Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Editor Alexandra Penfold of Simon & Schuster

Alexandra Penfold is an assistant editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

What were you like as a young reader? What were your favorite books?

I was an obsessive reader as a kid. I read everything I could get my hands on and bankrolled the public library with my allowance because I always wanted to read books one more time before I returned them.

Some of my favorite books growing up were Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, The Knight and the Dragon by Tommie dePaola, The Pirates Mixed-Up Voyage by Margaret Mahy, Matilda by Roald Dahl, The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, That Dreadful Day by James Stevenson; I could go on and on.

I can probably attribute my living in New York today, at least in part to my love for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, Eloise by Kay Thompson, and The Babysitter’s Club Super Special #6: New York, New York!

What inspired you to become a children’s/YA book editor?

My mother is a writer and growing up I always wanted to be just like her. My parents always made sure our home was filled with books and when it came time to choose a career path it all came back to the books that inspired me as a kid and wanting to be part of the publishing process that brings great books to children.

How did you prepare for this career?

I graduated from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, which is a specialized school at NYU that allows self directed students to create their own majors. My concentration in school was Entertainment Business and Marketing, so I basically did a marketing major with lots of writing and entertainment and media classes thrown in.

I actually started out on the marketing side of things as a summer intern and then got my first job as a publicity assistant for Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing. After a couple years in publicity, I transitioned to the editorial side of things. But honestly I’m still learning new things every day–it’s a lifelong learning process.

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

Throughout the publishing process the editor wears many hats, but first and foremost I think of the editor as a book’s champion. From the moment an editor reads a manuscript and has that gut feeling that “this is it” they are cheering on the author and illustrator every step of the way.

What are its challenges?

I honestly wish that there were more hours in the day. As an editor you’re always on the look out for new talent, and it’s difficult to find the time to read as much as I would like. We get a lot of unsolicited submissions from authors that aren’t totally polished, but have promise and it’s hard when you don’t have the time to give a lot of individual feedback

What do you love about it?

I love working with the authors and illustrators, of course!

Could you give us some idea of your tastes, the kinds of books you’re looking to acquire?

I’m particularly interested in young humorous picture books that work on multiple levels. The kind of books that both parents and kids will want to read again and again.

I’m also interested in middle grade and YA novels with strong central characters and unique voices. Those pre-teen and teen years are such a defining time in a person’s life, a time where you really discover who you are and what you stand for. I remember reading a lot at that age and finding comfort in books–discovering I wasn’t alone in my confusion and frustration at the world.

Above all, voice and strong characters are what grab me.

Could you suggest some of your previous titles for study and/or those by other editors that you particularly admire (noting which are your own)?

Some of my favorite picture books include: Double Pink by Kate Feiffer, illustrated by Bruce Ingman; Cowboy Ned and Andy by David Ezra Stein; Wolves and Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett; Click, Clack, Moo by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin; and the Gossie books by Olivier Dunrea.

I love the humor in these books. The text of each book is short and young, the characters have a great deal of personality, the stories are fun, and once you’ve finished reading them you can’t wait to go back to the beginning and read them again.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with Meghan McCarthy on City Hawk: The True Story of Pale Male (Fall 2007), which is a really great engaging non-fiction picture book about Pale Male, the hawk who makes his home on the ledge of a swanky 5th Avenue co-op in New York City. As with all of her books, Meghan does a great job making the characters really come to life for the reader.

I would also say the same for Marissa Moss‘ Amelia series, which I’ve also had the opportunity to work on. Moss’ Amelia books cut right to the heart of what it is to be a middle-schooler. Amelia’s voice is authentic and her hopes, dreams, troubles and struggles are real. I can’t tell you how many readers write in saying that Amelia is just like them

Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson, Private by Kate Brian, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak are three very different young adult novels that I’ve enjoyed recently. Each has terrific characters, a great voice, and I couldn’t put them down.

Along with Rebecca Sherman of Writers House, you’ll be joining Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts as an editor speaker. Could you give us some insight into your program?

I’m excited to be doing this retreat with Rebecca Sherman, not only because we’re good friends, but also we’ve also worked together. We hope to give participants some insight into the editor/agent relationship, how we negotiate and communicate, both with each other and with our authors and illustrators, as well as run workshops on the steps to preparing manuscripts for submissions

What is one thing you wish every beginning writer knew?

You never stop learning as a writer. There’s always something more that each of us can learn. I truly believe that writing is a skill in addition to being a craft, and in order to improve you really need to write and write and write. Keep believing and keep writing!

Is there anything you would like to add?

Many thanks go out to Nancy Wagner for putting together this great retreat program! Retreats are a terrific opportunity to really focus on your writing, get targeted constructive feedback, solve those seemingly unsolvable dilemmas, and get things into great shape for submission. And personally, I love the opportunities it affords me to get to know participants one-on-one.

I hope to see you in Nebraska!

Cynsational Notes

See previous interviews in this series with authors Darcy Pattison, Elaine M. Alphin, and N.L. Sharp as well as agent Rebecca Sherman of Writers House.

Tantalize Fans Unite! Group Recommends YA Gothic Fantasy Novels

Members of the Tantalize Fans Unite! group at MySpace cheered their favorite gothic fantasies this past month. Highlighted books included those published for both the grown-up and young adult markets; however only the tween and teen (YA) titles are listed herein. Grouping sequels and/or companion books together (to the extent I recognize them), recommendations included:

THE AFTERLIFE by Gary Soto (Harcourt, 2003)(author interview from Harcourt). In this sometimes funny, sometimes bittersweet story, Chuy is murdered, stabbed with a knife only to find…not an end, but a new beginning. As a ghostly being, he visits family and friends. He finds the young man he could’ve been and maybe even true love. This isn’t a story of “too late.” It’s one of “just in time.”

BEATING HEART: A GHOST STORY by A.M. Jenkins (HarperCollins, 2006). From the promotional copy: “She is a momentary chill in warm sunlight, a shadow glimpsed from the corner of an eye, and a memory of secret kisses and hidden passion. He is seventeen years old, waiting for the start of his senior year, and ever since his family moved into this big old house–abandoned for decades–he has dreamt of her. Hot, wordless dreams that turn more intense and darker each night. Ghost and boy fascinate each other–until her memories and his desire collide in a moment that changes them both forever.”

BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE by Annette Curtis Klause (Delacorte, 1997)(author interview)(excerpt). A sensual exploration of Vivian’s longing for a calm life beyond her wolf pack. She falls in love with a human, what her people call a “meat boy,” but she wonders whether he will accept her for what she is. Though her wolf nature is explored in all its bloodiness, at times she could be any teenager who’s not sure who she is or where she fits. See fun facts about Annette; visit Princess Wolf: Unofficial Annette Curtis Klause site. Fans of Annette Curtis Klause also should note her most recent release FREAKS! ALIVE ON THE INSIDE (McElderry/Simon & Schuster, 2006)(author interview)(excerpt).

THE BLOODING by Patricia Windsor (Scholastic, 1996). When Maris decides she’s had enough of her mother’s constant picking, a summer au pair job seems like a perfect escape. But she quickly finds that the Forrest house isn’t as peaceful as it seems. Maris begins to wonder about the unknown beast in the woods, whether Barb Forrest is insane, and why Derek Forrest inspires such conflicting emotions. As much of a psychological study as a horror novel.

BLUE BLOODS by Melissa De La Cruz (Hyperion, 2006)(excerpt). From the promotional copy: “Schuyler Van Alen is a sophomore at a prestigious private school. Suddenly, when she turns fifteen, there is a visible mosaic of blue veins on her arm. She starts to crave raw food–and she is having flashbacks to ancient times. Then a girl from her school is found dead…drained of all her blood. Schuyler doesn’t know what to think. Could those vampire legends really be true? Steeped in vampire lore and set against the heady backdrop of the rich, young, and powerful in the heart of New York City…” Don’t miss the companion book, MASQUERADE (Hyperion, 2007). Visit Melissa’s blog and Melissa at MySpace.

THE BLUE GIRL by Charles De Lent (Viking, 2004). From the author site: “…here’s your introduction to Imogene and her best friend Maxine, a couple of outcasts at Redding High who find that getting pushed around by the other kids in school is the least of their worries.”

BOYS THAT BITE by Mari Mancusi (Berkeley Trade, 2006) (author interview from Slayground)(excerpt). From the author site: “My mom is so going to kill me if she finds out I’m turning into a vampire… Okay, so technically she can’t because I’m immortal. Well, not yet. See, due to the worst case of mistaken identity with my dark-side-loving twin sister at a Goth hangout called Club Fang, Magnus, a vampire hottie, went for my innocent neck instead of hers. Now, if I don’t reverse it in time, Magnus will be my blood mate forever and I’m doomed to be a blood-gulping, pasty, daylight-hating vmapire. Believe me, it seriously bites!” Don’t miss the companion book, STAKE THAT! (Berkeley Trade, 2006)(excerpt). Visit Mari at MySpace.

CITY OF BONES (Book One of the Mortal Instruments) by Cassandra Clare (author interview from BC Books)(excerpt). From Class of 2K7: “City of Bones is the first book of the Mortal Instruments Trilogy, a dark urban fantasy series about a sixteen-year old girl, Clary Fray, who lives in New York with her single mother, an artist. She comes home one night to find her apartment ransacked, her mother gone—and a slavering demon ready to tear off her head. Clary’s search for her mother leads her into an alternate New York filled with hideous demons, hard-partying warlocks, not-what-they-seem vampires, an army of werewolves and the scariest thing of all: the secrets of her own family’s past. She also finds herself torn between two boys—her best friend Simon, for whom she’s developing new feelings, and the mysterious demon hunter Jace, who has a past more tangled than her own. She becomes a part of the secret word of the demon hunters, or Nephilim, and as she does she discovers that rescuing her mother might mean putting their whole world in jeopardy.” Read Cassandra’s LJ. Visit Cassandra at MySpace.

