Cynsational News & Links

I’m pleased that Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2002)(reader’s theater) is being reprinted again (I’ve lost track of what edition it’s reached). Thanks so much to all who have supported my books!

Thanks to Book Moot for the recent shout out about this week’s interview with author Gail Carson Levine. Notes: Book Moot is a first-rate, first-class blog with many excellent recent reviews. Also, anyone linking to Cynsations is encouraged to give me the heads-up so I can check it out!

Congratulations to Sue Corbett (author interview), winner of the California Young Readers Medal for 12 Again (Dutton, 2002). See also the 2006-2007 nominees, which include Shattering Glass by Gail Giles (Roaring Brook, 2002)(author interview)(update interview) and Hanging onto Max by Margaret Bechard (Roaring Brook, 2002)(author interview)(excerpt) in the YA category. Learn more about state awards for children’s and YA books.

Congratulations also to Amy Butler Greenfield, author of A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire (HarperCollins, 2006)(excerpt), winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction.

Paper Tigers celebrates Asian American Heritage Month. As The Tiger notes, “Asian Pacific Americans are not a single group. They are made up of more than 24 ethnic groups that speak different languages, each with its own historical roots and branches. Their ethnic or multi-ethnic identities have a long, and not always acknowledged, history.”

The Paper Tigers book of the month is Landed by Milly Lee, illustrated by Yangshook Choi (Frances Foster/FSG, 2006). An interview with author Uma Krishnaswami highlights her new title, Closet Ghosts (Children’s Book Press, 2006), and discusses her body of work. In Personal Views, Janet S. Wong discusses “Asian American Literature for Children and Teens: Where We Fit In” and Frances Kai-Hwa Wang talks about “My Favorite Asian Pacific American Picture Books.” See also a gallery from illustrator Belle Yang. Learn more about Uma Krishnaswami (author interview) and Janet S. Wong. Learn more about Asian and Asian American Children’s Literature.

The 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas has been awarded to Luci Tapahonso (Navajo). Though she is best known as a poet, her children’s books include Navajo ABC: A Dine Alphabet Book, illustrated by Eleanor Schick (Macmillan, 1995) and Songs of Shiprock Fair, illustrated by Anthony Chee Emerson (Kiva, 1999)(recommended). Learn more about Native American Children’s Literature.

In the Artist’s Studio: Jeff Smith on Graphic Novels from CBC Magazine.

Author Update: Susan Taylor Brown

Hugging the Rock by Susan Taylor Brown (Tricycle Press, 2006)(PDF excerpt). When Rachel’s mom runs away from home, she’s left to make sense of it with her best friend, the family dog, and her father (“the rock”). This novel in poems is a rare and powerful father-daughter book. It’s also a whole-heart book. You feel your whole heart break and re-knit as you read. It’s that good. Ages 9-up. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

We last spoke to author Susan Taylor Brown after the publication of Oliver’s Must-Do List, illustrated by Mary Sullivan (Boyds Mills, 2005)(author-illustrator interview).

Congratulations on the publication of Hugging the Rock (Tricycle, 2006)! Could you tell readers a little about the book?

When her mom runs away from home, Rachel is left behind with her emotionally distant father, a father her mother tells her is a rock that she can always lean on. In the course of the first year without her mom, Rachel learns the truth about her mom and why she left. But the real truth, the truth that changes Rachel and helps her grow, comes when she learns the truth about her dad.

It is a story I don’t see a lot of in children’s literature, a story that focuses on a positive father/daughter relationship. Some people have told me that it isn’t easy to read because of the emotional content. It might make you cry, but it is also a story of hope.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this story?

I wanted a dad who loved me like Rachel’s dad loved her. I’ve always wanted that.

Instead I had a dad I never knew. All my life I’ve played “what if” and wondered what kind of person he was (is?). The few facts I heard about him while growing up didn’t paint him in the most flattering of pictures. Still, with a stubbornness born in a lack of knowledge, I wanted to know. But I never did, never will, and as a result much of my writing deals with a missing parent (emotionally, physically, or both) even when I try not to.

So part of the inspiration in this book was wondering what a good father/daughter relationship would be like, where the father was the primary caregiver and where the daughter realized how much her father loved her. As long as I have written, I have had secret writings about what might life might be like if I had known my dad.

Another part of the inspiration is the fact that I’m divorced. And I have kids. And I remember all too well the pain of watching them struggle with the divorce and try to come to terms with being part of a broken family.

I’ve never been very good at keeping a journal and I couldn’t really write about my divorce when it happened, but at the time I was working through Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. My morning pages were all about my divorce and the pain I felt, the pain I saw my children having to deal with. For a few years those pages sat unread in an envelope in my file cabinet. I think I had to get to a place in my life where I felt safe enough to write about all the painful things. When I did, when I felt safe enough to reread all the words about my divorce and about my longing for a dad, well the first thing that came out was a poem called “The Stranger.” That poem is still in the book, very close to the original version. At the time I felt that the one poem was all I was supposed to do with that material so I saved it in the notebook (this funky little notebook that was one-of-a-kind and I wrote much of the book in) and turned to a blank page to work on my regular novel, which was how I first envisioned the book.

