Interview: Kelly Herold and Anne Boles Levy on The Cybils

Kelly Herold on Kelly Herold: Kelly Herold is an Associate Professor of Russian at Grinnell College by day, and writes a children’s literature blog (Big A little a) and edits the online children’s literature monthly The Edge of the Forest by night. She is also (with Anne Boles Levy) a co-founder of The Cybils, the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards.

Anne Boles Levy on Anne Boles Levy: Anne Boles Levy is a freelance writer and editor whose book reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times. She blogs at Book Buds Kidlit Reviews and founded, with Kelly Herold, The Cybils awards.

When and how did you become involved in the kidlitosphere?

KH: I began blogging in February of 2005, over three years ago.

ABL: I started blogging in Oct. 2004 after my husband starting lugging books home from the LA Times’ book review section. The editors there didn’t have room to run reviews of children’s literature, so I saw a niche.

How would you describe the community?

KH: I love the children’s literature community. It’s such a welcoming, interesting place with writers, illustrators, readers, publishers, agents, editors, booksellers, and more. I think the kidlitosphere has become a place of real debate and creative exploration.

ABL: Curse them all! Just kidding. They’re about as cuddly a bunch as you can find online. I think I’ve received only two or three insulting comments in more than three years of blogging—I bet no political bloggers can say that. Kidlitters are really apologetic when they disagree with you.

What do you see as your goals and role in it?

KH: I’m a generalist: I like to read, review, and discuss books for all age groups. I also like to bring people together with The Edge of the Forest and the Cybils. Finally, I have to admit that I’m most drawn to genre-breaking books—books that do something new and clever.

ABL: I’m just in it for the money. Maybe the fame too. Since I don’t have either of those things yet, I have to keep plugging away. That, and one of these years maybe I’ll finish a picture book manuscript that someone thinks is worth publishing. As for my role in the community, I’m proud that Cybils has maintained high standards—both for the contest and the blog—because participants deserve to see the contest grow in reputation and authority.

What do you love about it? What are its challenges?

KH: I love having the opportunity to discuss writing, reading, and books with people who love books as much as I do. I love the sense of community in the kidlitosphere. I’ve made some real friends here, Anne being one of them. Because there is no overarching structure to the kidlitosphere I don’t see any challenges per se, but I do think it’s difficult for new voices to be heard.

ABL: I love reviewing. I like to think it introduces parents or librarians to some new friends in the picture book world, and I know most authors could always use an extra boost. So I feel like I’m really helping in my small way. As for the challenges; I’ve faced a number of daunting personal, financial, and family crises in the past few years, and blogging has always had to take a back seat. After every interruption, I have to fight to regain readers and rankings, and that can be tough.

Why is it important to you?

KH: I considered quitting blogging about a year ago. But I realized this ongoing conversation is really too important to me intellectually and personally.

ABL: The first time my husband brought home a stack of picture books from his office, I thought, wow, there are so many great books! I felt like I was in on a very cool, important secret. Now the secret is out, and I like that feeling even better.

Could you offer us a brief history of the Cybils? How did the program originate?

KH: I was kvetching on the blog a few years ago about the Quills book award. Anne popped on by and left a comment to the effect that “we could do a better job.” So I said—let’s do it!

ABL: Before I could say “who the heck would volunteer for such a crazy thing?” we had 80 people signed up. This year we had 90. We expect a similar number as we enter our third season in August.

What were its goals?

KH: The main goals of the Cybils, as I see them, are to award both literary merit (like the ALA awards) and kid appeal. Over the years we’ve found kid appeal difficult to define, but we try our best. Also, and I think this is most important, we also give awards to oft-neglected categories, like non-fiction and poetry.

ABL: And graphic novels! Those folks love us. We’re one of the only literary awards out there for them. I think people also respond to the short lists and winners because we’re so transparent about how we arrived at our decisions. We have the judges post short explanations of why this or that book made the list. People can see their reasoning, even if they don’t agree.

Who were the key players, and what were their roles?

KH: Anne and I have been the two main organizers from the beginning—Anne dealing with the Cybils blog, and I’ve organized the people and the books. Sheila Ruth of Wands and Worlds has been absolutely instrumental to the process, dealing with independent publishing houses and helping out behind the scenes. We’d never be able to do this without the category organizers who put so much work into running their committees, making sure the bloggers get the books they need. We wouldn’t have been able to do anything without Jen Robinson, Jules and Eisha, Little Willow, Kelly Fineman, Liz B., Betsy Bird, Jackie Parker, and, and…I’m sure I’m forgetting someone very important…Anne?

ABL: I’d add some of the organizers from our first year like Susan Thomsen, Chris Barton and also Sarah Stevenson from graphic novels this year. Nobody really knows how much work is involved, but nobody dropped out, either. They finished their commitments to us, no matter what. They all rock.

How was the award process organized?

KH: Completely on the fly. We added more layers of organization for year two, and hopefully, we’ll streamline things even more going into year three.

ABL: We use email and a Yahoo! Group to keep everyone talking. Kelly and I call each other pretty regularly during the height of Cybils season. The panelists and judges also might IM or use chat rooms when they’re in the thick of discussions.

What lessons were learned from the first year?

KH: Most of our lessons came from dealing with the publishers for review copies. In the second year, we learned even more lessons, mostly having to do with the awards’ growing popularity: we’ll need to extend our reading time, make some category changes, etc, etc, etc.

ABL: Many panelists and judges also wanted a firmer hand in the form of more guidelines, some leadership to get discussions going, a sense of who was in charge and what was expected and when. Some of the Internet’s freewheeling nature didn’t carry over very well to a literary awards, and many participants weren’t sure how to fill the vacuum.

We were deliberately hands-off, but this year we’ll try and at least give more detailed prompts for getting discussions going and steering them towards a decision—but only where it’s needed. Many groups did just fine on their own, and I don’t think we should butt in unnecessarily.

What changes were made?

KH: We requested copies as nominations came in for each individual category. We decided we needed to centralize this process so publishing houses weren’t bombarded with requests. Going into the third year, Sheila Ruth has designed a database system to make this process even more clear and easy for the book organizers (Sheila and I), and we’ve had a big discussion about our book categories and plan on making some changes.

ABL: I’m in the middle of moving to Arizona (from Chicago) and once I settle in, I plan to file incorporation papers as a non-profit so we can form a board of directors, raise more money and go from there. I’ll gradually move into an administrative role and will have to find a deputy editor to take over much of the blogging.

What was the Cybils’ initial impact?

KH: Initially, I think authors and illustrators and independent publishing houses were most impressed. Here was this new award put together by readers and writers looking for something important in their books. Now, though, everyone is paying attention.

ABL: Agreed.

How has that impact grown over time?

ABL: Better coverage in more blogs, more hits, more money, and more pressure both from within and without to professionalize. We’re getting there.

What do you see in the future of the Cybils?

KH: We’re going to have to professionalize some. Become a non-profit corporation so that we and our participating bloggers are protected financially and legally. I do expect the Cybils to keep on growing!

ABL: Non-profit status also helps with fundraising. This year, we’re giving out gorgeous fountain pens with our logo engraved on the wooden box.

In future years, it’d be great if we could hand them a check. But we know it’s hard to ask people or corporations for donations if we can’t at least offer them the tax benefit.

What do you do outside the world of youth literature?

KH: I teach Russian and Russian literature at Grinnell College in Grinnell Iowa. I’m developing a children’s literature course with a colleague!

ABL: I’m a mommy to two little kids, a freelance writer and editor, and, right now, a champion packer and mover.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

And Another Awesome Author Visit: Claudia Gray from And Another Book Read. Peek: “I see some of myself in virtually all the characters. I think that’s fairly important, really–to identify with everyone, at least a little bit. (Maybe not Erich, though.)”

By Request: Letting the Reader In, Pulling the Reader In–Part Deux, Of Bridge Conflicts and Withdrawn Protagonists by R. L. La Fevers from R. L. LaFevers: One author’s thoughts on writing, storytelling, publishing, and everything in between. Peek: “You have to have a fairly firm grasp of both the internal and external character/plot arcs in your novel. If you don’t understand what is emotionally driving your characters’ actions, then you can’t show it to the reader.” Read a Cynsations interview with R. L. LaFevers on Werewolf Rising.

