Author Feature: Kersten Hamilton

Kersten Hamilton on Kersten Hamilton: “I was born in a trailer in High Rolls, New Mexico, in 1958. My parents, who were not very practical people, neglected to go to the hospital or inform anyone of my arrival, so some Official Document Confusion existed for a long time as to the exact year and date.

“By my sixth birthday, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a writer. I was fascinated by the sound of words, the sweep of story. I wanted to make word-magic and tuck it inside the covers of a book.

“A writer, of course, needs something to write about. Fortunately, my impractical parents were also quite eccentric. My childhood can only be described as ‘exciting.'”

“I tracked caribou and arctic wolves across my family’s homestead in Alaska, caught tiny tree frogs in the swamps and rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, and chased dust devils and rattlesnakes across the high desert of New Mexico.

“Against all odds, I survived. I was not electrocuted or drowned. Most of the bullets missed, and the incidents with bears, snakes, wolves, and angry moose were not fatal.

“Before settling down to have children I worked as a ranch hand, a wood cutter, a lumberjack, a census taker, a wrangler for wilderness guides, and an archaeological surveyor.

“Now that my children are all grown and off on their own adventures, I write full time.”

Would you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer? How did you develop your skills?

For me there are two equal–and equally difficult–parts to being a writer. The first is having something real to say. Being a writer is about telling the truth, even when it is ugly or scary. That takes courage. If I am not up to that challenge, I might as well put my laptop down and walk away.

The second is having the skill to say it in such away that readers sit up and take notice. This is hard work. I tell people that becoming a writer will take as much time and commitment as becoming a doctor. At least eight years of education. The difference is, most writers create their own coursework. They write everyday. They study the masters, new and old, every day. The learning never stops.

Right now the masters I am studying include Flannery O’Connor, Neil Gaiman, and Eiichiro Oda, creator of my current favorite manga, One Piece.

How was your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

“Sprints and stumbles” would about cover it!

A stumble: Early in my career being so hurt by a revisions request that I never sent the book back.

A stumble: Tripped over my ego and fell flat on my face when I expected the publishing world to change to accommodate my stories, no matter how long my picture books or how short my novels. It does not matter how wonderful your work is, if it will not fit the format, it will not be published.

A sprint: Finally understanding that books have a physical body and physical limitations–and consequently selling two picture books in one day!

A sprint: Learning when to break the rules. A few of my first picture books were in rhyme, and they followed the often stated “rule” of children’s books: perfect meter, perfect rhyme. But one day, I decided to write about firefighters. Perfect meter and rhyme did not work for this story. They made it feel too light. The story cried out for something more dramatic. So I broke the rules. I used slant rhyme:

…Through the dark
through the smoke,
a bright red hat,
a yellow coat…

The book sold through its first print run quickly, and was picked up by Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. There are now about 200,000 copies in print.

Would you update us on your back-list titles, highlighting as you see fit?

I can tell you about some of my books, and why I wrote them.

Rockabye Rabbit, illustrated by Saundra Winokur (Cool Kids Press, 1995) was the story of a homeless boy. I wrote it because I experienced homelessness both as a small child and as a teenager. It was a subject that was near to my heart. Unfortunately, Cool Kid’s Press went out of business only two months after the book was printed. Now it is a homeless book, with lost and lonely copies wandering the world.

The Butterfly Book: A Kids Guide to Attracting, Raising, and Keeping Butterflies (John Muir Publications, 1997).

When I was ten years old, I killed a butterfly. I didn’t mean to kill it—in fact, I was trying to save it. I had collected a chrysalis before it could be destroyed along with a pile of weeds. I knew it was alive because it twitched when I touched it.

When the chrysalis grew stiff and stopped twitching, I thought it was dead. I cracked it open to see what had happened to it. The chrysalis was full of soupy green-brown goo. I thought the caterpillar had rotted.

When I researched it, I found out that inside the mummy–like chrysalis–a caterpillar’s flesh and organs dissolve. It turns into a living soup! The few cells that remain together carry the blueprint for an adult butterfly. The caterpillar soup reforms around these groups of cells into the wings, legs and body of an adult.

I went on to raise many healthy butterflies, and thirty years later, I wrote The Butterfly Book in memory of the butterfly I killed. It is used in classrooms across the nation. I hope it saves tens of thousands of butterfly lives.

This is the Ocean, illustrated by Lorianne Siomades (Boyds Mills Press, 2001) describes the water cycle in lyric poetry. Science, music, and poetry have beauty, order, and structure in common. I was mixing them in unit studies as I homeschooled my children the year I wrote This is the Ocean.

Lorianne Siomades’ torn paper art was not at all how I pictured the subject. But I adore it, especially the purple mountain goats!

This is the Ocean has recently experienced a jump in sales. I expect this is a side effect of the concern about global warming.

Firefighters to the Rescue!, illustrated by Rich Davis (Viking, 2005.) I wrote my “rule-breaking book” because I saw a curly-headed little boy in a preschool parking lot beside a shiny new fire truck. He was bouncing in place, as excited on the outside as I was on the inside! I wanted to share that excitement with lots and lots and lots of little boys…and that is just what has happened!

Rich Davis did a wonderful, complex job on the retro illustrations. I like to challenge readers to find Rich’s sly nod to his favorite movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Congratulations on the release of Red Truck, illustrated by Valeria Petrone (Viking, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

Thank you! I love this book. It is the “youngest” picture book I have written. It is for three–year–old boys who love trucks and adventure.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This is such a short text—just 106 words—that very small things are important. Not just words—the sound of individual letters and letter combinations. The whole book was it was “sparked” by the sounds inside the title words: “red truck.” I love the repetition of the R’s; the almost hard D and the hard CK sounds. I like the way it feels to say them, I like the way they settled in my ears. They were fun, fun sounds and grew into a fun, fun book!

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

Red Truck might not be the best example of my creative process. Sometimes a book hits like lightning, and a story is burned in your mind. Red Truck was a lightning book. It was fast, and came out just right the first time. I think it took a whole week to sell.

That sounds nice, but recovering from a lighting strike is not easy. If there is one guarantee in the writing universe, it is this: after a lightning strike, the next book will not be easy.

My next picture book was hard fought, one painful word at a time, revision after revision. It took me weeks to get the first draft down, revision after revision to get the final draft right.

What did Valeria Petrone‘s illustrations bring to your text?

Atmosphere and drama through the color palette that she chose, a sense of place and character through the depiction of the fantastically fun truck driver, a child-like friendliness in the subtle expressions on the truck. That was needed to offset the gritty text. I love every bit of what Valeria did. I think she was the perfect illustrator for this book.

You write for both the mainstream and Christian markets. How do they differ?

Good question. There is very good writing and very bad writing in both markets, of course. I think the greatest difference would be in marketing and promotion strategies.

Library-and-school sales and school visits are the bread and butter of mainstream children’s writers. In many places, public schools and libraries will not purchase books published by Christian book houses or consider authors published in the Christian market for school visits.

I find it ironic that two kinds of books get banned from school libraries: books with graphic language and/or sexual content and Christian books.

Christian writers do have some opportunities that are not open to authors of mainstream books. There are hundreds of Christian radio programs that are happy to do author interviews. This is an excellent way to reach homeschooling parents, who buy a lot of books.

You have written eight books in the Millie Keith series (A Life of Faith/Mission Press, Zonderkidz, 2001-)(scroll to view). How did the series come to be?

In 1999, Mission City Press gave me a marvelous opportunity—they asked me to write a series of novels based on characters created by Martha Finley, a Christian writer of the late 1800’s.

I was delighted by the challenge, but a little worried that ladies of the Victorian age would be boring.

I turned to diaries and historical documents to find out. It turns out they weren’t all prim and proper, sitting in parlors sipping tea. Some wrote books. Some challenged injustice. Some traveled the world alone. Three of the women I read about became the real–life models for the new adventures of Millie Keith.

Sarah and Angelina Grimke, daughters of a Southern judge and plantation owner, laid down their wealthy lifestyle, their social standing, and the respect of “proper” society to fight slavery.

Victorian ladies were not supposed to notice “indelicate” things such as the way slaves were treated. When Sarah and Angelina not only noticed but stood up and spoke against slavery, their lives were threatened. They were warned not return to the South. They were thrown out of two Christian denominations for being so bold! The Grimkes became suffragettes as well as abolitionists, fighting for the rights of women to have an education, to speak about social injustice, and to vote. Thousands of women attended their lectures; tens of thousands read their pamphlets and articles.

Isabella Bird’s travels began in the 1840’s, when she was hardly more than a teenager. Her father, an English pastor, sent his brilliant daughter to the Americas to report on the state of Christianity there. Isabella, a young lady of culture and refinement, traveled alone and loved it. She eventually became a world traveler, who wrote wonderful books.

