Agent Interview: Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency

Sarah Davies runs the Greenhouse, a full-service literary agency exclusively for authors of fiction (though not picture books) for children and young adults. Greenhouse launched in January 2008 and has already developed and sold a number of debut authors.

With offices in Virginia (just outside Washington D.C.) and London, the agency represents both American and British authors and sells direct to both markets. Foreign rights are handled by sister-company Rights People – a specialist children’s rights-selling business with a fast-growing reputation for selling literary properties around the world.

Sarah has more than 25 years’ experience of children’s publishing, moving to the USA from London in October 2007. She started her career at Collins (before it was HarperCollins), followed by a spell at Transworld/Random House. In 1994, she joined Macmillan Children’s Books in London as Fiction Editor, rising through the editorial ranks to Publishing Director and member of the management board, where she was involved in all aspects of business strategy and development for an award-winning list which published 200+ titles per year, from novelty/preschool books to sophisticated teen fiction. She held this position until 2007 when she left to start Greenhouse.

Sarah has worked with and published many leading authors on both sides of the Atlantic. Americans include Judy Blume, Meg Cabot, Sharon Creech, Carl Hiaasen, Karen Cushman, David Baldacci, Sarah Mlynowski, and Gary Paulsen. Brits include Philip Pullman, Peter Dickinson, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Eva Ibbotson, and Frances Hardinge. She also has considerable experience in contract negotiation, marketing and rights, as well as a strong understanding of digital developments.

Excellent publishing contacts in both the USA and Britain–and homes in both countries–give her a uniquely transatlantic vision. She makes regular trips to New York and London, and in 2007 was a member of the judging panel for SCBWI UK‘s first-ever writing competition, which resulted in the anthology Undiscovered Voices.

Married to an American, Sarah has twin sons who are more-or-less grown-up now, but who taught her much of what she knows about children and reading. She attends major international book fairs and trade events and loves meeting new authors and nurturing fresh talent. She says, “Everything I’d most like you to know about Greenhouse is embodied in its name. You’ll find my Ten Top Tips for Writing Children’s Fiction, and lots more info, on the Greenhouse website.”

What led you to specialize in youth literature? Could you give us a snapshot of your career?

While I’d never doubted since I was fourteen that I was destined to be a publisher, I fell into children’s books more by accident than by design. I’d been in my first job–working in religious/inspirational publishing in London for the late, great Lady Collins of what was then Sir William Collins Sons & Company Ltd (now, of course, HarperCollins)–for a year or two and was ready to move. I went for, and got, a job as Assistant Editor of the similarly late, great Armada Paperbacks imprint at Collins, which published mass-market fiction such as Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. It was there that my love affair with books for young people began.

How long have you been in the business? How has it changed?

I’ve been in the books business for more than 25 years, virtually all of it in children’s publishing (I made a short foray into adult fiction, which gave me great experience of editing blockbusters; plus I got very good at rewriting embarrassing sex scenes).

The children’s industry has changed massively during my career. It seems a distant memory that we used to be called “kiddies corner”–a minor-league ghetto inhabited by “nice ladies” who made little sums of money from a lot of books. But 15 years ago that’s how it looked–or it did in the U.K., and I suspect things were much the same in the U.S.

The financial pulling power of authors like J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Stephenie Meyer, Christopher Paolini, Jacqueline Wilson (who is huge in the U.K.)–and so many others now–has changed the status of children’s books and made them a really big economic player on the publishing scene. This has led to more children’s publishers/lists springing up, as well as more agencies going into the children’s/teen arena.

Now the great debut voice is at a premium because we have proof that the hottest new properties can sell around the world and on the grand scale.

In general, the business has become far more international, and there is much more synergy between the transatlantic markets than there was, though there will always be areas of difference too. I’ve also seen the rise and rise of the role of marketing and, of course, new and developing possibilities within the digital realm.

What led to your transition from publisher to agent?

I had been with Macmillan Children’s Books in the U.K. for thirteen years, I was being approached about various new job possibilities, and I knew it was time for me to make a move.

I had the option of moving upwards in a corporate publishing structure or moving outwards into something different. I loved working creatively with authors, and I also loved negotiating and doing deals, so agenting was an obvious area to consider.

I was also attracted by the fact that agenting is all about creating opportunities and being personally dynamic and flexible, rather than constantly having to fit into a corporate structure.

I’m definitely an entrepreneur at heart, so the opportunity to create a new business from scratch, on a new continent–but with the security and strength of a highly successful and solidly established parent company [Working Partners, the people behind many leading U.S. and U.K. children’s fiction series] was too good to miss.

The Greenhouse also enabled me to span the Atlantic in both a literary and personal way, representing both American and British writers and keeping homes on both continents, and this seemed tailor-made for me. Oh, it also enabled my American fiancé and I to get married and actually live on the same continent!

Could you offer us some insights into your transatlantic approach?

My publishing career gave me great contacts on both sides of the Pond, plus I acquired, worked with, and published many debut and established American authors over the years.

It has therefore felt very natural to reach out to both American and British authors and know that Greenhouse has good things to offer them. Skype, webcam, Blackberry, FTP sites, electronic banking–and United Airlines–all make it very feasible to run a transatlantic business these days, and I receive submissions from all over the world.

Although publishing contracts are necessarily territorial, talent is not! A great story will work in many different markets; there’s no reason why an American author shouldn’t score their biggest deal in the U.K., or vice versa. What I do believe is unique, however, is that Greenhouse takes the same commission for both U.S. and U.K., calling them both “home market”.

However, as I write this I do have a very exciting piece of news, hot off the press!

I’ve just appointed a wonderful young British agent–Julia Churchill (previously of London’s Darley Anderson Agency)–to focus on building our British stable of authors. This will not only enable me to concentrate even more on the American market, it will also enable Greenhouse to deepen its reach into British writers’ conferences and events in a way I just can’t do now as most of my time is spent in the U.S.A.

