Cover Art for Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith

“Full of unexpected, delicious delights that kept me guessing and turning the pages, Tantalize creates a froth of excitement, danger, suspense, and wit.

“This original book tantalizes the senses indeed, as it explores the border between attraction and disgust, and makes us question our perceptions. Who are you–predator or prey?”

— Annette Curtis Klause, author of Blood and Chocolate, The Silver Kiss, and Freaks: Alive on the Inside!

My thanks to Annette for her enthusiastic blurb!

I’m also thrilled to show off my final cover art for my upcoming YA Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick Press, March 2007).

I love its vulnerability, romance, and lush sensuality as well as the shadow treatment and font signaling to gothic fantasy readers that this one is for them.

Cynsational Notes

LJ readers may also see this link at Blogger to view the Tantalize cover. Spookycyn readers got a sneak peek yesterday; read their comments.

See the cover art for Santa Knows, co-authored by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, September 2006).

Cynsational News & Links

“Chewie and I watched the fireworks explode
over Burnham’s Apple Orchard.
They all glittered a moment, lingering, and then faded,
one after another, like the smoky trails of fallen snakes.”
–from Rain Is Not My Indian Name
by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2001)

Happy Independence Day weekend to my U.S. readers!

Related titles include Looking For Uncle Louie On The Fourth Of July by Kathy Whitehead, illustrated by Pablo Torrecilla (Boyds Mills Press, 2005)(recommendation).

“Best in Show” by Leda Schubert (author interview) from The Horn Book. “How is a Westminster Kennel Club judge like the Caldecott committee?”

Speaking of pooches, books in my review stack include Puppies, Puppies Everywhere by Cat Urbigkit (Boyds Mills, 2006), a poetic pre-K title illustrated with incredibly cute photos. Despite her name, the author lives on a Wyoming ranch with a flock of sheep and its guard dogs.

Celebrating 60 Strong Women from Mary E. Pearson’s Journal. I’m so incredibly suprised and honored to have been included on this list. See a recent Cynsations interview with Mary.

Congratulations to J. Patrick Lewis, author of Once Upon a Tomb: Gravely Humorous Verse, illustrated by Simon Bartram (Candlewick, 2006)(inside spread). Read a recent Cynsations interview with J. Patrick Lewis. From the catalog copy: “Peek inside Once Upon a Tomb and find twenty-two poems, each of which tells, in hilarious verse, the story of an untimely demise–from a school principal to a bully, a food critic to a cafeteria lady, an underwear salesman to a soccer player. Complemented by Simon Bartram’s deadpan illustrations, J. Patrick Lewis’s cryptic tour of headstones and epitaphs is silly, spooky–and far from grave. Clever puns and elaborately detailed, surreal artwork illuminate a collection of comically grim verses that can’t help but tickle the funny bone.”

Congratulations to Ed Young, illustrator of Tiger of the Snows: Tenzing Norgay: The boy whose dream was Everest by Robert Burleigh (Atheneum, 2006)(excerpt). Read a recent Cynsations interview with Ed Young. From the catalog copy: “Growing up at the foot of Mount Everest, a Sherpa boy named Tenzing Norgay dreamed about one day being the first to climb the giant in his backyard. But his dream never seemed possible until he met Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand beekeeper…”

King Dork by Frank Portman (Delacorte, 2006): a recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith from GregLSBlog.

The Sand in the Oyster: “The Lit of Chick Lit” by Patty Campbell from The Horn Book.

What Happened to Cass McBride? by Gail Giles

What Happened to Cass McBride? by Gail Giles (Little Brown, 2006). Kyle blames pretty and popular Cass for the suicide of his brother and decides to punish her by burying her alive. Thus begins a conversation–a mind game played both ways–where the stakes are death and life, blame and innocence. A riveting, unrelenting, compulsive read. Ages 14-up.

I’ve previously interviewed Gail about Shattering Glass (Roaring Brook, 2002), Dead Girls Don’t Write Letters (Roaring Brook, 2003), and recently, she updated us on her latest work.

At the time, she said of What Happened to Cass McBride? “It’s psychological suspense and a head game. I think it’s also a real look at what makes us a person and learning to accept that we act on our insecurities. But it should scare the socks off you while you’re thinking deep. At least I’m hoping so.”

As to her inspiration, Gail went on to explain, “Now, there’s nothing about snow in the book, but my last winter in Anchorage, Alaska, was a record year of snow. Over 18 feet. I’d look out the window and see snow over my head. I felt buried alive, claustrophobic. It all started there. That–and something said offhand that had stopped my writing for months before–made me think about the power of words, how we harm each other with words. How withholding words can do harm just as easily. About manipulation by using another person’s insecurities against him. All of that began rolling around and made its way into a character who started her story.”

I read the novel in my 1920s Arts-and-Crafts home with ten-foot ceilings and a flowing floor plan and, with the turn of each page, felt like the walls were closing in on me. For years, I’ve heard Gail refer to this story, shorthand, as “girl in a box” and, as I sank into the novel, I felt like I was that girl.

Recs for Healthy Reading: lights on, chilled water bottle, large room, high ceilings, comfy mattress or cushions, pillow, massage gloves.

Recs for Masochistic Reading: unfinished closet, dehydration, flashlight. Where’s your shrink’s phone number?

Cynsational Notes

How I Wrote What Happened to Cass McBride? by Gail Giles. See also Gail’s LJ. Learn more about Texas Children’s & YA Authors & Illustrators.

Cynsational News & Links

My husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, and I would like to thank the Texas State Reading Association for its hospitality last Friday. Greg gave a keynote address at a dinner that night, and Barnes & Nobel Westlake sponsored a quite successful signing. Thanks also to the Writers’ League of Texas for inviting us to do a breakout session, “The Kid in You: Writing for Children and Young Adults” at the 2006 Agents & Editors Conference last Saturday. Highlights of the event included a Q&A panel featuring authors Kathi Appelt (author interview), Chris Barton, and Anne Bustard (author interview), which was moderated by author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell (author interview). Read my full report on these events at Spookycyn. See Chris Barton’s take from Bartography.

In other news…

American Indians in Children’s Literature: a new blog from Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo). See A Sampling of Recommended Children’s and Young Adult Literature about American Indians. Thanks to Debbie for featuring three of my books, Jingle Dancer (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), and Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002) on the list as well as an anthology, Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today (HarperCollins, 2005) edited by Lori Marie Carlson, which includes my short story, “A Real Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate.”

Congratulations to Anne Bustard, author of Buddy: The Story of Buddy Holly, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Simon & Schuster, 2005)(author interview), which was named to the the IRA list of notable books for “Primary Nonfiction” award (only seven “notable” books were chosen for that section).

Talking Books: official site of Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein. Cheryl offers a series of articles, including: “The Essentials of Plot;” “The Rules of Engagement: Part One: The Rules;” “The Rules of Engagement: Part Two: How to Disengage a Reader in Ten Easy Steps;” “Finding the Perfect Publisher for Your Manuscript;” “Submissions Guidelines and What I’m Looking For.” See also Cheryl’s blog, Brooklyn Arden.

Create-Relate: News from the Children’s Book Biz by Anastasia Suen (author interview) is back online.

“Cricket Books and the Other Bug Magazines: Connecting for the Sale” with editor Deborah Vetter, editor of Cricket, Cicada, and Cricket Books: a chatlog from the Institute of Children’s Literature. June 23, 2006.

“The High School Experience” by Colleen Mondor from Bookslut. Highlights Open Ice by Pat Hughes (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, 2005), Nothing But the Truth and a Few White Lies by Justina Chen Headley (Little Brown, 2005)(author interview)(excerpt), Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)(excerpt), Chicks with Sticks by Elizabeth Lenhard (Dutton, 2005), Nailed by Patrick Jones (Walker, 2006)(blog), and King Dork by Frank Portman (Delacorte, 2006).

