know their world, except as I know it through my grandchildren. The truth is, I scarcely remember my own teen years, but eleven is as vivid in my memory as yesterday.

As a reader, what are your favorite recent reads?

My favorite author is Rumer Godden, an Englishwoman who wrote for both children and adults for over fifty years. She died just a few years ago. Now I read her books to my younger grandchildren: Candy Floss, Holly and Ivy, The Mousewife, and many more. Of her adult books, my all-time favorite is The River, but I first read it when I was twelve years old.

These days I love Anne Tyler‘s books for recreational reading. Her ditzy characters remind me of myself and my family. The best book I’ve read in the last five years is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

But I can’t end without putting in a plug for two of my own childhood favorites: Twig by Elizabeth Orton Jones and Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink. My granddaughters and I just read Baby Island together a few days ago, and I loved it all over again.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Well, I’m hoping that my novel about the ten-year-old boy who accompanied the explorer, La Salle, on his last journey will be next. I’m in the middle of a revision right now, and hope to find a publisher for it soon. It’s called The Red Cap.

But I’m also writing a new book, called The Queen’s Child, and set in the first year of Queen Elizabeth I‘s reign. My heroine, Mary Seymour, is based on the real child of Katherine Parr. We know Mary was born; we know she was living with her mother’s friend, the Duchess of Suffolk, for more than a year after Katherine Parr died. But then all mention of her disappeared from history. I am having great fun imagining what might have happened to her!

Cynsational Notes

Ellen’s first editor, Jean Karl, also was the author of How to Write and Sell Children’s Picture Books (Writers Digest, 1994). Note that some information may be dated, but it’s nevertheless a chance to “sit at the knee” of an editorial legend.

The Giblin Guide to Writing Children’s Books by James Cross Giblin

The Giblin Guide to Writing Children’s Books by James Cross Giblin (Writer’s Institute Publications, 2005)(fourth edition–revised and updated). Giblin’s Guide highlights the various forms, including non-fiction, fiction, ages categories within fiction, types of fiction, picture books globally, and rhyme in picture books specifically. It also features information on “from submission to contract” and “from contract to publication.”

Recommended as a companion to What’s Your Story? A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction by Marion Dane Bauer (Clarion, 1992) and especially to children’s non-fiction writers.

What’s Your Story? A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction by Marion Dane Bauer

What’s Your Story? A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction by Marion Dane Bauer (Clarion, 1992). An excellent overview of the craft of writing, including story plans, selecting an idea, character, focus, plot, point of view, beginnings, dialogue, story tension, endings, revising, and polishing as well as fiction writing as a career. Marion’s clear, conversational style makes for a read as enjoyable as it is enlightening. Though marketed to young writers, also highly recommended to adult writers. Marion dedicates this title to her editor James Cross Giblin. Ages 12-up. See also A Writer’s Story: From Life to Fiction, also by Marion (Clarion, 1995) and The Giblin Guide to Writing Children’s Books by James Cross Giblin (Writer’s Institute Publications, 2005)(fourth edition–revised and updated).

Cynsational Notes

If I could recommend only one craft book, this would be it. Today I’m writing to encourage my students to find a copy as soon as possible.

Though the title may offer nothing new per se in terms of information to advanced writers, the way in which the material is presented makes it a perfect venue for review. I plan to reread it between novels to remind myself of what I’m already supposed to understand but don’t always do.

It’s worth restating that though the title specifies “young person,” the book speaks equally well to adults. That said, it is a great pick for teen writers.

Author Interview: Michelle Lord on Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin

Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin by Michelle Lord, illustrated by Felicia Hoshimo (Lee & Low, 2006). From the publisher: “The story of Little Sap, a young Cambodian dancer who posed for Auguste Rodin in 1906 during the Colonial Exhibition in France.” Ages 4-up. See a four-page preview of the book.

