Cynsational News, Links & Hiatus

Cynsations goes on temporary hiatus as I leave to teach at the summer residency of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Cynsations will return to full strength in August. In the meantime, check in at Spookycyn (LJ syndication), where I’ll be chronicling my New England adventures.

Learn about the summer faculty: Kathi Appelt (author interview); An Na (author interview); Marion Dane Bauer (author interview); David Gifaldi; Margaret Bechard (author interview); Uma Krishnaswami (author interview)(blog); faculty chair Sharon Darrow (author interview); Brent Hartinger (author interview)(blog); Cynthia Leitich Smith (bio, writing life, essays and articles); Jane Kurtz (author interview); Rita Williams-Garcia; Leda Schubert (author interview); Tim Wynne-Jones (author interview); Julie Larios; Jacqueline Woodson; and Deborah Wiles.

Visiting Writer: Katherine Paterson.

Visiting Lecturer: Lynne Vallone, co-associate general editor of The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature.

Cynsational Notes

My apologies for an incorrectly linked URL in Nancy Werlin’s interview yesterday. For more information about her process in writing The Rules of Survial (Dial, 2006)(excerpt), see the related page on her website.

Don’t miss today’s new interview with fantasy writer Laura Williams McCaffrey.

Fabulous Caption Contest from Lisa Yee’s Blog (July 12). Enter to win an autographed copy of Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2005)(author interview).

One Writer’s Process: Cynthia Leitich Smith from Wordswimmer: “Come dive into a sea of words and swim toward a new understanding of the writing process.” In this July 9 interview, Bruce Black and I discuss my process–how I get started, keep going, survive dry spells, face challenges, and embark on new directions–as well as my love of craft.

Author Feature: Laura Williams McCaffrey

Laura Williams McCaffrey on Laura Williams McCaffrey: “I grew up in Vermont. We lived across a field from my grandparents for a while, within walking distance, then moved to a house a bit farther away. My sister, my brother, and I rode bikes up and down our dead-end road. I read a lot. For a long time, my favorite book was D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths (Doubleday, 1962). Two friends and I acted out the myths, a game we called ‘Goddesses.’ I was always Athena, competing with an imaginary Arachne before I, gloating I must admit, turned her into a spider.

“I began attending Stowe schools in the fourth grade, and we moved to Stowe when I was eleven or twelve. As a tween and teen, I held a variety of tourist-town jobs. I scooped Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream before anyone had heard of Ben or Jerry. I served popcorn and drinks–yes, actual alcoholic drinks–at the movie theater. Because of the theater and because my friends almost all worked at a video store, I watched a lot of movies for free. I can still quote more than I care to admit of ‘The Princess Bride,’ ‘Willow,’ and all John Cusack teen flicks. I also read fantasy, historical fiction, and classics. Robin McKinley‘s books amazed me. They had girls, actual girls, fighting with swords, traveling to strange places, wielding magic.

“I went to Barnard College in New York City, where I discovered Margaret Atwood, as well as Sojourner Truth, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mary Wollstonecraft, Nella Larsen, Virginia Woolf, Frances Willard, Jane Addams, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Isabel Allende, and Maya Angelou. I kept endless journals, sometimes writing in them instead of taking notes during lectures. I wandered around the Metropolitan Museum of Art and watched old movies at Theater 80 in St. Mark’s Place.

“While on a visit back to Vermont, I met a rather handsome musician, who’s now my husband and the father of my children. If we hadn’t met and eventually ended up together, I truly might not have become a writer. I wanted to write, but I was frightened and needed the kind of get-off-your-butt-and-get-to-work advice he’s so good at handing out.”

What inspired you to write for young readers?

While in high school and college, I wrote a lot of scenes and character sketches in journals. Most of them featured not-so-happy twenty-something women. They were dreary, and included much introspection and crying in bathrooms.

Then I met someone who was writing a novel for children, and I realized adults wrote books for kids. I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t thought much about the authors who had written books I adored. I thought of Meg Murry, not Madeleine L’Engle. Writing these kinds of stories seemed like, dare I say, fun. It’s a good thing I didn’t know how much work writing them would be, fun work, but work. I might have stayed forever stuck in the crying-in-bathroom stage.

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

Well, first I had to write a novel, which was more difficult than I thought it would be. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d only taken two English classes in college, and they hadn’t been fiction writing classes. I’d never written any stories longer than five pages. It now occurs to me that I have no idea why I thought I could actually write a novel, but I thought I could.

I enrolled in Writing for Children, an overview class that the University of Vermont used to offer. During that class, and afterwards, I wrote from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night after my kids went to bed. Two years and many cast aside words, paragraphs, chapters, beginnings, middles, and endings later, I finished a solid draft of Alia Waking (Clarion, 2003).

I had a couple of contacts but mostly sent into slush piles. I was incredibly lucky. Thanks to Harry Potter, every house was looking for fantasy. My manuscript happened to be picked out of a slush pile by an editor who liked it. She wrote me an editorial letter. I took four months to revise the novel. I sent it back to Clarion, and they made an offer.

While I’d like to focus on your new release, let’s first talk more about your debut novel, Alia Waking (Clarion, 2003). Could you tell us about the story?

Alia Waking is about a girl, Alia, who wants nothing more than to become a keenten, a warrior woman. However, her best friend, Kay, is more adept at fighting than she is. Alia fears that the keentens will ask Kay to join them but won’t ask her. Striving to impress the warrior women, Alia and Kay capture some trespassers near their village, children from an enemy land. As Alia learns more about these children and also feels a strange magic awakening within her, she begins seeing everyone differently–Kay, the warrior women, the enemy children, and especially herself.

Congratulations on the release of Water Shaper (Clarion, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for this story?

Thanks so much.

I started with Margot, the main character. I knew she was an unhappy girl who felt she didn’t belong where she’d grown up. I knew she wanted to find a land where she did belong and she’d rush into a relationship with a boy, thinking he would lead her to that land.

Also, while Alia Waking is an adventure fantasy, its setting is mostly one small wintry village. I wanted to try and write a high fantasy fairy tale that had travel and a bit of political intrigue.

What was it about the selkie mythology that called to you? What, if any, research did you do in writing the novel?

I’ve always loved selkie stories, as well as the related swan maiden folktales. I first saw the movie “The Secret of Roan Inish” when I was in my early twenties and have watched it several times since then. I also encountered Franny Billingsley‘s The Folk Keeper (Atheneum, 1999)(author interview) when I was in my twenties and just falling in love with children’s literature again. The Folk Keeper, though, made me wary of telling a selkie story. I knew I’d have to approach seal tales in a different way than Ms. Billingsley had.

I started searching out folklore collections about seals and oceans. Several books inspired Water Shaper’s fairy tale mood or tone. David Thomson’s The People of the Sea (Washington D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000, rev. ed. c. 1965, 1980. Original copyright, 1954.) is this lovely half-memoir half-folklore collection, which the author wrote after revisiting places he’d lived as a child. It also has an ache to it, an unfulfilled desire for acceptance that I’m sure influenced my writing of Margot.

Also, Duncan Williamson’s collections are very wonderful: The Broonie, Silkies and Fairies, illustrated by Alan B. Herriot (New York: Harmony Books, 1987. Original copyright 1985.), Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children, illustrated by Alan B. Herriot (New York: Harmony Books, 1983.), and Tales of the Sea People: Scottish Folk Tales, illustrated by Chad McCail (Brooklyn: Interlink Books, 1992.).

