SCBWI Bologna 2010 Author-Scholar Interview: Leonard Marcus

Interview by Jenny Desmond Walters for SCBWI Bologna 2010; photo of Leonard by Sonya Sones.

As a historian and leading authority on children’s literature in America, your knowledge of the history of books for children is inspiring.

As you followed the development of children’s books through the last 300 years, do you recognize any specific elements of long-standing children’s literature that you would you say have contributed to a particular work’s ability to stand the test of time? Do any patterns emerge?

Hmm. While it’s hard to generalize, I would say that one quality that the longest-lasting books have in common is that they are character-driven.

Little Women [by Louisa May Alcott (1868)] is still worth reading because once we meet Jo and her sisters we want to spend time with them. The same is true of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer [by Mark Twain (1876)] and the Little House [by Laura Ingalls Wilder, illustrated by Garth Williams (1932)] books, even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz [by L. Frank Baum (1900)]. The narrative voice, and the assumptions about childhood that underpin the voice, are also key.

Authors who have approached young readers with a playful (and, by implication, respectful) attitude and tone have fared better over time than those who have written from on high, with an elevating lesson of some kind up their sleeve.

John Updike once said that the relationship between a good writer for children and his or her reader is “conspiratorial in nature.” A memorable book is like a confidence shared.

Are there authors today who you feel may have captured that enduring magic and may well continue to be read in a hundred years? What types of contemporary work do you think will survive the test of time?

A hundred years is a lot longer now than it used to be! More people are writing than ever, there are more distractions of other kinds than ever before, and all but the tippy top of the cream of culture feels potentially disposable.

Having said all that, I think there are a great many writers whose work has a chance of going on and on. I’ll just mention a few: Emily Jenkins, Hilary McKay, Philip Pullman, the late Karla Kuskin, the late William Steig, some of Terry Pratchett, some of Paul Fleischman

You’ve written several remarkable books of interviews with renowned children’s authors and illustrators that I feel should be required reading for many! These books are a goldmine of information for those learning about their craft.

When working on your books such as, Author Talk (Simon & Schuster, 2000), or Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book (Dutton, 2002), or your most recent release, Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy (Candlewick, 2009), who was your intended audience for these books, and did you have a sense, early on, that they would become such a tremendous resource for hopeful storytellers?

I do hope the books are read in just the way you’ve described. Because writing and illustrating are such solitary activities, I think it also helps just to know the life stories and struggles of the people who’ve come before us–especially when they are the writers and artists whose books we love.

Also, it’s inspiring to know the tradition you are part of, or are hoping to be part of.

It’s humbling, too, and knowing it helps you to keep what you yourself are doing in perspective, which is critical for anyone doing creative work at every stage in their career.

As for the audience, I hope that some preteens and teens are also looking at those books, especially those who have any thought of one day writing or making art.

For your book Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), which outlines the fascinating history of American children’s book publishing, you mentioned previously that you worked on this project for 14 years. What is the process one employs when taking on a writing project of that magnitude? What strategies did you use to maintain your writing stamina and stay focused on the ultimate goal?

I didn’t think the book would take that long, and it was only when I got started on it that I realized just what I had gotten myself into. I did know I was going to have to work on other, smaller projects at the same time, both in order to make a living and for variety’s sake. This turned out to be a good arrangement.

I completed my book Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (HarperCollins, 1998), for instance, during the first few years. That wasn’t exactly a small project either.

But getting through it gave me the chance to learn a lot about one of the major publishers I was going to write about in Minders–Harper–so the research did double duty for me. It was like a Double Word Score in Scrabble.

Everyone is different, but I’ve learned that I need to be working on more than one project at a time–a big one plus some smaller ones that are going to get done a lot sooner. That way, the experience of a sense of accomplishment always feels within reach.

In a wonderful interview with WETA’s Reading Rockets [see transcript and/or videos below], you stated that you enjoyed biographies and non-fiction from an early age. What are some of the elements that children like to find in a good nonfiction children’s book?

As a ten-year-old, I read a biography both as history and as a projection of the future life I might lead. I wanted to know my options! I think we gravitate toward this or that kind of book–biography or fantasy, say–based on our inborn temperaments. I wanted certifiably true stories. Other children want “What if?” stories.

But a biography has to tell as good a story as one you would expect to find in a fantasy or realistic novel. The only essential difference is the biographer’s commitment to historical accuracy.

In that same WETA interview, you also said that becoming a parent had an impact on “the range of books that [you] would consider worthwhile.” In what ways did your view about books change after becoming a parent?

I became a lot more open-minded. I realized that children like books for all sorts of reasons, only some of which have to do with literature and art. My son was born within a week of the publication of my biography of Margaret Wise Brown (Harper, 1999).

A few months later, I read Jacob Goodnight Moon (1947) for the first time and I could see right away that he was totally bored! I had never heard of that reaction to Goodnight Moon before, and here was my own son having it.

He preferred a book I had gotten in the mail as a reviewer called Where’s My Squishy Ball? by Noelle Carter (Cartwheel, 1993).

I was glad to have that experience as it showed me that no book is right for every child, no matter how great its reputation. I would rather children have the chance to exercise their own judgment than be told they have to love this or that book–as if that were possible.

That’s the goal that Margaret Wise Brown was working for, too, and I think she would have been delighted by my son’s reaction.

Your biography, Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon: A Biography of the Author of Goodnight Moon (Harper, 1999), is a really compelling book. What was it about this author that captured your attention?

I first read Goodnight Moon in a bookstore when I was in my late 20s. I had never heard of the book before then.

I had recently moved to New York City, was writing a lot of poetry, and was hoping to get a writing career going. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write, though.

A few years earlier, as an undergraduate history major, I had written a senior honors thesis on early American children’s books.

When I read Goodnight Moon that evening I responded to it first of all as a work of amazingly distilled poetry–a poem that even a two year old could understand. That kind of simplicity and clarity seemed like an ultimate achievement for a writer. I became curious about who had pulled it off.

The author bio on the back flap showed a photo of a movie-star-ish young woman who, it said, had written a great many children’s books and died very young. I thought about how much I had enjoyed reading biographies as a child and how as a college student I had enjoyed writing about the history of children’s books. These strands came together in the thought that I might now try to write a biography of a poet for children whose own book had sent a chill up my spine.

That of course, was just the beginning….and the more I looked into Brown’s career and her life story, the more I felt that I had found a really rich subject–someone who was as questioning and creative in the way she approached her life as she was original in her writing for children. Her story also turned out to be entwined with the history of American progressive education, the avant-garde New York art scene of the 1930s and 40s, post-war American Baby Boom culture, and on and on. I felt lucky to have found a subject that led me in so many directions. Of course, that also meant more work for me!

Are there aspects of children’s literature or forms of storytelling that you think touch children’s lives more than others? What literature contributes most to the life of children and to building a love of reading?

The answer would be different for different children. For preteens and teens of today who don’t see themselves as readers, I think graphic novels and funny books stand the best chance of serving as gateways to reading. For very small children, there are lots of wonderful read-aloud picture books.

The most important thing for children at the beginning is the experience of sharing a book with a loved and trusted older person. The good feeling that is conveyed by that experience is the main thing. It almost doesn’t matter what book is read.

What are some of the things happening in the world of children’s literature today that you think historians might be talking about in the future?

The impact of electronic delivery systems is certainly a topic for future–and present day–historians. I happen to think that traditional books on paper will last, though maybe not certain kinds of books–not dictionaries and other reference works for instance.

Picture books stand the best chance of lasting because the physical aspects of sharing them are central to the way they are read.

Future historians will have a lot to say about comics and graphic novels and how and why they went from being vilified to being regarded as mainstream. It will be interesting to look back at all the fantasy being written now to see, more clearly than we can now, what were the real-life concerns of our time that these writers used indirection to explore.

Lastly, as a trustee of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, and also as the author of Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children’s Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became An American Icon Along the Way (Golden Books, 2007), you have a special awareness of how the perception of children’s book art has changed over the last several decades.