Author Michelle Lord’s bio: “Michelle Lord fell in love with the culture of Cambodia when she traveled there to adopt her youngest daughter. She was inspired to write this book after discovering the story behind Auguste Rodin’s Cambodian dancer sketches. Lord lives in New Braunfels, Texas, with her husband and their three children. This is her first picture book.”

What inspired you to write for children?

I have always loved both art and reading. I loved picture books as a child and still love them today—a perfect blend of art and story.

With three children, I want to tell stories that reflect our multicultural family. I also like to make my kids laugh!

Could you describe your path to publication, any sprints and/or stumbles along the way?

I have collected dozens and dozens of rejection letters. I’ve had the excitement of manuscripts going to acquisitions, followed by the disappointment of rejection after coming so close. I’ve found critique groups, writing classes, reading lots of children’s books and spending time with children helpful to my writing. It’s an ongoing learning process.

Congratulations on the publication of your debut picture book, Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin! Could you tell us a little about it?

In 1906, famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin fell in love with the Cambodian dancers during their performance in Paris. The Cambodian dance troupe of King Sisowath traveled to France for the Colonial Exhibition.

My book is the story of Little Sap, a poor country girl who joined the dance troupe to give her family a better life. She misses her family and doesn’t fit in with the other dancers. As Rodin’s pencil sweeps across his paper, Little Sap’s worries lessen. She realizes how much she has grown as a dancer and how far she has come in fulfilling her special duty to her family. She finally feels part of the troupe. “Once again she felt a family’s love, and home did not feel so far away.”

What was your initial inspiration for telling this story?

My youngest daughter is Cambodian, and I’m always on the lookout for interesting items for her. I stumbled upon Rodin’s sketches/watercolors of the Cambodian dancers on eBay. I researched Rodin and found a French newspaper photo of the artist sketching the young dancers. Sap was a real girl whose graceful movements Rodin captured on grocery paper.

I then found a variety of old postcards from 1906; Rodin, King Sisowath, royal elephants and the royal dance troupe of Cambodia. As I studied the postcards, one little dancer stood out–different from the rest. She had darker skin and a beautiful sad face. She became Little Sap to me, as I looked at her picture and imagined her life.

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

I wrote Little Sap in the summer of 2003 and mailed it off to three publishers. I received one rejection instantly. Little Sap went to an editorial meeting at the second publisher, but they too passed on my story. Then, I received a revision letter from Jennifer at Lee and Low.

How exciting! We worked on a series of revisions, including expanding the story. The revision process was tough. Emotionally I went from high [of course they want this great story] to low [I’ll never get these revisions right]! Finally, with Jennifer’s help and guidance, I received a contract in the summer of 2004. And, this month I received copies of my first book! Felicia Hoshino’s illustrations made Little Sap come alive.

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

For my story, I needed information about Rodin, France, Cambodia and Khmer Court Dance. How long would it take to travel to France from Cambodia by ship? How would a young dancer feel when she left home for the first time? The court dancers led sheltered lives and rarely stepped outside the palace walls. Rodin’s feelings about meeting the young dancers are documented, but I could only imagine the thoughts of
the dancers themselves.

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

Don’t give up!

What are the important considerations in writing historical fiction? What should writer/researchers keep in mind?

I’m a visual person, so I poured over old pictures, posters, websites and videos. It was important to me to have an expert in Khmer dance read my book for accuracy. She pointed out errors I had made in describing certain gestures. With hundreds of movements, I was sure to get some wrong!

Museums are great resources and often have websites. The drawing on the back cover of my book, and the photograph of Rodin with the dancers, both came from the Rodin Museum. The photograph ran in the newspaper in 1906, so don’t forget that newspapers are terrific sources.

Stick to official government or university affiliated websites for accurate information.

Are you available for school visits, conferences, and other speaking engagements? If so, how should planners contact you?

I’m currently gearing up for school visits. Contact me at: theelords@satx.rr.com.

What can you fans expect next?

I’m working through revisions on a picture book biography.