Why do these stories call to me? I suppose because they depict borderlands–in this case the place where land and ocean meets–which always fascinated me. They are about longing; a man longing for his seal wife to stay and the wife longing to return to her seal family. I’m also interested in people who feel betwixt and between, like the seal maiden who has children on the land and in the sea.

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

The timeline? Forever. Is this an appropriate answer? I once heard someone say writing a novel is like embarking on a marriage. Apparently, I am not a one-or-two-year marriage kind of girl. I took two-and-a-half years to write a solid draft of Water Shaper, then, after my editor gave me comments, I entirely rewrote two major characters and the story’s middle, roughly 150 pages. Which of course meant I had to substantially revise the beginning and ending, too. This re-write took a year.

Then the process zipped right along. Another year-and-a-half of revision, line editing, copy editing, proofreading, etc., and Water Shaper was out in the world.

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

I actually avoided selkie story retellings while writing this book, because I didn’t want to accidentally grab ideas from other writers. I invented, rather than retold, some of the storytellers’ tales in the novel. I wanted to be careful of copyright issues.

I hoped to ensure the novel would be seen as a fairy tale, not a representation of a real historical place. So I read folklore and medieval histories, especially Barbara Tuchman’s social history of fourteenth century Europe, A Distant Mirror (Ballantine Books, 1979), but then put everything aside and just wrote.

Also, I found creating the second narrator’s piece of the book difficult. I’d never written a second narrator before, and he had this really bad habit of giving too much away.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Write. It seems simple advice, but many people who want to write don’t sit down and do it regularly.

How about those building a career?

A lot of writers probably should learn to become more savvy marketers of their work. However, I think to truly build a career, to grow as a writer, you have to strive to make the story you’re currently creating better than the ones you’ve finished.

How about fantasy writers in particular?

Well, my advice is the same. Oh yes, and try leaving the Middle Ages. Read Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (Harcourt, 2003), Philip Pullman‘s The Golden Compass (Knopf, 1996), The Conch Bearer by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Roaring Brook, 2003), Tithe by Holly Black (Simon and Schuster, 2002)(author interview), Jonathan Stroud‘s The Amulet of Samarkand (Miramax, 2003). They might inspire you to write in unusual directions.

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

Excluding books by friends, about which I’m not entirely objective, Feed by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 2002)(author interview) and Jennifer Donnelly‘s A Northern Light (Harcourt, 2003) are my two current favorites. I also love The Schwa Was Here by Neal Schusterman (Dutton, 2004) and Craig Thompson‘s Blankets (Top Shelf Productions, 2004, 2003), although this wasn’t published as a YA book, was it? Still, Blankets is very YA. DiCamillo‘s The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick, 2003) is a fabulous read-aloud. If you don’t have a child to read to, find one. I discovered that reading it to myself truly didn’t provide the same experience.

This list doesn’t have any up-to-the-minute recent favorites, does it? I’m always terribly behind in reading. Also, to really qualify as a favorite, a book has to haunt me long after I’ve finished it.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Read. Watch movies and British import TV. Cook dinner, wash dishes, drive my girls to ballet and gymnastics. On a good day, sleep.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m working on another older MG/YA. Its setting is more contemporary than those of my other books. I wish I could say when I’ll be finished. I am in the middle, otherwise known as the mire, the point at which I’ve lost both shoes in the mud and I’ve misplaced the lantern. The good thing about writing a third book is I’m now a little more confident that I eventually will find solid ground again.

Author Update: Nancy Werlin

Nancy Werlin‘s debut novel, Are You Alone On Purpose? (Houghton Mifflin, 1994)(excerpt), was followed by two suspense thrillers, The Killer’s Cousin (Delacorte, 1998)(excerpt), which won the Edgar Award, and Locked Inside (Delacorte, 2000)(excerpt), which was an Edgar finalist and my favorite of her works. Nancy’s latest titles are Black Mirror (Dial, 2001)(excerpt), Double Helix (Dial, 2004)(excerpt), and The Rules of Survial (Dial, 2006)(excerpt). I last interviewed Nancy in 2001.

First, let’s catch up on Double Helix (Dial, 2004). Could you briefly describe the novel and what drew you to the story?

Double Helix (Dial, 2004) is a suspense thriller set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a hotbed of companies doing work with genetic engineering, as well as a locale I know well. Eli has personal reasons for putting off college and taking a job at Wyatt Transgenics, but he isn’t prepared for what he uncovers there –about the company, and about himself.

I think of the book not only as a thriller, but also as a love story with two dimensions: it asks questions about the nature of romantic love, but also speaks strongly about the love between a father and a son. And of course, I wanted readers to leave the book with questions about genetic engineering and what it might mean in their own lives…soon. Very soon. That was what drew me to writing this particular book. I have questions myself.

For me, it was an unusual writing experience. In previous novels, theme grew for me out of character and plot, but with Double Helix, I began with theme and from that grew plot and character. I would also like to mention that Double Helix is science fiction in that it is fiction about science, but it is not speculative fiction. All the science in the book is current.

Congratulations on your latest, The Rules of Survial (Dial, 2006)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

The Rules of Survival (Dial, 2006) is written in the form of a long letter by Matthew Walsh, 17, looking back over the events of his childhood and early adolescence. From a place of safely, he’s telling the story of their previous life in hell with their mother, Nikki Walsh, to his little sister, Emmy, who does not remember very much.

I made a deliberate decision to have Matthew say up front, in the prologue, that he and his sisters have survived and are doing fine, because I did not want readers to be anxious about that as they read. The horror of the children’s day-to-day life is quite enough by itself. I should add that it is not really a book about physical abuse, though there is a bit of that in the children’s lives. But their mother’s real problem is–well, see what you think.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this story?

I witnessed a disturbing scene in a convenience store back in 2001. I wrote a short story based on what I saw, but the story wouldn’t leave me alone, and eventually I worked on growing it into a novel. You can read the short story and more about its transformation into a novel on my web site.

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

Five years from spark to publication. During the first two of those years, I was working on Double Helix, and I can only work on one novel at a time. Then I started Rules of Survival, but had to put it down for nearly a year at the 1/3 point. I thought I would not finish it. It was too painful to work on. But in the end, I couldn’t leave those kids alone. I had to make them safe. The only way to do that was to finish the novel.

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

My major challenge was psychological, as I’ve mentioned. Writing a book requires me to put myself into the mind and body of my main characters. It was a terrifying place to be. Yes, my characters are imaginary–but I am not naive. There are children and indeed, adults, who are prey to people like Nikki Walsh in their lives. Indeed, I have now heard from many early readers who have told me that they grew up in circumstances like those in the book. It’s not always the mother, of course. More often, frankly, it is the father. And sometimes, for adults, it is a boyfriend, a husband, or a wife.

An alternate title for the book might have been “Prey.”

Fear plays a large role in the novel.

Oh, yes.

I’ve also heard you speak before about writing and fear. Could you talk about your creative relationship with fear and how that same emotion manifests in The Rules of Survival? Is it a coincidence that one of your speaking topics is also a thematic focus? If not, could you share your related thoughts?

No coincidence, as you know. Yes, I do have a long-term relationship with fear. I talk about this a little in an essay that will be published in The Horn Book Magazine in the September/October 2006 issue. I will add here that when I’m writing, I am not thinking about my readers at all. I am thinking about my characters–projecting myself into them as fully as I can. And I am also thinking about the dark places in myself and in my life.

