Author Interview: Niki Burnham on Goddess Games

Niki Burnham is the author of six books and two novellas for teenagers. Her first book for teens, Royally Jacked (Simon Pulse, 2003), was named a Teen People Pick. She has also written six romance novels for adults (under the name Nicole Burnham), winning the RITA award in 2004. Niki has a website and an active bulletin board at

We last spoke in October 2005. Could you update us on your releases and high points since then?

I’ve had a few books out since then! The first was a romantic comedy called Scary Beautiful (Simon Pulse, 2005), about a teen I thought of as “the dreaded pretty girl.” Many of us assume that if you’re gorgeous, the world is yours. I wanted to show that the stereotype doesn’t always hold true. After that was the third book in the Valerie Winslow series, Do-Over (Simon Pulse, 2006). It follows Royally Jacked (Simon Pulse, 2003) and Spin Control (Simon Pulse, 2004).

In Do-Over, Val–whose parents were getting divorced in Royally Jacked–has to deal with her father starting to date again. He chooses someone Val thinks is horrid, which makes her question what she knows about her father and about herself.

Finally, I had a novella titled “Night Swimming” in a collection called Fireworks (Scholastic Point, 2007). The other authors in the collection are Erin Haft (author of Pool Boys), Sarah Mlynowski (of the Bras & Broomsticks series), and Lauren Myracle (who wrote TTFN)(author interview). It was a blast to be included with them.

Congratulations on the publication of Goddess Games (Simon & Schuster, 2007)! Could you fill us in on the story?

Goddess Games tells the story of three girls–Seneca, the daughter of an Oscar-winning actress, Drew, an athletic Army brat, and Claire, a struggling born-again Christian–who are thrown together as roommates when they each take summer jobs at a posh mountain resort. Needless to say, they aren’t three people who’d instantly bond!

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I’ve had all three of these characters in my head for quite a while. For instance, I’ve always wondered how a teen Christian group would respond if a well-known party girl suddenly proclaimed that she wanted to hang with them. Would they believe her? What if they reject her? Would it shake her newfound faith? That character ended up being Claire in the story.

Also, I’m an Army brat, so news stories about Iraq and Afghanistan hit home for me. To that end, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about a teen who unexpectedly loses a father to the war. I made some notes about a girl whose father goes to Iraq. It’s obviously a dangerous place; however, the girl thinks her dad is going to be relatively safe, because he’s assigned to a so-called “safe zone” and assures her he’ll be fine. She’s shocked when he’s killed. I wondered how things would be for her at school. Would other kids with parents in the military feel differently about her? How would her mother take the news? What if her mother got depressed, so there was no one for the girl to turn to with her grief? Would she bottle it up? Would she move on and try to act like nothing happened? That character became Drew.

Finally, I had an outline for a story about a girl whose mother is an Oscar-winning actress on my hard drive for quite awhile. I wanted to explore the idea of what would happen if Mom’s career suddenly tanked. How would that affect her daughter? I knew that story needed something more to it, so I put it aside and worked on other projects.

Then, a couple years ago, I went to a writers’ conference at a gorgeous spa in the Rocky Mountains. I got to thinking about all the summer employees, who lived near the property, and had a lightning-bolt moment: what if I put all three of those girls in a cabin together? They’d hate each other! The story practically wrote itself from there. I knew these three girls would be able to see both the seriousness and the humor in each other’s situations, once they got to know one another. (And it was loads of fun to research it!)

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

All three girls in the book were dealing with serious issues, but I didn’t want to write a depressing book. That’s just not me. I like funny! Finding the humor in each character was a challenge, but a very rewarding one. In the end, each of these girls is able to laugh at herself, and I hope readers can laugh along with them.

What about the young adult audience appeals to you?

The teen years are a huge transitional time in anyone’s life. Teens are learning about who they are and who they want to become. They feel like adults, but often have a lack of control over their lives (teachers, coaches, and parents dictate much of what they do.) Even though it’s a struggle, teens have a wicked sense of humor about their own situation. I love writing about that experience.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

I’d tell myself not to worry about things that are out of my control, which means everything other than the quality of my writing. I can’t control reviews or whether certain books of mine make the bestseller lists. I can’t control whether a particular bookstore stocks enough copies of my books, a shipment of books get lost, or a book signing ends up occurring during a huge thunderstorm. But if the writing is good, and readers believe in the characters and love them, the rest will follow.

What is your best tip for book promotion?

Have a great website! Not only is it your public face, it’s a great way for readers to find you and interact. Mine has a bulletin board (so readers can connect with each other and post their thoughts about what they’re reading), excerpts of all my books, notices of events, and information for librarians and schools who are interested in having me visit or do a call-in Q & A session. I also use the site to offer bookplates and bookmarks to fans who might not be able to get to one of my book signings or other events.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

I do my best to prioritize. Family comes first–that’s a no-brainer. The writing is second. I plan my writing time carefully so that I’m not rushed to meet deadlines. That helps keep me (somewhat) sane. I draw up a calendar for each book and use it to plan out the number of pages I need to write each week. I work hard to stick to that weekly page goal so projects don’t become overwhelming. I also make sure I take into account that emergencies are going to pop up, and float a few “emergency days” on the calendar. And I always mentally give myself a deadline that’s a few weeks ahead of the real deadline for a book. It takes off a lot of pressure.

I plan any promotion and/or speaking around the writing and family obligations. Having a detailed calendar has been my salvation on this front!