Editor Alvina Ling: an interview by Paul Maniaci from the Career Cookbook: Inspiring Career Paths. Alvina is an editor at Little, Brown. June 24, 2006.

“Icing the Cake: Writing Stories in Rhythm and Rhyme” by Dori Chaconas (author interview).

Author Feature: Sharon Darrow

Sharon Darrow is the author of Old Thunder and Miss Raney, illustrated by Kathryn Brown (A Melanie Kroupa Book/D-K Ink, 2000); Through the Tempests Dark and Wild: A Story of Mary Shelley, Creator of Frankenstein, illustrated by Angela Barrett (Candlewick, 2003)(excerpt), and a young adult novel, The Painters of Lexieville (Candlewick, 2003). Her poetry has also been included in Lee Bennett Hopkins’s anthology, Home to Me: Poems Across America, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn.

Old Thunder and Miss Raney was a finalist in the Western Writers of America‘s 2000 Spur Awards’ Storyteller category and was featured in the Kentucky Derby Museum’s exhibit “Picturing Horses.” The Painters of Lexieville was winner of the 2005 Oklahoma Book Award (YA division).

Sharon is the incoming faculty chair of the Vermont College M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She also has taught in the English department at Columbia College in Chicago. She received her M.F.A. in Writing (Fiction and Poetry) from Vermont College in 1996.

She looks forward to the release of her second YA novel, Trash (Candlewick, 2006).

I’m a huge fan of your picture book Old Thunder and Miss Raney, illustrated by Kathryn Brown (DK Ink, 2000). In fact, I’m just sure your protagonist is somehow related to my Cassidy Rain Berghoff from Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001). What was your initial inspiration for this book?

Thank you; I’m glad you like it. I’m pretty sure those two young women are related, too. What set me off on that story was hearing the beginning of a story my Great-Aunt Thelma told after church on Sunday while dinner was being prepared on the farm in Oklahoma near where I was born. My rowdy cousins and I couldn’t go outside and play because of the weather and she tried to keep us from jumping on the bed in the back bedroom by saying, “Kids, did I ever tell you about the time my horse and buggy and I got picked up by a tornado and blown all the way to town?” Before she could finish, we were called to the table, then my family had to leave and I never heard the end of the tale.

What was the timeline from spark to publication?

Ha—that was sometime in the late 1950s and the book was published in 2000.

What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

You might say that first I had to decide to become a writer, which took the most time, and then I had to begin trying out various ways of telling the story after eventually making up the middle and the end. I thought for a long time that I had to have children in the story, but that never worked. Miss Raney, it turns out, is childlike enough to carry it on her own–and it is her story, after all.

You followed up this charming, light-hearted tale with a sophisticated picture book biography, Through The Tempests Dark and Wild: A Story of Mary Shelley, Creator of Frankenstein, illustrated by Angel Barrett (Candlewick, 2003). How did Mary Shelley begin speaking to you?

Oddly enough, in a dream. I dreamed about an old library where I found a book authored by Mary Wollstonecraft. At the time I didn’t know who she was and woke up thinking the name Mary Shelley. After doing some research, I learned that Mary Shelley was Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter and my interest grew from there.

Why did you decide to bring her story to young readers?

She wrote Frankenstein when she was only eighteen! I was interested in her for my own writing and reading life, but I also wanted to share what I had learned about her with the young writers out there in hopes that they wouldn’t have to take as many years “deciding” to become writers as I did. Besides, it was so intriguing to see how the events of her own early life led to the writing of such a groundbreaking book, certainly the sort of book society wouldn’t have expected from a woman of any age in those days.

What advice do you have for those writing picture book biographies?

Discover how the subject’s life intersects with yours, how her story is somehow also your story, and tell that story.

In 2003, Candlewick also published your first young adult novel, The Painters of Lexieville. How would you describe the novel to readers?

It’s a story of a family told through the points of view of Truly the mother, Jobe the son, and Pert, the daughter who wants to move beyond their life of poverty and dependence on welfare to a life of her own making. Obstacles to her goal are mean or passive relatives, oppressive religion, death, and rattlesnakes.

What did you learn over the course of working on this manuscript?

First of all, that I was a writer. And that being a writer means being patient with yourself while you discover the story through revision.

What about it sang to you?

The characters, some of whom were very like a father-and-son team of painters I encountered when I worked the summer after my senior year in high school as a receptionist in an Arkansas county welfare office. The main character, Pert, well, she arrived in a dream nearly twenty years later. I knew I had a story when I could see her in a wooded setting and when she started talking. I loved her voice and felt the need to try to capture it on paper.

I have a tendency to think of you as a Southern writer. Is this on mark? How would you describe yourself in this regard?

I think so. When I began writing, I lived in Texas and thought of myself as a Texas writer because I’d lived there most of my life (we left Oklahoma when I was three). I read the works of all the Texas writers I could get my hands on, and then I kept reading and tried to read as many Southern writers as I could.

Can you tell us about your upcoming YA novel?

The title is Trash (Candlewick, 2006) and its main characters are teenaged Boy and Sissy Lexie who appear in The Painters as very young children, Raynell’s youngest siblings.

If so, could you give us some insights into how this book(s) came to be?

Trash was a challenge I posed to myself as a poet. I decided to try to write a long narrative made up of one page poems whose styles would somehow mirror the emotional journey of the character, Sissy Lexie, as she and Boy run away from Arkansas in search of Raynell and in search of a means and a place for their art. I ended up having a few longer poems, but I stuck to the plan until it didn’t work well for the story. What a lot of fun it was!

In July 2006, you begin a term as faculty chair of the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Could you tell us about your path to this position?

I studied in the [adult] writing program at Vermont College just prior to the beginning of the new program in children’s and young adult writing. I came to that program as a graduate assistant and new writer. I’d been working on Painters and on poetry in my program and had already begun to work with an editor on Old Thunder and Miss Raney so when an opening came along on the faculty, I was fortunate enough to be given a chance to teach. I’d been teaching at the College of DuPage and had begun to teach at Columbia College Chicago as well. Now, after nine years on the faculty and after a brief stint as the interim director this past winter, I’ll begin this new adventure this summer.

Why should writers consider getting an MFA degree?

For me, it solidified my desire to be a writer into dedication to my craft. It gave me so much in knowledge, but even more in confidence and determination. What I see happening with our students, too, is inspiring. Many arrive with that same yearning and emerge with a set of skills for their writing lives and some pretty darn good books on the way to publication. In a way, I think it can be a bit of a shortcut to the working writer’s life for the new writer and for the already established writer, a broadening of their horizons in both writing and teaching. With the MFA degree, one can teach on the college level, something that I have enjoyed a great deal.

What about teaching calls to you?

I love seeing students enter the classroom or the lecture hall with all their different attitudes and hopes or fears, and then emerge being more themselves than ever. I like facilitating the self-making process and I believe writing is a fast path to the growth of self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-actualization.

How do you feel that it informs your own writing?

As I watch the writing process work in individuals, I learn more about it for myself. I’m inspired by the writers around me, by their persistence and by the need we all seem to have to do this work.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Get together with other writers, share your work and your writing questions and discoveries, and be open to criticism. Allow the revision process time to work and don’t give up (or if you do, like I did at least three times, don’t be afraid to begin again).

Is there anything you would like to add?

The books aren’t the only products of the writing life. We also gain life skills and friendships. We learn new things about the world all the time, we get to travel both in reality and in imagination, and we get the chance to do what we’ve dreamed because it’s what we were meant to do. What joy!

Cynsational Notes

Meet the Pros: Sharon Darrow from SCBWI France.

Picturing Horses: Original Art from Children’s Literature: An annotated list of books with art in the exhibit from the Kentucky Derby Museum.