What changes have you observed, and how would you say children’s book art is regarded today?

As printing technology has improved, illustrators’ options have increased. That’s a good thing. So is the fact that more young artists see illustrating children’s books as a worthy career goal. The field has gained greatly in status, and the talent pool has never been larger.

The Eric Carle Museum exists in part because this has been the trend. The time was right for a museum devoted to illustration. In turn, the establishment of the museum has carried the trend of greater recognition a big step further.

Japan already has a number of children’s book art museums. England has one and may soon have more. We’re seeing an international trend in the making, and that is all to the good!

On the dark side, the corporatization of children’s book publishing and book selling has distorted the creative environment for illustrators, putting undue pressure to have a steady stream of blockbuster books and illustrations that shine and sparkle and generally scream “buy me!” Artists have less time to learn the ropes and grow.

But publishing tends to be cyclical and self-regenerating, so I think it’s way too early to be pessimistic about the long term. As I said a moment ago, picture books may be the last traditional books left standing, and that means plenty of work for illustrators.

Cynsational Notes

Leonard Marcus is a rare bird—a distinguished children’s literature scholar who is also an award-winning writer for kids. His books include Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom; Golden Legacy; Minders of Make-Believe; and, most recently, Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy. Leonard is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and other publications and writes a regular column on picture books for The Horn Book. He has served as a judge of the Ragazzi Prize, the National Book Award, and on numerous other prize committees. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

See “Hopes and Dreams,” a segment from his excellent interview with Reading Rockets in the video below (4 minutes, 13 seconds). Give it a moment to load, and then press play. Note: the entire interview series is available; scroll for more segments.

See also, in the video below, Leonard on “Books for a Multiracial Society” (1 minute, 50 seconds). Other segments include: “Images of Children: From Idealism to Realism;” “Goodnight Moon: a New Kind of Children’s Book;” “The Golden Days of Golden Books;” “The Radicalism of Snowy Day and Stevie;” “The All-White World of Children’s Books;” “The Emergence of Books for Teens;” “Does Quality Matter;” “Current Trends in Children’s Literature;” “From Comic Book to Graphic Novels;” “Impact of Television on Storytelling;” “Understanding the World;” “A Matter of Temperament;” and “The High Art of Picture Books.”

Jenny Desmond Walters is the founding regional advisor of the SCBWI Korea chapter. She is an experienced education professional with a love of learning and literature. She has worked in public television developing curriculum and promoting instructional programs, as well as worked extensively with educational publishers and learning materials companies. For the last several years, Jenny has lived in east Asia where she has become an avid writer and observer of life in Japan and Korea. Her articles have been published in national children’s magazines and writing journals, and she has been a member of SCBWI for more than 10 years. Jenny currently resides in Seoul with her husband and three daughters, and she rarely runs out of interesting stories to write.

The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

Austin SCBWI 2010: Destination Publication

Austin SCBWI‘s Destination Publication: An Awesome Austin Conference for Writers and Illustrators took place last weekend. Keynote speakers were Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson and two-time Caldecott Honor [author-] illustrator Marla Frazee.

The faculty also included: editor Cheryl Klein of Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic; author-editor Lisa Graff, formerly of FSG; agent Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary; agent Mark McVeigh of The McVeigh Agency; editor Stacy Cantor of Walker (Bloomsbury); and agent Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

In addition, Cheryl and Sara Lewis Holmes spoke together on the editor-author relationship, Marla and Liz Garton Scanlon spoke together on the illustrator-author relationship, and illustrator Patrice Barton offered portfolio reviews.

The local speaker-critique faculty included: Jessica Lee Anderson; Sibert Honor Author Chris Barton; Shana Burg; P.J. Hoover; Newbery Honor Author Jacqueline Kelly; Philip Yates, and Jennifer Ziegler.

The festivities began with a reception at my house.

The menu featured:

Texas Gulf shrimp;

an assortment of goat cheese and wild mushroom, chicken, and shrimp quesadillas made with assorted cheeses on homemade tortillas;

asparagus, snow peas, mushrooms, carrots and other garden vegetables;

a chef’s selection of cheese wedges such as Spanish sheep’s milk, English blue, triple-crème Brie, Italian Provolone and fresh goat cheese garnished with seasonal berries and grapes;

and delicious dessert bars such as: Butterscotch Brownies, Chocolate Brownies, Toffee Brownies, Lemon Bars and Seven-Layer Bars.

Catering by Central Market. In addition, Carmen Oliver provided a gorgeous mixed fruit bowl.

We had about 65 guests, ten fewer than RSVP’d. Folks traveling from Arkansas and Oklahoma were foiled by the weather.

It was chilly! There were coats, coats! in my house. Possibly the most coats ever!

Marla Frazee and Kirby Larson.

Erin Edwards and Brian Anderson.

Mark McVeigh (gray jacket) and Cheryl Klein (purple blouse).

Cheryl again.

Nathan Bransford (blue sweater) and Stacy Cantor (yellow).

Frances Hill Yanksy and former Austin SCBWI RA Julie Lake.

Jacqueline Kelly.

New SCBWI RA Debbie Gonzales, Brian Yansky, and Varsha Bajaj.

Texas Sweethearts Jo Whittemore, P.J. Hoover, and Jessica Lee Anderson.

Erik Kuntz, Mark McVeigh, Don Tate, Christy Stallop, and Gene Brenek.

Stacy Cantor, Erin Edwards, and Carmen Oliver, who was named the 2010 Austin SCBWI Meredith Davis Volunteer of the Year.

A peek inside the conference. (Most of my photos inside the room turned out too dark, so I’ll leave these images to other conference bloggers).

Outside in the hall, Bethany Hegedus and Jennifer Ziegler.

Carmen again, at the post-conference barbecue at Meredith Davis’s house.

Marla Frazee, Liz Garton Scanlon, and Chris Barton.

Huge thanks to Tim Crow, his committee, the speakers, and everyone who participated!

See reports (many with photos) from Shelli Cornelison, Don Tate, Chris Barton, the Texas Sweethearts, P.J. Hoover, Kirby Larson, Carmen Oliver, Vonna Carter, Samantha Clark, Mark McVeigh, Greg Leitich Smith, Sara Lewis Holmes (part two), E. “Emily” Kristin Anderson, and Austin SCBWI. Note: more posts are going live by the minute, and I’m sure I’ve missed who-knows-how many. But a lot of folks are making an effort to link, so these wrap-ups should lead you to others.

See also Thoughts on Conferences, also by P.J. Hoover. Peek: “I joined Austin SCBWI and signed up for the conference which was only a few weeks later. I didn’t know a soul. I knew almost nothing about the publishing business. All I had was a completed manuscript and a new-found love of writing kids’ books.”

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win a copy of Cupid: A Tale of Love and Desire by Julius Lester (Harcourt, 2007)! From the promotional copy (slightly tweaked to condense):

This is the story of Cupid—the god responsible for heartache, sleepless nights, and all those silly love songs—finally getting his comeuppance.

When the god of love falls in love himself, things are bound to get interesting. And when he crosses his mama, Venus, in the process…Well, things could get downright messy.

Julius Lester brings his renowned storytelling skills to one of the world’s most famous tales. In doing so, he weaves a romantic, hilarious drama brought to life with a bold new voice that’s loaded with sly wisdom. The author’s retelling is sure to draw new readers to classic mythology while satisfying old fans as well.

In a Powell’s Ink Kids Q&A Interview with Julius Lester, he said, “I write for all ages. But I enjoy writing for children because children like stories. Literary fiction has, to a great extent, moved away from story and seems to be written for the academic literati. I like stories. I like to tell stories; I like to listen to stories. So do children.”

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “Cupid” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message me with the name in the header; I’ll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: Feb. 12.