Fiction with Fangs by Tanita Davis (TadMack) and Sarah Stevenson (a.fortis) from The Edge of the Forest. Peek: “Yes, all discussion of hotties aside…and pushing aside our biases…we thought we’d share with you what :01 First Second has been up to vampire-wise, along with a few other bloodsucker tales which have had us…uh…drooling.” Check out what else is new at The Edge.

When the lady prefers Gentile men by Steve Hatch of The Boston Globe. Peek: “[Melissa R.] Schorr is the author of “Goy Crazy,” a fictionalized account of her experiences dating non-Jewish men in the face of family pressure to do otherwise. The lessons that Schorr, 35, learned growing up in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, are incorporated in the book and in the talks she gives to teenage readers.” Read a Cynsations interview with Melissa.

Casting the Spell: Fairy Tales in Novel Form by Terrell A. Young and Barbara A. Ward from Book Links. Peek: “These enchanting novels based on fairy tales will have teens and tweens asking for more.”

Hot Summer Twisted/Speak Book Trailer Contest by Laurie Halse Anderson from Mad Woman in the Forest. Peek: “Contest is open to anyone on the Planet Earth. Teens working aboard the space station are welcome too. Entries from other planets and galaxies will be considered, as long as they can be watched on Earth-created technologies.”

Back to the Janes: Castellucci and Rugg on Janes in Love by Jack Smith from Newsarama. Peek: “I love it when a gentleman comes and says that they picked it up for their wife, daughter, niece, girlfriend, who never read a graphic novel before, or were resistant to comics and that those ladies enjoyed it so much that they were open to checking out other comics. I also really love that many of those gentlemen enjoyed the Plain Janes themselves. That’s the best.” Read a Cynsations interview with Cecil.

SCBWI Houston is sponsoring a “Nuts and Bolts” Picture Book Writing Workshop taught by award-winning author, Kathi Appelt Sept. 6. The workshop will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., lunch included. Before July 8, $40 members of SCBWI, $50 nonmembers. After July 8, prices go up $10. See details. Read a Cynsations interview with Kathi.

Apparently, We’re Buying Fewer Books, But Going to Bookstores to Get Them from Galley Cat at Media Bistro. Note: support brick-and-mortar bookstores!

The Whole Novel and Nothing But the Whole Novel: a week-long series from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: Author Stephanie Greene says: “It’s so easy to become bogged down in trying to create a memorable plot, while sketching an empathetic character who speaks with realistic dialogue that works as hard as dialogue needs to in portraying that character while moving the plot along and helping create secondary characters. To say nothing of keeping an eye on that narrative arc and the underlying emotional arc while seeing to it that both arcs are pulling their weight through a strong middle, right up to a satisfying and exciting climax, then gently descending to an inevitable, yet surprising, ending. It’s a marvel any of us has the courage to try.” Note: possibly the best quote ever.

Do teenage boys need books with weak female characters? by Colleen at Guys Lit Wire. Peek: “But the girl must be saved by the boy for the boy to feel powerful? How do these gentlemen think it makes the girl feel to have to wait to be saved? Have they ever thought about that at all?” Note: don’t miss the comments.

Futuristic, Speculative, Science Fiction and Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults by Jen Robinson at Jen Robinson’s Book Page.

Amjed Qamar: official site from the debut author of Beneath My Mother’s Feet (Simon & Schuster, 2008)(excerpt)(reading guide). See also: an interview with Amjed by Mary Lee at A Year of Reading. Peek: “…growing up as the only Muslim child in my most of classes, I can honestly say that I never had any issues in school or with the teachers. My teachers were amazing, wonderful people.”

Midnighters in Japan by Scott Westerfeld at Westerblog. Peek: “What I love about these interpretations is how they’re simultaneously literal and surreal. All three use scenes directly from the book, but they also have a trippiness about them: the close up on the raindrops, the huge moon, the distended human figures.” Read a Cynsations interview with Scott.

New “Edge of the Forest,” and Blogging Thoughts from Chicken Spaghetti. Peek: “Are some people turned off to the kid-book blogs because there are so many? Is it hard for a general non-kid-lit-affiliated person to know where to start reading? Are we bloggers reaching our target audience, and, if not, how do we do so?” Source: Gail Gauthier. See also Interview with Gail Gauthier by Kelly Herold at The Edge of the Forest.

Interview with April Lurie from Becky’s Book Reviews. Peek: “I never thought I would write about this crazy time in my life, but the process turned out to be quite therapeutic. Also, I think (at least I hope) it’s my funniest book to date.” See also a Cynsations interview with April.

Making School Assemblies Fun: “Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt, author of award-winning children’s books, including You Think it’s Easy Being the Tooth Fairy?, offers tips on creating a successful school program” from The Polka Dot Banner: An Author’s Gathering Place.

Asian Pacific American Librarian Awards from Mitali Perkins (author interview) at Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “The prizes promote Asian/Pacific American culture and heritage and are awarded based on literary and artistic merit.”

“Facing the Feedback” by Nancy Viau from the Institute of Children’s Literature. Peek: “Generous Author even offers to become Sara’s mentor, and will look at a revision. Terrific, right? Wrong. Sara is not thrilled.”

Question of the Week Thursday: Todd Strasser by Robin Friedman from Robin Friedman’s JerseyFresh Tude. Robin asks: “How has the field of YA changed?” Peek: “One day my agent called and said an editor named Ferdinand Monjo wished to have lunch with me. Was I interested? At the time I was working my way through a case of tuna fish, purchased in bulk, to save money. I probably would have gone to lunch with Charles Manson if he’d asked.”

Why Publishers Should Blog by Kassia Krozser from Booksquare. Peek: “Just as authors need to better market themselves and their books, so do publishers. While the audience for a publisher website is diverse — authors, booksellers, journalists, agents, readers, and more — talking about books on your website the same way you talk about books in your catalog simply isn’t cutting it.”

10 Simple Rules for Librarians [1907] from Kane/Miller Kidlit. Peek: “Do not wear any dress more than 2″ above the ankle.”

June Carnival of Children’s Literature–Fathers in Children’s Books by Susan Taylor Brown from Susan Writes. Peek: “The theme of fathers in children’s books brought posts of the good, the bad, and even a bit of Dr. Seuss.” Read a Cynsations interview with Susan.

Paulette Molin’s American Indian Themes in Young Adult Literature: a resource book recommended by Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature. Peek: “…an excellent book out that librarians and teachers should add to their shelves…” Note: Debbie also recommends Red Ink Magazine, which looks very cool.

Out of New England by Tasha Tudor from The Horn Book (“From the November 1941 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.” Peek: “Autumn, and wild geese flying, blue grapes and golden leaves.” Note: I know it’s a busy time, with ALA and more, but take a moment to read and remember.

MTV Books Blog: a blog for readers and authors of MTV Books. Source: Danielle Joseph at Shout Outs…

Author-illustrator Jean Gralley, a modern-day pioneer in digital stories, wishes Marianne Carus, founder of the Cricket Magazine Group, a happy 80th birthday! Watch it here! Note: Jean is the former Staff Artist of Cricket Magazine. Check out her digital stories. Read a Cynsations interview with Jean.

Author Interview: Stacy DeKeyser by Chelsie from Read, Read, Read. Peek: “I started and stopped writing several times, because as my first novel I didn’t always know what I was doing! I got stuck a lot too, because I knew the beginning, and I knew the ending, but I had no idea what was going to happen in the middle.”


Last chance to enter! The Cynsations grand-prize June giveaway is an autographed hardcover set of First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover (Dutton, 2007) and First Daughter: White House Rules (Dutton, 2008), both by Mitali Perkins. Read a Cynsations interview with Mitali.

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll for address) with your name and snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST June 30! Please also type “First Daughter” in the subject line. Note: one autographed set will be awarded to any Cynsations YA reader.

The winner of a signed copy of the Australian edition of Missing Girl by Norma Fox Mazer (Allen & Unwin, 2008)(published in the U.S. by HarperCollins, 2008) was Lisa in Arizona!

Note: I’m not able to reply to all of the entry emails, but I greatly appreciate them. Look for more Cynsational giveaways in July!