COMPANIONS OF THE NIGHT by Vivian Vande Velde (Harcourt, 1995)(author interview). Thinking she’s stumbled into a crime scene, Kerry, 16, helps Ethan escape from the seemingly crazy men who claim he is a vampire. But soon after her family is kidnapped, Kerry realizes that maybe they weren’t so crazy after. Worse, she can’t think of anyone better to help her find vampires than a vampire himself. But will Ethan turn into the love of her life or the creature who takes it?

DEMON IN MY VIEW by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes (Laurel Leaf, 2001). From the promotional copy: “Jessica isn’t your average teenager. Though nobody at her high school knows it, her vampire novel has just come out under a pen name. Jessica often wishes that she felt as comfortable with her classmates as she does among the vampires and witches of her fiction. She has always been treated as an outsider at Ramsa High. But two new students have just arrived in Ramsa, and both want Jessica’s attention. She has no patience for overly friendly Caryn, but she’s instantly drawn to Alex, a handsome boy who seems surprisingly familiar. If she didn’t know better, she’d think that Aubrey, the alluring villain from her novel, had just sprung to life. That’s impossible, of course; Aubrey is a figment of her imagination. Or is he?” Author Amelia Atwater-Rhodes body of work (as a whole) also was recommended. Learn more about her many books at Wikipedia and visit The Den of Shadows and Amelia’s MySpace.

DEVILISH by Maureen Johnson (Razorbill, 2006)(excerpt). From the promotional copy: “The only thing that makes St. Teresa’s Preparatory School for Girls bearable for Jane is her best friend Ally. But when Ally changes into a whole different person literally overnight the fall of their senior year, Jane’s suddenly alone—-and very confused. Turns out, Ally has sold her soul in exchange for popularity—-to a devil masquerading as a sophomore at St. Teresa’s! Now it’s up to Jane to put it all on the line to save her friend from this ponytail-wearing, cup-cake-nibbling demon…without losing her own soul in the process.This YA take on Faust in a Catholic girls’ high school is clever, fun, and full of tasty surprises.” Read Maureen’s blog.

EIGHTH GRADE BITES (The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod) by Heather Brewer (Dutton, 2007)(excerpt). From the promotional copy: “Junior high school really sucks for thirteen-year-old Vladimir Tod, and not in the good slurp-up-the-blood kind of way. A gang of bullies harasses him daily, the principal is dogging his every move, and the girl he really likes prefers his best friend. Oh, and Vlad has to hide the fact that he’s a vampire. When the one teacher he really connects with mysteriously vanishes, Vlad is determined to find him. But then Vlad finds an unsettling note scribbled across his essay: ‘I know your secret.’ Vlad must locate his missing teacher, dodge the principal, resist the bullies’ tempting invitations to Bite me!, and get a date for the dance—all before he is exposed for the teen vampire he is.” Note: Heather is a member of our group! Visit Heather’s MySpace.

GLASS HOUSES (Book One of the Morganville Vampire Series) by Rachel Caine (NAL/JAM, 2006)(author interview). From the promotional copy: “Welcome to Morganville, Texas. Just don’t stay out after dark. College freshman Claire Danvers has had enough of her nightmarish dorm situation, where the popular girls never let her forget just where she ranks in the school’s social scene: somewhere less than zero. When Claire heads off-campus, the imposing old house where she finds a room may not be much better. Her new roommates don’t show many signs of life. But they’ll have Claire’s back when the town’s deepest secrets come crawling out, hungry for fresh blood.” Don’t miss the companion book, DEAD GIRLS DANCE (NAL/JAM, 2007).

GOT FANGS? CONFESSIONS OF A VAMPIRE’S GIRLFRIEND by Katie Maxwell (2005). From the promotional copy: “All sixteen-year-old Francesca Getti wants to do is have a normal life where she’s one of the crowd, blending in so no one will know just how much of a freak she is. Dragged to Europe by her mother to join GothFaire, a travelling band of psychics, magicians, and assorted other oddities, Fran has to cope with not only the normal angst of always being a fish out of water, but also with her own fate as a psychometrist. Enter one Moravian Dark One (referred to by most people as vampires) named Benedikt who claims Fran is the key to redeeming his soul, a mysterious horse who seems to have an involved past, an immortal friend who remembers what Mozart was like, and a demonologist who thinks he’s Elvis, and you can understand why Fran despairs of ever fitting in.” Don’t miss the companion book, CIRCUS OF THE DARNED (2006).

GOTHIC! TEN ORIGINAL DARK TALES edited by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick, 2004)(author interview)(excerpt). Features stories by Joan Aiken, M.T. Anderson, Neil Gaiman, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Gregory Maguire, Garth Nix, Celia Rees, Janni Lee Simner, Vivian Vande Velde, and Barry Yourgrau. Worth the price of the book for the introduction, though the collection itself is wickedly outstanding. Don’t miss the upcoming companion book, THE RESTLESS DEAD (Candlewick, 2007).

A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY by Libba Bray (Delacorte, 2003)(author interview)(excerpt). Sensuality chafes against Victorian restrictions in this lush and thoughtful tale of boarding school friends who find their own power and powers. Don’t miss the companion book, REBEL ANGELS (Delacorte, 2005)(excerpt). Visit Libba’s LJ.

I WAS A TEENAGE FAIRY by Francesca Lia Block (HarperCollins, 2000). From the promotional copy: “This is the story of Barbie Marks, who dreams of being the one behind the Cyclops eye of the camera, not the voiceless one in front of it; who longs to run away to New York City where she can be herself, not some barley flesh-and-blood version of the plastic doll she was named after. It is the story of Griffin Tyler, whose androgynous beauty hides the dark pain he holds inside. And finally it is the story of Mab, a pinkie-sized, magenta-haired, straight-talking fairy, who may or may not be real but who helps Barbie and Griffin uncover the strength beneath the pain, and who teaches that love–like a sparkling web of light spinning around our bodies and our souls–is what can heal even the deepest scars.”

LOOK FOR ME BY MOONLIGHT by Mary Downing Hahn (Clarion, 1995). Cynda’s fight with her mother and new stepfather over moving to Italy results in Cynda being shipped off to live with her father, pregnant stepmother, and five-year-old half brother at their historic inn in Maine. Cynda, 16, is fascinated first by rumors that the inn is haunted and then by Will, the grandson of the cleaning woman. But then appears a guest, Vincent–an older, sophisticated, and attentive man who seems to be the only one who really understands the displacement Cynda is feeling in her family life. Apparent sympathy grows into apparent romance, but it quickly turns more bitter than sweet.

THE LOOKING GLASS WARS by Frank Beddor (Dial, 2006). According to Wikipedia, “Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, it claims that those two books were nothing but lies and that this is the true story. It has a twist on the story like the white rabbit is actually Alyss’s (Alice’s) tutor, Bibwit Harte, and that the Mad Hatter is actually a very agile, sober bodyguard.”

MARKED: A HOUSE OF NIGHT NOVEL by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast (St. Martin’s Press). Note: I couldn’t find a promotional description, so see the video trailer. Read P.C.’s blog.

OLD MAGIC by Marianne Curley (Bloomsbury). From the promotional copy: “Kate is at a loss. She meets a boy with extraordinary powers and a bizarre family history that can be traced back to the Middle Ages. But Jarrod doesn’t believe in the paranormal. When Kate tries to convince him that he has supernatural powers that need to be harnessed, he doesn’t take her seriously, and only puts up with her ‘hocus pocus’ notions because he finds her captivating. However, the dangerous, uncontrolled strengthening of his gift finally convinces Jarrod that he must take Kate’s theories seriously. Together, they embark on a remarkable journey – one which will unravel the mystery that has hung over Jarrod’s family for generations and finds them pitted against immense forces in a battle to undo the past and reshape the future.”

OVER AND OVER YOU by Amy McAuley (Roaring Brook, 2005)(author interview). Penny is haunted by vivid dreams that feel so real, almost as if they…were? After being tipped off by a psychic, she’s starting to consider extreme possibilities, destinies, and even true love. Penny’s voice is engaging, her plight compelling, and her command of historical factoids inspirational. A wonderful choice for romantics, fantasy fans, and those who appreciate psychic (and psychological) puzzles. Visit Amy’s MySpace.

PEEPS by Scott Westerfeld (Razorbill, 2005)(author interview). From the promotional copy: “Cal was infected by a parasite that has a truly horrifying effect on its host. Cal himself is a carrier, unchanged by the parasite, but he’s infected the girlfriends he’s had since Morgan. All three have turned into the ravening ghouls Cal calls Peeps. The rest of us know them as vampires. It’s Cal’s job to hunt them down before they can create more of their kind. . . .” Don’t miss the companion book, THE LAST DAYS (Razorbill, 2006)(excerpt). Read Scott’s blog.

PROM DATES FROM HELL by Rosemary Clement-Moore (Delacorte, 2007). From the promotional copy: “Maggie Quinn, Girl reporter. Honors student, newspaper staffer, yearbook photographer. Six weeks from graduation and all she wants to do is get out of Avalon High in one piece. Fate seems to have different plans for her. …it’s up to her to get in touch with her inner Nancy Drew and ferret out who unleashed the ancient evil before all hell breaks loose. Maggie has always suspected that prom is the work of the devil, but it looks like her attendance will be mandatory. Sometimes a girl’s got to do some pretty undesirable things if she wants to save her town from soul-crushing demons from hell and the cheerleading squad.”

PROM NIGHTS FROM HELL by Meg Cabot, Stephenie Meyer, Kim Harrison, Lauren Myracle, Michele Jaffe (HarperCollins, 2006). From the promotional copy: “From angels fighting demons to a creepy take on getting what you wish for, these five stories will entertain better than any DJ in a bad tux. No corsage or limo rental necessary. Just good, scary fun.”

