Remembering Author Sid Fleischman

Newbery Medalist Sid Fleischman Dies at 90 by Rocco Staino from School Library Journal. Peek: “Fleischman was a teller of tall tales and a humorist who often set his stories in the American west or farm country.”

See also Laughter and Children’s Literature by Sid Fleischman from The Horn Book (October 1976). Peek: “Laughter is the natural sound of childhood, but one would hardly suspect it from reading children’s literature.” Source: Read Roger.

SCBWI Bologna 2010 Editor Interview: Neal Porter of Neal Porter Books (Roaring Brook)

Interview by Jenny Desmond Walters for SCBWI Bologna 2010

Your experience in the book publishing industry spans more than 30 years. Over this time, have you observed that many book trends and topics come and go, or do you think there are classic themes in children’s storytelling that never go out of style?

Both. Great stories and great themes never go out of style. But I’ve been in the business long enough to observe that most everything in this business is cyclical. I’ve seen entire genres come into fashion, go out again, and then return with a vengeance.

I was at Atheneum in the early ’80s when Jean Karl and Margaret McElderry were publishing brilliant work by Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, Susan Cooper, and Andre Norton.

Then we went through a period when fantasy was pronounced dead, at least until the arrival of a certain boy wizard.

Historical fiction was thought a difficult sell . . . until Sarah, Plain and Tall [by Patricia Maclachlan (HarperCollins, 1985)] came along. Now it’s tough again.


Children’s nonfiction was almost by definition an “institutional sale” until DK re-invented the category with Eyewitness.


In the ’80s, picture books were the machine that drove the industry; sadly, that category has been difficult for a number of years, for a variety of reasons, but I think the tide is turning. I hope so, because most of the books I publish are visual.

I’ve never paid much attention to trends and simply published books I found irresistible, on the assumption that other people would too. And I’m still employed, so I guess my track record must be pretty good.

As the Editorial Director of Neal Porter Books at Roaring Brook Press, what are some of the specific ways you’re involved in finding new authors?

Well, that title sounds awfully grand, especially when you consider that Neal Porter Books consists of myself and an assistant. I wish I could say I spent my days burrowing through material that comes in over the transom, but I live and work in a small New York apartment and I simply do not have the space, or support, to deal with mountains of unsolicited material.

About 60 percent of the books I publish are agented; 20 percent are by authors or artists whom I’ve long admired who don’t happen to have an agent (that usually involves a phone call or query on my part), and the rest have been referred by people I already publish. I love finding new artists.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve worked with the same designer, the wonderful Jennifer Browne, for the last 16 years. Jennifer has a great eye, and together we scour the Internet, student shows, websites, etc. For me, there are few things as satisfying as finding the right artist for a text, then watching the whole book come together.

Can you tell us what a typical day at work is like for you?

As I’ve mentioned, for the last ten years I’ve worked at home, so unlike most people in publishing, my commute consists of walking from my bedroom to a walk-in closet off my living room that serves as my office. Once I’ve scanned the New York Times, I head for the closet and my computer, and check my e-mail, which often includes messages from European publishers working five or six hours ahead of us.

Just dealing with e-mail is a huge task; I’m glad it’s there but am skeptical about whether it’s made us more productive as editors. I check in with the office and also with Jennifer, who works from home in New Jersey.

We’re small, but we’re far flung. Jennifer and I do a lot of our work over the Internet. She’ll send me a PDF of a jacket design or a page layout, and then we’ll go over it on the phone.

Meetings with authors or artists take place throughout the week, and it’s nice to be working around a coffee table in my living room, rather than in a sterile office. The downside is that I have to vacuum more often than if I were left to my own devices.

The day zips by pretty quickly–punctuated by many, many phone calls–some welcome, some not–and occasional trips to the Roaring Brook offices, usually to deliver final art to production.

We have a weekly editorial meeting at Roaring Brook, which I very much enjoy. It’s a chance to see what my colleagues are up to and also to get feedback on books I’m either thinking of acquiring or that are in process. It’s not an acquisitions meeting per se, just an opportunity to solicit opinions and offer advice.

We also have a production meeting once every other week, where our managing editor attempts to keep all of our books on track.

Sometimes I’ll have lunch with an author or agent, but more often than not I’ll simply forget to eat. There’s flap copy, catalog copy, tip sheet copy to write–the least favorite thing I do because it feels too much like homework.

I save the evenings for reading, and sometimes for answering yet more e-mails. Given the time difference, I often get messages from Australia at around midnight, and I love shocking them (at least those who don’t know I work at home) by responding immediately.

Your Wikipedia entry mentions that multiple books edited by you have received top awards and citations every year for at least the last seven years, including awards last year going to the amazing Laura Vaccaro Seeger for One Boy (Neal Porter, 2008) and Yuyi Morales for Just in Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book (Neal Porter, 2008).

I’m curious to know what happens next–after a book receives one of the American Library Association’s coveted awards, what changes occur in the author’s and editor’s world, aside from much celebrating, of course? Also, I think it’s pretty cool that you have your own Wikipedia entry!

The Wikipedia entry was filed by a good friend who also happens to be an author I publish. I think it just goes to show you that anybody can have a Wikipedia entry.

As for the awards, they’re lovely things, and can open many doors, especially if they’re given early in an author or artist’s career.

The Newbery and Caldecott have an immediate effect on sales, more dramatic than any other literary award, including the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, and even the Nobel. But the less well known awards, the Sibert, the Geisel, et al, also bring excellent work to the attention of a much larger audience, and that’s a very good thing.

I have mixed feelings about all of the blogging and tweeting that goes on in the run up to the announcements. It’s nice to see so many people excited about children’s books. But an author whose book wins the Mock Newbery in Des Moines can be set up for a major disappointment on the morning when the ALA calls are actually made.

I try to ignore it as much as possible and suggest that authors do the same.

Speaking of Laura Vaccaro Seeger, I read an interview by the School Library Journal (July 1, 2007) where she talked about the inspiration for her book, Dog and Bear: Two Friends – Three Stories (Neal Porter, 2007). She mentioned that in this book, you are Bear. That must be pretty special! Can you tell us more about how this story came about and the role you played in helping her shape these characters?

Laura had published three brilliant “concept” books at that point, and we both wanted to do a simple, narrative picture book. I happened to be visiting her one afternoon and encountered a peculiar-looking stuffed bear perched on a high chair in her living room.

I said something highly intelligent and probing like, “What’s with this bear?”

And she told me that she’d found him in a thrift shop.

I said, “Maybe he needs a story.”

At that point, her frisky dachshund Copper bolted into the living room. And Dog and Bear were born.

Since the stories were so simple, I thought it was important that we get an absolute bead on who these characters were, and suggested that she make a list of personality traits for each.

When she read the list for Dog–excitable, energetic, creative, etc., I said, “That sounds just like you.”

And when she read the list for Bear–quiet, thoughtful, timid, a little formal, etc., she said, “That sounds like you!”

And so they were.

When you publish the work of a client, do you generally work with that person throughout their career, or is it more common to work together on a book-by-book basis?

I’m not crazy about the word “client” – it makes me sound like I’m doing all the work, and I really view it more as a collaboration. That depends on so many factors–financial as well as artistic.

Let’s just say that the most satisfying relationships are long term.

I reviewed the Roaring Brook Press Spring 2010 catalog (PDF) on the Internet and was excited to see an array of wonderful and interesting titles in the pipeline. I’ve already made out my wish list of titles that I’ll definitely own. What are some of the books you are most enthusiastic about this year?

