Author Interview: Judy Freeman on Books Kids Will Sit Still For 3: A Read-Aloud Guide

Books Kids Will Sit Still For 3: A Read-Aloud Guide by Judy Freeman (Libraries Unlimited, 2006). From the promo copy: “The largest and most comprehensive book of its kind ever written, it’s an indispensable treasure trove of 1,700 child-tested favorite read-aloud titles, published since 1995. This is the definitive source for the best recent picture books, fiction, poetry, folklore, biography, and nonfiction books to share with children. The extensively annotated bibliography incorporates thousands of innovative and inspirational ideas for booktalking, book discussion, creative drama, storytelling, poetry, writing, library skills, and other literature-based teaching.”

Judy Freeman is a well-known speaker, consultant, and writer on reading aloud, storytelling, booktalking, librarianship, and all aspects of children’s literature. She is an adjunct faculty member at Pratt Institute’s School of Information and Library Science in New York City, where she teaches graduate courses on children’s literature and storytelling.

“After 25 delightful years as a school librarian in New Jersey, in 2000, Judy gave up her day job and took to the road as a children’s literature troubadour, though she still spends many days each year working with children and teachers to try out scores of new children’s books and ideas.” For more information, visit Judy’s website.

What were you like as a child reader?

I was a real book nut. I remember throwing a fit when I was in seventh grade and my mother promised to take me to the store to get a copy of the Newbery Medal winner, A Wrinkle in Time, but then reneged, saying she had other things to do. Hah! I wrote her my first impassioned persuasive letter and slid it under the bedroom door. “All right, we’ll get the blasted book!” she said, and we did. I read it a million times, and it’s still in my psyche.

My parents took my older brother and sister and me to the public library every Tuesday night and we all took out armloads of books and then got ice cream. One of my great passions in life is still ice cream (cherry Garcia, hot fudge) with a good book.

I also had a fabulous elementary school librarian–Mrs. Amato–and it didn’t hurt that my mother became a librarian when I was young.

My sister Sharron was Beezus to my Ramona. I once melted the head of her ballerina doll on a light bulb. She still hasn’t quite forgiven me. (Remember when Ramona wrecked Beezus’s birthday cake–twice?) And my older brother was terrified of Miss Clavell in the Madeline books. We were all a little odd.

Your credentials include school librarian, national workshop presenter, storyteller, and book reviewer? What put you on the path of a life of books?

My mother wanted me to go on Broadway. She loved to sing, but always substituted her own words for the great standards of the 30s and 40s. We all sang, and my parents read to us–lots of Winnie-the-Pooh and Mary Poppins and Beverly Cleary and Dr. Seuss. I can remember way back then, reading the New York Times Sunday Book Review when they did their children’s issue every spring, yearning for all those books.

I still yearn for books. When my mother became a school librarian in the 1960s, she kept bringing home all of these great books for me to read, even though I was in high school already. That’s when I met Harriet the Spy. And I still have my first edition of Where the Wild Things which I bought in high school. You’d think I’d be tired of children’s books after half a century, but it’s still magical when I read a great one.

When I was in college, I wanted to be a folk singer. Realizing if I didn’t work, I wouldn’t eat, I got practical and became an elementary school librarian instead, saying, “Well, I’ll try this for a little while until I decide what I really want to do.” And it was a blast. I sang with the kids, I read them stories, I told them stories. We acted out stories. It was a wild and crazy place, my library. I can’t figure out where 26 years flew.

What do you love about your work? What are its challenges?

What I’ve loved about my work is how diverse it can be.

I’m a book review columnist for School Library Media Activities Monthly and NoveList (online), and wrote for Instructor magazine and Teacher for many years.

I’ve also gotten to write extensive and very fun teacher’s guides for publishers for some amazing books and authors, including Jennifer Armstong‘s An American Story, illustrated by Roger Roth (Random House, 2006); this year’s Caldecott, The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster, illustrated by Chris Raschka (Hyperion, 2006); most of Mo Willems‘s books at Hyperion, and a guide to the picture books of Kevin Henkes for HarperCollins. My guide for Lane Smith‘s fabulous John, Paul, George & Ben (Hyperion, 2006) just came out and it’s a hoot. Oh, and I also did one for Kate diCamillo‘s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Candlewick, 2006), which just won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction. You can find it at (teacher’s guide).

(Yes, I would have rather written any of these books than just the guides, but it still was stimulating and challenging to do.)

I even got to record a CD of 23 songs and stories to go along with my guide for Rosemary Wells‘s 96-page picture book, My Kindergarten (Hyperion, 2005). You can download the guide and play or burn copies of the CD at Just type the title into the search bar and you’ll find it. My cousin Pete Fand is a musical genius, and we worked together on it. It was the most fun thing I’ve ever done, writing the songs, singing and playing guitar, recording, and then having Hyperion make it available for free. That’s thanks to the wonderful, amazing, and adorable Angus Killick, who said, “Could you set a few of Rosemary’s poems to music and make a little CD?” I got to be a rock star!

I taught as an adjunct in the library school at Rutgers for 20 years, after Mary Kay Chelton, my wonderful professor, encouraged me to take over her booktalking course. She was leaving Rutgers and recommended me as the instructor. I was astonished. How could I possibly teach a course? (I was all of 29.) I did, though, having the time of my life and have taught dozens of courses since then.

Now I’m an adjunct at Pratt Institute in NYC where I teach storytelling and children’s literature. I teach most of my courses in the children’s room at Donnell Library, across from the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street, and guess who’s there? Winnie-the-Pooh and his pals! All of Christopher Robin’s stuffed animals are there, in a glass case, looking worn and overloved. And P. L. Travers gave the library Mary Poppins’s parrot-headed umbrella. I love teaching there–they have a fabulous staff of book-savvy librarians, headed by John Peters.

When I was school librarian, I got to laugh every single day. My friend worked at Johnson and Johnson making some bigtime salary, and she told me, “We have to clean off our desks at the end of every day. Down to the bare wood.” I thought that was hilarious. My workspace has always been a little cluttered. (My cousin Ezra came up into my attic, my garret, one time and looked around at the chaos. “My god, Judy,” he said. “This looks like the inside of your brain.”)

I was a school librarian for 26 years, and then I wanted a new challenge. So six years ago I left my job, figuring I could go on the road as a speaker and cheerleader for children’s books and reading. I had already been speaking for BER (Bureau of Education & Research; for six years, doing about ten all-day seminars each year. I didn’t know if I’d get enough work. Sure, I write reference books about children’s literature, but I would starve to death if I tried to live on my royalties. I decided I’d try it for a year.

Well, it’s been terrific. I get more requests to speak than I can handle–I do about 80 workshops, speeches, and programs for kids each year–and I’ve gotten to travel all over the U.S. In February, I’m speaking in Juneau at the Alaska Library Association Conference, and that will be the fiftieth state where I’ve done a speech or workshop. In March I’ll be speaking at an international schools conference in Bangkok, and last year I spoke at another similar conference in Istanbul. I’ve loved all of it, except for the jet lag, the airports, the bad food in the airports, and, worst of all, being away from my wonderful, patient, supportive husband, Izzy, who holds down the fort at home while I’m out gallivanting.

To keep my credibility as a children’s book reviewer and presenter, I go back to my old school, Van Holten School in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and several other schools to work with the talented staffs of teachers and librarians and with the people for whom these books are intended–actual kids. I field test scores of books with kids each year to see what they love, and their teachers and librarians do fabulous follow-up activities with them. (For instance, at Adamsville School in Bridgewater, New Jersey, I read Nick Bruel‘s hilarious picture book, Bad Kitty (Roaring Brook, 2005) to Miss Tricarico’s kindergarten class. They followed up by writing their own book, “Bad Kiddies”–“We weren’t always bad kiddies. We used to be good kiddies . . .”) I love to bring these responses to literature along with me when I speak to show some of the wonderful ways kids and grownups can fool around with books.

What’s it like traveling these days?

Traveling has its moments. Last year the hotel where I was doing an all-day seminar had an electrical fire during lunch. We lurked in the parking lot all afternoon while helicopters fluttered overhead, 14 fire trucks surrounded the building, and big hunky firefighting guys were toting hoses and eating doughnuts. (Apparently, the fire was catered.) I stood out there watching, and figured if my books and props and puppets were destroyed, they could be replaced. What I was really worried about was the kids’ work I brought along with me–those are my best treasures. Luckily, everything was okay, though it all reeked of smoke.

I’ve had my extra set of guitar strings confiscated in Canada–they considered it a weapon. A weapon? All I could hear was my mom’s voice in my head: “You could put someone’s eye out with that!”

My suitcases have taken detours, not always arriving when I do. I travel with two big 50-pound suitcases. No bags, no program. They’ve always showed up eventually, but travel isn’t getting easier, that’s for sure. Dialogue at many airports: Security: Okay, ma’am, what in these bags? Me: Children’s books! And puppets! Security: Hmmm. Better have a look.” We children’s literature people are obviously dangerous characters. I had a great plastic screaming hatchet and a crashing hammer that got stolen from my checked bags in Taipei. The only thing I haven’t had is the strip search and the cavity search. It’s only a matter of time.

I’d like to focus on your new release, but given that this is the third book in a series, let’s catch up on your back list titles. What was the initial inspiration for creating these books?

When I started as a sweet-young-thing librarian in Plainfield, New Jersey, fresh out of grad school at Rutgers, I started making lists. Most teachers and librarians are compulsive list makers. I made lists of books that I loved as I read and weeded my way through the library’s collection. It seemed to me that if you inundated children with wonderful books, read aloud to them on a regular basis, booktalked, told them stories, acted out stories, and fooled around with words, then kids would want to read. It was sheer intuition on my part, bestowing the passion for books my parents and teachers and librarians had bestowed upon me. I started making annotated lists of great books the teachers could read to their kids.

Many of the teachers said, “I don’t have time to read to my kids. I have to teach reading.” They were expected to administer lots of worksheets and watch their children read nice short punchy little excerpts in their basal readers, and then ask them a lot of ponderous questions. And take tests, for which they were endlessly preparing. (Nice to know nothing much has changed, right?)

After a decade of compiling my lists and testing out books on kids, I sent in a proposal for a book about reading aloud to a little library-based company called Upstart. They responded with a huge advance–a check for $200. (Don’t quit the day job if you’re a writer, right?) It was published in 1984 as a 200-page paperback and did pretty well. In 1990, I took it apart, rewrote it, expanded the text, added many new books to the bibliography section, and turned it into a 600-page behemoth for Bowker. I did an all-new volume, the 800-page More Books Kids Will Sit Still For, in 1995. (One reviewer referred to it as an 800-page tomb. I always assumed that was a misprint.)

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing the new book to life? What were the major events along the way?

Bowker sold its children’s reference book line to Greenwood, which then acquired Libraries Unlimited, and they asked me if I wanted to do a new volume. It took me a while to say yes. I had to think about why I wanted to destroy my perfectly nice life and shut myself in my attic like a monk for two years. Then I recited my mantra–“Just shut up and do it”–and dived in anyway.

Writing insanely big reference books takes large chunks out of your brain. I had an ongoing annotated database of books I loved, but with each new volume in the series, I’ve added more stuff–such as lists of related titles and activities for using each book. Luckily, I can now look up everything online–no more searching card catalogs at the library to find out a book’s ISBN. I can look up full text reviews to see what other people have written about a book, and read the customer comments on Amazon, which can be interesting. So the research part is far easier.

My inspiration to keep going was the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (Pantheon, 1994), a book all writers need to read. I don’t recall any events along the way–it’s like childbirth. After what turned out to be three obsessive years up in my attic reading and writing, I have little memory of all the missed holidays, weekends, evenings, summers. My husband remembers, though. He tells me, that if I start to think about doing another one, he is going to make sure I have my head examined.

It’s a hefty mama, this new book–3.6 pounds, someone told me, so you could get two and use them for aerobic weights. Someone wrote to me that it’s the heaviest book she’s ever read. I was hoping it would top 1,000 pages, but my editor told me we couldn’t go above 925, so they shrank the print and the margins until everything fit. Lisa Von Drasek, the children’s librarian at Bank Street College of Education calls it “your honking big book” and from the beginning, I’ve referred to it as “The Awful Book.”

How can teachers and librarians use your book?