I use my art–the writing of books that are filled with characters trying to cope with fear, injustice, and sometimes outright human evil–as a way to grapple with those same things that I perceive in the world around me. My writing always knows what is going on in the darkest parts of my soul, long before I do. I trust it to do so. And over time and many books, I’ve realized that this is not the burden I first thought. It is a gift.

The Rules of Survival is “told” by your first-person protagonist Matthew to his litle sister Emmy, though he later comes to a realization about that. Why did you select this approach?

My realization that the story should be “told” to Emmy came to me like a revelation during the second revision; it was not part of my initial draft or vision. This is again a topic I deal with in my Horn Book Magazine essay (September/October 2006): this approach was a deliberate artistic choice to draw the reader into the story. If “you,” hearing the story, are not only yourself but are also a five year old girl…a child in danger…that does things to your emotions as reader that cannot be done when you are reading as an outside observer.

Sometimes a writer is lucky. Sometimes an idea comes from out of nowhere while you’re writing, and knocks you down and changes everything for a novel. I call this the “transformational idea.” They occur rarely, in my experience–I have only had it happen once before. This was a transformational idea. All you can do is get down on your knees, thank God, and then get up and get to work.

How has your writing changed over the years?

I believe that each book teaches you how to write it. Each book requires skills that you did not previously possess. Readers of my first novel (Are You Alone on Purpose (Houghton, 1994; reprint forthcoming from Puffin, 2007)) can tell that I was then a poor plotter, for example. Readers of my second novel (The Killer’s Cousin (Delacorte, 1998)) can see that I did not know how to transition in time; I had to label my chapters with the date. I learned about writing action sequences in my third novel (Locked Inside (Delacorte, 2000)). I learned to work with a large cast of characters in Black Mirror (Dial, 2001). These are only small examples.

Think of a writer as being like a carpenter. The writer’s toolbox should grow over the years; her skills should increase. At first she can only build a rough toolshed; by the end of her career, if all goes well, she can build a castle–or a perfectly balanced Shaker cabinet.

I choose projects not only because I long to write the book I’m thinking about, but because each one pushes and challenges me. If there is not a period in the writing of a book where I think, I can’t do it, then I am working on the wrong project.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

What everybody says, and they say it because it is true: read, read, read. And in your own writing, learn to finish projects and then to revise them.

How about those building a career?

I have a lot of thoughts about this one, but I feel an essay coming on! Or a speech. So I will refrain.

Cynsational Notes

Chatlog with Nancy Werlin from the YA Authors Cafe (May 4, 2004).

Cynsational News & Links

CBC Showcase: July/August: Non-fiction Picture Books. Highlights include Ballet of the Elephants by Leda Schubert, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker (Roaring Brook, 2006)(author interview).

Congratulations to author Joseph Bruchac on The Return of Skeleton Man (HarperCollins, 2006), which goes on sale July 25. From the catalog copy: “Molly thought she’d put her traumatic past behind her when she escaped from Skeleton Man last year. She rescued her parents and tried to get her life back to the way it used to be. She thought her family would live happily ever after and just be normal again. She thought wrong. Skeleton Man is back for revenge–but this time Molly is ready. In this long-awaited sequel to the award-winning Skeleton Man (HarperCollins, 2001)(excerpt), Joseph Bruchac revisits his most terrifying villain yet.” Read a Cynsations interview with Joe.

Congratulations also to author Niki Burnham on the release of Do-Over (Simon Pulse, 2006)(excerpt), a sequel to Royally Jacked (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and Spin Control (Simon Pulse, 2004). Read a Cynsations interview with Niki.

deborah_davis: new LJ from the author of Not Like You (Clarion, 2007); You Look Too Young to be a Mom: Teen Mothers Speak Out on Love, Learning, and Success (Perigee/Penguin, 2004); My Brother Has AIDS (Atheneum, 1994); and The Secret of the Seal (Crown, 1989).

Mainstream Protestant Christianity, Catholicism,and Orthodox Christianity: A World Religions Resource List for Teens by Erin Downey Howerton from VOYA (PDF file).

The Mandatory Happy Ending–Discuss by author Rosemary Graham from Not-So-Terrible After All. In response to a recent NY Times review, Rosemary invites YA novelists and YA readers to discuss their expectations and reasoning behind “tidy resolutions.” See the same discussion invitation at Rosemary’s LJ. Read a Cynsations interview with Rosemary.

Patricia M. Newman offers new interviews with authors Gennifer Choldenko, Margie Palatini, Richard Perlmutter, Louis Sachar, Jeff Stone, and Laura Torres.

Marcie R. Rendon: official site of the author of Powwow Summer: A Family Celebrates the Circle of Life (Carolrhoda, 1996) and Farmer’s Market: Families Working Together (Carolrhoda, 2001). Note: I learned of this site at American Indians in Children’s Literature from Debbie Reese.

Smart Writers Journal — July 2006: features include: “A Mermaid’s Tale” by Kelly Milner Halls (author interview); “Writer’s Retreats and Conferences” by Margot Finke (author interview); “Q&A with first-time author Candie Moonshower” and “Hot Summer Reads,” both by Roxyanne Young.

Attorney Interview: Aimée Bissonette on Law and Publishing

Aimée Bissonette is a lawyer, teacher, and writer. She has written extensively for trade publications and conducted training sessions for corporate, educational, and non-profit groups (nationally and internationally) on the topics of copyright, “best practices” for businesses, and contract negotiation. She has negotiated numerous book contracts on behalf of her clients, including children’s book contracts with publishers Clarion, Boyd’s Mill Press, Sleeping Bear Press, and others.

You’re a lawyer and a writer. How do wear each–or both?–of these hats?

Lately, I’ve been a dutiful lawyer and a rather neglectful writer! As is the case with many writers, I suspect, I tend to let my writing take a back seat to my “real” work. Thankfully, I have a number of writing friends who don’t let me get away with this too long.

What sorts of special concerns do writers bring to lawyers?

Writers produce “intellectual property.” Ownership of intellectual property can be a tricky thing. This is especially true when writers contract with others to sell the rights to their work. Much of my work on behalf of writers involves negotiating sales of rights and obtaining reversions of rights.

What should a writer consider in hiring an attorney to represent their interests?

From the standpoint of skills and knowledge, writers should hire lawyers who understand intellectual property and have specific experience with literary rights contracts. Writing guilds and state bar associations often have lists of lawyers who work in these areas. Writer friends can also be a great source of referrals.

Whenever possible, writers should interview lawyers before deciding whether to hire them. Ask about the lawyer’s experience, fees, timetable for completing your work, etc. Get a sense of the lawyer’s style and whether you think you can work together.

Is it ill advised for an author to represent his or her own interests in, say, contract negotiation? Why or why not?

In general, none of us does as well negotiating on our own behalf as we do negotiating on behalf of others. This may be truer for writers because writers are so personally invested in their work. Publishing houses have no problem asking for terms that are favorable to them. So, writers need to assess whether they feel comfortable pushing back and asking for more favorable terms, whether that means the amount of an advance, a greater share of subsidiary rights sales, more complimentary copies of the book–whatever.