What are your three favorite YA reads of 2007 and why?

First, at the risk of looking like I’m kissing up to my interviewer (which is so not my style): I thought Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007) rocked. It was spooky, it was funny, and it was offbeat. I read it in only two sittings.

As to other books, I absolutely loved Sara Zarr‘s Story of a Girl (Little Brown, 2007)(author interview). The opening of the book is brilliant, and I thought Zarr did a fabulous job of building tension throughout the novel.

E. Lockhart‘s The Boyfriend List (Delacorte, 2005) came out a couple years ago, but I just got around to reading it last week. Wish I’d pulled it off my to-be-read pile earlier! Her voice is hilarious and filled with emotion at the same time. I’m now dying to read The Boy Book (Delacorte, 2007).

What do you do in your so-called spare time?

I play softball, work on training my new puppy (an energetic poodle named Tipper) and garden. I also have season tickets to the Boston Red Sox (my husband and I split them with five other people), so from May to October, I’m at Fenway Park as often as possible.

What can your fans look forward to next?

In May 2008, I have a novella called “Last Stand” coming out in a collection called Breaking Up Is Hard To Do from Houghton Mifflin/Graphia. All four stories center on break-ups and make-ups that take place during the first week of school.

“Last Stand” is told from the boy’s point of view, which made it a kick to write.

The other authors are Terri Clark, Ellen Hopkins, and Lynda Sandoval, all of whom are phenomenal writers. Needless to say, I’m psyched about the book!

Cynsational News & Links

Lee & Low Books offers answers from its authors and illustrators to the question: how do you celebrate the holidays and what do they mean to you? Here’s a sneak peek from Ken Mochizuki’s answer: “New Year’s Day might vary slightly from most of the country. Those of Japanese descent celebrate the first day of a new year with oshogatsu, which is eating traditional Japanese foods, usually eaten in between college bowl games on TV.”

Richard Van Camp Interview by Judi Saltman from the Canadian Children’s Illustrated Books Project. Here’s a sneak peek: “In my work: family, identity, culture, and the essential question: ‘What does it mean to be Dogrib?’ Being half, I make the joke that I could be the cowboy or the Indian when we used to play guns, because I was half cowboy and half Indian. So, that’s a recurring theme in my adult literature and in my children’s literature.” Source: American Indians in Children’s Literature.

SCBWI is running a contest for writers. In 75 words or less, respond to this question: “What happens at the North Pole on Christmas Eve?” At least one winner will receive a free year of membership with the SCBWI. Any runner(s)-up will an receive a SCBWI T-shirt. Deadline: 4 p.m. PST, Dec. 17. See guidelines and additional information.

Louise A. Jackson: official site of the author of Exiled! and Gone To Texas: From Virginia to Adventure. Louise has Texas roots, specializes in historical fiction, and is published by Eakin.

“What in a Name?” by Jan Fields from the Institute of Children’s Literature. Jan talks about dating names, using popular names (or not), readability, and using names from real life.

Douglas Pocock, Executive Vice President of Egmont USA Inc., has named Elizabeth Law as Vice President and Publisher. Random House will handle sales and distribution. Learn more about the launching of Egmont USA.

More Personally

Thank you to Nita at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School and Topher of BookPeople, both in Austin, for their hospitality at today’s book fair.

Cynsational News & Links

Ying Chang Compestine: A Test of Character from CBC Magazine. Here’s a sneak peek: Ying Chang Compestine came to the United States for graduate school in 1986. After her parents passed away, she began her first novel, Revolution is Not a Dinner Party (Holt, 2007), as a way of coping with her grief and to reconnect to China. Described as the ‘Anne Frank in the Cultural Revolution,’ Compestine draws from her childhood experience to bring hope and humor to this powerful story of a girl who comes of age and fights to survive during this darkest period of Chinese history.” Visit Ying Chang Compestine online.

Online Class: Writing Children’s Nonfiction Books for the Educational Market from Laura Purdie Salas. The class is scheduled for Jan. 7 through Feb. 1; register by Dec. 5 for a discount.

On Writing Non-fiction for Kids from Fiona Bayrock. Includes subsections on writing science, writing biography, writing history, writing crafts, and selling series non-fiction.

Kidlit Junkie Tells All! From the bio: “I’m an Editorial Assistant at a Big Name Publishing House. I blog about children’s books, events, and publishing in general. I’m happy to answer questions.”

25 Tips to Book Promotion and other thoughts… from Gentle’s Holler. Read a Cynsations interview with Kerry Madden.

Mark your calendars: “the 2008 SCBWI Houston conference will be Feb. 23. Speakers are being confirmed now, and a lineup, program, and registration form will be posted soon. There will be three editors, an agent and an illustrator, and author Kimberly Willis Holt.” Note: according to Devas T Rants and Raves! illustrator Don Tate also will be speaking. Read Cynsations interviews with Kimberly and Don.

Reminder: Austin SCBWI offers a great line-up for its April 26 conference. Speakers include: author and editor Deborah Noyes Wayshak from Candlewick Press (author-editor interview); Alvina Ling from Little Brown (personal blog); agent Erin Murphy (interview from by Pam Mingle from Kite Tales, Rocky Mountain chapter, SCBWI); artist’s agent Christina Tugeau; and writing professor Peter Jacobi. See details at Austin SCBWI.