Have you written any other books for the press? If so, could you tell us about them?

Yes. I wrote a young slave girl, Laylie Colbert, into the Millie Keith books. The editors liked Laylie so much they asked me to write a book about her. That book became Laylie’s Daring Quest.

Laylie lived well before the Civil War, during the harshest of the slavery years. To capture the attitudes of the day, I read pro–slavery sermons and apologetics, anti–slavery sermons and Abolitionist papers, diaries and memoirs of plantation owners and southern whites, and hundred of slave narratives.

I have never cried so hard researching or writing a book. I hope it opens minds and changes hearts. Writing it changed my life.

You’ve also published four books in the Caleb Pascal & the Peculiar People Series (Standard, 2007-). Could you tell us how the series came to be?

The story of the Caleb series is a good counterpoint to the lightning-like creation and sale of Red Truck. It was both slow and difficult.

In writing Laylie’s Daring Quest, I presented other people’s pain. In writing Caleb, I exposed my own.

Thomas Wolfe said, “The deepest search in life, it seemed to me, the thing that in one way or another was central to all living, was man’s search for a father, not merely the father of his flesh, not merely the lost father of his youth, but the image of a strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his hunger, to which the belief and power of his own life could be united.”

Wolfe touched on a literary archetype than runs through all cultures, and all times: The orphan, searching for what he has lost. It will be told a million times in a million voices, from Moses to Oliver Twist to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter, and loved every time it is told well.

Caleb, Son of None is the story of my orphan heart.

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

The original story took months to work itself out of me, like a thorn coming out slowly from deep in my flesh. And when it was out, and when it was right…it didn’t sell. For ten years, it didn’t sell. Sometimes the market isn’t quite ready for a book. And then, something changes.

When Standard signed for Caleb Son of None, they wanted three more books about Caleb. And they wanted all three in twelve months. Fortunately, the tight schedule of the Millie books and the painful honesty of the Laylie story had been a good school for me.

What advice do you have for picture book writers?

Get out your boots and Indiana Jones whip. It’s time to blaze a path through no man’s land, between oral tradition and the written word. Your readers are sophisticated thinkers and storytellers who lack only reading skills. Learning to track those letters across the page is one of the most difficult things they will ever do. Use every tool and skill you have to make sure it is a thrilling journey and that the payoff at the end makes the hard work worthwhile.

Dip into child psychology and emergent-reader studies. If your latest contact with that world was Piaget, who believed that a preschool child could not follow a narrative, or “Sesame Street,” which was intentionally anti–narrative, you need to do some reading.

A three–year–old may not be able to follow complicated plot twist or subplots, but narrative is essential to them. They order, structure, and understand their world through narrative. They make sense of their daily lives through story.

For those who write YA and adult novels—thank a picture book writer today. If they had not broken that path through the wilderness long ago, no one would be reading your novels. Flowers and chocolates are appropriate gifts for picture book writers. Tossing rose petals in front of them while they walk is acceptable. Large checks are always appreciated.

Sometimes, when I finish a picture book, I put on my YA novelist hat and send my picture-book self a box of truffles.

Those writing for the Christian market?

I have four things to say to Christian writers:

First: avoid religiosity at all costs, and don’t make excuses for it. Jesus had very little to do with religiosity, and certainly not the distorted version certain segments of the church display today.

Second: tell the truth. Faith is messy and scary and sometimes confusing. Every Christian is flawed. Write them that way.

People of other faiths—Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan, Buddhist, Pagan, Native people who embrace their traditional religions, etc.—can be deeply moral, caring, honorable people. If, in your books, they are morally or intellectually inferior to the Christians, you have portrayed them as less than human. Dig deeper. Being a follower of Jesus is not about being better than other people.

Third: don’t be afraid to rattle the religious crowd. Jesus wasn’t. If his Good Samaritan story were told with modern prejudice, it might go something like this:

A Bible scholar asked Jesus, “How do I get eternal life?”

“What does the Bible say?” Jesus asked.

“Love God with all your passion, strength and mind,” the man replied. “And to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.”

“Exactly,” Jesus said.

That answer was not quite good enough for the Bible scholar. The town was full of dirty people, people who didn’t deserve to be loved.

“But who is my ‘neighbor’?” he asked.

“Let me tell you a story,” Jesus said. “A certain man was traveling through town when two thugs grabbed him. They beat him up, stole his wallet, and left him bleeding and senseless, face down in the filthy gutter.

“The youth director of a local church was in the neighborhood leading his high school group in a community project. When he saw the man in the gutter, he moved his students to the other side of the street. He would never hear the last of it if he let them get involved in that kind of mess.

“A mega–church minister was driving down the street on his way to a pastor’s gathering. He slowed as he passed them man, and then went on. At the meeting, he told everyone about what he had seen. They prayed for God to abolish street violence, and voted to create a charitable fund for victims.

“Now, a transvestite prostitute happened to be working that section of town. When he saw the injured man, he fell to his knees and lifted him out of the filth. He cleaned him up as gently as he could, and carried him to the clinic down the street. The injured man’s money and ID were gone, so the transvestite paid for his medical care, and promised to come check on him after work. Which one of them was a neighbor?”

“The one who was kind,” the Bible scholar said.

“Yes,” Jesus said. “Go and do the same.”

With just one story, Jesus turned the man’s world upside-down. You see, the question was not: “How do I be a neighbor?” The question was: “Who is my neighbor? Who must I love?” And the answer was, “the most despised person in your community.” The “go and do the same” was just icing on the cake; a very uncomfortable message in 32 CE or 2008. That’s the kind of depth and revelation we should aim for in our fiction.

Fourth, and finally, my own motto: Don’t let the plot drag. That doesn’t honor God.

Those writing a series of novels?

Series are intense, engrossing, consuming. It is easy to lose track of them or to get lost in them.

Keep a series “bible,” and update it frequently. Keep track of the small details. Eye color, middle names that are only mentioned once, random uncles. Keep track of your character’s favorite foods and racy birthmarks, and the spelling of their names.

Also keep a family “bible,” and I don’t mean a Good Book. A notebook will do. In the family “bible,” write down the names and brief descriptions of your children and your spouse. That way, when someone interrupts you, you can glance at it and figure out who they are.

Why are stories of faith for young readers important to you?

Doug Tennapel, in the prologue to his adult horror noir graphic novel Black Cherry, explains it perfectly:

“Modern stories have made sweeping efforts to hide or show embarrassment regarding our religious identity…I refuse to bow to their pressure for the same reason I don’t remove the F–word from my dialog…because my job is to tell the truth. Mobsters, strippers, gang–bangers and priests have deep theological thoughts about their religious experience and so do my characters.”

Yes. That’s it exactly. My job is to tell the truth.

You are certainly publishing with much success! How do you structure your writing time?

Structure? What’s that? And, um…what year is it?

How do you balance the craft of writing against the responsibilities of being a published author (correspondence, events, media, other promotion)?

I am a fairly good writer, very happy sitting in my own little space—any closet or cranny will do—writing, writing, writing. I love my stories!

I am a terrible author. If I could pay someone to make author’s appearances for me, I would. Unfortunately, Lemony Snicket thought of it first. And, I foolishly put my real name on my books right from the start, which ruined any hope of future anonymity.

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

It’s a good thing you love writing, kid. You are going to get to write to your heart out! Publishing, now, that’s a different story. Your career is going to take longer, be harder, and have more twists and turns than you can even imagine. Don’t give up.

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

Right now my favorite pastime is hunting dinosaurs and prehistoric beasts through the Ojito Wilderness and surrounding areas. The bones of huge monsters lie hidden in the deserts and badlands of New Mexico. I’ve found fragments of dinosaur bone, ammonites, an incredible acanthoceras from the Cretaceous, 8,000 year old camel bones, and possibly a pile of rhino remains. (The Natural History Museum has not identified those yet.)

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have a new picture book coming from Viking next year that I am very excited about! Police Patrol is a cop shop story, nitty-gritty for the itty-bitty. R. W. Alley, the illustrator, has done a brilliant job. He’s added a whole new layer to the story.

My current WIP is a mainstream urban fantasy loosely based on the Finnian Cycle. I am loving this book, the characters and the story. I can’t wait to share it with the world!

The Brown Bookshelf Forum Features Chat with Agent Jennifer Carlson Today

The Brown Bookshelf forum at MySpace is featuring a chat today, beginning at 10 a.m. EST, with Jennifer Carlson, a principal agent with Dunow, Carlson, Lerner Literary Agency.