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to Chris Barton, author of The Day-Glo Brothers (Charlesbridge, 2008), on the one-year anniversary of Bartography, a stand-out source for non-fiction children’s book reviews.

Don’t miss the audio production of Gentle’s Holler by Kerry Madden (Recorded Books, 2006)(author interview). SLJ raves, “The performance of narrator Kate Forbes is flawless. She beautifully interprets Livy’s voice and the delivery is as gentle and warm as a summer breeze. Move over, John-Boy Walton—the author has plans for two more books set in Maggie Valley.”

Thank you to Cynsations LJ syndication reader Jo Whittemore (author interview) for cheering the photos of my youngest kitties on my website. Read Jo’s LJ.

Writers looking for a craft-based online class may be interested in The YA Novelist’s Toolbox: An Alternative Approach, taught by Laurie Faria Stolarz (the Blue is for Nightmares series (Llewellyn, 2003-) and Lara M. Zeises (Contents Under Pressure (Laurel Leaf, 2005))(author interview). Despite the course name, the topics that will be covered–writing from the five senses, crafting authentic dialogue, and choosing purposeful point of view, among others–are suitable for beginner and intermediate novelists writing for any age group. The class begins on Wednesday, July 5th, with the first online chat scheduled for the following Wednesday, and will run for six weeks. Students will not be required to critique each other’s work, but will receive in depth critiques from the instructors. For more information, e-mail Laurie (lstolarz (at) msn (dot) com) or Lara (zeisgeist (at) aol (dot) com).

More links for your weekend reading… provides a large selection of Chinese-language books and DVDs for children, 0 to 12 years of age. All products are carefully selected to help parents to educate their children in Chinese language as well as to share their cultural heritage.

Anishinabe-Ojibwe-Chippewa: Culture of an Indian Nation from EDSITEMENT: an educational resource site of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Note: my site is a featured link; two of my books, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000) and Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) feature Anishinabe characters.

Author-Illustrator Mark G. Mitchell: debut site from the creator of such books as Raising La Belle (Eakin, 2002), Seeing Stars: McDonald Observatory, Its Science and Astronomers (Eakin, 2002)(second edition), and The Mustang Professor: The Story of J. Frank Dobie (Eakin, 1993). Features include biography, bibliography, events information, and portfolio. Read a Cynsations interview with Mark.

“The Care and Feeding of Press Releases” by Ami Hendrickson from Absolute Write. Focus includes purpose and preparation, what to include, and target media.

Gadfly in the Ointment: a new LiveJournal from David Lubar (author interview).

“Interview with Linda Sue Park” by Aline Pereira from PaperTigers. See “Life With a Hyphen: Reading and Writing as a Korean-American” by Linda Sue Park from PaperTigers. See also a recent Cynsations interview with Linda Sue.

Kansas Center for the Book from the State Library of Kansas. The KCFB, in conjunction with other state agencies and organizations, will host the Kansas Book Festival–Celebrating Books, Art and Kansas Heritage Sept. 29 to 30, 2006.

“What Name is That?! Names and Identity in Children’s books” by Aline Pereira from PaperTigers. See also PaperTigers new book review section.

“Writing Bugaboos and Hobgoblins – What Are They and Why Should I Be Afraid?” by Jan Fields from The Institute of Children’s Literature. Highlights: passive voice; adverbs; and telling.

More personally, my husband Greg at GregLSBlog writes about his recent novel research trip, and on Spookycyn, I’m talking lately about my power ring and South Texas.

Author Feature: Dianne Ochiltree

Dianne Ochiltree is the author of several picture books that feature her winnng read-aloud rhymes, including Sixteen Runaway Pumpkins (McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, 2004)(excerpt) and Ten Monkey Jamboree (McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, 2001), both illustrated by Anne-Sophie Lanquetin as well as Pillow Pup, illustrated by Mireille d’Allance (McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, 2002)(excerpt). Her latest title is Lull-A-Bye, Little One, illustrated by Hideko Takahashi (Putnam, 2006). She lives in Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania.

Could you tell us a little about your childhood, as it relates to writing? What were your favorite books, and at what point did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

I don’t believe I ever made a conscious decision to be a writer. I was born to be one! I come from a long line of storytellers, a clan of grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles who loved to share stories and jokes whenever they got together. I used to write my own little books, complete with pictures in crayon, and my relatives unfailingly encouraged me to develop my creativity.

Reading was encouraged by my family, too. From the time we were very small, my mother read to us nightly. Some of my favorite books were Good Night, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clemet Hurd (HarperCollins, 1947), classic Mother Goose nursery rhymes, and any of those wonderful Little Golden Books like The Pokey Little Puppy. Much later, when reading bedtime stories to my own children, many of these old favorites became their favorites, too.

How did you transition from writing to getting your work published?

When I decided to switch from my former writing life—as an advertising copywriter—to writing for children about ten years ago, I realized that the most important thing to understand was what I did not know about the field, and to fill in the blanks as quickly as possible.

Therefore, I gave myself a crash course in children’s publishing. I read every book on the craft of writing for children I could lay my hands on, and wrote something every day, knowing that it would be many months before any of these manuscripts would be even close to ready for actual publication.

Taking some college courses in this area helped me develop my craft, too, along with joining a critique group of fellow beginning writers. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and attended every conference I could in those early years, where I learned a great deal from the workshops and had the chance to meet real, live editors.

Reading professional journals, such as Publishers Weekly, helped me learn about the publishing process and the business side of writing for children. Because publishing is such a fast-paced industry, I’m still in the process of educating myself!

Please describe your writing process–do you write at a certain time of day? Do you have a specific location in which you like to write?

I start each day with a cup of coffee and my “free writing” journal, in which I pen three pages of prose without any preparation or any thought of self-editing. This is a lot like an athlete or dancer warming up with stretching exercises—it gets creative juices flowing and helps push away a fear of the blank page.

Happily, I’m able to write in my home office most of the time, with my “co-workers:” namely, our family dog, Stella, and our pet cat, Simon. They provide lots of companionship, amusement…and inspiration!

How do you prepare when writing for children? What are the unique challenges, and is there anything special that you do?

In writing for children, I try to look at things from their point of view. This helps me create a story that kids will understand and respond to…and makes the writing process much more fun for me, too. No matter the topic, the great challenge is to come to everyday experiences in a fresh way, using vivid, specific language to describe it. In writing Lull-A-Bye, Little One [illustrated by Hideko Takahashi (Putnam, 2006)], the typical bedtime routines are conveyed in very toddler-centric ways: for example, bath time isn’t for getting clean, it’s for water-splashing, rubber duck-squeaking, bubbly-beard fun!

A picture book writer’s work needs to be easily read aloud, again and again. It also must give an illustrator lively situations and characters, to provide a springboard for his or her creativity. Since there is rarely the opportunity for communication or collaboration between artist and writer, the words must do the work on their own.

Let’s talk a moment about your backlist books. Could you briefly list your last few titles and tell us just a bit about each one?

My picture book, Sixteen Runaway Pumpkins (McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, 2004)(excerpt) is the only time I’ve ever been assigned the same illustrator for my work. And was I ever thrilled with the results! My main character, Sam, became a spunky girl raccoon, with the help of Anne-Sophie Lanquetin’s talented paintbrush. Anne-Sophie put in lots of extra details for kids to look for in her eye-popping illustrations of Sam’s antics on Gram’s and Gramp’s farm. Her talents were similarly successful in expanding on the monkey antics in my text, on our first project together, Ten Monkey Jamboree (McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, 2001).

It’s hard for me to say what my favorite book of my own is—it’s sort of like saying which child you like best—but I have to say I have a special spot in my heart for Pillow Pup (McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster)(excerpt), which was illustrated by Mireille D’Allance. Her brightly-colored, chalk-and-ink drawings perfectly capture the funny, frenetic energy of a puppy.