Early registration for the 2008 Writers’ League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference is open now. The first 50 people who register will receive the early-bird discount of $30 in addition to first choice of agents! The Conference will take place at the Sheraton Austin Hotel, June 20 to 22. Members: $309 (Early Bird: $279); Non-Members: $354 (Early Bird: $324). All early-bird registrations must be submitted by phone. To register, call 512.499.8914.

Check out the 2007 nominees for the Cybils in non-fiction picture books, fantasy and science fiction, graphic novels, middle grade-YA non-fiction, middle grade fiction, YA fiction, fiction picture books, and poetry! Get and customize the Cybils widget for your blog or site at JacketFlap! Note: I’m honored that Tantalize is included among the nominees.

“Where the Wild Things Came From: how children’s books evolved from morals to madcap fun” by Emily Bazelon and Erica S. Perl from Slate. Click the link for the slide show. You’ll have to sit through a brief sponsor commercial. Afterward a link will appear in the upper left corner to advance the slide show. Once you’ve studied the text and image on each, click the image to advance.

Parents’ Choice Awards

The Parents’ Choice award winning books for fall 2007 have been announced. Highlights include:

silver medal winners: Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts (Abrams); Has Anyone Seen My Emily Green by Norma Fox Mazer, illustrated by Christine Davenier (Candlewick);

recommended books: What Happens on Wednesdays by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Lauren Castillo (FSG); Red Butterfly by Deborah Noyes, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Candlewick)(author interview).

Note: Greg Leitich Smith was a Parents’ Choice gold medal winner for Ninjas, Piranhas & Galileo (Little Brown, 2003).


Congratulations to Julie Berry on the sale of her debut novel to Bloomsbury! Julie is a student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I had the pleasure of advising her in her first semester there.

Books I look forward to in 2008 include The Opposite of Invisible by debut author Liz Gallagher (Wendy Lamb, January 2008).

From the flap copy: “Alice and Jewel have been best friends since grade school. Together, they don’t need anyone else, and together they blend into the background of high school. Invisible. To Alice, Jewel is the opposite of invisible. Jewel is her best friend who goes to Indie concerts and art shows with her. Jewel scoffs at school dances with her. Alice is so comfortable around Jewel that she can talk to him about almost anything. But she can’t tell him that she likes the cool, popular Simon. And then Simon asks her to the school dance the same day that Jewel kisses her for the first time. Still, she can’t say no to Simon. He seems like the easy choice, the one she’s attracted to, the one she’s ready for. But will it mean losing Jewel?

“In a bright debut novel set against the lively backdrop of Seattle, Alice must learn the difference between love and a crush, and what it means to be yourself when you’re not sure who that is yet.”

Note: Liz is a graduate of the Vermont College, where she was one of my advisees.

Through the Tollbooth is a new LJ on the craft of writing. The team behind the blog is Tami Lewis Brown, Sarah Aronson, Kelly Bingham (author interview), Liz Gallagher, Carrie Jones (author interview), Sarah Sullivan, Zu Vincent, Stephanie Greene, and Helen Hemphill (author interview). If you haven’t already, please welcome this wonderful group to the kidlitosphere!

Holiday Shopping?

Princess Nevermore Shop at CafePress: check out tops and tees, mugs, buttons, and bears in celebration of Princess Nevermore (Darby Creek, 2006) and Cam’s Quest (Darby Creek, 2007), both by Dian Curtis Regan. Read a Cynsations interview with Dian.

Sanguini’s Shops at CafePress and Printfection: tees, mouse pads, cutting boards, mugs, magnets, stickers and more in celebration of the fictional vampire restaurant from my latest book, Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007). Read an interview with Sanguini’s logo designer Gene Brenek. See also the bibliographies highlighting some of my background reading in preparation for writing the novel (more specifically Gothic fantasy and shape-shifters).

More Personally

Thanks so much to Carolyn and everyone at Westlake High (outside Austin) who participated in my online author visit on Nov. 20! What fun! Note: we used a chat program called Skype that was highly conducive to the event. Learn more about my online author programs and Virtual Visits with Authors, Illustrators, and Storytellers at Toni Buzzeo‘s site.

Tantalize is listed among 100 Sizzling Titles at Voices Rising of Cleveland.

Reminder: through the end of this month, I’m doing a giveaway of a copy of Rain Is Not My Indian Name, signed by me, and a poster of NASA astronaut John Herrington (signed by him). See details. Note: see also Debbie Reese’s thoughts on the giveaway and on persistent (and international) stereotypes of Native people at American Indians in Children’s literature.

Attention, Austinites! Greg and I will be reading Santa Knows, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, 2006) at 1 p.m. Dec. 2 at Barnes & Noble Westlake.

From the flap copy: “Who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice? Santa knows, that’s who! But not everyone believes in Santa Claus. Consider Alfie F. Snorklepuss. He thinks he’s proven that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Alfie thinks there is no way that Santa could do all the things he’s supposed to, like deliver billions of presents all over the world in one night or know what every little kid wants. When Alfie starts spreading the word that there is no Santa Claus, he makes someone very unhappy: his little sister Noelle. And so Noelle turns to the only person who can help her. The one person Alfie thinks doesn’t exist: Santa Claus. Ho, ho, ho!”

If you would like a signed bookplate for Santa Knows, just write me with “Santa Knows” in the subject line, and both your snail mail address and any personalization information in the body of the email. Visit!

Save Book-Woman of Austin, Texas

Book-Woman, one of a handful of independent feminist bookstores left in the U.S., is in danger of going under. The store is currently located in central Austin (918 W. 12th St. (12th & Lamar)).