Peek: “Jennifer Carlson has been agenting for ten years. Previously, she worked at Henry Dunow Literary Agency and Harold Ober Associates. In addition to adult writers, she works with young adult and middlegrade writers (primarily fiction) and a select number of picture book projects. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.”

Looking for an agent? Don’t miss Writing Links: Agents from Children’s & YA Lit Resources. It’s a comprehensive listing of agent interviews, information/tips about the submissions process, working with an agent, and much more!

See also a Cynsations interview with the founders of The Brown Bookshelf.

Book Trailer: Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Rain Is Not My Indian Name

Thank you to Shayne Leighton for her wonderful efforts designing this trailer for my debut tween novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001)(excerpt)(reading group guide)!

Music from Music Library, and images from Fotosearch: Stock Photography and Stock Footage, Stock.xchng: The Leading Free Stock Photography Website, and Public Domain Read a Cynsations interview with Shayne about the book trailer for Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008).

Executive Director Interview: Deborah Pope on the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation

From the foundation site: “Deborah Pope has served as Executive Director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation since 1999 and has been a member of the Board of Directors since 1983.”

Who was Ezra Jack Keats?

Born Jacob Ezra Katz to poor Polish Jewish immigrants in 1916, Ezra grew up in a tenement apartment in the East New York section of Brooklyn. This was a very poor community but Ezra was able to see the beauty in the vivid colors of the clothes hanging out to dry, the glorious sunsets over the skyline, and even the litter lining the street corners.

Even as a young boy, color and drawing were the most important things for him. This quality, the ability to see the world truthfully and yet with a youngster’s fresh eye, was never lost to Ezra. His books are about his own experiences and because he retained the viewpoint of his childhood self, his books speak directly to children and the memories of their parents.

Why was he significant in the field of children’s literature?

Ezra broke the color barrier in mainstream American children’s book publishing. In 1962, The Snowy Day featured the adventures of an African American child in the snow, without fanfare, without trumpeting the cause of integration, but simply as a description of what a day in the snow would be for any child.

The effect of this book was ground shaking. It opened the door to the publication of many more books about children of many races, but perhaps most importantly; it allowed children of many races to see themselves in the books they read.

A generation of multicultural artists recognize The Snowy Day as the book that helped them realize that they too could illustrate and write books.

In addition, and in no less a way, Ezra’s art was just that. He didn’t simply illustrate his books. He created art for children to study as they were read to and learned to read. His books remain as fresh today as when they were first created, and they have set a high standard for generations of children’s book illustrators.

How did a foundation come to be established in his name, and what are its goals?

Ezra created the foundation during his lifetime as a way of supporting the causes that were important to him. His will directed that after his death the royalties from all his books be used by his foundation to do good works.

Ezra named a number of his friends as trustees, or guardians, of the foundation, and Martin Pope became the President of the foundation. Martin and Ezra had been best friends since they were young boys in junior high school. It was through the tireless work of Martin, and his wife Lillie, that the EJK Foundation has grown to what it is today.

Together, they designed all of the programs, the Minigrant Program, the Bookmaking Program, the New York Public Library/Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator and New Writer Awards, to name just a few. The EJK Foundation reflects the spirit of Ezra’s work by promoting the idea that all children should be celebrated, and invited to join in the world of books, education and self-fulfillment.

What programs does it offer?

We are very, very proud of the programs run by the EJK Foundation. We are also proud of our new website, The best place to get a full description of all of our programs is on our website. If you visit you will not only learn about the foundation’s activities, but also about Ezra’s life and books.

Can you describe the New York Public Library/Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator and New Writer Awards? What makes these awards unique?

Unlike other children’s book awards, ours honors new writers and illustrators whose work in some way carries on the quality and values of Ezra’s books.

The past winners have been a very diverse bunch, including Faith Ringold, Bryan Collier, Cari Best, James Lagarrigue and Deborah Wiles.

All of these books are vivid and individual in style but they all celebrate a diverse world in which many children can come together and see their shared connections.

Also, by honoring new artists our Book Award hopes to encourage new talent to continue to produce special books for our multicultural world.

How do you work with teachers, librarians, and other educators?

In addition to the Minigrant Program, which was specifically designed to support teachers and librarians in their efforts to make learning more enjoyable for their students, we have been working on improving the information and lesson plan resources on our website.

In the coming year, we will continue to expand this page so that educators can visit our site and easily locate new and interesting ways to use Ezra’s books to further their classroom curriculum.

Of Ezra’s books, which is your favorite and why?

This is definitely a dangerous question! Each book is a favorite for a different reason.

I am very fond of Apt 3 because the sadness in the book is lifted through the joy of music.

When I want an example of how hard it is for a boy to show his friends that he actually likes a girl, I go straight for A Letter to Amy.

If shyness is a problem, then I enjoy introducing people to the series of books about Louie (Louie, The Trip, Louie’s Search, and Regards to the Man in the Moon). In these four books we are able to see Louie reach out into the world and grow into a confident kid.

And for a last example, when bullies come center stage as a social problem, there isn’t a better book than Goggles!

Is there anything you would like to add?

It’s been a treat to be able to talk about Ezra and the EJK Foundation. We don’t often get a chance to brag about our work. Thank you for giving us this opportunity!

Immortal: Love Stories with Bite

Immortal: Love Stories with Bite, edited by P. C. Cast (BenBella, 2008) will be available exclusively at Borders as of this August.

This vampire-themed YA anthology will include short stories by P. C. Cast, L. J. Smith, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Kristin Cast, Rachel Caine (author interview), Tanith Lee, Nancy Holder, Richelle Mead, and Claudia Gray.

My short story, “Haunted Love,” is set in a fictional, small Texas town, which exists in the same fantasy universe as Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) and Eternal (Candlewick, 2009).

Cynsational Notes

Authors in the Corner: Cynthia Leitich Smith: a new interview from From the Corners of Megan’s Mind. Peek: “‘I don’t think I’d be writing Gothics today if it weren’t for Joss Whedon‘s ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and Annette Curtis Klause‘s Blood and Chocolate (Delacorte, 1997).”

Check out the new play list for Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) on my MySpace page. Thanks to members of Tantalize Fans Unite! at MySpace for their song suggestions.

Are you a public librarian? See the giveaway of signed Tantalize bookmarks (scroll to read)!

Cynsational News, Links & Giveaways

Enter to win a copy of The Juliet Club by Suzanne Harper (Greenwillow, 2008), email me (scroll for email address) with your name, snail/street mail address, and favorite Shakespeare quote by midnight CST June 16! Please also type “The Juliet Club” in the subject line.

Read a Cynsations interview with Suzanne.

Monthly Giveaways

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.

More Giveaways

Evernight Contest #6 from author Claudia Gray. The winner will receive a $100 gift certificate to Amazon and a chance to name a character in the fourth Evernight (HarperCollins) novel. Deadline June 30. See more information. Read Claudia’s LJ. From her FAQ: “Why not vampires? I used to check books of folklore out of the library and read for hours. Then there was Anne Rice, then there was ‘Buffy,’ then there was ‘Moonlight‘—basically, if it had vampires in it, particularly if it wasn’t flat-out horror, I wanted to check it out. “

More News & Links

Children’s author Lindsey Lane debuts her new official site, designed by Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys. Features bio, “writing life,” author visit information, links, and contact information. Lisa says: “Lindsey’s design looks simple but is actually a tour de force of CSS background image finesse. Illustrations all original, including the silhouette that looks just like her even though we haven’t met. Her ‘pictorial biography’ makes use of a new javascript that I used for the first time here, a kind of vertical scrolling widget–almost a vertical slideshow.” Note: this site does a wonderful job of capturing the magic that is Lindsey Lane. Read a Cynsations interview with Lindsey.

Interview with Mary E. Pearson by Debbi Michiko Florence. Peek: “Since I don’t outline or ever know for sure how a story will play out, it becomes very much a trusting process with lots of doubt sprinkled in along the way.” Read a Cynsations interview with Mary. See also Mary E. Pearson on Inspiration from Teen Book Review. Peek: “‘There is a Jack London quote that says, ‘You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.'”

Author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell of Austin, Texas is offering four months of free on-line lessons on “How to illustrate children’s books” to anyone who is willing to go to this link and answer the question they see on the screen. The course is designed to help anyone who is interested (no matter what level of artistic education or training he or she has–from MFA to having never taken an art class before) get moving in all the right directions on illustrating a children’s book or other form of children’s media. Read a Cynsations interview with Mark.

The Query Points System and Rule Breaking from Nathan Bransford – Literary Agent. Peek: “I have requested a large number of partials where the idea did not immediately strike me (let’s say 3 or 4 points), but the query letter was so impeccable (8 or 9 points!) I wanted to check it out.” Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan.