I’m very proud that in less than one year Greenhouse has the platform to grow in this way, and I believe we’ll keep growing. The agency is very twenty-first century–it blows out of the water the idea that all your staff have to be sitting in one building in one city. Julia will be in London with my finance people; my senior rights colleague is in Toronto, and my contracts manager is in Bath, England.

If the talent’s out there, there’s no reason why in time we can’t appoint more agents in different locations, all bringing the same values to what we do, and together forming a cohesive business. I find that a very exciting and modern model, and it really reflects today’s international books industry. My ambition is for Greenhouse to be the agency of choice for children’s writers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Would you describe yourself as an “editorial agent,” one who comments on manuscripts, or one who concentrates more exclusively on publishing issues? Why?

I am absolutely an “editorial agent,” and that is a trademark of the Greenhouse. I came up with the name “Greenhouse” after a lot of cogitating because I wanted the agency to be all about nurturing, growing, flowering.

Turn over my business card, and you’ll read that Greenhouse is “Where writers grow.” I have spent my whole career working editorially with authors, from concept stage to craft, and writing editorial notes, changing titles, supporting an author through revision (often several revisions), is deep in my bones.

My mantra is also that if I’m going to get an author a deal, it must be the best that author can possibly achieve–and that invariably means a lot of hard work. I have to get wholeheartedly behind each manuscript I send out, and I therefore have very high standards. The night before a submission you’ll find me going through correcting typos.

But the trade-off is that many editors have commented on the quality of Greenhouse submissions. Because I’ve been a publisher most of my life, I know exactly how publishers think, and that has been incredibly helpful.

When a Greenhouse manuscript lands on the desk of a hard-pressed publisher, I want them to drop everything because they know that if it’s from Greenhouse it’ll be good.

Is your approach more manuscript by manuscript or do you see yourself as a career builder? In either case, why?

I see myself as a career-builder. I’m looking for authors I can accompany for the long term, if possible. I love thinking strategically–and I also love to see my writers develop in their mastery of the craft and in their self-confidence.

I want to create careers for writers if I possibly can, not just one-off success. It’s a great privilege to accompany authors on this journey into the unknown, and through long experience I do understand the insecurities and anxieties that are part of this writing life. It is my job to be alongside, as professional friend and ally.

Most people I work with have a long-held dream of being a professional writer, and I want to see them still writing, with increasing success, well into the future. That means taking care with each step we make together.

What do you see as the ingredients for a “breakout” book in terms of commercial success, literary acclaim, and/or both?

There are probably three aspects to every great book–a really strong story, a great voice, and characters that leap off the page. If you’ve got all that, then you know you’ve got a winner.

I think an author sometimes has to experiment with styles and voices to find what is truly their niche. Think of someone like Meg Cabot who had a degree of success as an adult romance writer, but really took off when she found her voice for teens.

There are many examples of authors who were writing in a smaller, quieter way, but who then found their big idea, their big story, that changed everything (for example, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, Knopf, 1996, 1997).

There’s no formula for this, but there’s something about the right idea coming along at the right time, and in the hands (and creative imagination) of the one writer who can tell that unique story. It’s a kind of alchemy!

Sometimes the “breakout” comes more gradually because it takes a while for the market to catch on to a writer’s brilliance. Someone I’d mention here is Philip Reeve, the author of Mortal Engines (HarperCollins, 2003, 2004) and its sequels, and Larklight and Starcross (Bloomsbury USA, 2006, 2007; 2007, 2008) who I think is not only a great storyteller, but also has an outstanding wit and command of language. He’s becoming better and better known through word of mouth, but it has taken a while.

In your interview with Tami Lewis Brown at The Tollbooth, you mentioned that you don’t represent picture books, illustrators, or non-fiction, but rather are interested in middle grade, tween, and teen manuscripts as well as the occasional brilliant chapter book. Is this still the case? Could you tell us more about your tastes?

Bearing in mind Greenhouse started life less than a year ago, I’ve focused on where I feel I can best use my abilities and experience, and that is in the areas you mention (though I hope we’ll go into picture books further down the tracks).

I like both commercial and literary fiction–and all points in between. I love strong, original concepts, particularly ones I feel could work internationally.

I’m interested in the whole world, not just U.S. and U.K., and having Rights People as my sister company, selling all Greenhouse’s foreign rights internationally, means I don’t have to use sub-agents. This is a great asset for my authors–a real plus that I can offer them.

More specifically what do I like? I like authors who can make me laugh or cry, who can make me see the world in some new way–who make me want to leap to the phone to call them as soon as I’ve turned the last page.

I also love authors who can do great action (very rare) and big stories that engage the intellect as well as the heart (also rare). Oh, and sharp, snappy commercial writing with a strong hook.

But I also have a passion for beautiful, powerful language and therefore adore writers who can weave magic with their words (which means, yes, I will take on a literary novel if I have a strong enough belief in the author).

As I always tell my writers, editors acquire books because they fall in love with them. I have to fall in love too – with the potential of the writer, even if the material I see is rough and needs some shaping or development.

Likewise at The Tollbooth, you mentioned Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008), Beth Goobie’s The Lottery (Faber, 2007), and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008)–thank you!–among recent favorites. Obviously, you have an affection for the spooky side of story. What about more realistic fiction? What are your recent favorite titles on that front and why?

Well, of course I loved Sherman Alexie‘s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown 2007)–that wonderful combination of deeply affecting but also funny.

I liked the commerciality, but nonetheless originality, of Audrey Wait! by Robin Benway (Razorbill, 2007).

I thought Dairy Queen and The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Houghton Mifflin, 2006 and 2007) were lovely–moving, fresh, and absorbing.

I’m currently enjoying Trenton Lee Stewart‘s The Mysterious Benedict Society (Little Brown, 2007), and I like anything by Laurie Halse Anderson.