So the seed for the story comes from my need to know a father I’ll never know.

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

I always love reading other people’s answers to this question but hadn’t realized how much I might have to say when it came to my own book.

In December of 2002, I sent my agent a much shorter version of Hugging the Rock. At that time it had 40 poems. She immediately started to shop it around. I was thrilled when we had some terrific emails from editors as early as January 2003 telling us how much they loved the book. But instead of a quick sale there were many rejections. Some of trouble then was that the verse novel genre was still fairly new and editors were waiting to see how it would unfold. Some editors wondered if the genre would be around to stay and some felt the market had been hit too much too soon with verse novels, some of which perhaps shouldn’t have been published as such.

In June of 2003, Tricycle Press wrote and asked if the book was still available. It was, and at the end of October Tricycle wrote again and said that they had some comments for me about the manuscript and would get back to us. That time stretched out a lot longer than any of us would have liked. In February of 2004 I attended my local NORCA SCBWI conference. My editor, Nicole Geiger, was a speaker there and gave me the manuscript back in person. It was lovely to be able to rush back to my room and read all her notes and then have some time to talk to her, one-on-one, at the conference.

Patricia Lee Gauch was another speaker at that conference and spoke to us about going out on limb, risking all, and Nicole told me I had gone out there, but not far enough. I needed to risk showing more. I went home energized and ready to revise but by the end of March I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. In an email to a friend I wrote that the characters were flat, I didn’t care why they did what they did and that the entire plot smelled worse than the stinky stuff in-between an ogre’s toes. I was not having a good time.

To make matters more confusing, in May 2004 we moved, which we all know creates havoc before, during, and for a long time after. And I was working hard to meet a deadline for my book Robert Smalls Sails to Freedom (Millbrook, 2006). That book was under contract and took priority for the time being. In June I ended up changing agents which set me back some more in time waiting for the new agent gave me her feedback on yet more revisions before she would send it out. Rather than give a month-by-month, I’ll say that in January 2005 I mailed a revised version of the book to my new agent. She started shopping it around in April and in May, Tricycle Press made an offer that was finalized in July 2005. The book will be released in the fall of 2006.

One comment about the title of the book. Hugging the Rock was the original title I had on the very first manuscript. When Nicole gave it back to me she encouraged me to think hard about changing the title to something else. She didn’t think it worked. Of all the revisions I did, that was the hardest but I did change it and I liked the new title. I would have been happy to see it published with that title. Yet when she made the offer on the book she also asked if I would consider going back to the original title which she now felt was the perfect one for the book. I agreed and have to admit I’m glad that my first title is the published one. Also the finished book jumped from the initial 40 poems to 77.

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

Oh the pain. The pain of going so deep in order to write the really tough stuff. I’m a mom and to have to write the scenes where Rachel was so desperate for her mother’s love and to have her mother deny her, well they ripped my heart out. I would work on the book with tears streaming down my face. Even now, there are a couple of poems I can’t read without choking up. I’m also a daughter who grew up without a dad so I have no experience with a father/daughter relationship except as it relates to my daughter and her father. In this book I gave myself the father I wish I had had while growing up.

And I fought with the plot a lot. I had people doing things that I couldn’t back up with good reasons for doing them. I wrote the book first from pure emotion and then had to go back and find a way to weave in a plot and character motivation for the mom and the dad. Rachel I knew. I had felt that pain but it was difficult to find the right balance in the parents. In various versions I had them each so unlikable that the story didn’t work at all.

It was a huge challenge to be willing to go as deep as I did with this book, to revisit a lot of painful memories in my own past so that I could bring that emotion to the book. It would have been easier to skim the surface but then, of course, the book wouldn’t be as strong.

Why did you decide to tell your story in poems?

The short answer is that I couldn’t tell it any other way, and believe me, I tried. The poems were really only going to be an exercise, not the book. I was struggling to find Rachel’s voice. No matter what I tried she just wouldn’t talk to me. I knew sort of what the story was going to be about but without the voice, I had nothing. I was also working a lot of extra hours on the day job so my small amount of free time was even smaller.

Janet Wong suggested that I play with poems to see if they would help unlock the voice, the advantage being that poems were short and would fit into the bits of time I had available for writing. Once I started with poems Rachel’s voice came to me loud and clear. To be honest, I was afraid to think about doing the book with poems. But the more I wrote the more I realized that it was the best vehicle for telling Rachel’s story.

What should writers keep in mind when crafting a novel in poems?