More Personally

Slumber Party @ Teen Fest: April Lurie (author interview)(MySpace), Jennifer Ziegler (author interview)(MySpace), and Cynthia Leitich Smith will join forces in a “lively, intimate discussion about books and writing for teen girls” at noon Aug. 2 at Carver Branch Library/Austin Public Library in Austin, Texas. The event will include a book signing, “games, snacks, beauty tips, and even a passionate reading contest. Pajamas and pillows optional!”

Austin SCBWI‘s “A Day with an Editor” featuring Jill Santopolo, author and senior editor at Laura Geringer/HarperCollins, and Cynthia Leitich Smith will be Sept. 13. “Mark your calendars now and prepare to register early as this event is expected to be a sellout. Registrations will open around July 1, and registration forms will be available at Austin SCBWI.” Note: Jill is interested in literary novels, quirky middle grades, and picture books. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College and is the author of Alec Flint, Super Sleuth: The Nina, The Pinta and the Vanishing Treasure (Scholastic/Orchard, 2008).

In the U.S. and Canada, Tantalize is available in prose from Candlewick Press (the paperback release date is July 22!) and on audio from Listening Library. You also can order it from Walker Books Australia and New Zealand. The novel will be released by Walker U.K. this fall, and more oversees editions are pending–I’m just waiting for the final paperwork to announce another one.

Ashley features a lovely new Tantalize banner at her MySpace page! She also models the Sanguini’s T-shirt and the novel in her pics! Surf by to see for yourself! Thanks, Ashley!

Speaking of MySpace, I’ve polished up my page a bit! Check it out! Visit Tantalize Fans Unite! at MySpace!

Thank you to Donna Gephart at Wild about Words for recommending Cynsations! Read a Cynsations interview with Donna!

Author Interview: Dana Reinhardt on Harmless

Dana Reinhardt on Dana Reinhardt: “I’ve done all sorts of stuff with my life so far. I’ve been a waitress, a social worker, an answerer of telephones on a crisis hot line, a fact checker for a movie magazine, a reader for a now defunct young adult label at a mass-market publishing house, a law student, and a producer for documentary TV. Now I’m a writer. “

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

I had one of those stories I hesitate to tell because it’s pretty much a fairy tale and not at all the typical publication experience. The short version is: I sat down, wrote a book, sent it off to my agent and sold it right away.

I guess the stumble in my story is in how long it took me to get the courage to sit down and write the book in the first place. I dreamed of writing novels. I even specifically dreamed of writing teen novels. But I spent years and years doing other things I thought responsible adults were supposed to do rather than trying to do what I really wanted to.

Your debut book was A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life (Wendy Lamb, 2006)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life is a story of a sixteen-year-old girl named Simone Turner-Bloom, an avowed atheist who comes to learn that her biological mother was the daughter of a Hassidic Rabbi. It’s a book about faith and family and life and death. But it’s also about first love and friendship and bite-sized candy.

Could you also fill us in on your latest release, Harmless (Wendy Lamb, 2007)?

Harmless is the story, told in alternating points of view, of three friends who make up a lie to cover for having done something they shouldn’t, and what happens as a result of telling a lie they thought was harmless but turns out to have far reaching, devastating consequences.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

There’s a certain kind of news story that always grabs my attention. It has a headline that looks something like this: Local Kid Commits Bad or Horrible or Even Unspeakable Act.

When I read these stories or see them on the news I find myself asking the same questions every time: Who are these kids? What kinds of families are they growing up in? Who are their friends? What circumstances contributed to this moment in their lives when everything came undone?

As I writer, I think when you find yourself asking the same questions over and over again, you probably have something worth writing about.

Also, I think the public tends to write off these kids as bad seeds. But I always look at these stories as stories about good kids who have made bad choices, and there’s a difference there that I was interested in exploring with this book.

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

I started fleshing out the idea while I was editing my first novel, and I’d already sold another book to my publisher, so it all came down to convincing my editor that it could work out as my next project. As she tends to be, my editor was wonderfully supportive, and she asked all the good, tough questions.

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

Every book has it’s own set of challenges. I’d say the biggest challenge in this book was trying to make the three girls sympathetic.

I know some readers had a hard time finding it in themselves to feel sympathy for the girls after what they’d done. But I felt tremendous sympathy and empathy for all three characters, perhaps because I know how easily I could have been any one of them. Making mistakes, even big ones, is not the provenance of bad kids. Bad choices can happen to any of us.

What were the particular challenges to writing a novel in alternating point of view? What advice would you give to authors taking this approach?

The biggest challenge for me in writing three voices was making them sound distinct. At first I tried verbal tics, or little expressions or pauses or anything really that would make one sound different from the other, but all of those tricks in the end felt clumsy and fake.

The truth is that three girls who are the same age, who are growing up in the same town, who go to the same school, and who spend all their time together are going to sound alike, and there’s nothing I can do about that.

I realized their differences had to come out of their psychologies, their particular ways of looking at the world, informed by their unique histories. These differences are subtler, and I think it takes a little effort to get to know each girl by her voice, but it felt more honest this way I hope it pays off in the end.

Two things that Emma said particularly struck me:

(1) “…he pinched the skin on my elbow really hard because he knows that’s the one part of the human skin where we don’t have any real nerve endings” (I tried it; it doesn’t hurt at all!); and

(2) “Parents don’t want to know the truth. They just want to know that everything is perfect and that their children are smart and happy and popular and out of danger so they can concentrate on their own problems.” Obviously, this is Emma’s point of view, her perspective. But I do remember, as a teen, feeling that way. Did you see aspects of yourself reflected in any of the point-of-view characters? If so, would you like to share what they might be?

On (1): I know! It’s weird, right? No matter how hard you pinch it just doesn’t hurt. If you dig in with your fingernail, that’s another story.

On (2): I guess I’d say I agree with you. I also felt that conflict, that desire to somehow protect my parents from everything that went along with my inhabiting a real, more grown-up world. It’s strange, isn’t it? Why do we want to do that? Maybe it’s just part of separating. Or maybe that kind of lying is an essential step on the road to adulthood, and we just tell ourselves we’re protecting our parents when really what we’re doing is just carving out our own space in that new world.

Looking at this from the perspective of a parent (albeit as a parent to still quite little girls), it’s hard for me to imagine that I wouldn’t understand or even expect those very things to happen to my daughters that when I was a teenager I so carefully tried to protect my parents from.

Sophomore novels are often a struggle. How did you bounce back so quickly with another great story?

Geez. Thanks. Well, I sat down every day and made myself do the work. I tried not to think about how someday somebody other than me was likely to read the words I’d just written.

That’s the wonderful luxury of writing your first book. You don’t know if anyone is ever going to read it.

What has surprised you most about being a published author?

How little everything changes. How the actual publication of a book, I mean the day it hits the shelves, is a spectacular non-event. I don’t know what I expected, exactly, but I didn’t really expect a day like any other.

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

I’d rather, if I may, have that beginning writer travel to the future and talk to the present me. I’d have her tell me to try to write as if nobody, other than me, was ever going to read what I’m working on.

What do you do when you’re not in the book world?

Take the kids to school. Walk the dog. Cook. Shop for groceries. And chastise myself for not using my time better.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’ve had a new novel come out on May 27th, called How to Build a House (Wendy Lamb, 2008). It’s about a girl named Harper who spends a summer in rural Tennessee building a house for a family who lost theirs in a tornado, while sorting through her feelings about her own family’s demise.

Auden Media Launches New Book Packager

New York, New York–Auden Media Corporation, the parent company of Firebrand Literary, is pleased to announce the launch of a new company division, Tinderbox. Tinderbox is a book packager of superior quality, high-concept teen and middle grade fiction.

Tinderbox prides itself on offering more equitable terms to its writers than the traditional book packager, offering competitive splits of the advance, royalties and subrights. “We want to ensure that our writers are as invested financially as they are creatively,” says Nadia Cornier, who co-founded Tinderbox with Michael Stearns.

Tinderbox is a separate entity from Firebrand Literary. “Aside from shared office space and some personnel, the two companies—Tinderbox and Firebrand—will be completely distinct,” explains Michael Stearns. “The packager will work with other agencies’ writers while Firebrand’s authors will continue to receive the level of editorial development, dedicated advocacy, and marketing savvy that they’ve come to expect from the agency.”