I’ll also mention Frank Cottrell Boyce (Millions, Framed, Cosmic, HarperCollins, 2004, 2006, 2008) and Julie Bertagna‘s Exodus (Walker, 2008–sequels to follow) whom I used to publish at Macmillan.

Frank has a wonderfully sharp but compassionate eye for family life from a child’s perspective. Julie writes with lyrical power and was weaving stories around climate change and global warming before many people had even accepted them as a reality. It took a while for Julie to find the right house in the USA, but I believe Exodus has launched here very well.

Two books I tried very hard to publish (narrowly missing out to rivals!), but would have done anything to represent: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Random House, 2007, 2008) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (Random House, 2003, 2004). Both are unique, impossible to put down, absolutely memorable.

Are you accepting unsolicited submissions? What is the best way for a prospective client to get in touch with you?

Yes, I accept submissions. Before sending anything, take a good look at the guidelines on the Greenhouse site. I ask for a succinct query email (no snail mail), with up to five (the first five) pages of text pasted into the email. I don’t only want to see your concept, I want to see how your story opens and how you write. It’s also worth looking at the Authors section on the site, which will give you an idea of the kinds of stories I like and with which I’ve so far had success.

Do you have any particular submissions preferences or pet peeves?

I like writers who follow my submission guidelines. Or to be more honest, I get a bit cross with those who don’t! Here are a few tips:

If you cut and paste, make sure you’re not addressing your email to another agent instead of me!

Make sure you’re sending me the kind of story I’m likely to be interested in. In other words, do your research in terms of age group, etc.

Don’t try to be too clever or gimmicky. Just tell me simply about your story and yourself.

Keep your query short and clear. I often receive 150 queries in a week, so it really helps if I can assimilate quickly what you are saying to me. You should be able to outline your story in one paragraph.

Remember that of necessity I have to make a rapid decision about you–whether I want to read more. I can usually tell in a few lines if I am going to be interested in your writing or not. Think about every word you write, open strongly, hear the cadence of your writing as if it’s music. Be a perfectionist (I am!). This is your big chance to impress.

If you send exclusively to the Greenhouse, do let me know and I’ll try to look at it more quickly.

How much contact do you have with your clients? Emails, phone calls, retreats, listservs? What kind of relationship are you looking to build and why?

My authors are very, very important to me, and I feel a great responsibility for them. They have placed their trust in me, and that is a great privilege. I see my authors as my friends, but I also feel it’s important to keep a professional distance so I remain objective. I try to be in very regular contact, even if nothing much is happening, so that I can reassure and encourage.

Writing is such an isolated life, and it puts so much pressure on an individual’s inner resources, so I try to think through what each author might be needing at a particular time. Often it’s just a chat, a brief update–or an email (like one I’ve just sent) saying, “Nothing happening yet but keep the faith.”

I keep authors (and the wider public) in touch via my blog, and I meet my writers as and when I can at conferences and events. I’m very interested in the idea of “community” and look for ways that my authors can feel connected to each other, whether it’s via Facebook, enjoying a Christmas lunch together, or fostering transatlantic friendships. I’d like to feel my authors found their work more fun, supportive, and social because they are part of Greenhouse!

Do you expect your writers to develop a market brand and stick to it? Or are you open to them pursuing a diversity of stories within their body of work? In either case, what is your reasoning?

When an author is starting out, I think it’s helpful to aim at a particular area of the market–so if your first novel is a paranormal romance it’s a good idea to follow up with something targeting those same readers.

Why would you not? You are trying to establish your name, and your name is your brand. This enables your publisher to position you on their list, and makes it far easier for them to justify the costs of marketing and promotion.

Further down the tracks, when you’re more established, I’d certainly be supportive if an author felt a strong pull to write something very different. I represent authors not books, so I’ll look after my authors whatever they write (if I think I can sell it).

What are the greatest challenges of being an agent?

A major challenge is making fast, good decisions on multitudes of submissions–and never losing sight of what that decision means to a writer who has laboured long and hard to produce it.

For me, agenting is about supporting writers in their calling, negotiating with integrity, being known for having high standards, being strong but absolutely fair, respecting publishers as well as writers, never losing my love for this craft or for language… I have a very high view of what an agent should be, and keeping all that in balance–and locating and attracting the finest talent around–is the challenge. I believe that if I am good, people will come, so that’s what I focus on.

What do you love about it?

There’s so much that I love! The author calling me late at night because he’s scared he can’t do his revision on time–and I’m the only one he can share that with.

The little celebration dance (my celebration track is Kelly Pickler‘s “Red High Heels”!) I do around my office when a publisher’s just called to tell me they want to make an offer.

The tears on the phone as I tell a writer their life’s dream has come to fruition after so much effort, and they are going to be published.

The pride I feel in the very first Greenhouse book jacket, now framed and hanging on the wall above my head. The knowledge that out of an empty room in Virginia, where I arrived so tremulously one year ago, a business has come into being–something that has changed people’s lives, not least my own. This is a crazy, nerve-racking, anxiety-inducing but also thrilling industry, and my authors and I share the journey and the risk; it makes a unique bond.

What observations do you have about the U.K. and U.S. markets? Are there any differences in terms of market sensibility, etc.?

For sure there are differences, but also quite large areas of overlap now as the biggest author brands increasingly work around the world.

Generally, it seems easier to sell British fiction to the U.S., than American fiction to the UK–much to the frustration of American agents! There are complex reasons for that–partly to do with market size, partly to do with cultural/historical background, geography and voice.

Brits can be a little insular and aren’t drawn to stories from the Deep South and (sadly) aren’t that interested in American history–especially stories about Vietnam, the Revolutionary War, or Civil War.

They also like their fiction a little hard-edged, I think–more quirky than charming, more conceptual than warm or strong in sentiment. But there’s also a particular kind of British voice that doesn’t seem to work in the U.S.A.–it’s hard to define, but stories that feel rooted in the British family and school system don’t tend to succeed here (with some great exceptions).

