Cynsational News & Links

Thanks to Jo Knowles for her kind words about my upcoming Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007). Among many lovely things, Jo says: “I think, for a little while anyway, I’ll be pouring my own red wine, thank you very much.” Prudent idea. Jo is the author of Lessons from a Dead Girl (Candlewick, fall 2007).

Thanks also to Big A little a, girl uninterrupted, Puggy’s Hill, Chicklish, One Writer’s Journey, and Bookburger for recommending my recent post, Author Picks of 2006.

More News & Links

The Book of Life: Jewish People and the Books We Read Celebrates Its First Anniversary. BOL editor “Heidi Estrin is the library director at Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida. She is President of the South Florida Chapter of the Association of Jewish Libraries, as well as Past Chair of AJL’s Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee. She also serves on the Book Selection Committee for the PJ Library, a project of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.”

Check out Blog Crushes EXPOSED! at Mitali’s Fire Escape, and count me honored to be in such great company.

The 2006 Horn Book Fanfare List includes The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson (Candlewick)(author interview); An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (Dutton)(author interview); The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus (Candlewick)(recommendation); Ballet of the Elephants written by Leda Schubert, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker (Brodie/Roaring Brook)(author interview); and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Jump at the Sun)(illustrator interview).

Podcasts of speeches from the 2006 National Book Awards from BookExpo America.

“Current Trends, Blogs I Like, Agent and Publisher, Outline vs. Synopsis, Plagiarism” from The Purple Crayon Blog. November 2006. Thanks for mentioning Cynsations!

“Forcing the Issue” by Kristy Dempsy from the Institute of Children’s Literature. Avoiding common pitfalls in rhyme.

“How to Write a Picture Book–A Guide for the Already Rich and Famous” by Michele Regenold at Writing for Kids from the Boondocks: a blog about writing for children and the quest for publication. Michelle offers thoughtful literary analysis of celebrity books, such as they may be.

“Storytelling with Dianne de Las Casas:” a chat transcript from the Institute of Children’s Literature. ICL says: “Author and award-winning storyteller Dianne de Las Casas shared tips on her dynamic storytelling and how you can beef us your school visits with traditional storytelling techniques.”

Author Tanya Lee Stone announces a signed bookplate and bookmark holiday promotion for her YA novel A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl. Tanya’s debut YA novel has been called “brave and beautiful” by Megan McCafferty, “Sure to be the new Forever” by me, and “irresistible” by Libba Bray. School Library Journal gave it a starred review and said the book “will be passed from girl to girl to girl.” Contact Tanya at with your name, snail mail address, and any personalization information. Read a Cynsations interview with Tanya.

Brian Yansky: new official site of the author of YA novels My Road Trip to the Pretty Girl Capital of the World (Cricket, 2003) and Wonders of the World (Flux, 2007). Learn more about Brian and check out his articles for writers. A smart, innovative site designed by Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys. This is a don’t-miss link!

Holiday Books and Santa Knows News

Three Silly Chicks say Santa Knows by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Björkman (Dutton, 2006) is “a holly jolly read for the holidays.” Read the whole review. Then find out more about silly chicks Andrea Beaty, Julia Durango, and Carolyn Crimi. Note: TSC is a don’t-miss blog for silly reading and offers an LJ syndication.

Parent:Wise Austin chimes in: “Even kids as old as nine or ten will enjoy the delightful illustrations, particularly the humbug patterns on Alfie’s pajamas, and will chuckle at Alife’s meticulous research. If your kids are starting to question Santa Claus, read this book together. …a story that will turn even the grumpiest Scrooge into a true believer!”

The Richmond Times-Dispatch says: “Illustrations by Steve Björkman demonstrate Alfie’s fervor in his quest. They also show his distaste of the season with green pajamas covered with slashed Christmas icons, which is a truly funny sight. This title is a holiday must have.” Read the whole review.

The PlanetEsme Plan cheers: “Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith show that they can ho-ho-ho with the best of them…” Read the whole review.

Listen to a podcast of Booktalks: Quick and Sample as Nancy Keane discusses Santa Knows.

Holiday Round-ups

“Give Kids Something That Lasts a Lifetime: The Joy of Reading” by Samantha Critchell, Associated Press Writer, from the New Haven Register. Santa Knows is among those titles featured, and we’re especially thrilled that the book is being highlighted as this AP column is appearing in newspapers across the U.S. and Canada. Other recommendations include: Christmas USA by Mary D. Lankford, illustrated by Karen Dugan (HarperCollins); Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon, illustrated by Henri Sorensen (Peachtree); I Have a Little Dreidel by Maxie Baum, illustrated by Julie Paschkis (Cartwheel/Scholastic); and Yoon and the Christmas Mitten by Helen Recorvits, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (FSG).

“Dear Santa, Can You Bring Me These Books This Year?” by Holly E. Newton at Newton’s Book Notes from the Columbia (MO) Daily Tribune. Santa Knows is featured! Highlights also include Christmas Lights by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Susan Mitchell (Simon & Schuster)(excerpt). Read a Cynsations interview with Marion.

“Holiday Books Can Make Great Gifts” from the Baton Rouge Advocate. More Santa Knows! Greg Langley cheers, “This book is perfect to share with the little skeptic at your house.” Highlights also include Jesus Was Here by Brian Simmons, illustrated by Erin Leeder (Full Court).

“New Holiday Titles, Act One: Skeptics ‘R Us” from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Why Stop at Six? A Blog About Books. The word on Santa Knows is “a festive and fun read with [Steve] Björkman’s buoyant cartoon watercolor-and-ink illustrations.” Also featured is A Clever Beatrice Christmas by Margaret Willey, illustrated by Heather M. Solomonb (Atheneum). Read the whole review.