But my devotion to this title is probably because it was written about our own family dog, Stella, who regularly played this game with our living room couch pillows. Of course, she’d want to play her game when I was trying to work in my home office, racing in front of my computer desk with the pilfered pillow in order to get me to chase her. I thought I’d never get to finish this story I was trying to write at the time, because of all the puppy interuptions.

Then, one day the light bulb snapped on in my head and I thought: why aren’t I writing down this silly, stubborn puppy of mine’s story? So I did and eventually, it became a picture book. I often tell beginning writers to start with their own daily lives when looking for story ideas, and this is the perfect example of how I was “gifted” with one in my own writing life.

Your latest release is Lull-A-Bye, Little One, illustrated by Hideko Takahashi (Putnam, 2006). What motivated you to write this now, and what did you learn in the process?

Now that our two sons are grown, I realized that my most cherished memories as a mom revolved around that bedtime routine when the boys were very small. I wanted to write a story that would capture both the warm, loving moments and the silly, funny things we shared together night after night.

In writing Lull-A-Bye, Little One, I hoped to create a special book for grownups to share with the little ones in their own lives. I think the big surprise were all the “read-to-me” memories from my own childhood that sprang to mind throughout my writing process. I was reminded that there’s perhaps no better way to say “I love you” to a young child than sharing a quiet moment, and a book, together.

Were you pleased with Hideko Takahashi’s illustrations in Lull-a-bye, Little One (Putnam, 2006)? What did they bring to your text?

I was elated when I saw the illustrations created by Hideko Takahashi for my bedtime book’s text!

She created a cozy, cheerful environment in which the story could unfold, shown most definitely from a toddler’s point of view. Hideko makes great use of unusual points of view on several pages to enliven the scenes.

Her palette strikes a nice balance between the soft, soothing tones of the settings and the bright, cheery hues used to depict this very young child and her parents.

I especially loved the use of the home’s windows to show the gradual setting of the sun and rising of the moon over a peaceful lake scene outside, as the family goes through their nightly bedtime routines.

Hideko’s rendering of facial expressions and body language perfectly captured all the funny, and warm, moments between mom, dad, and their active little one.

Hideko decided early in the illustrative process to depict the family as a multicultural one—the child is Asian, the parents are not—and I think this was a lovely amplification of the words I’d written.

Because the emotional focus of the story rests squarely on the love that all families share with the little ones in their lives, Hideko’s illustrative choice underlines the story’s theme in a subtle, meaningful way.

You’re a rhyming writer, and rhyme is so hard. What advice do you have for writers trying to their hand at it?

I’d advise writers to do their first few drafts of the story in prose, because a common problem with rhyming manuscripts is that they don’t “go anywhere”.

In other words, without that storytelling framework, the finished work will lack the plotline and characterization necessary to make any manuscript successful, whether it’s written in rhyme or not.

As you start to develop your rhymes, pay attention to your rhythm. The more natural you make your sentence structure, the more you will increase the read-aloud ease that a rhyming picture book must have. Establish a pleasing rhythm in your beginning stanza, then work to make all the others match your model. Consistency, along with a lively pace, is the real key to helping a rhyming manuscript sing!

Develop patience and keep the faith as you keep working on the re-writes. Sooner or later, you’ll hit just the right notes. And if it’s any consolation, just remember that most rhyming manuscripts take me between one-to-two years before I even dare send them out to editors.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

This is a question I’m often asked, and my answer is always the same: join the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators right away! There isn’t a better source of information, or encouragement, for anyone interested in writing for children or young adults—and it’s all available for members right on the website. Discussion boards, writing contests and a “critique seekers” service are just the beginning. Your national SCBWI membership also includes your regional chapter dues, which is something we cash-strapped writer types appreciate! The organization’s many national and regional conferences offer beginners the opportunity to learn from guest editors and published authors alike. (But go prepared to get the most out of your day—check out my website,, under the “writing tips” section for my article on how to do this.)

Also, it’s vital to read what’s currently being published for kids and teens before putting pen to paper. The one constant in children’s publishing is change: what was published for, and read by, young readers ten years ago differs dramatically than what you’ll find on bookshelves today. Ask your favorite librarian or bookseller which titles are flying out the door.

By reading what’s current, and popular, you will learn ways to expand your own creative toolbox, to make your writing more meaningful to today’s toddler-to-teen. Then, start drafting a story or two. Have fun! But keep a weekly field trip to the library or bookstore to check out “what’s new” on your calendar.

The truth is, all of us writing for children (no matter how many publishing credits on our resumes) must keep up with current trends in children’s books to keep our own work fresh and marketable. It’s a good habit to develop early in your writing career.

How about those building a career?

There’s only so much writers can do on their own to hone their craft, so I recommend either seeking a critique group or finding a writing course to keep the creative momentum going.

A critique group is made up of fellow children’s writers, that meets on a regular schedule to give editorial feedback on each other’s writing projects, and encouraging everyone reach their creative potential. Just as important, critique groups can be a source of networking, marketing and “otherwise” support—who better to understand the ouch factor of a rejection letter than another writer?

Local SCBWI chapters, community libraries, and nearby colleges are often good places to start inquiring about where you might find a critique group that’s just forming or accepting new members. Another way to keep growing as a writer is to take a class—either online, or in an actual classroom.

As for increasing your knowledge of the business aspect of children’s publishing, I’d recommend subscribing to electronic newsletters, such as Shelf Awareness, Publisher’s Lunch, or PW’s Children’s Bookshelf. It’s important to stay on top of trends, mergers, personnel changes, etc., all of which might affect the ultimate marketability of your work.

How has your own writing grown and changed over the years?

At first, I wrote stories without thought as to just what type of book they might be. The stories were nice, but they didn’t say “picture book” or “early chapter book” upon reading. Then, I began writing children’s book reviews for [Children’s Literature] and my understanding of this subject changed almost overnight!

Because as I read and evaluated a large range of both nonfiction and fiction books, I quickly learned the expected formats. Let’s take picture books for an example: because of the printing process and other practical considerations, this format will always be 28 to 32 pages. I quickly realized that if I wanted to write a picture book manuscript, the story I came up with had to be the right narrative size to fit (along with the illustrations) in that number range of pages. If I wrote something too “big”, it wouldn’t succeed.

(By the way, a writer friend shared a good way to do this with me: make your own homemade book dummy by folding 16 pages of any size in half, and stapling them together. Don’t forget that five of those pages will be what is called “front matter”. Now, do a rough draft of the scenes that make up your story. If you run out of pages, you need to do some editing!)

After years of reviewing books, it’s become second nature to think of my own work, even in the very first-draft stages, as both a story and a finished project. This has helped me tremendously in shaping my various stories, not only in page counts, but in narrative structure.

What new challenges are on the horizon?

My biggest challenge right now is working on longer works of fiction, such as novels. It’s a completely different process from creating picture books—for me, at least.

With picture books, much of the process is sifting through your bulky, early drafts to find the most visual, action-oriented details, and then re-writing numerous times to find just the right word to describe it all.

It’s a process of elimination rather than addition after the first draft to make the pace fit the action, to make the rhythm and rhyme just right for a read-aloud. Writing a novel is a bit daunting because it’s a process of expansion.

Not just words, but the complexity of the plot and characterization. I’d written a short story a few years back for an anthology for teens, titled Don’t Cramp My Style: Stories about “That” Time of the Month (Simon & Schuster, 2004)(excerpt), “The Women’s House,” about a young Lenni-Lenape woman experiencing menstruation for the first time, and this wonderful writing experience made me want to give writing longer fiction for older readers a try.

I continue to balance this new work with my established writing for the young crowd, because I will always love the challenge of creating picture books that will be fun for artists to illustrate and for grownups to read aloud to little ones!

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?