Book-Woman is more than a bookstore. It’s a center for activism, a networking and information resource, and an arts and music venue.

Book-Woman needs cash–FAST–to get out of debt, lease a new space, restock, and revitalize.

You can help: Give cash. Volunteer. Shop, shop, shop! And spread the word.

To learn more go to:

Egmont to Launch in USA

Egmont UK has announced that it will launch a US publishing company in January 2008 to produce a full line of children’s and young adult books. Douglas Pocock, currently Group Sales Director of Egmont UK, will take up the post of Executive Vice President of Egmont US Inc.

Egmont USA will employ a publishing team based in New York. Its launch list of young adult and middle grade fiction and picture books will be published in Fall 2009. Egmont USA’s focus will be on delivering a list shaped for the USA from both established and new authors. Egmont’s list will be sold across all key market sectors with a focus on trade, school and library markets.

According to Mr. Pocock, who will report to Rob McMenemy, Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Egmont UK, “The formation of Egmont USA offers us a terrific opportunity for genuine collaboration between our UK and American offices, enabling us to create real competitive advantage in terms of joint acquisition, world rights and building authors as brands. The launch of Egmont in the USA is the culmination of two years’ planning and it is enormously exciting to finally reach this point.

“Our goal is to be a leading USA children’s publisher within five years while retaining our points of difference, notably author care. Authors and illustrators have always valued this at Egmont and it is one of the reasons that so many stay with us for so long. Our scale will mean that we are able to give each book the care and attention it deserves and every opportunity of success.”

Rob McMenemy comments, “Douglas has been at the center of our US development from the very beginning and his drive, experience and tenacity has played a major role in shaping the plans for the new company. Douglas is a first class business manager and will bring considerable experience of Egmont’s culture and style to the new company.”

Douglas Pocock joined Egmont in 1994 and has been Group Sales Director since January 2005. He has already started the process of recruiting editorial, design, sales and marketing, and finance staff, and plans to confirm the appointment of the publisher later this month, along with details about sales and distribution.

Egmont UK Ltd is one of the largest children’s book publishers in the UK. Its diverse list includes books for children of all ages and features popular licensed characters such as Winnie-the-Pooh and Thomas the Tank Engine.

The company publishes an impressive picture book and award-winning fiction list by renowned authors and illustrators, including Helen Oxenbury, Jenny Nimmo, Jamila Gavin, William Nicholson and Frank Beddor. Egmont is also the UK publisher of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.

Books and magazines form the core part of Egmont’s business in the UK, with sales of approximately 16 million books and 11.5 million magazines. Egmont UK is part of the Egmont Group, one of Scandinavia’s leading media groups with activities including film, TV production and interactive games. Egmont has activities in 23 countries, and 3,800 employees reaching revenues of EUR 1.24 billions in 2006.

Author Interview: Candice Ransom on the Time Spies series

Candice Ransom on Candice Ransom: “I was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Virginia. Many of my books are set in my home state. I’ve been married to Frank Ransom nearly 30 years. We live in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with three cats, including the notorious Winchester, who co-stars in ‘Ellsworth’s Journal,’, the only blog by a stuffed elephant and a cat.

“I have an MFA in writing for children (Vermont College, ’04) and a MA in children’s literature (Hollins University, ’07).”

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

I started down that path as a fifteen-year-old eager to make children’s books. My first book, I was sure, would be deemed a classic and sit on the shelf next to Charlotte’s Web. I submitted “Mystery of the Hidden Carousel” to Harper, and a picture book about a mouse (text and colored pen drawings on the same page) to Whitman. The mystery came back with tire tracks across the envelope. The picture book disappeared down a mouse hole.

I always tell new writers, go through whatever door opens for you. The door that opened for me was not a hardcover novel or a picture book but original paperback fiction.

The Silvery Past (Scholastic, 1982) was romantic suspense about an old carousel! (Later, I was published by both HarperCollins and Albert Whitman.) I continued writing original paperbacks. Eventually, the hardcover door opened, the picture book door opened, and others. Those doors did not swing wide for me–I had to knock hard to get in!

Early on I was asked to write the launch titles for various series. I realized that I was prolific and that my journey would be different from a lot of children’s authors. My book count currently stands at 110. Most of the time I’m focused on the project(s) at hand, but when I think about that number, it’s like, “Whoa! How’d that happen?”

For one thing, I’ve been writing children’s books full-time for 25 years, writing and publishing four to six books a year. Sprints or stumbles? More like a marathon, with no finish line in sight.

For those new to your work, could you briefly update us on your backlist, highlighting as you see fit?

I’m embarrassed to say I can’t even remember most of my books (but then I can’t remember last week, either). Also a great many of my books are out of print.

The Big Green Pocketbook is my best-known picture book. When Laura Geringer, my editor, told me Felicia Bond agreed to illustrate it, I didn’t even know who she was!

Finding Day’s Bottom (Carolrhoda, 2006) is my break-through novel.

I’ve ghosted 18 Boxcar Children books (this will be on my tombstone).

I’m proud of a nonfiction photo essay book called Children of the Civil War (when the editor asked me to do this, I said, “You want me to write about the whole war?”)

My newest picture book, Tractor Day (Walker, 2007), is my first rhyming book.

My latest novel is Seeing Sky-Blue Pink (Carolrhoda, 2007). Of all the books I’ve written, this one sailed straight from my heart.