Cynsational Notes

Greg and I are honored by all the enthusiasm for Santa Knows! It’s our first book together, which means a lot to us. And Steve‘s illustrations deserve all the acclaim and more! We’d also like offer another thanks to our publicist Rebecca Grose of SoCal Public Relations and our web designer Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys–both of whom have been wonder women and are highly recommended. Read interviews with Rebecca and Lisa. Visit! Thanks to all for your ongoing support!

Author Picks of 2006

“My favorite YA book of the year is The Year The Gypsies Came by Linzi Glass (Holt). This book is smart, soulful and beautifully written. With heartbreaking prose, Linzi Glass has given us an intimate look at a two families through the eyes of the smallest sister; set against the beautiful landscape of South Africa with its nightmarish laws of Apartheid, this is a novel to treasure.”

Kathi Appelt, author of Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein (Harper, 2005). Read a Cynsations interview with Kathi.

“My favorite YA book of the year is The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick) because it is beautifully written, absolutely daring, and surprisingly tender. In short, it’s everything a great book should be.”

Cecil Castellucci, author of The Queen of Cool (Candlewick, 2006) and Beige (Candlewick, 2007); visit Cecil’s LJ. Read Cynsational interviews with Cecil and Tobin.

“My favorite young adult novel of the year is The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin (Dial) because I absolutely could not put it down and the characters stayed with me long after I closed the book.”

Dorian Cirrone, author of Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You (HarperCollins, 2005) and the Lindy Blues series (Marshall Cavendish, 2006-). Read Cynsations interviews with Dorian and Nancy.

“My favorite YA novels this year were An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (Dutton) and The Boy Book by E. Lockhart (Delacorte). I know, I know. I’m only supposed to pick one. But I absolutely loved both! Katherines because 1) its star, Colin, a former child prodigy, is adorable in a geek chic kind of way; 2) the supporting cast of characters are quirky and hilarious; and 3) I never knew a mathematical romance road trip book could be so much fun. As for The Boy Book, Roo Oliver is one of my favorite female protagonists ever–so neurotic! so sweet! so relatable!–and this sequel to The Boyfriend List doesn’t feel sequel-y. Meaning, it stands on its own kitten heels, yet still embodies the warmth and humor of its predecessor. Both are on my Must List for 2006.”

Lola Douglas, author of More Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet (Razorbill, 2006); visit Lola’s LJ. Read Cynsations interviews with E. and John.

“My favorite young adult novel of the year is Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Houghton Mifflin), because I loved the engaging voice of the main character and learning about life on a farm.”

Debra Garfinkle, author of Stuck in the ’70s (Putnam, May 2007). Read a Cynsations interview with Debra.

“My favorite tween book of the year is Shug by Jenny Han (Simon & Schuster, 2006)(recommendation) because it made me laugh and cry and reminded me of what it was like to be in midddle school. It’s the kind of book I wish I’d written.”

Debbi Michiko Florence, author of China: A Kaleidoscope Book (Ideals Publications, 2007); visit Debbi’s LJ.

“My favorite YA of the year is Grand and Humble by Brent Hartinger (HarperCollins) because the story kept me turning the pages with concern for the characters, and when I reached the end and discovered the twist, I exclaimed, ‘WOW!'”

Linda Joy Singleton, author of psychic YA mystery series, The Seer (Llewellyn, 2004-ongoing), in which a sixth sense helps Sabine solve ghostly crimes. Read a Cynsations interview with Brent.

“My favorite fantasy novel of the year is Privilege by the Sword by Ellen Kushner (Bantam,) because I haven’t had so much fun reading anything in years.”

Nancy Werlin, author of The Rules of Survival (Dial, 2006). Read a Cynsations interview with Nancy.

“My favorite historical fiction book of the year is Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy (Marshall Cavendish, 2006) because within its poetic prose is the powerful true story of one child’s view of the Holocaust–a story of tragedy, compassion and hope.”

Lisa Yee, author of Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2005). Read a Cynsations interview with Lisa; visit Lisa’s LJ.

“My favorite young adult novel this year has been Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Houghton Mifflin). It’s one of those books that catch you off guard–you’re not expecting much, but what you find is a completely original story, told in a fresh, engaging voice, that manages to be both funny and touching without the requisite heavy coating of schmaltz. Plus, the plotting is immaculate–there isn’t a single detail included without good reason. A real winner, and one I find myself recommending months after I finished the last line.”

Lara M. Zeises, author of Anyone But You (Delacorte, 2005); visit Lara’s LJ. Read a Cynsations interview with Lara.

Author Interview: Anjali Banerjee on Looking for Bapu

Anjali Banerjee on Anjali Banerjee: “I was born many moons ago in Calcutta, India. (The city recently cast off its colonial moniker and changed its name to ‘Kolkata.’) We immigrated to Canada when I was two months old. My father had placed first in India on the Cambridge Exams and had scholarships to study at several universities in England and North America. He chose the University of Waterloo in Ontario. We settled in a small Manitoba town and later moved to Santa Barbara, California. I guess I must’ve had a strong Canadian accent. The kids in California kept asking me to say ‘out,’ ‘about’ and ‘eh?’

“I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and now live in the Pacific Northwest with my husband, three crazy cats, and a black rabbit named Friday.

“My adult books are Invisible Lives (Pocket Books/Downtown Press, 2006), Imaginary Men (Pocket Books/Downtown Press, 2005), and my children’s novels are Maya Running (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, 2005) and Looking for Bapu (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, 2006). I’ve also written two middle grade novels for series published by Mirrorstone Books: Rani and the Fashion Divas (Book #4 in the Star Sisterz series, 2005) and The Silver Spell (Book #8 in the Knights of the Silver Dragon series, 2005).”

I’d like to focus on your new release. But could you first tell us a bit about your debut children’s book, Maya Running (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2005), which is now available in paperback (August 2006)?

Maya Mukherjee, the only brown-skinned girl in her tiny Canadian town, feels neither Indian enough for Indians nor Canadian enough for Canadians. She’s ‘Maya in the middle,’ caught between cultures. She asks a golden statue of the Hindu elephant god, Ganesh, to grant her wish for a perfect life. He complies, but not in the way she expects.