In each of the three books in the series, I’ve written about what I’ve learned lately by working with kids and from my reading about what’s happening in the fields of reading, teaching, and librarianship. In the new book, that includes chapters on Performance Art–how to do Reader’s Theater, creative drama, and storytelling. There’s a chapter on what it’s like to be on the Newbery Committee. (I served in 2000; our winner was Bud, Not Buddy (Delacorte, 1999).) And I wrote a very fun chapter called “17 Things You Need to Know to Be a Great School Librarian” which also applies to public librarians and teachers and parents. These are reference books, yes, but they’re fun to read as well. (Okay, my husband says that’s an oxymoron and calls them Books Insomniacs Will Kill For, but he hasn’t actually read them. I beg to differ.)

In the Annotated Read-Aloud Lists section of Books Kids Will Sit Still For 3, I included my favorite read-aloud titles for Preschool through sixth grade, divided into Easy Fiction/Picture Books, Fiction, Folk & Fairy Tales, Poetry, and Nonfiction. I calculate I read about 20,000 books to find the 1,705 I used in the book. I also indexed everything by title, author, illustrator, and there’s an extensive subject index. So you can look up, say, individuality or insects or inventors or integration or Ireland and find lists of the recommended books I’ve included. Then, when you look up an individual book, there’s a meaty annotation, a germ (small, brief pithy and practical across-the-curiculum ideas of how to use the book with kids), a killer list of related titles (for thematic units, story hours, read-alouds, or follow-ups for kids to read), and a list of subjects, so you can see what themes the book encompasses.

People tell me it’s one book they keep on their desks and use on a daily basis to prepare storyhours and literature-based lessons for their kids. That’s gratifying. It also makes a fine paperweight.

So far, the book is doing well on Amazon. I check my numbers constantly. (Oh look! They must’ve sold one today!) People have written very nice comments about it there and on, for which I am thankful. I’m waiting on tenterhooks for some reviews. My mother used to say to me, “For god’s sake, Judy, write a 32-page picture book! Why do you need to write such giant books?” She was right of course, but I couldn’t help it. Actually, there’s a chapter about my mom in the book–I think of the whole book as a tribute to her. She died in 2000.

How about writers and/or illustrators?

You’ll get a good overview of books that kids love. If your books are in there, I’m very much obliged to you for writing or illustrating a book that has given so much pleasure to children (and to adult readers, as well as making my day). I included books teachers or librarians would find to be great read-alouds, but not every great book fits that category, so there are many more wonderful books out there that kids adore. (Mind you, I also had to cut 300 wonderful out of print titles because the book was running way too long. Your book could have been included in that batch. If so, my great apologies.)

What about parents?

In all three books, my focus is on teachers and librarians, but parents who are into children’s literature will finds lots of ideas, too. Home schooling parents should find plenty of titles–as read-alouds or read-alones–to keep their kids engrossed and sparked. If you find yourself, on a regular basis, sneaking novels by folks like J. K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Lois Lowry, or Kate DiCamillo instead of books on the NY Times fiction list, then you’re a serious children’s literature fan. My book can help you nurture that bad habit, for which your kids will be grateful.

I’m forever faced with parents boasting that their four-year-old was reading Harry Potter to herself in utero (only a slight exaggeration). I’m guessing that means they’re quick to give up reading with their kids. Why is reading aloud so important?

I think everyone should read to their kids in utero. There was a famous study, dubbed the “Cat in the Hat” experiment, that showed fetuses respond to Dr. Seuss–it’s the rhyme and rhythm of it, apparently. And parents need to continue reading aloud and telling their kids stories, oh, forever. We never lose the need for a great story. In my new book, I made a list of reasons why:

What are some of the benefits of reading aloud and using real books with children? Here is a baker’s dozen:

1. To bond together, either one on one, as parent and child, or together as part of a larger group
2. To model acceptable behavior and figure out how to handle new or difficult or challenging life situations
3. To open up a global window and see how people do things in other parts of the world
4. To visualize text and stories and exercise the mind’s eye or imagination
5. To develop empathy, tolerance, and understanding
6. To grow language skills, exploring narrative, dialogue, the use of language, vocabulary, and the relationship between the written and spoken word
7. To better recall and comprehend the narrative structure, plot elements, and sequence of events in a story
8. To be exposed to eloquent, elegant, interesting, or unusual examples of language, writing styles, and words, and hear the author’s voice out loud, spoken with expression and fluency.
9. To share emotions, from laughter to tears
10. To develop critical thinking skills including: making inferences, drawing conclusions, identifying key words and ideas, comparing and contrasting, recognizing cause and effect, sequencing, and defining problems versus solutions
11. To provide sheer enjoyment and the love of stories, both old favorites and brand new ones, for their own sake
12. To hone writing skills. As children’s author Richard Peck, writes in Past, Perfect, Present Tense: New and Collected Stories (Dial, 2004), “Nobody but a reader ever became a writer.” And “You have to read a thousand stories before you can write one.” And, “We write by the light of every story we ever read. Reading other people’s stories shows you the way to your own.”
13. To turn avid listeners into avid readers, learners, and thinkers

So far, what are your favorite read-aloud titles of 2006 and why?

There are some fabulous books out this year. I’m still plowing through piles and boxes of books this year, so my list is in no way comprehensive. For the workshops I do across the U.S., I pick my top 100 books of the year and bring about fifty of them to show and tell, sing and dance. It’s always so interesting to me to read everyone’s best books lists, because no two readers ever agree on the exact same titles. I look for books that delight, amuse, surprise, startle, provoke, intrigue, inform, satisfy, and stay in my head. Sometimes I dream about them.

Then I test them out on kids to see if they agree. Sometimes the books we grownups think are wonderful leave kids absolutely cold. And vice versa.

Here’s my list of favorites so far:

Frazee, Marla. Walk On. Illus. by the author. Harcourt, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)
Henkes, Kevin. Lilly’s Big Day. Illus. by the authors. Greenwillow, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)
Klise, Kate. Why Do You Cry? Not a Sob Story. Illus. by M. Sarah Klise. Henry Holt, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)
Knudsen, Michelle. Library Lion. Illus. by Kevin Hawkes. Candlewick, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)
Smith, Lane. John, Paul, George & Ben. Illus. by the author. Hyperion, 2006. (Gr. 1-8)
Winter, Jeanette. Mama: A True Story in Which a Baby Hippo Loses His Mama During the Tsunami, but Finds a New Home, and a New Mama. Illus. by the author. Harcourt, 2006. (Gr. PreK-3)
Cronin, Doreen. Dooby Dooby Moo. Illus. by Betsy Lewin. Atheneum, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)
Krosoczka, Jarrett J. My Buddy, Slug. Illus. by the author. Knopf, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)
McClintock, Barbara. Adèle and Simon. Illus. by the author. Farrar, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)
Young, Ed. My Mei Mei. Illus. by the author. Philomel, 2006. (Gr. PreK-2)

DiCamillo, Kate. Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The. Illus. by Bagram Ibatoulline. Candlewick, 2006. (Gr. 3-7)
Jenkins, Emily. Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic. Illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky. Schwartz & Wade, 2006. (Gr. 1-4)
Kadohata, Cynthia. Weedflower. Atheneum, 2006. (Gr. 5-8)
Lin, Grace. Year of the Dog, The. Little, Brown, 2006. (Gr. 3-5)
Lowry, Lois. Gossamer. Houghton Mifflin, 2006. (Gr. 5-8)
Pearsall, Shelley. All of the Above. Little, Brown, 2006. (Gr. 4-7)
Pennypacker, Sara. Clementine. Illus. by Marla Frazee. Hyperion, 2006. (Gr. 1-4)
Singh, Vandana. Younguncle Comes to Town. Illus. by B. M. Kamath. Viking, 2006. (Gr. 3-5)
Stanley, Diane. Bella at Midnight. HarperCollins, 2006. (Gr. 5-8)

Armstrong, Jennifer. American Story, The. Illus. by Roger Roth. Knopf, 2006. (Gr. 3-8)
Fleischman, Sid. Escape: The Story of the Great Houdini. Illus. with photos. HarperCollins, 2006. (Gr. 4-8)
Jenkins, Steve, and Robin Page. Move! Illus. by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin, 2006. (Gr. PreK-1)

Rex, Adam. Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich. Illus. by the author. Harcourt, 2006. (Gr. 2-6)
Sidman, Joyce. Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow. Illus. by Beth Krommes. Houghton Mifflin, 2006. (Gr. K-5)

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

I’m always reading and writing. My friends call me “The Attic Girl.” I’m hoping to get a life this year, though. When I’m not obsessing over deadlines or out on the road, I play tennis, go into New York to museums and plays and restaurants, garden, and travel. And I’m getting a new cat. I work better when there’s purring.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I’m the Book Aunt to the kids of so many friends and relatives, so I get to hear a lot of feedback from them and from the kids I work with at schools. I do a fair amount of school assemblies as well, where I booktalk new books and tell stories and sing songs. Kids are so hungry for stories. Not enough people tell them stories, read to them, and do booktalks.

It’s so easy to do, but in these days of No Child Left Undone, if it’s not testable, people think it’s not worthwhile. I despair sometimes, but Vicki Cobb gave me the most wonderful quote from Robert Anderson, author of the play “Tea and Sympathy.”

He said: “Expect Nothing. Blame Nobody. Do Something.” And then I think about Barbara Cooney‘s wonderful picture book, Miss Rumphius (Viking, 1982), where Alice’s grandfather tells her, “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

Cynsational Note

See interviews with Cynthia Kadohata, Grace Lin, and Ed Young. Judy’s guide also is recommended to writers as a source of models to study in various categories.

Cynsational News & Links

According to SmarterStats, traffic to my official author website should run just over 60,000 unique visitors this month.

Tuesdays and Wednesdays have been the busiest. Midnight to 3 a.m. is the most popular time to stop by (hello, night owls!), followed by 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.–it sort of moves in waves.

Other than the front page, those most active are: Exploring Diversity in Children’s & Young Adult Books, followed by Gothic Fantasy & Suspense for Teens & Tweens; Young Adult Books; Picture Books; Native American Themes in Children’s and Young Adult Literature; and Interview with Author Judy Blume.

This month, most of the traffic comes from the United States, followed by Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and India. Within the U.S., the most represented states are California, Virginia, Washington, Georgia, Texas, New Jersey, Colorado, Illinois, and Ohio.

Thanks to everyone who surfed by!

More News & Links

The Children’s Choices 2006 list has been posted by the International Reading Association (PDF). Highlighted books include: How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mark Teague (Blue Sky)(author interview); Not Norman: A Goldfish Story by Kelly Bennett, illustrated by Jonah Z. Jones III (Candlewick)(author interview); The Liberation of Gabriel King by K.L. Going (Putnam)(author interview); Walter the Giant Storyteller’s Giant Book of Giant Stories by Walter M. Mayes, illustrated by Kevin O’Malley (Walker)(author-illustrator interview); Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles (Harcourt); Wild Dogs: Past & Present by Kelly Milner Halls (Darby Creek)(author interview). YA honorees included: Contents Under Pressure by Lara Zeises (Delacorte, 2004)(author interview); Midnighters: The Secret Hour by Scott Westerfeld (EOS, 2004)(author interview); and Nothing to Lose by Alex Flinn (HarperCollins, 2004)(author interview).

Terri Fields: official author site includes book and event information. Teri’s books include Danger in the Desert (Rising Moon, 1997); Counting Arizona’s Treasures, illustrated by Tony Marinella (Kiva); After the Death of Anna Gonzales (Henry Holt, 2002); and Holdup (Roaring Brook, 2007)(scroll).

Cynthia Hughes Literary Management offers publicity coordination and consultation to authors, publishers, and event planners. Cynthia is based in Austin; many of you may know her as the former director of the Texas Book Festival.

“National reading program helps Native communities increase literacy skills, preserve culture” from the University of Texas. Highlights “If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything,” a national reading program for Native American children and interviews Loriene Roy, the new American Library Association president. Note: I highly endorse this program and encourage you all to visit the official website to learn more about how you can help. See requested items, donors (including many children’s/YA authors, and participating schools.

The New Atlantic Independent Bookseller’s Association has announced its 2006 award winners, recognizing an author who was born or lived in the region, and/or a book wherein the story takes place in the region. Winners included: Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (HarperCollins, 2005) and Rebel Angels by Libba Bray (Delacorte, 2005)(excerpt)(author interview).

From Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic: “The Chinese American Librarians Association has cast their votes and the news is in–Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time by Lisa Yee (Arthur A. Levine, 2005)(author interview) has received a Best Book Award for Youth. The Association writes, ‘Through Stanford Wong’s sensitive and funny diary entries, Yee defies stereotypes about Chinese Americans as well as gender stereotypes.'”

“Speaking in Voices: Writing a Multiple Viewpoint Novel” with Deborah Lynn Jacobs: a chat scheduled for tonight from the Institute of Children’s Literature. Deborah is the author of Powers (Roaring Brook, 2006) and Choices (Roaring Brook, 2007). Read Deborah’s LJ.