Congratulations on the publication of Rider in the Night (Mirrorstone, 2007) from the Time Spies series! Could you give us an overview of the series’ premise?

Mattie, Alex, and Sophie Chapman move from the Maryland suburbs to the Virginia countryside where their parents have opened a bed and breakfast. The old Gray Horse Inn dates back before the Revolutionary War. The kids think they will die of boredom, but they find a secret room in the tower. In an old desk they discover a magic spyglass that transports them to little-known events in American history or trips through American literature. Because the inn is near Monticello, Jeffersonian themes tie the books together.

What was your initial inspiration for writing these books?

When I was a kid, I adored books featuring “everyday” magic, the type of magic that seemed within reach. It wasn’t likely I would find myself in Middle Earth, but it maybe I could find a magic ring. Time Spies is a Valentine to the books of Edward Eager, Jane Langton, and E. Nesbit.

What was the timeline between spark and first publication, and what were the major events along the way?

In late 2004 my editor, Nina Hess, and I discussed the possibility of a chapter book series that involved time travel. In early 2005, I wrote a short proposal. Nina liked it, but that was only the beginning of a long process.

One hurdle was finding a “clear” series name. Nina sent me lots of suggestions, but we both liked Time Spies best.

In my original proposal, the kids used a kaleidoscope to travel in time. Somewhere along the way—possibly during the name search—the kaleidoscope became a spyglass.

Minor adjustments followed: White Horse Inn became Gray Horse Inn, Sophie’s age changed from six to five.

A few months after I signed the contract for the four-book series, it was decided that ten books would be a more significant launch and another six titles were added to my contract. Suddenly, I was very busy!

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

The first four books ran too long. Also, we decided to alternate lead character POV between Mattie and Alex. It takes me a while to adjust from book to book. Even though I know the characters well, I identify more with Mattie. I also have to rein in the youngest character, Sophie, who speaks little but has a special gift. Sometimes she thinks she’s the star!

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were a beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Believe it or not, I would have read more. I’ve always read a ton—arm loads of picture books when I was writing picture books, etc. But I missed a lot of classics. I didn’t read The Secret Garden until graduate school. I skipped a lot of older Newbery winners and books from the 30s and 40s. If I had had a firm literature foundation, maybe I wouldn’t have struggled so much with plot, character development, and theme.

How about writing related to time travel?

Pay attention to clothes! Modern stuff! If your characters move from a contemporary setting to the past, you have to consider what your modern kids will look like in the historic setting. If your character carries something modern (like a flashlight) back in time, keep it hidden or figure out a way to work it into the plot. This sounds obvious, but it’s trickier than you think.

Do you have any special words of wisdom for series writers?

Be flexible. Be willing to work with your editor. Create a “bible” for your series, but realize it may change. There are a lot of elements to juggle in a series. Don’t trust your memory to anything–write it down!

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Sleep! I also enjoy paper-crafting, which is an offshoot of scrapbooking. I like making collages and altered projects related to classic children’s books. Even in my spare time, I don’t stray far from the world of children’s literature. It’s my life!

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

This is truly the hardest part of the job, which is a shame because it’s also the most fun. When I was earning my degrees, I had to skip some promoting.

Even now, I am choosy about speaking engagements. Sometimes you simply can’t do everything.

In order to fit it all in, I have a fairly strict schedule. I don’t watch television. I don’t go to the movies. I have no social life. Weekends are devoted to writing business.

Do I sound whiny? I don’t mean to. I’m only trying to stress the reality of the job. If you are in this for the long haul, if you want to earn a living from children’s books, you will have to give up things. It’s less a balancing act than a lifestyle choice. You do what must be done for your books, for your career.

What can your readers look forward to next?

I have a lot of books coming out in the next year or so. Pony Island, my first nonfiction picture book, with pictures by Wade Zahares. A companion book to The Big Green Pocketbook, called The Old Blue Pick-up Truck, illustrations by Jenny Mattheson. Two historical easy readers will be released: Night of the Hurricane’s Fury and The Day of the Black Blizzard. A biography of Maggie Walker Lena will be out in fall 2008. Four new Time Spies titles are scheduled next year, and I’ve signed to do four more.

Is there anything you would like to add?

When I was breaking in the field thirty years ago, there were few resources. I joined SCBW [same organization as SCBWI before the “I” was added] in 1977, but our region wasn’t active. I read The Horn Book (editor interview) and had a few books on writing for children and that was it.

Writers nowadays are so lucky! Even if you live on one of the Pribilof Islands, you can be connected by blogs, online courses, chat rooms, conferences, support groups. The community of children’s books writers and illustrators is vast and yet intimate at the same time. Take advantage of these wonderful resources. I still attend conferences in the hopes of learning something new. I plan to continue publishing children’s books for the next 25 years!

Robert’s Snow for Cancer’s Cure 2007: Auction 2

Auction 2 will begin accepting bids on Nov. 26 at 9 a.m. with a starting bid of $100 for each snowflake. All bids must be before the close of Auction 2 on Nov. 30 at 5 pm. Don’t forget that 100 percent of the proceeds from this online auction will benefit sarcoma research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and that all but $25 of the winning bid is tax deductible.

Read about all the illustrators who contributed to this auction at the sites linked below. (The order presented is the same as on the auction page.)