When I’m home, I enjoy walking our dog on the trails in a nearby park, cooking meals with new and different (or as my family might say, “weird”) ingredients, and taking yoga classes. When I’m traveling, I enjoy meeting new people and learning everything about their “corner of the world.” The variety of environments, plant life and animal life on our planet never ceases to amaze me! Wherever I am, of course, I’ve got a book that I’m in the middle of reading.

What can you fans look forward to next?

I usually have about three writing projects going at one time: one in revision, one in the midst of the actual writing process, and one in the research/plotting stages. Right now, I’m doing final revisions to a rhyming picture book about a father and child (and counting), titled “Firefly Night;” writing a young adult suspense novel titled “Drowning Together;” and researching a picture book on dolphins.

Cynsational Notes

“Book/Author Profile: Sixteen Runaway Pumpkins by Dianne Ochiltree” from Lyn Sirota (published in Sprouts magazine, Fall 2004, on New Jersey/SCBWI website). Interview with Sarah Nielsen, Associate Editor of Margaret K. McElderry Books, about the editing process and Dianne about the writing process behind this book.

Interracial Family Themes in Children’s and YA Literature from my website.

Writing Picture Books by Marisa Montes. Includes a sample diagram.

Editor Interview: Stacy Whitman of Mirrorstone Books (an imprint of Wizards of the Coast)

Stacy Whitman is the associate editor for Mirrorstone Books, the new children’s and young adult imprint at Wizards of the Coast. Mirrorstone is seeking to publish fantasy of all sorts, from quest fantasy to dark urban fantasy to alternate world fantasy, magical realism to fairy tales. The imprint also is looking for other types of speculative fiction (such as horror/suspense and science fiction with both boy and girl appeal). The focus will be on older fiction, not picture books.

What made you decide to make children’s book editing your career focus?

It was actually a roundabout process. My first major in college was animal science–I wanted to become a veterinarian for horses. But due to a number of circumstances, I later changed my major to human development and family studies. All this while, I had been working my way through college at textbook typesetting, newspaper reporting, editing phone books, and other publishing-related jobs.

It wasn’t until I took a children’s literature class as an elective in college that it hit me–I could combine my ability as an editor with my love for children’s books, which would suit my talents more than becoming a social worker might. I’d be involved in helping with child development from a perspective that I’d enjoy. From there, it was just the matter of finding the right opportunities.

How did you prepare for this career?

In my last year of college, I took editing courses and an editing internship through the English department, even though I wasn’t an English major. I also joined a student publication, Leading Edge, and read science fiction and fantasy slush, to get fiction experience. Basically, I was willing to do whatever volunteer work or low-paying internships I could get to get experience.

After graduation, I worked as an editor for a trade magazine and joined SCBWI Illinois [Chicago area], writing a little of my own YA novel on the side for fun, while preparing for graduate school. I got a master’s in children’s literature from Simmons College in Boston to help round out my knowledge of the field, as well as to network in the field and figure out how to get a job.

While at Simmons, I also temped at Houghton Mifflin in the school division, and that led to getting a full time job editing social studies textbooks. My last year of grad school, I was an intern at the Horn Book Magazine and Guide for a semester, then worked at a bookseller the next semester. All that experience, along with my graduate studies, made the difference in helping me become a well-rounded candidate for the job I was eventually offered.

What do you see as the job(s) of the editor in the publishing process?

My job is to help the author mold their book into the best book it can be. I aid both storytelling and wordsmithing–reeling the reader in with a great plot and fully developed characters, and refining the prose that story is told in. From finding new talent to helping established authors promote their work, I’m there for the whole process as a guide and a mentor at times, and at times a cajoler.

Books are such a strange business. To write is to share one’s deep inner thoughts, which is a very emotional process, but the book is a product that must sell for a publisher to stay in business. I’m the liaison between those competing ideas.

What attracts you to speculative and/or fantasy fiction? What is its enduring appeal for children and teens?

I’m going to answer both of these at once, because I think it’s the same answer. For me, fantasy tells stories in a way that realism can’t. It’s both a metaphor and an escape. When I was a teen, the last thing I wanted to read about was real life–I had enough of that going on around me. While I love realism in many ways and think it has its place in the literary world, I was the kind of teen who needed something different.

For me, it’s the possibilities. The idea that it would be so cool to be able to fly, or to have some mutant power, or to be able to move things with your mind–I thought they were fascinating when I was young, and I still do. There’s a deeper level to it, as well-the challenges that characters in a fantasy novel face can also be metaphorically interpreted to parallel anything that the reader is facing, and often gives hope.

How does a new fantasy imprint stand out in a Harry Potter world?

We’re still relatively new to the children’s books world, but we have a wealth of experience behind us. Wizards of the Coast has been publishing bestselling fantasy books for an adult audience for over twenty years. We know fantasy like no other.

Beyond the description above, could you be more specific about what you are looking for? What is your vision for the list?

We’re still quite new, and we’re still evolving. We have a chapter book magical time travel series coming out this fall called Time Spies by Candice Ransom (Mirrorstone, 2006)[Book 1 is titled Secret of the Tower], which we’re very excited about, and next year we launch our first historical dark fantasy series for older teens beginning with In the Serpent’s Coils by Tiffany Trent (Mirrorstone, 2007). So we’re looking to serve a breadth of readership from 6 on up, and to do that, we’re looking for sharp new ideas that knock our socks off.

As many have noted about fantasy in the adult genre, a lot of fantasy tends to tread the same ground. We’re looking for innovative new worlds, inventive magic systems, and characters our readers will care about. For example, I’m particularly fond of fairy tale retellings, but there have been so many in the last decade or so that I’d like to see an entirely new take on the subgenre, or a tale that no one has retold before. These things can be done in all the different subgenres of fantasy.

The books you currently see on the shelves with the Mirrorstone imprint (Star Sisterz, Knights of the Silver Dragon, Dragonlance: The New Adventures) are series books, which are just the beginning of our program (more on series books below). Now we’re acquiring shorter series and standalone novels in addition to those longer series.

Will you be publishing original hardcover fiction and/or original paperbacks? Will the work be more literary or mass market?

All our books to date have been paperbacks. We’ve heard from many librarians and booksellers that kids prefer paperback because it costs less and it’s less heavy to lug around than a hardcover. That doesn’t mean we don’t intend our books to be literary, however. I’ve heard from many readers that they’re surprised at how good the Dragonlance: The New Adventures or Star Sisterz books are, because they expected a series paperback to be pretty bad. We want to tell good stories that kids will enjoy, and to do that, the writing must be excellent as well as the story.

We will make a few forays into the hardcover arena, though. Our first hardcover is a special book coming out this fall called A Practical Guide to Dragons by Sindri Suncatcher (Mirrorstone, 2006). Sindri is one of the characters in the Dragonlance: The New Adventures series. As readers will find out in The Wayward Wizard by Jeff Sampson (Mirrorstone, 2006)[Suncatcher Trilogy, Volume 1], Sindri’s magical powers really shouldn’t exist–kender (short people with short attention spans) can’t do magic. The Practical Guide is the result of Sindri’s studies with his mentor, the black-robed wizard Maddoc. It details every dragon in the imaginary world of Krynn, from their eating habits to beautifully illustrated pictures of their lairs to their life cycle.

We also have a short story anthology planned for 2008, to be edited by Steve Berman, a longtime writing friend of Holly Black (author interview). The anthology will showcase some of our existing authors, and bring in stories from authors whose work we admire and want to work with someday.

As far as literary vs. mass market, I’d like to see both on our list. Some books that aren’t considered terribly literary are just the books that will get some kid reading. But as we reach a more sophisticated teen audience, they’ll want to read a good story that’s also a little more lyrical.

Are you interested in series or trilogies? If so, how would an author pitch these to you?

Certainly! Authors can pitch a series or trilogy by sending us the first three chapters and a chapter-by-chapter outline of the first book, and a proposal that outlines where the rest of the series will go. See our submission guidelines.