“Stars” by Roger Sutton from The Horn Book Magazine. Lots of fodder for thought here. What stood out most to me as a Harper author: “Mimi Kayden of HarperCollins says that ‘if a book gets three or more stars, then we will probably advertise it. Two is still iffy. One doesn’t cut it anymore.'”

Tara is “A Rat” Spelled Backwards: The online musings of Tara McCarthy Altebrando. A new LJ from the author of The Pursuit of Happiness (MTV Books, 2006)(excerpt).

Three Silly Chicks: Readers, Writers, and Reviewers of Funny Books for Kids. The chicks in question are authors Andrea Beaty, Carolyn Crimi, and Julia Durango (LJ syndication). See In the Coop with Lisa Wheeler.

The Cat Who Wouldn’t Come Inside by Cynthia von Buhler

From Houghton Mifflin: On a cold winter day a cat appears on the porch of an old Victorian house. The girl who lives there feels sorry for the snow-covered creature and gives him warm milk. The next day she gives him tuna, and the next day a catnip mouse, and so on and so on, until eventually the porch is as cozy as the house. One day, much to her surprise, the cat finally answers her invitation inside with an invitation to her. The “house-that-Jack-built” structure and repetition of The Cat Who Wouldn’t Come Inside: Based on a True Story by Cynthia von Buhler (Houghton Mifflin, September 2006) will appeal to young readers, who will also delight in following the construction of the cat’s new home.

This tale of friendship and trust, of patience and love, is based on a true story. While living in Boston, in a large purple Victorian house, von Buhler befriended a stray cat, whom she named “Olympus” after the Greek mountain. She repeatedly invited him inside, but he didn’t budge from the porch. So she went to the mountain, so to speak, and over the course of four years, fed him, nursed him, and built him his own (heated) purple and green house.

Creating the set for the book was a family affair—von Buhler’s father adapted her childhood dollhouse (which he had built by hand); her mother sewed the curtains, and her sister, a fashion designer, created the clothing. Von Buhler created all the characters using Sculpey clay. They were baked in an oven until hardened, then decorated with paint. She created a 3D set, and everything was then photographed with a Haselblad camera using a variety of lenses and colored gel filters, creating a fantastical world of cottony snow, comfortable chairs, and hidden delights.

Committed to reaching out to her audience in non-traditional ways, von Buhler has created an art exhibit based on the sculptures and sets used for the book that also incorporates a children’s cat sculpture workshop.

The exhibit opens first at CVB Space in Manhattan on Sept. 28th, and will then go on to tour children’s museums nationwide. For more information, please visit, which also includes step-by-step “make a kitty” instructions, a feature on how the house and set were created, an author’s blog, and more. Von Buhler is also currently producing a flash music viral video, set to her original music (including her own vocals), which will feature the book’s characters and set.

Cynthia von Buhler is an internationally known and award-winning artist. Her artwork has been displayed in galleries and museums around the world, on CD covers, and in books, magazines, and newspapers. Four illustrations from the book have already been chosen to appear in the prestigious art book American Illustration in November 2006. They Called Her Molly Pitcher by Anne Rockwell, illustrated by von Buhler (Knopf, 2002), was chosen as one of the New York Public Library’s Top 100 Picture Books of the Year.

Von Buhler has rescued and placed more than twenty-five cats into loving homes, and plans to donate a portion of her royalties from the sale of this book to Pasado’s Safe Haven for animals. The book also contains valuable and practical information for those who find stray cats. She currently lives in a castle on Staten Island, with a host of pets, including six doves, thirty goldfish, two rats, her husband, Russell, and, of course, seven cats.

Cynsational Notes

The Cat Who Wouldn’t Come Inside official website may set a new standard in book-specific sites. Recommended to visitors with high speed Internet service, not those on dial-up.

“Kit Lit: Children’s Literature For Human Kittens:” reviewed by Mercury Boo (official page) from the cat pages of my website, which are the most popular with elementary class visitors. See also Sebastian’s picks, which includes photos of not only Bashi but also Leo and Blizzard.

Author Interview: Cinda Williams Chima on The Warrior Heir

Cinda Williams Chima on Cinda Williams Chima: “I come from a long line of fortune-tellers, n’er-do-well musicians, indifferent housekeepers and spinners of tales. When I researched my family tree, my ancestors kept showing up in court for bar fights, paternity suits, making moonshine, and so on. My great-grandmother was booted out of church for having a ‘disorderly walk.’

“My earliest literary influence was my mother, a great lover of books and frequenter of libraries. My name, Cinda, comes from her favorite character in a novel, House Divided [by Ben Ames Williams (1947)], about the Civil War. That Cinda was described as ‘plain, and broad of face.’ Ah, well.

“In college, I majored in just about anything you can’t make a living at, ending with a degree in philosophy. I was the poster child for No Vocational Outlet. Later, I went back for a master’s in nutrition and have worked in that field ever since. The first draft of my novel was marbled with elaborate descriptions of food. My first agent wrote in the margins, ‘We don’t CARE what they ate!!’

“I live in Ohio with my husband and college-age sons and an African Gray parrot. I teach at the University of Akron and write a freelance nutrition column for the Plain Dealer. I’m continually amazed that with my sorry start I’m working not one but TWO dream jobs-teaching and writing.”

How did the writing life first call to you? Did you shout, “yes!” Or run the other way?

I began writing romance novels in middle school, starring me and all my friends. They were often confiscated by my English teacher, who didn’t approve. I returned to writing seriously when my sons were small. I began with essays about parenting and family, and moved on to feature articles for local newspapers and magazines.

Why did you decide to write for teens specifically?

My sons were 13 and 16; they both liked to read fantasy (and so did I.) I had teenagers in and out of my house all day long. I guess I wanted to write the book that I wished had existed when I was their age. When I sat down to write The Warrior Heir (Hyperion, 2006), I had little more to draw upon than my lifetime as a reader and lover of story. As I got into it, I began hearing about various YA rules (like word count, oh, my) and I finally just decided to give the book the words it needed and see where it fit. Not something I’d recommend, but that’s what I did.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles?

When I finished WH, I began shopping it on my own while I wrote a sequel. It was a very slow process, because I followed all the rules (no simultaneous submissions, etc.) Over several years, I had some interest expressed by various publishers, did lots of revisions, learned a lot more about writing, and wrote two more novels. I’ve heard lots of debate about agent or no agent, but the key for me was finding a good agent.

Congratulations on The Warrior Heir (Hyperion, 2006)(excerpt)! What was the initial inspiration for this book?

There’s this wonderful quote from Tolkien in which he says that ideas for stories come from the “leaf mold of the mind.” And I think it’s true: all of the experiences you have, the people you meet, the places you go: they all build into this rich humus that grows fiction.

I had this notion about writing a truly American fantasy, set in a small Midwestern college town. Small towns are like laboratories: people interact who would never encounter each other in a big city. You can never escape your history in a small town.

I wanted to write a fairly classic story about a young hero with room for growth: someone who considers himself ordinary, but learns he’s capable of greatness in extraordinary circumstances. I love the idea of transformation–it makes me think I can transform myself.

I’ve spent a lot of time prowling through graveyards and digging through dusty old records, uncovering family stories. My roots are in the Appalachians of southern Ohio, and there’s a strong history of magic there. My grandmother was supposed to have had the “second sight”–she read the cards for people. When I was in college, I took an English literature tour to England: went to Stratford and the Lake District and the theatres in London. I incorporated elements of all of those things into Warrior Heir, and its sequel, The Wizard Heir (Hyperion, 2007).

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

I’d written four books over as many years, had left my first agent, and began the agent hunt again. I sent out 25 targeted queries to agents that I had researched. I received two positive responses, and signed with Michelle Wolfson of Ralph Vicinanza Ltd. Five years after I wrote my first draft of WH, it ended up going to auction.

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

Like many writers, I find it challenging to decide where the story begins (in one early draft I found myself telling the story of how Jack’s parents met!) I have a weakness for prologues. I’m enthralled with all my characters, so I have to remind myself to back off a bit on the adults and allow the young characters to stay center stage.

Finally, logistically, it’s a challenge to write novel-length fiction in the end bits of time, after working the day job. There are times I’ve literally ended up with my face on the keyboard.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

It’s not for the faint hearted. Don’t be a writer unless you must. If you must, then take it as seriously as any other profession. Do your homework. Learn the rules, and if you break them, do it for good reason. Find a good critique group. Get used to revision. It’s very freeing to learn that you can drop a character, or change his gender, or change an ending-and the work isn’t broken. It may improve. Revision is a creative process, too. Know that you’re the one who cares the most about your book.

How about those interested in writing fantasy specifically?

Read widely in all genres, including fantasy. Start with the basics of story: character, setting, plot. If they don’t work, it doesn’t matter how much magic you layer in. It’s not about the magic, after all, it’s about the people.

What is your favorite recent YA fantasy novel (other than your own) and why?

Oh, dear. How to choose? I’ll just say I read a wide variety of fantasy books, YA, MG, mainstream, and crossover. There’s a list of books I’ve read on my Website.

Some favorite fantasy authors are Tamora Pierce (love those strong female characters), Jonathan Stroud, Neil Gaiman, Alice Hoffman (tiny magical elements glittering like quartz in the sand, and you think, what just happened?), Mercedes Lackey (timeless and ageless appeal), Libba Bray (author interview), Holly Black (author interview), Jo Rowling. In mainstream fantasy, I love George R.R. Martin. Plus I’m a LOTR nerd. I mean, I have a song from the movie as the ringtone on my phone.

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

People ask my husband, When does Cinda write? and he says, All the time. Writing has displaced many things I used to do, but I’m hoping to get back to them. I have a large weaving loom, and love to spin and weave and quilt. At one time I was in a folk music band, and I’d love to pick up the guitar again. And I enjoy cooking and spending time with our family.

What can your fans look forward to next?

The Wizard Heir (Hyperion Books for Children) is set for release in Spring 2007. The first chapter (PDF file) is posted to the website. And I’m working on a third YA fantasy.

Author Interview: Melissa R. Schorr on Goy Crazy

Melissa R. Schorr on Melissa R. Schorr: “I was born and raised in New York City, and still consider myself a New Yorker at heart, but it’s become more of a love-hate relationship–I love that I get to live everywhere else while my editors live there. I studied journalism at Northwestern University outside Chicago, and started out working at Working Woman and GQ magazines, before heading out to be a feature writer and columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. I spent a year at M.I.T. near Boston as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow studying health writing, then moved to San Francisco and wrote for The Oakland Tribune and San Francisco magazine, and have written freelance articles for People magazine, Self, the Wall Street Journal and many other publications. Most recently, I’ve been living in Seattle with my husband, my baby daughter, and our Westie, Bailey. Goy Crazy is my first novel.”

Goy Crazy by Melissa R. Schorr (Hyperion, 2006). From the promotional copy: “Rachel Lowenstein can’t help it. She’s got a massive crush on a goy: Luke Christensen, the gorgeous star of the basketball team at St. Joseph’s prep. But as the name implies, he’s not exactly in Rachel’s tribe. Rachel just knows her parents would never approve. Then Rachel’s Jewish grandmother issues a stern edict––’Don’t go with the goyim!’-– sealing Rachel’s fate and presenting her with a serious dilemma. Everyone’s got an opinion–from her annoying neighbor Howard to her newly social-climbing best friend. Should Rachel follow her heart and turn her back on her faith? Or should she heed her family’s advice and try and find a nice Jewish boy? With an unforgettable cast of characters and razor-sharp wit, Melissa Schorr’s debut novel is an engaging comedy about a girl’s decision to go goy crazy.” Ages 12-up.

How did writing first call to you?

Growing up as an only child, I had no siblings to play with–and this was back in the stone ages before GameBoys and Xboxes, IMing and cell phones, of course. My mother was a music teacher in upper Manhattan, and every day after elementary school, I would walk to the local library across the street to wait for her to pick me up. That’s where I discovered books.

Everyone knew I was a voracious reader–I think one year, for my birthday, I was given four copies of Little Women, which at the time, made me cry. My favorites series books were C.S. Lewis, Little House, Wizard of Oz, the Great Brain, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew.

I began writing short stories in fifth grade, and filled four diaries growing up, all of which I still have. Somewhere along the way, I was informed (misinformed, maybe) that you couldn’t just get out of school and become a novelist–you had to do something practical first. So, I became a journalist.