Congratulations on Looking for Bapu (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My grandfather had recently passed away, and a very close friend, also an author, had died suddenly of a massive stroke. I think that subconsciously, I needed to write about grief, but also about hope and devotion. I had to keep an element of humor–it’s a natural part of my writing voice. I also wanted to move away from the issue of cultural angst. It’s still there in Looking for Bapu, but not as a central theme. Cultural angst can be specific, but grief is universal. We all experience the loss of a loved one at one time or another. That kind of sadness crosses all cultures and generations.

I also wanted to portray the experience of a person of color immediately post-9/11 without hitting the reader over the head. I chose (I hope) a subtle approach.

Okay, that’s the intelligent answer. The real answer is, Looking for Bapu popped out of nowhere. The creative process is truly mysterious.

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

Funny–I was thrilled to have a two-book contract with Wendy Lamb Books (Wendy Lamb is a WONDERFUL editor), but when I sat down to write the second novel, I froze. What if I couldn’t write another book? What if I had only one story inside me? What if the next book turned out to be garbage?

I had completed Maya Running in late 2003 (for publication in early 2005), and by August 2004, I managed to produce a strange young adult novel, Saving Rakshi, that featured a small demon trying to escape from an ancient bottle. Maybe the demon represented my fears, or my muse! Who knows?

I didn’t like the manuscript. I knew, on some deep level, that the book was not authentic. I know that’s a weird thing to say, as fiction is by definition “literature…describing imaginary events and people.” But I feel that every piece of good fiction has an essential truth, and Saving Rakshi didn’t have it.

My editor was very kind. In November 2004, she gave me a revision letter for Saving Rakshi, but I asked her if I could trash the manuscript and write a new story. She allowed me to do this (I am forever grateful!).

Looking for Bapu flowed out in about three months, but I revised quite a lot with guidance from Wendy Lamb and her brilliant assistant, Ruth Homberg.

In the first draft, Anu goes to India to meet a sadhu, a Hindu holy man. But Wendy suggested that we set the story entirely in America, so I rewrote the middle section of the book. Now Anu’s great aunt visits from India, and brings a video of a sadhu. I completed the manuscript in late 2005.

You also write for adults, and your titles include Imaginary Men (Downtown Press, 2005), which I thoroughly enjoyed, and Invisible Lives (Downtown Press, 2006), which I look forward to reading. How is it different, writing for young people versus adults? What are the special challenges of each?

I enjoy writing for both audiences. In many ways, the challenges are the same. No matter who your audience is, you still have to produce a good story, develop strong characterization, conflict, and a satisfying resolution.

But sometimes I have trouble keeping the genres separate! In the first draft of Invisible Lives, the protagonist came across as too young, perhaps in her teens. I had to make her more mature. In a scene I wrote for my current work-in-progress (for adults), a kindergarten teacher helps a boy who has just pooped his pants. Children might find the scene hilarious, but my adult critiquers were not amused. They found the scene too “earthy” and suggested that I delete the poopy pants (boo hoo).

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I love to read, jog, do yoga, hike, hang out with our cats and rabbit, and go to movies and plays. I also enjoy watching the wildlife visit the feeders in our garden (I have several bird books and a heavy pair of Audubon Society binoculars).

Cynsational Notes

An Interview with Wendy Lamb by Barbara J. Odanaka at

Read an author-editor dialogue with editor Wendy Lamb and author Christopher Paul Curtis from CBC Magazine.

Author Interview: Esther Hershenhorn on Fancy That

Chicagoan Esther Hershenhorn spends her days doing what she loves and loving what she does: writing picture books and middle grade fiction, teaching writing for children classes, and coaching writers of all ages to help them tell their stories.

Her titles include Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner Chicken Soup by Heart, illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger (Simon & Schuster, 2002), Crown Book Award Nominee The Confe$ion$ and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut (Holiday House, 2002) and a Christmas-driven picture book Fancy That, illustrated by Megan Lloyd (Holiday House, 2003). Read a 2002 Cynsations interview with Esther.

Christmas is coming, so let’s talk about your picture book Fancy That, illustrated by Megan Lloyd (Holiday House, 2003). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

While attending a folk art show in a nearby Chicago suburb, I met 26-year-old Steven Shelton of Columbia, Missouri whose booth sign “Limner and Fancy Painter” piqued my curiosity. Steven explained that before the camera was invented in the late 1840s, artists traveled about America painting people’s portraits, as well as signs and walls and harpsichord covers. He talked of artists and circumstances and a long-ago time; before I knew it, he’d captured my heart. Right then and there I declared Steven’s artist’s life the stuff of my next picture book. I saw a story told in gorgeous-gorgeous paintings.

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

To come at my story, I first camped out in my local library’s stacks, immersing myself in both the lives of limners and 1840’s America. Christmas, it turns out, was newly celebrated in America. Even better news, though, for my story’s eventual plotline and resolution: the Germans who settled the central Pennsylvania region in which I planned to set my story continued their former homeland’s tradition of decorating doors and windows with ribboned wreathes. I next traveled east to visit numerous folk art exhibits showcasing limners’ works.

Some two years later after meeting my modern-day limner, there I was, telling the tale of the suddenly-orphaned young Pippin Biddle, off to earn his keep the way his father once did, traveling the countryside painting people’s portraits. Pip promises his sisters who are poor-house bound: by Christmas the Biddles will have their own home.

Fortunately, my editor Mary Cash and Holiday House’s art director Claire Counahan shared my vision for the book. They too saw Pip’s story told in gorgeous-gorgeous paintings. Their selection of illustrator Megan Lloyd, who happened to live one town over from where my story was set (!), was nothing short of brilliant. The only catch? The earliest Megan could complete the paintings would be spring, 2003. Fancy That thus joined Holiday House’s fall 2003 list.