Laura has a new picture book this spring, What If?, that’s really about making choices, and the consequences of those choices. It’s also about a boy, a ball, and three seals. The same story is told three times, with three possible resolutions. It’s kind of a picture book version of “Rashomon,” if you know that movie. And I think it’s extraordinary.


Charles R. Smith Jr.
and Shane Evans have done a smashing picture book biography of Jack Johnson, the first Black Heavyweight Champion, that we’re publishing on July 4, 2010, the 100th anniversary of “The Fight of the Century.” [See Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson.]


A fall book that I’m very excited about is Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan‘s Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, with wonderful paintings by Brian Floca. It’s a book about three great collaborators–Martha Graham, Aaron Copland, and Isamu Noguchi, that’s been written and illustrated by three great collaborators.

And my pick for quirkiest book of the year is Brains for Lunch, a zombie novel set in middle school that’s written entirely in haiku! The author is K. A. Holt [shown], and the pictures are by Gahan Wilson, the great New Yorker cartoonist.

And last, what are some of the personal or professional goals you have for attending SCBWI Bologna and the Bologna International Children’s Fair this year?

I have but one goal at Bologna: to be utterly seduced by a book and to publish it. That happened three years ago with Marion Bataille‘s ABC3D and who knows? Maybe lightning will strike again.

Thank you so much, Neal, for taking time to share your knowledge and expertise with us. We look forward to learning great things from you at this year’s SCBWI Bologna event.

My pleasure.

Cynsational Notes

Neal Porter has been in and around the book publishing industry for more than 30 years. After a brief stint in the college textbook department of St. Martin’s Press, he moved into trade publishing, where he held marketing positions at Avon Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Atheneum and Scribners.

In 1985, he became Editorial Director of Aladdin Books at Macmillan, and in 1987, he moved to London to become Joint Managing Director of Walker Books in London. He returned to the United States in 1989 as Vice President and Publisher of Macmillan Children’s Books and subsequently held executive positions at Orchard Books and Dorling Kindersley.

In 2000, he decided to step away from administration and focus exclusively on editing books. That year he helped to found Roaring Brook Press, where he is currently Editorial Director of Neal Porter 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.

SCBWI Bologna 2010 Editor & Art Director Interview: Deidre McDermott of Walker Books (UK)

Interview by Laura Watkinson for SCBWI Bologna 2010

Hello, Deirdre. You are the picture book publisher at Walker Books. Could you talk us through your day at work?

I get up reluctantly, shower, then after breakfast (either a bowl of porridge or wheat-germ toast with peanut butter and a banana), I’ll get a lift to the tube station, squeeze into a train to go over the river to Vauxhall, where I stop to buy a coffee (more for the social interaction than the quality of the coffee), hurry down the embankment along the river Thames to Walker Books, and climb five flights of stairs to the studio.

The picture-book team consists of three editors–Lucy, Penny and Maria–plus three designers–Audrey, Julia and me–and sometimes also Daniel, a freelance designer and creative-techie, who comes in one day a week.

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, David Lloyd, our editor-at-large, comes in to create picture books with us, talk loudly, give advice, encourage thinking and, most importantly, tell good jokes. Together we all laugh a lot.

Between us, we manage a list averaging around 70 books a year–front-list hardbacks, paperbacks, re-issues and also, very importantly, buy-ins from our sister companies, Candlewick Press in the U.S., and Walker Books Australia.

There is never a typical day. Usually, I’ll read my emails, respond to the most urgent and then try to move swiftly on to the best part: downloading any images or attachments that have arrived overnight from the artists I’m working with. I’m currently collaborating with illustrators living in Australia, Taiwan, N.Y.C. and Northern Ireland as well as artists in the U.K. Not everybody works by email; some still prefer to work by sketch and post.

The picture books I’m working on at any one time are at different stages. Right now, for instance, I’m still finishing books for this autumn, while running in parallel are the lists we’re creating for 2011, 2012 and beyond.

The very worst and most interruptive calls are the frantic last-minute requests from the printer–usually in the Far East–saying that a file is missing a layer or some type has disappeared from the electronic file; any of these can make your blood literally run cold–cue frantic search and triple checking of computer files to avoid the dreaded “permanently printed typo.” Eek.

Management meetings frequently interrupt the working day, which can be very frustrating.

The best part of my job as a publisher involves concentrated immersion with the words, the pictures and the editor on a book’s actual pages. I like designing picture books; visualizing layouts and using type make me happy.

The most valuable meetings are the creative meetings with the bookmakers themselves–this is what I think of as real work. I invariably prefer the beginning of a project: matching texts with artists, deciding on the formats, supporting the vision of authorial illustrators–the creators of the picture books–and trying to make the best books happen. This is a publisher’s true reward.

Could you tell us about a few writers and illustrators that you are especially proud to have discovered or worked with?

I’ve worked with brand-new artists on their very first books, all the way through to the most established artists and writers. These include Bob Graham, Anita Jeram, John Burningham, Allan Ahlberg, Patrick Benson, Jimmy Liao, Viviane Schwarz, Carll Cneut, Chinlun Lee, Kevin Waldron and Helen Oxenbury.

Do you think that the picture book is one type of book that will resist the advance of the eBook format? Or do you have plans for new electronic developments?

Digital books have the same value and objectives as regular picture books; they’re just delivered differently. As both bookmakers and book customers, we have to recognize that digital books are just another form of expression; ebooks won’t replace physical books, but can and should run parallel to the picture-book experience.

Picture books can thrive in an interactive environment; it’s reductive to believe that a reading experience is solely about a book’s physical form; it is also about the quality of the content.

There seems to be a perception that digital/electronic bookmaking somehow leads to an inferior, lower-quality read, a cheaper experience. But I believe that regardless of the form, a good story is always going to be a good story, a good picture will remain a good picture, and the value of the reading experience will be undiminished.

Walker have produced DVDs and board games based on Walker picture books. Could you tell us a little about your current plans for non-book formats?

At Walker, we will continue to explore non-book formats for key brands. Across the whole range of our list, we’re looking at a variety of tremendously exciting opportunities, including our work with a company to bring some of our best picture books to the iPhone and iPad. These picture-book apps have been uniquely designed to sit side by side with their physical counterparts; they aim to extend the picture-book experience rather than replace it.

You’re a trustee at the fantastic Seven Stories, the centre for children’s books in Newcastle. What does that position involve? And what does the future hold for Seven Stories?

My involvement with Seven Stories (I was formally made a trustee in November 2009) is extremely rewarding; I love the place and admire the people who work there.

My position involves attending meetings of the board and the acquisition subcommittee. I find it incredibly stimulating to work with and share the museum’s aims with non-publishing professionals: the other trustees come from a wide variety of different fields, including the law, banking, education, drama and the Arts Council. I think of them as True Book Believers, and I’m pleased to play even a small part in Seven Stories’ collective and unique experience.

Seven Stories is the first and only museum in the U.K. dedicated to the art of the children’s book, protecting and celebrating children’s literary heritage. Visitors to the museum explore the world of children’s books through a changing programme of exhibitions, events, performances, workshops and hands-on activities inspired by the original manuscripts and artwork of Britain’s favourite children’s authors and illustrators.

When Seven Stories was founded in 1996, there was no other literature, academic, heritage or arts institution in the U.K. with a similar remit, so authors and illustrators were selling or donating their archives to institutions overseas (especially in the U.S.) or to private collectors, or were simply disposing of them.

