New Voice: Meg Wiviott on Benno and the Night of Broken Glass

Meg Wiviott is the first-time author of Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon (Kar-Ben, 2010). From the promotional copy:

A neighborhood cat observes the changes in German and Jewish families in its town during the period leading up to Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass that becomes the true beginning of the Holocaust.

This cat’s-eye view introduces the Holocaust to children in a gentle way that can open discussion of this period.

What inspired you to choose the particular point of view in your book? What considerations came into play? Did you try the story from a different point of view at some point? If so, what made you change your mind?

When I started working on this project I began with an omniscient, distant narrator. I wanted to present the information simply as facts. No emotion. Without getting personal.

When dealing with the Holocaust for young readers, I was conscious of the balance between being accurate and not frightening the child reader. I wanted to tell the story and let sidebars spell out the historical and political facts of Kristallnacht.

I thought of Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), an excellent example of a story with sidebars. That way children and their parents could read the story and add in the facts as the child became ready for them.

The problem with this approach was that it was boring. My critique group wisely told me that no one would care, that I had to get personal. They suggested I tell the story through the point of view of a child.

I had many long conversations with one of my critique-mates over this issue. I did not want to tell the story from the point of view of a Jewish child for many reasons.

First, I thought it would be too frightening, bringing the child reader too close to the anxiety and fear of the story child.

Also, because Kristallnacht is considered by many to be the beginning of the Holocaust, the end of the story is not happy or uplifting. The ending has to be ambiguous and terrifying.

Nor did I want to tell the story from the point of view of a German child because I did not want to enter the head of a German child or their parent. I wanted the story to be historically accurate. I did not want to give the impression that all Germans were either Righteous or Nazis.

In trying to think of a way to tell the story, I remembered when my husband and I were first married, we lived in an apartment building where the super allowed a stray cat to sleep in the boiler room. Hobo was a tough, street-smart cat and everyone in the building loved him.

So what finally came to me was “Benno” (though he was originally named “Kater,” which means “tomcat” in German).

Using distant third person point of view, Benno is an unbiased observer. And, being a cat, he has a child-like innocence about him. He is befriended by the people of Rosenstrasse, welcomed into homes and shops, and through his eyes the reader experiences the grim changes occurring in Nazi Germany and the events of Kristallnacht.

Writing from Benno’s point of view was easy and solved my problems. He gave me the distance I needed at the same time allowed me to show the emotions of the story. Besides, I love cats!

How did you go about identifying your editor?

Benno had a two unsuccessful ventures into the publishing world before I decided to attend the Jewish Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in November 2006.

I signed up for a 15-minute critique with Judye Groner, editor and founder of Kar-Ben.

Before the conference, I visited Kar-Ben’s website. They were the perfect publisher, a small house that publishes only picture books with Jewish themes. How perfect for a picture book on Kristallnacht. I went off to the conference like a woman on a mission.

Now anybody who has signed up for one of these 15-minute critiques knows that 15 minutes is not a lot of time. Judye asked those of us who she’d be critiquing to send our first pages to her via email before the conference. I did that, but because I saw the book as a story with sidebars, I divided the page in columns with the story on the left and the facts for the sidebars on the right. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, it was confusing.

So, in our 15 minutes together, Judye had to read the whole manuscript. I sat there. Then she didn’t have much to say. She suggested that I give Sophie a favorite book that would later be thrown onto the fire, it would be something the kids could relate to. That was it.

Usually, when I’ve done these types of critiques before the editor has a lot to say about what could be changed. I came out of the meeting feeling disappointed, as if it had been a waste of time.

The next day, I got two emails from Judye. The first was to all the writers whose manuscripts she had critiqued saying thank you. The second was for me. She thanked me for coming to the conference and encouraged me to make the change we’d talked about and resubmit because there were no children’s books on Kristallancht.

I made the changes, took the revision to my critique group, and then submitted it to Judye. A month later, Judye emailed to say she was recommending that the story be taken to the acquisitions committee in the spring.

Ta-da! The rest is history. In revisions, Kar-Ben did ask me to do away with the sidebars and use an afterword instead, which provides the facts without intruding on the story.

Cynsational Notes

Read a Cynsations interview with Judye Groner on Kar-Ben Publishing.

Guest Post: Liz Garton Scanlon on the ALA Conference and the Caldecott

By Liz Garton Scanlon

In late January, soon after the American Library Association children’s-YA book awards were announced at the Midwinter Conference in Boston, I received my official invitation to attend the ALA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C.

I was fairly floating at the time, and all thoughts turned to dresses and shoes.

June, I thought, was right around the corner.