RED IS FOR REMEMBRANCE by Laurie Faria Stolarz (Llewellyn, 2006)(author interview). From the promotional copy: “Nothing has been the same for eighteen-year-old Stacey since her boyfriend Jacob died. For months she stayed at the beach cottage they shared before Jacob’s tragic accident, refusing to give up hope that somehow, somewhere, Jacob was still alive. But Stacey knows she can’t put off rejoining the world forever. Lucky to have a full scholarship to prestigious Beacon University, Stacey hopes she can finally put her past behind her. Trying to get through her first week of college as just another normal student, Stacey is devastated when she starts having more disturbing dreams. And keeping them secret is not an option when the college president calls her in for a private meeting–and reveals that his daughter Porsha is having nightmares too. But while Stacey dreams of a ghost, Porsha is dreaming of a murder she’s convinced hasn’t happened yet. Porsha’s fragmented nightmares foretell a brutal murder, and may also shed light on a shocking revelation that could change Stacey’s life forever. Together the two must decode their dark dreams to save a life–a risk that may cost them their own.” Note: the entire BLUE IS FOR NIGHTMARES series (Llewellyn, 2003-) by Laurie was recommended.

THE RIDDLE OF THE WREN by Charles De Lent (Firebird, 2002). From the promotional copy: “Minda Sealy is afraid of her own nightmares. Then, one night, while asleep, she meets Jan, the Lord of the Moors, who has been imprisoned by Ildran the Dream-master-the same being who traps Minda. In exchange for her promise to free him, Jan gives Minda three tokens. She sets out, leaving the safety of her old life to begin a journey from world to world, both to save Jan and to solve ‘the riddle of the Wren’–which is the riddle of her very self.”

THE ROSE AND THE BEAST by Francesca Lia Block (1993). From the author site: “Beauty, Snow White, Rose Red—you’ve met them all in many incarnations. But you haven’t met Charm or Snow or Tiny, not as Francesca has imagined them. Within her singular, timeless landscapes, the brutal and the beautiful collide. Here, the heroine triumphs because of the strength she finds in a pen, a paintbrush, a lover, a friend, a mother, and, finally, herself.”

THE SILVER KISS by Annette Curtis Klause (Delacorte, 1990)(author interview). A haunting story of love between Zoe and Simon, a vampire. She wrestles with the impending death of her mother while he seeks to avenge the murder of his. A look at love and death with no easy answers or conveniently happy endings. Note: Annette’s short story “Summer of Love” is a tie-in to THE SILVER KISS and may be found in THE COLOR OF ABSENCE: 12 STORIES ABOUT LOSS AND HOPE edited by James Howe (Atheneum, 2001). Fans of Annette Curtis Klause may want to check out her most recent release FREAKS! ALIVE ON THE INSIDE (McElderry/Simon & Schuster, 2006)(author interview)(excerpt).

TALES OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM edited by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D. Note: the title is listed as in print on the author site but I couldn’t find any additional information.

TANTALIZE by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2007). Quincie Morris has never felt more alone. Her hybrid-werewolf first love threatens to embark on a rite of passage that will separate them forever. And just as she and her uncle are about to debut Austin’s red hot vampire-themed restaurant, a brutal murder leaves them scrambling for a chef. Can Quincie transform the new hire into a culinary dark lord before opening night? Will Henry Johnson be able to wow the crowd in fake fangs, a cheap cape, and red contact lenses? Or is there more to this earnest fresh face than meets the eye? As human and preternatural forces clash, a deadly love triangle forms and the line between predator and prey begins to blur. Who’s playing whom? And how long can Quincie play along before she loses everything?

THIRSTY by M. T. Anderson (Candlewick, 1997)(excerpt). In a world where everybody knows vampires really exist, Chris finds himself becoming one. It’s hard enough dealing with his family, the growing distance between him and his friends, and the enigmatic quality of the girl his likes. Then an entity calling himself “Chet” ask Chris to help save humanity. But it’s not clear if Chet is really on the side of good or evil, and with each passing day, Chris finds himself growing more thirsty. A must-read for vampire comedy fans.

TITHE: A MODERN FAEIRE TALE by Holly Black (Simon & Schuster, 2002)(author interview). Kaye Fierch has been passing through life as a blond Asian, connecting with fairies but not counting herself among them…until now. Excellent juxtaposition of the fantasy elements against the New Jersey setting. Some readers may be familiar with Black from the Spiderwick Chronicle Series (for the younger set). Don’t miss the companion book, VALIANT: A MODERN TALE OF FAERIE (Simon & Schuster, 2005).

TWILIGHT by Stephenie Meyer (Little Brown, 2005)(author interview). From the promotional copy: “”Isabella Swan’s move to Forks, a small, perpetually rainy town in Washington, could have been the most boring move she ever made. But once she meets the mysterious and alluring Edward Cullen, Isabella’s life takes a thrilling and terrifying turn. Up until now, Edward has managed to keep his vampire identity a secret in the small community he lives in, but now nobody is safe, especially Isabella, the person Edward holds most dear. The lovers find themselves balanced precariously on the point of a knife—between desire and danger.” Don’t miss the companion book, NEW MOON (Little Brown, 2006), and look for the forthcoming ECLIPSE (Little Brown, 2007).

UGLIES by Scott Westerfeld (Simon & Schuster, 2003)(author interview)(excerpt). From the author site: “UGLIES is the first book of the trilogy. The second book is PRETTIES and the third is SPECIALS. It’s about a world in which everyone has an operation when they turn sixteen, making them supermodel beautiful. Big eyes, full lips, no one fat or skinny. This seems like a good thing, but it’s not. Especially if you’re one of the uglies, a bunch of radical teens who’ve decided they want to keep their own faces. (How anti-social of them.)” Read Scott’s blog.

VAMPIRATES: DEMONS OF THE OCEAN by Justin Somper (Little Brown). From the promotional copy: “Twins, Connor and Grace, never dreamed that there was any truth to the Vampirate shanty their father sang to them before he died, but that was before the two were shipwrecked and separated from each other. For Connor, who is taken aboard a pirate ship, there’s the chance to learn to sword-fight, but for Grace, aboard a mysterious ship of vampire pirates, the danger is great. The twins want more than anything to find each other, but their time is limited and they’re an ocean apart.” Visit the UK edition site. Note: middle grade novel.

THE VAMPIRE’S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER by S.P. Somtow (Atheneum, 1997). From the promotional copy: “Life isn’t easy for Johnny Shapiro, despite his mother’s success as the author of a book about his Lakota grandfather. He finds it hard to ‘fit in’ in his new school–until he meets Rebecca, a new student as well, and the half-human daughter of a vampire.”

VAMPIRE HIGH by Douglas Rees (Delacorte, 2003). From the promotional copy: “It doesn’t take long for Cody Elliot to realize that his new high school is a little different. The other students are supernaturally strong, don’t like the sunlight, and are always placing orders at the local blood bank. When his new friend shows him his fangs, Cody doesn’t need any more clues—these kids are vampires! As Cody struggles to fit into this secretive community, he disrupts centuries of human-vampire segregation, with some serious—and some seriously funny—consequences.”

VAMPIRE KISSES by Ellen Schreiber (HarperCollins, 2003)(excerpt). From the promotional copy: ” In her small town dubbed ‘Dullsville,’ sixteen-year-old Raven-a vampire-crazed, goth-girl-is an outcast. But not for long… The intriguing and rumored-to-be haunted mansion on top of Benson Hill has stood vacant and boarded-up for years. That is, until its mysteriously strange new occupants move in. Who are these creepy people-especially the handsome, dark and elusive Alexander Sterling? Or rather, what are they? Could the town prattle actually ring true? Are they vampires? Raven, who secretly covets a vampire kiss, both at risk of her own mortality and Alexander’s loving trust, is dying to uncover the truth.” Don’t miss the companion books, KISSING COFFINS (2005)(excerpt) and VAMPIREVILLE (2006)(excerpt), both from HarperCollins.

WITCH’S NIGHT OUT by Silver Ravenwolf (Llewellyn, 2000). From the promotional copy: “After her boyfriend is killed in a car accident under suspicious circumstances, Bethany and the other members of her coven try to use the power of Wicca to solve the mystery.”

WUTHERING HIGH (A Bard Academy Novel) by Cara Lockwood (excerpt)(Simon & Schuster, 2006). From the promotional copy: “When Miranda, a slightly spoiled but spirited fifteen-year-old from Chicago, smashes up her father’s car and goes to town with her stepmother’s credit cards, she’s shipped off to Bard Academy, a boarding school where she’s supposed to learn to behave. Gothic and boring and strict, All Is Not What It Seems At Bardit’s everything you’d expect of a reform school. But all is not what it seems at Bard. For starters, Miranda’s having horrific nightmares and the nearby woods are eerily impossible to navigate. The students’ lives also start to mirror the classics they’re reading tragic novels like Dracula, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre. So Miranda begins to suspect that Bard is haunted by famous writers who took their own lives and she senses that not all of them are happy. Complicating things even more is the fact that Ryan Kent a cute, smart, funny basketball player who went to Miranda’s old high school landed himself in Bard, too. And the attention he’s showing Miranda is making some of the other girls white as ghosts. Something ghoulish is definitely brewing at Bard, and Miranda seems to be at the center of ominous events, but whether it’s typical high school b.s. or otherworldly danger remains to be seen.” Don’t miss the companion book, THE SCARLET LETTERMAN (Simon & Schuster, 2007)(excerpt). Visit Cara online and at MySpace.

Additional Series Recommendations

Caroline Cooney‘s VAMPIRE’S PROMISE series; Alex Duval’s VAMPIRE BEACH series; James Patterson‘s MAXIMUM RIDE series; Christopher Pike‘s LAST VAMPIRE series; L.J. Smith‘s NIGHTWORLD series, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES series, FORBIDDEN GAME trilogy, and THE SECRET CIRCLE trilogy; Cate Tiernan‘s the BALEFIRE series and SWEEP series.

Cynsational Notes

Readers may also find additional suggestions and related commentary in NOT YOUR MOTHER’S VAMPIRE: VAMPIRES IN YOUNG ADULT FICTION by Deborah Wilson Overstreet (Scarecrow Press, 2006)(author interview).