In February 2003, I had the rare opportunity to see Megan’s gorgeous-gorgeous art at Holiday House’s New York City offices. Megan had driven her paintings to New York, each packed in a crate she’d custom-built herself. I already knew she’d painted the book’s images as my character Pip would have done in 1841, mixing her paints daily from the fresh eggs she gathered on her Carlisle farm. Still, seeing the art proved my non-waterproof mascara an unwise choice. I heard myself whisper as I dabbed at my wet eyes, “Megan loved this story, too.”

Starred reviews underscored the five-year-wait’s worth. Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “…Hershenhorn’s and Lloyd’s collaboration is an unqualified success.” Named a Junior Library Guild Selection, Fancy That also received Special Merit as a Bank Street College Best Book of the Year.

What were the challenges in bringing Fancy That to life?

My editor helped me overcome my first challenge: how to engage today’s young reader in a long-ago story about a thirteen-year-old artist. It was Mary who suggested perhaps Pip and his sisters might be orphaned, perhaps Pip’s dog Biscuit might play a greater role, perhaps the arrival of Christmas, not Thanksgiving, as I originally envisioned, serve as the story’s ticking clock. Together, the beloved and loving sisters, one eager small dog and a longing for a home in time for Christmas worked to keep the reader turning the pages, worried, caring, cheering Pip on.

My next challenge was to tell the story in such a way that my tone and language would be in keeping with the times without distancing or off-putting my readers and listeners. Journal entries, diaries, newspaper accounts and most important, stories and children’s books written in the 1840s offered me the words that would approximate the desired long-ago feeling. I also utilized both the repetition of a folktale structure and a rhythmic telling to entice the reader while easing readability.

What did Megan Lloyd’s art bring to your text?

Simply put, Megan Lloyd’s illustrations authenticated the story, conveying the story’s times while bringing my characters truthfully to life. In her artist’s note, Megan not only shares that she chose egg tempera as her medium, along with pen and ink, to capture the flatter style of nineteenth-century itinerant limners; she goes on to explain how she prepared her paints daily. Her illustrations are true works of art. Indeed, the Carlisle Historical Society exhibited Fancy That’s illustrations soon after the book’s publication.

Thanks to Megan, too, readers old and young, can enjoy Fancy That. Adults ooh and ahh as they turn the pages, enthralled and rightly taken with Megan’s art. Young readers, though, giggle and laugh at Pip’s successive, painfully honest attempts at painting his less-than-perfect subjects. Megan knew to underscore Pip’s ingenuousness, visibly bringing heart and humor to the story. I’ve watched little ones follow along, image after image, their eyes on Pip’s dog Biscuit posed wreathed and ribboned.

Everything about my picture book Fancy That suggests another time, another place: not only the story and its language and Megan’s images, but the typeface, the calligraphy, the front and end papers, the paper stock itself with its mottled finish.

What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?

Most beginning picture book writers don’t realize: the picture book is a singular art form in which the words plus the art magically total more than the sum of its parts.

Another little known truth, instantly learned with a writer’s first draft? Writing a picture book is not as easy as one thinks.

Beginning picture writers need to have a sense of how a picture book works. I instruct my writing students and clients:

Find that one book that approximates yours and/or that one writer whose tellings you adore. Focus solely on the texts. Read the writer’s words and often, aloud, silently, to yourself, into a tape recorder. Feel and hear the rhythm of the words, the build-up of action, the flow of the pacing.

Next, type out that one special text you love. Leave spaces for the page turns. Feel the rhythm in your fingers, the build-up, the pacing. Note how few words it took to tell the story.

Next, re-paste the words onto pages, leaving room for the images.

Finally, cover up the words so only the images tell the story. Note what the illustrator added so the story lives and breathes. Note the details the illustrator included, so the reader will want to return again and again.

Read like a writer: was there a refrain? Were there sound words? Was the reader included? And write like a reader: what story questions appear, waiting to be answered; how did the writer hook the reader?

Writers need to read, period, if only to learn what’s being published, if only to learn what has been published. A good library and a good bookstore can feed and nourish writers ’til the cows come home. Each and every book is a teacher-in-waiting.

How about those building a career?

My first nugget of wisdom? Be compelled to do the thing!–“the impossible, important task at hand,” as Kate Di Camillo‘s Threadmaster tells Despereaux. The writer, too, is on a quest. “It is an extraordinary word, quest, isn’t it?” Kate’s narrator asks. “So small and yet so full of wonder, so full of hope.”

Being compelled will keep any writer on his plotline, no matter the detours, no matter the length, no matter the weather, no matter the duration.

My second nugget? The very people who eventually insure your book reaches the hands and hearts of readers are the very same people who can teach you your craft– booksellers, teachers, librarians, academics, reviewers, literacy groups, even young readers. Meet these people early and often while you’re honing your craft and they’ll be waiting at your doorstep once your first book is published. And speaking of people, you’re always six people away from the person you need to know.

Start locally, with your town’s library, bookstore, newspaper, school district and, as important, its children’s book writing community. Then watch your connections, and thus your opportunities, multiply.

Finally, my Susan Lucci-like journey has taught me: publication is not the only prize. I’ve come to see that writing is a gift. An unsold story might lead to the manuscript you do sell or the uncovering of a bent for poetry or the knowledge that magazine stories are where a talent lies. Revised but rejected manuscripts lead to stronger, more saleable tellings and editors who move elsewhere and proof of one’s mettle when all doors seem closed. What’s true for the reader is true for the writer: the right story at the right time can help the writer, too, uncover, discover, recover his story. Be open to the surprises writing delivers. Save room in your photo album for unimagined Kodak moments.

You’re one of the best writing coaches in the business! Could you talk about this aspect of your writing life? How do you approach a manuscript and its writer?