I can’t speak to all writers but I can share what I had to keep in mind, that I was still telling a story. Each poem had to be strong on its own but they all had to build upon one another to make a story. It was easy for me to drift off and want to write pretty words that had no place in the story. But they didn’t move the action forward and they didn’t build the story arc or character development. Less is more and the right word, the absolutely right word, is even more important when writing in verse.

Are there other novels in poems for young readers that you especially recommend? If so, could you tell us which ones and a bit about why you love them?

My two all-time favorites are the YA Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy by Sonya Sones (HarperCollins, 1999)(excerpt) and the middle grade Loose Threads by Lorie Ann Grover (Margaret K. McElderry, 2002).

I can tell you why I love them in two words: emotional honesty. Stop Pretending is based on the author’s experiences when her sister had a nervous breakdown and Loose Threads is based on the author’s experiences when her grandmother got breast cancer.

Both authors tell are brave enough to go to the edge and tell their stories with stark emotional honestly. I believe that free verse lends itself well to cutting to the very heart of the story and allowing the reader to feel the same depth of emotions that the authors had to have felt while writing them. But I also believe that the power of those emotions came from tapping into events that had such a strong impact on their own lives. The blood we bring to our stories to give them life is our own.

For those who want to explore verse novels, I have a list of more on my blog.

I’ve heard of Tricycle Press, but I’m not that familiar with them. Could you tell us about the house and your experience as one of its authors?

Tricycle Press is an independent publisher located in Berkeley, California. They are the children’s offshoot of Ten Speed Press. The majority of their list is picture books though they do some middle grade literary fiction as well. They don’t publish young adult.

I have had the time of my life working with Tricycle Press. It’s been hard work but for a common goal of publishing a beautiful book we can all be proud of and that makes it fun. I’ve been very involved in the entire process each step of the way which has been educational as well as making me really feel like a part of the Tricycle family. Nicole Geiger told me Tricycle had a reputation of being heavy-handed when it came to editing. I think we did three full edits AFTER the big revision I did without a contract. Then two more times through on the galleys. We debated words many times and when we finally made a decision on which would was the
right word we both felt like it was the right decision. She refused to accept anything less than the best FROM me and FOR the book. And she’s a brilliant brainstormer. When I was stumped on how to do what she wanted me to do we would talk it back and forth and it almost always unlocked what I needed to move on. I have never felt more like a writer than I have while working on this book and much of that has to do with the terrific editing I received from Nicole.

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

Read. Write. Repeat. I know that sounds trite and simplistic but it’s the truth. The answer might be easy but the execution, now there’s the tough part. Sometimes people just getting started think that because they can remember being a kid, they don’t have to read today’s kids books. And nothing could be farther from the truth. If you want to write picture books, read, as Anastasia Suen recommends, 100 picture books. If you are writing for the middle grades, read tons and tons of middle grade books before you start your own. It sounds obvious but I have met a lot of beginning writers that couldn’t name five current books they had read in their chosen genre.

How about those building a career?

All of the above plus act like a professional long before you are published, right from the start. The children’s publishing world is a small one. People move around all the time. Writers become editors and editors become agents and you never know who you will meet that will help you grow.

You have a wonderful resource-oriented website. Could you tell prospective visitors what’s to be found there?

Thank you. The teaching guides database is a searchable your link to many teaching and reading guides connecting your classroom curriculum with children’s books. New entries are being added all the time.

There are a lot of writing exercises and prompts, including my favorite, Story Parts, which generates a character, plot and setting to help you get started. Story Parts is terrific to use in the classroom. For fun try to match the childhood picture of a children’s author with their current picture in the author’s matchgame.

You’re one of the many author bloggers. What can readers expect from your blog? What purpose does it fill in your writing life?

I try hard to make my blog only about my writing life. It’s a way for me to give a glimpse into how I create as well as keep readers up-to-date on my latest news. I blog on LiveJournal because I really enjoy being able to connect easily (via the friends feature) with other writers and readers. Writing is such a solitary occupation. It’s fun to take a break and go read other author blogs, sometimes to follow their progress and sometimes to just say hello. It’s a virtual water-cooler for me because I can blog a question I have about something and get nearly instant feedback. It also helps in building a network and just getting my name out there. I started blogging with an idea to be able to have a record of my literary life. I’ve never been good at keep a paper journal or diary with any regularity. Blogging seems to be working better for me.

I’d like to look back at my blog in five years, ten years, and be able to watch books unfold from ideas to finish project and remember what I was thinking and how I felt through it all.

What blogs do you read?

Oh gosh… I read so many for different reasons. Some of my regular ones are, for starters, yours. Also:

Book Blogs: A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy; Bec’s Book Blog; Boot Moot; Fuse Number 8; Professor Nana; Swarm of Beasts.

Children’s Writers: Cecil Castellucci (author interview); Cynthia Lord (author interview); Don Tate (illustrator interview)(click here, too); Janni Lee Simner; Jo Knowles – Monday Morning warmups; Kelly Fineman; Kerry Madden (author interview); Lara M. Zeises (author interview); Lisa Yee (author interview); Sarah Darer Littman; Sara Zarr; Tracie Vaughn Zimmer.