In addition, my research bibliographies for TANTALIZE are online.

Author-Editor Interview: Harold Underdown on The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books

Harold Underdown on Harold Underdown: “I was born in Sewanee, Tennessee, home of the University of the South, and my family moved around on the East Coast as my dad moved into different jobs in his field–English History. I’m the oldest of three boys.

“We also spent one year and some summers in England, and I read a lot, both US and UK authors. See The Editor as Reader, on my site, which goes into my childhood reading in more detail.

“I was an English major in college, but did not go straight into publishing, unlike many editors. I taught and did social work before deciding that being involved in making books was something that appealed to me.”

Could you fill us in on your experience as a children’s book editor?

I started out at Macmillan Children’s Books, nearly twenty years ago, as an assistant. Macmillan at that time was a large, general-purpose imprint with a long history, that published everything from reference books for children to the youngest picture books. Good mentors there–Neal Porter, Judith Whipple, Beverly Reingold. I worked there for a few years, and then at Orchard, got downsized, freelanced for a while, and then had a great job at Charlesbridge as senior editor and then editorial director.

The only problem with that wonderful job at Charlesbridge was that I was commuting to Boston from Brooklyn, and I left that job so that my wife and I could start a family. I worked for a start-up children’s ebook company until it went bankrupt, and since then have returned to freelancing, doing projects both for individuals and publishing companies.

See a list, somewhat out-of-date, of some of the books I’ve edited.

You’re also the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books (Second Edition)(Alpha, 2004)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this title?

The inspiration wasn’t mine, actually! I was contacted by an editor from the company that publishes the Idiot’s Guides. They had done a guide on publishing in general, and after they succeed with a broad subject they often publish guides on smaller parts of that wider topic. Once they come up with a subject, the find someone who they think can write about it. I believe that they found me through The Purple Crayon, saw that I was already providing basic information about children’s publishing, and thought I’d be a good match.

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

By the time the Idiot’s editor contacted me, they were already running late–the book was on their schedule for early spring 2001 and she first emailed me in late March of 2000!

Once we sorted out the contract, the first major event was the outline. This is standard procedure for these guides. The author does a detailed outline–in my case over ten pages long–which becomes the blueprint for the book. And then my coauthor and I just wrote. it was all done electronically. We started writing in May, and finished the manuscript by the beginning of November. And the book was on sale by February 2001.

The second edition was not quite as hectic.

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

One big challenge for me was just finding time to write! I was working at Charlesbridge at the time. I wrote in the evenings. I wrote all weekend.

Writing fast was also a challenge for me. I don’t write fast, usually. But having the outline helped. Some of the chapters were about things I do every day, and I could almost write them straight from the outline. Others did require research and anecdote gathering but I knew where to go to gather the information I needed.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, was believing that I could write a 300-page book, since I’d never written anything anywhere near that length before. The Idiots provided a co-author, who drafted some of the chapters, and that did help, but since she wasn’t as familiar with the field as I am I still had to review everything.

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

Well, they’ll find a lot on The Purple Crayon, but here are a few key points:

–Understand that it will take time and persistence to get anywhere. Be ready to stick it out.

–Join the SCBWI. Go to a local conference. Get to know other writers. It helps enormously to have a support network.

–Write, write, and write some more. Don’t accept “good enough.” Get your writing critiqued by a pro at a conference or elsewhere before deciding it’s ready to be sent in.

–Get three books to start your writing shelf: a market guide, a writer’s “how-to,” and a guide to the business such as my book.

–Read lots of recently published books to get a sense of what’s being published today in the market.

How about those authors building a career?

Now, that’s hard. I don’t think there’s even one piece of advice that will apply to everyone in that situation. But here is something worth keeping in mind: you’re a professional writer, and don’t let anyone treat you as anything less.

You’re the creator of The Purple Crayon, a site dedicated to writing, illustrating, and publishing children’s books. For those new to it, could you give us an overview?

The site consists mostly of articles I’ve written or that have been contributed. These are organized by subject matter, from Basics to Writing, on about a dozen index pages (all listed here: I also have a blog, a publishing glossary (from my Idiot’s Guide), some interviews, some book reviews, a section about award-winning children’s books, information about my editorial services, and some links pages, but the articles are the core of the site.

How did the site evolve?

That’s a long story. It’s been around since the early years of the Web. I started it with some links and a few articles and presentations that I converted to HTML, and it’s just grown since then. People ask questions, and sometimes an article comes out of that, or someone sends me an article on a topic that the site doesn’t cover. So I’ve just kept adding, and occasionally reorganizing.

As a children’s literature person, what else do you do? Other hats do you wear?

Gee, isn’t three hats enough? Well, I haven’t said much about my work as an editorial freelancer and consultant, actually. The Purple Crayon and The Idiot’s Guide are not my full-time work. Editing is. I do everything from picture book critiques to editing and project managing teacher’s editions of textbooks.

Also, I speak at conferences, which I enjoy.

What do you do outside of the book world?

I try to make sure my family is happy. We have a child in kindergarten, who over the past several months has learned to read, mostly on her own initiative. I stay involved with that. It’s satisfying and challenging and nothing at all like any job I’ve ever had.

In case you’re wondering, being a father hasn’t changed how I approach my work as an editor. I’ve greatly enjoyed discovering books I didn’t know about, though, and re-discovering favorites from my childhood. The Editor as Reader, which I mentioned earlier, goes into some of the discoveries.

What can we expect from you next?

Eventually, I’ll be back in an acquiring position at a publisher. That could happen tomorrow or five years from now.

And you can expect a new edition of my Idiot’s Guide. I’ll announce details on my web site and via an email newsletter I put out occasionally.

Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Agent Rebecca Sherman of Writers House

Rebecca Sherman is a literary agent at Writers House in New York.

What were you like as a young reader? What were your favorite books?

Apparently, my mother left board books for me in my crib and would walk into my room in the morning to find me “reading.” I learned about colors, shapes, numbers and letters with Richard Scary books. I loved to read, but I was a pretty shy and anxious child.

I remember I was in both the “advanced” and the “regular” reading comprehension group in first grade because I was too timid to answer any of the questions in the advanced group, but answered EVERY question in the “regular” group because I was so frustrated that no one else could come up with the answers.

Some of my favorite picture books still are Where the Wild Things Are, There’s A Monster at The End of This Book, and anything involving James Marshall (George & Martha, The Stupids, Miss Nelson is Missing).

As I got older, I read a lot of Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Roald Dahl. I really believe that I fell in love with reading in Mrs. Barber’s fourth grade class where I read Bridge to Terabithia and Tuck Everlasting for the first time. Every class ended with Mrs. Barber reading poetry to us. This is how I learned that reading could connect people.

Unfortunately, in junior high there was a slight drought of great reading. Somehow I ended up reading a lot of early R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, despite the fact that I can’t see a horror movie to this day. I was looking for something age-appropriate and not too girly and just couldn’t find it.

I am definitely envious of today’s teens and tweens who have so many YA options. I would have loved to read about characters I could relate to, but soon enough I moved on to adult literature.

Admittedly, I became a bit of a pompous reader and attempted A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man poolside at my overnight camp and Lolita on a family road trip. But my favorite books from my high school years are My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok and the Glass family stories by J.D. Salinger.

And I’ve made up for lost time by reading many YA novels…even poolside and on the subway.

How did you prepare for this career? How long have you been working as an agent?

I was absolutely unprepared for my career as a literary agent. I stumbled on the job of assistant to a Literary Agent at Writers House after graduating from Northwestern with a B.A. in English.

Truth be told, I went on the interview as a favor. A family friend who is in publishing was guiding me on my New York City job hunt. She told me to send a cover letter and resume to her best friend, an agent at Writers House, even though she didn’t need an assistant. I thought it was a complete dead end, but did it anyway.

The next day, Susan Cohen (scroll for bio), another agent at Writers House called me to set up an interview because she had been without an assistant the entire summer. I had been interviewing for editorial assistant positions and had set my sights on such a job.

I’m not sure that there is any way to prepare outside of a literary agency. Working as an assistant at Writers House was the best course I could have taken. I prepared by observing those around me, devouring children’s and YA books, getting to know those on the editorial side, etc. It was trial by fire, one step at a time.

I began as Susan Cohen’s assistant in September 2001 and took on a few clients about two years later. I was considered a Junior Agent when I represented my own clients and assisted Susan. Around Summer 2005, I really began to build my own list and was promoted to Senior Agent June 2006.

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

The literary agent is the advocate for the author (and/or illustrator). While an editor, designer, or art director has an entire publishing house to stand by them and help with decision making, an unagented author or illustrator is going at it alone. I feel it’s of the utmost important for that client to have me and by extension, Writers House in his corner.

That is not to say that I see publishing as agency vs. publisher. To the contrary, I see the client, editor and agent as three integral members of a team. The agent should not be seen as the middleman between the editor and author. The editor and author should maintain a direct relationship. Instead the agent is there to handle business matter (negotiations of offers, contracts, subsidiary rights, etc) freeing the client to focus on creative matters with her editor and publisher.

However, I like my clients to keep me abreast of all progress and setbacks. While it is my job to help untangle complications of scheduling or promotion, I also want to be involved to celebrate a starred review or a great school visit.

Overall, it is my job to oversee and help manage a client’s career instead of focusing on just one book.

What are its challenges?

So much to do, and only so many hours in a day.

Also, there are times when I absolutely love a project and cannot sell it. If I love a project, there is no system of checks and balances. I am free to enter into a working relationship with that writer. By taking on a client, I have devoted my time to her, but none of Writers House’s money.

It’s heartbreaking, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I understand that just because I love something doesn’t mean that a publisher can necessarily take the risk to put money into it. So despite the fact that I am emotionally involved and have allocated some of the little time I have to a project, it might never reach book store shelves.

What do you love about it?