Enter to win one of two copies of The Book of Samuel by Erik Raschke (St. Martin’s, 2009). From the promotional copy:

Samuel Gerard strives to be like every other 12 year-old: he hangs out at the bike jumps or at the mall with his friends, finds creative ways to avoid schoolwork, and repeatedly asks his parents questions that he knows have no answer.

But when his dad embarks on a religious quest to ‘save the world,’ Samuel’s own live is violently upended. Literally starting the day after his father leaves, Samuel finds himself on a dizzying, often humorous series of adventures, from being covered in leeches to accidentally blowing up his friends garage, from cheering up his distraught mother to supervising his feisty, racist grandma, and from making out with the most popular girl in school to a horrific, life-changing fight with the toughest girl in school.

And as Samuel tries to sort out the world around him, he begins his own journey of self-understanding, taking him squarely into the heart of his Denver neighborhood which is already threatening to burst from changing social values and mass immigration.

While The Book of Samuel tells a gripping tale about the tumultuousness of being a teenager at the crossroads of religion and community, family and friends, new-found love and deep-seated hatred, the novel is ultimately a story about the joys and pains of a boy growing up in middle-America.

In the video below, meet author Erik Raschke. Note: it’s a little over eight minutes long.

From the official website: “Erik Raschke was born and raised in Denver, Colorado. He received his B.A. in English from Earlham College and his M.A. in creative writing from the City College of New York. He studied Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and, later, served in Armenia as a Peace Corps volunteer. A certified teacher with the New York Board of Education, he taught for many years in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, as an English teacher. He currently lives with his family in Amsterdam.”

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “The Book of Samuel” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message me with the name in the header; I’ll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: Feb. 28.

Note: one copy of each book will be reserved for a teacher, librarian, or university professor of youth literature; the other will go to any Cynsations reader!

More News

An Interview with Jennifer Hubbard by Saundra Mitchell from Making Stuff Up for a Living. Peek: “I often write male characters from a first-person POV. It’s not a conscious choice. A character’s voice will come into my head and start telling a story. In this case, I had the starting situation: a boy with a notebook left behind by his secret girlfriend, who had just died.”

‘Terabithia’ Author: Reading in a MySpace World: an interview with Katherine Paterson by Jeanne Sager from momlogic. Peek: “…when I realized my children were reading a book that had content in it that would bother me, and I felt they might not be mature enough to handle it, I would always read the book myself and be available to talk about it.” Source: @MCLibrarian.

For Authors Only: a newsletter about advertising and promotional opportunities from Young Adult (& Kids) Book Central). Peek: “Please pass on to authors–new, old, pubbed, pre-pubbed, famous, not-famous…we’ll have something for everyone.”

Enter to Win The Expressologist by Kristina Springer (FSG, 2009), Stupid Cupid by Rhonda Stapleton (Simon Pulse, 2009), and A Match Made in High School by Kristin Walker (Razorbill, Feb. 2010) from Kristin Walker at All the Little Things. Deadline: midnight EST Feb. 7. See more information. Read a Cynsations interview with Kristina.

Interview: Publisher Jason Low of Lee & Low Books from Multiculturalism Rocks! Peek: “…try to be bold and surprise us. Editors love to discover original stories they have not seen before and are willing to work harder to help you realize your vision if it is unique.” Read a Cynsations interview with editor Louise May of Lee & Low.

This Week’s New Releases from Blog. Highlights include Dope Sick by Walter Dean Myers (Amistad), After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick (Scholastic), and Scarlett Fever by Maureen Johnson (Point).

Courage and Confidence by Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “If you lack courage and confidence about your writing, I’m beginning to think that the best thing you can do for that is to just write more. A lot more.”

Three Things Writers Can Learn from Photographers by Carolyn Kaufman from QueryTracker. Peek: “Capture the most important moments. Don’t bother sharing the ones that don’t matter.”

SCBWI-IL Prairie Writer’s Day Conference 2009 by Tabitha Olson from Writer Musings. Peek: “Today, I’m going to share what Alisha Niehaus, editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, had to say about middle grade novels.”

Interview with Marguerite Abouet by The Brown Bookshelf from 28 Days Later: A Black History Month Celebration of Children’s Literature. Peek: “My writing process rests mainly on creating character portraits. I like to determine their psychology, to accompany them through a history, and my imagination is fed by their interactions.”

Author Interview: Jessica Lee Anderson by Mr. Maurer from Coffee for the Brain. Peek: “I spent a great deal of time researching schizophrenia, and I communicated with many individuals battling the disease which helped me to understand my protagonist and to get inside his head.”

Great Kid Books: A site to help parents learn about great books for their kids ages 4 – 14. Peek: “I’m a librarian at Redwood Day School, an independent K-8 school in Oakland, CA. I’m also the mom of 3 kids, ages 5 – 10.”

Six Things I Learned from Online Pitches by Kate Fall from Author2Author. Peek: “Use concrete, specific nouns in your pitches. In pitch world, lots of people discover things too late, uncover secrets, make fatal mistakes, and want things that come at a heavy price.”

Interview: Rene Colato Lainez by April from Cafe of Dreams. Peek: “René Has Two Last Names (Pinata, 2009) is the story of René, an immigrant boy from El Salvador. The first day of school, he discovers that his mother’s last name is missing in his name tag. He decides to add it himself.”

Rita Williams-Garcia on Life and Writing by Stephanie Greene from Through the Tollbooth. The first in a week-long series. Peek: “Like Delphine, I was glued to the news. My father was in Vietnam. I heard Robert F. Kennedy speak at Monterey Airport—I even took a picture with him. Unfortunately, we were never sent a copy.” See also Rita on Quitting Her Day Job, Creativity, the Continuing Conversation. Read a Cynsations interview with Rita and her National Book Award report.

Author Jo Whittemore is kicking off the March release of her new book Front Page Face-Off (Aladdin MIX, 2010) with a series of contests spanning the month of February, the “Four Weeks of Face-Off.” Each week on her blog, Jo will be featuring a different character from the book and readers will have the chance to comment and win a prize related to that character.

“Feminist” is Not a Dirty Word by Colleen Mondor from Chasing Ray. Features insights from Lorie Ann Grover, Loree Griffin Burns, Margo Rabb, and Zetta Elliott. Peek: “…what does it mean to be a 21st century feminist and on the literary front, what books/authors would you recommend to today’s teens who want to take girl power to the next level?” Read Cynsations interviews with Margo and Zetta.

Interview with C.K. Kelly Martin from The Compulsive Reader. Peek: “It’s a shock to me that we’re in the twenty-first century and society is still circulating the idea that being a guy means being aggressive and otherwise unemotional and being a girl means being nurturing and naturally better behaved.” Read a Cynsations interview with C.K.

People Who Need People: How 11 intrepid users get the most out of social media by Kathy Ishizuka from School Library Journal. Paula Chase Hyman said: “The relationships we’ve built have often led to personal appearances, invites to sit on panels, and book sales. Most importantly, it’s resulted in making great books more visible among a very important audience—librarians, parents, and teachers.” Source: @mitaliperkins.

Interview with Debbie Gonzales by Melissa Buron from Book Addict. Peek: “It’s up at 5 a.m. for an hour of creative work. And then, from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. it is all about my business. After spending some evening time with my sweet hubby, I might sneak back to my desk and crawl back into my fiction for a few hours before calling it a great day.”

Simon & Schuster is holding a special contest for readers just in time for Valentine’s Day! Five (5) lucky winners will receive gift sets including titles from their Romantic Comedies series! See more information.

The McVeigh Agency Blog: a new blog from agent Mark McVeigh. Peek: “After ten years as an editor, I switched sides and became an agent. I represent writers, illustrators, graphic novelists, and photographers of works for both adult and children.” Read a Cynsations interview with Mark.

Jane Yolen’s 20 Rules of Writing by Julie from Write Up My Life. Peek: “Go easy on adverbs. Apparently, you could have made a 200-page book just out of the adverbs in the fourth Harry Potter book. But, as Jane says, ‘You are not J.K. Rowling. And neither am I.'”