The real issue, though, is not whether writers have the gumption to represent their own interests, but rather, do they understand the legal implications of the clauses in their publishing contracts? Do they understand what rights they are selling and when they can recover those rights? Do they understand the obligations they are assuming and their potential financial exposure when they “warrant” their work and agree to “defend and indemnify” their publisher? Can they assess the fairness of the contract’s “out-of-print” clause? Is there a provision for a reversion of rights in the event the publishing house goes bankrupt? There are countless legal issues embedded in publishing contracts that may not be apparent to a non-lawyer.

What do you wish every writer knew about that process?

Writers (even first timers!) need to understand that they have bargaining power and that publishing houses expect them to negotiate contract terms. There is no reason to sign a contract as soon as (and in the exact form) it is presented to you. In fact, it is risky to do so.

What is the difference between working with an attorney and working with an agent who specializes in children’s/YA publishing (with the caveat that some agents have attorneys on call/staff)?

In my mind, lawyers and agents perform different duties.

In the context of contract negotiation, lawyers review contracts, help their clients understand the legal implications of their contracts, negotiate on behalf of their clients, and draft alternative or additional language for inclusion in the contract. Writers pay lawyers directly for these services.

Agents, on the other hand, assist their clients by using their connections in the industry to identify the house or houses likely to purchase their clients’ manuscripts. They use their knowledge of the market to achieve favorable payment terms for their clients. In addition, agents are well positioned in the industry to identify potential buyers of subsidiary rights. Writers pay their agents a commission on all revenues (i.e. advances, royalties, subsidiary rights sales, etc.) for as long as their books earn money.

Although agents often have lawyers on call or on staff, writers need to understand that those lawyers represent the agents. The advice the lawyers give may benefit the writers, but there is no attorney-client relationship formed between these agency lawyers and the writers.

There is much talk right now about plagiarism and copyright infringement. These terms are often used interchangeably. Is that correct? If not, would you explain the difference?

Plagiarism is the false presentation of someone else’s work as your own. It may involve an infringement of someone else’s copyright, but it can also involve work that is not protected by copyright. For example, ideas and concepts cannot be copyrighted, but they can be plagiarized. The way to avoid claims of plagiarism is to give full attribution to others when referencing or incorporating their work.

Copyright law protects “original works of authorship” that are fixed in tangible form. These original works include literary works, musical works, dramatic works, audio works, and motion pictures. If a work is copyrighted, the owner of the copyright has the exclusive right to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work. The owner is also the only person who can create other works based on the copyrighted work (e.g. a screenplay based on a book).

With few exceptions, the way to avoid a claim of copyright infringement is to obtain permission from the copyright owner to use the copyrighted work (it is not enough to just give attribution to the original author–that only saves you from a claim of plagiarism). The copyright owner can put restrictions on your use of the work and can charge you a fee to use the work.

Why is copyright important to writers?

Copyright is a writer’s stock in trade. It is the writer’s “intellectual property.” It provides economic and artistic security to writers by ensuring writers get credit for their work and control the revenues that are generated from their work.

Copyright is also important to us as a society. In exchange for the measure of security it provides to writers, the rest of us get to read and enjoy great articles and books–which is not a bad trade off!

Of late, many writers are expressing concern that they will subconsciously absorb another’s text through their reading and employ it to everyone’s detriment. Is this something to be really worried about? Why or why not?

Most of us are familiar with a certain young author who recently was accused of plagiarism. Her defense to the claim was that, like many writers, she was an avid reader and that books she had read in the past might have influenced her as she wrote her own book, but that any similarity between the material in her book and those books was unintentional. This makes a certain amount of sense, right? It could happen to any of us, couldn’t it?

Except that, as it turned out, this author’s book contained dozens of passages that borrowed heavily from another author’s books. The similarities were striking and numerous. The claim that she had “subconsciously absorbed” another author’s text didn’t seem plausible.

On the other hand, I’ve heard it bantered around the news that perhaps writers have too much legal protection. There seems to be the idea that once someone has written about an idea (say, dragons), it’s no longer available to other fantasy writers. Is that true?

Writers cannot copyright ideas, titles, or even character names (although, in some rare instances, character names can be protected by trademark law), and with good reason. The truly creative work is what the writer produces as a result of the idea or title or character name. That is what is protected by copyright. I think the law does a good job of protecting writers’ creative work, without allowing writers to control too great a portion of the creative field.

What emerging legal issues for writers are on the horizon and/or growing in importance?

The proposed “Orphan Works” legislation is something writers should monitor. Orphan works are copyrighted works whose owners may be impossible to identify and locate. Congress is investigating whether the Copyright Law needs to be amended to make it easier for others to use copyrighted orphan works by relaxing the standards relating to when and whether permission must be sought to use certain works. See, for a detailed report.

How can writers learn about and stay current with these issues?

Many writing organizations like SCBWI, Children’s Literature Network, and the National Writers Union devote resources to covering these issues on behalf of their members. Writing publications like Publishers Weekly do a good job with this, too.

You write a monthly column for the Children’s Literature Network. Could you tell us about that?

The column covers topics of a legal nature, most of which are prompted by questions from CLN members or writers attending my negotiating or copyright workshops. Because CLN has such a diverse membership group, the column may pertain to writers and illustrators one month and K-12 educators the next. My goal is to highlight legal issues for CLN members so members are more aware of their legal rights and duties as they interact with others in the children’s book world.

Could you also briefly describe the CLN for those not yet familiar with it?

Children’s Literature Network (CLN) is a terrific organization for anyone interested in children’s literature, education, and encouraging kids to read. It is a national organization. Its members include writers, illustrators, librarians, educators, editors, publishers, parents and grandparents. In addition to its monthly e-newsletter, the Network News, CLN sponsors conferences and book festivals, provides online book reviews, tracks and reports industry news, and compiles reading lists. Members can access specialized databases, including a grants database and databases of literary agents, editors, and art directors. Check out its many offerings at

Let’s turn now to your writing self. You do web writing and promotional writing. Do you also write stories for young readers? If so, could you tell us a bit about your journey on that front?

I have written non-fiction articles for children and dabbled in poetry (my kids grew up listening to me read Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky–they’ve moved on to Ogden Nash!), but my focus now is fiction.

For the past couple of years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to participate in a writing workshop run by Jane Resh Thomas. The group is full of these amazing writers and we meet for three or four hours at a time, reading, critiquing, rewriting…some nights it’s grueling! I am rewriting a middle grade novel and have a very rough draft of another in the works. Anyway, I’ve come to the conclusion that I still have a lot to learn!

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just that I appreciate the chance to discuss these issues with you and your readers. The more we can do as writers to share information and educate ourselves about the issues that affect our success as writers, the better. Thanks!

Cynsational Notes

See the Cynsations companion interview, Publicist Aimée Bissonette on Winding Oak.

Publicist Interview: Aimée Bissonette of Winding Oak

Winding Oak provides literary services, including web design, marketing/promotional materials, booking services, and literary event planning to children’s authors, illustrators, and publishers. Vicki and Steve Palmquist, both of whom have a wealth of experience in the children’s publishing world, created it.

Aimée Bissonette is a lawyer, teacher, and writer. She graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1987. She created Little Buffalo Law & Consulting with the specific goal of serving authors, illustrators, artists, and small businesses in the areas of contract negotiations, intellectual property, and business “best practices.”

Could you give us a brief history of Winding Oak? Who are the players?