Being an agent allows me to take part in so many aspects of not only a book’s creation and success, but on a more personal level, the advancement of an author (or author/illustrator’s) career. There is the potential on any day to discover the next great writer. As an agent, I am often the first fan of a writer’s manuscript or artist’s portfolio.

I am blessed with the job of calling a client to say that their work is going to be published. Not a bad gig.

Would you describe yourself as an editorial agent–one who comments on manuscripts–or as an agent who is exclusively concerned with publishing issues? Why?

I am absolutely an editorial agent. My editorial input is expressed mostly for the benefit of unpublished authors. If a client has already been published and plans to publish again with the same publisher, I might put my two cents in (if asked), but would leave the substantive part of the editorial process to the client and editor. However, for unpublished clients and prospective clients, I feel it is of the utmost important to send the most polished manuscript possible to editors.

It is part of my job to have a critical eye and to know the market. This knowledge should be shared with clients whose careers I am trying to strengthen or begin. If I can’t sell a client’s manuscript, I can’t move on to the next step of “concerning myself with publishing issues.”

If I extend an offer for representation, I am agreeing to work with a client for the length of their career, not just for one book. Going through an editorial round with a client is a great way to get to know each other and establish a trust. I want to submit manuscripts to editors from clients who are open to feedback and believe in teamwork.

If I find out that a potential client is unwilling to make modifications or collaborate via editorial work with me, I have saved myself and an editor a great deal of hassle. A client who refuses to revise when it is in the best interest of the book, is a client neither an editor nor I would want to work with. My clients do reflect on me and my reputation.

Why should unagented writers/authors consider working with a literary agency?

I simply cannot imagine trying to both create a great manuscript (or a great dummy or proposal) and educate yourself about the business of publishing. If I was a writer or illustrator, I would want that to be my job, and would want to find someone who feels passionately enough about my work to do their job for my benefit. Oh, and your advance will be higher with a literary agent, not to mention a stronger contract in a variety of ways.

What distinguishes Writers House from other literary agencies?

Writers House is the best of both worlds: small enough to feel tight-knit and familial, but large enough to have a great deal of clout and provide many services for our clients. Writers House includes an in-house foreign rights department of three members, a three person accounting department, a CFO, a contracts manager, and a subsidiary rights director who handles audio rights, permissions and more. The agents at Writers House represent an array of award winners and bestsellers and many have been with Writers House for more than twenty years.

From my point of view, our focus on and success with children’s and YA titles is unparalleled in the industry. Six senior agents specialize in books for young readers with other agents (even those focused on thrillers or romance titles) representing clients in this market.

The range of material for young readers that Writers House represents is inspiring and includes Newbery Winners Susan Patron, Sharon Creech, Cynthia Rylant, Robin McKinley and Cynthia Voight, Printz Winner John Green (author interview), Coretta Scott King Winner Kadir Nelson and Caldecott Honor recipients Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith in addition to bestsellers such as Stephenie Meyer (author interview), Christopher Paolini, Dav Pilkey, Barbara Park, Francine Pascal, Ann Martin, Neil Gaiman, James Howe…and that’s just skimming the surface. Our devotion to books for young readers benefits our clients at each stage of the publishing process. Please visit our website to find out more about the agency and some of the clients we represent.

Could you give us some idea of your tastes, the kinds of authors you’re looking to sign?

I’m always looking for manuscripts with a striking voice and unique point of view mixed with authenticity. Humor is a real plus for me. Although I represent many author/illustrators, I am looking for more novelists.

For a better idea of my tastes, please see my website on Publisher’s Marketplace which lists many of my clients and upcoming projects.

Do you work with author-illustrators or illustrators?

I work with author-illustrators primarily, though I have taken on clients who are only illustrators at the time. In these instances, I always ask the potential clients if they have ideas for stories of their own, and in most cases, they do. I am not currently looking for authors of picture book texts who are not also illustrators.

Along with Alexandra Penfold of Simon & Schuster, you’ll be joining Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts as a speaker. Could you give us some insight into your program?

Alexandra and I have previously worked on books together, so our program is sure to include a little bit of she said/she said. We’ll illuminate many stages of the process from the agent and editor’s perspective including times where we work as a team and times where we are butting heads.

Could you share one tip for finding the perfect agent?

Not just one. My advice is to be talented, open, patient, and persistent. Look for an agent with whom you will be compatible, not just someone who can sell your manuscript.

Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Author Darcy Pattison

Darcy Pattison is the author of both picture books and novels. Her books include Nineteen Girls and Me (Philomel, Summer 2006), Searching for Oliver K. Woodman (Harcourt, 2005), The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman (Harcourt, 2003), The Wayfinder (Greenwillow, 2000) and The River Dragon (Lothrop, Lee & Shephard, 1991). Her books have been recognized for excellence by starred reviews in Kirkus and BCCB, Child magazine Best Books of the Year 2003, Nick Jr. Family Magazine Best Books of the Year 2003, and several state awards reading lists. The video version of The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman (Nutneg Media Children’s Picture Books on Video, June 2005) was named an ALA Notable Video 2006.

Darcy is also widely published in periodicals, usually writing about quilting or creative writing. Darcy holds an M.A. from Kansas State University and a B.A. from the University of Arkansas. Currently she is an Adjunct Professor teaching Freshman Composition, Introduction to Creative Writing, and Creative Writing for Children at the University of Central Arkansas, Conway, AR. She travels throughout the U.S. teaching the Darcy Pattison Novel Revision Retreat.

Darcy Pattison on Darcy Pattison: “I grew up on a 1000-acre ranch, 100 miles north of Albuquerque, New Mexico in the Jemez Mountains. I am fifth out of seven children. That background of the ranching life and being in the middle of a large family seems to be a thread through much of what I write.”

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

The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman (Harcourt) is my most popular picture book to date. It’s about a wooden man who crosses the country to connect a family. I didn’t consciously do it, but most of my books have some sort of travel; maps seem to be important in my inspiration process, even though I’m not a good navigator when we travel.

My current picturebook, 19 Girls and Me (Philomel), is most often cited as a favorite read-aloud. It’s about friendship in a kindergarten classroom with 19 girls and one lone boy. The “high concept” helped the book, but I also worked hard on the language. Teachers tell me that kids request it over and over–and they don’t mind, because it’s fun to read aloud.

You are one of the author-teachers associated with Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts, and your focus will be revising a novel. Could you tell us more about that?

One participant in a recent Novel Revision Retreat said, “This was an amazing workshop that has me actually excited about revising already revised stories.”

Another said, “My revised chapter has moved from nice to richer, deeper, funnier. And the finest part is that I feel so empowered – like I have the tools to make my writing the writing of my dreams, the writing I love to read. It is wildly exciting.”

After twelve years as the conference director for the Arkansas chapter of the Society of Children’s Bookwriters and Illustrators (SCBWI), I realized that the hardest thing to get help with is a novel. Most conferences are one-day events in which many different topics are covered briefly. Yet, year after year, someone would hold out a novel and ask, “What do you think of this?”

I finally designed a format where this question could be answered, the Darcy Pattison Novel Revision Retreat. The Novel Revision Retreat was the beginning point for this special set of retreats, A Novel in Three Acts.

Author Nancy Sharp had wanted to host my retreat, but at a conference, she had a brainstorm to create three linked retreats in which a novel would be taken from conception, through a first draft, a major revision and then marketing. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity for writers who were willing to take the leap.

Will you be lecturing, offering writing exercises, critiquing?

Each participant receives a 75+ page workbook to accompany lectures. Brief lectures are followed by time to work on your own novel, then reinforced by group discussions.

Here’s some comments from participants about the different sessions of the retreat:
Inventory Session:

“Maybe the most helpful part. From the moment I started filling the worksheet out, I knew I was in trouble.”

“I will use this tool for all projects.”

Plotting Sessions:

“Coming in, I had the book knowledge about plots, subplots, climax…but this workshop put it all into a working perspective. Something I could grab hold of. Exercises forced me to look at things I was avoiding.”

“It was a more enhanced description of plotting than I have ever seen.”

Sensory Details Session:

“Very helpful. I already thought I was employing sensory details, but now I have a clearer picture of what I need to be doing.”

“Excellent examples chosen to illustrate points. This is a piece of writing without good sensory details; this is a piece with good sensory details.”

“A jewel! I wish someone had explained ‘show don’t tell’ in terms of sensory details language.”

Characterization Session:

“I’m looking forward to using the checklists on all my characters.”

“Helped me give more dimension to weaker characters.”

Setting/Mood Session:

“Helpful because I learned to connect this to the characters’ emotional journey in a scene rather than just through something on the page.”

“Again–I learned to think of this in a new way.”

Specific Words Session:

“Helped me see beyond the meaning of words–a new concept.”

“Makes the story ring true.”

Narrative Patterning Session:

“This was excellent–deep, powerful, something I’ll always use now.”

“The narrative patterning, imagery and epiphany sections were especially wonderful. I’ve never met a writing teacher who was willing to tackle these head on.”

Imagery Session:

“Word list approach very helpful, real graphic. Something I can wrap my hands around.”

Overall Comments:

“As a whole–these exercises were brilliant because they helped me see how each aspect of novel writing connects to or is attached to the other.”

“The workbook is one of the most useful things I’ll take away.”

“You made things we already knew into a tool instead of a concept.”

“I think I’ll look back on this weekend as a turning point in my growth as a novelist. I wish we could do this every year!”

Could you share one revision tip?

I’ve posted on my blog an interview with Kirby Larson about the revision story for her 2007 Newbery Honor book, Hattie’s Big Sky. An exercise that helped her was the Shrunken Manuscript exercise. Basically, you single space a manuscript and then shrink the manuscript to a small font and print it out. This allows you to mark and see the overall structure of a long story like a novel.

Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Author Elaine Marie Alphin

Elaine Marie Alphin on Elaine Marie Alphin: “I was born in San Francisco in 1955 and knew from the time I was three that I wanted to become a writer. My dad and I would go for walks in the early morning on weekends, and tell each other stories we’d made up, and I decided that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: make up stories and share them with other people.