Young Adult Fiction: a class taught by Sara Zarr from The Glen Online. Peek: “Through lecture, writing assignments/exercises, and suggested readings, we’ll talk about what young adult fiction is, and address fundamental fiction matters like voice, character, and plot in ways that are specific to the YA category.” Contact Sara for more information.

The deadline for the 2010 Writers’ League of Texas Book Awards has been extended to March 15. Click here (PDF) for submission guidelines and entry form. Any book published in 2009 is eligible.

28 Days Later: Kekla Magoon The Brown Bookshelf from 28 Days Later: A Black History Month Celebration of Children’s Literature. Peek: “In retrospect, this rough patch became a deeply rewarding moment, because I held true to my vision for the book, which turned out to be the right thing (judging by my own happiness, as well as by the reviews and awards!).” See also the feature on Sharon G. Flake.

Coretta Scott King Book Award Curriculum Resource Center: “…a free, multimedia, online database for educators and families, featuring more than 250 original recordings with the award-winning authors and illustrators, and hundreds of lesson plans…”

Sara Bennett Wealer: a new official website from the author of Rival (HarperTeen, 2011). Note: she’s originally from Manhattan, Kansas, “the little apple!” See her site for giveaway information!

Nine Traits of Sympathetic Characters by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “Apparently, I generate initial sympathy for my protag[onist], but at some point, the reader loses the connection to him. So, there’s work to do. Here are things I’m looking at.” See also Use Character Traits to Make Your Character Sympathetic. Read a Cynsations interview with Darcy.

A Chat with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, author of 8th Grade Superzero by Mitali Perkins from Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “Madeleine L’Engle wrote once that everything an artist does is her witness, we cannot hide what we are. And I think that’s true. Whatever you believe, whoever you are will come out in your work.”

Giving Critique: tips from Jennifer R. Hubbard. Peek: “Use the sandwich method. If you haven’t heard of this, it’s the practice of beginning and ending your critique with positive statements, pointing out what you liked about the piece. All the suggestions for improvements get sandwiched in the middle, and the praise on either end is encouraging to the recipient.”

Q & A with Carrie Jones by Kate Pavao from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “There’s a sort of larger-than-life aspect that really tails into what novels are often about: giving people hope and a place to escape. I live in fairly rural Maine, and I know locally there are more teens having more issues in school because there are more issues at home. Parents are stuck trying to heat their homes in 17-degree weather and they’re not getting as many hours at work or bonuses or cost of living increases.” Source: April Henry.

Interview with Linda Sue Park from Spellbinders. Peek: “What do I mean by a personal stake? Most often it means ‘family,’ a person’s ethnic background, of course. But fine stories about other cultures have been written by people who married into that culture, or adopted children from that culture, or lived among the culture for many years. Those are not the only ways, of course; beyond that it depends on the individual. Thorough research is vital to any such story, of course, but it is no substitute for a personal stake.” Read a Cynsations interview with Linda Sue.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for Black Is For Beginnings by Laurie Faria Stolarz, illustrated by Janina Gorrissen, adapted by Barbara Randall Kesel (Flux, 2009).

Writing as a Profession: a video from YA author Maureen Johnson. Learn more about her new release Scarlett Fever (Point, 2010).

In the Multicultural Minute, Renee Ting of Shen’s Books asks Christine Taylor-Butler: What is your one wish for the future of multicultural children’s books?

More Personally

Great news! I’m closing in on this month’s deadline on the revision of Blessed (Candlewick, 2011)! That said, it’s still a super-busy time. If y’all could hold off on any non-essential messages until I give the green light, I’d greatly appreciate it! Note: if you’re wondering what my life is roughly like, see the Maureen Johnson video above.

A Conversation about Book Covers and Race by Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature. Peek: “I wonder how readers or buyers respond to one of my favorite book covers (and books)? I’m thinking of the cover for Rain is Not My Indian Name….” Note: this is part of a larger, ongoing conversation in the kidlitosphere.

Cynsational Events

18th Annual African American Children’s Book Fair will be from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 6 at Community College of Philadelphia (Gymnasium)(17th Spring Garden St.). The event is free and open to the public. For more information, please call 215-878-BOOK. Source: The Brown Bookshelf.

Author Bethany Hegedus will speak on “scene and structure” (“If You Build It, They Will Read”) from 11 a.m. to noon Feb. 13 at BookPeople in conjunction with Austin SCBWI. Note: “bring a notebook and get ready to examine Aristotle’s Incline and the 7 Key Scenes every book needs. Please be familiar with Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick, 2000)…, as Bethany will discuss the Seven Key Scenes used to build this gem of a book.”

“More Than Words: Making Connections With Authors and Classroom Readers and Writers,” sponsored by the Texas Association for the Improvement of Reading and the Central Texas Writing Project, will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at Round Rock (Texas) Higher Education Center. Featured authors are: Margo Rabb; Jennifer Ziegler; April Lurie; Varian Johnson; Liz Garton Scanlon; Cynthia Leitich Smith; Don Tate; Chris Barton; Anne Bustard; and C.S. Jennings. Pre-registration ends Feb. 8. Cost: $20.00 Teachers; $10.00 Students/TC’s. Make checks payable to TAIR-CTWP Conference. Mail to: Diane Osborn; Texas State University; Department of Curriculum & Instruction; 601 University Drive; San Marcos, Texas 78666. Questions? Contact Dr. Catherine Davis or Dr. Sharon O’Neal.

2010 Houston-SCBWI Conference will be held Feb. 20 at the Merrell Center in Katy. Registration is now open. Faculty includes Cynthia Leitich Smith, award-winning author and Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty member; Ruta Rimas, assistant editor at Balzar & Bray/HarperCollins; Patrick Collins, creative director at Henry Holt; Alexandra Cooper, senior editor at Simon & Schuster; Lisa Ann Sandell, senior editor at Scholastic; Nancy Feresten, vice president and editor-in-chief National Geographic Children’s Books, and Sara Crowe, agent at Harvey Klinger. Note: “All the speakers will be doing critiques. Critique spots are limited.” See registration and information.

The Greater Houston Teen Book Convention is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 10 at Alief Taylor High School, and admission is free! Speakers include keynoter Sharon Draper and:

2010 Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Workshop is scheduled for June 14 to June 18 at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah. Peek: “Full-day participants spend their mornings in small workshops led by award-winning faculty. Both full- and half-day participants enjoy afternoon plenary sessions by national children’s book editors and an agent, as well as breakout sessions by our workshop faculty and guest presenters. The keynote address and book signing are open to all conference attendees.” See faculty.

SCBWI Bologna 2010 Author-Illustrator Interview: Frané Lessac

Interview by Jenny Desmond Walters for SCBWI Bologna 2010

As an author/illustrator of over 35 award-winning children’s books that have been published around the globe, what advice do you have for writers who are just starting out?

Write about something that you’re passionate about. It shows in the words and art. Enthusiasm is contagious. If you have it, a perceptive editor will catch it and eventually your readers will relive that original passion.

Be active with your SCBWI membership. It’s the best way to keep your finger on the book publishing pulse. You’ll make firm friends and meet SCBWI members from across the world and enjoy the generous support of a global network.

You grew up in New Jersey, but your life has taken you all over the world. What was it that inspired you to want to share your many cultural experiences with children?

After studying Ethnographic Film at UCLA, I moved to the idyllic island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. Landing on the tarmac for the very first time, I felt an affinity to the people and landscape. My first book, My Little Island, was a result of my years on Montserrat.

I’m passionate about travel and feel compelled to share stories from around the world. I want to create books that all children can identify with and enjoy. Children have a natural curiosity about books. My hope is that they can travel vicariously to other countries through my books and develop a worldview that appreciates the richness of other cultures.

How do you find inspiration for a story, and in the case of your books about life in other countries, how do you choose which aspects of a culture you want to share?