What can your fans expect next?

A few years ago I had the opportunity, through a grant from the Arts Council Silicon Valley, to spend a year working on writing with at-risk students at an alternative school in downtown San Jose. It was a wonderfully, gut-wrenching time in my life and I am trying to capture that experience in a new middle grade verse novel about a girl who wants to break free of negative family patterns.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Oh dear, is there ever a time that I’m not writing? I mean, driving back and forth to work, I’m writing. Washing dishes and pulling weeds, I’m writing. My free time is fairly limited because of my full time job. A day off for me is puttering in my native plants garden or trekking over the hill with my husband to Santa Cruz to visit the bookstores then sit at The Crepe Place, sipping chai and reading in their garden.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I would like to invite readers to subscribe to my free monthly newsletter Susan Writes. Right now I’m running a contest for subscribers to win a galley copy of Hugging the Rock.

Cynsational Notes

See also the Review of the Day on Hugging the Rock from A Fuse #8 Production.

Author Update: Gail Carson Levine

Gail Carson Levine on Gail Carson Levine: “I was born and grew up in New York City. I was a child in the 1950s, not very long after World War II. My neighborhood in northern Manhattan, Washington Heights, was a haven for refugees from Hitler, and German was spoken on the streets as often as English.

“The city was a wonderful place to be a kid. Every July 4th, my friends and I would walk to middle of the George Washington Bridge and watch the Macy’s fireworks over the Hudson River. On weekends we might walk a mile uptown to the Cloisters, a medieval museum. Other times we’d walk a mile south to two other museums. When I was eleven, I was allowed to travel on the subways on my own, and then New York City was my oyster! In the winter, friends and I would ice skate in Central Park. In the summer, we’d picnic and swim at the beach two hours away by subway–for thirty cents each way!

“For hobbies, I wrote stories and acted and painted, and I read everything I could get my hands on. My allowance usually went for library fines! I shared a room with my sister, and books were my haven. There’s still nothing as private as a book!

“In college I majored in Philosophy, which is not not not a good major for a future writer. My sentences on college papers stretched out for yards! After college I went to work for New York State government and stayed with that for twenty-seven years. Most of my jobs had to do with welfare. I loved the years I spent helping people find jobs.

“In 1987 I started writing for kids, but all my manuscripts, mostly picture books, were rejected. It took me nine years to get published, which sounds horrible. In fact, those years were some of my happiest. I was learning to write. I was meeting other writers. I was making friends. And then Ella Enchanted (HarperCollins, 1997) was accepted, and I was on my way.”

We last spoke in December 2000 shortly after the publication of The Wish (HarperCollins, 2000)(excerpt) and just before the release of Two Princesses of Bamarre (HarperCollins, 2001)(excerpt), and you were kind enough of to fill us in on those wonderful books. Before we focus on your latest release, perhaps you could update us on those titles that came between. Let’s start with your debut picture book, Betsy Who Cried Wolf, illustrated by Scott Nash (HarperCollins, 2002)! What first inspired you to tell this story?

Betsy Who Cried Wolf was one of those much-rejected manuscripts from the years before Ella Enchanted. I wrote it because I wasn’t happy with the fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. The Boy is too immature for the responsibility he’s given. He demonstrates that by crying wolf, twice. If the farmers who give him the job allow him to keep it, then they have to come whenever he cries for help. Instead, they abandon him, and I think they deserve to lose their sheep.

I may also have written the story because I couldn’t resist having a character feed shepherd’s pie to a wolf!

When I first wrote the story, Betsy’s baker mom comes to her rescue. My editor felt that Betsy should solve her problem herself. As I revised I had an epiphany, and now the story may really be about the domestication of the dog!

What do you think Scott Nash’s illustrations brought to the text?

The first and most important thing they accomplish is to make the wolf not scary. Scott’s Zimmo with his woolen muffler is too adorable to be terrifying.

When I first saw sketches, I wasn’t sure about putting the animals up on two legs, but now I love it. And I love the comic-book style, with the word balloons that gave me more opportunities to make jokes. The dialogue on the introductory end pages and the morals on the final end pages weren’t in the original manuscript. Scott gave me the chance to write those.

My favorite illustration is the one of Zimmo howling above Bray Valley. Scott makes Bray look a bit like Brewster where I live. I love the illustration so much that the original is now hanging at the top of our staircase at home.

As an acclaimed novelist, did you feel quickly comfortable with picture-book writing? Why or why not?

Thank you for the acclamation! Alas, I don’t get many picture book ideas. I have a couple bouncing around my brain right now, which I haven’t had time to work on, but I hope I will. My writing and my ideas tend to skew older. I could never write a board book or a very young picture book.