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

My path is really more like a marathon. It goes back almost a decade, when I was a journalist fresh out of college working as a researcher at GQ magazine. The editors ran an article by a girl about how she loved dating Jewish men. And I marched into the editor’s office and said, “I need to write the flip side –why I’m a Jewish girl who never ends up dating Jewish men.” To be honest, I don’t know where I got the chutzpah.

When that essay came out, it was called, “The Joys of Goys.” And it got a lot of attention–angry letters from rabbis, marriage proposals from prison inmates–and one letter from a literary agent named Steven Malk, who was also just starting out.

He suggested I expand the essay into a non-fiction book. But there were two problems. No one wanted to buy it, because it–gasp–joked about religion. And the other problem was that around the same time, I ended up meeting this great guy, ironically, a nice Jewish boy, who ended up being my husband. So that book wasn’t meant to be, and we let the proposal lie dormant.

And this is truly a great story of faith by an agent in a writer, because years later, we were talking about another project, when Steve offhandedly suggested that I would have a great voice for writing a YA book–and I could even revive that old concept. And it was like a light bulb went off–bing!

And I spent my entire summer, which is the only sunny time of the year in Seattle, so no small sacrifice, writing the first 75 pages, which he was able to sell in about a week, to my editor at Hyperion. Believe me, as a first-time author, I know how truly incredibly lucky that was and how unreal this story must seem. I was also glad that my agent’s belief in me all those years ago finally paid off.

Congratulations on the publication of Goy Crazy (Hyperion, 2006). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

As you might have guessed, this is a very autobiographical story. My parents also always pressured me as a teenage to date Jewish boys, and my own grandmother, like Rachel’s, once actually said to me, in her thick European accent: “Mal-ees-ssa, don’t go with the goy-im.”

So of course, like every teenager, I did the exact opposite–I dated lots of guys in college, none of whom were Jewish. Another reason I wrote the book is because this is an issue that has definitely affected my life–I think everyone’s family these days includes someone in an interfaith or interracial relationship. And I think the book tries hard not to make any judgments about interfaith dating, which is a reality, but will help teens and parents talk about the issue, and maybe help any teen also dealing with that feeling of pressure.

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

After the book sold, I was given around nine months to finish writing the manuscript. And a few weeks later, I found out I was pregnant! A major event, you could say.

So, suddenly, I had two very pressing due dates that August–my manuscript and my baby’s impending birth. But thankfully, my daughter waited until I handed in the book to my editor–and arrived two days later. Very thoughtful of her, don’t you think?

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

For me, the main challenge in creating it was being a first-timer in writing fiction, coming from an exclusively journalistic background. I don’t have an MFA. I’m not in a writer’s group. It was a whole new world I had to teach myself–things like plot, dialogue, pacing. I just figured it out as I went.

Once it came out, there were new challenges. Aside from worrying that my parents would disown me, there was the subject. Most people find the concept hilarious, but some don’t like it–my hometown bookstore, where the book takes place, has declined to host an event for me, because they find the title offensive. Others have seemed scared to talk about the issue, or to joke about it, I guess, which is sad.

What do you love about your writing life?

What I’ve always loved about the life of a writer is not having to wake up early for a 9 to 5 job. I’ve never been a morning person, and publishing hours always suited me. But with the arrival of a baby, I’m up at 7 a.m. every day, anyway. So, I guess, I love not having to wear pantyhose or suits, ever. What I love about writing itself is the giddy feeling when a really good line or idea comes into your head, and gives you the giggles.

What are its tougher aspects?

The realization that, really, this is just the first hurdle. Yes, getting published is an amazing accomplishment–until you realize your challenges aren’t over. Now, you have to worry about having your book get noticed among the gazillion other books coming out each year, continuing to stay published, and getting comfortable speaking in public at schools and book signings.

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

I wish I could say something inspiring or intriguing, like doing Triathlons or collecting Pez dispensers, but honestly, I’d have to admit, walking my dog and changing diapers.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m really looking forward to writing my next YA book, I’m noodling on a couple of different topics, but am waiting for inspiration to strike to tell me which to do first. Also, I wouldn’t be averse to writing a sequel to Goy Crazy.

Author Interview: Karen Halvorsen Schreck on Dream Journal

Karen Halvorsen Schreck is the author of a young adult novel, Dream Journal (Hyperion, 2006) and an award-winning children’s book, Lucy’s Family Tree, illustrated by Stephen Gassler (Tilbury House, 2000). Her short stories have appeared in various literary journals and have received a number of awards, including a Pushcart Prize and an Illinois State Arts Council Grant. Karen lives with her husband and children in Wheaton, Illinois.

Karen Halvorsen Schreck on Karen Halvorsen Schreck: “I was the only child of two older parents who were passionate about their work as musicians and college professors. They shared their love of art and learning with me, which was a great gift with one string attached: from the get-go I had to rise to the most adult of occasions. I didn’t always succeed. For example: I saw my first opera at the Chicago Lyric when I was five years old, but when all was sung and done, of course I couldn’t remember anything but the seat upholstery–how it itched. I traveled to Europe several times with my dad’s singing group–I even spent a surreal afternoon with the queen of Holland–but what really fascinated me during those tours were the many variations on the chocolate bar.

“Mostly I wandered around the seemingly interchangeable hotels and cathedrals and pretended something truly dramatic was happening: the stories in my head. On the surface I was a reasonably well-adjusted, if middle-aged kid–terribly, horribly good for a terribly, horribly long time. I acted out only in my imagination. Real play–crazy fun–I experienced this only when I had my own children.

“Ultimately I joined the family business, getting my MA and PhD in Creative Writing and English. Since then I’ve mostly taught, worked in advertising (I’ve waxed poetic on everything from Christian Dior gowns to Godiva truffles to designer furniture–in other words, things I could never afford and wouldn’t buy if I could), written fiction as much as possible, married the photographer and all-around-good-man Gregory Halvorsen Schreck, and built a family.”

Dream Journal by Karen Halvorsen Schreck (Hyperion, 2006). From the ARC promo copy: “‘Will she die?’ Sixteen-year-old Livy Moore has finally summoned the courage to ask about her mother’s illness. But she already knows the answer: for two years, Livy has watched her mother grow weaker. And until now, Livy has survived the pain of losing her mother by shuttering herself off from the rest of the world. She has alienated herself from her best friend, and barely speaks to her father, never sharing with him the grief that is tearing them both apart. But as Livy gets swept up in a strong but ill-fated crush and her mother’s condition worsens, she must learn to trust not only those around her, but herself.”

How did writing first call to you?

I think I first called to it. As in: Help! I’m lonely and bored! I’ve got to escape! Or: Help! I’m confused and scared! I need an answer, or at least a distraction!

As I said, I made up stories all the time–and not just in hotels in cathedrals. I felt a real urgency about the whole enterprise, actually, and I did a pretty good job of straddling my imaginary and real worlds. Luckily, my parents encouraged this–or at least, they ignored me when I was whooping it up in the living room on a black stallion only I could see. And they kept me well stocked in books, bless them. Oz, Wonderland, Avonlea, and Narnia provided great alternatives to suburbia.

I started writing my stories when I was about ten, and I never really stopped–or, more truthfully, I never really stopped wanting to write. I remember seeing Madeleine L’Engle and Marguerite Henry give readings when I was in grade school, and vowing: I’m going to do that someday. They both signed my copies of their books, and I studied their signatures, wondering if it was something about the loop and swirl of their letters that helped these women make what they made out of words.

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

I’d call the whole experience more of a marathon than anything else. I’ve certainly had to pace myself for the long haul. I hunkered down into fiction writing when I was in college–twenty-some years ago now–and proceeded to doggedly write my way through the decades. I published some stories and articles, won a few nice prizes and grants along the way. But mostly I tucked the work in when I could.

In my darker moments, I felt like a sham. For heaven’s sake! I’d stew. Will ya just stick with some legitimate, consistent, and (at the very least) slightly lucrative career! Greg kept the faith during these times, thankfully. And thankfully, too, my stewing always cooled to a simmer, and then I’d snap out of it.

Then Greg and I adopted our first child, our daughter Magdalena, and life transformed. In fact (and I’m just realizing this right now as I write), having a child reinvigorated me with the kind of urgency I felt as a child about making up stories. Hm. I wonder if this also has anything to do with the fact that I no longer wanted to write for adults. I wanted to write for Magdalena. So I did, during her naps. Suddenly I was punching the clock: she was down for the count in her crib, and I was at my desk. I loved this time–the discipline and regularity of my work and her breathing in the next room. She taught me to turn on a dime and to appreciate and use (nearly) every spare minute I had, and I’ll be forever grateful.

Actually the summer after Magdalena came home qualifies as my single experience of “sprinting.” When I realized that I wanted to write a book for her–one she might want or need to read when she was older–I cranked out Lucy’s Family Tree. This took me a little over a month. A few months after this, Tilbury House accepted LFT for publication. Ah, those halcyon days. Then the publication process slowed to stumbles. LFT’s release date was delayed by a year because of an office flood. Then the date was postponed again because the original illustrator tore her rotator cuff. Magdalena was going on four when the book finally came out. But there was a pay-off: she immediately understood that I’d dedicated LFT to her and she was proud. She strutted around readings like she was responsible for the book, and, really, she was.

Congratulations on the publication of Dream Journal (Hyperion, 2006). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My mother’s death from cancer when I was thirteen. I’m reading a nonfiction book right now called Never the Same–Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent by Donna Schuurman (St. Martin’s Press, 2003). Never the same? I’ll say. My feelings about my mother surge up at the weirdest times, and at the most predictable ones. I missed her a lot right after I became a mom, so I guess it’s no coincidence that I started writing Dream Journal soon after I finished Lucy’s Family Tree.

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

In my early twenties, I wrote a number of stories where the mother/father/aunt/fill-in-the-significant-other-blank dies. But I never wanted to crack one of those stories open and try to find a novel.

Then caring for Magdalena pretty much cracked me open; it was like I got to know myself all over again–the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful, too. So this is love, I kept thinking. So this is anger, frustration, patience, grace. We are so vulnerable to each other, she and I! Which led to: What would it be like to lose my daughter? What would it be like for my daughter to lose me? And: Did my mom feel all this?

There was so much I wanted to ask my mom–more than ever before. So the immediate inspiration for Dream Journal was becoming a mother and finding that I needed to talk to a mother (albeit a fictional one) in the most profound way possible. The more long-term inspiration was, of course, my old friend and enemy, Loss. Ultimately I just wanted to write the book I wished I could have read when I was a teen, and that I still needed to read as an adult.

I plunged in and stuck with it, draft after draft after doggone draft. I didn’t want death to be the subplot, kind of lurking in the background, something the characters had already endured. I wanted them to go through the illness; I wanted to get the last days and the funeral and the aftermath right. And damn it, I wanted the chance to go through it all again, too, the way I wish I could have the first time. I wanted to be bad instead of so terribly, horribly good.

Dream Journal took me nearly four years to write and revise; what started as four hundred-some pages wound up being about one hundred and seventy. I finally felt like I’d done as much as I could with the manuscript, and that’s when I sent it to my agent Sara Crowe, who agreed to represent it. Some time passed, and then Hyperion agreed to publish it. This felt like a miracle. And since then, it’s been a pretty blissful year and a half, working through final revisions with my editor Jennifer Besser.

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

First and foremost I wanted to make sure that I didn’t recreate my actual family; I didn’t want to write a memoir. I’m happy to say Dream Journal is fiction. It’s rooted in emotional reality, of course, but my friends and my father have said: What’s true here? It feels real, but we don’t remember this happening! And to that I always say: Whew. Got that right.

And I’d never crafted anything this long before, only to rewrite it again and again when this twist or that turn led only to a dead end. So I learned a lot about revision and plotting, as well.

What do you love about your writing life?

I love losing myself and finding myself in any mind, body, voice, place, detail that I want. Making a mess and cleaning it up, or not. And how small things can hold so much meaning–that cosmos-in-a-hazelnut kind of a thing. Then there’s the way a sentence can unfold crazily, snagging the right words as it winds its way toward sense. And those words–how they feel on my tongue and sing in my ears. And the quiet, of course. The candles on my homely desk. The way I feel when everything is going right: focused, and contained by the computer screen in front of me, and poised for whatever’s next. The surprises. I love the surprises. The healing that comes when I least expect it.

After a few good hours of work, I sometimes feel buoyant, a little high. Not too mention happy, sane, and ready to meet the world. You probably can see it on my face when I’ve had a good writing day. I certainly can feel it in my body. I’ve got energy to burn; I don’t even have a problem keeping up with Teo, my four-year old son.

What are its tougher aspects?