What are the particular challenges in marketing fantasy for young readers?

Children’s literature is the only genre written by people who aren’t its target audience. A lot of “gatekeeper” adults filter the literature before it reaches a child’s hands-booksellers, teachers, librarians, parents, editors, writers. So our challenge is to help those gatekeepers love our books as much as we love them, to create stories that kids will love even after being recommended by an adult. It’s a disconnect that will always be with us-the way we remember our childhoods probably doesn’t reflect the way a child today lives, so we always have to find a way to appeal to an adult whose memory of childhood doesn’t necessarily match up with a modern child’s experience.

Will most of your manuscripts come directly from writers or from agents?

Right now, most of our manuscripts come from writers, and I like it that way. I like being able to help shape a new author, which is a luxury to many in the industry. But I’m open to pitches from agents, too.

What recommendations do you have to individual writers in the submission process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

The most important thing is to know your genre. If you want to write for children or young adults, know your audience and read the other books out there. I’ve listed a few–just the very beginning–below.

The second most important thing is to read the publisher’s guidelines before you submit. When I first started my job, I had a slush pile of about 100 manuscripts waiting for me. A good 50 of those manuscripts were picture books, which we specifically stated in our guidelines that we don’t publish. Don’t think that you’re an exception, and don’t just send off manuscripts willy-nilly. That’s a good way to annoy an editor from the get-go. Watch out for interviews like this, conferences at which an editor will appear, and listen to what they say they want.

The fact that a potential author is reading this blog is a good start to that education. Going to sites like Harold Underdown‘s The Purple Crayon, talking to your local teen librarian, and getting involved in your local SCBWI chapter are also great ways to get to know the business of children’s books.

I prefer submission letters to be short and to the point. Tell me who you are, perhaps give me a brief summary of your book and your writing credentials, but don’t worry about hooks and gimmicks. If your writing doesn’t speak for itself at this point, wait to submit until you’ve perfected your craft.

What titles would you especially recommend for study to authors interested in working with the house and why?

There are so many!

My short answer is every great fantasy for children and young adults out there.

My long answer is… long. Let me sum up. The answer would depend upon the particular book the person wanted to write.

If someone wants to write for our shared-world Dragonlance: The New Adventures, be sure be familiar with the books in the series (see the full list). Also, it’s important to have read the original Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (Wizards of the Coast, 2000).

If you’re interested in writing for middle grade, look at titles like The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (Simon & Schuster, 1999), Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins, 1997)(author interview), Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer (Hyperion, 2001), or The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley (Simon & Schuster, 1999)(author interview). Oh, and Princess Academy by Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury, 2005). But there are so many good titles out there–when you’ve read those, go on to Robin McKinley and Donna Jo Napoli and Kevin Crossley-Holland and Diana Wynne Jones…and so on.

For YA, I again recommend Robin McKinley–especially The Blue Sword (Ace, 1987) and The Hero and the Crown (Ace, 1987). Tithe and Valient by Holly Black (Simon & Schuster, 2002, 2005), A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray (Delacorte, 2003)(author interview)(excerpt), The Blue Girl by Charles de Lint (Viking, 2004), Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (HarperCollins, 1986), the Abhorsen trilogy by Garth Nix (HarperCollins, 1995, 2001, 2003), Goose Girl by Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury, 2003)… Again, I could go on and on. There are so many great books out there, each one telling a unique story that resonates with their audiences.

The reasons I list these books is because they’re examples of how fantasy is done well. Each author creates fascinating characters and takes those characters on a journey through new and exciting worlds. Perhaps there are otherworldly creatures in the world, perhaps not. Perhaps the story draws upon mythology or fairy tales and puts a modern twist on them. Perhaps it’s an alternate world with its own mythology.

There’s a place for the traditional high fantasy with elves, dwarves, and dragons (we publish some of them and love them!), but I also want to see books that seize upon an idea completely unlike what’s come before–or at least, only resembling it in that it uses motifs or creatures we’ve seen before, but now we see them in a new context, interacting with completely different beings.

I would also suggest potential authors read books like Anita Silvey‘s 100 Best Books for Children (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). Anita is an expert in children’s publishing and her opinion on each of the books will help potential authors see why a former editor loves particular books. Then go ahead and read the ones that sound most like something you want to write.

In what ways do you work with teachers and librarians in support of your titles and their efforts?

One of the things I love about fantasy is that it connects with reluctant readers in a way that much other fiction doesn’t. As a library volunteer tutor, I’ve worked with students who are first learning to read, either because they’re in first grade or because English is a new language to them, or both. I know how important finding the right book for each kid is, because especially at that age, helping kids enjoy reading will help them become lifelong readers.

Series books in particular help newly proficient readers gain proficiency and confidence. There’s a reason why I loved Trixie Belden as a third and fourth grader, and it wasn’t just because the characters were cool and the mysteries always exciting. It was because I could come back to these characters again and again, revisiting their world and daydreaming that I could be a part of it. I liked that Trixie and her friends weren’t static, but that each book allowed them to grow a little older and for their relationships to change over time. All that while, I was building my reading proficiency in a place I felt safe.

To that end, we’ve created Reluctant Reader kits for librarians, teachers, and homeschoolers that contain tools to assist their efforts to help kids love books. The kits contain teachers’ guides, reading lists, bookmarks, a list of online resources for parents and educators, and a guide for starting a book club. We offered them free at ALA last year, and have an updated version that will be available this summer (look for our booth at ALA, or email for more information). Last year’s kits are available in PDF form, but the new kits will also include one copy of each book for
libraries to add to their collections.

How about booksellers?

Our books are distributed through Random House, and they serve as our primary liaison to booksellers. As a new imprint, we are very eager for bookseller feedback and Random House has been a wonderful partner in helping us present our books in a way that will best support the bookselling community. We encourage all of our authors to work with their local booksellers to schedule signings and readings in their communities.

Our senior editor, Nina Hess, and I spend lots of time in our local bookstores talking to booksellers, seeing what’s hot (and what’s not), and what’s missing from the children’s/YA fantasy genre.

What do you do outside your editorial/publishing life?

Seattle is a great city to live in, especially during the summer. Though I would have enjoyed the multiple cultural opportunities and the great public transportation had I found a job in a New York house, I love that Seattle is literally riddled with bike trails, and that I have both the mountains and the beach within minutes’ drive–and the ocean a few hours farther. So I do a lot of biking, I knit, I watch science fiction movies with friends. I go camping a few times every summer, which is another reason I love Seattle. I’ll even be judging a 4-H county fair this summer, which is exciting for me as a former 4-Her. And… I read YA fantasy. No, my job doesn’t wear me. That love of YA fantasy is what made me want the job in the first place!

“Fancy” Wal-Mart: Product Placement in Books for Young Readers

The media and writer listservs/bulletin boards are abuzz with talk of product placement in novels for young readers. Much of the conversations focus on promotional tie-in opportunities versus the ethics of “stealth advertising” to kids. I’ve been mulling over another aspect, and I’m of two opinions on it.

First, I have a roof over my head, an author spouse with a day job, and no children to put through college, so it is not my place to judge a writer who decides to take money for working a brand name into his or her manuscript.

That said, I personally put a lot of thought into which products are mentioned in my books because, in a consumer-driven society, those choices sometimes matter.

Here’s an example from my real life:

I’m at a holiday dinner in a small, lower middle class town, and because I’m law-school educated and live in central Austin (eclectic with many indie businesses), one of the guests teases that I probably never shop at Wal-Mart.

Not wanting to come across as a snob, I defend myself with, “I go to Target!”

“Oh!” she replies. “You mean fancy Wal-Mart.”

A different crowd goes to Wal-Mart than Target. A different character wears Cover Girl than Elizabeth Arden. Setting a scene in Austin at Fonda San Miguel has a different connotation than one at Taco Cabana or even Guero’s Taco Bar.