The Tinderbox website will go live this fall, providing more detailed information for publishers and agents, featuring current and upcoming projects and functioning as a platform for in-house and co-operative marketing initiatives.

For interested parties, Tinderbox is not currently accepting writing samples from unagented authors, but welcomes inquiries and samples from agents on behalf of their clients. Tinderbox is developing all their properties in-house and will not consider original unsolicited stories, concepts or proposals. For more information on Tinderbox, please contact Nadia Cornier or Michael Stearns or visit

Author Interview: Jennifer O’Connell on Everything I Needed to Know About Being A Girl I Learned from Judy Blume

Everything I Needed To Know About Being a Girl, I Learned from Judy Blume by Jennifer O’Connell (Simon & Schuster, 2007). From the promotional copy: “Whether laughing to tears reading Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great or clamoring for more unmistakable “me too!” moments in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, girls all over the world have been touched by Judy Blume‘s poignant coming-of-age stories. Now, in this anthology of essays, twenty-four notable female authors write straight from the heart about the unforgettable novels that left an indelible mark on their childhoods and still influence them today. After growing up from Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing into Smart Women, these writers pay tribute, through their reflections and most cherished memories, to one of the most beloved authors of all time.”

Contributors include: Stacey Ballis; Meg Cabot; Laura Caldwell; Jennifer Coburn; Megan Crane; Lynda Curnyn; Kyra Davis; Elise Juska; Beth Kendrick; Julie Kenner; Stephanie Lessing; Cara Lockwood; Megan McCafferty; Sarah Mlynowski; Alison Pace; Kayla Perrin; Diana Peterfreund; Berta Platas; Laura Ruby (author interview); Melissa Senate; Shanna Swendson; and Lara Zeises.

Visit Jennifer O’Connell, and read her blog. Don’t miss her site, celebrating her YA novels, under the byline “Jenny O’Connell!”

How would you describe yourself as a teenager?

Very normal, no big problems, wasn’t one of those people who look back at high school and cringe. That said, I couldn’t wait to go to college. I remember reading a book in fifth grade, and in it, one of the characters’ brother went to Dartmouth–from that point on, I couldn’t wait to go to college.

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer? What helped you the most? What might you do differently, given the opportunity?

I didn’t always want to be a writer. I just had an idea and started writing, so my story is probably different from most writers’. But I have always loved to read, and still do. I would love to have had more formal training, I wasn’t even an English major in college because I hated being forced to read books I wasn’t interested in. What continues to help me the most is reading and being inspired by what I read.

What is it about young people as fictional heroes and/or as an audience that especially appeals to you?

When I sold my first teen book, I hadn’t even written it yet. So, when I sat down, I realized for the first time how limited writing for teens was. I was used to writing about adults, who can travel by themselves, have full-time jobs, do adult things.

All of a sudden I was confined to school and living with parents. But that’s a lot of what I love about writing for teens–you get to really focus on the characters and their thoughts and feelings about what is going on around them.

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

No, I have a relatively painless story. Started writing my first book on Nov. 6, 2002, had an agent in December, she sold my book in February, and it was on the shelves in August, 2003. It was so easy I couldn’t figure out what everyone was talking about when they said getting published was hard!

Then I had to write book #2, and I knew exactly what everyone was talking about. There was pressure and the worry I was repeating myself and the realization that if I was going to continue doing this every book was like starting over. It doesn’t necessarily get easier because you always want to be better.

Could you please update us on your recent YA back-list and/or current titles, highlighting as you see fit?

My first book was Plan B (MTV Books, 2006), and my second was The Book of Luke (MTV Books, 2007).

I have a new series coming out in June, called an An Island Summer Series. It was originally called “A Martha’s Vineyard Series,” but it was changed because a book buyer didn’t think enough people could relate to MV.

In any case, it’s a series but each book has a different main character, mentioned tangentially in the book before. As you can probably guess, the books take place on Martha’s Vineyard during the summer, and the main character is always an island girl, someone who grew up on the island and still lives there.

I had such a blast writing these books because I talked with real island teens about what it’s like to live there, what it’s like when your home is invaded by tens of thousands tourists in the summer. I go to Martha’s Vineyard every summer, and it made me look at the island in an entirely new way. The first two books, Local Girls (MTV Books) and Rich Boys (MTV Books) came out in June.

In what areas do you feel as though you must still push yourself?

I need to learn how to write. I wish I had time to take a class and hear how I should be doing it instead of flying by the seat of my pants. Every time I turn in a book, I wish I had another three months to work on it because I know there is more I can do with characters, scene setting, just better wording, etc. That said, I’m the kind of writer who needs a deadline to buckle down and write.

I wrote Local Girls and Rich Boys, start to finish, in less than six months. It was brutal (I also have a “real job,” so writing is squeezed in between travel for work, work, and family). Lesson learned, will never wait until the last minute again.

Congratulations on Everything I Needed to Know About Being A Girl I Learned from Judy Blume (Pocket Books, 2007)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

I had just sat down to write Plan B and was trying to figure out how a 36-year-old woman knew about being a 17 year old girl, and I thought, “Everything I needed to know about being a girl I learned from Judy Blume.”

I called my agent and told her I had an idea–contacted a bunch of writer friends to see if they’d like to contribute essays, and they jumped at it. Everyone had a story to tell and was so passionate about the topic. And so a book was born.

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

It was misleadingly easy. With every book, I find it’s harder, not the writing but the fear I’ll be repeating myself, that I’ve run out of things to say. The challenges are of two sorts: psychological and logistical. Getting over the fear that I suck and finding the time to write without ignoring my other grown-up responsibilities.

What has been the response from readers? From Judy herself?

Judy came to see me speak at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival last summer. She invited me and my family to her house, and we ended up hanging out with Judy and her husband for an afternoon. Quite surreal, hanging out with Judy Blume. She was wonderful and readers have been fantastic. It’s fun to conjure up childhood memories in readers.

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

Getting published isn’t nearly as hard as continuing to write books.

You also write fiction for grown-ups! How are the markets different?

Similar process, not that different. My fourth adult book was published last May (Insider Dating (NAL, 2007)), and I can’t say I’m anxious to get back to the world of adults just yet. I’m having too much fun with teens.

What do you do when you’re not in the book world?

I’m the Director of Business Development for the technology practice of an ad agency in Boston.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Local Girls and Rich Boys! Check out the trailer I put together (which was a blast):

Celebrating Vermont College of Fine Arts


Sale marks the beginning of Vermont College of Fine Arts;
Union Institute & University continues to serve students from the campus

Cincinnati, Ohio and Montpelier, Vt. – June 24, 2008 – Union Institute & University (UI&U) and Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) today announced they have completed the purchase agreement for the historic Vermont College campus and the three Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs located in Montpelier, Vermont. VCFA now owns and will operate the campus and three MFA programs as an independent institution. UI&U will continue to operate its bachelor’s and master’s programs, leasing offices and classrooms from VCFA.

Vermont College of Fine Arts and Union Institute & University have been working for two years to position VCFA to purchase the 33-acre campus and the MFA programs from UI&U. The $12.75 million project was made possible with funding from Community National Bank and National Bank of Middlebury, with a guarantee from USDA Rural Development, assistance by the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA), and $3.36 million in financing from Union Institute & University.

Vermont College of Fine Arts represents a new era for Vermont College, which has a history of more than 174 years of education in Vermont. VCFA has three low-residency MFA programs offering degree tracks in Writing, Writing for Children & Young Adults, and Visual Art. The college was recently granted affiliation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, as well as degree-granting authority from the Vermont State Board of Education. Vermont College of Fine Arts is the first new independent college formed in Vermont in 23 years, and the only institution of its kind—a low-residency graduate school devoted exclusively to fine arts education.

“We are thrilled to revive the Vermont College identity with a new graduate institution dedicated exclusively to the fine arts,” said VCFA president Thomas Christopher Greene, an alumnus of the MFA in Writing program. “This campus has been an integral part of education in Vermont for almost two centuries, and we want to honor that tradition as we build on its vibrant history. We look forward to expanding Vermont College of Fine Arts to become a true national center for the fine arts.” The Vermont College of Fine Arts negotiations were completed by President Greene and VCFA vice president Bill Kaplan, a community member and real estate/financial management professional.