But then five months of life intervened, and on June 25, I found myself on an airplane, unsure of whether I had a layover, where my hotel was, and who knows what was in my suitcase.

Thank goodness I went straight from the airport to a restaurant with round tables laden with tapas and sangria.

And, thank goodness again, there were my poetry sisters, many of whom I’d only met online until then. But we’d been writing together for a couple of years and, over time, had grown into friends. Really good friends.

So we sat there – five of the seven of us (Tanita S. Davis and Andromeda Jazmon were still on their way), and the floaty feeling I’d had in January started coming back.

This was going to be fun.

(“Poetry Sisters” – top row: Kelly Fineman, Laura Purdie Salas, Sara Lewis Holmes; bottom row: Tricia Stohr-Hunt, Liz Garton Scanlon.)

We could have stayed right there with our glasses of fruity wine ‘til Sunday, but the social calendar called. Next up? Kidlit Drinks Night – where we ran into bloggers galore. It’s funny to meet in person people whom you feel you already know. Sometimes they are blond instead of brunette, or short instead of tall. They are invariably at least as nice. Also, I unexpectedly ran into my agent (Erin Murphy). Double-whammy bonus.

Saturday, I took a morning run around The White House and all the monuments because, believe it or not, this was my first time in D.C.

At The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, there was a man about my dad’s age, crying and crying, as his daughters each held one of his hands. I walked instead of ran back to the hotel.

Next, I made my way over to the ALA exhibit hall, which was rather overwhelmingly super-sized – until I remembered it was filled with people who loved books, making it just the right size. First up was a short, sweet interview with the kind and tireless Barb Langridge. It went well except for the fact that my voice dropped about two-and-a-half octaves as I spoke.

Afterward, I lunched with my All the World (Beach Lane, 2009) editor (Allyn Johnston) and illustrator (Marla Frazee), during which my voice returned to normal.

I trolled the exhibit hall after lunch and ran, pell-mell, into practically all the authors and illustrators and editors I’ve ever dreamed of meeting.

(Lois Ehlert and Marilyn Singer.)

(Jessica Lee Anderson, P.J. Hoover, Harold Underdown with Liz in the gray sweater [Jessica and P.J. are members of an Austin-based author group called the Texas Sweethearts].)

(Erin Dionne and Heidi R. Kling with Liz (center).)

And from there, I was off to an afternoon tea at the exquisite Georgetown home of Tami Lewis Brown (where I met everyone I hadn’t met at the convention center). And that includes the current National Ambassador of Children’s Literature Katherine Paterson.

I almost asked her to pinch me.

(Tea Photos: Katherine Patterson in the striped ribbon with some familiar faces.)

(Sara Lewis Holmes and Jama Rattigan.)

(Helen Hemphill and Liz)

That evening, we had a lovely, celebratory Beach Lane Books dinner at the most delicious Italian restaurant. Beach Lane, a Simon & Schuster imprint, brainchild of the inimitable Allyn Johnston, and publisher of All the World and my next few books, is less than two years old but they’ve already put together the most perfect little lists.

So, there was a lot to toast, and we did – Allyn and her editorial partner, Andrea Welch, Marla Frazee, Mem Fox, Lois Ehlert, Debra Frasier, M.T. Anderson, and the smart, funny, generous Powers That Be at Simon &Schuster.

I could not get over the fact that I got to sit smack-dab in the middle of this amazing group of people. Maybe writing books isn’t such a lonely endeavor after all.

(Editor Andrea Welch and M.T. Anderson.)

(Mem Fox, Simon & Schuster Children’s Field Sales Director Brian Kelleher, and Debra Frasier.)

(A peek at the table.)

Sunday morning felt remarkably nearby, but I entered it gently when my dear friend Sara Lewis Holmes showed up at my hotel room with her dear friend Suzie Celentano – for yoga with the furniture pushed aside. An hour-and-a-half later, signing books in the Scholastic Book Fair booth, my skin was still thrumming.

From Scholastic, we moved to Simon & Schuster and kept signing, Marla and I together. We had color-coordinated Sharpies and a good groove, except that I was apparently too chatty so the lines crept along.

Lunch that day was with my beloved agent, Erin Murphy and the lovely Michelle Nagler of Bloomsbury, the editor of my forthcoming picture book, Think Big (spring 2012). We talked about books and babies, and we ate quite a lot of good food. (Quickly becoming a theme of the weekend…)

There’s no time to elaborate, though, since The Newbery Caldecott banquet is right around the corner and there’s primping to be done. I was to meet Allyn and Marla in the lobby of our hotel.