The teen market is much bigger in the U.S., and there’s an enviable amount of shelf space devoted to it. This means that much great U.S. fiction never finds its way to the U.K.–especially more “issues-based” or older novels.

That can seem surprising until you look at the costings involved in producing a small run of books. And profit/loss is what it tends to come down to in the end.

Would you like to highlight a few of your clients and/or their recent/upcoming titles?

Well, this is a bit invidious, given that none of my authors are published yet! I’ll therefore just say, look out for all the authors I’ve sold so far. Which in the USA means Sarwat Chadda (The Devil’s Kiss (Hyperion, Fall 2009)), Lindsey Leavitt (Princess for Hire (Hyperion, Spring 2010)), Valerie Patterson (The Other Side of Blue (Clarion, Fall 2009)), Teresa Harris (Treasure in the Past Tense (Clarion, Spring 2010)), Alexandra Diaz (Of all the Stupid Things (Egmont, Spring 2010)), and Tami Lewis Brown (One Shiny Silver Key (Farrar Straus, Fall 2010)).

I love them all, and I believe they each have strong futures ahead of them.

What do you do outside the world of youth literature?

Well, my nearest and dearest might tell you I’m a bit of a workaholic. I do work pretty hard, but that’s because I love what I do, I find it very exciting, and you don’t build a business by sitting around!

But I also keep busy looking after my apartment in London (not easy running a property long distance) and traveling back and forth. I miss my British family a lot, especially my sons (twin boys, aged 22) and my four nieces, so I see as much of them as I can, whether here or there.

My husband and I love animals, especially dogs, and we spend a lot of time with our elderly Golden Retriever, Hogan.

I’m interested in everything historical, especially the Civil War, and I love the outdoor life you can have in the U.S.A. This year I discovered kayaking, especially on the Shenandoah River.

I also do quite a lot of photography. If I wasn’t in the books business, I’d probably train as a photographer and take arty black-and-white portraits and close-ups of nature, full of vivid colour.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Only that I’m delighted (or as we Brits say, “dead chuffed”) to be interviewed on Cynsations, which is a blog I heard about soon after I arrived in the U.S.A. It’s a great honour to be here!

Author Interview: Stefan Petrucha on The Rule of Won

Read a brief biography of Stefan Petrucha from his website.

What were you like as a YA reader? Who were your favorite authors? What were your favorite titles?

Actually, I never read YA as a young adult, not anything labeled that anyway. I was 13 in 1972 and don’t remember there even being a YA section in the bookstore.

It was around that age, though, that I went from being an avid comic book reader to including things like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and paranormal books, like Erich von Daniken‘s Chariots of the Gods (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969)

Over the next few years, I found I loved Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Lovecraft and even a few more literary types like Vonnegut, Steinbeck and Herman Hesse – they were probably my first official “favorite” authors, with books like Steppenwolf (Modern Library, 1963) and Of Mice and Men (Covici Friede, 1937).

What first inspired you to write for teens?

I wanted to be a writer since I was ten, and actually managed to start selling comic books scripts in the late eighties, so part of my audience was always teen, I just never thought of them as a separate group. I still don’t, really, other than the fact that my YA books generally feature a teen main character, and they usually have to go to school instead of a job.

By the 2000s, I’d already written a few licensed novels for White Wolf books, based on their vampire role-playing games, and I was always on the lookout for more work.

At the NorthEastern Writer’s Conference, more a big party than a conference, actually, I met Liesa Abrams, an editor at Penguin/Razorbill. She was looking for new YA material, and I arranged to pitch her some ideas.

Honestly, I had no idea what YA meant, so I headed on over to the Teen section at my local bookstore, started picking up books and reading the first sentence. When something grabbed me, I kept reading, and eventually picked up a few titles, like Feed by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 2004), Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale by Holly Black (SimonPulse, 2004) and So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld (Razorbill/Penguin, 2005).

I was bowled over at the level of the writing and the vibrant ideas. There seemed more variation and experimentation here than in the so-called “adult” section, which left me suddenly very excited by the possibility of contributing.

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

In specifically the YA realm, the pitches to Liesa led to my first teen book series, Timetripper (Razorbill/Penguin, 2006), which is about Harry Keller, a high school student who develops an altered perception of time. This was actually based on my first comic book series, Squalor (First Publishing, 1989). Liesa liked the concept and asked me to do some sample chapters. They went over well enough for Razorbill to offer a contract for a four-book series.

After that one thing led to another. Fellow writer Thomas Pendleton (author interview) and I made a six book deal for our Wicked Dead series (HarperCollins, 2007), about four dead girls telling ghost stories in an abandoned orphanage, and shortly thereafter, I had a two-book hardcover deal with Walker Books.

The first of those, Teen, Inc. (Walker, 2007) has probably been my most successful to date. It’s about the first child ever raised by a corporation. I sold that based on several sample chapters (it’s currently being developed as a TV series for Nick, by the way!).

The Rule of Won (Walker, 2008), on the other hand, started out as a page-long idea and a lunch conversation between myself, my editor at that time, Mary Gruetzke and Walker’s publisher, Emily Easton. I’m currently finishing my third book for them, Split with editor Stacy Cantor, which will be out Fall 2009, along with the Teen, Inc. paperback.

Congratulations on The Rule of Won (Walker Books, 2008)! Could you tell us about the book?

Thanks! I was particularly pleased with it, since it deals with many issues, like why people believe what they believe, and what is reality, anyway, that I’ve been fascinated with for years.

Basically, it’s a very wry look at help-yourself books.

In Rule, a group of high school students devoted to one such book’s “you-can-and-should-have-it-all” principles slowly turns violent. The only thing in their way is hapless slacker, Caleb Dunne, who isn’t sure what he believes, or doesn’t. There’s humor, adventure and message boards aplenty!

What was your initial inspiration for the story?