These are storytelling details, and whatever decision we as writers make in response to a corporate offer, we need to realize that there’s sometimes a literary impact from the brand names we elect to mention.

I’m not saying this is always true. For example, like Steven Spielberg, I’m hard pressed to distinguish the connotation between M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces.

But in any case, it also may be noted that brand references can be overdone. So thanks for listening to Children’s and YA Author Cynthia Leitich Smith, published by Candlewick, Dutton, and HarperCollins, writing from her Toshiba laptop in a Nike sleeveless T and Cuddlebuns long underwear from JCPenney and petting a purring white cat from the Town Lake Animal Shelter. And once you’re done reading this, how about checking out my upcoming books, Santa Knows (Dutton, 2006) and Tantalize (Candlewick 2007)?

Author Feature: Amy Butler Greenfield

Publisher Biography: “Amy Butler Greenfield has a passion for dusty archives, ancient maps, and wild adventures of bygone days. Born in Philadelphia, she grew up in the Adirondacks, and she studied imperial Spain, the ancient Americas, and Renaissance Europe as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford. She now lives with her husband near Boston, where she writes award-winning books about history and adventure for both children and adults.” See Amy’s other author site.

Amy Butler Greenfield on Amy Butler Greenfield: “Although I was born in Philadelphia, I did most of my growing up in the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York State. We lived in a small town where no one locked their doors, and everyone seemed to know my name. My family–my parents, my two brothers, and I–lived in a big old Victorian house heated mostly by woodstove, and we raised chickens in the barns out back. There was always plenty of work to be done, but when I’d finished with stacking wood, weeding the garden, feeding the hens, and any other chores, I had an enormous amount of freedom. In that town, at that time, it was safe for us kids to roam on our own. My friends and I climbed the mountains around us, swam in ice-cold lakes, and skated and skied through the long winter days.

“I also spent many afternoons reading my heart out in our local Carnegie library. In the summer I wrote plays, and my brothers and friends performed them in a theater we rigged up in one of the barns. I also wrote stories and poems, and I was a passionate diary-keeper. I’ve loved books and writing as long as I can remember.

“But if I had a writer’s imagination, I was also a rather practical soul, and writing didn’t seem like a good career option to me. Stories about starving writers scared me off. I’m quite fond of eating, so I figured I’d better look into careers where paying the grocery bill wouldn’t be such a challenge.

“Eventually I turned to something else I loved–history–and I decided to become a college teacher. But a few months after I started my Ph.D. dissertation, I suddenly became very ill with an autoimmune disease called lupus. For a while I was so ill that wasn’t clear whether I would survive, or whether I’d have much of a life if I did.

“I guess serious illness often leads people to revelation. At any rate, that’s what happened to me. When I got the diagnosis, I realized, to my surprise, that I had no real regrets about not having finished the dissertation. But what cut me to the quick was that I had never tried to write the kinds of books I truly loved–the novels and sweeping histories that I adored.

“My heart doesn’t always speak so clearly, but when it does I try to listen. Fortunately, I did survive that first terrible flare, and although I continue to struggle with the illness, I feel very lucky that writing is a big part of my life now.”

Could you tell us about your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Very few sprints, and many stumbles!

When I first got serious about writing, I was too ill to use a pen or to type, so my husband taught me how to use voice recognition software. Back then the software was pretty primitive. You had to dictate word by word, and sometimes even letter by letter, using the alpha-bravo alphabet. It amazes me now that I stuck with it–but slowly, one hard word at a time, I began to write my first book.

I wrote two books that way, and eventually I sent them out to a handful of editors and agents. They garnered some interest, but were ultimately rejected. I didn’t realize at the time that some of these counted as “good” rejections, with personal comments, and that I ought to feel encouraged. Instead, I wondered if those rejections were a sign that I should give up. But when it came right down to it, I couldn’t imagine not writing. Soon an idea for a new novel came to me, and I began writing Virginia Bound (Clarion, 2003)(excerpt), which became my first published book. (It’s published under my maiden name, Amy Butler, but the Library of Congress now files it under my full name–a bit of a cataloguing headache.)

You write for young readers and adults. What appeals to you about each audience? What are the challenges inherent in each?

I love writing for curious people of all ages. With young readers (and in the case of Virginia Bound, I’m talking about kids aged 9 to 13), you have the delight of introducing them to a new time and place, often for the very first time, but it can be a challenge to hold their attention. With adults, I have more freedom to follow a fascinating diversion and to write at greater length about an intriguing subject. I also don’t need to stop as often to ask myself whether a particular word or phrase is one that my audience is likely to understand.

That said, I don’t think there is anything quite like having a child become completely wrapped up in the world you created. Books have such a profound impact at that age–you can live, breathe, and dream them. The best ones become part of your character, part of your core, in a way they almost never do once you are grown up.

What was your initial inspiration for writing your latest book, A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire (HarperCollins, 2005)?

Oddly enough I came to it by way of chocolate (which I figure is a pretty good way to come to just about anything). In the 1990s, I was researching the early history of chocolate for a thesis I was doing at Oxford, and I traveled to Seville to investigate some ship registers in the Archive of the Indies, Spain’s immense treasure-house of documents concerning the Spanish-American empire. While I was in Seville, I kept stumbling across evidence of the Renaissance trade in Mexican cochineal, the most potent natural red dye on earth. Gradually I realized that tons of cochineal had crossed the Atlantic and poured into Seville, where the dark red dye was unloaded on the city docks.

I have a visual imagination, and I love color, so this fascinated me. It also amazed me that something so precious could have been forgotten by the modern world. I thought that someday I’d like to write a book about it.

A long while later, during a snowbound New England winter, the idea of that book came back to me. That year we were hit with snowstorm after snowstorm, until it felt as though the whole world had turned white. One day in the midst of that colorless season, I found myself staring at the red geraniums on my kitchen windowsill, and I thought, “What if that were it? What if that were all the red we had in the world?” And all at once I started to understand how hungry people could be for a color. I could even imagine why they might risk their lives for it. And that got me thinking about cochineal again.

As soon as the next storm passed, I started digging through research libraries for more details, to see if there might be a story there. And what a story it was! Four centuries of desire, rivalry, and empire, all centered on this potent red dye. Researching the story and finding a way to write it was a wonderful adventure.

Your first book, Virginia Bound (Clarion, 2003), is a historical young adult novel set in London and Virginia in 1627. Could you tell us more about that title?

Virginia Bound is the story of Rob Brackett, a 13-year-old orphan who is kidnapped from London in 1627 and shipped to Virginia, where the Jamestown Colony is hungry for more laborers. Rob is sold as an indentured servant to a harsh master named Holt, who expects him to labor day and night in the tobacco fields. Rob’s only companion is an Indian girl named Mattoume, also kidnapped and also forced to slave for Holt. Together they plot their escape, a desperate plan that puts their fragile friendship-and their lives-in grave danger.

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

When I was studying for my Ph. D. exams in 1994, I ran across a paragraph in an old history book that mentioned how “divers idle yonge people” had been taken off the streets of London and shipped to Virginia as indentured servants in the early 1600s.

I’d never heard of this before, but when I did more research, I discovered that it was true. Hundreds of English orphans, some of them as young as seven years old, were loaded onto ships and sent to Virginia against their will.

When I started writing fiction a few years later, the story still haunted me, and I realized that it would make a good starting point for a novel.

I wrote the first draft of Virginia Bound in 1999, then revised it several times before sending it out. An agent took me on in 2000, and the second editor who saw the manuscript asked me to revise the novel on spec in early 2001. I agreed with most of her suggestions and had some ideas of my own for improvement, so I did a very intense reworking of the book that winter, then sent the manuscript back to her at Clarion Books. She bought the revised version later that year. After that, I did another round of revision (and several passes for copyedits and proofs) before the book came out in 2003.