Winding Oak is the brainchild of Vicki and Steve Palmquist. It began in 1988 as a print design firm, but it evolved over time—first into a web design business, and now, a full-fledged provider of literary services. Vicki and Steve have tremendous experience with the children’s publishing world. (Among other things, they run the Children’s Literature Network.) They are terrific “big picture” thinkers and continually are on the lookout for ways to better serve their author and illustrator clients. In addition, they have assembled a knowledgeable group of consultants (among them are published children’s authors, sales and marketing gurus, print shop whizzes, and a chef!), who work incredibly hard booking appearances, updating websites, designing marketing materials, etc.

What was the inspiration for founding the firm?

Vicki and Steve created Winding Oak in direct response to changes they saw in the children’s publishing industry. Historically, publishing houses took the lead in promoting their authors, illustrators, and books. In more recent years, however, much of that responsibility has shifted to the authors and illustrators. Winding Oak helps authors and illustrators with publicity, promotion, and a host of other things, all of which are vital to its clients.

What is the scope of activities?

Do you need help designing a website? Winding Oak can do it. How about help booking school visits or conference appearances? Winding Oak does that, too. In addition, Winding Oak helps clients develop promotional materials, hone presentation skills, create classroom guides, edit manuscripts, and produce video clips for use on websites or interviews. Winding Oak consultants will even answer fan mail in accordance with client instructions!

Clients may choose to use any or all of the Winding Oak services. Given Steve’s and Vicki’s resourcefulness and knowledge of the industry, I suspect this list of services will continue to grow.

Could you describe the client base? Does include authors, illustrators, publishers? Could you list some of the folks you’re working with now?

Winding Oak’s client list includes established authors and illustrators. The best known among them is Kate DiCamillo. Others include authors Marsha Qualey (author interview) and Jane Resh Thomas, and illustrators Kelly Dupre and Karen Ritz. A full client list is available on the Winding Oak website.

Winding Oak also provides services to publishing houses. It works in tandem with publishing houses on behalf of authors and illustrators and performs project work for publishing houses as well.

How do you approach clients when working on web design? Do you also offer maintenance?

Winding Oak offers terrific personalized service when it comes to web design. Clients are consulted throughout the process with regard to layout, copy, fonts, color scheme, etc. The goal is to create a website that reflects the client’s personality and delivers the client’s message, so no two websites are alike. And yes, Winding Oak provides maintenance.

What are the particular challenges in creating author/illustrator websites?

The primary task is to communicate the author’s or illustrator’s personality, giving a feel for the books, through color, design, and ease of navigation, while honoring the author’s or illustrator’s perceptions and tastes.

Winding Oak educates clients about the need for updating, how that can fit into workflow, and what is important to communicate to the site’s audience. That audience can be different for every author or illustrator. It is part of Winding Oak’s job to help authors and illustrators decide how best to appeal to their audiences.

What are common mistakes?

Trying to make a website encyclopedic, all-inclusive, and overly ambitious. A friendly tone works best. People no longer like to scroll on a website, so information should be short and—Vicki’s favorite word—pithy.

Authors and illustrators also should set an update schedule that is realistic. We encourage them to determine what they reasonably can keep current on their sites and how often they need to update sites.

What should every author/illustrator site include?

Make the site your assistant–let it work for you. What are you asked most frequently? FAQs are passé, but you can conversationally include those answers on your site in obvious (easily found) places. If you are a frequent speaker and you’re asked for your photo or a bio, have them posted on the site for easy downloading. Include a 300 dpi photo in CMYK and grayscale, as well as a photo in 72 dpi, so they can be used for print and web purposes.

Don’t try to be a webmaster unless you really enjoy it and find it a creative pleasure. Let your website make more time for your creative process and public appearances.

Winding Oak offers an author-booking service. How does it work? Do you field requests, make arrangements, negotiate contracts, follow-up, etc.? Do you actively seek out speaking opportunities?

“Yes” to all of the above! In addition, Winding Oak creates secure online calendars for clients (that are accessible to the clients, their editors, publishers, and agents); ensures its clients’ books are available for sale at all client appearances; and provides literary escort services for its clients (as well as visiting authors and illustrators) in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

Could you give us some idea of rates and fee structure?

With regard to booking appearances, Winding Oak clients set their own fees, in consultation with Winding Oak. Fees vary depending on whether the client is scheduled to appear at a school or a conference and whether the appearance is for one day or multiple days. Clients pay Winding Oak a commission for each booking.

Clients pay for other services (e.g. website maintenance, manuscript critique or editing, design of promotional materials) on a flat-fee or per-hour basis.

Why is there a need for such services?

We frequently hear that publishers are applying fewer marketing dollars to their mid-list authors and illustrators. At the same time, books are taken out of print more rapidly. Becoming savvy about your promotional efforts, whether in print, on the web, or in person–these are all areas in which Winding Oak can assist authors and illustrators. There’s no formula for this–the efforts must be individualized for the author/illustrator and the book.

Has the need grown over time? If so, why?

There are more children’s and YA books being published now than at any previous time in history (with a few blips along the way), and there are more diverse markets for those books. Niche markets (marketing a picture book about birds to bird watching groups or a book about trains to railroading groups) are an area that publishers haven’t tapped in any discernible way. The internet provides a new means for reaching buyers. Winding Oak not only has the methods to reach out but it has the research tools to find them.

How has Winding Oak changed over the years? Any exciting new directions?

Winding Oak started out as a print design firm and children’s literature was its avocation. Today, Winding Oak focuses primarily on web design for children’s and YA literature because of its deep background in the field. Winding Oak’s print design, marketing, and writing experience add a depth to the services it provides. Staying on top of technology, using finesse to address markets, and making transitions to new methods of reaching readers are all exciting to Winding Oak.

What should an author consider in hiring someone to promote his or her work?

Does this person or entity understand the children’s publishing industry? Do they have a thorough understanding of schools and libraries, their peculiar needs and budget constraints? Do they operate ethically? And, of course, do they listen to you and work to accommodate your needs?

What noteworthy changes in children’s book promotion have you seen over the years? What are the trends? Your predictions for the future?

Certainly the way in which books are being promoted has changed. Children’s and YA authors and illustrators have been caught up in the tide of America’s celebrity culture and personal appearances are de rigeur. It’s difficult for people who like to stay in their studios and be creative to adapt to the demands for attention.

We’re already seeing a blending of personal appearances, the internet, and access to books through alternate methods of distribution. We suspect that this will morph into something quite different in a few years’ time–Winding Oak intends to be riding the crest of those changes.

As long as we’re talking about authors and books, are there any great new titles you’d like to highlight?

Wow! There are so many. I am amazed and awed by the great books that are out there for kids and teens. I’ve read two new books recently, both by Minnesota authors, that I recommend highly: Terry Hokenson‘s The Winter Road (Front Street, 2006)(a YA survival story set in Canada featuring a gutsy 17-year old female protagonist) and Jane St. Anthony‘s The Summer Sherman Loved Me (FSG, 2006)(a beautiful middle grade novel about family, friends, summer, and…first love!).

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just that I invite your readers to visit the Winding Oak website if they are interested in learning more. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. Thanks for your interest in Winding Oak!

Cynsational Notes

See the Cynsations companion interview, Attorney Aimée Bissonette on Law and Publishing.

Author Feature: Heidi E.Y. Stemple

Author and poet Heidi E.Y. Stemple writes for both children and adults. Her titles include: The Wolf Girls (2001); Roanoke: The Lost Colony (2003); The Salem Witch Trials (2005), all co-authored by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Roger Roth, and published by Simon & Schuster. Along with Jane, she also is the co-author of Barefoot Book of Ballet Stories, illustrated by Rebecca Guay (Barefoot, 2004). Heidi makes her home in Hatfield, Massachusetts.