My interest in New Age ideas and the paranormal (in the old sense of the word, ghost hunting, UFOs, Big Foot, Reincarnation, Fringe Belief Systems, not the newer “Vampire Romance” sense…) went back to the seventies and Chariots of the Gods.

I’d written about similar things for years, with my comic series Squalor, Meta-4 (First Publishing, 1991), the first New Age Superheroes, later The X-Files comic (Topps, 1995), based on the TV series, and even my first self-published novel, Making God (Between the Lines, 1997), which is also about a fringe belief gone wild, but more on a national scale.

The notion that we make our own reality is very old, going back at least to the 19th Century, and made popular in books like The Science of Getting Rich (1910, Elizabeth Towne)–which The Secret references.

Sounds nice and spiritually evolved, but there’s a dark side. Wish I had the reference, but I remember some proponents of similar ideas sitting on a panel a ways back. The skeptical moderator held up a picture of a child with a terrible birth defect and said, “Are you telling me that this child actually wanted to be born this way?” And they said, “Sad as it seems, yes.” Talk about blaming the victim!

Please understand, I have nothing against positive thinking – It’s incredibly valuable to believe in your heart of hearts that you can accomplish whatever you want, but I hardly think that translates into an incontrovertible Law of the Cosmos.

Aside from the billions of broken dreams that stand as evidence to the contrary, there’s that whole, well, “the baby wanted to be born that way” thing.

With wish-fulfillment and peer pressure being such important, continual teen issues (explored by other great books, such as The Wave by Morton Rhue [AKA Todd Strasser] (Puffin Books, 1980)), it seemed a natural milieu for me to explore.

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

After Teen, Inc., Emily and my new, equally terrific editor at Walker, Stacy Cantor, asked me for some rough ideas for a second book, so I came up with about four one-pagers. The original title was actually Wishful Thinking, though the name of the book-in-the-book was always The Rule of Won.

As for the writing, it was one of those rare instances in my career where I actually had a nice chunk of time to do the book. Usually, as a working writer, I’m under some deadline pressure, but this time I had about six months, so I actually had the leisure to write a few chapters, trash them, then start over until I felt like I got it right.

And there were lots of changes along the way. Originally, there were three narratives, one being our hero Caleb, who stands up against the cult, the other being from Ethan’s, the cult leader’s, point of view, the third being the message boards from the club members hat follow the book’s dictums.

Caleb was originally a bully, trying to work his way back into school after being kicked out. Early on, I found that made him a bit too unsympathetic and came up with the notion of making him a slacker instead, so he had his own, if somewhat quirky, belief system that seemed a nice counterpoint to the desires or craves of the club members.

The next thing I wound up ditching was Ethan’s half of the narrative. It seemed to slow things down, confuse the perspective a little. Plus, it was really depressing! Once I settled on Caleb and the “message board” as the sole narrators, things hummed along quite nicely. Caleb tells two chapters, and then we get a look at the postings on the message board.

I’m particularly pleased to think that through the message board I was able to make the group itself a character that evolves. Some of the individual messages may be a little cliché and simple, but I find that’s true of real message boards, too, while, overall, it creates a strong sense of the group mind.

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

One challenge was to try to get across the idea that I, as an author, really don’t know how the universe ultimately works or doesn’t (neither does anyone else, by the way) and give all the points of view a fair shake.

Another was to try to keep the characters as human as possible, not to make it about heroes and villains, but real people, their beliefs and what they’re willing to do for them.

What, if anything, do you wish you could change about publishing (as a business) and why?

Gear it more toward selling whatever books I feel like writing! [Joke!]

Seriously, though, publishing is what it is. Like any industry in a capitalist economy, it’s a machine for making money.

Now, in that context of course, art and meaning and great life-changing stuff are always possible, and many, many people working in publishing aim for just that.

If you could go back in time and talk to your beginning-writer self, what would you tell him?

Buy stock in that new-fangled company called Microsoft! Trust me!

Past that, not to be afraid of losing my voice by exposing my writing to others or trying new ways of writing. To follow the rules more carefully before setting out to break them. To be a more fearless self-promoter, and, despite whatever happens, to continue to have faith in my personal muse, even if the necessities of earning a living don’t always allow it full reign.

What do you do outside the world of youth literature?

I raise two wonderful daughters, Maia (13) and Margo (10) with my wife and fellow writer Sarah Kinney, in our home in Western Massachusetts.

I exercise on an elliptical five times a week while watching fun, mindless action adventure like “24”.

I do family stuff when I can, struggle to pay the bills, look for more work, read to the kids, talk to my best pal Sarah and wonder why I don’t have more time to read or practice playing piano!

What can your readers look forward to next?

I’m just finishing up my third book for Walker, Split which will be out late in 2009. It’s the story of a young man, who, after facing a rough time and a difficult decision, winds up leading two lives, one in which he’s carefree but careless, the other in which he’s caring but totally anxious. When he’s awake in one life, he dreams in the other, as if he’s in two worlds. His problems come to a head when parts of one life seem to magically slip into the other!

Past that, Sarah and I are still co-writing the Nancy Drew graphic novel series (Papercutz, 2005 – present), and I have two new adult projects I’m working on, neither of which I can talk about yet, but both of which involve the paranormal, in the old ghost-hunting sense and the new vampire sense! Make sense?

Author Interview: Carole Boston Weatherford on Becoming Billie Holiday

Carole Boston Weatherford: “Baltimore-born and -raised, I composed my first poem in first grade and dictated the verse to my mother. My father, a high school printing teacher, printed some of my early poems on index cards. I earned a Master of Arts in publications design from the University of Baltimore and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. I teach at Fayetteville State University and live in High Point, N.C. with my husband Ronald and our college-age son and daughter.” Source: Carole’s website.

Why did you decide to make books for young readers the focus of your creative life?

I began as a poet and had published in literary journals before becoming a mother. Motherhood reintroduced me to children’s books. I noted the multicultural trend and decided to try my hand at poeting for young readers.