Question of the Week Thursday: Lisa Yee by Robin Friedman from Robin Friedman’s JerseyFresh Tude. Robin asks: “What’s it like to share an editor with J. K. Rowling?” Read Cynsations interviews with Lisa and Robin. On a related note, the Harry Potter prequel by J. K. Rowling is available online. See Big A little a for how to find it.

“Kathi Appelt–Writing The Underneath” from Kimberly Willis Holt (author interview) at Jambalaya–A Little of This and That. Peek: “In some ways this story was like taffy. I kept stretching it and pulling it and stretching it and pulling it some more, and at times pushing it further and further out. I revisited the region in which it took place, east Texas, tromped around in those pine forests.” Don’t miss part two. See also a recommendation of The Underneath from Greg Leitich Smith at GregLSBlog. Peek: “…a gripping story of cats, dogs, cruelty, love, and ancient and contemporary evil.”

Interview: Author Alison McGhee by Little Willow at Slayground. Peek: “Much of my work is set in the landscape of my childhood – remote and hardscrabble upstate New York, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. I’m a mountain and water girl at heart, and I always return to the land for solace and renewal.” Source: LizGallagher.

“The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination” from Harvard Magazine. “J.K. Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter book series, delivers her Commencement Address…at the Annual Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association.”

Q and A with Susan Beth Pfeffer by Lynda Brill Comerford, Children’s Bookshelf — Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Writing has been my career for my entire life. I had my first book published when I was 20 and still in college. But out of all my books, these last two have been the most fun for me to write.” Read a Cynsations interview with Susan.

The Book Transfusion: “The Book Transfusion was started in May 2008 by teen author Devyn Burton. Our goal is to collect as many new books as possible and distribute them to local hospitals in lower east Michigan–to be received by teen patients. We are currently reaching out to local businesses, schools and authors from all over the world to take part.”

What I Like by Alvina Ling, an editor at Little, Brown, from Bloomabilities. Peek: “Because although what I’ve acquired and edited in the past is certainly indicative of my tastes, there are so many other types of books that either I’ve acquired but haven’t been published yet, and still more that I’m open to but just haven’t acquired anything in that genre. The thing is, I guess it’s a bit of a cycle–I tend to get submissions in a similar vein to the books I’ve acquired.”

Katherine Applegate: A Marketing Journey from Robin LaFevers at Shrinking Violet Promotions: Marketing for Introverts. Peek: “Certainly publishers have a vested interest in seeing series flourish, but the allocation of resources varies tremendously, depending on what else in on a list in a given season, how a publisher is doing financially, how committed a publisher is to a certain genre.” See also a Cynsations interview with Robin.

Joining the Clique: YA’s bumper crop in Christian fiction by Jana Riess from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Novelist Claudia Mair Burney understands this tension well. ‘Christian fiction seems to play it safe so often, but adolescence is inherently unsafe,’ she explains. ‘If we can’t show Christ as redeemer in the midst of people cutting themselves, starving themselves or having sex before they’re ready, why would we write at all?'” Source: April Henry at So Many Books, So Little Time.

Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Tricia Tusa from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peek: “I draw sketches quickly so as not to deliberate too much and get in my own way. I will trace from these sketches directly, using a light box…all the while trying to maintain the spontaneous feel of these originals.”

“Welcome to Walden Backyard:” a tour of Cynthia Lord‘s “little writing house.” Read a Cynsations interview with Cynthia.

Congratulations to Sarah Hamburg on her selection for the 2008-2009 Boston Public Library Children’s Writer-in-Residence Program.

Authorial Intrusion: Varian Johnson from L. K. Madigan at Drenched in Words. Peek: “I’m especially fond of this book because the author (a man) writes in the voice of a teen girl. Since I am a woman whose book is written in the voice of a teen boy, I sense a kindred spirit in Varian.”

Reading about Families in My Family by Megan Lambert from The Horn Book. Peek: “In my family there are two moms and five kids. I’ve yet to find a children’s book that depicts a cast of characters that looks anything like our particular multiracial, foster-adoptive family constellation…”

“Love of Horses Propels Writer: Louisville Native Turns Youthful Experiences into Novel for Girls” by Tamara Ikenberg of The Courier-Journal. Peek: “‘I just wanted to write a book for girls that would be a positive, interesting story about a girl who struggles and makes it through because of her own strength and determination,” says [author Anne] Wedekind…'”

An Interview with Rudine Sims Bishop by Kathleen T. Horning from The Horn Book. “Talking with the foremost scholar of African American children’s literature.” Peek: “…there is a stigma attached to having ancestors who were slaves. What the writers try to do is to destigmatize that ancestry by saying, ‘These were people who survived. These were people who were resilient. These were people who…”

Author Visits by State by Kim Norman (author interview) from The Apple: Where Teachers Meet and Learn.

Teen Ink is a national teen magazine, book and website featuring teen writing, information, art, photos, poetry, teen issues and more. All articles are written by teen authors who are students at schools. Teen Ink is also a book series published by HCI Teens. More than 25,000 teens have been published in the magazine and its companion Poetry Journal. Teen Ink runs a London Summer Program for teenage writers.”

Given these history-making times, lately, I have received several queries from folks of all political persuasions, asking about interracial themes and biracial identity in youth literature. My main site includes as one of its features a section on “Children’s and YA Books with Interracial Family Themes.” In addition, I would like to recommend this “Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People” by Maria P. P. Root from Interracial Voice. Note: the book (left) is Barack Obama: Working to Make a Difference by Marlene Targ Bill (Lerner, 2006).

What’s Said, What’s Unsaid by Jennifer Hubbard from writerjenn. Note: on dialogue. Peek: “Sometimes the unsaid things build tension. People rarely come right out with all their deepest feelings in conversation, exposing their inner thoughts and analyzing them bluntly.” Source: Nathan Bransford.

Attention Texans

Attention Austinites: debut author Shana Burg is hosting a launch party for A Thousand Never Evers (Delacorte, 2008) from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. June 14 at BookPeople in Austin. Note: don’t miss Shana’s “Workshops for Students” and “Professional Development for Teachers.”

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).

Tantalizing Tidbits

Authors in the Corner: Cynthia Leitich Smith: a new interview from From the Corners of Megan’s Mind. Peek: “‘I don’t think I’d be writing Gothics today if it weren’t for Joss Whedon‘s ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and Annette Curtis Klause‘s Blood and Chocolate (Delacorte, 1997).”

Check out the new play list for Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) on my MySpace page. Thanks to members of Tantalize Fans Unite! at MySpace for their song suggestions.

Reminder: 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).

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.

Check out the Tantalize Reading Group Guide and the Tantalize Research Bibliographies. Watch the Tantalize Book Trailer, and listen to an excerpt of the audio book edition by actress Kim Mai Guest from Listening Library.


At an ABC news affiliate, authors Jane O’Connor, MAC, and Scott Westerfeld (author interview) offer summer reading tips. Source: Big A, Little A.

Check out this book talk for Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2003)(author interview).

And this book trailer for Gone by Michael Grant(HarperCollins, 2008)(author podcast; page includes previous podcasts with: E. Lockhart, Sarah Mlynowski and Lauren Myracle; Melissa Marr; Anna Godbersen; and Meg Cabot.

Watch This Book: In bid to boost sales, authors try viral videos; Plugging a novel on roller skates by Lauren Mechling. Note: originally published last weekend in The Wall Street Journal. Peek: “In a book industry flooded with titles and facing sluggish sales, a growing number of authors are going to dramatic lengths to attract attention. The latest tactic: producing and starring in zany videos aimed at the YouTube audience.” Note: different focus than the movie-like trailers. Source: Melissa Walker.

Author Interview: Suzanne Harper on The Juliet Club

Suzanne Harper on Suzanne Harper:

“Suzanne Harper spent most of her career as a magazine editor, but for the last three years she’s been a full-time author. Her first novel, The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney, was published by Greenwillow in July 2007. Her second novel, The Juliet Club (Greenwillow), was published in May 2008.

“In addition, she has written an original novel, Rock the Waves (Disney Press, July 2008) based on the Hannah Montana TV series. She’s working on a second Hannah Montana original novel, In the Loop (Disney Press, 2009). Under the pen name N. B. Grace, she has written original novels for the series High School Musical: Stories from East High and novelizations of High School Musical (Disney Press, 2006) and High School Musical 2 (Disney Press, 2007).

“She has also published several non-fiction books, including Boitano’s Edge: Inside the Real World of Figure Skating; 33 More Things Every Girl Should Know; and Terrorists, Tornados and Tsunamis: How to Prepare for Life’s Danger Zones (co-author with Lt. Col. John C. Orndorff). She’s currently working on a non-fiction book about spying with the head of the International Spy Museum.