Last year, you published a book with Disney Press, Fairy Dust and the Quest for Egg, illustrated by David Christiana (Disney, 2005). How did this book evolve? Are you a long-time Peter Pan fan?

Peter Pan, the novel by James M. Barrie, might have been my favorite book when I was little and not so little. I read it over and over for years. I also adored the play. When I was six, my parents took me to see the Broadway production in which Mary Martin played Peter. It may have been the highpoint of my childhood. I was in love with Peter. I wanted to marry him. I wanted to fly and stay a child forever (while also wanting to grow up as fast as possible!). I thought Wendy was an idiot for returning home. I wanted to get into Never Land and change things around. With Fairy Dust I got my chance to get in, although I didn’t tamper with the outcome for Wendy.

You know, I’ve written lots of kinds of fairies. In Ella Enchanted, they look just like people, except they have tiny feet. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre they’re whorls of light. In The Princess Tales they’re seven feet tall. In Fairy Dust they’re five inches tall. I had to keep the scale in mind every minute. I kept a fairy-sized bottle of hair goop on my desk, and I compared everything with the bottle as I wrote!

Most fairy tales are about humans, often royalty. The fairy, who has limitless power, comes in to wave her wand and help the people. Fairy Dust is about the fairies, and so I had to restrict their magic. If they could just wave their wands to solve their problems, there would be no story. Never fairies don’t even have wands. They can fly and they glow and they have fairy dust. But they can be killed. Hawks kill them sometimes. Human disbelief can kill them. Never land itself can be threatened. In Fairy Dust the threat that sets the story in motion is a hurricane.

Your Newbery Honor novel Ella Enchanted (HarperCollins, 1997) was made into a film in 2004. Many authors dream of landing “a movie deal.” What was the experience like for you?

The terms of a “movie deal” are set up in the option contract at a point when the likelihood of a movie actually being made is remote. My option contract gave me “consulting rights,” which meant that the producers had to show me the scripts. I got to comment, and they could ignore whatever I said. When I saw the script I wasn’t happy about the addition of an evil uncle and a talking snake. Those comments were ignored. However, they did listen to some of my remarks about dialogue and the handling of Ella’s curse of obedience. So I didn’t feel entirely cut out of the process.

When the film went into production, Miramax flew my husband and me to Ireland so we could observe the first three days of shooting, which were fascinating. The parking lot was packed with cars. Dozens and dozens of people employed because I’d written a book! Some of them spent all three days waiting for the five minutes when they might be needed! For example, there was a mime who coached Anne Hathaway on how her body should respond to the curse. I thought that was a wonderful idea. Still, she was needed only intermittently.

Then, when the movie came out, Miramax toured me across the country and into Canada to promote it, which also promoted the book. The movie brought tons of readers to my book.

And I got to go to the premiere and walk on the red carpet. I appear in the extra stuff for the movie–but don’t blink or you’ll miss me!

I like the movie. Anne Hathaway is the perfect Ella. However, the movie and book are so different they need to be regarded as separate entities and each enjoyed on its own terms. I would be glad to see any of my books turned into movies. Are you reading this, producers of the world?

I’m especially thrilled to talk to you about your latest novel, Fairest (HarperCollins, 2006). I loved it, and I think it’s your best book yet! For those who’ve yet to read the story, could you tell us a bit about it?

I’m so very glad you loved it. Not many people have seen it yet, and yours is one of the first responses.

Fairest takes place in the world of Ella Enchanted, not in Kyrria where Ella lives, but in the neighboring kingdom of Ayortha. I’ve given Ella’s friend Areida an adopted older sister Aza, who’s the main character. Areida is a minor character. Lucinda, the nutty fairy in Ella, doesn’t appear directly, but her thoughtlessness underpins the story, which is, loosely, Snow White.

Aza is abandoned at the Featherbed Inn when she’s only a month old. The innkeeper and his wife keep her, although she’s an unappealing baby and grows into a homely child. However, she has a fabulous voice, and Ayortha is a kingdom of singers. What’s more she learns to throw her voice with a skill that far surpasses anything our real-life ventriloquists can do. This ability gets her involved with the queen and a scheme to deceive the entire court, including the witty and appealing Prince Ijori. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are beauty spells and potions and a dangerous magic mirror.

What drew you to this retelling?

There’s such jealousy and anger in the fairy tale, Snow White. It’s explosive! The queen’s feelings are unacceptable, and yet we all have them. We all experience jealousy and rage, and I don’t think there’s any such thing as mild fury or tepid jealousy. There’s power in these emotions and maybe even more power in the energy we use to bottle them up. I’ve thought about the fairy tale for years and was afraid to touch it, but it wouldn’t leave me alone. I even wrote an adult (unpublished) short-story version.