Could you describe your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I got out of the slush pile by name-dropping in cover letters. I knew somebody who knew somebody. I landed my first two contracts that way.

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

I have 32 books to my credit, mostly for young people. My career has been helped by a string of awards.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led her People to Freedom (Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, 2006), illustrated by Kadir Nelson, won a Caldecott Honor, the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration and an NAACP Image Award.

Birmingham, 1963 (Boyds Mills Press/Wordsong) won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, the Jane Addams Children’s Literature Honor and the Jefferson Cup from Virginia Library Association.

The Sound that Jazz Makes, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Walker, 2000) won the Carter G. Woodson Award from National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and an NAACP Image Award nomination.

Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins (Dial, 2005), illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue, and Remember the Bridge: Poems of a People (Philomel, 2002) both won the North Carolina Juvenile Literature Award.

Dear Mr. Rosenwald (Scholastic, 2006), illustrated by Gregory Christie, received a Golden Kite Honor from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

More recently, Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive (Walker, 2007) and I, Matthew Henson (Walker, 2008), both illustrated by Eric Velasquez, garnered a combined seven starred reviews.

Congratulations on the release of Becoming Billie Holiday, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Boyds Mills/Wordsong, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

Becoming Billie Holiday is a fictional verse memoir. That unique genre combines elements of the novel, biography, oral history, persona poem, and one-woman show.

Nintey-seven poems, titled after Billie’s songs and written in her voice, trace the singer’s journey from B-girl to jazz royalty. The poems are punctuated by stunning mixed media illustrations by Floyd Cooper.

Here’s the premise: Billie is stewing over a condescending Time magazine review of her signature song, the anti-lynching protest hymn “Strange Fruit.” Twenty-four-year-old Billie recites her own memoir.

Born Eleanora Fagan, she was neglected by her parents, raped by a neighbor, and sent to reform school. She scrubbed marble steps, drank bootleg liquor, smoked then-legal weed, worked in a brothel, and found her voice–all before leaving Baltimore. She hit New York just as the Harlem Renaissance was fading into the Great Depression.

Luckily, Eleanora had a voice. She began her singing career as a teen and, by age 25, had shared the spotlight with the era’s hottest bands and recorded her signature song “Strange Fruit.”

What was your inspiration for telling Billie’s story?

Billie has been my muse for decades. Like her, I grew up in Baltimore. I heard her music at an early age because my father was a jazz fan and owned a few of her records.

When I was 16 years old, he took me to see the film “Lady Sings the Blues.” I’ve been hooked on Billie Holiday ever since.

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

After conceiving the idea, I almost didn’t write the book. I feared that young adults might not relate to a long-gone jazz legend. Then, an eighth grader admiring the singer’s likeness at Baltimore’s Great Blacks in Wax Museum unknowingly green-lighted the project.

When I saw that the teenager was not only familiar with Billie Holiday but loved her singing, I decided to go forward.

Before writing a word, I listened to her early recordings, and read bios and interviews. I realized that Lady was not just singing the blues; she was singing her life.

As I researched, Billie whispered in my ear, and as I wrote, she hummed in the background. It was almost as if I were merely transcribing her story. The poems poured out of me at the unprecedented pace of two to three a day. Within three months, I has completed the manuscript.

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

Perhaps because Billie is my muse, there were few challenges on this project. In fact, it seemed as if a way opened for me and for my subject.

I had told my editor about the project before submitting it, and he got back to me in 24 hours with an offer. I feel as if I was destined to write this memoir.

What did Floyd Cooper’s art bring to your text?

Floyd Cooper’s cinematic art evokes the same nostalgia that Billie’s music does. How fitting that he chose a sepia-toned palette.

How about for those writing poetry for young readers?

I would tell any writer with a goal of publication to practice the craft, revise religiously, join a critique group, study the market, learn how to pitch, and by all means persist.

If you could go back in time and talk to your beginning-writer self, what would you say?

Keep the faith. The road will be long, but the journey will be worth it.

So far, as a reader, what are your favorite children’s-YA books of 2008 and why?

I just received Loren Long‘s writing debut, Drummer Boy (Philomel, 2008). It’s a charming story, wonderfully written and illustrated. As far as YA, I view Race: A History of Black and White by Marc Aronson (Ginee Seo, 2007) as an important book.

What can your readers look forward to next?

I have a new picture book, The Library Ghost, illustrated by Lee White (Upstart, 2008). It’s my first fantasy. After writing the book I was surprised to find out how many libraries really are haunted. I’ve even visited a few–but not after hours. There’s a list on George Eberhart’s Brittanica Blog, and a 24-hour webcams at

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win a copy of Masterpiece by Elise Broach, illustrated by Kelly Murphy (Holt, 2008). From the promotional copy: “Marvin lives with his family under the kitchen sink in the Pompadays’ apartment. He is very much a beetle. James Pompaday lives with his family in New York City. He is very much an eleven-year-old boy.

“After James gets a pen-and-ink set for his birthday, Marvin surprises him by creating an elaborate miniature drawing. James gets all the credit for the picture and before these unlikely friends know it they are caught up in a staged art heist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that could help recover a famous drawing by Albrecht Dürer. But James can’t go through with the plan without Marvin’s help. And that’s where things get really complicated (and interesting!). This fast-paced mystery will have young readers on the edge of their seats as they root for boy and beetle.”

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll and click on the envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST Jan. 5! Please also type “Masterpiece” in the subject line.

The winners of ARCs of Dead Is a State of Mind by Marlene Perez (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Jan. 2009)(author interview) were Penny, a YA librarian from Illinois; Lynda, a YA librarian in Texas; Laurie, a YA librarian from Michigan; Meghan, a member of Tantalize Fans Unite! from Maine, and Jamie, a member of Tantalize Fans Unite! from Kentucky. Note: Laurie and Lynda both won in the “Cynsational reader” category, which is open to but not restricted to librarians (there were just a lot of librarian entries for this particular title).