“She divides her time between New York City and Austin, Texas.”

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

I would say my path to publication was a very long marathon–the kind of marathon that involves spontaneous side trips to check out different kinds of scenery! I’ve wanted to be a writer–and more specifically, to write novels–since I was seven years old.

As you can imagine, I wrote a lot as I was growing up and read a lot, too. When I went to college, I studied journalism and English at the University of Texas at Austin.

After graduation, I went into magazine publishing. Even as I worked on the editorial staffs of various magazines, I kept writing in my spare time and taking classes in all kinds of genres, including novels, plays, corporate videos (!), and screenplays. I even got my master’s degree in writing at the University of Southern California.

In retrospect, I think all that varied experience was good for my writing, although I also wish I had been more focused from the beginning. However, I’m a strong believer that everyone takes the path they need to take in order reach their goals. As long as you get there in the end, it’s all good.

Your debut trade novel was The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney (Greenwillow, 2007)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

It’s the story of Sparrow Delaney, a teenage girl who’s growing up in a family of psychics. She’s the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, so everyone in her family thinks that she’ll be the most psychic of them all. And, in fact, she can see and talk to ghosts very easily.

However, she hides this fact from everyone because she knows a lot of people would consider it creepy. Sparrow wants, more than anything else, to be normal. Then a cute teenage boy ghost shows up and asks for her help, and she’s torn between wanting to help him and wanting to keep her secret.

The setting is Lily Dale, New York, a real town that was founded more than a hundred years ago as a spiritualist community. Thousands of people still visit Lily Dale every summer to have readings from the spiritual mediums who live there. I read a non-fiction book about Lily Dale a few years ago that sparked my imagination (I’ve always been fascinated by ghosts and mediums).

Then one day I was flying home from a conference and I found myself writing what became the first line of the novel–“It’s three minutes past midnight, and the dead won’t leave me alone”–in my notebook. I was intrigued enough to keep writing in order to find out more about the person who would say something like that.

As I started developing Sparrow’s story, I remembered Lily Dale and decided that would be an unusual and perfect setting for the book.

Congratulations on the publication of The Juliet Club (Greenwillow, 2008)! Could you fill us in on the story?

Thank you! It’s the story of six teens (three American, three Italian) who have won an essay contest. The prize is that they get to study “Romeo and Juliet” for a month in Verona, Italy, where the play is set.

Kate, the main character, is a very practical, logical girl who was recently dumped by her boyfriend. She’s determined to study hard, enjoy Italy and, no matter what, avoid falling in love again. Of course, these plans go awry, especially when she meets the irritating and handsome Giacomo! The other teens conspire to make Kate and Giacomo think that they’re falling in love with each other.

Many readers will recognize this as the setup for another Shakespearean play, “Much Ado About Nothing.” I tried to use as many Shakespearean plot twists and allusions as I could in the novel, which was part of the fun of writing it.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This was another novel that started on a plane. Maybe I should start flying someplace every few months or so!

I was flying home from Italy, and I read an article in the airline magazine about an organization called The Juliet Club in Verona, Italy. For decades, volunteers have been answering letters from people who want love advice from Juliet. They get thousands of letters from around the world. This struck me as a great setup for a novel.

Of course, I just used that as a jumping-off point. I invented a lot, including the essay contest and the Shakespearean seminar that the characters attend. By the way, if you want more information on The Juliet Club, go to their web site,

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

I made a lot of false starts on this book. I mean, a lot. I think I spent two years trying to get a handle on the approach and the tone. For one horrible period, I tried writing the whole book as letters and e-mails, which sounded clever but just didn’t work. I tried writing it in the first person, from Kate’s point of view, but that was problematic because of the plot. Other characters were eavesdropping and spying to see if Kate and Giacomo were falling for their prank, and there was no way to show what they were up to if everything was being seen through Kate’s eyes.

Finally, I started noodling around with the manuscript as I was working intensely on revisions for The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney. I think that helped me get on the right track.

An art teacher once told our class that if we were having problems with a painting, we should start another one “just for fun” and work on them both at the same time. She said that that takes the pressure off making the first painting perfect. Also, the “just for fun” painting that you’re simply playing around with often turns out to be the best piece in the end!

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

In addition to the writing challenges I talked about above, I found that I had to do a lot of research. Of course, I read a lot about Shakespeare–in addition to re-reading the actual plays, I read many commentaries on the plays, books about Shakespearean acting, biographies of Shakespeare and so on.

But this book involved actual physical research as well. Since the novel was set in a different country, of course I had to visit Verona again!

While I was there, I took hundreds of photos. I also met with members of the real Juliet Club several times to find out more about what they did (and to pepper them with questions about teen life in Italy). I took Italian lessons to get a feel for the language and culture.

I also had one friend teach me how to do an Elizabethan dance and another friend tutor me in stage sword fighting (my characters have to do both of these things and I needed to learn the skills in order to describe them).

Actually, the research was a challenge, but it was also a lot of fun. I’m planning to make videos for my website to pass on some of this information to readers who are interested.

What was it like, being a debut author in 2007?

It was wonderful! Everything–from seeing the cover for the first time, to spotting the book on the bookstore shelf, to getting reviews and blog mentions–was such a thrill.

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

Thanks for your kind words! Actually, I do feel that The Juliet Club was more of a struggle to write than the first book, simply because it was more complicated.

One thing that helped was going to Starbucks every morning and taking copious notes in my journal as I was working on it. I would write endless notes about possible plot twists, character descriptions, and so on. I think I filled up five notebooks, just on The Juliet Club!

What has surprised you most about being a published author?

I was surprised at how much time I can spend on non-writing tasks. I think this is even more true now that we have the Internet and can create websites, write blogs, make MySpace pages, etc. On the one hand, it’s a great opportunity to get the word out about your books. On the other hand, I can see that it would be easy to forget about actually writing the next book, especially since a lot of the “extra” work is very creative and fun, too.

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

I’d say, remember, revising is the fun part, so quit worrying so much about the first draft! Write as fast as you can and just get the words down on paper, because you can revise as many times as you want. After all, you don’t have to get something right the first time you write it; you just have to get it right the last time you write it.

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

Well, I read a lot, of course. I enjoy working on collages and multi-media paintings.

But probably the most surprising thing I do (surprising to me and to everyone who knows me) is box. I go to a sparring class every week and I’ve done three “white-collar fights” (basically, sparring sessions in front of an audience). It’s a good counterbalance to introspective days spent in front of a computer screen!

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m working on a new novel. It’s a fantasy, of sorts, in the sense that it’s set in an alternative world. And it taps into my fascination with the art of acting. I’ve been thinking about the story for years, so I’m finding it very satisfying to finally create and live in this world for awhile.

The Remarkable Rewards of Writing

Betty X. Davis spoke on “The Remarkable Rewards of Writing” at the Austin SCBWI monthly meeting last Saturday. Betty’s stories are hers to tell, but for a taste, she began writing in the early 1920s (at age five). She grew up in a Quaker family, holds a master’s degree, was married to a law professor who also was in the FBI, and raised eight children. She’s a pre-published YA writer who’s won a couple of high-profile contests, penned plays, authored both a curriculum book for speech therapists (1987) and a short story in Spider, and composed many letters to the editor.

Betty talked about all that and more–about finding a letter she’d written decades earlier in the family archives, about another that she’d penned to comfort a grieving widower, and about having “plenty of time” to write once she had “only two children” left at home.

It was what I’d call a “heart” speech. By turns, funny and fascinating, insightful and inspiring. Betty reminded us, through her story, what it meant to be a writer in the truest sense.

By today’s conventional standards, Austin’s youth writing community is up-and-coming strong. Although the group is one of the newer SCBWI chapters, we continue to grow fast and include a tremendous number of 21rst century debut authors. We do our share of professional development programs and, from what I understand, more craft programs than most. Both are important. But we don’t always taken the time to see the big picture, to appreciate the meaning of it all, like we did on Saturday under Betty’s remarkable leadership.

I’m wowed by Betty X. Davis, and I vote for more talks from the heart.

Cynsational Notes

The photos below were taken at another recent meeting, featuring rising star Jo Whittemore, sharing her insights on finding the right agent:

Jo is the author of The Silverskin Legacy trilogy (Llewellyn).

Read her LJ, visit her MySpace page, and read a Cynsations interview with Jo. Peek: “I’ve always loved fantasy novels, but my favorites have been the ones where the hero leaves this world for another. It’s not only the discovery, it’s also the fact that when you first enter a new world (or school or city), nobody knows who you are yet, and you can break out of any mold in which people have placed you in the past. No longer are you Megan, the plain tomboy. Now, you’re a sword-wielding heroine!”