What inspired you to begin writing for children?

Well, I would love to say I have always wanted to write, but that would be a huge lie. Actually, I grew up in this business (my mom is author Jane Yolen), and I wanted to do anything else.

I went to college and got a degree in psychology and became a probation/parole officer first. Then, a private investigator. These things aren’t even close to writing children’s books!

But, when I was pregnant with my daughter Maddison, I was sick and bored. So, I thought I would do some writing and…surprise, surprise…I was good at it. AND I enjoyed it!

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

Writing is all sprints and stumbles. That is the way with creative careers. Sometimes working on a project is about as much fun as stubbing your toe. And, sometimes I can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning because I am so excited to work.

The book I am working on right now is amazingly fun–a collection of pieces about historical Bad Girls (to be published by Charlsebridge). I am researching Bonnie of Bonnie and Clyde right now, and I have finished Tituba, Belle Starr, and Mata Hari. I was reading research on the beach yesterday–can’t put it down!

But I also have projects that I can’t get a foothold on. I find myself, some days, preferring to do laundry to work. The two experiences–loving what I’m working on and hating it–seem to occur at about the same rate.

As for publishing, I have been pretty lucky. But I do have a stack of unsold manuscripts on my desk, too.

Could you briefly highlight your most recent backlist titles?

Dear Mother, Dear Daughter, illustrated by Gil Ashby (Boyd’s Mills, 2001): a collection of poems between a mother and daughter (written by my mom and me, but in the voices of a young girl and her mom). They tackle such issues as school bullying, piercing ears, being bored, and having a crush on a boy. I love this book because it is so much fun to read aloud.

The Barefoot Book of Ballet Stories (Barefoot, 2004): a collection of storybook ballets retold and introduced with historical notes. This book is beautifully illustrated by Rebecca Guay, which, if for no other reason, makes this a must-own for all ballet fans as well as fans of a good story.

The Salem Witch Trials, The Mary Celeste, Roanoke, the Lost Colony, The Wolf Girls (The Unsolved Mystery from History Series, Simon & Schuster, illustrated by Roger Roth): These books not only tell the stories of these real life unsolved mysteries, but they lead to further research. Every page includes notebook items that go more in depth as well as sticky notes that highlight the new/big words on the page. These books are right up my alley–I love a good mystery!

One If By Land: A Massachusetts Number Book (Sleeping Bear Press, August 2006): Sleeping Bear has published an alphabet book for every state and is moving on to the number books. I loved finding fun facts about my home state to study and write about–Quahog clams, Yankee Candles, and chickadees are just a few.

Sleep Black Bear Sleep, illustrated by Brooke Dyer (HarperCollins, winter 2006): it is the sweetest going-to-bed book filled with hidden facts about hibernating animals.

Congratulations on the upcoming release of Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook, also by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Philippe Beha (Interlink Books, 2006)! What was the initial inspiration for crafting this book?

My mother has long said she has written every kind of book except a sports book, a cookbook, and a hard science book. She finally wrote Moon Ball, so sports was done. But, she hates to cook, so without me doing that part…

Well, I love to cook, so we just decided this was a fun idea. Little did I know how much work it would be! I am thrilled beyond words to have this book finally out. I feel both proud and relieved. I will not be doing a second cookbook. It may have been the most difficult project I have ever worked on! OK… maybe I’ll do another one. Sometimes working on a book is like having babies. It just takes a couple years to forget the pain…

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

Oh, years! Almost five. I started working on Fairy Tale Feasts in South Carolina, and I moved back to Massachusetts more than four years ago. When I got here, my parents’ stove barely worked (did I mention that my mother hates to cook??) so I did much of the cooking at my neighbor’s house.

We had the funniest meals that summer–one day we ate three soups, mashed turnips, and mashed potatoes for dinner. Another day we all sat around eating three kinds of meats skewered with three kinds of marinades deciding which was best. But the chocolate mousse days were the funniest. Before working on this book, I would have told you that it was inconceivable that I (or anyone) could get tired of chocolate mousse. But I was making so much of it (dark, white, milk, with lots of cream, with different kinds of chocolate…) that even the kids in the neighborhood refused to eat it any more.

Luckily, the teachers from my daughter’s school heard of my dilemma and emailed me selflessly offering their taste-testing services. But in case anyone is worried, I am back to eating mousse.

Also, there were a couple recipes I changed at the last minute–both soups, I think. When I got the manuscript back, I recooked everything and did not like them. So, in the 11th hour, I started from scratch!

I was enchanted by your life in books, as depicted on your website. What was it like as a child, growing up in the children’s book world?

I am asked this all the time, of course. I honestly didn’t know any other life.

Many of the adults around me were book people–Eric Carle, Trina Schart-Hyman, just to name-drop a few. I spent many of my summer vacations at conferences. I posed for book illustrations and covers–photographs and as an artist’s model.

It was just how I grew up. It has to be noted that my mom, though an accomplished author when I was young, was nowhere near as well-known as she is now.

My daughters actually have a stranger life in this manner than I did. My daughter Maddison who is 11, recently had some boys in the neighborhood (she goes to school elsewhere, so these were new friends) admit that they knew “who she was” and that she should please send her grandmother a message that they “looooooooooved her.” Luckily, Maddison is generally a very poised child and she took it in stride.

I do take great pride in my literary history. I try not to take it for granted. I am the little girl from Owl Moon (Philomel, 1987). I fought dragons in the Pit Dragon books. Chaya in Devil’s Arithmetic (Viking, 1988) is named after me, though she is really much more like my mom. One book, The Stone Silenus (Philomel, 1984), has so much of me in it that I couldn’t read it for years. Now, of course, I find my own children in stuff I write. Even sometimes when I don’t put them there.

My husband and I have our first joint book coming out this fall, and lately, folks have been asking us a lot about our collaborative process. How does your mother-daughter, writing-family relationship work?

My mom is an amazing professional, and I am both opinionated and stubborn. I often wonder who else would say to Jane Yolen, “nope, I don’t like how you wrote it. Mine is better.”

We actually work so well together because our processes are so much alike and, at the same time, very different. We both just sit down and write, sometimes stumbling around for a plot. When it arrives (often very much unannounced) we are excited and surprised. And, we keep writing.

I leave great holes in my first draft–sometimes words, sometimes chunks of blanks. My mom never leaves holes. We edit each others stuff and then write a bit more.

On occasion, she will change something I wrote and hand it back to me, and I will change it right back. We never fight. People often tell they could NEVER work with their mother. And, I tell them that they could easily work with mine. Really–she’s amazing.

I am also working on a book with each of my brothers [Adam Stemple and Jason Stemple] who work in the business as well.

How has your writing changed over the years? What are your goals?

My writing has changed so much since I started 12 years ago. I think I have become more fearless and more focused. I have learned that less is sometimes more and that I can finish a piece without completely having a stress breakdown.

My goals? Just to write until no one wants to read what I have written any more. Then, maybe, I’ll go to law school or start a catering business. Hey–I’m still young!

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Read and write every day. Study good books–if you want to write picture books, go to the library or book store and read dozens of picture books. Read what you write aloud. Write for yourself, your children, or the child you used to be. If it happens to get published, that is great, but it is not the only thing. Write for the love of writing.

How about beginning poets?