Walker Books were involved right from the heady beginning and since those early days, the Seven Stories Collection has grown rapidly, and is now the U.K.’s largest collection of its type in public ownership, comprising the original artwork and manuscripts of over 70 writers and illustrators for children.

Seven Stories are now working towards achieving national-museum status, to affirm the Collection’s importance to the nation’s heritage and to recognize its innovative approaches to engaging children, families and educators in the art of children’s books.

You’ve worked with Carll Cneut, a fantastic Flemish illustrator with a very distinctive style. How did you come across his work? Do you work with many illustrators from outside the English-speaking world?

Carll simply sent his work in, saying he was going to be in London and wondering if he could pay us a visit. We loved his painting, and–very unusually and serendipitously–we had a text, Antonio on the Other Side of the World Getting Smaller, that we thought would complement Carll’s vision. Luckily, its author Malachy Doyle thought so too!

My work with illustrators from the non-native English-speaking world is very enjoyable. As well as Carll, Jimmy Liao and Chinlun Lee, both from Taiwan, are two such artists I’ve worked with a lot. Working with an artist for whom English is a second language is a different, and equally rewarding, bookmaking experience.

Interestingly–and I’m realizing this only as I write–all three, Carll, Jimmy and Chinlun, have become great personal friends, whom I continue to see and communicate with quite apart from our professional lives.

What are your thoughts on stories in rhyme? I’ve heard that writers are discouraged from creating rhyming stories for picture books, as they’re tricky to translate and so it’s difficult to sell the rights abroad. Is that true? Would you encourage a new writer who wanted to present a story in rhyme?

Good rhyme, like good writing, will always work. Everything depends on the story you’re trying to tell and how that story works with the pictures. What we find with stories submitted in rhyme is that the author can get taken over by the cleverness of the rhyme, and end up forcing the story to serve the rhyme rather than the other way around.

You said in a Booktrust interview that “we are in a golden age of publishing.” It’s wonderful to hear such enthusiasm. Could you perhaps expand a little?

There are ever more authorial artists creating and telling stories–perhaps especially in this digital age. The ease and immediacy of digital technology mean that stories can now be told and visualized in many different ways. Illustrators are able to work very quickly and explore their vision rapidly. Publishing can be far more immediate and reach a much wider audience almost instantaneously–it’s exciting!

One tip that you’ve given for illustrators is to “leave space,” so that books don’t get too busy and confuse readers. Do you have any other helpful tips for writers and illustrators of picture books who are hoping to make it past the slush pile?

What I really meant about leaving space is for writers and illustrators to be aware of the “emotional space”–that invisible space between the words and the pictures.

That’s what the editor and the designer aim to do: leave space. We’re sort of in charge of that invisible space, working between the words and the pictures, reading the text aloud, editing by ear–what we hear and the sound of the rhythm in the language–good language and how this interacts on the page with what we see in the pictures. The story is in the words, in the sounds, and the story is also in the picture.

Words and pictures should serve each other, but they don’t both have to fulfill exactly the same function. An illustrator doesn’t have to draw exactly what the words are telling the reader, and the author doesn’t have to describe exactly what the pictures are showing the reader.

Simply, there should be a gap, an invisible space left for the reader’s imagination to expand and interpret the story in his or her own way.

Anthony Browne, the current Children’s Laureate, is published by Walker and, of course, he’s an author and illustrator of picture books. Could you talk a little about the role of Children’s Laureate?

It’s particularly great for picture books that Anthony Browne is the current Children’s Laureate in the U.K. His own pictures are so powerful, and he speaks so well about them, that his Laureateship can only publicly affirm the importance of illustration and the value and need for visual literacy.

Writing and illustrating can be lonely activities. The SCBWI helps people to connect and provides opportunities for networking and professional development. Do you have any suggestions as to how writers and illustrations can make the most of these events and connections to build up a network for support and feedback?

Make good friends who have similar values, find points of interest and reference with each other, share your experiences and, most important, be creatively generous with your peers.

When you think back to your own childhood, which picture books still stand out?

There weren’t very many picture books to buy in Ireland in the ’70s, so the grey-and-blue mobile library was an extremely important part of my week. I distinctly remember climbing the steep red steps of the bus to its book-lined interior and choosing my very own books to take home with me.

Miffy stories, anything by Dr. Seuss and the large Richard Scarry compendiums were among the first books I had…the smell of the pages, the thick cellophane covers and the saturated colours of the interiors remain particularly vivid in my memory.

Sometimes, I received yellow parcels of books from my Uncle Pat, who lived in Mississippi; inside were small squarish books with shiny golden spines, and I loved these American stories about raccoons, puppies, bears and princesses.

American picture books from the ’50s and ’60s remain very inspiring to my own work now. These books have an immediacy and freshness that’s very compelling. The child, the reader, is cared about.

At Walker, we try always to be similarly conscious of what the child ultimately reading the book is going to enjoy.

Comics also played a huge part in my childhood. My two brothers and I devoured (and fought over)–Twinkle, The Dandy, The Beano, Whizzer and Chips, Bunty, Mandy, Judy, Misty, Warlord, 2000 AD–all bought with our weekly pocket money in the next town on Saturday morning. I suppose that I learnt to draw from the pages of these comics, and I learnt humour and how to tell stories and jokes, and also how to read words and pictures together, side by side.

And do you have any recommendations of great new picture books for our reading lists? Which new Walker picture books are you particularly excited about?

Check out a young German bookmaker living in England, Viviane Schwarz. Viv also has a brilliant new book, on which she collaborated with Alexis Deacon, coming out next spring.


Kevin Waldron and Chris Haughton are both brand-new Irish illustrators whose vision I much admire.

Polly Dunbar is a prolific bookmaker; she makes picture books that are full of humour and wit for the under-4s. See Doodle Bites and Penguin as prime examples of her work.


Nonfiction picture books for the very young are another way of capturing a child’s imagination, and the books by Martin Jenkins and Vicky White are no exception.


I adore Lucy Cousins’s art, and her two recent books Yummy and I’m the Best are fine examples of pure and powerful storytelling for the very young.


A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker and Kady MacDonald Denton is very charming and amusing.


Any picture book by the lively and anarchic team of Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman will make you laugh out loud. The Pencil and The Runaway Dinner are just two examples.


And finally, a book that I’ve been very privileged to work on–the first-ever collaboration between John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury–There’s Going to Be a Baby, which is a truly tremendous picture book; look for it this autumn in your local bookshop (or mobile library).

Finally, what advice would you give to writers and illustrators who are visiting the Book Fair in Bologna for the first time?

Do exactly what I’ll be doing myself: see everything you can in all the different halls. Note the publishers whose books you like. Look at picture books in a language different from your own; see if you’re able to read the story through the pictures. If you can, take heed and pay attention to what that illustrator is doing in their visual storytelling.

Cynsational Notes

Deirdre McDermott is the Picture Book Publisher at Walker Books, the largest independent children’s publisher in the U.K. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, she has been designing picture books for Walker for over 20 years. After completing a Visual Communication degree at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Deirdre traveled and lived in Toronto for a year before coming to London, where she joined Walker Books as a junior designer. Not long afterward, she became assistant designer to Amelia Edwards, the founder Art Director. Deirdre was appointed Picture Book Publisher and Associate Director in 2002.

Within the small, dedicated picture book team of designers and editors at Walker, Deirdre has worked closely with scores of brilliant bookmakers including Anita Jeram, Helen Oxenbury, Thacher Hurd, Michael Rosen, Carll Cneut, Bob Graham, John Burningham, Allan Ahlberg, Jimmy Liao and many others. [See author/illustrator links above.]