Cynsational Notes

Degas and the Little Dancer by Laurence Anholt (Barron’s, 1996) would make a good companion to Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin.

Children’s and YA Books with Asian and Asian American Themes from my website. Note that while we’ve seen a strong showing of late of quality literary trade books with Asian and Asian American themes, these so far are mostly still limited those featuring Chinese/Chinese American, Japanese/Japanese American, and Korean/Korean American themes. On the south Asian front, we’re seeing more Indian/Indian American/Indian Canadian books. However, many nationalities/national origins are still underrepresented. In addition to Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin (Cambodian), titles to seek include Journey Home by Lawrence McKay, Jr., illustrated by Dom & Keunhee Lee (Lee & Low, 1998)(co-illustrator interview)(Vietnamese/Vietnamese American).

Finding Literacy Grants from Lee & Low Books. “In the education world budget constraints are a reality, making it difficult to obtain resources for book purchases. This is why it is important to utilize organizations that offer educational and/or literacy grants.” Also includes information on writing successful grant requests. Authors and illustrators may want to add this link to their events pages.

Texas Children’s & YA Authors and Illustrators from my website.

Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges

Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom by Tim Tingle (Choctaw), illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges (Cherokee)(Cinco Puntos, 2006). Chronicles the important relationship between citizens of Choctaw Nation and those people held in slavery in Mississippi prior to the U.S. Civil War and the Trail of Tears. An evocative story, wonderfully told and gorgeously illustrated. End material includes “Choctaws Today: Two Prosperous Nations, One Strong People” and “A Note on Choctaw Storytelling.” Ages 9-up.

Cynsational Notes

Jeanne is a debut illustrator with this book. She lives in rural eastern Oklahoma.

Tim’s previous title, Walking the Choctaw Road: Stories from Red People Memory (Cinco Puntos, 2003) also is a must-read. He lives in Canyon Lake, Texas; and is highly recommended as a speaker and storyteller, especially to those seeking an authentic Native American perspective.

Native American Themes in Children’s and Young Adult Books from my website.

Author-Illustrator Feature: Laura McGee Kvasnosky

Laura McGee Kvasnosky is the author of several wonderful children’s titles, including the Zelda and Ivy books (Candlewick), One Lucky Summer (Dutton, 2002), and Frank and Izzy Set Sail (Candlewick, 2004). She lives in Seattle.

Laura McGee Kvasnosky on Laura McGee Kvasnosky: “Why write? Because I am the middle of five kids and I am still trying to get a word in edgewise. Because it’s a way to figure out stuff I don’t understand. Because I can’t not write.

“Looking back, I can see I was headed toward writing for a long time. When I was little, I had a stuffed cat named Kitty who starred in stories I acted out for my younger brother and sister. These productions took place on weekend mornings while we waited for the rest of the family to wake up. Kitty had a loud, squeaky voice. He disappeared one day. We looked and looked but never found him.

“As soon as I could read, I became a bookworm. I wish I had a whole other life just for reading. As soon as I could shape letters, I made little books from the paper trimmings Dad brought home from his print shop. In fifth grade I wrote a weekly newspaper, making a copy for each row in the classroom with my careful cursive. My dad was the editor and publisher of the newspaper in our small town, Sonora, California. As each of us five kids went through high school, he taught us to write, by having us compose ‘Campus Letter,’ a weekly column for the paper.

“I changed my major six times at Occidental College before deciding on a degree in journalism. But I always knew I could tell a better story if I didn’t have to stick to the facts, thus preferred writing fiction. While my kids were little, I had a baker’s clay ornament making business for six years, then a graphic design business for 15–all which turned out to be good preparation for making children’s books.

“I am a fourth-generation Californian, now thoroughly mossed over by 32 years in Seattle rain. I love to bike and garden and play the ukulele. My husband, John, and I have two grown children, Timothy and Noelle.”