Children often ask me what’s my favorite place in the world and why. I’ve traveled to over forty countries, and each has a unique story to share. Children are children everywhere, and they all love a good story. They’re all curious about the world.

I try and view the world through a child’s eye: What intrigues me? What amazes me? What stories would I take home and share? There are some stories that just have to be told. I try and connect children to rich and varied cultures so they can appreciate their own uniqueness. Creation tales from around the world help make that connection.

As someone who both writes and illustrates, do the illustration ideas come at the same time as the words or is there a certain order to the process for you? What is your creative process like?

Story always comes first—whether one tells it in illustrations or words, or the collaboration of both in a children’s picture book. The initial spark to write or illustrate a story might be generated by a character or a setting.

Seeing a statue of a wounded soldier on back of a small donkey was the catalyst for The Donkey of Gallipoli: A True Story of Courage in World War I, a story set in Turkey.

Hearing of an elephant that saved children from the Tsunami in Thailand was the inspiration for The Day of the Elephant.

Accurate details in illustrations and text create an overall sense of cultural authenticity. I’m tenacious about researching.

When I’m asked to illustrate a book, I try and visit the country and immerse myself in that culture. I talk to as many people as possible. I visit museums and libraries. I watch films and documentaries. I read books, and most importantly respect cultural protocols.

Your husband, Mark Greenwood, is also a writer, and you’re listed as the illustrator for several of his books. Do you collaborate with one another on a book from its inception?

Working with Mark is always a pleasure. He intuitively knows how I’d paint a particular scene, so he keeps me in mind when he composes the language. We constantly talk about ideas — right from the beginning. We visualize an initial concept together and then see it through to the finished book.

I take the text quite literally and paint so much detail from the text that Mark will look at the artwork or sketches and give the text one final edit. Taking a loss on the words and letting the art tell certain parts of the story always improves a picture book. It makes the collaboration of text and art stronger.

What do you love best about your job as children’s writer and illustrator?

Every project is exciting because I learn so much about the people and setting of where my books take place. I’m humbled to meet so many wonderful creative people from all over the world.

I’m fortunate that I’m invited to conduct author visits in some truly amazing places that one can only visit by invitation. I travel extensively to remote communities in Central Australia, creating books with the adults and children.

Indigenous Australians have some of the world’s oldest stories, passed down for thousands of years. I consult with the elders to find a significant local story that the children can retell and create in book form. My greatest ambition is to instill pride and self-esteem in children about their unique heritage and their own ability to capture it in pictures and words.

Your website says that while working to find a publisher for your first book, My Little Island, in 1983, you moved to London from Montserrat to be closer to publishers. How did that influence your work and lead to the eventual success of publication?

I went to visit friends in London and stayed seven years. At that time, I didn’t know anything about getting a book published. I thought I should live near the publisher.

In reality, having a face-to-face meeting with the publisher was helpful, and I was able to plead my case when they hummed and hawed whether they’d print my first book. I promised if they published the book, my mom would buy every copy. I was paid £100. advance, and it’s still in print 27 years on.

Also on your website, you mention that 30 publishers turned down your first book idea until the right one finally accepted it. What was the process like? Did the book change over the course of this process?

When I first started approaching publishers, all I had was an idea and a series of paintings of Montserrat. A hard sell when you’ve never been published.

I hadn’t done my homework, so I wasted a lot of time approaching the wrong publishing houses. In the process of many publishers passing on my idea, I gained invaluable knowledge. By the 30th publisher, I had a solid proposal.

When you submit your manuscripts, how do you identify potential publishers for your work? Is it mainly through networking that you’ve had the most success, or do you also send books to the infamous “slush pile?”

Fortunately, I have a dynamic literary agent who knows what I’m looking for and what manuscripts will suit my style. I live over 16,000 miles from most of my publishers, so it’s good to have someone batting for me in the big smoke. I have a fantastic rapport with my editors and know what’s appropriate for their lists. I’m constantly meeting new publishers and have a healthy back list. All this hopefully keeps me out of the “slush pile.”

When you pitched your first book, and even for subsequent books, do you have any hints or tips you can share that you believe helped your manuscripts stand out and get the attention of publishers?

The children’s book publishing industry has changed over the years. The art has become quirkier. The shelf life of books shorter. The market competition is greater, and with eBooks, many changes are happening that will alter the way we interact with books in the technological future. Keep up with these changes.

Publishers invited to speak at SCBWI conferences often offer attendees the opportunity to submit one manuscript or portfolio for consideration. This is one way out of the infamous “slush pile.”

My tips:

• Short, sharp and sweet cover letters.

• Don’t be a closet author or illustrator—share your ideas.

• One needs preparation, patience, determination, dedication and luck to break into the industry.

• Try and build a relationship with an editor or publisher.

• Authors: Practice the “elevator pitch.” In less than two minutes, explain what your book is about in preparation for that opportune moment when you meet a publisher.

• Illustrators: Have a portfolio that shows a diversity of work. It should include animals, children, and anything else you love to draw. Send out samples to art directors.

Have you ever scrapped a story because of too many rejections, or in your experience, does every good story eventually find a publisher?

Good stories eventually find their way. I have a couple of stories on the back burner that have been there for a while. Every now and then, I take them out, dust them off, and try to find them a new home. Rejection letters are like badges of courage.

Once, I received three rejections in the same day. One company designed their rejection slips as drinks coasters, which I promptly used.

And finally, do you have a new project on which you are currently working? If so, can you tell us a little about it?

I’m currently working on the preliminary art, or as I call them, sloppy copies for The Drummer Boy of John John. The book is inspired by Winston “Spree” Simon; at the age of seven, he was a drummer in a steelpan group called the John John band. He made “noise” by playing melodies on empty biscuit containers during Carnival celebrations. The proud villagers of John John, Trinidad, believe that he was the first person to play the steel drum.

Next book release–Ned Kelly and the Green Sash, written by Mark Greenwood (Walker, May 2010). Ned Kelly and the Green Sash is a window into the character of a poor boy, once honored for his bravery, who grew up to become Australia’s most famous outlaw.

Cynsational Notes

Frané Lessac is an author and illustrator of international renown, having over 35 award winning children’s books published throughout the world. She has exhibited her work in London, Paris, Sydney, Perth, New York, Los Angeles, and the Caribbean. Frané is on the Executive Committee of the Australian Society of Authors and the Illustrator Liaison for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in West Australia. Her greatest ambition is to instill pride and self-esteem in children about their own unique heritage and their ability to capture it in pictures and words. Learn more about Frané Lessac.

Jenny Desmond Walters is the founding regional advisor of the SCBWI Korea chapter. She is an experienced education professional with a love of learning and literature. She has worked in public television developing curriculum and promoting instructional programs, as well as worked extensively with educational publishers and learning materials companies. For the last several years, Jenny has lived in east Asia where she has become an avid writer and observer of life in Japan and Korea. Her articles have been published in national children’s magazines and writing journals, and she has been a member of SCBWI for more than 10 years. Jenny currently resides in Seoul with her husband and three daughters, and she rarely runs out of interesting stories to write.

The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

Craft, Career & Cheer: Bonnie Christensen

Learn about Bonnie Christensen.

Note: interior illustrations below are from Bonnie’s Django, World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 2009) and featured here with permission.

What do you love most about the creative life?

In attempting to answer this question, I ran straight into a wall. There are so very many things to love about the creative life, can I love all of them “most”? I’ll try to be obedient and address the lovable aspects in order of preference. And I’ll explain why as best I can.

#1 The moment of creation. Where did that idea come from? Why won’t it leave me alone? What does it want me to do? Is it insane? Can I actually even mention it to my agent without feeling like a total ninny?

It’s pure bliss though, this something new that rose up out of the earth one morning while I was making the espresso.

#1. Freedom. This doesn’t just mean that I can wake up at a ridiculous hour and lounge around in my jammies, eating salt-and-vinegar chips and chocolate-covered coffee beans all day while reading every Jane Austen novel for the 100th time.