“This is a great day for Montpelier,” said Bill Kaplan. “This campus has been an important part of the community for a long time, and we are all pleased that it will continue to be an educational center for Montpelier. This campus brings tremendous vitality and enrichment opportunities to central Vermont. The years ahead will be exciting as we work to make our dynamic vision of VCFA a reality.”

Union Institute & University acquired the Vermont College campus and programs from Norwich University of Northfield, Vermont, in 2001. UI&U enrolls more than 1700 students from across the nation in low-residency undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs in a variety of fields, from education and criminal justice to interdisciplinary doctoral programs in low-residency programs and from centers in Ohio, Florida, and California. More than 450 students are served through UI&U’s centers in Montpelier and Brattleboro.

“It is gratifying to have played a role in creating a new college of fine arts headed by Vermonters, surrounded by prestigious institutions offering multiple educational opportunities, and located in the heart of picturesque Montpelier,” said UI&U president, Dr. Roger H. Sublett. “Both VCFA and Union, in a spirit of determination and collaboration, have worked diligently to bring this ideal arrangement to fruition.”

Union Institute & University’s Board of Trustees, chaired by Vermont entrepreneur Lisa Lorimer, announced two years ago that it would sell the campus and programs in a strategic move to focus the university’s resources on programs and people rather than bricks and mortar. From the onset, UI&U’s Board of Trustees was insistent that the historic Montpelier campus continue to operate with an educational focus. Rather than sell to an outside entity, they elected to work toward selling it to Vermont College of Fine Arts.

“We look forward to continuing our collaboration with VCFA, and we wish them well as they take on the responsibility of operating a new college,” said Sublett. “This is something that has not occurred in Vermont for many years, and it is an exciting time for all of us who have the privilege of serving the citizens of Vermont.”

Speaking on behalf of Community National Bank, Regional Vice President Steve Gurin said, “This project is a collaboration among community members who recognize the important role ‘the college on the hill’ has played in Montpelier’s history. With a little creativity and a lot of cooperation, VEDA, USDA Rural Development and the National Bank of Middlebury joined with CNB to pull the financing together. Tom Greene and his staff at VCFA have spent nearly two years on this project, and I’m proud to be part of the team that finally got it done.”

VCFA currently has 250 students enrolled in three MFA programs, with 40 full-time employees and 60 part-time faculty. It has a national, 16-member Board of Trustees, including graduates of the MFA programs as well as community and business leaders from across the country. The Board includes seven Vermont residents: Peter Richardson of Burlington (Chair), Kathleen Dolan of Barnard, Con Hogan of Plainfield, Mary Hooper, Mayor of Montpelier, Syd Lea of Newbury, Katherine Paterson of Barre, and Richard Saudek of Montpelier. Kaplan and Greene both credit the staff, trustees, faculty, and alumni of the MFA programs for helping sustain this effort over the past two years.

In the past 18 months, VCFA has raised $725,000 from alumni and friends to support its transition to independence. This summer, Vermont College of Fine Arts will begin a strategic planning process to focus on several areas, including new academic programs, building upgrades, staffing, and new community programs. The institution plans to launch a larger capital campaign in 2009. “We now turn our sights to the future,” said Greene, “to building something enduring, meaningful and vital for the next generation of artists, writers and scholars to pass through our doors.”

The historic Vermont College campus, founded in 1868, is located at the intersection of East State and College Streets. In addition to Union Institute & University, which will continue to offer its Bachelor of Arts, Online Master of Arts, Master of Arts in Psychology & Counseling, and Master of Education programs, several other educational organizations will lease space from VCFA and maintain locations on the Vermont College campus, including New England Culinary Institute, Community College of Vermont, the Family Center of Washington County, T.W. Wood Gallery & Arts Center, Vermont Institutes, the New School of Montpelier, and the Pacem Learning Community. A separate non-profit organization, the Vermont College Campus Foundation, has been established to support the stewardship of the historic Vermont College campus.

Vermont College of Fine Arts is planning a Celebration Weekend to mark this transition on Oct. 4 and Oct. 5, 2008. This community celebration will be open to all–students, alumni, faculty, and staff of Vermont College of Fine Arts, as well as alumni/ae of past Vermont College programs, and members of the Montpelier community.

Author Interviews: Cynthia Leitich Smith

Guess who’s out and about on the Web? I’m honored to announce two new interviews:

(1) Cynthia Leitich Smith: An Interview with an Internet Icon & Legend from Mary Hershey and Robin LaFevers at Shrinking Violet Promotions.

Peek: “I enjoy the blogs as a way of ‘pajama outreach’–you don’t have to put on dry-clean-only clothes and get in the car/plane to do it. But it’s a personal choice. If you feel burdened by the idea of blogging, then you don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t). Put the energy into something that feeds you instead. On the other hand, if it sounds attractive, I recommend…”

(2) Cynthia Leitich Smith Interview from Carol at Bookluver–Carol’s Reviews.

Peek: “The purpose of that first draft is just to get to know the characters and their world, explore the themes, and so forth. The fact that it’s going to be trashed anyway takes a lot of pressure off. I can just write and see what happens.”

Please surf by and leave a comment or two!

Thank you Mary, Robin, and Carol!

Cynsational Notes

Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) goes on sale in soft cover next month–July 22, 2008! The back matter includes an excerpt from Eternal (Candlewick, 2009), told from the point of view of the female lead. Note: there also is a male lead, and the story is told in alternating points of view by those two characters.

I’m also happy to report that I’ve received sample pages for Eternal, which include the interior art elements, and they look gorgeous.

Author Interview: Debbi Michiko Florence on China: A Kaleidoscope Kids Book

Debbi Michiko Florence on Debbi Michiko Florence: “I was born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles. My parents were also born in California. I am a third-generation Japanese-American.

“In college, I majored in zoology and minored in English. I volunteered as a raptor rehabilitator, interned as a zoo keeper’s aide, managed a pet store, did a short stint at the Humane Society, and worked as the Associate Curator of Education at a zoo. I have shoveled a lot of poop in my lifetime!

“As an adult, I’ve lived in California, Michigan, Mexico, Massachusetts, New York, China, and now I’ve come full circle and am very happy to be back home in California! Yes, I’ve been a bit of a wanderer, but I’ve finally found a place in the world as a children’s writer, and I’m thrilled! I’m in this for the long haul!

What were you like as a young reader?

I’ve always loved to read. My dad read to me when I was very young. I loved making him read Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss–and he was good at those tongue twisters. My mom took my sister and me to the library for weekly visits.

I read a lot and often in elementary school, but I read for pleasure less in junior high and high school. Part of it was due to the load of assignments, but to be truthful, much of it was probably due to my social life. (Okay, I was slightly boy-crazy.)

Why did you decide to pursue a career as a children’s writer?

I have always loved to write stories, even if I didn’t share them with others. It wasn’t until I married my husband Bob and moved for his job to Mexico City, Mexico; that I was gifted with the opportunity to do anything I wanted to do.

So after years of dreaming about it, I started writing. I wrote travel articles for a webzine and three of my short stories were published in small literary journals/magazines. All of it was exciting, but it wasn’t until I started writing a novel for teens that I felt a huge burst of passion.

Plus, I have had a lot of experience working with kids from when I did classroom visits as a raptor rehabilitator, worked as an outdoor educator, taught fifth grade, and worked in the education department of a zoo. It’s a great way for me to combine my love of writing and my experience with children.

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

It’s a long, bumpy road! I was lucky to connect early with the writing community through SCBWI and to have a wonderful mentor (thank you, Cyn, I’m forever grateful) to help me stay on the path. I also read voraciously on the craft of writing for children and about the business.

I wrote three novels for teens. The first one received a form letter rejection, and I promptly shelved it. The second two received a bunch of really nice personal letters from editors, but they were all rejections. One editor even called me to tell me how much she liked my writing, but also to tell me she had to pass on it.

It wasn’t until my fourth novel that I caught the attention of my agent, Jennifer DeChiara. I’m thrilled to be her client, and I absolutely adore her! She’s in the process of submitting my YA novel now.