“We moved to New York City when I was nine, and I fell in love with Broadway and with the American Museum of Natural History. I was heartbroken when we moved to Houston when I was thirteen, but grew to feel very much at home there, so much so that I chose Rice University for my college years.

“I was awarded a Watson Research Fellowship, so after I graduated I lived in England for a year, doing research on a novel about Richard III and the murder of the Princes in the Tower. I imagined that the book would be for adults, because all the lit I’d studied at Rice had been for adults–but when I returned to America I met Arthur Alphin, who would become my husband, and he told me he thought I ought to consider writing for young readers instead.

“I’m still grateful for this insight. I wrote Tournament of Time (Bluegrass Books, 1994) for middle graders and decided that kids were my real audience after all. I write for a wide range of ages, from beginning readers through teenagers. The only book I’ve ended up writing for adults is a book on how to write for young readers!”

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

Although Tournament of Time was the first book I wrote for young readers, The Ghost Cadet (Henry Holt, 1991) was the first book I published for young readers. It placed on fourteen state award lists and won the 1995 Virginia Best Book Award, and it was so successful that Henry Holt asked me to write a companion book some years later. Ghost Soldier (Henry Holt, 2001) was nominated for the 2002 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, has placed on six state lists and won the 2002 Society of Midland Authors Children’s Fiction Award and the 2004 Young Hoosier Book Award.

In addition to writing novels for middle graders, I also write novels for young adults. Probably my most successful YA novel to date has been Counterfeit Son (Harcourt, 2000), which won the 2001 Edgar Award for Best Young Adult mystery, has been placed on numerous state award lists and Best Of… lists, and has just been optioned for film.

Simon Says (Harcourt, 2002) is another YA novel that’s very special to me. I wrote the first draft of that book in 1977, while I was still in college, when I was struggling with the realities of wanting to live the creative life. It’s probably the book that brings in the most correspondence from readers, who have been touched by the characters’ struggles to find ways to be true to themselves.

My most recent novel, The Perfect Shot (Carolrhoda, 2005) won the 2006 ForeWard Book of the Year Gold Medal in the Young Adult category, and it’s very special to me because it centers on my passions for history and its impact on the present, and for justice. I’ve gotten intense reactions from teen readers about this one, both to the basketball subplot and to the whole idea of struggling to prevent injustice. There’s more information about these and my other books at my website:

You are one of the author-teachers associated with Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts, and your focus will be starting and developing a novel. Could you tell us more about that?

Nancy L. Sharp and I met at a conference in North Dakota where I’d led an interactive session on developing plot and character, and she came up with this wonderful idea for a retreat that would carry participants through actually writing a first draft of a new novel, revising it, and then learning how to market it, and how to move forward to the next novel.

She asked me if I’d be willing to lead the first Act of the Retreat on planning your novel and getting to work on your first draft. I’ve written about developing plot and characters in Creating Characters Kids Will Love (Writer’s Digest Books, 2000) and I’ve led workshops getting writers started before at several SCBWI conferences, but always in a small way, as part of a conference program in which other speakers offered other subjects (in case attendees were more interested in writing picture books or getting an agent, for example), so I was thrilled by the idea of focusing on a single novel for the whole weekend.

I’m sure some writers will come to the retreat with ideas in mind, and others will come hoping to find ideas, so I plan to take everyone through the process of delving into their passions to find inspiration for their writing, and then crafting a plan for their book. It’s amazing how much writers can accomplish when they’re inspired and free from the daily domestic routine!

Will you be lecturing, offering writing exercises, critiquing?

I’ll be doing some lecturing, but everything will be geared to getting participants writing and bonding together in small critique groups. My sessions will be accompanied by lots of worksheets with exercises to help participants develop main and secondary characters and plot, structure and pace their novel, and then deepen the original plot skeleton–what I like to call the roller coaster track since the experience of writing a novel (as well as the experience of reading it!) is a lot like a roller coaster ride.

Everybody who attends can look forward to doing a lot of writing during the retreat, first making notes on their novel, and building up to actually writing some of that novel before they leave (we have free time set aside to write), so that they have a good start to carry them over their return to home, family, and the interruption of the pure creative writing life we’ll enjoy at the retreat.

What are a few of the challenges in starting a novel?

The biggest challenge is getting an idea that will support a novel–the second biggest challenge is holding off charging ahead with that idea before you have a chance to work out what you really want to do with it–what voice you want to use, where your story actually begins, what background research needs doing so you can write naturally about what your characters are doing and thinking.

I really struggled to hold myself back from plunging into writing Counterfeit Son until I researched serial killers and sailing, for example.

Some writers feel comfortable plunging in right away, understanding that means they’ll have to do considerable revision later on as the novel comes into clearer focus in their minds, but other writers, especially beginning novelists, get frustrated when their idea peters out on them, and may just stop. Or they keep trying doggedly, but they want to retain what they wrote in the first flush of enthusiasm, even though it no longer fits with the way the book is evolving, because they worked hard on it. So I advocate doing a great deal of planning and getting to know your characters so that once you plunge in you find it easy to return to your writing and keep moving forward.

How do the psychological and the professional fit together…or not?

This question made me scratch my head–at first I interpreted it as the characters’ psychological lives fitting together with the writer’s professional life, which can be challenging because as you live more and more in the world of your novel, with your characters, thinking their thoughts and feeling their emotions, their psyches can impinge on your day-to-day world, to the point where you may answer a question or write a letter in a tone or in words that your characters might use. This can be embarrassing when you’re speaking with or writing to an editor…

However, then I was told that the question was intended to mean the way the writer’s psychological life fits with her professional life. Oops. You can see just how character driven I am. Anyway–in the first place there’s something about a writer’s psyche that drives her to write, to explore ideas on paper in the guise of characters, so the two fit together very well.

However, in everyday life we have a lot of distractions. There’s our personal life (caring for families, cooking (or buying take-out), perhaps a paying job to cover bills, etc.) and then there’s our professional, or business, life (dealing with editors, perhaps teaching, perhaps writing other, short, projects separate from our novel, maintaining our website, corresponding with readers, etc.).

The artistic psyche often gets frustrated with these less creative sides of life, because there are only so many hours in a day. It’s a juggling act for us all, and one of the things we’ll be talking about at the retreat is a writing plan that allows time for both the creative side and the less creative side of living.

However, there’s another aspect to the writer’s psychological life. We’re all affected by things that happen to us, for good or for bad, and these things shape our psychological lives–they give us our hang-ups. Strong novels grow from strong hang-ups, as writers explore aspects of our psychological lives through their characters. So, in the end, the psychological life feeds the professional life.

Could you share one tip for beginning novelists?

Care passionately about your subject matter and about your characters, especially your main character. You’re going to be taking a long journey with your characters for quite some time, and you should want to enter into their world, not dread going there.

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to Niki Burnham on the publication of Goddess Games (Simon & Schuster, 2007)! From the promo copy: “Seneca, the daughter of an Oscar-winning actress, Drew, an athletic Army brat, and Claire, a struggling born-again Christian, are each facing challenges in their personal lives. When they’re thrown together as roommates, all they see are their differences. But fate–and a nasty boss named Marla–brought them together for a reason, and they soon discover that what they need may not be what they originally thought. In fact, a summer working at the spa may be just what it takes for Seneca, Drew, and Claire to each discover her own inner goddess.” Read an excerpt. Read a Cynsations interview with Niki.

Kid Lit(erary): a book review site by author Laurel Snyder, featuring short reviews and general rants concerning children’s books both classic and contemporary. Author’s books include Inside the Slidy Diner (Tricycle, 2008), Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains OR The Search for a Suitable Princess (Random House, 2008), and Any Which Wall (Random House, 2009), as well as several books of adult poetry and nonfiction.

Orphaned Manuscripts from Darcy Pattison’s Revision Notes. Note: Darcy is offering consistently wonderful, thoughtful posts of interest to every working writer. Definitely bookmark her blog! Also check out her author site.

papertigers offers a bounty of wonderful new articles and interivews. Don’t miss the interviews with authors Cynthia Kadohata and Rose Kent as well as More Stories About Our American Experience, Please by Ken Mochizuki and The Extra Adjective: How I Came To Terms With Being a Multicultural Author by Grace Lin and much more! See also Cynsations interviews with Cynthia, Rose, and Grace.

YA Fresh: “Kelly Parra, author of Graffiti Girl (MTV Books, 2007) and Tina Ferraro, author of Top Ten Uses for an Unworn Prom Dress (Delacorte, 2007) team up to chat about YA books, authors, and all that’s fresh!” Another one to bookmark!

More Personally

It was my pleasure to visit with students at O. Henry Middle School in Austin on May 18. Thank you to librarian Sara Stevenson and to my wonderful audiences.

DATE CHANGE: In celebration of Texas Writers’ Month, I’ll be speaking with a number of distinguished authors, including Tim Tingle, on the May program of the Writers’ League of Texas from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. May 23 at the University of Texas Club. The evening includes a free appetizer buffet and a cash bar. Attendance is free and open to the public. See more information.

Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Author N.L. Sharp

N.L. Sharp on N.L. Sharp: “I am married to Larry and am the mother of three sons and one daughter-in-law. I am a former elementary teacher (grades K-3) as well as library media specialist and elementary reading/writing consultant. I am currently taking some time away from the classroom to concentrate on my writing career.”

What about the writing life first called to you?

I have known since second grade that I wanted to be a writer. I was born in Valentine, Nebraska, and attended a one-room country school, located two miles from the South Dakota border. My favorite time of the day was when my teacher would read to us. I still remember many of the books that she read–Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Brighty of Grand Canyon, The House of Sixty Fathers.

But when I was in second grade, our teacher read the book that changed my life. She read The Little House on the Prairie. And I realized, for the very first time, that anyone can be a writer. You don’t have to be smart and write about things I know nothing about, like penguins, or travel to exotic places, like the Grand Canyon, or have lived through a horrific experience, like war.