Fancy That tells a tale of hidden talents. True, Pip was unable to earn his keep painting people’s portraits. But his practice sketches of his wreathed and ribboned dog helped him become a prominent painter of animals. And those very same sketches, sent on to his sisters? They inspired the three to become successful wreath makers, financially able to buy a home in time for Christmas.

Ironically, my own story has much in common with Pip’s, in fact, with most heroes-dash-heroines who return home different for the journey, the possessor of something even better than first sought.

I truly love sharing Pip’s and my other characters’ tales with readers. Their stories offer hope and heart; they’re filled with spunk and spirit. But so, I learned, is my tale, my story, specifically, my writer’s story of becoming an author. My long years on task, the insights and know-how, the knowledge and expertise I gleaned, plus my teaching experience and my daily outings in the ever-changing children’s book world seamlessly combine when I’m coaching other writers, helping them tell their good stories well. It also helps that I’m a friendly Sagittarius, earnest, hopeful, possessing a positive mental attitude.

I do everything a good children’s book does: inform, educate, encourage, inspire. And because I believe each of us has a story and the right to tell it, like a children’s book, too, I offer hope.

Regardless of where the writer is in the writing and publishing process, regardless of whether we’re working by mail or in person or on the phone, the writer’s story is there to be discovered, uncovered, recovered, there to be crafted to reach its readers.

So often, I read a writer’s first draft and clearly and happily see the story waiting to be scooped up, waiting to be told effectively to readers. I see the story parts that work and those that don’t and share ways to make sure the story works as a whole. I often recommend the works of authors who write similar tales, or write in similar styles, and editors and publishers who publish a particular kind of work.

I act as the writer’s innocent first reader, thinking only of my reader needs. Where do I leave the story? What do I find incredulous? Do I know who claims the story? Do the actions ring true? Does the story build? Does the story offer tension? Did the writer ground me? Did he make me care? What distinguishes this story from others in this format? Is the story a good match for its intended audience?

I see possibilities, in an undeveloped character-plot connection, in a missed opportunity, in the addition of concrete details, in the placement of obstacles. I question. I suggest, I wonder, I ponder, all to refract the writer’s eyes so he can see anew his story and how to tell it.

Never in a million years would I have been privy to know the stories I now know had I not become a writing coach. I’ve worked with lawyers and bakers and Native Americans, with barbers, beauticians, carpenters and jewelers, with pediatricians, psychiatrists, therapists, social workers, with teachers, librarians, journalists, photographers, with parents, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, with dog lovers, cat lovers, veterinarians, with survivors, abuse victims, returning war veterans, with a Franciscan monk, a pastor, a minister.

I smile when I think how the elements of my life came together to bring me, a reader who longed to be a writer, to this particular point in time. My two business cards read “Writer of Children’s Books” and “Writing Coach.”

As Pip would say, fancy that, indeed.

Author Interview: Sarah Dessen on Just Listen

Sarah Dessen on Sarah Dessen: “I was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1970, but moved to North Carolina when I was three, so I’ve always considered myself a Southerner. I am the only one in my family with an accent. My dad is a retired Shakespeare professor, my mother a retired classicist. Suffice to say I grew up in a house full of books, where reading was encouraged if not required. I hated high school. I was not the greatest student, participated in no activities, and spent most of my time hanging out in my parking lot. The entire time I couldn’t wait to get out and move on, and yet here I find myself, all these years later, spending a part of each day back in that world. I guess a lot more was happening than I realized.” Visit Sarah’s LJ.

What about the writing life first called to you? At first, were you quick to answer or did you run the other way?

I always loved to make up stories. When I was little, I had a dollhouse I loved, and I made up an entire genealogy for the family that lived in it: personalities, marriages, divorces, everything. I taught myself to type when I was about eleven, on a manual typewriter I set up on a little desk in our TV room. I’d sit there every day, writing my little stories about my dollhouse people, or the Revolutionary War (which I was obsessed with for most of fifth grade, thanks to my teacher, Mrs. Weir.) In school, writing was the only thing that really came naturally to me, but it wasn’t until college that I realized that I could do it for more than just fun. Again, I have great teachers to thank for that. Still, it’s always been hard to call myself a writer. I think a part of me still thinks it’s too good to be true.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

I actually sort of fell into it backwards. My first book, That Summer (originally published by Orchard Books, reissued by Viking Children’s Books in 2006) was actually the third book I wrote, and I just used a teen narrator because that was how the story came to me. I didn’t intend for it be YA. My agent, however, felt it was, and at first I was hesitant, because I was worried about being pigeonholed and never being able to write anything else. She told me to trust her, and I am so glad I did. Clearly, this is where I am meant to be.

For those just discovering your work, could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

I’ve published seven books: That Summer (Orchard, 1996, reissue by Viking Children’s Books, 2006), Someone Like You (Viking, 1998), Keeping the Moon (Viking, 1999), Dreamland (Viking, 2000), This Lullaby (Viking 2002), The Truth About Forever (Viking 2004), and Just Listen (Viking 2006). My first two novels were made into the film “How To Deal,” which was released in 2003 and starred Mandy Moore and Allison Janney.

Congratulations on the success of Just Listen (Viking, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I was really intrigued with the idea of appearances, and the assumptions we make based on them. When I was in high school, I was always really envious of those girls who seemed to have everything: the perfect hair, perfect clothes, perfect boyfriend, perfect life.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that nobody’s life is perfect, and that those girls probably had a lot of the same problems I did.

Just before I wrote Just Listen, I was doing a program at a school and while I was waiting, I flipped through this yearbook that had been left out on a table nearby. I found this picture in the senior page section of these three beautiful girls, obviously sisters, posing by a swimming pool. And even then, at 34, I was like, “Wow, their lives must be just great.” Which kind of horrified me: it was like I hadn’t learned anything. The book sort of began right there.

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

I started the book in the fall of 2004. I’d had a couple of misfires, book-wise (which always happens to me, not everything I write works) so I was feeling really unsure, and was nervous also about following up The Truth About Forever.