I love writing poetry, but I cannot imagine trying to make a living at it. Actually, talented poets should write all the time. I think there is nothing more amazing that a good poem. I read a quote somewhere about poetry being the end and aim of all writing. Oh my, I agree with that statement! I write some poetry–sometimes, when I am lucky, even good poetry, but I don’t consider myself a poet. That is too lofty a title for what I do.

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

I spend time with my two amazing daughters Maddison (11) and Glendon (23). Though right now I am building a house (right next door to my mom’s), so almost every moment of spare time is spent on house things.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I hope a book about pirates and maybe a book about my daughter’s kitten who escaped one day and was missing for 12 days. But definitely a book for Scholastic about spies (called, I believe, Ready for Anything in their Ultimate Spy collection), a bedtime book about nests (You Nest Here With Me, Harcourt) and, of course Bad Girls (Charlesbridge), which, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go back to researching now–I love those crazy criminals Bonnie and Clyde!

Austin SCBWI “Follow Me” Fall 2006 Conference

The Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators announces its Fall 2006 Conference, “Follow Me” (PDF). The event will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Texas School for the Deaf at 1102 South Congress in near south Austin.

Featured speakers will include agent Sara Crowe of the Harvey Klinger Agency, author Bruce Coville, author-book doctor Esther Hershenhorn (interview), Clarion associate editor Lynne Polvino, illustrator Tony Sansevero, and illustrator Don Tate (interview)(blog). Faculty also includes Dianna Hutts Aston (interview) and Cynthia Leitich Smith.

The program is designed to meet the needs of writers and illustrators at every stage, from beginners to career builders.

Special events will include: an art portfolio contest with a special prize for the winner; a silent auction of items created by member artists; and a bookfair-signing featuring the works of the speakers and chapter members.

Spaces are limited, so register as soon as possible. Early registrants will be eligible for a manuscript or portfolio critique. The fee is $105 for SCBWI members and $115 for non-members. Fee includes a continental breakfast, plus a box lunch from Sweetish Hill Bakery. Vegetarian items will be available. Registration must be postmarked by Oct. 16 to guarantee a lunch.

For more information, see conference program (PDF), including faculty biographies, and registration form (PDF).

Author Interview: Carolyn Lehman on Strong at Heart: True Stories of Healing from Sexual Abuse

Carolyn Lehman on Carolyn Lehman: “I was born in Berkeley, California, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. At a very young age, I fell in love with words and books. My grandmother had a wonderful collection of children’s books from the turn of the last century, illustrated by artists like Arthur Rackham, Jessica Wilcox Smith, and Howard Pyle. Inspired by these greats, I majored in Fine Arts in college.

“Just before I graduating from U. C. Berkeley, I realized that I was really a writer and had been all along. I got my writing education on the job, taking photographs and writing feature stories for small newspapers. I continue to write for periodicals, mostly about family issues, children, and books.

“Highlights of my life include meeting Peter, my husband-to-be, on a wilderness canoe trip, living and working on a cattle ranch in the eastern High Sierra, being a California Arts Council writer-in-the-schools, and the birth of our two sons, both of whom have become writers, too.

“Our family spent a year in Boston while I finished up graduate school at Simmon’s College with a degree in Children’s Literature. That opened the door for me to teach college classes and to work as a children’s literature specialist. I advise on collection development and work with Native American organizations on cultural accuracy in children’s books.

“My second children’s book, Promise Not to Tell (Human Sciences Press, 1985; Beach Tree Books, 1997, o. p.)[published under maiden name “Carolyn Polese”], explores a young girl’s struggle to tell about sexual abuse. I wrote it because I’d been abused myself as a child and had never seen this experience portrayed in any of the children’s books I’d read. It was one of the very first children’s novels to address this experience and I received a Christopher Award for it in 1986.

“After it was published, I found I had more personal work to do on my own childhood. For adult readers, I wrote about facing and overcoming the legacy of sexual abuse, while I continued to teach and review children’s books.

“In my own healing I learned so much that I wish I had known as a young person. In 1999 I began the photography-and-interview project that would become Strong At the Heart.”

See also Carolyn’s blog.

Congratulations on the release of Strong at Heart: How It Feels to Heal from Sexual Abuse (FSG/Melanie Kroupa Books, 2005). What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

Thank you! I am so happy that it is published and in the hands of readers.

It is exactly the book I wish I could have read as a teenager. The model for it, though, came from an eleven-year-old girl who was in a nonfiction writing workshop I taught in a public school.

In the middle of our discussion, this girl raised her hand and asked, “Can we talk about your book Promise Not to Tell?”

“Sure. What’s on your mind?”

“I want to tell you I’m a hero like Megan. My mother’s boyfriend molested me, and I made it stop.”

Every head in the room swiveled to face her.

“What did you do?” one boy asked.

“I told my mother but she didn’t believe me so I told my aunt.”

In answer to her classmate’s questions, she explained that she lived with her aunt for a while, that her mother finally believed her and reported the offender, and that she and her mother were now in counseling together.

It was one of those moments you want to bottle and share with the world. This young survivor was confident and secure. She had not taken on the shame and secrecy so often associated with sexual victimization. And her personal story showed every child in the room that they, too, could face adversity and come through with flying colors.

When you consider that nearly a quarter of our children experience sexual abuse or rape, and that the consequences of unaddressed trauma can be devastating, what this girl gave her classmates was a incredible gift.

When I decided to write a book for young adults on healing, that girl was right there in my memory reminding me that nothing is so powerful as looking into the face of a real person and hearing her story in her own words.

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

That workshop happened almost fifteen years ago! It took five years from the first interview I recorded until the book was launched, so there were many major events on the way.

Finding a publisher was a big one. No one else had ever done this, published true stories of sexual abuse for young readers using real names and photographs. Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief at Horn Book Magazine, was very supportive. He told me, “You’ll have to find a courageous and autonomous editor.”

At ALA, one eminent YA editor told me to my face, “You can’t do this!”

But when Melanie Kroupa read my proposal, she asked, “Why hasn’t something like this been done already?” She loved the photographs and stories, and she saw the immense need for the book. I was so lucky to have found my courageous editor in her.

All of the people in the children’s division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux have been extraordinarily encouraging and positive, every step of the way.

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

I had to learn how to do this–interview teens and adults, edit hours of transcripts, and capture on film the inner light I saw as they told these powerful stories. I used traditional black-and-white photography and natural lighting, which is a challenge because you don’t know how the film will turn out until you develop it. But I wanted that intimate look.

While I was working on the book, a study came out that showed an especially high incidence of sexual abuse among Latino and Asian boys. So, of course, I wanted to interview a male survivor from one of those communities.

But at every social service agency I contacted, I was told the same thing: “What you are asking for is a cultural impossibility.” No one, they said, would talk about this, let alone allow me to publish their name and photograph.

It took over a year to find Arturo. He’s the only person in the book who expressed doubts about whether to go forward to publication. Then he saw a talk show interview with Carlos Santana, who had just won a stack of Grammies, and Santana disclosed that he’d been sexually abused as a boy. Arturo called me to say, “If Carlos can do it, so can I.”

Recently, at a book event, a young Latino man came up to me after everyone else had left the room. “Thank you for telling Arturo’s story,” he said. “It’s my story, too.”

Now Arturo has been invited to speak in a school program for Latino youth. It is amazing the impact one person can have when he takes the risk to tell his truth.