While I was living in Shanghai, China (again for my husband’s job); an editor mentioned to an author friend with whom I’d been in a critique group in New York that she was looking for someone to write a children’s book on China. My friend told her about me and the editor got in contact with my agent. After I wrote up an outline for the editor, I was offered a contract! Talk about a lucky sprint!

Congratulations on the publication of China: A Kaleidoscope Kids Book (Williamson Books, 2008)! Could you tell us about it?

Thank you! This book has over 40 hands-on/minds-on activities that help children experience the history, language, arts, food, holidays, and wildlife of China. Kids will learn some Mandarin phrases and words, make dumplings, and use chopsticks. They’ll learn about China’s fascinating inventions like fireworks and the compass and they’ll “travel” to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

I had a blast learning about all of these things and it’s exciting to be able to share them with kids. There are fun illustrations by Jim Caputo and color photographs (a few taken by me).

How did you come to write the book?

As I mentioned above, my friend, author Nancy Castaldo was speaking to an editor at Williamson Books. Nancy has written many great activity books about nature and the environment. When the editor mentioned her interest in a book on China, Nancy sang my praises as a writer and explained that I was living in Shanghai.

After a few conversations with the editor and after writing an outline, I was offered a contract! I think it helped that I had an agent and a background in education.

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

I spoke to the editor for the first time in April of 2006. I signed the contract in the fall of the same year. I researched and wrote the book, created activities to go with the text, and submitted the completed manuscript to my editor in January of 2007. I also had my daughter test all of the activities.

My editor sent me revision requests and edits throughout the spring. In June and then again in early fall, I read, proofed, and suggested changes to the manuscript. I believe the book went to print in mid-fall and the book was published and released in February of 2008.

Whew! It was all very fast for me!

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

The biggest challenge for me was that after years of studying children’s fiction, I knew very little about writing nonfiction. I had a crash course!

My book was to be the first Kaleidoscope Kids book in the series since Ideals bought Williamson Books, so while my editor sent me previously published books from the series to study, I understood that my book would have a completely different look and feel to it. I didn’t have a word count and other than my outline, no other guidance on what to write or how to write it. I was pretty much on my own! A very scary thing!

I wanted to make sure to get my facts right. I worried about that a lot. I was lucky that I was able to visit many of the places I wrote about. My Mandarin teacher helped me out tremendously by fact-checking my manuscript (particularly the Mandarin) and helping me interview kids in China for one section of my book.

I had the most fun and the easiest time coming up with the activities for the book. I had a lot of experience with that as an educator, particularly when for five years, I ran a successful summer camp at the zoo where I worked.

I over-researched and overwrote, but as my editor said, it was easier for her to cut text than have me add text. A big challenge for me was to pick and choose what I was going to write about, because there are so many fascinating things about China! My editor was very hands-on, and she did a great job of rearranging the text into kid-friendly chunks.

I’m very pleased with the end result, and I learned a lot from writing this book.

Do you work with a critique partner or group, with your agent or editor only? What is your approach, and how does it work for you?

I do a combination of all of the above. For my novels, I work with my writing group – the WWa WWas, Jo Knowles (author interview) and Cindy Faughnan.

We three have found the perfect chemistry and balance. We work together daily– logging onto a chat program and checking in every 15 minutes. We do not chit chat (although we might start or end our work day with chatter) and we’re very focused. Checking in every 15 minutes with word count (or whatever it is we’re doing) keeps us from goofing off, because we feel very guilty if we answer with, “Er, um, I was checking email/LiveJournal.” We started doing this while I was living in China (partly because I was so lonesome), and we found that it worked well for us.

We also exchange full manuscripts with one another. I have a couple of other critique partners that I was exchanging manuscripts with when the timing is right, but the WWa WWas are always my go-to group! There is zero jealousy between us. A success for one of us feels like success for all of us. At least once a year, we get together for a weekend writing retreat. (They live on the opposite coast from me.) I wish we could get together every weekend because they energize me!

I never submit to my agent until I feel my work is ready to be seen by an editor. My agent will let me know if it’s ready or if I need to work on it some more, but so far, with the exception of a few copy edits, I’ve not had to revise for her.

With the China book, I worked only with my editor and did not use my critique group. I showed a few early pages of my manuscript to Nancy Castaldo since she has a lot of experience writing these kind of books, and once she gave me the thumbs up, I wrote, revised, and sent to my editor. We went back and forth on revisions for about three months.

I also have a big support group of writer friends. We email and talk on the phone. We brainstorm, we commiserate, and we encourage. I couldn’t survive without the generosity and friendship of this writing community!

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

“Be patient and don’t compare yourself to others.” In fact, I still repeat those words to myself regularly.

You also have an active Web presence. Where and what can we find from you online?

I have a web site where I interview children’s authors regularly. I update the site at least once a month. You can also find information about me and my books there. My site was designed by the fabulous Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys.

I also have a blog on LiveJournal. It’s a mix of my writing life, my reading life, and my personal life. I also cheer on other children’s authors. I post almost daily! It’s hard to shut me up!

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Spend quality time with my family; read; watch TV or DVDs; take my dog, Trixie, for walks; meet up with friends for coffee or lunch; shop! I also love to travel with my family. Taking my daughter to Japan a couple of years ago was a huge highlight!

What can your fans look forward to next?

Japan: A Kaleidoscope Kids Book (Williamson Books) should be out summer 2009. It’s my second book for the series, and I’m very excited about it!

Cynsational News, Links & Giveaways

Enter to win a signed copy of the Australian edition of Missing Girl by Norma Fox Mazer (Allen & Unwin, 2008)(published in the U.S. by HarperCollins, 2008)!

From the promotional copy: “This is the story of five sisters. Beauty longs for love. Mim holds a secret tightly. Stevie is tempestuous and impulsive. Fancy talks too much and understands too little. And Autumn, the youngest sister, struggles to discover who she is. None of the Herbert girls is aware of the mild-looking man who has become obsessed with them–until the day one sister doesn’t come home.”

“Mazer’s latest novel would give Alfred Hitchcock a run for his money.” –Kirkus Reviews

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll for address) with your name and snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST June 23! Please also type “Missing Girl” in the subject line.

In other news, the winner of a signed copy of The Juliet Club by Suzanne Harper (Greenwillow, 2008) is Anna in Louisiana!

The quote she submitted was from Romeo & Juliet, Act 3, Scene 1. “No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but ’tis enough,’ twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”

Read a Cynsations interview with Suzanne.


The Cynsations grand-prize June giveaway is an autographed hardcover set of First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover (Dutton, 2007) and First Daughter: White House Rules (Dutton, 2008), both by Mitali Perkins. Read a Cynsations interview with Mitali.

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll for address) with your name and snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST June 30! Please also type “First Daughter” in the subject line. Note: one autographed set will be awarded to any Cynsations YA reader.

Also, check out Mitali’s recent post–Why Are Children’s Books Still So White? at The Fire Escape–and comment her with your theories on the answer.

In celebration of summer reading, I’m giving away autographed sets of 25 Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) bookmarks to five YA public librarians.

One of those mailings also will include a copy of the Tantalize audio, and one will include a Sanguini’s T-shirt (Sanguini’s is the fictional vampire restaurant in the book). Due to popular response, I may add another T-shirt and audio.

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll for address) with your name, the name of your library, and the library snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST June 30! Please also type “Summer Reading” in the subject line. Note: prizes will be sent on a rolling basis.

More News, Links, & Giveaways

Thanks for the positive response to this week’s Cynsations interview with author Brian James! Good news: you can learn more about him in another interview, this one from Imperial Beach Teens of the Imperial Beach Library (Imperial Beach, California)! Plus, this month, the IBTs are giving away copies of both of Brian’s new releases Zombie Blondes and Thief! Peek: [On surviving the teen years] “I was very confused, angry and scared most of the time and the way I handled that was do a lot of stupid things. I often look back and realize that it’s a near miracle I survived.”

The book wot I wrote by Stephanie Merritt from The Guardian. Peek: “The growth of celebrity fiction in both the adult and children’s markets has led to a wider acknowledgement of the ghostwriter, who has partially come in from the cold; celebrities, their publishers and those who buy their books are quite knowingly and willingly colluding in a kind of illusion.” Source: April Henry. Note: hugs to every author who’s kept a chin up at their vacant book signing while folks lined up for the celebrity “author’s” autograph.