No. But maybe tomorrow. No, no. Freedom to explore, or do nothing, to take a walk or a shower at 3 p.m. The strange sort of place that a wonderful idea will crop up in the unstressed mind. I can spend a day at the beach, if I work all weekend. I’m a grown up, and I can create my own life, my own schedule. It’s wonderful to have the freedom to daydream and doodle and sometimes to do nothing at all.

I have a friend who often says “nothing is something to do.” I like that.

[Yes, #1 is a tie.]

#2 Research. The older I get, the more ignorant I feel. To create books or illustrations requires research of all sorts. Travel, reading, museums, meeting people, learning new languages, understanding other cultures, other times in history.

At the moment, I’m fascinated with Etruscans; three years ago, I knew nothing more than the name. But one day, when a series of ideas have percolated properly, the Etruscans will tap on my door and present me with a task. That’s when the work truly begins. But it’s work rooted in curiosity and enthusiasm, an exploration or the best sort.

#3 Change. From Etruscan to jazz musicians to a child learning to make borscht to a journalist putting her life in jeopardy for writing out against lynchings, each book brings a new universe of experience and understanding, new friends and enemies, new costumes and lighting and architecture.

In short, each book is a new life, each one entirely unique.

[Cover art from Magic in the Margins by W. Nikola-Lisa, illustrated by Bonnie Christensen (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).]

#4 Fun. Jammies and espresso and a big table with lots of crayons and newsprint, or a tiny notebook with fine black pens. Crayons smell good; they really do. And I can blast my iPod as loud as I like, and when Marvin Gaye comes on, I can jump up and dance around like a dervish and then do it again and again.

I can do whatever I want in my studio. But I know that if I want to keep my studio, I’d better sit back down sooner or later and do the work part. And the work part is good too, always creating a challenge to be solved whether with illustration or writing, and I like challenges.

How do you define professional success?

Hm. This is something that changes constantly.

At one time professional success meant not being a “one-book wonder.”And then it meant “just keep going.” But that’s not success exactly, that’s really lining up work.

Now that I’ve stopped counting the books like birthdays, it seems professional success is really a personal philosophy. And what I’m concerned with is personal success within my profession. It’s easy to identify professional success; loads of books published, awards, being made into an action figure (okay, I exaggerate, but if I had the kind of success I’d demand it!)

Just look at the New York Times best seller lists, buzzing with brilliance. Once upon a time, these lists gave me sour grapes and ennui. Now I don’t look at them, and I’m much happier.

I let my mind wander. I let my body wander to foreign places. I play the violin.

I’m scatterbrained. Sometimes I go to an important event and later discover I’m coated with a nice layer of cat fur because I need glasses for more than reading.

I’m in the business of making the best books possible for me, and even then, they are never good enough, but I try to keep in mind the child who will read the book and discover elements included to amuse myself while working, and those same elements will make the child happy too. This is my personal success within my profession.

Could you tell us about your new release?

My latest book is Django, World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 2009) which I both wrote and illustrated. It’s a biography of Django Reinhardt, the gypsy jazz guitarist who rose to prominence in Paris dance halls of the 1920s and ’30s but was then badly injured in an accident. He didn’t give up guitar despite losing use of two fingers of his fretting hand; instead, he spent almost two years retraining himself to play in a new style adapted to his ability. Really an incredible man with a rare musical talent.

The other project I’m working on is The Princess of Borscht, written by Leda Schubert (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 2011), a lovely and funny story about a girl trying to make borscht to help cure her grandmother who’s in the hospital. It’s quite a leap from the serious nonfiction work, and I’m loving the serendipity of it all.

After that, I have Fabulous, A Portrait of Andy Warhol (Christy Ottaviano/Henry Holt, 2011), a picture book bio of Andy Warhol, coming out. Cool.

Cynsational Notes

Django, World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist was named the 2010 Young Children’s Book Winner of the ALA Schneider Family Book Award. Peek: “The Schneider Family Book Awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.”

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

SCBWI Bologna 2010 Agent Interview: Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency

Interview by Jenny Desmond Walters for SCBWI Bologna 2010

On your website, you have wonderful information for people interested in learning more about your agency. One of the things you mention is that Greenhouse is looking for stories that have “a great concept, memorable characters and a strong voice.”

Can you give some specific examples of the kinds of qualities that make characters memorable to you as you read?

Most of all I want to believe in a character. I want to leap out of the reading experience (words on a page) and into the mind of that individual, so I am caught up and transported into their world. I want to feel their dilemma and the difference between what is going on in their head and what the other characters may see or hear; the inner agenda versus the outer. For example, the feisty girl who is vulnerable inside. I want to experience not only a story arc but also a character arc, so the protagonist makes a satisfying journey that gives meaning and richness to the unfolding events.

As someone once said, “The best stories teach us more about ourselves than about the characters.” Very true, and if we feel changed ourselves by a story, by our identification with a character, then we are unlikely ever to forget it. Isn’t that the essence of great fiction?

Before becoming a literary agent, you were a children’s publisher for many years, working with some top authors in the industry. What factors propelled you towards starting your own literary agency?

I had been Publishing Director of Macmillan Children’s Books in London for a number of years. While I loved my team and we were very successful, my time was increasingly spent in management–of staff and systems. I had a deep feeling that I was moving towards a major change in my life. I was hungry to get back to doing what I loved most–working closely with writers, editing, developing stories. I was also very drawn to an entrepreneurial endeavor–starting something from scratch, but with the personality and culture that I envisioned, rather than one imposed by corporate demands.

I felt I had the experience and qualities that, as a publisher, I sought in literary agents. I knew the business inside and out, I loved negotiating and doing deals, and I had many years’ editing experience. I also had a transatlantic identity–knowledge of both U.S. and U.K. publishers and markets. Oh, and I was engaged to marry an American man!

All these things came together when my old friends over at Working Partners in London said they were keen to “do something in the U.S.A.” This gave me the backing of a highly successful parent company and access to the difficult infrastructure that a single-agent company just can’t afford–finance, legal, tax and media experts, plus an amazing rights-selling sister company, Rights People.

When I came up with the name Greenhouse I knew I had found the perfect scenario–autonomy to create a great agency brand, but supported by a very experienced back-office team. The idea of launching this in the U.S.A. totally thrilled me.

I love the Greenhouse’s slogan that it’s “a place where writers grow.” What are some of the specific ways you interact with your clients in order to nurture their growth and their careers?

I’m a great believer in the fact that all areas of life feed into each other; i.e., If we are supported, connected, happy and excited about what we do, we will achieve more than we ever thought we could. So the first thing is that I try to foster a culture of communication, friendship and lively connectedness for our clients.

While Julia [since January 2009, Julia Churchill has been developing the U.K. side of Greenhouse] and I keep in touch with authors as much as we can, we also encourage authors to seek support from each other as they go through the often bumpy ride to publication and beyond.

I try to be very responsive; if an author contacts me, I get back to them very fast, wherever I am. I also often call them just for a catch-up and chat. Anxiety and self-doubt are big issues for most authors, and I try to head off those feelings or deal with them as well as I can. We want our writers to focus on their creative work, while we deal with the rest.

I love strategizing, and I’m always thinking “what comes next?” for our clients. How are we going to get to the next level, how do we position ourselves, what should the next story be if we’re to consolidate, etc. etc.?

Our goal is to keep authors under contract, with a developing career. This business isn’t just about getting published, it’s about staying published, and that’s something we keep in mind all the time.

We also get very editorially involved and try to help writers grow in their craft and self-confidence–more on that below.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face when selecting a new client?

I tend to see opportunity rather than challenge when I take on someone new. What I love is when I have a gut feeling that a particular writer is for me. Their story, their style, their interaction just meshes, and I have an instinct that it’s going to work between us, professionally and personally (because both are very important; this is going to be a close relationship for the long term).