Finding the hours to achieve the above. Unfortunately I need consistent blocks of uninterrupted time to get something done. I’m juggling a lot right now, and that’s been taking its toll, most specifically on the YA novel I’m trying to write, but more generally on my faith in my work.

I hate it when I stop believing in the story I’m telling. When that happens I can start avoiding work altogether, or undermining it. Oh, it can get ugly, and I can get ugly, until one day I’m able to fling myself at my computer for a few hours and then I’m usually a believer again.

On top of the time-factor, I’m also feeling rather exposed having my first novel out in the world. Stark naked, in fact. I’m trying to do more yoga, take some lessons from the kids on immediacy, eat good food, pray.

I mean, Come on, Ego. Give me a break. I did the best I could!

But this is a hard challenge for me, releasing this book into the world. I’m working hard not to run and duck for cover. I launched a website, for instance. I’m scheduling readings.

I never knew self-promotion could be so blamed difficult and time-consuming! But ultimately I hope that I’ll be able to make contact with some readers who appreciate the book, and this might act as an anecdote for the other tough challenge of this kind of work: the isolation that can set in. Assuming you’ve had consistent blocks of uninterrupted time to get something done.

What advice do you have for beginning authors?

Write the story you want and need to read.

And here is a message that is also to myself: Appreciate the work of others. Learn from the work of others. But do not compare your work to theirs.

How about novelists specifically?

In my experience, it’s all about revision, so pace yourself for the journey. If you’re a perfectionist, give yourself a break because it’s bound to get chaotic. Why not enjoy the chaos, or at least accept it? It might reveal something if you leave it sprawled across the page for a while. When the writing feels a little more like play, you can always go back and shake out some cosmos.

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

I love to go to plays, movies, concerts, restaurants, museums, galleries, etc. I really love to travel. I like hiking, camping, and cross-country skiing. Once in a while I get to do these things, and it’s great.

But at this stage in my life, I find myself at home a lot, hanging out with my family and friends. I put in a garden this spring, and it went wild on me. I was expecting this decorous Victorian knot/Zen kitchen “space” and it turned into something out of “Little Shop of Horrors.” The sunflowers are taller than our house. I’m considering investing in a machete to hack through the vines. But I’ve grown a lot of delicious vegetables, and Greg and I have been having fun figuring out what to do with them.

What can your fans look forward to next?

My fans? Um…well, the season is changing, so I’ll probably be wrapping up their extension cords and storing them down in the basement.

(Pause for a beat. In case anyone decides to laugh.)

I’m working on a YA novel set in the late 1930s. It draws on a story of mine that won a Pushcart Prize a few years back. That story was based on some of my father’s boyhood experiences, most of which were informed by his younger sister, who had cerebral palsy. For me this book is also about money and class–the aspirations of an immigrant family devastated by the Depression. And it’s about a kid who wants to be an artist, in spite of everything.

Editor Interview: Nancy Feresten of National Geographic Children’s Books

Nancy Feresten has been editing children’s books for almost over 20 years. After earning a degree in English Literature from Yale, she began her career at Harper & Row Junior Books Group and has since worked at W. H. Freeman, Scholastic, and National Geographic, where she is now Vice President, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Children’s Books, an imprint that specializes in children’s nonfiction and reference.

What first inspired your passion for children’s books? Were you an avid young reader or did you come to this love later in life?

I read voraciously all through my childhood, and when others left children’s books behind, I continued to read my old favorites and discover new ones. When I graduated college and embarked on a career in medical editing, I found that the books I still loved most to read were children’s books.

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

When I realized that though I spent my days editing medical professional books, I spent my spare time reading children’s books, I decided to change my focus and went looking for a job in children’s books.

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

An editor has a two-pronged responsibility. It is an editor’s job to find and nurture powerful writers and help them do their very best work, and it is also the editor’s job to select books that will be meaningful and attractive to children and the parents, teachers, and librarians who select books for them.

Have you worked with both fiction and non-fiction? If so, how do the processes compare? What do you like most (and/or least) about each?

I have worked in both fiction and non-fiction, though I have spent far more time on non-fiction. Both genres are fun and challenging. In both, the goal is to support the author and the rest of the book team (including illustrator, photo editor, designer, etc.) in telling a compelling story.

Could you offer us an overview of the your children’s nonfiction and reference publishing program at National Geographic? Age ranges, types of books published, etc.?

At National Geographic, we publish nonfiction and reference books primarily for children ages 7 to 14. We have three distinct publishing strands: narrative trade nonfiction, school library series nonfiction, and trade reference. We will publish about 85 titles in 2006.

What are you looking for? In which areas are you looking to grow?

Right now, we are focused on expanding our school library series publishing.

What are the particular challenges in marketing non-fiction for young readers? What are the benefits and encouraging signs?

The good news is that nonfiction is coming into its own among teachers. For many years, kids were taught to read by reading fiction. Now, with new research showing that 80% of adult reading is nonfiction, the education community has developed a new respect for nonfiction reading, which they are actively passing along to their students.

Do most of your manuscripts come directly from writers or from agents? What recommendations do you have for individual writers in the submission process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

Our manuscripts come from agents and from authors we already know or whose work we know. We are not accepting unsolicited manuscripts.

For those submitting manuscripts to any publisher:

1. Know your market. Visit bookstores and libraries and read what is being published right now. Read books that have recently won prizes or appeared on Best Book lists. Know how your work fits in. Understand what age child it is for. Know what type of book it is and how long that kind of book should be. Demonstrate your knowledge in your cover letter.

2. Don’t underestimate your competition. Serious children’s writers labor long and hard to do the very best research and create the best and most appropriate text. In the case of nonfiction or nonfiction-based fiction, do first-rate research, using primary sources as much as possible. Wait to send in a manuscript until you have read the work of others and are satisfied that yours is as good as the best of them.

3. By all means read your work to the children in your life, but don’t use their enthusiasm as evidence that your work is publishable. Editors are very skeptical of this sort of claim.

4. If you write a picture book manuscript, don’t try to find an illustrator for it. That is the job of the publisher.

5. Grow a thick skin. Even the very best writers get rejected a lot.

How about with illustrators? Any insights, recommendations, or cautionary words for them?

My advice to illustrators is fairly similar to my advice to authors. Know what’s going on in the world of children’s book illustration. Make sure that your work is special and appropriate. Then make appointments to see art directors and editors. And stick to it.

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

As I said, we are not taking unsolicted manuscripts. And I don’t encourage authors or illustrators to set their sights on a particular house. Write what works for you and then find the right publisher for that project. Many highly accomplished authors and illustrators work with several houses.

What titles are you especially excited about in 2007 and why?

In 2007, we are continuing our tradition of showing children new ways of understanding history.

1607: A New Look at Jamestown by Karen Lange explores the settlement of Jamestown through the most recent archaeological discoveries at the site. It will be published in the spring to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the settlement.

A World Made New by Marc Aronson (author interview) and John Glenn explores the causes and consequences of the Age of Exploration, showing how it changed not just the Americas but the whole world.

Both of these books are graphically engaging and highly illustrated with photographs and archival materials.

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

We work with librarians and teachers in several ways: both before and after the books are published.

To make sure that we publish books that will resonate with librarians, we have a library advisory board that guides us in our long-term planning and series development. To make sure that our books work for teachers and students, we bring our books into schools for testing.

Once a book is published, we make sure that librarians know it is there by sending out tens of thousands of catalogs and hundreds of sample copies to key decision makers around the country. We also submit books to review journals and prize committees, attend both teacher and librarian conferences, and advertise in the professional journals that teachers and librarians read.

What do you do outside your editorial/publishing life?

I read, knit, hang out with family and friends, work out, do laundry, watch TV, take walks in the woods, go to the movies, all the usual stuff.

Cynsational News & Links

Tricycle Press and Susan Taylor Brown invite you to join them as they celebrate the release of Susan’s debut novel, Hugging the Rock (PDF excerpt). Books Inc., 301 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 27. Hear a reading from the book and meet the author. Drinks and snacks will be provided. What’s a Rock? A rock is someone who loves you no matter what, someone who helps you find your inner strength when you feel like everything around you is crumbling. Who’s Your Rock? Bring your rock and be entered to win an autographed copy of Hugging the Rock. Read a recent Cynsations interview with Susan Taylor Brown.

Interview with author-illustrator Amelia Lau Carling, whose books include Mama and Papa Have a Store/Alfombras de Asserín (both Groundwood, 2005) interview with author-illustrator, René Colato Laínez, whose books include I Am René, the Boy/Soy René, el niño, illustrated by Fabiola Graullera Ramirez (Piñata Books, 2005), both by Aline Pereira from papertigers. View an art gallery from Lela Torres. See also “Bilingual Storytime: 10 Best Books to Read to a Young Audience” by Ana-Elba Pavon and “Wisdom and Heritage: Stories about Grandparents and their Grandchildren” by Aline Pereira.

Sarah Beth Durst: official site of the debut author of Into the Wild (Razorbill, 2007). Sarah is based in Stony Brook, New York. See also Sarah’s Journal.

The next YA Authors Cafe will be Tuesday, Sept. 26 at 8:30 p.m. EST, 7:30 p.m. CST, and 5:30 Pacific. The topic of the chat is “Secrets of YA Lit: Grabbing Teen Readers” and our panel of young adult authors will be Robin Merrow MacCready, author of Buried (Dutton, 2006), Mary Beth Miller, author of On the Head of a Pin (Dutton, 2006)(excerpt), and Laurie Faria Stolarz, author of Bleed (Hyperion, 2006)(author interview). All YA Authors Cafe chats are held Tuesday evenings at

Cynsations has a reputation as a source of author/illustrator interviews, but we talk to other industry professionals as well. If you missed them the first time around, here are those links:


Agent Interview: Gabriella Ambrosioni from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna. Gabriella is based in Italy.

Agent Interview: Rosemary Canter of PDF from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna. PDF is “one of Europe’s leading literary and talent agencies.” Rosemary is based in London.

Agent Interview: Costanza Fabbri of Gabriella Ambrosioni Literary Agency from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna. The agency represents authors, illustrators, publishers and other agents for foreign rights.

Agent Interview: Barry Goldblatt from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna. Barry represents children’s-YA authors and is based in the United States.

Agent Interview: Rosemary Stimola from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna. Rosemary represents children’s-YA authors and author-illustrators. She’s based in the United States.


Attorney Interview: Aimée Bissonette on Law & Publishing from Cynsations.


Publicist Interview: Aimée Bissonette of Winding Oak from Cynsations.

Publicist Interview: Rebecca Grose of SoCal Public Relations from Cynsations.
Publicist Interview: Susan Salzman Raab of Raab Associates from Cynsations. Editors and Publishers

Editor Interview: Victoria Arms of Bloomsbury USA from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna.

Editorial Director Interview: Shannon Barefield of Carolrhoda Books from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna.

Editor Interview: Nancy Feresten of National Geographic Children’s Books from Cynsations.

Publisher Interview: Miriam Hees on Blooming Tree Press from Cynsations.

Publishing Director Interview: Anne McNeil of Hodder Children’s Books (UK) from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna.
Editor Interview: Stacy Whitman of Mirrorstone Books (an imprint of Wizards of the Coast) from Cynsations.

Author Feature: Rita Williams-Garcia

Rita Williams-Garcia on Rita Williams-Garcia: “If you asked teenage Rita about an important life event, she would have said, ‘beating my brother at chess.’

“Russell taught me how to play so he could have someone to beat. Russell was Bobby Fischer and I was Boris Spassky. According to Russell’s rules, Americans went first and Russians last. I got used to being on the black side of the board and waiting for ‘Fischer’ to open while I waited my turn and usual beatings, preceded by taunts and insults to Sputnik. Russell checked out a different chess book every other day so I didn’t think I’d ever win a game.

“Well, one night while we were playing I realized I had gained the advantage in our game and was poised to knock down his king. This was too great to be a good sport. I didn’t know how to close the deal, but I felt a funky chicken victory wobble coming on.

“I was silly enough to mention my great milestone on one of my first college dates. Looking back, I understand why the guy didn’t ask me out again. I still think about that game, but for other reasons. I’ve even included it in a true story titled, ‘About Russell.'”

Note: “About Russell” appears in Dirty Laundry, Stories About Family Secrets edited by Lisa Rowe Fraustino (Viking, 1998).

How did writing first call to you? Did you answer or, at first, run away?

I had a head start. I entertained myself with stories in my wooden playpen and chose writing stories in kindergarten over coloring. To the humiliation and frustration of my siblings, I quit many a dodge-ball or kickball game to think up a story.