Laura Watkinson is a translator, from Dutch and Italian into (British) English, and an occasional writer. She translates children’s books for all ages, from picture books to YA/cross-over novels, and has recently completed projects for Piccadilly in the U.K. and Arthur A. Levine in the States. She’s a champion of books in translation and loves making different cultures accessible to younger readers.

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.

Library-Loving Blog Challenge

From Jennifer R. Hubbard

A group of bloggers, most of them writers, are using their blogs, Facebook accounts, and other social media to raise money for local libraries, bookmobiles, and literacy causes.

Last year, this effort raised over $1600. This year’s challenge will run from March 23 to March 27. Participants are pledging money for every comment received on their blog, Facebook page, etc., during the challenge.

To leave a comment costs you nothing, but will increase the participants’ donations, so please visit and comment on the participating sites!

Libraries have suffered in this economy like everyone else–budget cuts are affecting all levels of government. At the same time, library usage is increasing, not only because the books, tapes, DVDs, CDs, etc., are free to borrow, but because libraries provide so many other services–assisting people with job searches, for example.

See more information or email jennifer[at]jenniferhubbard[dot]com.

SCBWI Bologna 2010 Author Interview: Richard Peck

Interview by Jenny Desmond Walters for SCBWI Bologna 2010

Richard Peck has received a Newbery Medal, a Newbery Honor, and many other remarkable awards and citations for literary work. He is also the first children’s writer to receive a National Humanities Medal.

SCBWI members and supporters feel a special connection with Richard, not only due to his long list of remarkable books for young readers, but also because many have had the pleasure of watching Lin Oliver interview Richard for the SCBWI Master Class DVD [see video below].

First, thank you so much Richard, for agreeing to answer some questions in advance of your upcoming appearance at SCBWI’s 2010 Bologna Symposium.

The Washington Post calls you “America’s best living author for young adults.” You’ve written and published an impressive 37 novels for young readers over the span of the last 37 years, and the continuity of your writing fills other writers with confidence in the knowledge that a writing career can have longevity. Is there an underlying motivation or passion that propels you?

What are the passions that still propel me, even now after thirty-seven years?

Admiring the work of younger writers and wanting to stay in their game and learning from them–M.T. Anderson, Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, David Levithan, and more coming.

We’re in a golden age; I want to stay here.

And the other incentive? I was a teacher once. I learned that I wanted to be there at the beginning of all those young lives–a new crop every year.

Not because I had answers for them, but because I had questions.

And as it happens, a novel is always a question. Two questions, in fact:

l. What if I were the character in this story? What would I do?

2. And the big one: How much longer do I dare be this young?

In a September 2009 Publisher’s Weekly Q & A, you talked about one of your most beloved characters, Grandma Dowdel. In this age of digital cities and wireless connectivity, why do you think this remarkable character from days gone by resonates so profoundly with readers?

I’m moved by your inquiring after Grandma Dowdel in this electronic age.

As you know, she’s back after eight years and by popular demand (I’d have let her rest.) Why does this woman, looming out of the low-tech past in her Lane Bryant dress, still command the allegiance of the young?

Maybe it’s the web itself—“wireless connectivity”–and the two scariest words in the English language: social networking.

The dream of adolescence is to replace your family with your friends. In this new revolution–the biggest since the revolutions of the 1960s/’70s–the young have discovered new electronic ways to eliminate parents, with the electronics paid for by parents.

Yet we write a literature of family life to a readership who can text at the dinner table.

I have to believe the secret of Grandma Dowdel’s popularity is that she’s as strong as the young quietly want their adults to be…if they can find them–at home, in the neighborhood, up their at the front of the classroom.

In an interview published in Delta Chi Quarterly’s Fall/Winter 2001 edition (PDF), you said that some of your young readers send letters asking you to write more horror. Is this what prompted you to switch gears from writing nostalgia, as you’ve done in your last several books, to writing in the horror genre again with your 2010 book release of Three Quarters Dead (Dial, 2010)? Can you tell us a little about this new book we can expect in the Fall?

I appreciate the depth of your questions. Anybody who has researched me all the way to The Delta Chi Quarterly deserves awed respect. Wouldn’t you have thought I’d be over having been a frat boy? But, actually…no.

I do have a new book coming in the autumn, Three Quarters Dead, and, believe me, it’s no Grandma Dowdel.

It’s told as paranormal horror, not because I’m trying to ride that wave but because it was a story I couldn’t pull off as realistic fiction, despite the fact that it’s being enacted in every town I now visit. It’s a deadly serious story about those two inter-reacting killers: distracted driving and peer-group allegiance.

I couldn’t tell it straight without preaching; I had to tell it slant.

It’s a story about a girl with a cell phone in one hand and the steering wheel in the other, and that’s a horror story right there.

At the Ezra Jack Keats Lectures in 2000, you gave a remarkable and profound speech. One of the many beautiful things you said was something that struck me as good advice for new writers. You said, “You have to read a thousand books before you can write one.”

Your writing and revision process must be perfected down to a fine art now. Can you tell us a little about both, and is it true that you write everything on an electric typewriter?

Enough! I cannot discuss my electric typewriter. It might hear me and cease functioning, and then so would I. It makes a noise to fill this silent room.

Love to you for all your kind questions,
Richard

Cynsational Screening Room

Hosted by SCBWI Executive Director and best-selling childrens book author Lin Oliver, each SCBWI Master Class offers a one-of-a-kind conversation with the most important writers and illustrators working in children’s literature today. See video excerpt below.

Cynsational Notes

Richard Peck’s newest novel is A Season of Gifts (Dial, 2009), third in the sequence starring Grandma Dowdel. The first, A Long Way from Chicago (Dial, 1998)(Il Fucile di Nonna Dowdel in Italy) was the 1999 Newbery silver medalist. The second, A Year down Yonder (Dial, 2000) was the Newbery gold medal winner in 2001. Two of his novels, A Year Down Yonder and The River Between Us (Dial, 2003), were National Book Award finalists. He was the first children’s writer to receive a National Humanities Medal, in a White House ceremony in 2002. His forthcoming title, in the fall of 2010, is Three Quarters Dead (Dial).

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.

Vermont College of Fine Arts (Writing for Children & Young Adults) Day in San Francisco

San Francisco–Acclaimed authors David Gifaldi and Julie Larios will lead a conference on the craft of writing for young readers on April 24 at Fort Mason Center.

David will speak on “Rejection is Subjective! Prime the Pump and Move On.” Peek: “Your ‘baby’ has been born. You did everything you could to make it a healthy delivery. You send it out. It comes back. And you’re thrown into the writer’s postpartum blues. It hurts…and it can keep you from doing what needs to be done. Let’s talk about how to move on, how to rekindle passion for that next project. We’ll do some stop-the-bleeding exercises and rediscover why we write in the first place.”


Julie will speak on “Maps and Meandering: On the Usefulness of Each.” Peek: “Lately, my fascination with maps has bumped up against my desire to lollygag and wander aimlessly. For a writer, are the two pleasures contradictory or complementary, and can they be applied in a practical way to that phenomena known dreamily as The Writer’s Life? Let’s have a conversation about two things: first, how the mindset of a flaneur helps us store up a treasure trove of converging images; second, how the practicality of mapmaking brings us back down to earth and insists we think about the true north, south, east and west of our stories.”