The Grimms’ grim ending didn’t bother me as a kid, but as a grown-up, I hate that the queen dances herself to death in those red-hot slippers. She’s killed for feelings everyone has. Of course she also attempted murder several times, but never mind, I don’t want her treated that harshly. So I’ve made some changes.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way? What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Fairest was the hardest book I’ve ever written, and it took about four years, with eight months off in the middle to write Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. I couldn’t find the right point of view (POV) to tell Fairest from. Snow White is comatose while major events take place, so I thought I couldn’t tell it in her voice. I started by telling it in the first person of a gnome. (Gnomes stand in for dwarves in my version.) I thought the gnome would love Aza with a doomed love. It would be all Cyrano de Bergerac-ish, the love story of the century. That didn’t work.

So I tried it from the POV of Prince Ijori, which didn’t work either. I turned to third-person omniscient, and that was a complete mess, much too complicated.

When I say I tried it one way and then another I don’t mean that I wrote eight pages, cleverly realized my mistake, and stopped. No. In each case it took me about 300 pages to realize I was going the wrong way. The tip off for me was boredom. I wrote slower and slower. This is usually how I know when my story is in trouble.

But I don’t give up, mostly because I can’t stand to have wasted years or months of writing. In this case, I finally figured out what’s going on during Aza’s coma, and I was able to tell the story in her voice.

Most of my book research involved looking at fashion-history books. Aza’s atrocious ensembles are descriptions of real outfits. I didn’t stick to any particular time period, just romped through the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century.

My non-book research was singing lessons with an opera star! I’ve never been able to carry a tune reliably, and I’ve always been embarrassed about it, so I approached this with a lot of apprehension, could barely sing above a whisper at my first lesson. But Janet Hopkins was the best and most encouraging teacher in the world. I learned that I’m not tone deaf. I have little talent, but I can match notes and can sing a song with the support of a piano and a sympathetic teacher. I also learned about breathing for singing and general singing stuff.

This novel resonated so much with me on the various ideas of beauty–inner, outer, and where they can lead us. Globally speaking, when you hear the word “fairest,” what does it mean to you?

As I’ve grown older I rarely like photos of myself any more. Brightly lit mirrors can make me unhappy. I’m aware of the stupidity of this, and I battle with it. As a teenager I wasn’t happy with the way I looked either. I was overweight, and my hair was too thin. I think I may have liked my looks for approximately two years of my life, not consecutively!

I usually write about the issues that trouble me. In Ella the issue was being too compliant. In Two Princesses it was being a worry wart. In The Wish it was wanting too much for people to like me. In Dave at Night (HarperCollins, 1999) it was losing my parents. In Fairest it’s beauty. I wish I could say I resolve the problems I raise. I don’t, but I grapple with them and make myself aware of what’s bubbling within.

Of course I’m not alone in my focus on appearance. Many people are beauty crazy. Looking good is everywhere. In preparing to write Fairest I read a memoir (for adults) called Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy (Harper Perennial, 2003). The author had bone cancer in her jaw as a child, and much of her jaw had to be taken out. She had reconstructive surgery repeatedly, but the surgeries were never entirely successful, and she had to deal with looking deformed. The book is heartbreaking.

To me, “fairest” means prettiest, as in, “Who is fairest of them all?” “Fair” also means pale, and in fairy tales very white skin is often a sign of beauty. And I just noticed the “fair” in the word “fairy,” and one of the definitions for fairy in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a small graceful woman or child.”

When you decide to retell or reinvent a classic story, how do you go about it? What are the considerations, the questions you ask yourself? What are the challenges particular to this kind of writing?

I tell myself that the story can go where it needs to. It doesn’t have to stick with the traditional tale. The Two Princesses of Bamarre began as a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but I couldn’t figure that fairy tale out, and gradually the book found a different story. Still, I keep the original in mind.

My books are more plot-and-idea directed than character directed. I don’t follow a character and see where she’ll take me. Instead, I find characters who’ll go willingly in the direction of the story. For example, when I retold The Princess and the Pea as The Princess Test (HarperCollins, 1999) I was looking for someone who might have a shot at feeling a pea under a million mattresses. I came up with Lorelei, who isn’t a princess at all. She’s a blacksmith’s daughter, but she’s very sensitive, and she’s allergic to everything.

Each fairy tale is different and each calls forth a different approach. When I reread Snow White I was struck by the description of her: white as snow, red as blood, black as ebony. She’s supposed to be beautiful, but that didn’t sound beautiful to me. Then I started wondering, suppose she’s unattractive. What happens to the story then?

When I reread fairy tales I look for leaps of logic and gaps in the story. Using The Princess and the Pea as an example again, what kind of crazy idea is it to think that a true princess can feel a pea under mattresses. She’ll be a queen some day and have life-and-death power over her subjects–because of a pea?

In Sleeping Beauty, the prince falls in love with the princess when he knows only three things about her: she’s pretty, she’s a princess, and she doesn’t snore. In Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep (HarperCollins, 1999) I give the prince a real reason to kiss Sonora even though, after 100 years, she’s covered with spider webs!