At twelve, I found the Writer’s Market and the Writer’s Handbook at the library and learned to write query letters and prepare manuscripts. I wrote stories, sketches, and ideas every day. I loved receiving envelopes addressed to me from publishers. True, the envelopes contained rejections, but I didn’t care initially. I was a writer!

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

I made my first sale to Highlights Magazine when I was fourteen. My next sale was a short story to Essence Magazine as a junior in college. They never published it, but they sent the check in time to pay for my summer dorm bill.

By the end of college I had a draft of Blue Tights (Dutton, 1998). I hoped to sell it quickly but it was nearly ten years before I had a contract. The timing was all wrong for this story. Joyce made poor choices based on her poor self-image. In the early eighties we weren’t ready to have a black female character who wasn’t a traditional role model. Black characters were still sparse in teen literature so editors were skittish about this character with low self-esteem issues. “Couldn’t she fight racism or have some higher goal?” What was wrong with liking herself as a goal? Unwilling to compromise or revise, I put the manuscript away.

My job as a promotional writer had been cut when my company was bought, so I took the administrative position I was offered to help out at home. I was now married and had my first daughter. That only pushed me to dust off the old manuscript and try again. This time I made revisions I could live with, yet maintain the character’s integrity. I did my research and looked for publishers who sought “realistic” teen fiction. They call it “edgy,” these days.

Rosemary Brosnan at Lodestar/Dutton [now HarperCollins] believed in the story and responded to my query letter–which she really liked! All of those Writer’s Handbook articles paid off. Sure, we had a lot of work ahead of us–only I didn’t know that. There was much to do. I had to narrow the point of view, toss out a chapter or two, and examine my story choices. The plowing, was brutal but I’m glad I did the work. I was finally a writer, soon to be published author!

Could you briefly tell us about your earliest novels–Blue Tights (Dutton/Lodestar, 1987) and Fast Talk on a Slow Track (Penguin/Lodestar, 1991)? What did each of them teach you about writing? About yourself?

Blue Tights was my initiation into the world of publishing for children. I didn’t know what YA meant. I had a picture of my reader, and she was a fourteen-year-old black girl. No one else mattered. Rosemary explained that teachers and librarians were instrumental in putting books in kids’ hands. I nodded, but I wasn’t really receiving. I think the biggest shock was meeting my audience, which was black, white, Asian, Ukrainian, Hispanic, and so on. Females and males of all ages.

Fast Talk was my first foray into writing a male character. I flipped esteem around, giving Denzel too much ego and very little likeability factor. The last thing I wanted to do with this character was blame conditions for his failure at the Princeton summer orientation program. I wanted to give him all of the power, all of the choices, and, yes, all of the blame.

With Fast Talk I learned a hard lesson, which was to breathe and walk away from the work. The symmetries that I aimed for in the ending were too on-the-nose. I’m slow by nature. It took forever for me to be born. I’ve learned to not fight my nature, to read better and to be honest. I still admire Fast Talk.

Though both of your earlier novels were critically acclaimed, arguably Like Sisters on the Home Front (Penguin/Lodestar, 1995) was your breakout book, the one that secured your place as a YA star. Ten years later, what does the novel mean to you? How did it feel to receive a 1996 Coretta Scott King Honor Award for this book?

I didn’t know how Like Sisters would be perceived, but I knew it was needed. This was the story I was born to tell.

Embarrassing but true, although my work phone rang off the hook that Monday after ALA and I heard the congratulatory messages, I was in my work head and thought, that’s nice.

Then Rosemary called. She was excited, bracing me for the news. When she told me Like Sisters was named as an honor book I was more excited for her than I was for myself. I used to tell her, “Don’t go nominating me for any Corettas. I just want to write my stories.”

Clearly, I didn’t know how the process worked. My paperback deal from Viking editor Sharyn November was the first real money I received as a writer. I soon received offers from other publishers. I was very flattered to have met with editor Andrea Davis Pinkney, who was spearheading Jump at the Sun for Hyperion. It was an amazing time.

My ex-husband and I had visited Atlanta where we met Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz (widow of Malcolm X). During her speech, Dr. Shabazz even remarked that she and Coretta had become Like Sisters—unrelated to my novel, but oh, how that resonated with me. I felt like Gayle, overwhelmed by The Telling.

My favorite of your novels is Every Time A Rainbow Dies (HarperCollins/Amistad, 2001). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

It is rare that violent crimes against black women receive media coverage. When the Tawana Brawley incident broke about fifteen years ago, I was interested in the continued victimization she endured as a young woman and as an African American. Even though her account proved problematic, I remained interested in public attitudes toward sexual assault victims.

I intended to write a story about our failure to help an African American girl and the reluctant friendship she forms with a young man. I was cleaning up Fast Talk and writing a draft of Like Sisters when I began notes for Rainbow. I didn’t get to Rainbow until about 1997. It just wasn’t working. I worried that I had lost the drive for the story.

I went for walks in Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood where the story would take place. The more I saw and heard the neighborhood, the more I realized my characters were not African American but Caribbean. Ah! The girl was an enigma to me, but the boy, Thulani, was clear. I knew his back story instantly. I understood his afflictions and his responses.

The focus of the story changed as my characters became real. I had to abandon revictimization as a focus. Most women or girls don’t report rape and most women of color don’t receive any form of justice. I could work that angle, but that wasn’t where my heart was. I did know what Thulani and Ysa were to each other and that this was stronger than formula.

I think this is why I admire Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable (Atheneum, 2005)(excerpt)(author interview from BookPage), because it gives us more insight beyond the realm of a traditional story centered around rape.

I also thought about how young people relate to each other and felt sorry for them. So much indiscriminant sexual behavior. What is the point in indulging in what you can’t feel? In Rainbow, I sought to create body and soul healing in two people with walls around them. I wanted the reader to appreciate the difficulty in getting to the point of being ready.

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

Oh, gee. I’ve been derailed so many times. The writing didn’t really take off until about ’98 and then I had it right by ’99. There was so much going on in my life. The divorce and the death of my mother-in-law, plus my mother’s grand stroke made it hard to stay focused.

At one time I said the writing was horrible, but it was actually quite good. Things had to calm down before I could read my work.

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

I was nervous about writing outside of my culture and didn’t want to exoticize my characters. I immersed myself in the sounds and expressions of Kreyol (Haitian Creole) and Jamaican Patois to give my characters distinct voices. Although I didn’t use a lot of the expressions, knowing them gave me a feel for my people. Expressions reveal humor and perspective. Thulani’s sister-in-law, Shakira, was one of my successes. She wrote herself.

I learned a lot about birds and bird keeping, but for all of my reading and standing on rooftops with bird keepers, I used just enough material.

That’s a discipline within itself, learning when to pull back on research. Research material adds to the authenticity, but does it heighten the story?

When I was a teen, I read Ayn Rand‘s The Fountainhead, devouring every inch of the architectural detail. I thought that was so cool that Rand knew all of that stuff. This made sense. I was into knowing as much stuff as I could. These days I ask myself, “So Rita, do you need this?

Crown Heights was the perfect location for Rainbow. I stretched location to enhance Thulani’s ability to see all the named streets from the top of his brownstone. I chose a brownstone to overlook Eastern Parkway and the West Indian Day Parade. There was that beautiful Grand Army Plaza Library. The Botanical Gardens. A great cultural mix, depending upon what side of the Parkway you stood. Caribbean, African, Orthodox Jewish, African American, Asian, Islamic. People were giving up Brownstones owned by families for generations. Every element of the story was in Crown Heights. This was the place!

If you look closely at any of my characters, you’ll see a consistent thread of psychological behavior. I always have to know why–and sometimes I don’t until I’m far into the writing. Some characters’ behaviors are more on the surface, while others’ behaviors are deep-seeded to mimic true behavior.

I run the risk of having that character misunderstood, but I think some murkiness in teen literature is okay. Kids are better readers than we give them credit. Thulani and Ysa can be easily misunderstood, but their behaviors make incredible sense.

Given his emotional experience, could Thulani behave like a classic hero for Ysa? He could be heroic, but only on his own terms. A male teacher I met at a seminar expressed frustration at how Ysa treated Thulani when all he wanted was to help her. “I know,” I said, “but all she wants is to hit someone, and as long as Thulani offers himself up, she’ll take a swing.”

Everytime A Rainbow Dies is about a boy who falls in love with a rape victim, and your latest title, No Laughter Here (HarperCollins/Amistad, 2004), deals with female circumcision. You handle such sensitive themes with grace and truth, yet many authors would shrink from such a challenge and responsibility. What leads you to the hard places? How do you find your way out?

I promise you, I don’t have a wheel with hot button topics that I spin and where she stops Rita writes. Seeing a story in a unique way is the bribe that works for me.

Once I have story and character, the surrounding issue must bend to the character’s needs. Gayle in Like Sisters is a teen mother who has had an abortion, but the story follows her and not the abortion. With No Laughter Here, it was the sound of girls giggling that immediately suggested the reverse to me: girls not laughing and why.

The longer I entertain an idea, the greater the likelihood a novel will follow. It’s like being in the wooden playpen telling myself a story.

I had to do No Laughter Here because I could. I knew I could do it in a way that no one else would. I loved those little girls more than I was uncomfortable with the subject.

Little girls made me brave. I worked with this premise; if you can see the face of a little girl, you can be brave.

I’m really speaking to adults who immediately say, “I can’t handle this topic.”

For me, it’s simple; over a million girls undergo the ritual annually. Some with great pride and acceptance while many with terror and trauma.

I’ll go anywhere that children go. It’s that simple.

I’d love to write a sister book to No Laughter Here from Victoria’s point of view, but I don’t know that the market can bear it. I’m sure I will do it, even if I have to self-publish. Victoria and Mrs. Ojike have not yet left me.

Don’t let my publisher see this, but No Laughter Here isn’t a classroom set book. Yes, classes use it, but I see it as a personal book, one that finds her reader. The letters I receive from readers, mainly 12-14, all appreciate being enlightened and trusted with this story.

Where do our activists come from? Look at the faces of these young girls.

Though best known for your YA fiction, you’re also the author of a picture book, Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee (Simon & Schuster, 2000), which really shows off your wonderful sense of humor. How did writing this picture book compare to crafting fiction for teen readers? What muscles were up to the job? Which ones perhaps needed more development?

Unlike my novels, I didn’t incubate, outline, make a map, get inside the characters. None of that. My first draft came out in one thirty minute splurt. I pitched it to Rosemary but she and a few other editors felt the story wasn’t strong enough.

Renowned Clarion editor Frances Foster suggested that I have more fun with the words and I did! I played with alliteration, onomatopoeia, and made-up dialect to give it an African-Caribbean sound. I learned to make a picture book dummy when I took a course with editor Olga Litowinsky (Writing and Publishing Books for Children in the 1990s (Walker, 1992)). The hardest thing was placing the right scene on the center spread. I added text to trick it into place!

Eventually, I came to my senses and cut the excess. It didn’t work. It was just stuff. After I went as far as I could with it, I put it away and concentrated on my novel. Then I met Simon and Schuster editor Kevin Lewis who said, “I am the Wild Waiyuuzee!” and offered me a contract.

You’re also a well-published author of short fiction, and your stories appear in numerous anthologies. Do any of the short stories have ties to your books? Of them, which would you first recommend to a prospective Rita fan and why?

So far none of my short stories are related to my novels. I use this form to experiment with form or subject, even though I tend to raid my personal experiences to come up with short stories. “Clay” (Second Sights: Stories for a New Millennium (Philomel, 1999)) was an experiment that came from my mother stirring cornbread. One of my favorites, “Crazy as a Daisy” (Stay True: Strong Stories for Strong Girls edited by Marilyn Singer (Scholastic, 1998)) is about a girl who dances wild because she never learned to partner dance. To this day, I can’t dance with a partner to save my life. It just throws me off. It is easier if I lead, but how many guys put up with that? “Food From the Outside” (When I Was Your Age, Vol. 2 edited by Amy Ehrlich (Candlewick, 1999)) is the very true story of my sister, brother and my desperation to keep our mother from entering her home cooking into the International Food Fair hosted by our school. Mommy could burn, and I do mean burn, with the best of them. We lost Miss Essie to cancer a few years ago, but we never stop talking about her culinary hits and misses. My favorite short story is “Chalkman” (Twelve Shots edited by Harry Mazer (Delacorte, 1997)(author interview), about kids who reenact a shooting at a playground. Kids want to play, even under the most difficult circumstances.

How has your writing changed and grown since you began publishing in the late 1980s? How have you changed as an author?