The event is sponsored by the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, where both Julie and David serve on the faculty.

Highlights will include a special appearance by faculty chair Margaret Bechard.

The VCFA program intends for this retreat to serve as an opportunity for alumni and their colleagues to reconnect with one another as well as to reignite their passion for the craft of writing for children and teens.

You do not need to be a VCFA graduate to participate.

The fee for is $150.00, which includes lunch. See more information and registration.

Cynsational Notes

Margaret Bechard is the author of eight middle grade and young adult novels, including My Mom Married the Principal (Viking, 1998), If It Doesn’t Kill You (Viking, 1999), Hanging On to Max (Roaring Brook, 2002, 2004), and Spacer and Rat (Roaring Brook, 2005). Her books have been selected for such honors as School Library Journal’s Best Book of the Year, ALA Best Books for Young Adults, and the Junior Library Guild Selection; they have also been nominated for several state children’s choice awards. Read a Cynsations interview with Margaret.

David Gifaldi is a Portland author and teacher. His books have been honored by American Booksellers’ Pick of the Lists, ALA Books Recommended for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, the Mark Twain Award Master List, the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Master List, and the Junior Library Guild. His latest middle grade novel, Listening for Crickets (Henry Holt, 2008), has been named a 2009 Notable Book for a Global Society and is on the Kansas State children’s reading list for 2009. Read a Cynsations interview with David.

Julie Larios is the author of four books for children: On the Stairs (1995), Have You Ever Done That? illustrated by Anne Hunter (Front Street, 1997)(named one of Smithsonian Magazine’s Outstanding Children’s Books 2001); Yellow Elephant: A Bright Bestiary, illustrated by Julie Paschkis (Harcourt, 2006)(a Book Sense Pick and Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book, 2006); and Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures, illustrated by Julie Paschkis (Harcourt, 2008)(shortlisted for the Cybil Award in Poetry, 2008). Recently, she was granted a fellowship by the Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust and had a poem sequence put to music and performed by the Five Words in a Line group in New York City. Read a Cynsations interview with Julie.

SCBWI Bologna 2010 Author-Editor Interview: Sara Grant of Working Partners

Interview by Laura Watkinson for SCBWI Bologna 2010

Hello, Sara. You wear a number of different hats. You’re both a commissioning editor and a published writer. Which came first, the writing or the publishing? How do you combine the two?

I’ve created stories since I was a little girl, imagining epic dramas for my Barbie dolls. When I was young, I was convinced I couldn’t be a writer because my spelling was appalling. (I must admit that the invention of spell check saved me.)

I wrote my first story for children when my niece was born; she’s graduating from high school this year, so it has taken me a long time and continual learning to get my first book deal.

I worked in public relations for seventeen years. During that time, I had limited success writing short stories for children. Then I moved to London, completed a degree in creative writing and changed my career. Now I feel very privileged to get to do what I love.

At Working Partners, I get to experiment with genres and develop stories for different age groups. I work on rainy-day adventures for five year olds, girly romantic comedies, and action-adventure stories for teen boys.

It’s quite a buzz to develop a new idea with other people who love children’s books as much as I do. I work with an incredibly talented group of editors and accomplished writers. I am challenged and learn from them every day.

My time at Working Partners has made me a better writer and knowing what it’s like to be on the other side of the slush pile makes me a better editor.

The more I surround myself with stories–whether it’s reading, editing or writing–the more ideas bubble to the surface. By working collaboratively with my fellow writers/editors at Working Partners, I’ve learned that there are endless ways to tell a story. I write and re-write and change and revise storylines on a daily basis. This helps me to see the same fluidity in my own writing.

When my Little, Brown editor has concerns about a plot point, I don’t despair (okay, I despair a little). I brainstorm and come with other ideas to solve the problem. A good story evolves, and it’s great when you feel the freedom of trial and error.

You have a master’s degree in creative writing from Goldsmiths College in London. Would you recommend the study route for aspiring writers? What do you think people should look for when they’re choosing a creative-writing course?

My time at Goldsmiths was by far the best educational experience of my life. I had been attending writing workshops for years–some a few hours to a week long. I knew I had a lot to learn but was at the point where I didn’t think I could improve on my own.

The two years I spent at Goldsmiths gave me loads of one-on-one tutorials as well as pushed me to read and learn from an impressive group of diverse writers. It was inspiring and helped me take my writing to the next level. They also showed me how to continually read, analyse and improve. I am still in contact with the tutors and writers I met on the course.

When looking for a creative-writing course, be clear about your objectives. I didn’t want a course that only focused on writing for children. I wanted to get outside of my comfort zone.

Be open minded and willing to experiment. Talk to the students who have graduated from the course. It’s like anything else; you get out of it what you put into it.

You’ve had stories published in children’s magazines. Could you tell us a little about this market?

There are several high-quality children’s magazines in the States that publish fiction. It’s a competitive market but a great opportunity to build your writing résumé.

For example, the Cricket Magazine Group has a series of “bug-named” publications for children from two years to teens–“Babybug,” “Ladybug,” “Spider,” “Cricket” and “Cicada.” Check out its web site, get its writers guidelines and read the publications. Many of these publications strive to be multicultural, so experiences from outside the U.S. could make you more marketable.

If you can, buy the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market, edited by Alice Pope (Writers Digest) from Amazon [or any U.S. bookstore] for a complete list and author guidelines. There are hundreds of publications for a variety of interests and genres.

Tell us a little about Dark Parties, your YA novel, which is coming out in 2011. What was your path to publication?

Dark Parties is a dystopian novel about a country that generations ago closed its borders to people and ideas. No one knows what exists outside their protected society. Neva and her best friend secretly plot to force the government to open its borders. Anyone who threatens the government seems to disappear mysteriously. Neva receives a message from her grandma who vanished without a trace 10 years ago, inviting her to escape to the outside. Now she has a choice–stay and save her country or leave and save herself.

I initially wrote Dark Parties as a short story for the British SCBWI Undiscovered Voices anthology in 2008. I was intrigued by the idea but didn’t know if the story had legs. It’s much different than anything I’ve tried to write before. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off.

I asked my then 15-year-old niece and another editor at Working Partners to read the short story and tell me if I was crazy. Both gave me encouraging feedback and asked, “what happens next?”

All of a sudden I had loads of ideas for the story. I thought, if it gets chosen for the anthology then I’ll write the novel. I was lucky enough to be one of the twelve chosen for the anthology, and then the work really began.

I received interest from a few editors and agents who read the anthology. The British SCBWI regional advisor gave Jenny Savill at Andrew Nurnberg and Associates a copy of the anthology at Bologna in 2008. Jenny has been an incredible partner in this long and sometimes frustrating process. She’s offered insightful editorial feedback as well as reasoned business advice.

Before I received the offer from Little, Brown, I had the chance to chat with the Little, Brown editor who was taking my book to acquisitions. She had some excellent feedback. I knew then that she really understood what I was trying to do and would unquestionably make Dark Parties a better book. And I have not been disappointed.

I revised nearly 50 percent of the book after it was acquired. It’s been a great give-and-take with my editors at Little, Brown. I feel so honoured to have such experienced and talented editors giving my book so much care and attention.

The most important insight I can share with other writers is: Your first draft is only the beginning. No one seems to talk about how many revisions it takes to get a publishable novel. So I’m more than happy to be honest about my bumpy path to publication. Yes, there are those who write one draft and go straight to typesetting, but those people are few and far between.