First and foremost, I’m looking for a writing voice that leaps out at me and announces that this individual has something special, even if raw. Plotting we can often fix, but it’s tough to create voice if it doesn’t exist. I love writers with an ear for language, a stylistic panache, a je ne sais quoi that excites me. It isn’t a question of being “good enough” (as some submitters suggest); it’s all about being standout.

Before I take someone on, I like to think very carefully about the manuscript and how it could be made stronger before submission (usually it can). I therefore need to know that the writer is keen to work hard, to revise, that they are truly serious about developing their craft.

There is often so much revision in the process–even after we’ve sold the book–and attitude, flexibility, meticulousness, openness are key ingredients.

The submission journey is one of shared risk for author and agent–I imagine us setting off down the road together, hand in hand.

You’ve been in the business for 30 years. How would you say it has changed over the course of this time?

That’s a huge question!

Briefly, when I started out, children’s publishing was a little niche run by “nice girls” who stayed in their “kiddies’ corner.”

Yes, I’m serious. Our aim was to make small sums of money from a lot of titles. So, the real change is that now children’s publishing is big, big business, acknowledged as often the most recession-proof, profitable area of corporate publishing. Rowling, Pullman, Colfer, Horowitz, Meyer (and so many more) have shown the international sales clout attainable and that has in turn galvanized Hollywood.

There’s also much more international synergy. Twenty years ago markets were more disparate; it was all much more amateurish. Now, children’s books are much more sales-and-marketing led, and we see adult-level publicity/marketing campaigns (not for all books, of course).

News of hot properties spreads around the world extraordinarily fast. A big book in the U.S. is likely to be big–or at least highly sought after–in many territories. Of course, that’s also attributable to the Internet age and ever-increasing globalization. This international view particularly underpins Greenhouse; we see the whole world as our marketplace.

The other thing of course, is new media and where all that is taking us; ebook publishing, digital download, apps, hand-held readers. What will the Apple Tablet bring?

Exciting times, even if we do have to hold on to our hats. It goes against our literary grain, but we have to think not only of “stories” but also of “content.”

On your website, you note that you are an “editorial agent.” Can you explain more about what that entails? Is this the kind of service that all agents provide, or would you say this is a unique aspect of The Greenhouse?

I can’t claim we are unique, but it’s true that editorial is a strength of ours. We believe more in potential than in initial actuality. By which I mean that I’m looking for voice and concept, but if the plot is a bit of a muddle and the characters need more development, we are prepared to work closely with authors to develop these areas. Of course that is a gamble–we can’t be sure the manuscript will develop into something fabulous, but there are times when we take that risk (and it has paid off very well for us and the authors concerned).

There’s also a small number of authors whom I feel are cruising just below a point where we can be confident of taking them on; perhaps their story needs a much deeper level of creative input. We’re currently looking at how we might work more with a small number of these. Nothing is formalized, but it’s an area that interests me and we’re just connecting now with our first individual in that capacity.

I believe it’s our responsibility not only to try our hardest to get an author a deal, but also to get them the best possible deal. Usually, this means taking time to get a manuscript into optimum shape before submission. It’s all about care; we never just “fling stuff out and see what sticks.”

Your blog is filled with jewels of information and inspiring topics for hopeful writers. It’s clear that you balance an enormous number of responsibilities. How do you find time to keep up with the ever-increasing demand to have a presence on social networking forums and blogs, and do you think it is important for hopeful as well as established writers to do the same? Have you ever picked up an author because you read his or her blog?

I personally don’t dwell too much on social networking. Julia Tweets from the Greenhouse site, but I honestly don’t have the time. However, I do quite a lot of interviews and take my own blog very seriously–like a carefully honed journalistic assignment each week.

I see it as helping to present the “face” of the agency, letting visitors into what I think and feel about the industry and the business of writing. But I also like to demonstrate that I too am a writer–I craft my work and struggle to get it right; I share in the pressures.

Of course, there is value in anything that promotes a writer and develops their fan base, and social networking can be great for that. But it isn’t a universal panacea, and I do worry about the hours aspiring writers can spend blog-reading, Facebook-ing and tweeting.

It’s not about being friends on Facebook; it’s about becoming a strong and memorable writer. For me, it all comes down to that, and focusing on the nuts-and-bolts craft is the absolutely hardest thing. Perhaps we all need to shut out distractions for one day each week?

I always look at links to blogs or sites that writers include in submissions, but for me, that’s not mandatory. In some ways it can be easier to create your web presence after you have a deal, so you can target it more accurately. I’ve never signed an author on the basis of their blog, though it’s great (and an additional incentive) if that is lively, relevant, fresh and original; it all helps to create an impression. Plus, it can reveal a great self-promoter. However, if your web presence is tired, badly designed, out of date or banal, then it isn’t going to help you.

Your agency represents middle grade and young adult manuscripts. Are there any stories you’re not getting right now but would like to see come across your desk?

There’s a lot in my blog about what I’m looking for, and I recommend reading through back posts to get a wider sense of that. However, in general I’m looking for work that leaps out at me for some reason. Yes, I’m still interested in dark YA (the money is still there), but it’s got to have something very fresh. I see a lot of very similar stories; Death in every imaginable guise is huge!

I’m intrigued by “what if?” concepts because asking oneself that question can lead to boldly original plotting. I also like big issues in YA–faith, meaning, redemption . . . I want to be challenged as well as swept away emotionally.

I’d like to see more quality/charming/beautiful writing for girls in middle grade, and I’d love to find a really hilarious story for boys (not relying on the perennial supposed boy-pleasers of slapstick and farts). I’m interested in international stories, with authentic settings, and I have always loved brilliant high-concept or character-led work for tweens.

Writers who try to do something different, who are ambitious in a literary sense, are always very welcome.

In an interview at the beginning of 2009 with Cynthia Leitich Smith, you said that you hoped to begin accepting picture books in the future. Do you still see that as something the Greenhouse will do and, if so, do you have any timeline in mind for when this might happen?

Ah, something I am often asked. Our position at the moment is that we represent picture book texts when by a client whom we initially took on for older, longer fiction. In fact, we sold our first picture book last fall.

I’m afraid I don’t have a timeline at the moment for soliciting picture books from the wider public. We are very, very busy with older fiction and receive a huge number of submissions, so I have a concern about widening the net right now. It made sense to focus on older work at the outset because I’m a fiction editor by background, my expertise is particularly with character and plotting, and because there’s much less synergy in the international markets for picture books. But it’s something I’m keeping under review and I wouldn’t be surprised if we are considering picture books by the end of the year (but I’m not promising).

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

We always accept unsolicited submissions, and a number of our authors joined us in this way. We accept e-queries only, and all submission guidelines are given on the Greenhouse website. I’d suggest any interested writer should start there and closely follow the instructions.

And last, do you have any tips or suggestions for authors who meet you at conferences?

If an individual met me at a conference and wants to submit work then they should include where we met in the email heading and also give more details in the body of the message, so I’m reminded about the conversation we had. Inevitably, I prioritize submissions from people I’ve met, especially if they are exclusive to Greenhouse.

I enjoy meeting authors and talking about writing, and I’ve become friends with a number of writers whom I didn’t subsequently go on to represent.

We’re all in this business together, we’re united by our love of books and reading–and a profound belief in the power of literacy and imagination for young people. Plus, it’s all a lot of fun. The only constraint, unfortunately, is time!

Cynsational Notes

Sarah Davies was a children’s publisher in London for more than 25 years before moving to the U.S.A. in 2007 to launch the Greenhouse Literary Agency. Based in Washington, D.C. and London, the Greenhouse exclusively represents authors of children’s and YA fiction and is not only transatlantic (Sarah personally represents both American and British authors direct to both markets), but also unusually international–foreign rights are sold by sister-company Rights People, a specialist children’s rights-selling business with a fast-growing reputation for selling literary properties around the world.