Let me count the ways! I had such a hard time getting in that I viewed all of publishing with great suspicion. I’m learning more about the world of children’s publishing and enjoying the book offerings, especially in the teen market. During the ’80s, that market wasn’t there. Now it’s plentiful and diverse. We could use more diversity, so if you have a great story, don’t hold back.

These days I don’t write as dense as I did. Look at a page of Blue Tights or Fast Talk. Dense. When I was a child and a young woman, volume was important. I wrote a lot all the time. I now cut as much as I can to free the text and scenes. Back then I wrote as “writerishly” as I could. Yuck! My thoughts about where the author stands in relation to the work haven’t changed. Even in third or omniscient I let the character direct. Semi-omniscient viewpoint was always comfortable to me, but if my notes are in first person, the novel will be in first person. If it doesn’t work, I change my approach. In the beginning I didn’t question. I just plowed.

I’ve become too aware of the outside world these days when I write; editor, social attitudes, sales, bills. My editor gives me room, but I tend to worry about editorial concerns that I shouldn’t think about during the writing process. I need to let it go. I envy the Blue Tights writer. She had not a clue! She just wrote.

I like to venture out into the world more. I’ve learned to get on a plane–which I was always reluctant to do. I encourage my readers to get off the block, so I leave Jamaica, Queens every once in a while and write about Brooklyn. Okay, so that’s only a subway ride away. One thing that will never change; I’m slow. Events do affect me and throw me off track. My incubation and research period is always long so I’ll never have one book quickly follow another. I’m a turtle.

What are the challenges of your writing life?

I’ve finally quit my job of 25 years to live a writer’s life, a dream come true. I thought I’d churn them out, but I’m as slow as ever. I do rewrite more.

In the past year, my youngest daughter came down with an unexpected and undiagnosed illness. I lived in her hospital room for two months, so all writing and thoughts of writing ceased. My editor was completely supportive through that tough time. My students were understanding and worked around me. Several months later, my daughter is back on track. She graduated high school, attended the prom and is starting college this fall.

I’m now back to work on Jumped, my sixth novel. I’ve always had characters with likeability issues, and this novel is no exception. My main characters are a witness, a bully and a victim. There are no heroes in this story and no personal victories. This has been very hard to finish, which is why I might ultimately like this book. No Laughter Here was easy; this is kicking my butt.

Honestly, I can’t wait to move onto my seventh novel with characters I absolutely love. Couldn’t I just change the focus and plot in Jumped? Make these characters comply–dig deep into my bully’s soul, or play up the victim so we feel the injustice, or embolden my witness? I could, but nah.

I can’t lie. These days I’m more concerned about making a living than I was when I worked for my former company, but I have to believe in the quality and appeal of my work. I do what other writers do; I take on more appearances and I’m teaching part time. I notice I’m shyer with age. Back in the day, I’d speak anywhere because the subject was my book!

What do you love about it?

I’ve never really had a block of time to think about my work. With a fulltime job and a family to care for I had to steal time. Well, the job is no more and the kids are out of the nest, so it’s just me! I just love sitting down and thinking about one piece of my story, then scribbling all day long. It reminds me of being 12 and having all of my writing regimes. One of my colleagues was talking about taking a course. That sounds like fun! I can take a class if I want to. School’s never out.

You’re teaching now through the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. What about teaching appeals to you? How do you balance it against working on your own manuscripts?

The MFA/CW low residency program at Vermont College was ideal for me. The students are writers, so the student-teacher relationship is different than with other classroom settings. I enjoy talking to other writers about their work. We respect each other’s time; they’re busy fulfilling work requirements for that month, which gives me time for my work.

I have to admit, I enjoy the lectures during the residency. The faculty and graduating students’ presentations are intense, diverse, and stimulating. I’m always exhausted and invigorated after each ten-day residency.

When I get stuck or am challenged, I have a great resource in my fellow faculty members. Being on faculty keeps me out of my vacuum, which is a good thing. I am a hermit. It’s good to get out and talk to other writers. I learn so much.

What advice do you have for beginning authors?

Keep it simple. Write a little bit each day. Keep your requirements lo-tech so you’re always ready. No idea should ever wait until you get home or when you finally get that upgrade to your laptop.

Take care of your craft. If you can’t take a class, create one for yourself. Find the author whose work you respect, and let them be your “mentor.” Don’t go emailing them–if they’re still with us. Instead, read their work. Look at the approach. Take a few topics (pacing, plotting, beginning, conflict, etc.) and study your mentor’s choices to these aspects of craft. Think about it in relation to your own work.

Surround yourself with a writing community to keep you going. Workshops provide opportunities for feedback and to learn how to take criticism. True, I didn’t and don’t have a writer’s group, but I see the benefits.

Write a story that you’re dying to tell.

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

These days I walk a lot and knit to relax. I love to watch sports.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Jumped should be ready in 2008. No promises, but One Crazy Summer (both to be published by HarperCollins) will follow shortly after. I’m going back to the sixties for that story. It should be fun.

Cynsational Notes

Author-Editor Dialogues: Rita Williams-Garcia and Rosemary Brosnan from CBC Magazine.

Author Interview: Jane Kurtz on the Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation, Memories of the Sun: Stories of Africa and America

Jane Kurtz was born in Portland, Oregon, largely raised in Maji, Ethiopia, and in fourth grade went to boarding school in Addis Ababa. She is the author of numerous books for children and educator resources. She returned to the United States for college and, among other adventures, lived through the 1997 Red River flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Jane now makes her home in Kansas and is a visiting faculty member at the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Learn more about Jane. Read a 2005 Cynsations author update with Jane.

You’ve published a lovely range of books for young readers, but today, let’s talk about your work related to Africa. Could you tell us about your ties Africa, why it resonates in your life and tales?

My childhood memories are anchored in East Africa. Ethiopia to be exact–although I also have powerful sensory connections with Egypt and the Sudan.

After World War II, Emperor Haile Selassie returned to Ethiopia to find that a whole generation of educated Ethiopians had been killed during the Italian occupation. Until that moment, Ethiopia had fought off a series of invaders, from Ahmed Gran in 1543 to the Italian army defeated by King Menelik in 1896.

As the only African country that wasn’t colonized during the so-called “scramble for Africa,” it was once considered a beacon of hope for the continent. Now the emperor invited outsiders in–to invent a national airlines (Ethiopian Airlines), to give business advice, and to plant schools and hospitals. My parents packed up their four-year-old, two-year-old (me), and one-year-old girls and headed for the continent of Africa where they ended up working for 22 years. We visited the U.S. twice when I was a girl, but I never lived there until I came to Illinois for college.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about those years in Ethiopia because I just finished a new book that will come out in spring 2007: Jane Kurtz and You, part of a new series called The Author and You (Libraries Unlimited). In it, I wrote, “A two-year-old is stuck in the world of things, busy figuring out what can be done with them. She stacks 4-6 objects, scribbles with crayons, walks backwards, rolls a large ball, can turn the pages of a book. A two-year-old doesn’t ask, ‘Why are we moving to Ethiopia? Will we stay there forever? Does that mean we’re going to become Ethiopians?’ Those questions came later.”

Once in Ethiopia, my mother wrote to her mother every week. “Janie is still a character and the Dennis the Menace of the family, though she’s becoming a bit more dignified now at the advanced age of three,” she soon noted. Before too long, other letters record that I was “storming along” through books, loving learning to read.

In those years, I didn’t know much about the rest of Africa, except for Egypt where I spent a few weeks that seared themselves into my brain. My parents and younger siblings went to Kenya on vacation, but they left us in boarding school in Addis Ababa. As an adult, though, I’ve connected with teachers in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Botswana, Senegal, South Africa, and Ghana. I’ve also had lots of fascinating conversations with Ethiopians and other Africans who now have years of life in the United States tucked under their belts.

I’d like to focus on your work with other writers, both in the States and in Africa. But first could you offer a few related highlights from your own back-list titles?

I’d love to. My books set in Africa are these: Fire on the Mountain, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 1994); Pulling the Lion’s Tail, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Simon & Schuster, 1995); Only a Pigeon, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 1997); Trouble, illustrated by Durga Bernhard (Harcourt, 1997); The Storyteller’s Beads (Harcourt, 1998); Water Hole Waiting, illustrated by Lee Christiansen (Greenwillow, 2002); and Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot (Pleasant Company, 2003).

My books that are set in the United States with characters who’ve lived in Africa are: Faraway Home, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Harcourt, 2000); Jakarta Missing (Greenwillow, 2001); and In the Small, Small Night, illustrated by Rachel Isadora (Greenwillow, 2005). The Feverbird’s Claw (Greenwillow, 2004) is a fantasy novel that draws heavily on my experiences in Ethiopia. And I edited an anthology with short stories in three categories: Africa, Americans in Africa, and Africans in America.

You’re the anthologist behind a groundbreaking collection, Memories of the Sun: Stories of Africa and America (Greenwillow, 2003). What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I was invited to write a short story for an anthology about war [Shattered: Stories of Children and War (Knopf, 2002)]. The editor of that book, Jennifer Armstrong, was the one who suggested I consider editing a collection of short stories about Africa.

At first I resisted because I’d never done that before and because I didn’t want to take time from my own fiction writing. But the idea kept poking at me. I so often spoke in schools or at conferences where teachers talked about the common misconception that Africa is a country–not an enormous and diverse continent. People told me that schools need resources showing the reality of life in Africa today; that kids need to see more of Africa than the grim bits that make their way into newspapers and TV reports; that many middle schools include Africa in the curriculum and want to make that continent alive and interesting for their students. But they don’t have resources that can be brought in quickly and easily to help raise questions and offer insights.

I thought a short story collection written by Africans and Americans, reflecting their experiences, could have power. So I proposed the anthology to my editor at Greenwillow Books and argued that the time was right for it. Not only would social studies teachers use it, I said, but also English teachers who were interested in tapping short stories as a resource to help their students’ writing and reading comprehension skills. The answer was yes. If I would take a low advance, they would take the risk to publish the book.

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

My editor and I were determined to find writers on the African continent. I reached out to International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). An IBBY member in South Africa put the word out via newsletter, and I began to get e-mail submissions from writers in Africa. I also sent letters to authors here in the United States. Many of them turned me down, but a few said yes. I was particularly interested in variety–I wanted stories from all over the continent–North, South, East, West–and I wanted funny stories and joyous stories as well as poignant and sad ones.

It took years. I got more submissions from South Africa than from any other place. North Africa proved prickly hard. An email announcement to members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators finally led me to two authors. Elsa Marston, whose husband is Lebanese and whose life had taken her to North Africa, contributed a short story. Lindsey Clark was a Peace Corps volunteer working in Morocco and writing evocative letters to friends and family. Her poem in Memories of Sun is her first book publication.

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

Some of the decisions were extremely difficult. Many submissions were from people writing in English as a second or third language. I had to do painful editor things– ask writers for multiple revisions, give suggestions that didn’t always work.

Sometimes I loved a story that my Greenwillow editor didn’t. Some stories that writers poured heart, emotion, and tricks of the writing trade into still ultimately didn’t end up in the anthology.

Monica Arac de Nyeko from Uganda wrote about what the experience was like for her: “‘October Sunrise’ was my first internationally published short story. I did not think it was going to get accepted for publication because the layers and layers of advice you read on the Internet about writing sometimes leave you so bleak and pessimistic about the whole writing and publishing experience that I am sure a few people decide they might not as well submit anything to be considered for publication.

“I finally did submit my story to be considered for the anthology, but so did a couple of my writing friends in Kampala. So you can imagine that when mine was the only accepted story, I felt I was in a bit of a difficult position with my friends who obviously imagined that a rejection slip for them meant that their writing must have been a little short.

“Before I thought of submitting ‘October Sunrise’ for Memories of Sun, I shared a draft of the story at our readers’ and writers’ club at the Uganda Women Writer’s Association (FEMRITE) during the Monday evening readings.

“I was scandalized when one of the club members said ‘the story squatted on the page and did not shift much.’ This was a time of learning what the other side of writing is after the story has been written and needs to get into print. That was also my first encounter with real criticism and the stark realization that, once a story was out there, there was nothing much you could do to avoid its being abused, misunderstood or being liked for all the reasons you did not intend, which therefore meant you should stop thinking about each story like your newborn baby because then you got terribly hurt when someone said your baby was squatting on a page and not shifting much. My friend has a name for that; ‘letting go’ she calls it.”

What advice do you have for budding anthologists? How strong is the market and why?

I’m tempted to be flip, and say don’t do it. Putting together the anthology was a finger-bending amount of work. To my delight the reviews were strong–three of them starred–and several organizations singled it out as a best book of the year.