LOL Cat Contest To Win Spiderwick DVD Books from Holly Black. Holly says: “I have been given six copies of the Spiderwick Chronicles DVD by the good folks at Paramount. I also have one Collector’s Trunk with the five original Spiderwick chapter books and the notebook bundled inside.” Deadline June 29. See more information.

“Today’s After-School Special: Sales Peer Pressure” from Editorial Anonymous. Peek: “In my experience, it’s mostly commonly a combination of authorial hubris and publisher gutlessness.” See also Everyone! (Translation: No One!).

“Just the Facts?” by Don Brown at I.N.K. Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: “…the trick still is to winnow a meaningful story to about 1500 words–I don’t believe kids will sit still for more–without sacrificing narrative drive and in a manner that doesn’t substitute fluff for meat.” See also “Creative Nonfiction at Its Best” by Kathleen Krull.

Call for Submissions: Carnival of Children’s Literature: Fathers in Children’s Literature from Susan Taylor Brown at Susan Writes (author interview). Deadline June 21. Peek: “In honor of Father’s Day I chose fathers in children’s literature. What father or father figure has stood out in your mind long after you closed the pages of the book?” See more information. Note: Susan’s novel, Hugging the Rock (Tricycle, 2006, 2008)(excerpt), is now available in paperback! Read a Cynsations interview with Susan.

Do You Have a Plot? from Nathan Bransford – Literary Agent. Peek: “…in my opinion, there is absolutely one thing every writer should start with before they begin writing. And that’s a plot.” Note: I would say “character.” Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan. See also Can I Get a Ruling on Pitch Sessions?

Huge Giveaway: Amanda at A Patchwork of Books is giving away five copies of Mary E. Pearson‘s The Adoration of Jenna Fox (Henry Holt, 2008). Read a Cynsations interview with Mary about the novel.

Writing Children’s Nonfiction Books for the Educational Market: an upcoming online workshop scheduled for July 22 to Aug. 22 from Laura Purdie Salas. Laura says: “…walks you through the entire assignment-hunting process, so that at the end of the month, you are ready to send out your packet to selected educational publishers. And you’ll know what to expect and how to proceed when you receive an assignment.” See details and student comments. Learn more about Laura’s nonfiction.

Pay the Toll for [Author-Editor] Jill Santopolo from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “I made myself a rule when I started writing that home time was writing time, and office time was editing time. I’ve pretty much stuck to that, though a lot of times it means working pretty late in the office to make sure that all my editing work is done before I head home to write.” Note: Jill and I will be leading a workshop at Austin SCBWI’s upcoming “A Day with an Editor”–see more information below.

Eric Carle’s Colorful World of Children’s Books from All Things Considered/NPR. Peek: “Carle’s familiar characters were inspired largely by the fox holes, spider webs, bugs and animals that he found exploring castles as a child in Stuttgart, Germany.” Note: don’t miss the accompanying slide show! Source: Laurie Halse Anderson.

Y.A. New York: a site dedicated to young adult literature. Peek: “Here in this big city of YA, I’ll be reviewing YA fiction, interviewing YA writers, covering YA events in New York City, and bringing you the latest YA news.” Note: coverage with not to limited to NY-based authors.

Night Road by A.M. Jenkins (HarperCollins, 2008): a recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith of GregLSBlog. Peek: “For years, Cole has held himself aloof from the community, but now he’s called back to handle an “accident:” an accidentally-created and newly-formed heme named Gordo.” Read Cynsations interviews with Greg and A.M. Jenkins.

2009 Newbery and Caldecott Predictions – Halfway Mark by Elizabeth Bird of A Fuse #8 Production at School Library Journal. Note: I’m rooting for The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum, 2008). Full Disclosure: it’s dedicated to me (and Greg).

More Gifts for Readers and Writers by Cheryl Rainfield from Cheryl Rainfield: Avid Reader, Teen Fiction Writer, and Book-a-holic. All Things Books, With a Focus on Children’s and Teen Fiction. Note: shopping anyone?

Interview with Sundee T. Frazier from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “I knew the main character was biracial, with a black dad and a white mom, but the character actually started as a girl. Yep, Brendan Buckley was originally Brenda Buckley!”

Silhouettes and Stock Photos – Ho, Hum by Alison Morris from Shelftalker: A Children’s Bookseller’s Blog from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “My biggest problem with all of them [silhouette covers] is the fact they look almost completely interchangeable. They smack of covert operations or fugitive outlaws, but in a very generic, rather uninteresting sense.”

Getting a Second Opinion by Allison Winn Scotch at Ask Allison. Peek: “Book editors and doctors don’t come cheap…and if they do, you better do an ample background check on them to figure out why they’re so cheap.”

“Bad Writing Days” by Justine Larbalestier at Justine Larbalestier: Writing, Reading, Eating, Drinking, Sport. Peek: “When we are in that kind of state it’s best not to remind us that the day before we thought it was the best book ever written. All you can do is nod and smile and make sympathetic noises and offer us food or liquid we find particularly comforting.”

Illustrating Ron’s Big Mission Cover by Don Tate at Devas T. Rants and Raves. Peek: “This style is somewhat realistic, yet stylized enough to offer some grace where my realism is off.” Read a Cynsations interview with Don.

Salina Bookshelf is now at MySpace! Read a Cynsations interview with editor Jesse Ruffenach of Salina Bookshelf.

The Best Job in the World by Tanya Lee Stone at I.N.K.: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: “How about this: A gentleman and his wife approach you a few minutes before your event is to begin. They definitely look like they have something to say, and I definitely don’t know them. The man is looking at me with a small smile and a twinkle in his eye. The woman says: We heard about your book on the radio (further evidence of the Flying Pig’s Awesomeness!) and had to come. She motions to the man still quietly standing by her side. My husband here is…are you ready for it…”

Recommended Reading: Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway with Elizabeth Stuckey-French (Longman, 2006) from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “This is the book you keep at your desk. It is a reference book, with chapters on the process, in general, form and structure, showing and telling, building character, place and time, point of view, comparison, theme, and revision.” Note: this is a new feature at the Tollbooth; “Each month, we will recommend excellent craft books that we think will help you on your journey.”

Three Books for Teens Who Hate to Read by Amber Gibson from NPR. Peek: “For girls who think Cosmopolitan constitutes summer reading, I recommend Melissa Walker‘s Violet on the Runway. Let’s be honest–even the most tomboyish girls dream of being a supermodel, and this book provides an exclusive view at life on the runway.” Check out the other two picks; here’s a hint: read a Cynsations interview with Jay Asher.

In Memory

Tasha Tudor, 92; children’s book illustrator and author known for delicate artwork by by Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer from Los Angeles Times. Excerpt: “Tasha Tudor, a children’s book illustrator and author whose delicate and dreamy artwork was featured in about 80 books, including a 1944 edition of ‘Mother Goose’ that was so successful it enabled her to buy a farm and create a lifestyle rooted in the early 19th century, has died. She was 92.”

Attention Austinites

BookWoman (5501 North Lamar #A-105, between North Loop and Koenig Lane) is hiring a part-time bookseller. Peek: “We are looking for a committed and energetic feminist who loves her local feminist bookstore and loves books (especially by and about women) and is able to talk about them, who works well with and around people, has excellent customer service skills, is self-motivated, hard-working, as well as detail-oriented; and has the ability to multi-task — including data entry, publisher interface, and store upkeep.” Application deadline: June 23. See more information.

Slumber Party @ Teen Fest: April Lurie (author interview)(MySpace), Jennifer Ziegler (author interview)(MySpace), and Cynthia Leitich Smith will join forces in a “lively, intimate discussion about books and writing for teen girls” at noon Aug. 2 at Carver Branch Library/Austin Public Library in Austin, Texas. The event will include a book signing, “games, snacks, beauty tips, and even a passionate reading contest. Pajamas and pillows optional!”