In her publisher incarnation, Sarah worked with and published authors such as Judy Blume, Meg Cabot, Sharon Creech, Karen Cushman, and Philip Pullman. As an agent, she represents many debut authors, a number of whom have achieved deals at auction – among them, Sarwat Chadda, Lindsey Leavitt, Brenna Yovanoff, Tricia Springstubb, and Valerie J. Patterson.

Sarah has been a fiction editor half her life, and brings a wealth of editorial experience to her role as literary agent, working closely with writers to reach an optimum submission point. Sarah says, “Everything I’d most like to tell you about the Greenhouse is in its name. It’s where writers grow!”

Jenny Desmond Walters is the founding regional advisor of the SCBWI Korea chapter. She is an experienced education professional with a love of learning and literature. She has worked in public television developing curriculum and promoting instructional programs, as well as worked extensively with educational publishers and learning materials companies. For the last several years, Jenny has lived in east Asia where she has become an avid writer and observer of life in Japan and Korea. Her articles have been published in national children’s magazines and writing journals, and she has been a member of SCBWI for more than 10 years. Jenny currently resides in Seoul with her husband and three daughters, and she rarely runs out of interesting stories to write.

The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

Spirit of PaperTigers Project

Today PaperTigers announced its Spirit of PaperTigers Project, an initiative of Pacific Rim Voices, with the aim of promoting literacy “while raising awareness of our common humanity.”

This will involve a donation of 100 book sets of seven carefully selected multicultural books to libraries and schools in areas of need across the globe.

See Choosing the 2010 Book Set by Sally Ito from PaperTigers. Peek: “We are especially concerned with young readers for whom literacy is a crucial pathway out of adverse conditions in life, and with communicating to them the message that there’s a place for all of us, with all our similarities and differences, in the world we share.”

Cynsational Notes

The February 2010 issue of PaperTigers also includes interviews with author-illustrator Claire A. Nivola, author-illustrator Bolormaa Baasansuren, and authors Guo Yue and Clare Farrow by Marjorie Coughlan as well as interviews with author Lucia Gonzalez, author-illustrator Lynne Barasch, author-illustrator Grace Lin, and author Katie Smith Milway by Aline Pereira.

New Voice: Susan VanHecke on Rock ‘N’ Roll Soldier: A Memoir

Susan VanHecke is the debut author of Rock ‘N’ Roll Soldier: A Memoir, co-authored by Dean Ellis Kohler (HarperTeen, 2009). From the promotional copy:

“During a time when none of us knew for sure if we would live or die, I came to know the true power of music.”

Dean Kohler is about to make it big–he’s finally scored a national record deal! But his dreams are abruptly put on hold by the arrival of his draft notice.

Now he’s in Qui Nhon, Vietnam, serving as a military policeman. He keeps telling himself he’s a musician, not a killer, and that he’s lucky he’s not fighting on the front lines. When Captain orders him to form a rock band, it’s up to Dean to find instruments and players, pronto.

Ingenuity and perseverance pay off, and soon the band is traveling through treacherous jungle terrain to perform for troops in desperate need of an escape–even if it’s only for three sets.

And for Dean–who lives with death, violence, and the fear that anyone could be a potential spy (even his Vietnamese girlfriend)–the band becomes the one thing that gets him through the day. During one of the most controversial wars in recent American history, this incredible true story is about music and camaraderie in the midst of chaos.

See also Susan VanHecke: Adventures in Authorhood.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

When Dean Kohler first told me nearly ten years ago about the band he’d formed in Vietnam, I knew his story would make a great book. So I put together a proposal and sample chapters and landed an agent who shopped it around to publishers of books for grown-ups. We had no takers–Dean’s story was too “Boy Scout-ish,” they said, not enough blood and guts.

Of course, I was crushed, but I put the proposal away and moved on to other projects. Dean’s tale was always in the back of my head, though.

When I started writing for children a few years ago, I pulled the proposal back out, recast it as a YA, and pitched it to children’s publishers. Several editors were interested, and HarperCollins ultimately acquired it in a pre-empt.

One of the hazards, though, of selling a book from a proposal is that all parties involved–author, co-author, editor, agent–each have their own ideas of what the book should be.

My editor at HarperCollins hated our first manuscript. Despised it. Like not-sure-we-should-give-you-another-chance detested it.

I’ve been writing professionally for nearly 20 years, and it was the first time an editor didn’t at least sort of like what I had come up with. So that was totally devastating.

Thankfully, I was given another chance, but with a very short deadline to prove myself. To keep on track, I hired a pair of fabulous freelance editors with decades of children’s publishing experience.

With their guidance (actually, it was more like validation–to my relief, they both approved of the new direction I’d mapped out), I literally rewrote the entire manuscript from the ground up in just a few weeks.

When the book coaches were satisfied, when I was satisfied, when Dean was satisfied, I held my breath and sent the entirely revised manuscript off to HarperCollins.

And the editor liked it. Whew! There was work still to be done, but it got the green light.

We went through several more rounds of revisions to tighten dialogue and streamline some overwriting. To get the word count down to what HarperCollins wanted, we had to throw out many huge chunks–subplots, non-crucial action, etcetera–so I had to rejigger for continuity.

Some of the changes were difficult to swallow at first, but it was exciting to see how things all came together in the end. It took a lot of faith in our editor that she knew what was best for the manuscript, plus a willingness to compromise and to keep our minds open.

Ultimately, all the revising was worth it. We were able to secure a powerful foreword from rock musician Graham Nash and an endorsement from the National Vietnam War Museum. The book’s receiving excellent reviews and was nominated for a Cybil (Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Award) for best YA nonfiction of 2009 a month after its release. Dean and I are so grateful for the enthusiastic reception!

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

HarperCollins told us right from the top that they’ve found online publicity and promo the most effective at reaching the teen market. So that’s where we’ve focused most of our energies.

We set up a dedicated book website, and loaded it with Dean’s photos, 8 mm film footage, and audio from his Vietnam experience.

Now as you read the book, you can visit the site and view actual images of the characters, setting, and action, even hear clips of Dean’s wartime band. It really brings Dean’s story alive; we’re very excited about it.

We also included a discussion guide for use in the classroom and book clubs, plus a playlist of all music mentioned in the book.

Of course, we’re pursuing media coverage, as well. The HarperCollins publicity department has been truly awesome about sending out review copies. I know how swamped they are with so many titles all needing attention, so I’m totally willing to help out where I can.

I worked at a music industry PR firm in New York City eons ago, so it’s been fun for me to do all that stuff again–dream up media hooks and angles, craft a solid press release, research media outlets and the best ways to reach them and so forth. We’re fortunate in that our book also appeals to adults, so we have a broader audience to pitch to.

And, boy, the Internet has opened up so many PR possibilities! Bloggers, article and press release distribution sites, social networks, discussion groups and chat forums, video and photo sharing sites, web rings–it goes on and on! You could literally spend all day, every day plugging your book online.

I’ve tried to consolidate my cyber-efforts wherever possible. For instance, I’ve set up my author’s blog to feed to Amazon’s Author Central and Jacketflap, and I also do a quick cut-and-paste of every author-blog post to my blog at Red Room. That’s killing at least four birds with one stone–love that! Plus I cross-link all my blogs and websites (my author site, my other book sites). So I try to get everything working kind of synergistically.

The free online press release distribution services are especially useful. I’ve had releases picked up by blogs and news sites around the world, plus it gets your info out there on the all-important search engines.

I’m a big Google Analytics fan, too–gives you really helpful stats like where on the web your visitors are coming from, what search keywords they used to find your site, which pages they visit most and for how long, even where, geographically, in the world they’re located. Very cool stuff!

Cynsational Notes

Check out the book trailer below for Rock ‘N’ Roll Soldier: A Memoir.

Rainy Day in Downtown Qui Nhon, Vietnam, 1967: video of a quick ride through downtown Qui Nhon, Vietnam with teen soldier Dean Kohler of the 127th MP Company, US Army.