Greg Leitich Smith is my very cute husband and co-author for Santa Knows (Dutton, 2006). He also is the author of two tween comedies, Ninjas Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005) and Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005).

Read Greg’s blog and a Cynsations interview with Greg. Peek: “…I’ve always been interested in the interaction between science/technology and rest of our culture (C.P. Snow wrote a seminal volume in the 1950s called The Two Cultures, in which he opined that those who do math and science are incomprehensible to those who don’t and vice versa – I believe his recommendation was that science types should take more courses in the humanities and humanities types should take more math and science. Go figure.). Nowhere does that interaction come to a head more prominently than in the courts – a ‘fact’ in law is not necessarily a ‘fact’ in science (or any other kind of reality, for that matter).

“Galileo is, of course, the most prominent case of this, so I thought it would be interesting to do a science fair story in which, somehow, the science came to be on trial.”

Phil Yates is the author of Ten Little Mummies (Viking, 2003).

Read a Cynsations interview with Phil. Peek: “Now of all this research I probably ended up using about 80% of what I read. There was not time to give a scenic tour of Ancient Egypt; the story had to move quickly and the setting became merely a place where mummies could play, but, at the same time, we would discover Egypt’s historical significance.”

Debut author Shana Burg is hosting a launch party for A Thousand Never Evers (Delacorte, 2008) from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. June 14 at BookPeople in Austin. Shana is new to us from the Boston area, and we’re so thrilled to have her as a member of the community.

Check out Shana’s blog. Peek: “The box of books arrived just before dinner Wednesday. It took me a good hour to get up the guts to open it and another twenty four to start reading. Would my vision for the story hold up in reality?”

Brian Anderson is the author of The Adventures of Commander Zack Proton series from Aladdin/Simon & Schuster. Titles include The Adventures of Commander Zack Proton and the Red Planet (June 2006) and The Adventures of Commander Zack Proton and the Warlords of Nibblecheese (October 2006).

Read a Cynsations interview with Brian. Peek: [On the writer’s life] “I love the flexible hours, the feeling of satisfaction from finishing a manuscript, and the chance to talk with kids about writing and publishing. Sometimes the writing process itself is about as much fun as folding the sock load, but overall the whole process of creating a story and characters is uniquely rewarding.”

Varian Johnson is the author of an adult novel Red Polka Dot in a World Full of Plaid (Genesis Press/Black Coral, 2005), which was on the Essence magazine bestseller list and is suitable for teens, as well as his new debut YA novel, My Life as a Rhombus (Flux, 2008). Read Varian’s blog, They Call Me Mr. V, and visit Varian at MySpace.

In addition, Varian is a co-founder of The Brown Bookshelf. Read a Cynsations interview with the founders. Here’s a peek:

Varian Johnson: “The idea for starting an community similar to The Brown Bookshelf had been bouncing around in my head for a while, but it wasn’t until I took note of the statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center that I truly took steps to start the initiative.

“According to the CCBC, out of the approximately 5000 trade children’s books published in the United States in 2006, 87 were written by African Americans–2 percent, if you’re generous with the rounding.

“Based on those statistics, and subsequent conversations with Paula [Chase-Hyman], I concluded that if we started the Brown Bookshelf, we would have two main responsibilities: 1) to increase the number of African-American children’s lit authors; and 2) to find a way to highlight the 2 percent that are being published now.”

Learn more about Texas Children’s & YA Authors & Illustrators!

Author Interview: Franny Billingsley on Big Bad Bunny

Franny Billingsley on Franny Billingsley: “Franny was successfully rehabilitated from the practice of law 25 years ago and has never once relapsed. In the intervening couple of decades, she’s published two fantasy novels for upper-elementary and junior-high readers, Well Wished Wished (Atheneum, 1997) and The Folk Keeper (Atheneum, 1999).

“Her picture book, Big Bad Bunny (Atheneum, 2008), has just been released, so she’s developing a school-and-library program for K-3rd grades and having a blast memorizing all the words to Little Bunny Foo Foo.

“Her novel-in-progress, The Chime Child (working title), has had an elephantine gestation, but she hopes it will be released in the fall of 2009.”

I last interviewed you in June 2000, not long after the release of The Folk Keeper (Atheneum, 1999), which was published two years after your debut novel, Well Wished (Atheneum, 1997). It merits noting that The Folk Keeper was winner of the 2000 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in fiction. Looking back, what have each of those novels come to mean to you over time?

It took me an astonishingly long time to realize that the novels, although very different in many ways (tone, reading level, point of view, etc.), share something that goes to the core of each story: in each, the protagonist is looking for her skin.

If Corinna, the half-selkie, half-human protagonist of The Folk Keeper, finds her sealskin, she’ll not only be able to shift from her human form to that of a seal, she’ll have the option of redefining her identity, ‹choosing to live as a creature of the sea rather than as a creature of land.

When Nuria, the harum-scarum, high-energy protagonist of Well Wished, gets stuck in the body of a girl whose personality and physical relationship to the world are completely opposite to that of Nuria’s, ‹of a girl who, in fact, can’t even walk‹, Nuria has the opportunity to find out who she is at her core. Who is she when she’s divorced from the physical vessel in which she used to reside? Can she, for example, still sing? Why is it that her dog recognizes her?

So they are both novels that address issues of identity. And then still later, I realized that I’d twice-over written my own story, which is that of shedding my skin as corporate lawyer to try one on that fit better, the skin of a children’s book writer.

How have you grown as a writer in the years since?

On a practical level, the success of Folk Keeper has made it difficult to write my new novel (which I’ve been writing for almost ten years).

The Folk Keeper set a bar that I’ve felt I had to jump over, and so when I’m writing, I keep second-guessing myself, “Oh, I’m not doing what I did in the Folk Keeper; it therefore will not be as good a book as Folk Keeper.”

This kind of thinking is deadly. The success of Folk Keeper was in great part due to the fact that it’s rather unlike other fantasy novels, and here I am, imitating myself! Perhaps with a great deal of chocolate and psychotherapy, I’ll manage to stop.

I did, however, write a picture book, ‹something I never thought I had the ability to do; and I do think that now I am inching away from Folk Keeper and honoring the integrity of my new novel. So I’m writing differently, which, to my way of thinking, is growth.

Congratulations on the release of your debut picture book, Big Bad Bunny, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Atheneum, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

Thanks! I guess I have to say that it’s yet another story about identity!

It begins with two seemingly parallel stories: Big Bad Bunny rampaging through the forest while Mama Mouse scurries through the forest to find baby mouse. I hope that as the parallel stories unfold, the audience is worried that Big Bad Bunny will “get” (whatever that means) baby mouse. But then the stories merge, and guess what?

Big Bad Bunny turns out to be baby mouse, who’s sick and tired of being treated as a baby.

It’s sort of a mirror image of my novel Well Wished. There, Nuria is essentially spread between two bodies‹–there’s her physical self, which is now occupied by Catty (the girl who can’t walk), and there’s her spiritual self (for want of a better word), the part of her that includes her memories, personality, values, etc. Those now occupy Catty’s body.

In Big Bad Bunny, the Well Wished situation is turned inside out: both Big Bad Bunny and baby mouse occupy the same body. There are two identities in a single body.

But don’t ask me if it’s Big Bad Bunny’s body or baby mouse’s body. I’d have to get a degree in philosophy to figure that out.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this story?

The straightforward answer is that it arose from a meeting with my writers group in which we were trying to remember the words to Little Bunny Foo Foo (for reasons I no longer recall).

One of the group members called her daughter in D.C., who took valuable time away from her government job to tell us the words (so we are probably to blame for the country being in such a mess). When we read the words aloud, I really took them in for the first time, and it came to me what a funny idea it was to have a mice-boinking rabbit; and thus the seed was planted.

But after I’d written Big Bad Bunny and it was being illustrated, I went through some old computer files and saw a draft of a big bad bunny story that I’d written years earlier! So I’d had the idea for ages, forgotten it, then came back to it. I have no idea of what sparked that earlier draft or, indeed, any memory of writing it. Hmm, the human brain is certainly mysterious.

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

I wrote it in the summer of 2004; my editor accepted it right away and soon thereafter (late summer/early fall) lined up Brian Karas to illustrate it. I guess the major events were receiving and commenting on a series of increasingly-polished sketches and paintings from Brian. It was a low-maintenance publication experience. The book was published in Feb ’08.

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

It felt easy; it felt like a gift. It was basically a two-draft book.