In 1996, Hillary Clinton wrote a book declaring it takes a village to raise a child. I feel the same about books. It takes a community to bring a book to publication. Pick your partners in this process carefully.

Has your experience in publishing taught you any useful tricks for making it past the slush pile as a writer? Do you have any tips you could share with us?

Most of my advice comes more from being an unpublished writer than an editor:

• Network. Editors who work in children’s fiction are by and large a pretty lovely group. Get critiques from editors when you can.

• Go to writers’ events. SCBWI is a great source for these.

• Form a writers group. Get feedback on your writing from more than your family and friends.

• Never, ever stop learning and improving.

• Be willing to set a story aside and try something new. Then don’t be afraid to revise, revise and revise. Most writers don’t get the first book they write published.

• Read. Read. Read. Know and support the children’s market. Buy children’s books for yourself and every young reader you know. Writers who write for children should be reading every book in their genre they can get their hands on.

• And most importantly, if it’s your passion–never, ever give up! It took me 17 years to get my first book deal. Here’s wishing you a shorter learning curve!

Could you tell us more about Working Partners and how you go about creating new series fiction? What do you look for in new writers who approach Working Partners? Are you looking for writers at the moment?

An idea will come from one of our editors or from a publisher. A team of editors hold a one-hour brainstorming to see if the idea has legs. If the brainstorming goes well, then a team of two editors will somehow take the wild and wacky ideas we come up with and shape it into a storyline.

A storyline goes through a number of revisions until the team is satisfied that the story and characters are there.

Then we look for writers. We will invite up to ten writers to try out for the project. We provide each writer with a proposal document, which includes a short pitch, a cast list, a complete storyline for the first book and often ideas for future books. We also give them an idea of what we are looking for with regard to tone, point of view, etc. We will typically ask writers to write three chapters.

It’s always exciting to see how different writers bring the storyline to life. We look for a strong, appropriate voice for the series and originality. We like when writers invest in the story and add appropriate character and setting details while sticking to our storyline.

Sometimes you receive a sample and it’s magic. The voice is perfect, the characters sparkle and you can’t wait to turn the page–even though you know what happens next. Sometimes it’s tough to select the writer because we have a number of great samples.

We like to have four or more editors read each of the samples. We often have a meeting to discuss the merits of each sample. It’s amazing how passionate we can get about the samples we love.

Sometimes we ask one or two writers to revise their sample based on some editorial notes. We need this extra round to make our decision and to see if the writer can take direction. We look for writers who want to work as part of a team.

Our managing director will share the writing sample and a proposal with publishers in the U.S., U.K. and sometimes other markets. Once a publisher has bought the series, we contract the writer and begin to write and edit the books. Sometimes we will need more than one writer on a series. It’s the editor’s job to maintain consistency among writers.

What are Working Partners’ most popular books right now? What do you think it is about your titles that appeals to young readers?

In the U.S., we have had great success with our Warriors series.

In the U.K., Beast Quest is quite popular with boys seven plus. Other series include: Dinosaur Cove, Faerie Path, Unicorn School, Animal Ark, Chestnut Hill, Spelling B, My Sister The Vampire, Spartan Warrior, and Vampire Beach.

Working Partners taps into the power of collaboration–not only internally but collaboration with our writers and publishers. We work with so many incredible editors at publishers around the world. We benefit from learning from all these groups.

We don’t have a cookie-cutter approach. We love stories and try to create the best series for appropriate target markets.

Could you tell us about some new Working Partners projects that are particularly exciting for you?

I have two series that will be published later this year. They are a great example of the diversity in my job:

One is a charming series from Ladybird titled Puddle the Naughtiest Puppy. It’s a series of rainy-day adventures for five-to-eight year olds. The editorial team and our two talented writers have thoroughly enjoyed taking Ruby and Harry on magical adventures–from a race on a magic carpet to peril on a pirate ship sailing the high seas.

In June, Egmont will publish Striker, a new action-adventure series for teen boys. My fellow editor and I have had and absolute blast marrying the wonderful world of British football with international intrigue. Jake learns in the first book that his dad, a retired English football legend, is also a spy for MI6. Jake has natural instincts for both the football and spy game.

What are the big developments in children’s/YA fiction at the moment? Do you see any new trends developing?

It’s exciting to see bookstores creating separate sections for young adult fiction. It’s also really rewarding to see so many adults reading young adult fiction and sharing this experience with their children. (Or, if you’re childless like me, reading it for the pure joy of it!)

Paranormal romance has been huge recently. I keep thinking that surely the tide will turn, but it seems to have staying power. Like everything else, fiction has a cycle. What goes around comes around.

I think it may have something do with the age of the writers and editors tapping into the books they loved as a children. I don’t have a crystal ball for trends. I also don’t think writers should try to follow trends. Publishers are looking for originality and voice. You need a unique hook. Writers should try to pave their own way.

Do you think the eBook format or other new electronic formats will have much effect on the children’s/YA market?

I think they will, but we don’t fully understand what this will mean to young readers, but look how the iPod has revolutionized the way we purchase and listen to music. I don’t think anyone has figured the eBook out yet. But I think young readers will most likely be some of the first adapters to this new technology.

Remember the “choose your own adventure” books. Imagine how exciting that would be to have endless plot options for the book you’re reading.

I also think we might see the providers of content multiply. Distribution will change. I must admit that I’m old fashioned. I love the printed book.

Are you working on any exciting writing projects of your own at the moment? Will there be a sequel to Dark Parties?

I have ideas for a sequel to Dark Parties, but right now I’m working on another dystopian novel. It’s at that really wonderful “first love” phase of the creation process. I’m getting to know the characters and creating the setting. It’s all new and promising. The story is continuing to evolve.
I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas and everything seems to swirl around the new book. I’m trying to write two connected stories in different time periods with intertwined plot lines. There are lots of new challenges ahead.

Do you remember your own first visit to the book fair in Bologna? Do you have any tips for first-time visitors to the book fair who are hoping to be published?

This is my first visit to the book fair! I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve heard it’s really overwhelming but exciting to see the world of children’s books.

Cynsational Notes

Sara Grant is a commissioning editor for Working Partners, a London-based company creating series fiction for children. Her publication credits include stories in “Spider” and “Pockets” children’s magazines, Goldfish anthology, and Undiscovered Voices, an anthology highlighting U.K. children’s writers. She also wrote on assignment for “U.S. Kids” and “Indianapolis Monthly” magazines and Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market. She earned a master’s degree in creative and life writing at Goldsmiths College in 2007. Her young-adult, futuristic novel, titled Dark Parties, was recently acquired by Little, Brown and will be published in 2011.

Laura Watkinson is a translator, from Dutch and Italian into (British) English, and an occasional writer. She translates children’s books for all ages, from picture books to YA/cross-over novels, and has recently completed projects for Piccadilly in the U.K. and Arthur A. Levine in the States. She’s a champion of books in translation and loves making different cultures accessible to younger readers.

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.

Editor Interiew: Stacy Whitman of Tu Books (Lee & Low)

Welcome back to Cynsations!

When we last spoke in February 2009, you were going through a transition, having been recently laid off (along with numerous other employees) from Mirrorstone Books, an imprint of Wizards of the Coast, and having recently relocated to Utah.

At the time, you were editing on a freelance basis for Tor and other clients.

It’s just over a year later. Could you update us on what’s happened since?

For most of 2009, I juggled several lines of a freelance business: critiques for authors, copyediting and proofreading for several publishers including Mirrorstone and Marshall Cavendish, and acquiring novels as a consulting editor for Tor’s children’s lines.