You can be a kid from an ordinary place like Nebraska or South Dakota and write about ordinary things like your mom and your dad and your brothers and sisters, and you can be a writer. So I have been writing “Nancy” stories since about second or third grade–although I didn’t try to get any of them published until well into my adult years.

Could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

I am the author of three picture books.

My most recent book is Effie’s Image, illustrated by Dorothia Rohner (Prairieland Press, 2005). It was selected by Learning Magazine as a 2006 Teachers’ Choice award winner and is on Nebraska’s Golden Sower list for 2007-2008.

My two other titles are: Today I’m Going Fishing with My Dad, illustrated by Chris Demarest (Boyds Mills Press, 1993) and The Ring Bear, illustrated by Michael Hassler (Dageforde Publishing, 2003).

You are the mastermind behind Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts. Could you give us a brief overview of the program?

I would love to. Basically, this series consists of three individual retreat weekends that will occur in the span of one-year’s time. The intent of this series is to help the writer move from the first inklings of an idea toward a publishable novel in twelve intensive months. The retreats are designed for maximum participation and advance preparation for each one is required.

The first retreat, scheduled from Thursday, October 25 to Saturday, October 27, 2007, will be led by Elaine Marie Alphin, and will focus on brainstorming techniques related to plotting, character development, and pacing. We will leave this retreat with a basic outline and a plan for turning that outline into a novel.

The requirement to attend Retreat 1: Read Elaine’s book, Creating Characters Kids Will Love, published by Writers’ Digest Books. Elaine is the author of more than twenty published books for children and young adult readers, many of them award-winners.

The second retreat, scheduled from Friday, April 4 to Sunday, April 6, 2008, will be led by Darcy Pattison. The goal of this retreat is that every author will go home with strategies and tools for revising their novels.

Requirements to attend Retreat 2: 1) have a completed draft of a novel, 2) submit four copies of that manuscript to be read by three other members of the Retreat 3) agree to read three other drafts of novels before the retreat, and 4) read Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King and The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

Darcy Pattison served as the Arkansas Regional Advisor for the SCBWI from 1991-96. In 1999, Darcy created the Novel Revision Retreat, which she now teaches nationwide.

The final retreat is scheduled from Friday, October 24 to Sunday, October 26, 2008, and will be led by Alexandra Penfold, an editor at Simon and Schuster and Rebecca Sherman, a senior agent at Writers House Literary Agency. The focus for this retreat will be marketing strategies and submission secrets. We will also discuss the process of letting go of this novel and starting again with a new project.

Requirements to attend Retreat 3: 1) Attend at least one of the other two retreats, 2) Read the book Art and Fear by David Bayles, and 3) Submit a cover letter, a synopsis of your novel, and the first three chapters for critique by either Alexandra or Rebecca.

What inspired you to initiate this effort?

I have a draft of a novel that I have been playing with for several years. I contacted Darcy Pattison about her Revision Retreat with the idea that, perhaps, we could offer that retreat in Nebraska. But, as you can see, one of the requirements to attend Darcy’s retreat is that you have a novel written. In order to offer this in our area, I needed to find eight-to-twelve people that met that requirement. And I was struggling to do so. I spoke with several people who were interested in writing novels–but few that actually had a novel written.

Then, this fall,I attended an SCBWI-sponsored conference in North Dakota where Elaine Alphin was speaking. She did a two-hour brainstorming session with us, focused on character development and plotting. After the session, I asked Elaine if she would be interested in expanding that session to an entire weekend. It was my idea, at that time, to offer the retreats as a two-weekend series. The first retreat would be designed for getting us started (creating a plan to move the novel from an idea to a finished draft). The second retreat, held six-to-eight months later, would provide us with the tools to revise that novel.

As we were discussing the possibilities for such a retreat series, editor Alexandra Penfold, another conference speaker, joined us. We shared our vision with her, and soon the two-weekend retreat became a three-weekend retreat. We felt like offering participants the opportunity to have their manuscript packages critiqued by an editor would encourage participants to leave Darcy’s retreat with not only the tools they need to revise their manuscripts, but the incentive to do so.

After I returned home and began to work on the specific details regarding these retreats, I began to think about the third retreat more and more. I wanted to make it more than just a “critique” weekend. I also felt like I was asking a lot from Alexandra–to critique all of our manuscripts, plus be our presenter for the entire weekend. I contacted her and asked what she thought about inviting an agent to share those duties with her for that Retreat, and if she had anyone in mind that she thought might be interested. She suggested Rebecca Sherman from Writers House.

Why did you think there was a particular need for a program structured this way?

I don’t know that I actually thought about the need for this program in terms of others. I just know that I work best when there is lesson presented, an assignment given, and a realistic deadline for completing that assignment. And if I can do this in a group setting, so that I can bounce ideas and gain support from others, I am more likely to meet that deadline with a project that I am proud to call my own.

I believe that this series will provide me with the structure that I, personally, need to get my novel writing back on track. If I can find eleven to twenty-three other like-minded individuals who are willing to take this journey with me, then I will be thrilled, and all of the work I’ve done organizing the Retreats will be well worth my time.

What are the pros of Novel Secrets versus other craft-development opportunities?

Well, first of all, we have the opportunity to meet and work with four wonderful writing teachers–Elaine, Darcy, Alexandra, and Rebecca. We have a deadline–and the opportunity at the end of that deadline to have our novel professionally critiqued by either an editor or an agent. But, more than that, we have the opportunity to network and share our struggles with other committed and like-minded individuals–all working toward the same goal–crafting a novel in a year’s time. And, by including the reading and discussion of books on the craft of writing as a part of our process, we will all have the opportunity to take our writing up a notch, from whatever level we are right now.

Could you describe the setting and facilities?

All of the Novel Retreats will be held at the St. Benedict Retreat Center, a retreat and conference center located on Highway 15 north of Schuyler, Nebraska, approximately 70 miles from Omaha, Nebraska. It is truly an inspiring place to relax, regenerate your batteries, and focus on your career. The Center provides several peaceful and quiet spaces for writing and quiet reflection, including a man-made lake and surrounding park, a solarium with a fireplace and small library, and an amphitheater.

Each participant will have his or her own private room with bathroom. Meals and lodging are included in the cost. All rooms are fully air conditioned and have private bathrooms. An exercise room is also available. The Center is a smoke free environment. For additional information or to see pictures of the facilities, you may visit their website at:

Is there anything else we should know?

Openings are limited. The minimum number of participants required to run each retreat will be twelve, and our maximum will be twenty-four. Priority will be given to those individuals who register for all three retreats at one time. Also, if a participant is a published author already and would like to do a school visit while in Nebraska to help off-set the cost of the retreats, just let me know. I can’t guarantee school visits, but I am working with a bookstore owner in Omaha, and we will do our best to make that happen for anyone who is interested in that particular opportunity.

There is additional information about the retreats, including sample schedules, at my website:

If you have other questions, please feel free to contact me directly:

I’d love to hear from you!

Author Interview: Carolyn MacCullough on Drawing the Ocean

Carolyn MacCullough on Carolyn MacCullough: “I was born and raised in Connecticut. As a kid, I always wanted to travel and see far off places, but my parents had other ideas and didn’t quite agree with my dreams of moving to India or Morocco or some other exotic place. This is probably what led me to love books so much and, in turn, what probably led to writing.

“In 2002, I graduated from the New School with a Master’s in Creative Writing for Children. Shortly afterward, Falling Through Darkness (Roaring Brook Press, 2003) was published, followed by Stealing Henry (Roaring Brook Press, 2005) and Drawing the Ocean (Roaring Brook Press, 2006)[see more on these books].

“I still have not lived in India or Morocco, but I did live in other such exotic locales like Scotland, Sicily, and New Jersey! Now I live in New York with my husband and I teach creative writing for Gotham Writers and The New School.”

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

I think I was writing before I really ever started writing. I was always telling stories–to my sisters, to my friends. Long, complicated stories involving princesses and dragons and choose-your-own adventure plots. Somewhere in elementary school, I started to write them down (along with some pretty bad poetry), but it was still something I just did for fun. For a while, I thought I wanted to be an actress and after college, I pursued that in New York City–until the stage fright part did me in. Around then, I began to realize that it wasn’t really acting that I loved so much anyway, it was telling a story to an audience. So in 2002, I enrolled in the masters program in creative writing program at The New School.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

I don’t know that I ever did make that decision. I just wrote the stories that I had and they ended up being for teens. I do know that the books I remember most strongly are all from my childhood and teenage years.

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

I got really lucky! I met my editor, Deborah Brodie from Roaring Brook Press, while enrolled in the New School program. I remember when she called me to tell me that Roaring Brook Press wanted to buy my first book, Falling Through Darkness. I was so excited that I got dizzy and literally had to put my head between my knees!

Congratulations on the publication of Drawing the Ocean (Roaring Brook, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My fast approaching deadline! Actually, I had written an entirely different book, and while waiting to hear my editor’s first round of comments, I just lost all interest in it. I wasn’t excited to start the revision process–something I usually enjoy. So one night, I was sitting in a movie theater and for some reason, the idea of a twin brother and sister came into my head–only one of them was no longer alive. I followed that idea all the way home to my computer.

Could you briefly describe the story?

It’s about Sadie, a sixteen-year-old painter, who wants very badly to fit in at her new school and make the “right” kind of friends. And she partially succeeds–but the problem is, despite her best intentions, she also befriends the town loner, “Fryin Ryan.” Soon enough, she has to choose between her new popularity and a real friend. Oh, and the ghost of her twin brother keeps appearing at will–she’s the only one who can see and talk to him.

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

It was very quick! Because of my earlier project that I had scrapped, I had less time than I normally would have had, so this was a book that was written under some serious pressure. However, I tend to work like that. If you give me unlimited amounts of time to accomplish something, I promise nothing much will get done.