According to your website biography, you decided when you were 40 to actively pursue your lifelong dream of creating children’s books. Could you tell us more about that decision? What shifted you from dreamer to do-er in this regard?

When my kids were young, some of our best times were spent curled up in the big blue chair reading together. What an amazing thing it is to enter the world of a book together.

I dreamt of making my own picture books, but kept putting it off. Then, about the time I turned 40, a friend died of cancer. She was 54. Who knows how long we get to dabble around here? I determined to take a step toward my dream. I signed up for Keith Baker‘s class in Picture Book Making.

What preparation did you have from your earlier life, and what was your path to publication like?

Like picture book writing, writing for a newspaper is a reductionist task. Both a picture book and a good news story need a hook: a beginning that grabs the reader and sets up what is to come. Every word has to count.

The over-10,000 baker’s clay ornaments I manufactured during my kids’ preschool years were sculpted little children doing various things, perhaps an initial effort to create characters?

Graphic design comes into play in the design of my books as I consider the flow and pacing of the progression of text and illustration.

Most of all, I guess life itself prepares me to make picture books: like a raccoon, I gather all the sparkling, quirky bits of memories, experiences and observations that can be shaped into stories.

I’m sure everyone would love to know more about the story behind Zelda and Ivy (Candlewick, 1998), Zelda and Ivy One Christmas (Candlewick, 2002), and Zelda and Ivy and the Boy Next Door (Candlewick, 2003). How did you come to find these characters? What was the original inspiration?

As the middle of five children, I have experience being led around by an imaginative but bossy older sister and I took the role of the bossy older sister to my younger sibs. This is probably why the push and pull of sibling rivalry fascinates me.

The original Zelda and Ivy book was a dummy book called “Summer Shorts.” I created it in Keith Baker’s class. It featured five human children and many of the tense sibling interactions that are familiar to Zelda and Ivy readers. I sent it around to publishers and it was roundly rejected. Five years and six books later, I thought I’d try those sibling stories again. Maybe they’d work better with only two sisters. I was experimenting at the time with gouache resist, the medium that I eventually used for the Zelda and Ivy books. It worked best in bright colors. Thus, the two sisters became bright red foxes. In a way, that first book was a “gift book.” It fell whole and complete into my lap. But when I look back, I can see the pieces gathered over years.

Could you give us a sneak peek into Zelda and Ivy: The Runaways (Candlewick, 2006)? What are the fabulous fox sisters up to now?

The Runaways, due out June 2006–marks the first of the Zelda and Ivy books to appear in a new, reader-sized format, similar to the size of Frog and Toad [by Arnold Lobel].

There are three chapters: The Runaways, The Time Capsule, and The Secret Concoction. Each of these stories has its roots in either my childhood or in things my own children did. For instance, Zelda prepares the time capsule with this message: “A gift to the world of the future from the world of the past.” When my son was eight, I found that exact note under his rug, on a card with a quarter taped to the bottom.

What about them has drawn you back for book after book? What are the traits of characters who can hold readers beyond one title?

The interaction of younger and older siblings amuses me. There is endless material in the play of one against the other. Often when I visit schools, students give me further adventures that they have written for these characters. It seems the dynamics of sibling relationships are familiar to many readers.

What advice do you have for writing with animal characters?

I don’t think of my characters as animals. Rather, as humans in fox suits.

It’s true, though, that there is something about those fox suits that is freeing and makes it easier to get to the heart of things. Plus, it’s fun to emphasize their foxy-ness: flips of tails, holding paws.

Your debut novel is One Lucky Summer (Dutton, 2002). What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

One Lucky Summer grew over seven years from a picture book in two voices to its present, published form. It is loosely based on the summer that my cousin Jerry lived with my family in a mountain cabin. Like the characters in the book, Jerry and I went from hating each other’s guts to being good friends and back again–often in the space of a day. We, too, nearly drowned in a Siamese Twins swimming race. As I was writing, I was wondering if a 10-year-old girl and boy could be authentic friends. As the story developed, it seemed they could.