Editor Round Table: Razorbill

Biographies of the Razorbill round table editors:

“Kristen Pettit has been in the publishing industry for thirteen years. She began her career at Parachute Publishing, a packager of teen and middle grade books. During her six year tenure there, she worked with mega-selling authors like R.L. Stine and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. At Razorbill, her focus has been on stand-alone teen books with original voices and undeniably broad appeal. Highlights include Kirkus-starred, Borders November Original Voices pick, and BBYA Nominee Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Barnes & Noble bestselling hardcover series Bloodline by Kate Cary, Barnes & Noble bestselling paperback Pretty Little Devils by Nancy Holder, KLIATT-starred, YALSA Popular Humor Pick, and upcoming Lifetime Original Movie True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet by Lola Douglass, BCCB-starred Catch by New York Times columnist Will Leitch, Edgar Award-nominated middle grade series Wright and Wong by Laura Burns and Melinda Metz, and graphic novel and ALA Quick Pick Manga Claus: The Blade of Kringle by Nathaniel Marunas. In the spring, she’ll publish Razorbill’s lead title, Audrey, Wait! by debut author Robin Benway.”

“Lexa Hillyer interned at a literary agency for a few months before beginning her editorial career at HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2003, where she worked on books by Meg Cabot, Rachel Vail, Maureen Johnson, Hailey Abbott and others. She was on the editorial panel for the inaugural HarperTeen fanlit contest, brainstormed the upcoming Running Horse Ridge Series, and was on the judging panel for the Ursula Nordstrom Prize for Fiction. Lexa joined the Razorbill team in May 2007 and now edits the brand new tween series from Zoey Dean, Talent, in addition to other exciting upcoming teen projects. Her taste runs from the younger end of tween to the older end of teen; from strong, literary, voice-driven novels to fun, fast-paced, addictive series. She is mostly interested in chick lit, realistic fiction for girls and some paranormal stories, but is always looking for the next great thing with a fresh story, fun hook and impressive prose.”

“Jessica Rothenberg joined Penguin as an Editorial Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief and Associate Publisher after graduating from Vassar College in 2004. While at Penguin, she worked on a variety of fiction and nonfiction titles with such bestselling authors as Gwyn Hyman Rubio, Susan Vreeland, Richard Shell, and Guillermo Martínez. Since jumping (more like skipping) across the street to Razorbill, she’s had the pleasure of editing a number of truly fabulous books—including the South African sensation Spud, the cheeky and hilarious Those Girls series, and the B&N bestselling paranormal romance series Vampire Academy (excerpt)(think Twilight, but racier), to name a few. Other exciting upcoming projects include Zorgamazoo, a whimsical fantasy novel written entirely in rhyme, Hottie, a ‘tween series about a Beverly Hills princess with superpowers, and the much-buzzed-about YA debut from New York Times Bestselling author Allegra Goodman, The Other Side of the Island. She’s always on the lookout for fresh, funny, voice-driven fiction—whether YA or middle grade—and is most interested in teen romance, literary fiction, and hilarious, high-concept ‘tween and teen series that kids can’t put down.”

“Laura Schechter joined the Razorbill team in January 2007. She is interested in projects as diverse as fashion manuals, literary YA fiction, and big, scary stories for boys involving many-legged monsters.”

Could you give us a brief overview of Razorbill? What sorts of books do you publish?
Kristen: There are books like the one I just published, Thirteen Reasons Why, a stand-alone hardcover which is the perfect YA book. It’s a fast-paced psychological thriller, but its combination of high-concept, deep meaning, and strong plot transcend genre, appealing to every teen.

Jessica: Then we do books like Spud, a hilarious coming of age novel about a boy in boarding school that appeals to kids and adults of all ages and has been compared to The Catcher in the Rye because of its original voice.

Lexa: Finally, we do books like Talent, a big contemporary paperback series with really broad appeal and a fun hook that fits right in to what teen and tween girls are reading and buying.

Do you have a certain philosophy or approach that characterizes your list?

Laura: We’re looking for big, broadly appealing material with voices that are original and gripping: books kids will want to buy, pass around to each other, and stay up late at night reading. Whether it’s outrageously funny, deeply moving, or edgy and unique, we’re looking for the kind of read that stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

What is the history of the imprint? What inspired its launch? How has it evolved?

Kristen: Razorbill was formed in 2003 to give Penguin a real focus on YA stand alone titles and series. Under the direction of Ben Schrank, Razorbill has continued to hone the nature of the books and the public awareness of the imprint.

Lexa: It’s a continuing process and we’re all excited to be involved in it.

Jessica: In the past year we’ve worked hard to be as dynamic and exciting and fresh as possible. Our goal is always to be at the front of this area of the industry.

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

Lexa: Everything!

Kristen: It varies from author to author. In some cases we get involved at the concept level and help authors step by step to build and plot their books. It’s tremendously exciting–a gift really–to be that much involved in the story.

Jessica: We’re friends, mentors, cheerleaders and therapists by turns.

Lexa: We’re also the spokesperson in-house for the author and the book, building enthusiasm with the sales and design teams and looking out for the best way to find success for the book and develop the author’s career.

Kristen: Because we are the ones who are closest to the book, we also do our best to help marketing with cutting edge ideas for how to build buzz and grow interest.

Jessica: Also we sneak into Barnes & Noble and rearrange the books on the shelves, hand copies out to everyone we know, and…

Kristin: … Occasionally dream about the characters.

What are its challenges?

Lexa: Everything! It’s a challenge to balance the author’s vision for the book with the other needs the book often requires in order to make the biggest splash possible in a very complex and crowded marketplace.