Writing Just Listen was really hard for me. It was slow going, and I kept going back and rewriting constantly, worrying over it. I finished it in late April, and I still wasn’t sure it was good enough to send off to my agent. I almost just stuck it in a drawer. But then I got up my nerve and sent it. I’m so glad I did! It just goes to show how you can really lose perspective if you work too hard on something.

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

As I said, it was a tough process. I think with every book now I worry so much about following up the one before it, and also about pleasing my readers, who are so eager for each novel, and wait so patiently. (I publish about every two years, which I think is slow for YA.) I don’t want to let them down. Plus, I was teaching, and grading papers, and just pushing myself really hard…it wasn’t fun. I swore to myself when I finally sold Just Listen that I wouldn’t put myself through that again. Writing isn’t supposed to be fun every day, but it shouldn’t make you miserable, either.

I loved what you said at ALAN 2006 about writing stories of girls who had romantic interests but also more going on in their lives. Could you expand on this?

It kind of bothers me when my books are categorized as strictly “romance” because I like to think there’s more going on than just a love story. I mean, don’t get me wrong: love stories are great, I’m a total sucker for a happy ending. But when I was in high school, even though boyfriends and relationships were a big part of my life, there were always a lot of other things going on as well: family issues, conflicts with my friends, academic pressure, working a job. I think if you’re going to show a true representation of any one life, it can’t be about any one thing. I try to see more of a full picture, with the romance just a single part.

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

I think the most important thing is just to write. It sounds so simple, but sometimes it’s not. You can get so distracted—by having to work other jobs, or what other people have to say about your writing—but the one thing that really matters is that you just keep going, especially when you’re working on a novel. It’s so easy to get discouraged and give up. I have days when the absolute last thing I want to do is drag myself upstairs to my office, when I think I will die if I have to face my book, and all its problems, again. But sometimes, those are the days you break through, and you’d never have that great day if you didn’t force yourself into the chair and just begin.

How about those building a career?

I think having a good agent is key. I’ve been with mine for ten years now, and she’s very honest with me. There are a lot of times I’ve sent her books that were not so good because I was tired of writing, or panicked about money, and she’s told me flat out, “You don’t want this to be your next book. Trust me.” And she’s been right. The books that came after were always better, and those are ones I’m proud to see in print. It’s really scary, I think, to keep writing when you feel like you’ve failed, or you’re exhausted, or you’ve just put your heart and soul into a story that just wasn’t meant to be. But ten years in, I don’t look back at any of my books and feel embarrassed, or wish my name wasn’t on them. And for that, I’m very grateful.

As a New York Times bestselling author (hooray!), do typical writer insecurities fade away, do you feel more pressure, or are you able to separate all that from your own creative process?

I think it’s an added pressure, for sure, as I said above. I mean, I want this next book to be just as good as Just Listen, if not better. But I think the time to really worry about the reviews and everything else is when it’s done. When I’m working on a book, I have to really just focus on the story, and nothing else. Otherwise I’ll make myself nuts. That’s one reason I don’t talk about my books while I’m writing them: not even my husband knows what a novel’s about until it’s done. I just like knowing something is all mine, on the good days and the bad days. I’m sure there will come a time when I completely fall apart worrying. But it’s not helpful while I’m writing.

As a reader, what are your fave YAs of 2006 and why?

I really liked John Green‘s An Abundance of Katherines (Dutton, 2006). I was a huge fan of Looking for Alaska (Dutton, 2005), and was impressed with how he did a follow up that had the same kind of humor in places but yet was totally different in terms of characters and plot. I also liked Frank Portman‘s King Dork (Delacorte, 2006) and Tanya Lee Stone‘s A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl (Wendy Lamb Books, 2006)(author interview). To be honest, I’m really behind on my reading right now, as I tend not to read YA when I’m working on a book. But once I’m done, I’ll get caught up. I hope!

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Well, I’m a pop culture junkie—as anyone who reads my blog knows—and I do love television. These days I’m pretty much obsessed with “Veronica Mars” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” Basically, my life is pretty boring. I live in the country, I hang out with my dogs, I make deviled eggs. I used to worry I was entirely uninteresting, but the truth is I think if my life was more exciting I’d never have any time to write. So maybe this is a good thing. I hope so, anyway.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Well, I am at work on a book, so hopefully I’ll have something out before too long. I’ve done a lot of promotion and traveling in this last year. I’m hoping 2007 will be all about quiet, and writing. We’ll see.

Cynsational Notes

Picture perfect: Sarah Dessen explores what drives today’s teens: interview by Julie Hale from BookPage. May 2006.

Which Sarah Dessen Character are you? A quiz from Sarah’s official author site.

Author Interview: Anna Olswanger on Shlemiel Crooks

Anna Olswanger wears a number of hats in the book world. In addition to being a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates in Manhattan, she is the author of Shlemiel Crooks, illustrated by Paula Goodman Koz (Junebug, 2005), a 2006 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and a 2005-2006 Koret International Jewish Book Award Finalist, and is the coordinator of the Jewish Children’s Book Writers’ Conference each fall at the 92nd Street Y in New York. A frequent traveler on Amtrak, she teaches business writing at the Center for Training and Education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and writing for physicians at Stony Brook University School of Medicine and Hospital. Anna lives in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Her website is See also: Agent Interview: Anna Olswanger from Cynsations.

What about the writing life first called to you? Were you quick to answer or did time pass by?

I wanted to be a writer when I was a teenager, but by the time I graduated high school, I was burned out on literature because of the tediousness of analyzing and writing research papers. I thought the solution was to create in a nonverbal way (a way that no English teacher could judge), and for me, that meant art, so I started college as an art major.

That was in the early 1970s, and the college I went to had made sweeping changes in its graduation requirements as a result of the student unrest of the 1960s. In essence, we had no graduation requirements, just 120 credits of anything we wanted to take in broad areas like humanities, fine arts, science. That meant I could jump into oil painting without taking drawing.