I researched pet flying squirrels and Western fence lizards. My friend Julian Snider, who was in fourth grade at the time, provided the illustrations for Steven’s Nature Journal.

Another of your recent titles was Frank and Izzy Set Sail (Candlewick, 2004). What inspired you to write this story? What was the timeline from spark to publication and the major events along the way?

Frank and Izzy took about a year for me to write and illustrate, then another year for Candlewick Press to bring it out.

Frank and Izzy began with a painting I made when I was playing around with leftover paint. I painted a little rabbit and a bear running in the moonlight. They intrigued me. Who were they? Why were they running? Who were they to each other?

The moonlight reminded me of the last night of a ballroom dancing class my husband John and I took at our community center. As we parked our car that night, we could see a big, full moon shining down Lake Washington. At the end of the class, our instructor threw open the doors and turned up the music. We waltzed out into the parking lot. It was one of those times when ordinary life is transcended. Music and moonlight were part of it.

I decided I wanted to make a story about the rabbit and the bear. Music and moonlight would be part of it. I decided Frank would be a bit like John and Izzy a bit like me. The whole story is written toward that single spread of the starry sky, their little campfire flickering on the island in the middle of the darkened lake, and the text, “Frank and Izzy sang to the stars.”

What are the challenges particular to building a career as an author-illustrator?

Mostly, I guess it’s a logistical challenge: it takes much longer to illustrate a book than it does to write one.

What advice do you have for beginners with this goal? How about more established book creators?

If you are starting out, good classes can help get you where you want to go. The Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Adults, for one, is an excellent program to consider. I have taught there six winter residencies, and I have learned a ton from the lectures and visiting writers.

Join SCBWI. Go to the meetings and conferences.

Read widely, especially in the genre in which you expect your stories will fall, i.e. picture books or middle grade novels. Read as a reader and then again as a writer, taking it apart, seeing how it works. Note what you think really works and what doesn’t. Keep track of publishers you like, too, for when you are ready to submit your work.

I think any advice I give is probably advice I need to hear, so I am listening, too, when I say: Take yourself seriously. Work at it daily. Get the information and tools you need to do the job well. Then allow yourself to play.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

There are so many unexpected bonuses of a career in children’s books: speaking opportunities at schools and conferences, teaching opportunities to writers of all ages, and the chance to be part of the amazing resource that is this forum. Thanks, Cynthia. It’s an honor to be part of your wonderful website.

Cynsational Notes

Are you a Zelda or an Ivy? Take the Zelda and Ivy Personality Quiz!

Who Wrote That? Featuring Laura McGee Kvasnosky by Patricia M. Newman; published in California Kids (November 2002).

Patricia also offers recent interviews with: Erin Dealey, author of Little Bo Peep Can’t Get To Sleep (Atheneum, 2005)(author site); Mini Grey, author of The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon (Knopf, 2006); Loretta Ichord, author of More Cooking Through Time: Pasta, Fried Rice, and Matzoh Balls: Immigrant Cooking in America (Millbrook, 2006)(author site); Jackie Briggs Martin, author of On Sand Island (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)(author site); and Barbara Park, author of Junie B., First Grader: Aloha-Ha-Ha! (from the Junie B. Jones series)(Random House, 2006). Patricia herself is the author of Jingle the Brass, illustrated by Michael Chesworth (FSG, 2004)(a Junior Library Guild selection); learn more about Patricia!

Cynsations LJ Subscribers

Cynsations LJ syndication readers, the author update with Toni Buzzeo for some reason has not posted correctly to you. My apologies. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with the program (my syndication was set up by a dear friend) to fix it myself, nor do I have even a password to get in.

However, I have republished Toni’s interview via Blogger, so hopefully the syndication will pick up a new version that works. If this is not the case, please surf by the interview at Cynsations on Blogger to read it there. This has happened once before and cleared up on its own so my hope is that it will do likewise this time. Thank you for your understanding!