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

RESEARCH: Early Virginian records are sparse, so we don’t know much about what became of the orphans who were sent there. Were they homesick? Were they scared? What happened to them in Virginia? To imagine what the answers might be, I needed to find out everything I could about seventeenth-century London orphans and early colonial Virginia. I dug through research libraries, searching for court records, letters, explorers’ surveys-anything that would shed light on the time and place I was writing about. I was also lucky enough to have a friend working for Colonial Williamsburg, who sent me archaeological reports and a wonderful map of the James River coastline and settlements as they appeared in the early 1600s.

If colonial records from the period are scarce, sources about the Native history of the region are even harder to find, but I didn’t want to write about colonization without writing about the people whose land was invaded. I was largely housebound at the time, so I couldn’t travel to Virginia myself, but I read everything I could find by Native historians. I also stumbled into some great sources while reading a book by Michael Dorris, which recommended three wonderful books by Helen Rountree. She spent many years researching the history of the Powhatan people, and her books are packed with the kind of details that bring fiction alive.

LITERARY: When I first started writing, my biggest stumbling block was plot. ow does a writer make things happen? It was a mystery to me. Gradually I started to realize that conflict was the key. If the conflict is genuine, and the stakes are high, the plot can start to emerge directly out of the characters and their situation.

But even if you have the makings of a good plot, historical fiction has a tendency to drag. (And I say this as a huge fan of the genre.) The main problem, I find, is that we writers are tempted to pack in too many research details. (Often those details are very hard won, so it’s so hard to let go of them!) In Virginia Bound, I worked very hard to make the research serve the story, rather than the other way around, because I wanted to keep the momentum going. I was surprised and delighted when almost every reviewer praised the book as a page-turner. That was what I was aiming at, but while I was writing I wasn’t sure if I’d hit my mark.

PSYCHOLOGICAL: Writing about colonization is like holding a lightning rod in your hand. My book is set just after the time of Pocahontas, and my main character, Rob, arrives in Virginia at a time when relations between colonists and Native people are steadily deteriorating.

The history of what happened then is so bitter and so contested that there is no way to write about it in a way that satisfies everyone. At the time I was writing, feelings were running especially high, in part because of Disney’s “Pocahontas,” which had hit the screen a few years before. Like many other people, I was outraged that Disney had turned this woman’s powerful and disturbing story into a feel-good romance that had colonization as the happy ending.

In my own book, I wanted to be honest about what had really happened, and to do that I relied on the historical record. Documents from the time, as well as Powhatan historical tradition, clearly reveal both the devastation that colonization wreaked on the Powhatans and the strength and courage with which they resisted. Sources also show that not all colonists regarded the Powhatans as their enemies, and that some colonists, especially indentured servants, formed alliances with them.

What happened in Virginia in the 1620s was a complicated and crucial turning point in our history, and I wanted to illuminate the complexities and hopes and tragedies of the time in a way that young readers could understand. It was a challenging task. (I talk about some of the specific dilemmas on my website, .) Several times I nearly gave up on the book, but something kept calling me back. I felt I needed to try and do justice to Rob and Mattoume, and to the real people who had suffered and triumphed in early Virginia.

LOGISTICAL: I was still very sick when I wrote the early drafts, and I had to dictate most of what I wrote. Only later on, during revision, was I able to do much typing. For a long time, too, I was mostly housebound. Going to the library was both a treat and an enormous and exhausting undertaking. Simply pulling books off the shelf was a painful proposition. I look back and I’m amazed that I wrote the book at all.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Read widely, both to yourself and out loud, and try to figure out why certain stories appeal to you. Take them apart and learn how they work. Write, rewrite, and then rewrite some more. Most importantly, learn to know your own heart, and follow your deepest instincts. That’s where the stories you really need to write will come from, and they’ll be the stories that you, and you alone, can tell.

How about those building a career?

I am still trying to figure this one out myself. I’m very much a believer in doing what you love, and trusting that the money will follow. So far it has, but I know there’s no way to guarantee that it will in the future. I guess that career-wise, what I care about most is doing work that matters to me, work that allows me to share my passions with readers. It’d be wonderful to sell a million copies while I was at it, but that’s out of my control.

Obviously, you do a lot of research for your books. Do you love it or consider it a chore? Do you have any stories of research coups to share? Any tips for fellow researchers?

I adore research. In fact I am a research junkie-the kind of person who will read ten books or talk to ten people just to locate one shy but vital fact. Sometimes the chase is exasperating, but more often it exhilarates me.

My biggest tip would be to get as close to the horse’s mouth as you can. Original documents-diaries, letters, reports-can be a gold mine for fiction and nonfiction writers alike. How do you find them? What works for me to following up on footnotes, looking for books and bibliographies in university libraries and archives, and talking to librarians and other people who are likely to steer me in the right direction.

As a reader, what are your favorite recent children’s/YA books and why?

My favorite middle-grade read of 2006 is Rules by Cynthia Lord (Scholastic, 2006)(author interview), a funny, brave, and deeply poignant book about a girl whose brother has autism. The book tackles some of the toughest questions that life can hand us, and it does this beautifully, with great sensitivity and humor. I love the fact that it doesn’t offer easy answers.

I’m a big fan of Katherine Sturtevant‘s At the Sign of the Star (FSG, 2000), a book about Meg Moore, a bookseller’s daughter in seventeenth-century London who has writerly ambitions, as well as an impossible stepmother. The sequel, A True and Faithful Narrative (FSG, 2006), has just been published. Because it takes place when Meg is sixteen, it’s really a YA book, and it, too, is a delight. All the characters are true to their times, romance is in the air, and over the course of the story Meg discovers the full power of words and of her own writing.

As someone with a passion for seventeenth-century fiction (no doubt owing to my reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond [by Elizabeth George Speare (Laurel Leaf, 1978)(excerpt) at an impressionable age), I’ve also enjoyed Celia Rees‘s books, especially Witch Child (Candlewick, 2001)(excerpt).

Moving into modern times, I was bowled over by Mary E. Pearson‘s A Room on Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005)(author interview)(recommendation). The story is so immediate, every detail so acutely and vividly observed, that by the middle of the first chapter I felt almost as though I had become Zoe, and I couldn’t set the book down till I reached the very last page.

A. M. Jenkins’s newest novel, Beating Heart: A Ghost Story (HarperCollins, 2006)(excerpt), is another story that grabbed me immediately. It’s a ghost story that starts with the voice of the ghost herself, and it builds to a heart-pounding climax. As in all her books, Jenkins works magic with words here.

Nancy Werlin‘s Double Helix (Dial, 2004)(excerpt) was another book that I couldn’t put down, and I’ve just read an early copy of her newest book, The Rules of Survival (Dial, Fall 2006)(excerpt), which hit me even harder. As a young reader, I loved the brooding suspense, gripping plots, and emotional tension I found in Jane Eyre and other gothic novels, and if Werlin’s books had been around when I was a teen I would have loved them for exactly the same reasons. Her plots are intricate and cathartic, featuring strong characters in the grip of strong emotions, and I’ve yet to read one that didn’t at some point move me to tears.

What can your fans look forward to next?

More history and historical fiction, including another book for young readers! I wish I could say more, but I’m one of those writers who needs to keep very quiet about works in progress. Especially in the early stages, I seem to work best and most happily in secret.

Cynsational Notes

A Perfect Red won the PEN/Albrand Award for the best first nonfiction book of 2005. It was also a Washington Post Best Book of 2005 and a History Book Club Editor’s Pick, and it will soon be available in six languages.

A Perfect Red – the history of cochineal by Michael O’Connor from Three Monkeys Online.

Virginia Bound was selected as one of the Best Books of the Year by the Bank Street College of Education and was a finalist for the Julia Ward Howe Prize for best children’s fiction by a New England author.