But I needed the security and health insurance that a full-time job gives, and in the fall, I found a “day job” working as the publication manager for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series while starting up a small press on the side.

That small press, Tu Publishing, was a labor of love. A friend and I came up with the idea while watching anime and discussing the RaceFail controversy, thinking about the lack of diversity in children’s and YA fantasy. We worked on a business plan, and the company came to be.

We named it Tu Publishing because the word “tu” means “you” in many Latinate languages, and in Ainu (the language of Japan’s native people), it means “many.” We thought that juxtaposition of “you” and “many” was exactly the kind of message we wanted to send to readers–that we’re all part of the many, and that each of our books are about you, no matter who you are.

Before we could really get going, my friend had to leave the area, so I continued on with it alone, raising money through a Kickstarter campaign to ensure we had enough capital to approach a bank for a small business loan. It was a huge success–what an outpouring of support we got from the children’s book community! We were able to raise over $10,000.

$10,000 is a lot of money, but it takes even more than that to start a publishing company. I was doing most of the work myself, and relying on talented friends and interns–artists, designers, editors, students–who volunteered to help with the things we didn’t have a big budget for.

Meanwhile, the larger conversation about diversity in children’s books, and in fantasy in particular, was of particular interest to Lee & Low Books, which publishes multicultural books–mostly picture books. Their readers had been asking them to publish for older children for a while. They have published a few realistic novels, but no fantasy.

People were talking about Tu on blogs, and Lee & Low publisher Jason Low noticed and got in touch with me. We talked about the possibilities, about how our missions were similar, and eventually Lee & Low offered to acquire Tu.

So now, as you know, Tu Publishing has become Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books. We’ll have the resources we need for the kinds of things that I was going to have to create from scratch on my own. We’ll be able to acquire more books in the first year.

All in all, this is the best thing that could have happened for this little company.

As one of the Kickstarter donors, I wonder what will happen to the money we sent to support the original house.

Those donations will be returned to our supporters, though we will work to honor the rewards we promised as the imprint gets up and running. After all, it is through their support that we were able to get this far. It will take some time to process the refunds.

What is your vision for the list?

I’d really like our list to reflect a wide variety of both cultures and genres. For example, I’m looking for both middle grade and young adult titles, books that would attract boy readers as well as girl readers, and a mix of contemporary, historical, and futuristic settings.

I’d also like a nice mix of serious books versus funny–or even both in the same book.

Along with that, there are so many different cultures in the world whose folklore and fairy tales haven’t really inspired many fantasy worlds here in the U.S., so the possibilities for settings and characters are immense.

We hope to publish six books the first year, with the first list being published sometime in 2011.

As we narrow down the manuscripts we’ve got in the works, we’ll be able to release more specific information on launch dates. Submission guidelines can be found on our site.

Are you interested in speculative fiction set in the real world, high sci-fi/fantasy, or both?

All of the above (not necessarily in the same book, of course).

The popularity of books like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008) and Graceling by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt, 2008) and The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan (Delacorte, 2009) are signs to me that a really great fantasy or science fiction needs strong worldbuilding and strong characters, which draw readers in.

Those books are all very different in setting (one medieval, two futuristic/post-apocalyptic), but they have characters that readers identify with, put into situations that readers sympathize with, in settings that fascinate readers.

Will you be considering graphic literature along with prose fiction? Or prose fiction exclusively?

For right now, we’re only looking for prose fiction–science fiction and fantasy for middle graders and young adults, specifically.

Are you looking for voices from historically underrepresented racial/ethnic communities, folks who write cross-culturally, or both? What is your thinking along these lines?

Both. I want to be sure that especially for underrepresented groups whose voices have been taken from them historically (Native American tribes come to mind) that the books we publish represent a voice from their group.

A lot of the more well-known novels for young readers that feature people of color are written by white people, which is both great in that characters of color are out there and disappointing in that there aren’t more writers of color getting attention.

I spoke briefly with Sherman Alexie a few months back as he signed a book for me. I told him about what we were doing with Tu Publishing, and he said that he’d been telling the young Native American writers he knew that they should be writing fantasy and science fiction.

“Where are the Indians in space?” he asked.

I’d love to see a story like that, written from the perspective of someone from a specific nation, extrapolated into the future.

But I think it’s also possible and welcome for writers to write cross-culturally, because who wants books to be completely segregated by race or culture?

The thing to remember when writing cross-culturally is research. Writers who do this successfully talk to people who are members of the group whose perspective they want to write from. They read a lot. They study human behavior, and reach for the universal as well as the specific–the things that tie us together as human, the idiosyncrasies that make each person unique, and the mores, practices, and beliefs of a culture.

For a list of things to remember when writing cross-culturally, author Nisi Shawl has an excellent article on the subject over on the SFWA [Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America] site called Transracial Writing for the Sincere.

What model books do you recommend for study to authors interested in publishing with Tu?

I’ve got a list of multicultural fantasy and science fiction here. This was compiled as a challenge from the blog Color Online, and many people contributed to it.

When will we get to see Tu Books’ first list?

2011. More information will be forthcoming as we narrow down our submissions.

Why is diversity in speculative fiction for young readers so important to you?

Of the many friends I’ve had over the years from cultures not my own, most of them weren’t interested in fantasy. I never really thought much about it at first–after all, tastes differ–but then I found the RaceFail discussion early last year.

That, along with conversations with friends like Christine Taylor-Butler, who has teenage girls who loved Twilight [by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown, 2005)] but were frustrated never to find fantasy that featured African American girls like them–these factors made me think more deeply about what I was reading and what I didn’t see in what I read.

I started talking to librarians and to kids themselves, and often I heard the same thing: “I don’t see myself in fantasy.”

That conversation has been repeated over and over on the Internet lately, and I’ve been watching the anecdotal evidence pile up.

I love fantasy and science fiction–they’re the stories that make me light up. They bring joy to my life. But if something that brings me such joy isn’t including as many people as possible who might enjoy it as well, we’re doing something wrong.

Why is it so important for kids?

I’ve worked a lot on reaching reluctant readers. Speculative fiction is a great way to get a child interested in reading who might not otherwise have gotten interested. If diversifying speculative fiction for young readers helps some reluctant readers get more interested in reading, we’re opening up not only a genre to them, but a world of learning.

But beyond reluctant readers, there are avid readers out there looking to see themselves reflected in the books they love. There are readers who see themselves reflected all the time who are interested in exploring new worlds.

I was just talking to a friend the other day, my former managing editor, who told me his daughter, a sophomore in high school, is learning Japanese in school and getting into manga and anime. She’s looking beyond her surroundings to a broader perspective. I think a lot of kids want to do that.

Wow! You are one of the most dynamic people in publishing today! What has this past year taught you?

I am? Ha! I have just been trying to make the best of an economy in the dumps–creating a job for myself and finding a hole to fill. Seriously though, that is very kind of you to say.

The main thing it’s taught me is that it’s worth it to follow the little niggling feeling that tells you to jump off a cliff. (Figuratively, of course.)

I was laid off from Mirrorstone about a year and a half ago, right when all those layoffs were happening in publishing. I struggled to make ends meet as a freelancer, despite that little feeling that said everything would be fine. Going freelance wasn’t my end goal, though–it was just a way to pay the bills until I could figure out what I should do next.