How have you grown and changed as a writer since I last interviewed you in 2000?

That’s a hard one! Sometimes I think I haven’t grown at all! I get into stupid trouble with almost every book. But at least now I know to expect trouble and to have a little faith that I’ll work it out.

I’ve learned some of my faults. I overwrite. I make matters too complicated. I miss the most obvious things. But most of all I’ve learned that each book is different from the one before, and I have to find a new way to solve it. I expect it to be difficult. I expect to have to inch along sometimes.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

For beginning writers who are adults, join the Society of Children’s Book Writers (SCBWI), the friendliest, most helpful organization for when you’re getting started (and later on too!). Take classes. Join critique groups, if you like to share your work. Read about writing. Read the kinds of books you’re writing. Don’t send your work out until it’s as good as you can possibly make it, with the help of teachers and writing buddies. But then do send it out. And don’t give up!

For kids who are writing, make your characters suffer! If you’re getting bored with a story, make something terrible happen to your main character. And read my other book that’s coming out at the same time as Fairest. It’s called Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly (HarperCollins, 2006), and it’s for kids about writing. It’s full of exercises that will make you reach for your pen or your computer.

How about those building a body of work?

I write what I want to write. Most of my work is fantasy, but I have a picture book and a historical novel, and The Wish is a fantasy but in a contemporary setting. Now I’m coming out with a nonfiction book (Writing Magic).

The truth is, however, that thus far the fantasies have sold best, because they’re what I’m known for, so there may be a downside to switching genres. Your editor (or editors) and your agent, if you have one, would be great people to discuss your body of work with. Still, I think you should write what interests you. The body that results may be disjointed or double jointed. So what?

And how about fantasy writers in particular?

Don’t worry about going into old territory. Your dragon will be different from everyone else’s. You’re different from everyone else, so what you write will be too. Having said that, I would stay away from schools for magicians!

As a reader, what are your favorite recent titles for children and/or teens and why?

Alas, I don’t have much time for reading. I’m hopelessly behind on new books. But I do have one recommendation. I loved Eve Tal‘s Double Crossing (Cinco Puntos Press, 2005). I guess it sits on the cusp between middle grade and YA. It’s an immigrant story with folklore woven through the text, and each tale is perfectly apropos. The book is gripping, the time period (early 1900s) comes alive, and the characters are enormously sympathetic.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m working on a fantasy set in ancient times. I’ve been reading about Mesopotamia, but I’m not tying myself to historical accuracy, and the place names are invented. At this moment I’m on page forty-nine. I think it’s going to be at upper end of YA, a new age group for me. Of course everything could change. I never know what I’m doing until I’ve finished a first draft.

Oh! I almost forgot the sequel to Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. It’s called Never Land and the Quest for the Wand, and it will be out from Disney in the fall of ’07. There’s a lot of mermaid action, and bats figure prominently in the story. Did you know that bats are very polite and logical?

What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?

Walk Baxter, the Airedale. Play with Baxter. Spend time with my husband, David. See friends. Go to museums. Doodle. Work out. I lift weights. I’m very strong. I can bench press over fifty pounds, and I weigh only about ninety!

Cynsational Notes

Read an Interview with Gail Carson Levine from December 2000 and another interview with her from HarperCollins.

SCBWI Golden Kite Awards Break New Ground

Source: Raab Associates

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has just announced that The Golden Kite Awards, given annually to recognize excellence in children’s literature, will, beginning with the 2006 competition, grant cash prizes of $2,500 to author and illustrator winners in four categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Picture Book Text, and Picture Book Illustration.

SCBWI’s Board has also made the unprecedented decision to recognize the work of editors and art directors who play pivotal roles in shaping the Golden Kite-winning books. Editors of winning books will receive $1,000, and for the winning book in the Picture Book Illustration category, an additional $1,000 will be given to the book’s art director. Authors and illustrators will also receive an expense-paid trip to Los Angeles to attend the award ceremony at the Golden Kite Luncheon at SCBWI’s Summer Conference in August.

“Editors and art directors are a vital force in the creation of quality books for children, but are not recognized by other award committees. We wanted to honor their commitment to quality literature,” said SCBWI President Stephen Mooser.

“It’s critical for the public to know about the best books for children,” added Mooser. To that end, SCBWI will produce a half hour film featuring the four winning books and their creators. The film, which will include interviews with winning authors and illustrators, will be distributed on DVD to 1,000 outlets for promotion, including chain bookstores, independent bookstores, reviewers, and television, radio and print media. SCBWI will also work with publishers to see that Golden Kite recipient books are promoted across all media.

“It is our priority to see that the Golden Kite Awards become nationally recognized, so that they will eventually translate into increased book sales,” commented SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver. “We hope that making this promotional film available on a wide basis will assist publishers and booksellers in bringing the Golden Kite books to the attention of the public.”