By the time I graduated college, I was a frustrated artist. I didn’t have the basic drawing skills to paint what I wanted, nor did I have the self-discipline to take basic drawing courses.

So, I gave up painting and turned back to writing as an expression of my creativity. I focused on playwriting (I still didn’t want to study literature) and started an MFA program in playwriting at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

I didn’t like the rigidity of the playwriting graduate program I was in. So, I dropped out and went to London where I hoped to find actors to write for. I started a Jewish theater with some newfound friends there, but we never got backing and I couldn’t make enough money in London to stay longer than six months.

But while I was there, my friends took me to a large bookstore in one of the university towns (this was before the days of Barnes & Noble). For the first time as an adult, I wandered into the children’s books section of a bookstore. I picked up a few picture books and realized that they were little theaters between covers: they had dialogue, costumes, sets, lighting, and stage directions. I decided at that moment to write children’s books instead of plays.

Congratulations on Shlemiel Crooks, illustrated by Paula Goodman Koz (Junebug, 2005), a 2006 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and a 2005-2006 Koret International Jewish Book Award Finalist. What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My father died in 1981. He had been a wonderful storyteller, and I wanted to recapture his stories about his parents, his aunts and uncles, and his brothers and sisters. So, I began genealogy research.

My father’s family had emigrated from Lithuania to St. Louis in the 1880s and 1890s, and I made a series of research trips to St. Louis from Memphis, where I was living, to discover what I could about my St. Louis ancestors.

In researching, I discovered a 1919 Yiddish newspaper article about my great-grandfather. One night, while he was at the synagogue teaching a Talmud class, two crooks tried to steal the Passover wine and liquor from his kosher store. The neighborhood woke up at the sound of the break-in, and one neighbor began shooting his revolver in the air. The crooks got scared and ran away. They not only left without the wine and liquor, but without their horse and wagon, so they left with less than what they came with! The article, combined with my desire to pay tribute to my great-grandparents, was the beginning of Shlemiel Crooks.

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

I worked on the story for several years. I began it in the 1980s when I was in the midst of my genealogy research, and it wasn’t published until 2005. I thought by then I had revised it to perfection, but the editor at NewSouth suggested a few changes, which I made.

I was lucky to have a born and bred Southerner as my editor. He could feel the rhythm of the story, even though the Yiddish-inflected English of Shlemiel Crooks wasn’t something he was familiar with. Before publication as a book, Shlemiel Crooks appeared in The Young Judaean magazine where it won a Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Magazine Merit Award in 1999. I also self-published it as a miniature book for collectors in 2003.

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

Like most writers, I had to learn to persist. Shlemiel Crooks garnered 100 rejections. That’s why I self-published it in 1999. I feel strongly that writers should find pleasure in their work.

As a literary agent, I hear from writers who have become angry—whether at agents or editors or the world—about not being published, but editors and publishers don’t owe writers anything. We writers owe it to ourselves to create our own joy. That’s why I self-published Shlemiel Crooks. It gives me joy to share my work, period. I didn’t need a book contract for that.

What advice do you have for picture book authors building a career?

I’m answering this as a literary agent. Be patient because it can take years to build a career as an author. I don’t think the market can bear more than one book a year from an author, so prolific picture book authors might want to work in longer forms, in addition to picture books. Most important, find a way to experience happiness in your life that has nothing to do with being published.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Chicken Bone Man, a story set in the 1920s in Memphis, about my father. He was a Jewish kid enamored of the blues. His dog Jerry, who narrates the story, saved my father from a life on the concert stage accompanying his sister (my aunt) in opera.

Author Interview: Kathy Duval on The Three Bears’ Christmas

Kathy Duval on Kathy Duval: “When I was a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I read books like Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island and dreamed of exploring far away places. I ended up being an art teacher and art therapist, exploring inner worlds instead of outer. For ten years, I satisfied my itch for the exotic yearly by being a weekend gypsy at the Texas Renaissance Festival as a musician in a balalaika orchestra. I also went to art school and exhibited my art.

“I suffered a particularly nasty mid-life crisis and thought I needed a new career. I seriously investigated horticulture, landscape architecture, medical illustration, art conservation, and at least a half dozen more I can’t remember now. I got accepted into law school, but never attended. A friend gave me a plaque that said, ‘God give me the strength to accept my blessings.’ I’d gained the reputation of One Who Is Perpetually Dissatisfied.

“Then I took a writing course. What an awesome discovery to find out how much I love writing! I miraculously transformed into One Who Is Most Content. It’s taken some years to learn the art and craft of children’s writing, and I’m thrilled to have my first picture book The Three Bears’ Christmas, illustrated by Paul Meisel (Holiday House, 2005) published, with my second on the way.

“I live in Houston, Texas with my husband. My latest adventure involves being the grandmother of a one-year-old ball of energy and the step grandmother of two lively and interesting girls. I also work part time as an art therapist in a child development center for homeless children, another very satisfying adventure.”

What about the writing life first called to you? Were you quick to answer or did time pass by?

After winning an art contest in the sixth grade, I identified myself as an artist. However, looking back I see that a writer lurked inside me, too. In high school, I wrote poetry and loved rewriting my poems until the rhythm felt just right. When my husband asked me where I’d like to go on Saturday night, I’d tell him the bookstore. I’ve taken zillions of books to the Half Price Bookstore to make more room in my house for new ones. In graduate school, I secretly enjoyed researching and writing papers while other students complained. I bought picture books for myself long after my two children had moved on to sci fi and historical fiction. And for years before I started writing for publication, I wrote and illustrated my dreams in journals. A while back I stacked my dream journals, and the stack reached my elbow. I’m only 5′ 2″, but it was still impressive.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

When I was young, my mother read to me a lot. I vividly remember the power those stories had to transport me to magical spaces. As an only child, I spent a lot of time alone, creating my own stories in play and drawings. That child is still alive and well in me, and I write for her. I love thinking that my stories might take another child to that wonderful world that lives in imagination.