There was the first draft, which had no spine, and the second draft, which did. The spine just came to me; I don’t really know how. The work my editor and I did together amounted to little word fidgets, nothing more.

If you ask me, Brian did all the heavy lifting. He faced the challenge of depicting Big Bad Bunny and baby mouse so that you couldn’t tell they were one and the same, but at the same time, sharing enough similarities that when Big Bad Bunny’s identity is revealed the reader will have that satisfying “Aha!” moment‹–the moment when the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Brian did lots of drafts (if that’s what one calls the stages of an illustrator’s process), and with each new draft, he and I and our editor talked about how to tweak it to make it still more subtle and, at the same time, more obvious.

Talking is easy: it was Brian who had to actually do the work! I think he did a fantastic job: I’m so glad my editor thought of pairing him with my manuscript.

In 2000, you told me, “I don’t think I’ll ever write for younger than a middle-grader reader.” What changed?

That comment came from a notion I had that I’d never have any picture-book-sized ideas. I used to think that I was built to be a marathoner. ‹I’m slow and steady and long-winded ‹and that I didn’t have what it takes to be a sprinter. And I do still sort of believe that. I certainly believe that there are narrative forms that fit certain people better than others.

Someone once told me (although I’ve never checked on the truth of it) that Henry James wanted to write a play but could never carry it off; and it makes sense to me that takes one kind of DNA stew to write a novel versus and another kind to write a play (which I guess doesn’t quite work as a metaphor as, to my knowledge, no stew has ever succeeded in writing anything
at all).

So how did I break free of my DNA? How did I jump out of this metaphorically-unsuccessful stew? I think it was three things.

One is that I was so frustrated with my novel-in-progress (on which I had then been working for a mere six years) that I had to turn to a successful project or I’d explode.

Second, the goofiness of the idea of a big bad bunny generated a lot of energy; and I remember thinking that giving it a shot wouldn’t be a huge investment. I could scribble for a few weeks, and if it went nowhere, no big deal.

Third, I’d also read lots of picture books (more on that below), and I knew that I had an understanding of picture books even if I didn’t have an innate instinct for them.

How did you go about learning to write a picture book?

I didn’t set myself to learn: I realized that I already knew. I was lucky ‹I learned without knowing that I was learning.

I had managed the children’s-book section of an independent bookstore for 12 years, and part of my job was doing two story-hours a week. I think the essence of what makes a good picture book got into my bones. I saw what worked, I saw what flopped. I saw how pattern can captivate and engage kids; I saw how kids love goofy ideas, etc.

So when I set myself to put this goofy idea into picture-book form, the structure came very naturally, as did my leaving room for the illustrator to tell his part of the story.

Had I not read so many picture books, I’m sure I would have thought I had to explain everything.

What about the process surprised you? Delighted you? Made you want to pull out your hair?

Neither of my novels felt as though it were a gift. Writing them made me feel as though I were digging in a quarry with a teaspoon. So the ease with which this came was a terrific surprise. You don’t always have to suffer in the name of art! You don’t have to cut off your ear!

I have no illusions that, should I undertake another picture book, it will be as flow-y and fun as this one was. But it’s for sure easier (for me) to write and structure 500 words than 40,000.

Big Bad Bunny reminds me a bit of Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 1963). It’s the exploration of imagination and reassuring mother’s love that triggers the connection in my mind. Were there children’s picture books that especially inspired you? If so, which ones and why?

Thank you! I’d never thought about that before until you, and then someone else, mentioned it.

I do love the lovey-dovey books (as one of my friends calls them), but only those that have some punch to them ‹as Where The Wild Things Are certainly does.

One lovey-dovey book I really admire is So Much by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Candlewick, 1994). I’ve learned a lot from that book–‹fantastic language, wonderful pattern.

I adore Pete’s Pizza by William Steig (HarperCollins, 1998), which is a very different look at parental love‹. Talk about the transformative power of the imagination, not to mention a fantastically goofy idea!

I also love books in which there’s conflict between parent (or parent stand-in) and kid, such as The Baby Blue Cat Who Said No! by Ainslie Pryor‹ (Viking, 1998)(out of print). The kids love anticipating the coming of the “no!” and then yelling it out. And the Baby Blue Cat has the last word (which is “no!”). ‹I love that!

Another somewhat different twist on the same idea is Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994). Again, the kid stand-in (the gorilla, in this case) gets what s/he wants‹–ha!

Maybe it’s that I like books that are subversive in nature, that challenge the usual power hierarchy, as in the two just mentioned, and also in Bootsie Barker Bites by Barbara Bottner, illustrated by Peggy Rathmann (Putnam, 1997). The sympathetic kid gets what she needs by turning the tables on the bully kid, in a way that her mother (blind to what’s going on) would certainly not approve.

I also love books in which the kids, themselves, drive away the monsters, such as in The Secret in the Matchbox by Val Willis, illustrated by John Shelley (FSG, 1998)(out of print) or Go Away Big Green Monster by Edward R. Emberley (Little Brown, 1993). Big Green Monster is sheer genius. Why didn’t I write that?

Anyway, I think there are bits of all those ideas in Big Bad Bunny.

What do you love about being a writer?

I don’t know that I could do anything else very well. I’m the kind of person who dwells a lot in her head, her imagination, and I don’t pay much attention what’s going on in the outside world. So a job that requires that I live in my imagination is perfect.

I love making something out of nothing, surrounding it with the just-right details to make it seem as though this invented world must exist, weaving the threads together so that there are no chinks or holes through which the reader could peer to see the machinery cranking away behind the scenes.

What for you are its greatest challenges?

It’s the same thing, really, making something out of nothing. When I begin a new novel, it takes ages for it to feel “right.” I blunder along for a long time‹, years–‹choosing names, choosing settings, figuring out the nature of the magic, etc.

At the beginning, it all seems so made up, not organic to the story, and I often despair that I’ll never hit upon the right combination of details that will feel true to me (it’s a kind of an I-know-it-when-I see-it thing).

But I keep at it, and then the “true” details come bubbling to the surface, and the more true ones there are, the more easily others appear. And that’s when I start to believe in the story and start to believe that others might believe in the story, and it becomes fun‹-magic.

Do you have a critique group or work only with your editor? If the former, what makes the group work for you and why? What advice do you have for writers in working with peers?

I do have a critique group‹–it’s very important to me. It’s not just that I receive valuable feedback on my writing, although I do, it’s a place where I can get lots of support and shots of love and reality checks (e.g. just because I haven’t heard from my editor for a week doesn’t mean that she hates me!), and advice about fabulous new books to read, and great vats of humor and chocolate. I always leave feeling more hopeful and ready to take on the next writing challenge.

As for advice, two things are important to me about a writing group.

You want to be sure that the members share in a general your understanding about writing and books. This does not at all mean that, for example, if you’re published, they have to be published. It means that you share a common vocabulary and sensibility. It means that they understand the art and craft of how a book is put together and can intelligently and articulately and kindly tell you what needs to change for the book to work best.

Getting feedback from people who think very differently from you or else just don’t get what it is that you do (for example, I write fantasy, and lots of people just don’t “get” fantasy) can be really hurtful to your writing. You certainly don’t have to take every suggestion, not even from your editor, but generally you want to be able to trust the response of your group.

The other thing has to do with group dynamics. Some groups don’t work out because someone needs to be the boss, to run the show, and power struggles emerge. I don’t know how you guard against that, but it’s something to be aware of. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in that regard.

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

This is what I think is most important: keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep . . . .

What advice do you have for fellow picture book writers?

I guess I can only suggest that they do what I did: read a million picture books (more or less). Read them aloud for the getting-it-in-your-bones thing I mentioned.

If there are a few spare children around, use them! See how easily (or not) you can get them to participate in the story, ‹i.e., will they chime in on the predictable pattered bits? See what they love (just see what happens if you mention diapers…).

Even without a kid audience, read your draft(s) aloud to see how it sounds, how easy it is to predict the pattern, try to analyze the fun (diaper) quotient, etc. And then read a million more.

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

Nothing very exciting. Taking care of two kids (18 and 13) takes some time, as does the hideously quotidian issue of having to shop and prepare food (I love to eat but I hate the steps leading thereto). Two dogs also take some time, but their meals are easy; and unlike my children, they think I’m a goddess!

I haven’t read as much as I’d like recently, or kept up with what’s new in children’s books. I used to be very on top of that.

I’m looking forward to a house renovation next year‹, and I really mean looking forward! Because I’m stuck in my imagination, I’m always re-envisioning spaces; and I’ve been re-envisioning our own space for a long time now. I love both the vision and the carrying out of it, which will include stencils applied by my own fair hand, the one that probably ought to be writing.