More News

The PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship of $5,000: “offered annually to an author of children’s or young-adult fiction. The Fellowship has been developed to help writers whose work is of high literary caliber but who have not yet attracted a broad readership.” Deadline: Jan. 16, 2009.

Editor Arthur Levine sharing his handmade copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a gift from J. K. Rowling. Source: Pottercast via Lisa Yee.

Writing and Risk, Redux by Sara Ryan. Peek: “With any kind of narrative, anywhere I encounter it, I’m nearly always double-tracking: getting to know characters and following the plot, but simultaneously thinking about structure, stakes, how quickly the conflicts are established, the rhythm of the prose. It is far rarer for me to simply fall into a story.” Read a Cynsations interview with Sara.

Interview with P. J. Hoover from Authors Unleashed. Peek: “Set goals now. Write them down. Really think about what you want to accomplish, and you’ll be worlds ahead of the world!” Read a Cynsations interview with P. J.

From Page to Screen: The Tale of Despereaux movie review by Claire E. Gross from The Horn Book. Peek: “Despereaux-the-film is solid movie-making–and decent storytelling. But without the balance of dark undercurrents, it lacks the staying power of DiCamillo‘s book.” Note: agreed.

This Year in Publishing by Nathan Bransford — Literary Agent. Peek: “Even with all the turmoil the industry has endured, as of October book sales this year were UP over 2007. Up!! Let’s repeat that with caps: UP!! How people are buying books is changing, what types of books they’re buying is changing, who’s publishing them is changing, but people are still buying them, and they still want good ones.” Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan. “Your World, Your Books:” official publisher site for YA books.

“The Teacher-Writer in the Mirror: Reflections on Making the Most of Dual Careers” by Liana Mahoney from the Institute of Children’s Literature. Peek: “My list of publishing credentials grew, and I suddenly found myself turning enough of a profit that I now had the option of leaving my teaching career. This was a tempting thought, since, at the time, I was frustrated by the lack of support in my classroom. In contemplating this decision…”

YA and Urban Fantasy– Crossing generations and genres: a podcast at 5 p.m. Jan. 8 [unsure of time zone] “with NYT Bestselling authors Melissa Marr and Cassandra Clare along with authors Janni Lee Simner, Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Carrie Jones, and Sarah Rees Brennan. Discussion moderated by Eos Executive Editor, Diana Gill.” Source: Cassandra Clare.

Bones of Faerie by Janni Lee Simmer (Random House, Jan. 2009) Official Website. From the promotional copy: “The war between humanity and Faerie devastated both sides. Or so fifteen-year-old Liza has been told. Nothing has been seen or heard from Faerie since, and Liza’s world bears the scars of its encounter with magic. Corn resists being harvested; dandelions have thorns. Trees move with sinister intention, and the town Liza calls home is surrounded by a forest that threatens to harm all those who wander into it. Still Liza feels safe. Her father is strong and has protected their town by laying down strict rules. Among them: Any trace of magic must be destroyed, no matter where it is found. Then Liza’s sister is born with faerie-pale hair, clear as glass, and Liza’s father leaves the baby on a hillside to die. When her mother disappears into the forest and Liza herself discovers she has the faerie ability to see –into the past, into the future–she has no choice but to flee. Liza’s quest will take her into Faerie and back again, and what she finds along the way may be the key to healing both worlds.”

Interview with Susane Colasanti from What Vanessa Reads. Peek: “As a high school science teacher, I got to work with teens every day. But as an author, I can reach out to more teens and hopefully improve their lives in some way. Even if someone likes reading one of my books to escape for a while, I’ve maybe made their day a little brighter and that makes me happy.”

The Best Way for a New Writer to Break In by J. B. Cheaney from Kidlit Central. Peek: “What is changing, according to my agent, is the quality of manuscripts in all genres. More writers, apparently, not only don’t know how to write–they don’t know how to read.” Read a Cynsations interview with J. B. See also J. B. on What We Owe Children Who Read Our Books.

Congratulations to Laurie Faria Stolarz on the release of Deadly Little Secret (Hyperion, 2008)! From the promotional copy: “Until three months ago, everything about sixteen-year-old Camelia’s life had been fairly ordinary: decent grades; an okay relationship with her parents; and a pretty cool part-time job at an art studio downtown. But when Ben, the mysterious new guy, starts junior year at her high school, Camelia’s life becomes far from ordinary. Rumored to be somehow responsible for his ex-girlfriend’s accidental death, Ben is immediately ostracized by everyone on campus. Except for Camelia. She’s reluctant to believe he’s trouble, even when her friends try to convince her otherwise. Instead she’s inexplicably drawn to Ben…and to his touch. But soon, Camelia is receiving eerie phone calls and strange packages with threatening notes. Ben insists she is in danger, and that he can help – but can he be trusted? She knows he’s hiding something…but he’s not the only one with a secret.” Read a Cynsations interview with Laurie.

I ♥ History: a new blog from Texas children’s author Lisa Waller Rogers. Lisa’s books include Angel of the Alamo: A True Story of Texas (W.S. Benson & Co., 2000); Get Along, Little Dogies: The Chisholm Trail Diary of Hallie Lou Wells (TTUP, 2001); The Great Storm: The Hurricane Diary of J.T. King, Galveston, 1900 (TTUP, 2002); and Remember the Alamo: The Runaway Scrape Diary of Belle Wood (TTUP, 2003).

Dude Looks Like a YA by Nathan Bransford — Literary Agent. Peek: “To me the separation between YA and Adult is not necessarily thematic, it has more to do with pacing and presentation.” Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan.

Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass (Little Brown, 2008): a recommendation from Greg Leitich Smith at GregLSBlog. Peek: “…the three grow to appreciate each other, the search for exoplanets, and the wonders of the universe.”

Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Houghton Mifflin, 2008): a recommendation from Greg Leitich Smith at GregLSBlog. Peek: “…a fun, lively fantasy, full of personal and political machinations, and a little bit of magic.”