Tell us about The Three Bears’ Christmas, illustrated by Paul Meisel (Holiday House, 2005). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I submitted a story about baby packrats to an editor of novelty books. She liked the rhythm of it, and said it reminded her of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. However, she didn’t like rats, even cute ones. She needed a Christmas book for a lift-the-flap holiday series, and invited me to submit one. The idea of Goldilocks and Christmas coalesced, and I wrote a lift-the-flap version of The Three Bears with Santa playing Goldilocks. That editor left her job, so my Santa never ended up under flaps, but I loved the idea and rewrote it as a picture book.

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

From the first draft of the packrat story to publication of The Three Bears’ Christmas took almost five years. Being a writer definitely requires patience! I spent a year writing and submitting serveral versions of the story before it sold. Then there was a wait before Paul Meisel could begin the illustrations. I was happy to wait, because I knew if he did the art, it would be wonderful. I learned that the timing for a holiday book coming out is crucial, too. My editor Mary Cash at Holiday House explained to me that chain bookstores, review magazines, and wholesalers and others ask to see holiday books earlier than ever. If it’s not ready in time, a book misses the boat and it’s better to let it be first in line the next year.

What did Paul Meisel’s art bring to your text?

Paul Meisel’s art creates a charming cozy world for the three bears that adds so much warmth and humor to the story. Children laugh at the bear decor, clothes, and other funny details like the squirrel and mouse dressed like Santa, the bear angel on the Christmas tree, and a fish in Papa Bear’s stocking. The outdoor scenes are magical, perfectly foreshadowing the arrival of the story’s mysterious intruder. I can’t imagine The Three Bears’ Christmas without Paul’s art.

What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?

Read lots and lots of picture books! Several times a week, I go to a bookstore and read with a critical eye. What makes this book good? Publishers receive thousands and thousands of submissions a year. What made someone want to publish this one? You will not only find out what children today are reading, but you will also get the feel for the rhythm and conciseness of picture books. Writing picture books is very much like writing poetry.

Take writing classes, attend workshops, and join or start your own critique group. Join the Society of Children’s Book Writer and Illustrators. When others read your work, consider their criticism a gift that will help you become a better writer. While picture books look simple to write, writing one well is an art.

How about those building a career?

The Three Bears’ Christmas is my first book, so I’m learning about that myself. The Society of Children’s Book Writer and Illustrators has been an invaluable resource for networking. I met my agent at an SCBWI event. I’ve also made valuable connections with editors at SCBWI conferences.

Since The Three Bears’ release, I’ve tried to meet as many book people as possible by going to conferences, doing book signings, and offering school presentations. Before the book came out, my introverted side dreaded the promotion part of being an author. Surprisingly, though, I’m really enjoying it. I’m meeting so many interesting and nice people that I never would have met otherwise. But I believe the bottom line in building a career is to continue to grow as a writer.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I enjoy traveling and spending time with my family. Of course, I read a lot. I practice yoga. I belong to a dream group and still write and illustrate my dreams.

What can your fans look forward to next?

The Three Bears’ Halloween, illustrated by Paul Meisel, will be released by Holiday House in September 2007. Right now I have serveral other picture books being considered, and I’m working on two new projects. One is a YA fantasy novel set in a small Texas town. The other is a poetry collection involving music. I’ve completed a poetry collection about animals and their dreams, which I also hope to find a home for.

Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship

The PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship of $5,000 is offered annually to an author of children’s or young-adult fiction. The Fellowship has been developed to help writers whose work is of high literary caliber but who have not yet attracted a broad readership. As a result, an author’s books may not have achieved the sales that would allow the writer to support him or herself solely from writing.

The Fellowship is designed to assist a writer at a crucial moment in his or her career, when monetary support is particularly needed to complete a book-length work-in-progress.

The Fellowship is made possible by a substantial contribution from PEN Member Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, the prolific author of more than 125 works of fiction, including the novels Alice in the Know, the 21st and most recent in the acclaimed “Alice” series, as well as Sang Spell and Shiloh, the first novel in a trilogy, which won the 1992 Newbery Medal.

On establishing the Fellowship Mrs. Naylor said: “We truly work ‘blind,’ with no assurance whatsoever that anyone will be interested in our final product. It takes enormous stamina and resolve and optimism to live with our characters for a year or more—and it’s my hope that the Working Writer’s Fellowship, modest as it is, will let the author know that an expert panel of PEN judges has faith in the writer, admires his work, and trusts that he will be able to bring to paper what he sees in his head.”

Past winners

Previous recipients are: Graham McNamee, Lori Aurelia Williams, Franny Billingsley, Deborah Wiles, Amanda Jenkins, and Barbara Shoup. Read Cynsations interviews with Lori and Franny.

Who Is Eligible

A candidate is a writer of children or young-adult fiction in financial need; candidates have published at least two books (and no more than five) during the past 10 years that have been warmly received by literary critics but have not generated sufficient income to support the author.

How to Apply

Writers must be nominated by an editor or a fellow writer. The nominator should write a letter of support, describing in some detail how the candidate meets the criteria for the Fellowship. The nominator should also provide:

1. A list of the candidate’s published work, accompanied by copies of reviews, where possible.

2. Three copies of the following: the outline and a maximum of 75 pages of the text of the current work, intended as part of a new book.

3. On a separate piece of paper, a brief description of the candidate’s recent earnings and a statement about why monetary support is particularly needed at this time (e.g., child care, research expenses, etc.)

Deadline: Letters of nomination must be received between September 1, 2006 and January 17, 2007.

Send letters of nomination (or requests for more information) to:

PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship
PEN American Center
588 Broadway, Suite 303
New York, NY 10012