Jess: …To get people in-house excited about the book when they have to think about every other book in every other imprint just at Penguin alone.

Kristen: You have to pick between your children as well, and you want every author to feel special and getting the attention he or she deserves.

Laura: Sophie’s choice!

What do you love about it?

Jessica: Working with the authors so closely, collaborating with them at every stage. Seeing a manuscript turn into a beautiful finished book is incredibly rewarding.

Kristen: So few people actually make something anymore: we turn an idea into a physical object that goes out into the world and makes people’s lives nicer.

Laura: Discovering authors who can become beloved by a whole world of readers–paving the way for them to reach a big audience.

Lexa: Yes, and inspiring kids to read.

Laura: Plus the salary. Not!

How has publishing changed–for better and worse–since you entered the field?

Kristen: I think YA publishing has changed for the better. Our readers are very sophisticated. Our industry has discovered and addressed that in the last 10 years.

Jess: Our books deal with things that kids really go through.

Lexa: And there’s a much stronger awareness of what makes a satisfying story. We don’t take for granted the attention of the readership because there’s so much competition with other media now. People realize editing a book for a teen may even require more rigorous work than editing an adult book because teens have so much else pulling their attention away constantly. We have to fully understand what they’re interested in and how that’s evolving.

Jess: We have a whole new way of accessing kids now via the Internet, which has really changed the nature of how teens read and how we get the books into the world.

What qualities do you look for in a manuscript?

Lexa: A voice I haven’t heard before, a story I want to know the ending to, and something in the character that surprises me.

Laura: A very detailed, well-articulated world full of convincing elements.

Jess: A voice I respond to emotionally–either laughing or simply caring enough for the characters that I want to see what happens to them.

Kristen: For me plot is king. I really want something that’s going to sweep me up and take me out of my surroundings, rendering me unable to stop.

Jess: And a concept that’s totally fresh and appealing with a great hook.

Laura: You want to be transported: either by the voice, the world, the plot, or the characters (and hopefully all of the above).

Lexa: And something that feels like it will awaken excitement in teens because it fits what’s happening culturally.

Kristen: The book needs to reflect the emotions and experiences of the average teen reader.

How can writers/illustrators get in touch with you/the house?

Lexa: Through their terrific, hardworking agents.

Any submission recommendations or pet peeves?

Laura: Sending submissions that are clearly outside the scope of what we publish, showing me that no research has been done about our imprint.

Kristen: Multi-media submissions: your work should speak for itself.

Lexa: Unrealistic expectations.

Kristen: Defensiveness or justification about writing a teen book (we know why it’s a good idea to write for teens!).

Lexa: Comparing your book to Harry Potter. That and getting my name spelled wrong on the letter. Oh, and lies! Don’t lie in your letter.

Please describe your dream author.

Laura: A dead one! Ha, just kidding. But we did just acquire a zombie novel so I’ve got the dead on the brain.

Kristen: Two words: Jay Asher. But seriously! Someone who is talented, unpretentious, and devoted to the cause of promoting his own words.

Jessica: An author who trusts you and knows you’re doing everything you can to make the book successful.

Kristen: A partner, someone who doesn’t sit back and wait for you to do the work

Jessica: Someone who understands it’s about more than just writing a book, it’s about getting it out there

Lexa: I always admire an author who is timely and professional in addition to endlessly passionate about their story. Writers who understand that writing is a project–it’s hard work, it involves stress and angst and it’s worth all of that and more to make the book great. Not just okay, here’s my first draft. . .

Kristen: …Right. “My mom loves it, it’s truly a perfect novel as is.”

Jess: …If that were the case we’d all be out of jobs!

Please describe your dream illustrator.

Laura: We don’t work with them extensively, but . . .

Kristen: People who add a new dimension to the story.

Jess: Illustrators who bring something creative to the book and enrich it.

Do most of your books begin as submissions from writers, writer-illustrators, or agents? Why?

Lexa: Agents. We don’t accept unagented material.

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

Kristen: Funny! My husband just asked me that same question last night.

Lexa: Breathe and sleep

Laura: What do you mean? Are there other things to do?

Everyone: Drinking heavily and in each other’s company.

Jess: “Gilmore Girls.”

Lexa: Tune into to what’s hot in the rest of the world, so we can steal it and put it right back into our books.

Kristen: Ruin the plots of TV shows and movies for those I love.

Lexa: Me too! So true.

Author Interview: Verla Kay on Rough, Tough Charley

Verla Kay writes historical picture books in a special kind of poetry she calls “cryptic rhyme.” She has sold a total of eleven picture books, three of which are still “in the works.”

All eight of the books that have been published have received recognition, including Tattered Sails, illustrated by Dan Andreasen (Putnam, 2001), which was named a Child’s Best Book of the Year by Child Magazine.

The text of Covered Wagons, Bumpy Trails (Putnam, 2000) will be in an upcoming second grade social studies program in schools. Verla’s newest book, Rough, Tough Charley (Tricycle, 2007), received a starred review by PW.

Verla Kay’s website, which she designed and maintains herself, was named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers in 2000 and again in 2005 by Writer’s Digest. Her message board page has gotten an average of over 600,000 hits per month since January of 2007.

Besides writing award-winning picture books, Verla is an instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature.

Congratulations on the release of Rough, Tough Charley, illustrated by Adam Gustavson (Tricyle, 2007). Could you fill us in on the story?