But when I look at my bi-yearly accounting statements from HarperCollins, I’m always shocked that sales seem paltry. It’s a hard time for books that should have a strong support from teachers and librarians, who wake each morning to grim budget realities. No wonder publishers are feeling leery of books whose market might be mainly schools and libraries.

But I did learn a lot by putting on an editor’s hat, and I’m proud of the stories and their authors. I hear from readers who say I opened their eyes to Africa, and I remember my original dreams for this book and feel a surge of satisfaction that we actually did it.

To me it’s extremely important to hear voices from all over this earth, and short story collections are a perfect venue for that, especially if someone can show me ways to really get the books into the hands of readers.

As someone connected to both lands, why is it so critical that African and Africa-related literature be read by Americans?

A few weeks ago, I was on a bus in the state of Washington, eavesdropping on a conversation between two women. One was an adventure backpacker.

The other asked, “What about Africa?”

I leaned forward a little, listening.

“I’ve never had any interest,” the backpacker replied. “You’d never know when you were going to run into something terrifying.”

This woman had traveled in many of the world’s remote spots, but she thought of Africa as a place where she wouldn’t be able to find adventure without encountering horror around every corner. Anyone who has been in Africa knows that’s ludicrous. There’s heartbreak–and also beauty, hospitality, warmth, and joyous life force that pulses through people and communities.

So what to do? I had some experience myself, as a child, with feeling invisible. People have a powerful drive to be seen. And art is one way people are able to open their own or other people’s eyes. I’m sure that’s why so many readers told other readers about Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 2003) and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hossein (Riverhead Trade, 2003).

This reading shouldn’t be motivated by duty. It’s a pleasure to encounter a book or story that pulls us deeply into another person’s life.

I don’t demand that people pick up their backpacks go to Africa. Surely reading a story ought to be a risk most of us could take.

It’s important…because we have life-giving things to take from Africa and life-giving things to give. Everywhere I’ve traveled on that continent, educators, parents, and others have asked me, “How can we develop a reading culture in this country?”

When I was asked that question as part of a radio interview in Uganda, I thought about libraries. I thought about book publishing in the United States. I thought about books in classrooms. These are treasures we barely notice we have, but the knowledge of how to set such things up is something teachers and librarians (and other readers and writers) in the U.S. and Canada and Europe could be sharing with readers and writers the world over.

What are the challenges in making that happen?

Language is always one tough-cookie barrier and challenge, but the worldwide community of readers is pretty well-versed in English these days, so lots more communication is possible than people sometimes think.

I originally assumed that 9-11 would be a big spur to Americans to want to understand the rest of the world. Even if our only motivation is to feel safer, I thought, we’ll take steps away from our cozy isolation. Of course I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I still don’t really understand it, except maybe people are huddling and clinging ever more tightly to what they know.

Other sad realities? AIDS and war are disrupting traditional life in most African countries. I’ve heard from many people–including my friend Kofi from Ghana, whose stories form the core of In the Small Small Night–that stories are getting lost because children no longer sit at the feet of their grandparents and other storytellers. Many Africans want to get those stories written down.

Have you seen those challenges rise or fall over time, and in either case, why?

To me the world has become a little like Fruit Basket Upset, with apples oranges pears and bananas all plopped down next to each other. That makes connection easier–or it should. But we have to stretch. We can’t be so scared.

We have to recognize the truths that are at the heart of my novel, The Storytellers Beads: humans are unlimited in their ability to devise ways to say, “I don’t know you; you’re the stranger; and you probably do lots of weird and dangerous things.”

When life tumbles us together with people who make us wary, we’re often astonished. Africans who’ve spent decades–or longer–living in the United States and Canada and Europe are a huge resource for connection and so are all the Americans who love to travel even though their feet have to get up close and personal with the grungy floors of airports.

You’re involved in the Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation (EBCEF). Could you clue us into what the foundation is all about and your role in it?

A big new opportunity all over Africa is tied to the community of readers and writers and teachers. In Ethiopia, for instance, there’s very little need to convince families of the importance of education or books. Villagers even in remote areas ask for schools. When some very basic rural schools were asked what they wanted, they said libraries. Little kids run up to tourists traveling outside of the capital and ask for pens. It isn’t a matter of planting motivation. It’s a matter of responding.

I would despair if I thought the only answer was to motivate the whole country to care more and reach out more, but librarians? Teachers? Professional writers of children’s books? Illustrators? That’s a community I believe in. So the resources encourage me: more ability to create books than has ever existed in the world before. More people interested in reading around the world than ever before. More people who see education as the answer and want us to help them get started. More people here thinking about the legacy they are going to leave the world.

EBCEF is a good example of what I’m talking about. Its founder, Yohannes Gebregeorgis, came to the United States as a political refugee. He’d been exposed to literature through the Peace Corps teachers in his village in Ethiopia, and held a book for the first time when he was 19. He says it changed his life forever.

At one point during his escape from Ethiopia to the Sudan, while scavenging for food and a way to stay alive, he considered Henri Charrière of Papillon, the prisoner of Devil’s Island.

Individuals can make a difference in this world, he thought. If he survived, he’d be one who would.

In 1996, Yohannes wrote an e-mail to me. He was introducing my books to Ethiopian American children in the Bay Area. But what about children in Ethiopia, many of them playing in muddy streets, wrapping plastic bags for balls, or selling packs of tissue 10 hours a day? He told me he wanted to start making books available for Ethiopian children. “I know you have great love for the country you grew up in,” he wrote, “and I want to ask you if you can join me in making this idea a reality.”

Right! I thought. What are two people like you and me going to do? But I committed to any tiny step that we could figure out.

Not until 2002 were we able to pull anything off. That year we published the first color picture book for Ethiopian children, a retelling of a folk tale in English and Amharic, Silly Mammo [scroll for information].

I was ready to pop the celebratory corks. Yohannes quit his job, took his life savings, and moved back to Ethiopia. That spring, in the bottom floor of the house he was renting, he opened the first free children’s library in Addis Ababa, a city of five million people. The staff recorded 40,000 visits from children the first year.

Two years later, Yohannes opened a rural reading room and started a donkey mobile library in the provincial capital near where he grew up. This year, the original library will have 60,000 visits from readers.

Yohannes’s plan is to open ten to twelve school libraries, five in government schools and the rest working with two NGOs, one that focuses on girls’ education and one that works with street children and the other poorest of the poor.

People say, “Wow. You’re doing something heroic.” All I did was say to myself, this is someone who needs to be supported. I didn’t think that opportunity would come around again in my lifetime, and I committed myself to telling the story and doing what I could.

Up until now we’ve been an all volunteer organization in the U.S. I’m the president of the board of directors. I talk about EBCEF everywhere I speak and have been astonished by the response.

Almost everything we’ve done has been supported through grassroots efforts: a small grant from Global Fund for Children, another from Presbyterian Women, donations from individuals, adoption groups, Ethiopian American organizations, churches, schools, and reading councils. Kansas Reading Association gathered about 25,000 children’s books in the last couple of years and raised the money to ship them. School children have made books to share with children in Ethiopia. Booksellers donate their time to sell copies of Silly Mammo and other books. The company that created the American Girl dolls donated hundreds of cartons of books from their Girls of Many Lands series, when it went out of print–including my book, Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot (Pleasant Company, 2003).

What’s the latest news with EBCEF?

This summer we brought Yohannes to the U.S. for the first time in three years to do planning with us and meet with supporters. A small group of us sat down together in San Francisco with a friend of mine, Richard Male, who has consulted with nonprofits for 35 years. He convinced us that our problems were not unusual–that most nonprofits started by idealistic committed volunteers eventually have to take steps to get bigger. Otherwise everyone burns out. With his encouragement, we decided to take some bold steps: hire a part-time employee here in the U.S., pay Yohannes full-time, raise money as if we believed that someday we could provide books on libraries for most of the children in Ethiopia.

Half the time I’m scared to death. Half the time I’m hopeful and excited. We’ve already brought on a couple of new board members and talked to new funders. Room to Read, a nonprofit in San Francisco, has given us a $20,000 challenge grant to publish new books in local languages. A Kansas Rotary club wants to start getting Rotarians involved in supporting EBCEF. Almost every week I get e-mails from people wondering what they can do to help.

How can we support EBCEF’s efforts?

I’m hoping there will be more groups that will raise money for us. A little money goes a long way. Schools have donated $83.00, for example–the money needed to keep Shola Children’s Library open for one day. Organizations have given $250, enough to buy local language books for one school library. We’re looking for a sponsor for this year’s Golden Kuraz award, given to the best children’s book published in Ethiopia. For big thinkers, $5000 will publish that many copies of a new book in an Ethiopian local language and English. One businessman gave $10,000 to cover the library’s rent. A teacher donated $4000 to help ship a new container of books to Ethiopia.

Writers and illustrators can donate the rights of their out-of-print books. (I did that with Pulling the Lions Tail, which will soon have a new English Amharic addition with illustrations by an Ethiopian illustrator.) Obviously some books are more suited to an Ethiopian audience than others. We want someone to gather art pieces and do an art auction for us. We’d like to pair Ethiopian illustrators with American writers and vice versa, even though we can’t pay much. People can donate design time, as illustrator Janie Bynum did with Silly Mammo. We’d like people to write articles for newsletters and magazines. Authors who speak schools might consider adding some PowerPoint slides about literacy around the world and letting schools know about EBCEF.

We need translators. We need teachers and librarians who will go to Ethiopia and share what they know about reading and books there. We need people with good ideas to raise the $20,000 match of operating money for the Room to Read grant. We need people to speak to their local civic groups and churches and tell our story.

As I’ve discovered, the main thing is to take a step. Go to our website: Buy a copy of Silly Mammo or Saba or Only a Pigeon via Downhome Books (follow the used book links, even though these books are new). Read a book set in Ethiopia. Be curious. Design a web link to us. Tell a friend about us. Stay hopeful and brave. And treasure the books and libraries in your life.

Cynsational Notes

In her quest to share more writing voices, Jane passes on these thoughts…

From Maretha Maartens, contributor to Memories of the Sun

“Being asked to submit a story about life in South Africa, was like being offered a tray of strawberries. Always when I think about strawberries, I smell them. I see them in my mind’s eye: plump, red, tantalizing, irresistible. No cream, no ice cream, no colorants, just sun-ripened strawberries. The analogy between strawberries and writing about South Africa (and Africa)? I love them both.

“To me both strawberries and Africa should be served without sweetened cream or artificial flavorants. Strawberries have an exquisite flavor; so has Africa. I can never get enough of either. Nobody has ever commissioned me to design a full page advertisement for fresh strawberries. But Jane Kurtz actually invited African authors to submit stories about Africa. Hours later I was smelling strawberries and writing the first paragraph of ‘The Homecoming.’

“As I was working on ‘The Homecoming,’ I wrote about things I know, things I use myself (like aloe juice to make mosquito bites stop itching or as a cure for old people’s venous ulcers), things I hear and touch and…eat. No T.V. documentary has ever inspired or done anything for my creative writing. Climbing mountains, swimming with dolphins and sipping terrible, horrible yeast beer in a shebeen in a Cape shanty town do that magic thing for me.

“So, in the recent past, did staying with four rural women in a mud house in Malawi. The gentlest of them was in the final stages of AIDS. She died three weeks after our wonderful time together. Making music on gong rocks (perfectly placed hollow rocks on which the San people make percussion music for trance dances), going deep, deep down into the earth with mineworkers, listening to the sounds of silence in the vast Karoo and being with real people…those are the triggers to writing.

“Africa makes me glad, sad, mad, scared and all the emotions in between. That’s why I want to live and walk and write and die in Africa.”

from Uko Bendi Udo, contributor to Memories of the Sun

“‘Soldiers of the Stone’ gave me the opportunity, through fiction, to introduce a troubled African teenager to a troubled American teenager. Their tense and potentially deadly interaction results in the realization by both that they share a lot in common. As an African writer resident in the U.S., I hope, through my writings, to introduce the human family to each other. Through such encounters I believe that stereotypes and idiosyncrasies can only crumble and understanding flourish.

“I write and read ceaselessly. I write mostly in my head, and when I’m ready, I put it all down on paper in long hand. I read ceaselessly because when I’m not reading a book I’m busy reading life. Yes, life. I like to people-watch and interact with the immediate culture around me.

“I’m now a proud papa of two precocious kids. Papahood is the toughest job you’ll ever love. I’ve curtailed my traveling and I have to steal time to write. However, through the writing and publishing of ‘Soldiers of the Stone,’ an old adage was reinforced: It’s the quality, not the quantity. Sorry, I have to go. Aniedo, my son, is playing engineer on my stereo!”