Favorites of 2008 from Greg Leitich Smith at GregLSBlog. Middle grades include: The Postcard by Tony Abbott and Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass, both published by Little Brown, 2008.

Mind Blowers: Teen Books for the Precocious Reader by Emily at BookKids Recommends.

Tips for You from Agents Linda Pratt of Sheldon Fogelman Agency, Jennifer DiChiara of The Jennifer DiChiara Literary Agency and Tina Wexler of ICM from Colleen Ryckert Cook at Kidlit Central. Peek from Tina: “When it comes to author branding or building an identity, you must identify your focus: are you reaching future readers? Teachers and librarians? Other writers? As for blogs, always be aware of potential readers and keep content appropriate.”

Collected Whips of Thought: Official Blog of K. L. Going, Author of Young Adult Fiction. K. L.’s next book will be King of the Screw Ups (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, spring 2009).

Supporting Authors When Your Heart is Bigger than Your Wallet from Lisa Schroeder. Peek: “If you see an interesting interview or a great review about an author you know, put the link in your blog and point people there. Stuff like this is much more interesting when it comes from someone besides the author herself.”

Full Circle with David Almond: a correspondence between authors from Shana Burg. Peek: “When I heard you speak, I was riveted, and all of a sudden, I was struck with the idea that I was going to attempt to write a novel for young readers too.” Read a Cynsations interview with Shana.

First Pages by Daniel Schwabauer from Kidlit Central. Peek: “The trick is to present information that leaves something interesting unexplained. Your job is to drop hints that imply an intriguing answer, and then fulfill that expectation by answering the question in an intriguing way. This means, among other things, that you never answer your own questions until your reader needs you to.”

Congratulations to the 2008 Cybils Finalists! See the featured books in the following categories: Easy Readers; Fantasy & Science Fiction; Fiction Picture Books; Graphic Novels; Middle Grade Fiction; Non-Fiction Picture Books; Poetry; Young Adult Fiction. Note: Middle Grade/YA Nonfiction is still forthcoming. Highlights include Wake by Lisa McMann (Simon & Schuster) in Fantasy & Science Fiction; Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young (Little Brown)(illustrator interview) in Fiction Picture Books; Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures by Julie Larios, illustrated by Julie Paschkis (Harcourt); and Thaw by Monica Roe (Front Street/Boyds Mills)(author interview) in Young Adult.

5 Minutes With Neesha Meminger from Saundra Mitchell at Making Up Stuff for a Living. Peek: “Having to come up with something close to the power of the Punjabi words pushes me, challenges me to bridge the two, to merge them into something I can put forward to the reader and hope (pray) that I succeed in making that connection with them.”

Enter to Win
a Copy of Need by Carrie Jones (Bloomsbury, 2008). Deadline: midnight EST Jan. 8.

Business Notes

I receive many requests from folks to read their fiction (and others just send it without asking). Unfortunately, I am unable to critique these stories. If you are looking for a reader, I offer a list of qualified professionals on my main site.

Please also don’t write to pitch a book, to confirm whether I’ve received a book (or ARC), or to follow up asking whether I’ll be featuring a book. See submissions guidelines.

More Personally

Yowza! A sighting of Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) in the same store as Lisa Schroeder‘s Far From You (Simon Pulse, 2008). Click the link to take a look! Shop Pickled Pixel Toe! Note: photo below is from a different store; see caption under the image.

And here’s another one (above) at Borders in the East 30s in Manhattan. Thanks to Melissa Walker for the photo!

After many years of buying more formal presents for the cats, we decided to give them what they wanted most–the leftover tissue paper. Here we have Bashi (gray) and Leo (tawny). This scene is typical of their relationship–Leo plunges in, and Bashi watches on with great interest.

Favorite Birthday Greeting: “Eternal good wishes! Hope your cake is tantalizing, and that you jingle dance the night away on your Indian shoes! P.S. By now, I’m sure Santa knows that Rain is not your Indian name.” — Elizabeth Bluemle, children’s author and owner of The Flying Pig

This holiday season brought many joys and one great loss. My great aunt Anne, to whom Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) is dedicated, passed away this month. For a time, I lived with her in Dallas. She was like a grandmother to me. Aunt Anne was just shy of age 89 when she died.


Writing For The Mass Markets: My Publishing Boot Camp With Jennifer Ziegler at 11 a.m. Jan. 10 at BookPeople, sponsored by Austin SCBWI. “Discover what you can learn from writing for the mass markets. How does it differ from writing trade novels? Can it help or hurt your career? Will it improve your craft? Will it help you make valuable connections? Most importantly, will your literary friends and associates still want to hang out with you? Jennifer Ziegler, an Austin-based author and former English teacher, has been writing teen novels for twelve years – many of them for mass market YA series. One of them, Alias: Recruited (Bantam, 2002), made the New York Times’ Bestseller List for children’s chapter books. Her trade novels include How Not to be Popular (Delacorte, 20089)(author interview), and Alpha Dog (Delacorte, 2006)(author interview) which was a finalist for the 2007 Teddy Award.” Read a Cynsations interview with Jennifer.

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will be speaking on “First Drafts” at the February monthly meeting of the Writers’ League of Texas at 7:30 Feb. 19 at the League office in Austin (611 S. Congress Avenue).

Due to a technical difficulty, Cynthia’s discussion of Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008), Eternal (Candlewick, 2009), and related forthcoming books on the teen grid of Teen Second at Second Life has been rescheduled for 3 p.m. Feb. 24. See more information.

Cynthia will be speaking on “Writing and Illustrating Native American Children’s Literature” (with S. D. Nelson) and “Monsters and Magic: Writing Gothic Fantasy Novels for Teenagers” on March 15 at the Tucson Festival of Books.

Cynthia will visit the YA book club at the Cedar Park (Texas) Public Library at 11 a.m. May 30.