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

Since I’m not a twin and don’t even have a brother, I did struggle with that a little. Also, I’m not an artist in any way–trust me, no one wants to see what I can draw or paint! But I like making my characters different from me–they’re far more interesting that way–and that’s a challenge I really relish when writing a book.

In the story, Sadie speaks with and sees her dead twin brother, Ollie. As someone who teaches MFA students, I can readily imagine someone writing a paper on the question of Ollie as a psychological manifestation or a supernatural one. What would you say to that student?

I think he’s a little bit of both. (Sorry! I know that sounds like the easy way out). But I do think of him as both–I see him as her conscience. And I also think of him as still in this world because she loves him so much. They were so connected when he was alive and, therefore, she can’t quite let that go.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Read, read, read as much as possible. It’s good for your own writing and it’s good for you in general. And when it comes time to write your own stuff, don’t worry so much about technique and finesse during the first draft. Don’t listen to the whiny internal editor voice–the one that tells you this isn’t any good and you must be joking if you think you’re ever going to get this published and please tell me you aren’t planning on giving up your day job, etc, etc. We all have the voice somewhere in us–drown it out. Listen instead to the story in you, get it out on paper first without fussing over it too much and then see what you can do with it.

What are some of your favorite recent reads?

Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Knopf Canada, 2001), Stardust by Neil Gaiman (1998), and Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin (FSG, 2005).

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Um….you mean I’m supposed to have time off from writing? Okay–I read books that I wish I had written. I try to spend as much time as possible with my family and friends. And I bake a lot of pies and cookies and cakes and dream of setting up my own bakery somewhere, some little rustic place with copper pans hanging from the ceiling and painted yellow walls.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m working on an urban fantasy–it’s probably the most challenging book I’ve written so far (but then I say that about any book I’m working on at some point or another)!

Author Interview: Kathi Appelt on My Father’s House

Kathi Appelt was born on July 6, 1954, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her family only lived in North Carolina for a short time and then moved to El Paso, Texas; and finally to Houston.

“Most of Kathi’s books and poems come directly from her own life because that’s what she knows best and feels most strongly about.

“Over the years, Kathi has written many picture-book favorites, including Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein; Oh My Baby, Little One, illustrated by Jane Dyer; the Bubba and Beau series, illustrated by Arthur Howard; Merry Christmas, Merry Crow, illustrated by Jon Goodell, and her latest: My Father’s House, illustrated by Raúl Colón. She has also written several award-winning books for older readers, including My Father’s Summers: A Daughter’s Memoir, Kissing Tennessee: And Other Stories from the Stardust Dance, and Poems from Homeroom: A Writer’s Place to Start.

“She currently lives with her family in College Station, Texas.

“Kathi used to think that a real writer had to have lots of exciting, maybe even dangerous, adventures in order to have something meaningful to write about. Now she knows that the best writing is about the people, places, pets, and objects that surround us and that we meet every day. She’s discovered that writing about them is the absolute best way to really know them and in the process to come to know ourselves a little better. She now knows that writing is really a way of seeing, and she’d like to encourage you to get out your old journal or start a new one and see what shows up.”

Your latest picture book, My Father’s House (Viking/Penguin, May 2007), is a beautiful poetic tribute to Earth and our environment, what was your inspiration for writing this book? And why now?

One day as I was driving, I had my radio on and was listening to a young minister talk about his love for the earth and bemoaning the fact that so many people who called themselves “spiritual” seemed to have such disregard for our planet. He was specifically referring to the notion that the Bible advocated mankind’s dominion over the Earth. He felt that was a misreading, and that the word “dominion” did not necessarily mean “use up” but rather “keep safe.”

His “safekeeping” message spoke to me in vibrant way, and so I’ve tried in this book to provide a celebration of our beautiful planet, and to subtly suggest that it’s our job to keep it and its inhabitants safe.

In your dedication, you thank Al Gore for his service and commitment on behalf of our beautiful blue planet; how has his work for the environment affected or inspired you?

I first read Al Gore’s book, The Earth in Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (Plume reprint, 1993), many years ago, and his message then was one that made sense to me. I was also inspired by his passion for this subject, especially since he relates to it in a deeply personal way. I felt he was speaking to me as one person to another, rather than to just another nameless face in the crowd. He makes me feel as though my small efforts can really help as far as being a good steward for the earth.

One of your recent picture books, Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein (HarperCollins, 2005)(author-illustrator interview), also had themes about our natural environment and was quite popular, garnering much critical acclaim. What kind of feedback did you receive from teachers, readers, etc., and why do you think it was such a success?

First of all, I hope that the book reminded us of a very special woman, one who made a definite mark upon our national consciousness about the environment. Lady Bird Johnson was really the first national figure to bring the notion of conservation fully to our awareness.

The case can be made that Theodore Roosevelt also did this, but he is not quite so “unsung” as Mrs. Johnson. He gets a lot of credit—well-deserved—for really establishing our national park system.

But I felt that Mrs. Johnson deserved some recognition, even though she herself is very unassuming and not at all in need of that same recognition. I wanted to remind children, and their parents and teachers, that Mrs. Johnson is largely responsible for our beautiful roadsides, especially in the springtime when they’re covered with wildflowers.

I believe that the book has been well-received because not only is it a slice of American history that has gone unnoticed, but also because it’s a celebration of the work of one person who made a huge difference—and continues to make a difference.

Your children’s books span every age level, what are the challenges in writing for such a wide audience? How do you approach writing for young adults differently than for kids?

I don’t approach it too differently, honestly. In some ways, toddlers and teenagers have a lot in common. They’re both intense, both determined to do things their own ways and in their own time, both separating from their families and wandering out into the bigger world. Testing the waters so to speak.

Regardless of what age I’m writing for, I always try to write toward the hearts of my audience, to recognize the longings that we all feel at various times in our lives. I also enjoy the challenge of writing for the various age groups. While they all have similarities, they also have obvious differences. It’s a way of stretching myself as a writer to think about aiming a particular story toward a particular audience.

Your two sons are in college now, but while they were growing up, how did they inspire your work?

Well, I would never have written for children if I had not become a parent. Before my boys came along, I had no real awareness of children’s books to be honest. But once they were here, books saved us in so many ways. I was unprepared for parenthood, but I somehow knew that reading to my sons was a good thing to do. So that’s what I did. Thank goodness.

How has being a parent affected your writing? Do you have any advice for other parent-authors?

As far as being a writing parent, I would say first of all to savor the time you have with your children. They grow up so fast that it’s almost unbelievable. Don’t go along on any guilt trips about not writing enough when your kids are young. The writing will come, but your kids are going to vamoose before your very eyes.

And second, I would say to learn how to write in small snatches of time. If you look for that long thirty minutes all to yourself, you’ll never find it. Instead, honor those five minutes here and there. Have a notebook handy at all times. It’s pretty remarkable how much can be written in five minute increments. I still write in those small segments.

Tell us a little about your writing process and work environment; do you write every day?

Yep, I write every single day. That said, I don’t always write stories. I often spend my writing time answering correspondence, or filling up my journal, or just “playing” with an idea or what not. I wish I were more disciplined and could work on a schedule. I might get more done. But the way I write now seems to work for me.

And as for my work environment…I have a wonderful, small loft studio upstairs in my home. From my desk, I can look directly into the branches of a big oak tree, which is a home to numerous birds and squirrels and other small critters. When I look out at the tree, I feel almost like I’m in my own private tree room. I think it’s important for writers to have a space, even if it’s small, that is uniquely your own. Mine is a place I love to slip away to any time of the day. I have my own “stuff” there, and I work hard to keep it from being too cluttered. Clutter distracts me.

I confess that I take something of a slow approach to my work. I usually have to drink a cup of coffee, read the newspaper, check my e-mail, and work the NY Times crossword before I actually plunge into the work of the day. It’s my ritual if you will. I do my actual writing on a computer, a laptop, but I still keep a journal by hand. And I carry a small notebook in my purse, just in case a good idea pops into my head. There’s nothing more frustrating than to think up a good idea, or any idea for that matter, and be caught without paper or a pen!

You’ve taught writing at Texas A&M and Vermont College, and have conducted writing workshops for many years. How has teaching informed your own work?

I’ve always felt that the best way to learn something is to teach it, which is sort of cliché. But beyond that, I truly believe that it’s our stories that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. I’m fond of telling children that we humans are the “story animals.”

In so many ways, our stories are at the center of who we are, and in so many ways I believe that our stories can save us if we can learn to share them. It’s really no surprise that stories are at the root of both love and conflict. We go to war over whose story is “most true,” don’t we? And yet, the basic gathering of humans in a circle to share stories has the power and ability of exposing our basic humanity to each other. We all have more in common with each other, especially in matters of the heart—family, children, trees, cats—than we have differences.

So to me, teaching is all about being a catalyst for telling stories. If I can encourage others to share their stories in the best way they know how, then maybe I’m helping to make a difference in the world, even if it’s in a small way.

Do you read a lot of other picture books to keep up on what’s new and popular? If so, what are some of your favorite recent ones and why?

Yes, I try to keep up with current picture books. That said, without small children in the house, I read fewer of them than I used to. My current favorite right now is Alison McGhee‘s Someday (Atheneum, 2007), which is just heartful and lovely. I’m completely smitten with Alexander Stadler‘s “Beverly Billingsly” books. I also love Kimberly Willis Holt‘s whimsical Waiting for Gregory illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (Henry Holt, 2006)(author interview). And just about any book that features a cat is fine with me. I love Judith Schachner‘s “Skippyjon Jones” books–they just crack me up. She clearly knows cats.

What’s coming out next for you, and what are you working on now?

My first novel will be out in the spring of 2008. It’s called The Underneath, and is set in the swampy forest of East Texas. I’m excited about it–the main hero is a cat named Puck. I’m still working on the final edits for this novel, but I’m also doing the research for my next novel, which will be set on Galveston Island, one of my favorite places in the world. My grandmother lived there and I have many happy memories of summers with her. I don’t know much about the story yet, but I’m eager to get it started.