Austin SCBWI‘s “A Day with an Editor” featuring Jill Santopolo, author and senior editor at Laura Geringer/HarperCollins, and Cynthia Leitich Smith will be Sept. 13. “Mark your calendars now and prepare to register early as this event is expected to be a sellout. Registrations will open around July 1, and registration forms will be available at Austin SCBWI.” Note: Jill is interested in literary novels, quirky middle grades, and picture books. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College and is the author of Alec Flint, Super Sleuth: The Nina, The Pinta and the Vanishing Treasure (Scholastic/Orchard, 2008). Don’t miss today’s new interview with Jill at Through the Tollbooth.

More Personally

Thanks to Donna Gephart for highlighting Cynsations among “Some Blogs to Check Out…” in The Sand Scoop: The Official Newsletter of the SCBWI Florida Chapter! Read a Cynsations interview with Donna.

My main site at will be off-line June 28 due to server relocation.

In the wake of the Myanmar cyclone and China earthquake, the U.S. Midwest is being hit hard by a 500-year flood, and the American Red Cross is short on funds. Please consider donating.


Question of the Week Thursday: Heather Brewer from Robin Friedman’s JerseyFresh Tude. Robin asks: “What has it been like to experience the enormous success of your new series?”

On a related note: “This video is about what it’s like to be Heather Brewer’s son.”

Author Interview: Brian James on Zombie Blondes

Brian James on Brian James: “I was born in Virginia on January 7, 1976. I never really knew my real father, he and my mother split up when I was one year old.

“My mom was only 19 when I was born, and she raised me and my older brother by herself for the first few years of my life. We moved around a lot, living with family. We moved in with her boyfriend when I was four and stayed there for two years. He was really abusive, and I think that shaped a lot of my impressions at the time. She finally left him and ended up marrying my step-father shortly after.

“My step-father was great, and with him, we more or less lived the suburban life. I ended up with two sisters and two more brothers.

“Being in a big family often meant going unnoticed, which left me a lot of time to figure things out on my own…both good and bad. There were a lot of ups and downs, and things going on that confused me. I guess even as a little kid, I tended to work those out by telling myself stories…which naturally progressed into writing them down.

“In high school, I never took much interest in writing or reading. Not until I was 16 or 17. At that point, I made a new best friend who really turned me on to books and kept giving more and more things to read. I ended up senior year in high school taking mostly English classes and loving it. I moved to New York City with I was 18, and I ended up majoring in English Literature at NYU.

“I never took a creative writing class of any kind, I always assumed I’d learn more about how to write effectively by studying great books and then developing a style without anyone’s help so that it would be unlike anyone else. I also studied psychology, which I found very helpful. Learning why people act the way they do to certain situations gave me a new insight on developing characters.

“Most of my early influences were music. I’ve a been huge fan of music since I was little, and since I didn’t read for pleasure until I was 16 or so, song lyrics were the biggest influence on me at first. Kurt Cobain, Axl Rose, Syd Barrett, when I was starting, and even today Elliot Smith, John Frusciante and others. There are also a lot of authors that influenced my writing, William Burroughs, Irvine Welsh, Lewis Carroll, and John Fante.

“I published my first book when I was 23 and have since published four novels and about ten children’s books. I have three more novels planned over the next two years and about ten more children’s books.

“I lived in New York for ten years before moving to the Catskill region in upstate New York two years ago.”

How would you describe yourself as a teenager?

Others would have said I was a freak. I never thought so. But being overtly punk in a suburban town in the early ’90s was a good way to get labeled “freak.” I wasn’t quiet about it either. I lashed out quite a bit. Looking back on it all, I would say I was definitely troubled. In a lot of ways, it’s pretty amazing I survived past the age of eighteen.

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer? What helped you the most? What might you do differently, given the opportunity?

I was always interested in writing. But all through high school and college, I only ever shared any of it with a few select friends. I was always too embarrassed to show anyone else.

Because of that experience of really developing my style in isolation, I think I’ve been able a pretty unique way of writing. But it also stunted my editorial skills quite a bit.

Thankfully, I made the smart decision to take an internship in the editorial department of a major publishing house during my senior year of college. There I learned a lot about how writing is shaped into something great. I applied what I learned to my own writing after that.

If I could do it all over again, I think would’ve tried to be more open to other peoples’ suggestions and criticisms earlier on in my development.

What is it about young people as fictional heroes and/or as an audience that especially appeals to you?

As far as character is concerned, I think young protagonists are exciting. There’s opportunity to create emotionally dynamic characters whose actions would be less believable when projected onto an adult character.

As for an audience, I think teens are great for the same reason. They’re really open to understanding different points of view. I also think they respond to a work of fiction on much more personal level sometimes, and as a writer, it’s great to know your work has real meaning to its readers.

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

It was pretty much a sprint all the way. My first novel was sold when I was 23. I got extremely lucky. Having worked in publishing, I had a few connections that worked out quite well.

Could you please update us on your recent back-list and/or current titles, highlighting as you see fit?

I have another novel that is coming out around the same time. It’s a book called Thief (Scholastic 2008). It’s about a girl in NYC foster care who steals for her guardian. It’s a companion book to a novel I wrote years ago called Tomorrow, Maybe (Scholastic, 2003). It’s the second time I’ve done a companion set, where a character from one book goes on to narrate a later book. It was interesting to revisit a character after such a long break, but it came well.

I also just finished a new manuscript called The Heights, a modern reworking of Wuthering Heights, that should come out next year.

How have you grown as a writer over time? What do you see as your strengths? In what areas do you feel as though you must still push yourself?

I think as an artist, it’s important to keep improving and pushing yourself. My strength has always been voice and making a character feel real.

I’ve always been more excited about language and character more than plot, and, therefore, that’s the area that I always have to work hardest on. I usually rework a plot outline several times before I write a story. Zombie Blondes is really the first book of mine that has plot at the forefront, and it was really fun for me to work on it because of that.

Congratulations on the release of Zombie Blondes (Feiwel & Friends, June 2008)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

Sure. It’s sort of my take on a horror novel. I wanted to write a horror novel that felt extremely real. So the main character Hannah isn’t unlike the characters of my previous books, which would fall into the realistic fiction genre. She’s a girl who moves around a lot and has trouble fitting in wherever she goes. The book deals with a lot of the normal problems of being in high school, but Hannah has the unfortunate luck to happen upon a school attended primarily by zombies who are very clever and devious when it comes to hiding themselves.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The initial inspiration actually came from Jean Feiwel. I’d worked with her in the past, and she had come up with the title Zombie Blondes but without a story. She got in touch and asked if I had any ideas.

I loved the title right away, but at first it seemed so far out of the range of what I normally write. But then the idea stuck around and the story started to take shape in my mind. I envisioned it as a cross between the movies “Heathers” (1989) and “The Lost Boys” (1987).

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

We started discussing the idea in the summer of 2006, and I wrote the book that fall and winter. There wasn’t much time between then and now, since it was an idea conceived together with the publisher.

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

The main literary challenge to the book was figuring out how to capture the intensity of the scary scenes. Movies have the luxury of using music and quick camera cuts to shock the audience. I had to figure out a way to do that in a novel.

As for research, I lived most of it. I had recently moved from New York City to a small town in the middle of nowhere (which bears a strong resemblance to the town in the book). So Hannah’s feelings were based heavily on my own.

So, I’m curious… Do you have a particularly intriguing history with zombies? Blondes? Both?

The zombies were based some images I’d been looking out by different artists and the songs of Roky Erickson. There are a couple of hidden nods to him in the book.

The zombies also represent a lot of my personal opinions about our society, and in that sense, I’m sorry to say, we all have experience with zombies.

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

I would try to focus on smaller themes. I used to set out to write an epic every time I sat down. Because of that, and my lack of experience, I often got lost in the story and let it spiral out of control.

What advice do you have for YA horror novelists?

Remember that sometimes the scariest things are realistic. If you can capture the horror of the everyday moments, then it magnifies the actual horror elements of the story.

What do you do when you’re not in the book world?

I’m music junkie. I have a CD collection numbering in the thousands. So I’m always searching for new finds and listening to library I have.

What can your fans look forward to next?

My new novel, The Heights, which I mentioned earlier. I’ve also started another horror story that focuses on the survivors a plague. And I’ve been kicking around another story idea about a former child star who’s self-destructing in his teen years.