In addition to the four Golden Kite Award winners, four honor book recipients will also be named by the panel of judges which consists of children’s book writers and illustrators. Instituted in 1972, the Golden Kite Awards are the only children’s literary award judged by a jury of peers. More than 1,000 books are entered each year. Eligible books must be written or illustrated by SCBWI members, and submitted either by publishers or individuals. Submission guidelines for the 2006 awards are available at

2006 Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards Announced

Winners of the 2006 Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards have been announced by the Jane Addams Peace Association.

Delivering Justice: W. W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights by Jim Haskins, illustrated by Benny Andrews (Candlewick, 2005)(excerpt) is the winner in the Books for Younger Children category. Mr. Law, a mail carrier by trade and a courageous activist by conviction, catalyzed and led his community in the peaceful integration of all public facilities in Savannah, Georgia in the 1940s and well beyond. Haskins traces Law’s impressive progress in succinct chapters, each accompanied by expressive oil-and-collage illustrations by Andrews.

Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX, the Law that Changed the Future of Girls in America by Karen Blumenthal (Atheneum, 2005)(excerpt) is the winner in the Books for Older Children category. Replete with photos, comic strips, and progress “score cards,” the book provides exciting moment-by-moment political coverage of the 1971 bill that ensures equal education for girls. The book is splendidly executed in design and documentation.

Poems to Dream Together/Poemas Para Soñar Juntos by Francisco X. Alarcón, illustrated by Paula Barragán (Lee & Low, 2005)(excerpt), has been named an honor book in the Books for Younger Children category. In nineteen short and heartfelt poems in Spanish and English, Alarcón encourages and inspires us to dream alone and to work and dream together, as families and communities, in order to make our hopes for a better world come true. The stylized paintings of Paula Barragán colorfully extend and interpret the theme.

Two books have won honors in the Books for Older Children category, each written as a prose poem: The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter (Groundwood, 2005) and Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell (Dutton, 2005).

The Crazy Man intertwines the emotional lives of an injured girl, a dazed mother, a runaway father, and a mental patient. Spare free-verse narration of twelve-year-old Emaline tells a story in which everyone is challenged to change in this 1960’s Saskatchewan community. Porter touchingly captures both the wide, lonely prairies and the closed minds central to the tension in this book.

Sweetgrass Basket is told in the alternating voices of two young Mohawk sisters. Each describes leaving her beloved home to be schooled in the notorious Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded in 1879. Devoted to each other and their father, but opposite in personality and outlook, the sisters experience their virtual imprisonment differently: Mattie, rashly defiant, and Sarah, fearfully obedient until it’s too late to act.

Since 1953, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award annually acknowledges books published in the U.S. during the previous year. Books chosen effectively address themes or topics that promote peace, justice, world community, and/or equality of the sexes and all races. The books also must meet conventional standards of literary and artistic excellence.

Members of the 2005 Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards Committee are Donna Barkman, Chair (Ossining, New York), Eliza T. Dresang (Tallahassee, Florida), Susan C. Griffith (Mt. Pleasant, Michigan), Margaret Jensen (Madison, Wisconsin), Jo Montie (Minneapolis, MN), Suzanne Martell (Harwich, Massachusetts), Sarah Park (Long Beach, California) Deborah Taylor (Baltimore, Maryland), Pat Wiser (Sewanee, Tennessee) and Lorrie Wright (Juneau, Alaska). Regional reading and discussion groups participated with many of the committee members throughout the jury’s evaluation and selection process.

The 2006 Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards will be presented Friday, October 20th in New York City. Details about the award event and about securing winner and honor book seals are available from the Jane Addams Peace Association. Contact JAPA Executive Director Linda B. Belle, 777 United Nations Plaza, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10017-3521; by phone 212.682.8830; and by e-mail

For additional information about the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards and a complete list of books honored since 1953, see For a March 2005 article about the awards, see

Founded in 1948, JAPA is the educational arm of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). In addition to sponsoring the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards and many other educational projects, JAPA houses the U.N. office of WILPF in New York City and owns the Jane Addams House in Philadelphia where the U.S. section of WILPF is located. Organized on April 28th in 1915, WILPF is celebrating its 91st year. For information, visit

Cynsational News & Links

Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror 2005 from VOYA (PDF file). Highlights include: Rebel Angels by Libba Bray (Delacorte, 2005)(author interview)(excerpt); The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima (Hyperion, 2005); The Old Country by Mordecai Gerstein (Roaring Brook, 2005); Double Identity by Margaret Peterson Haddix (Simon & Schuster, 2005)(excerpt); Princess Academy by Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury, 2005); and The Book of Mordred by Vivian Vande Velde (Houghton Mifflin, 2005)(author interview)(excerpt).

How to Squash Jack by Wendy Altona from the Institute of Children’s Literature. Thoughts on dealing with “the demon of self-doubt.”

10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing from Whatever.