What can your fans look forward to next?

The tentatively-titled The Chime Child, which is the albatross that’s been digging its talons (do they have talons?) into my shoulder for ten long years.

I also have a chapter book in the works (third-grade-ish) and another fantasy that I hope will be funny, light-hearted‹, which is not how one would describe either Well Wished or the Folk Keeper.

Author Interview: Neal A. Lester on Once Upon a Time in a Different World

Dr. Neal A. Lester, Chair of the Department of English, has been a professor of English at Arizona State University since the fall of 1997. His area of specialization is African American literary and cultural studies. Dr. Lester earned his B.A. in English from State University of West Georgia and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English at Vanderbilt University.

How does your own family background inform/inspire your scholarship?

My parents are both African American. My spouse of 25 years is Argentine and Italian, so our two children are “biracial,” for lack of a better term.

My realities as a teacher and scholar of color are very much informed by this complicated perspective of being a parent to two brown children who are both like me and both like their mom.

When our daughter was born 19 years ago, my wife and I looked vigorously for children’s books with other interracial (black/white) family couplings. We also looked for books with our daughter’s name, Jasmine, as a character name, knowing fully that children identify with what seems like them.

As for the interracial dimension, one book we particularly appreciated was The Rabbits’ Wedding [by Garth Williams (HarperCollins, 1958)], which has a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit. My wife and I wanted to make sure first that our daughter, and then three years later, that our son had books with multicolored moms and dads and with multicolored children.

Images are clearly important to our self-esteem as children and as adults, so a good bit of my work deals with the multitude of children’s texts—toys, greeting cards, ditties, nursery rhymes and fairy tales, commercials, print advertisements, and picture books—created for and about children although not necessarily by children.

And beyond race, my focus on gender and sexuality also come into play as reading and teaching stories about Father, Mother, Dick, and Jane inherently involve images on the page and cultural narratives about gender relations, race relations, class structuring, and prescriptions of heterosexuality. All of these ideas are present in my essays in the collection in various iterations.

Why is it important for young people to see characters like themselves in the pages of their books?

Self-validation for us all on some important level comes from seeing ourselves, especially when as playwright and performance artist Anna Deveare Smith contends, “The mirrors of society do not mirror society.” Television, billboards, magazines, newspapers, books, and music all mirror limited and limiting constructions of the world and society.

It is imperative that all responsible and conscientious adults respond to efforts at representing all children in all projected and imagined realities. All children need to see possibilities and to see themselves in all possibilities. That’s why the HBO series “Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child,” created in the late 1990s, is an important and necessary step in that direction.

And all children need to see difference in children’s texts, not just children of color seeing themselves. There is every reason for me to imagine that children’s texts can reinforce poet Maya Angelou‘s profoundly simple sentiment that in the human family, “we are more alike than we are unalike.” Seeing and talking about difference can underscore commonalities.

What progress have you seen on this front over the years?

The fact we can now find more brown characters in children’s texts, that we can find books about families that look different means that we have made significant progress to create realities that represent our diverse lives.

There is nevertheless work still to be done. For example, even as the HBO series “Happily Ever After” moved to represent different cultural realities in “traditional” fairy tales, the series still privileged in the African American-ist revisions light-complected animated characters over the more darkly-hued characters. The series also fell short by presenting exclusively heterosexual couplings with no nod toward difference in multiple landscapes.

Contrary to what most mirrors of society present, we are not all heterosexual, and neither are our children in our families and in our classrooms. My collection leads off with this provocative and necessary discussion that actually transcends race, gender, and even class. With this lead essay, I hope that readers see that this collection overall is not just about African American children’s literature and not just about children.

What challenges are still out there? How do you suggest we confront them?

Teasing away at layers and layers of complexity that lie beneath the surface is the challenge for parents and students. Children are very complicated and witness complexity even when they may not have the language to articulate their feelings and observations about that complexity.

I hope that my collection provides a space to parse out some of these wonderful textures, nuances, and complexities in ways that satisfy rather than frustrate. Only through open dialogue can we continue to define and sustain progress, again seeing and acknowledging difference not as threat but enhancement of our very human condition.

How about when it comes to African American youth literature more specifically?

My foray into adolescent and youth literature has been more limited as I have only supplemented my children’s literature commentaries and course teaching with a few specific texts—works by Nikki Grimes, Jacqueline Woodson, Christopher Paul Curtis, and even Sapphire.

Congratulations on the publication of Once Upon a Time in a Different World: Issues and Ideas in African American Children’s Literature (Routledge, 2007)! Could you give us an overview of what readers might expect?

I hope that readers will find the essays in the collection provocative, compelling, and relevant. I hope that the range of topics that push the proverbial envelope will be like nothing readers have come across before. I want readers to see the volume as a kind of labor of love that is about me and that is bigger than I am.

The volume is special also because I started writing about children’s texts when my daughter was born. That the volume came out 18 years later just as she graduated from high school and represents my work over these 18 years adds a sentimental note of satisfaction for me.

I also want readers to see that the volume is really on some level about all of us who are responsible for any child’s wellbeing. That’s one of the reasons for the call-and-response format with scholars and others from various backgrounds and with different perspectives participating in a conversation about these many topics. That the contributors aren’t critiquing or even agreeing with my essays is very deliberately intended to give voice to other perspectives than my own. And what some of the contributors brought to the exercise amazed and surprised me in the best possible ways!

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I knew there was a need to bring all of what I had done and what I was then doing under one umbrella that was accessible and not just a history lesson, not that there’s anything wrong with a book that’s a history lesson. That’s just not the book I wanted or needed to write.

I’ve also been teaching a children’s course over the past few years and knew that there was a need for such a collection. I don’t know another collection quite like it, especially the range of topics and the formatting, and from the perspective of a parent, a parent of color, a educator, an educator of color, and an educator who engages both children’s and adult texts in one moment.

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

The spark has always been there since my children were born. And I have been writing for some 18 years on issues that matter to me as a parent of color and that should matter to all parents.

Along with more global analysis, your book includes many personal insights and stories. What made you decide to frame the discussion in this way?

I hearken back to that old mantra that “the personal is always political” for folks of color and for women and that “the political is indeed personal.” So I can’t and don’t find a need to artificially separate these issues as intellectual exercises.

I especially enjoyed those chapters that juxtapose your reviews of YA books with those of your daughter, Jasmine. How did this dual-perspective approach evolve?

My colleague and renowned expert on young adult literature, Jim Blasingame, invited me and Jasmine to write these reviews of then-new novels for his Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. I thought it was an interesting exercise.

Even though I had to bribe Jasmine to write hers and to include enough details, she wrote intelligibly and thoughtfully. I still wish she had included more details, but getting a teen to read and then write anything substantive during the summer was a challenge and an eventual accomplishment. She’s also very perceptive and a good writer to boot. So I was very pleased to have her voice there since we adults are most often talking about and choosing texts without input from the student audiences we are trying to reach. This seemed to make sense to include her in the larger book project. I am glad that I did!

What did other contributors bring to the book?

Other contributors brought the potential for perspectives different from my own. And I chose folks whose personal lives were different from mine and who came from different professions—lawyers, physical assistants, artists, students, communications director, for instance. I think this difference in approaches and perspectives enhances the volume and the impact that it can have for wider and more diverse audiences.

In terms of African American children’s-teen books, when you walk into a classroom, what titles would you especially hope to find? What approach to building the collection?

I hope that some children’s picture books are there alongside such provocative texts as Maya Angelou‘s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Frederick DouglassNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Indeed, these are not typically youth texts but are texts that sophisticated teens can and should handle. I’d also include Sapphire‘s Push.

What guidance do you have for those building children’s-YA collections in schools and public libraries?

Be open to new texts and not committed to recycling the same old “classics.” We can create new “classics.” We can also bring in youths’ perspectives. Have youths conduct book discussions at local libraries. Listen to the voices of those we are trying to reach. Have youths write review columns—books, movies, songs—in local neighborhood newspapers or library columns. Show them that their voices matter and are being heard. Allow youths to help us make decisions about what they want to read, talk about and think about.

What words of encouragement do you have for African American children’s-YA writers?

Be true to yourselves and write honestly and openly. And imagine the world from multiple and diverse perspectives as we try to image books where every child seems him- or herself positively and legitimately.

What do you do outside the world of youth literature?

I run, I see plays, I serve on the Arizona Humanities Council, I chair a very large English department, and I watch “Judge Judy!” I am also co-editing a book on the works of performance artist Sapphire and revising a paper that considers a performance on “Last Comic Standing” as a revision of Helen Bannerman‘s 1899 hugely popular and racially-problematic children’s book Little Black Sambo.