When my friend suggested we start a small press, an old dream of mine resurfaced. I’d always wanted to start one, but I didn’t think it was the right time. Yet that same little feeling I’d felt when I got laid off, that this was the right thing to do and that everything would be fine, stayed with me. So I went forward. And everything that’s followed has been…well, a miracle.

Second, it’s taught me how many friends I have, who are all rooting for me to succeed. And it’s been humbling, seeing all the people who loved the idea we were working on, knowing that it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with making the idea itself succeed so that readers will benefit.

How does it feel?

Awesome! (Now that I’m through it.)

Is there anything you’d like to add!

Just to say thank you!

SCBWI Bologna 2010 Illustrator Interview: John Shelley

Interview by Laura Watkinson for SCBWI Bologna 2010

Hello, John. Could you tell us a little about what you’re working on at the moment?

I’m currently developing some picture book dummy ideas, later in the Spring I’ll be working on Volume 2 of the Zipper-kun series for Rironsha in Japan.

As a successful illustrator, how do you organise your time? Can you choose to concentrate on one project at a time and see it through to the end, or do you prefer to work on lots of different projects at the same time? Are you happy with the balance between commercial work and children’s books?

Once I begin on a book project I ideally prefer to see it through to the end with no interruptions from other work, however, the market is rarely that obliging!

Commercial jobs have short deadlines but are often pretty straightforward so can be worked on at the same time as books. I don’t mix work on books together though.

When you think back to your childhood, which illustrators do you remember from back then? Do you think that they influenced your development as an illustrator?

I don’t really recall my earliest books, but around the age of 8 to 10, I remember being a fan of Beatrix Potter, Quentin Blake and Edward Ardizzone. I think all influenced my development.

At a slightly older age, the Golden Age illustrators (Arthur Rackham, William Heath-Robinson, Edmund Dulac, Aubrey Beardsley, etc.) had a major impact on me, discovering Rackham’s work made me want to be an illustrator.

Which of your projects do you feel is most representative of your style and the way you want to work? How much freedom do you have to create the kind of illustrations that you want? Which of your projects would you recommend to someone who wants to find out what John Shelley’s work is all about?

That’s a tough one. I’m pretty versatile; there’s no one book that sums me up. I tend to adapt my style to match the text of the books, there are stylistic variations, but they are all fundamentally “me.”

I suppose for picture books The Boat in the Tree [by Tim Wynne-Jones (Front Street, 2007)] is quite representative of a certain approach; in black and white, the Charlie Bone books (Tokuma Shoten).

Regarding freedom, again it depends on the publisher and the book. As a general rule, Japanese editors tend to be more controlling than those in the U.K. and U.S., they often have an agenda and firm ideas how they want me to visualise the book.

Then again deadline can be a factor too.

What do you look for when you’re considering whether to accept a new project? Are there any dream projects out there that you’d drop everything else to do?

I look for text that matches my style and general subject matter, which, on first reading, inspires strong mental images.

Dream projects? Many many. Any great works of fantasy. I’m always interested in illustrating classic literature – Andersen, Grimm, Dickens, etc.

Do you represent yourself or do you have an agent to look after your interests? What advice would you give to a new illustrator who is trying to find an agent?

I have an agent in the U.S., but not anywhere else. I’m not really qualified to advise on agents.

As a freelance illustrator, do you try to plan your career or do you prefer to see what projects come your way? Do you have any tips for other freelance illustrators who are attempting to make a career for themselves? Or any advice for aspiring illustrators who are hoping to catch a publisher’s attention?

Naturally, I try to focus in directions I’d like my career to take, though it sometimes works out that you become successful in areas you haven’t anticipated.

You need to be flexible, able to seize opportunities for new areas and appreciate where and how your work fits in without compromising your overall creative integrity. Successful illustrators know how to exploit their talents in areas they are best suited to.

Be versatile, be aware of the needs of the market, expand into fields you find work, but don’t lose track of your core interests. There’s nothing worse than being stuck with a reputation for work you don’t enjoy doing, or conversely a portfolio of lovingly crafted images for which there’s no market.

On your website, you mention Mervyn Peake as an inspiration. I love his art, too, and I’d be very interested to hear about your experience of his work. Which other artists have been important for you?

I first came across Peake’s work at art college and was instantly transfixed; I’ve been a fan ever since.

Other artists, it’s a long list – as mentioned above, Ardizzione, Rackham, Heath Robinson and other Golden Age illustrators, the great heritage of pen and ink illustrators from the U.K.

Also Jose Maria Jorge (when I was a teenager), Ralph Steadman, Michael Foreman, E. H. Shephard, Hergé, Albin Brunovsky, Hokusai, Utamaro, etc. There are too many names to list here, I get inspired by a lot of work.

Most enjoyable part of illustrating for you?

Finishing the last pen lines or the last brush stroke on a picture that’s come out really well.

Also – posting the invoice!

Do you have many opportunities to meet your target audience, the young readers?

Only my daughter.

I’ve recently translated a book to accompany “An Elephant Came By,” a travelling exhibition of work by children’s illustrators from the Netherlands. One of the questions in the book was whether there’s such a thing as a “typical” Dutch style of illustration. What do you think? Is there, say, a typically British style? Or do illustrators transcend geopolitical borders?

There’s a definite English tradition of pen-and-ink illustration stemming from Hogarth to Rowlandson and through the 19th and 20th century; I think you can trace a thread with some U.K. artists to this. But not all by any means.

Following on from the previous question, you’ve lived and worked in Japan. What influence has that country had on your work and career?

Sense of design, use of space, economy, the power of expressive line, and much more. In many subtle ways I’ve been influenced by Japan, though my style remains fundamentally English.

You still do a lot of work for the Japanese market. Do Japanese customers have different expectations of you than, say, publishers in the U.K.?

Definitely.

Living in the Netherlands, I’m interested to hear which Dutch and Flemish illustrators have attracted your attention. I love Carll Cneut’s work, and I think Charlotte Dematons is a phenomenal artist, too. And of course there’s Dick Bruna, with his Miffy books, which I believe are very popular in Japan. Have you had much contact with children’s illustrators from the Netherlands and Flanders?

To be honest, not really, though I met Max Velthuijs several times.

Would you care to speculate about the way the children’s publishing world might develop over the next five years or so? Any important trends you see developing?

Everyone is talking about the digitalisation of books, but I’m not convinced. I can’t see this ever replacing “real” books. Who knows where the market will lead?

What are you hoping that this year’s visit to Bologna will bring? Do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators who are visiting Bologna for the first time? Do you remember your own first visit to the book fair?

Hopefully some cracking commissions, lots of inspiration and many pleasant memories.

For first time visitors – make appointments before you arrive, publishers have full schedules at Bologna. Bring plenty of handouts, and keep your portfolios light and handy.

Cynsational Notes

John Shelley began his illustration career in London, his first picture book The Secret in the Matchbox [by Val Willis (FSG, 1988)] being shortlisted for the Mother Goose Award. From 1987, he lived in Tokyo for over 20 years, receiving awards for commercial illustration while illustrating over 40 children’s books for Western and Japanese markets. The former Illustrator Coordinator and Assistant Regional Advisor of SCBWI Tokyo, he returned to the U.K. in 2008, but still maintains close ties with Japan.

Laura Watkinson is a translator, from Dutch and Italian into (British) English, and an occasional writer. She translates children’s books for all ages, from picture books to YA/cross-over novels, and has recently completed projects for Piccadilly in the U.K. and Arthur A. Levine in the States. She’s a champion of books in translation and loves making different cultures accessible to younger readers.

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.