I appreciated the emphasis on diversity in your featured survivors and their experiences. Could you tell us how you framed your approach and why this was so important to you?

I wanted young readers to be able to open the book, look directly into the face of someone like themselves, and know that: “He made it. She made it. So can I–and so can the people I care about.”

Sexual abuse is found in every cultural group, every race, every economic and geographic community. I wanted to hold a mirror up to that larger experience, to show what is really happening to kids, who survivors are, and how we do the work of healing.

That meant representing the diversity of abuse experiences, too, including incest, abuse by a trusted adult, and peer sexual assault. I was very careful in the presentation of that material.

Although abduction and rape by a stranger is very rare, I did include Kelly’s story because we all hear about these sensational cases and wonder “what would I do if that happened to me?” Kelly is an amazing hero. At fourteen, she saved her own life and she helped solve the murder of another girl. She talks about what it was like to go back to school after the rape, how she handled making new friends and began dating, and what she did to build trusting relationships.

I was especially curious about the different ways people heal. It isn’t just “go to a counselor and get over it.” Jenner, who was raped at an unsupervised party, uses song writing to get at her strong feelings and express them in a positive way. Jonathan speaks out to help other teens.

Sixteen-year-old Sheena describes how, after she was assaulted by a much older cousin, her friends helped her heal by getting her involved in sports and not letting her give in to her self destructive impulses. Equally important for her are the traditional healing circles held in her Ojibwe community and in her home.

In our correspondence, you mentioned that today teen survivors of sexual abuse often have different experiences and attitudes than older survivors. Could you elaborate on this?

The teens I interviewed are different from the adults in several ways. The most obvious is that they told early on and got help.

These young people are doing their healing while their self image and their sexual selves are still developing. By addressing their abuse histories now, they are avoiding years of silent suffering and the damage that comes from that.

Another way they are different is that they have all turned to other teens—and received great support from at least some of their peers. I find that really hopeful, that kids are able to be there for each other.

As Jonathan says of older survivors, “It’s different for me than for them because there’s so much more support for survivors now. Ten, twenty, thirty years ago…when people spoke out then, no one wanted to believe it.”

What reactions have your received from the book?

I knew these stories had the potential to affect people deeply, but I’ve been profoundly moved by the response to the book.

People have asked me to speak at Harvard University, at child abuse conferences, and at book events in the U. S. and Canada.

When I presented the interviews and photographs at an event in Bend, Oregon, a dozen girls from the juvenile facility earned “good behavior” credits to come hear me speak. As I talked about Jenner numbing out and Jonathan’s involvement in drugs, those girls’ eyes widened with recognition. They slid forward to the edges of their seats when I told how Jenner and Jonathan took back control of their lives.

At that same event, a group of older women from Warm Springs Reservation wanted me to discuss the traditional practices and the restorative justice model that Sheena’s community uses. They also spoke about the generations of abuse Indian children experienced in residential schools and how that legacy plays out today. I think it was the first time that many of their white neighbors heard this.

Afterwards, an elderly man came up to me and said, “I wish you’d written this book when I was a boy.”

It seems that people really hunger for the information embedded in these stories, to be able to speak freely about these things, and to say, “This happened to me, too.”

Have you encountered any resistance from adults worried about exposing young readers to such a sensitive and difficult topic? I’m thinking of those who tend to challenge (or simply shy away from) books in an effort to “protect” kids from real life.

So far so good, although you don’t see the silent censorship, when people don’t even consider a book because the idea of it makes them uncomfortable.

Readers on this project included teens, their parents, and trauma specialists. So I feel confident that, although the stories are tough, they are also appropriate for the age group.

Kids know that rape and abuse happen. Having true stories that show how people come through is, to me, tremendously hopeful and reassuring.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Write. Read. Play with words. Take risks.

Be open to the unexpected. Sometimes your subject just grabs you by the scruff of the neck and insists on being written.

How about those interested in creative non-fiction in particular?

Nonfiction is a very exciting field to be in right now. The sky really is the limit as far as exploring new approaches and subject matter.

But nonfiction still a very, very small part of the young adult market. Many bookstores and even some libraries don’t know what to do with nonfiction for teens.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Teach, read, hike with friends, ride my bike in the hills, blog, volunteer on the board of a local non-profit. Talk about books and writing with my sons and my husband, Peter.

Most summers, we either backpack in the mountains or spend several weeks traveling by canoe on wilderness rivers in Canada or Alaska. Two years ago I learned how to scuba dive, so now I’m getting to explore yet another amazing part of the natural world.

What can your readers look forward to next?

Right this minute I’m working on a digital story about the personal experience of writing Strong at the Heart. It will be a four minute movie that I hope to have up on my website this summer. It’s really fun to work with voiceover, visual images, and music all interwoven through the flow of time. Quite a kick.

I’m also writing an article about the ways sexual abuse survivors are depicted in young adult literature. That should be published in School Library Journal this fall.

I don’t know what my next book project will be. I have several ideas I am playing with. I’ll see where they take me.

Cynsational Notes

Strong at Heart has been recognized via the following: Kentucky Bluegrass Award, 2007 Master List for grades 9-12; National Council for the Social Studies and The Children’s Book Council, Notable Trade Book for Young People; Bank Street College, Children’s Book Committee, Teen List, one of twenty five recommended books for teens in 2006; Skipping Stones Magazine, 2006 Honor Book; New York Public Library, 2006 Books for the Teen Age.

Cynsational News & Links

David Grifaldi: debut official author site includes bio, book information, author appearances, and links. David’s titles include: Toby Scudder: King of the School (Clarion, 2005) and Ben, King of the River (Albert Whitman, 2001). David has recently joined the faculty of the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Author-illustrator Diane deGroat: official site includes bio, FAQ’s, books, school visit programs, and a link to purchase books and art online. DeGroat is the creator of the best-selling “Gilbert” holiday series, including Roses Are Pink, Your Feet Really Stink (HarperCollins, 1996) and Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet (HarperCollins, 1998).

Congratulations to author-illustrator Grace Lin on the publication of Our Seasons (Charlesbridge, 2006) and One Year In Beijing (ChinaSprout, 2006)(author interview).

“Harry and Norma Mazer: True Confessions of Montpelier’s Premier Writing Couple” by Patrick Timothy Mullikin from Vermont Today. Read recent Cynsations interviews with Harry Mazer and Norma Fox Mazer.

“Historical Novels and Fantasy–It All Fits” an ICL chat with author Kathleen Duey (July 6). “Kathleen Duey has published over 60 books for children including her American Diaries, Hoofbeats, and The Unicorn’s Secret series.”

“Hoot:” a teacher movie review by Krista Sadlers from CBC Magazine. The film is based on the novel by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf, 2002).

The sixth edition of Genreflecting: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests by Diana Tixer Herald (Libraries Unlimited, 2005) is available. According to Diana’s site, “For the first time it has been published simultaneously in hardcover and paperback.”

Pocket Magazine is sponsoring a fiction-writing contest. Entries should be previously unpublished, 1,000 to 1,600 words long, due by August 1, and enclosed with an SASE. The winner will be announced November 1 and will receive $1,000. See complete rules and information.

Tim Wynne-Jones: debut official author website includes bio, book information, critical writing, news, and awards. Tim’s titles include: Rex Zero and the End of the World (Groundwood, 2006); A Thief in the House of Memory (Groundwood, 2004); and The Boy in the Burning House (FSG/Melanie Kroupa, 2001).