Charley was a renowned stagecoach driver from the 1850’s and 60’s, who was best known after death when the doctor preparing Charley’s body for burial discovered “he” was a “she!” Charley was acclaimed as the best and fastest stagecoach driver in the motherlode (gold country in California) and was so well-respected as a “man” that she was buried with full Odd Fellow’s Lodge honors even though she was a woman.

Charley’s grave was two blocks from the home I lived in as a teenager, and I thought everyone knew about her until I moved away from Watsonville, California. She was one of the first women to ever vote for a president (might even have been “the” first!), voting 52 years before women were given the vote.

What was your initial inspiration for writing the book?

I have been captivated by Charley’s story ever since I first heard it. When I learned that everyone didn’t know about Charley, I wanted to share it–especially with children, who could derive inspiration and hope from it.

Charley seems to tell kids, “You can do anything with your life you want to do, as long as you are willing to sacrifice and work hard for it.” Charley wanted to drive stagecoaches in a day when women were “just” housewives and mothers. In order to do what she wanted to do, she had to “become” a man. So she did.

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

Since 1994 I have written this story four times–as a picture book, an easy reader, a short 10 chapter book, and again as a picture in my own style of cryptic rhyme. It sold in 1998 in its chapter book form.

I waited five years for it to be published, and the week it was going to print, it was canceled, as Millbrook Press was being bought out by Lerner and the new publishing company didn’t want to pick it up. That’s when I rewrote it in cryptic rhyme.

While it was under negotiation for publication by Tricycle Press, Lerner contacted me via email and asked if they could publish it. Ha! Too late. After Tricycle Press bought it, it came out within 1 1/2 years–in May of 2007.

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

This was a tough story to bring to life, not because of Charley, who was a very colorful character in her own right, but because of the restrictions of writing a non-fiction historical biography about a person of whom so little was ever written. There’s no one left alive who ever knew Charley in person, so the only material available is the little that was written about her by a novelist who once rode with Charley, and the obituary notices in the newspapers of her time, an affidavit from the grandson of the doctor who laid Charley out for burial, etc.

You can only write what is known and some of the facts that have been written about Charley since her death are conflicting, making it even more difficult to know what was really “true.” Some things I just left out of her story altogether, rather than possibly tell something that might not be accurate.

What did Adam Gustavson‘s illustrations bring to your text?

Adam’s illustrations are incredible and I am so pleased with them! They added depth, excitement, drama, and historical details that I could never have fit into my spare text. They truly brought the book to life.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Learn! Learn all you can about what makes a good, strong children’s story. Learn all you can about the marketing aspect of the business, because you can write the best story in the world, but if you don’t know how to get it onto the desk of the editor who will love it, you may find it impossible to sell. And finally, if you truly believe in your story, never give up on it. Rewrite it if you need to. More than once if you need to, but keep sending it out if you honestly believe in it.

You have one of the premier author websites! Could you tell us a bit about it? What’s new and exciting?

The most active part of my website is its message board. It’s been averaging over 600,000 hits per month every month since January of 2007. It’s become a very well-known forum for children’s writers and illustrators to gather and share information.

What do you do when you’re not writing or doing writing-related activities?

For the past five years we have been renovating our old farmhouse style home, which we were finally able to move into two years ago. There’s still one more major construction job to do inside the house (an 8 foot wide, 9 foot tall wooden and marble fireplace surround) and then the inside will be mostly done. Hooray!

I love, love, love to play Puzzle Pirates online and can be found there sailing and pillaging with other online pirates most nights after the rest of my work is done.

I spend many hours a day working with new writers, teaching through the Institute of Children’s Literature–a correspondence course known by most writers as ICL.

Whenever possible, I play games and spend time with my teenaged grandchildren, entertain overnight guests, and I love watching Nicie in “Clean House” on TV. (Maybe some day her clean house habits will overflow into my home? I hope so! I’m definitely a “clutterbug” by nature.)

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, website, etc.) of being an author?

That’s a toughie. I don’t. I just do what I have to do when I have to do it. Sometimes it involves pulling almost an “overnighter,” which isn’t easy for me now that I’m getting older.

What can your fans look forward to next?

The next book scheduled to come out is Pony Express, which will be released in 2010. Putnam have two artists working on it, as it’s a “double” book. There’s one story in the cryptic rhyme text and a second story that will be in the letters going back and forth between a brother and his sister in the artwork. I’m very excited to see what the artists will be doing with this book!

Another book that’s “in the works” is Hornbooks & Inkwells. Putnam has just hired an artist for it. I’m very pleased to know that S.D. Schindler, the same artist that illustrated Gold Fever and Covered Wagons, Bumpy Trails will be illustrating that book, too. I haven’t heard yet when this might be scheduled for publication. It will depend on Mr. Schindler’s schedule and when he will have time to finish it.

There’s one more book under contract–Drummer Boy. This will be the Civil War through a drummer boy’s eyes, and it’s also written in cryptic rhyme. The text has recently been finalized for it, and Putnam is currently (I hope!) searching for just the right illustrator for it. After an illustrator has been found for this book, it will be scheduled for a future publication date (usually about two or three years after the illustrator has been hired.)

I’m currently working on a very different kind of story–my father’s WWII POW story. He was a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft I prison camp in Barth, Germany for the better part of two years during he war. I plan a totally different kind of book for this one, encompassing several different kinds of writing, and some unusual artwork. You’ll have to wait until it’s done to see what I’m doing with it.