They looked dynamite, and the whole affair was starting to feel like a cross between prom and something really fun.

(Liz with Marla Frazee and editor Allyn Johnston).

How to describe that night? I thought it might feel overwhelming or anticlimactic, but it wasn’t either one. It was just really special.

We met the librarians on the Caldecott Committee – the ones who’d chosen to recognize All the World as an honor book. We listened to the happy, happy speeches by Jerry Pinkney and Rebecca Stead. We hugged friends and strangers and shook a lot of hands.

And when Marla walked onto stage to receive the honor for All the World, I had to swallow very, very carefully to keep from spilling tears all over my dress.

(Editor Allyn Johnston with literary agent Erin Murphy.)

Liz and Marla pose with some of the Caldecott Committee librarians.

(Liz with 2010 Sibert Honor Author Chris Barton.)

There were other events over the next two days, not the least of which was lunch with the Caldecott Committee on Monday – I had no idea the work and passion put into that project each year – and The Coretta Scott King breakfast on Tuesday, where my friend Tanita was awarded an honor for her funny, moving book, Mare’s War (Knopf, 2009). And either each and every one of these events was perfect, or I must’ve been wearing magic shoes because things sure looked dreamy to me.

(Caldecott Award Committee.)

(Coretta Scott King Award Brunch: Andromeda Jazmon, Coretta Scott King Honor Author Tanita S. Davis, Liz, and Kelly Fineman.)

A little dose of reality? By the time I headed home, I had lost my voice in earnest and was nursing a case of pinkeye. Funny how, in the end, neither really mattered.

I mean, really, even Cinderella probably had sore feet….

(Liz and Marla’s feet at the banquet!)

Cynsational Notes

Top photo of Liz by

From Simon & Schuster: “Liz Garton Scanlon is the author of the critically acclaimed picture books All the World, illustrated by Marla Frazee, and A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes by Robin Preiss Glasser (HarperCollins, 2004). She is an adjunct professor of creative writing at Austin Community College, and her poetry has been published widely in literary journals. She lives with her family in Austin, Texas.”

Read Liz’s LiveJournal, Liz In Ink. Don’t miss today’s post, The Calendar Year of a Caldecott Book.

All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane, 2010) is a Caldecott Honor Book. It also earned the following recognition:

  • ALA Notable Children’s Books;
  • Bank Street Best Books of the Year – with Outstanding Merit;
  • New York Times best-seller;
  • Bulletin Blue Ribbon;
  • Capitol Choices List (DC);
  • CBC/NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Book;
  • CCBC Choices (Cooperative Children’s Book Council);
  • Horn Book Fanfare;
  • IRA Children’s Book Award;
  • Kirkus Best Children’s Book;
  • New York Times Best Illustrated Books;
  • NYPL 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing;
  • Parents’ Choice Gold Award Winner;
  • Publishers Weekly Best Books;
  • School Library Journal Best Books of the Year;
  • Texas 2×2 Reading List.

Check out the book trailer for All the World from Circle of Seven Productions.

Guest Post: Jody Feldman on On Writing the “Boy Book,” By a Girl

By Jody Feldman

I rarely got into trouble at school. I’ve never needed to be in constant motion. I am not a boy. Yet the main character in my latest book, The Seventh Level (Greenwillow, 2010), is a boy in constant motion who’s always in trouble. Conclusion? I do not write what I personally know.

So how does that work? Why do both my books have boy main characters? Why are two of the three headliners in my (hopefully) next book boys? How can I, a girl, make that succeed?

I’ll start with the obvious. I happened to grow up in a household with two brothers where Sunday afternoon TV was all about NFL football. Until I was eleven, I lived in a neighborhood where girls didn’t seclude themselves with dolls, but came together with the boys in hardy games of Red Rover, Uncle Sam, Spud, and softball. Also Kickover – a game of trying to punt a football over the heads of the other team – which might or might not be a real street sport. It didn’t matter. We made up the rules, and to us, it was real.

I loved all that competition. And when Albert devised a concoction that looked like flesh-rotting fungus, I wore it proudly on the back of my hand. When he yelled at me because I was an idiot for not liking his presidential candidate (I was seven), I went crying to my mom who gave me a hug and sent me back outside with permission to tell Albert he was the idiot.

While I never became a girly girl, I wasn’t a tomboy, either. I was shy. Afraid to climb a tree or scale a high fence. Hesitant to race on my roller skates after messing up my knees one too many times.

So again, how could I write a realistic scene, told in first person by a boy who’d dangle off the roof of his school?

We quiet people aren’t deaf or blind. I witnessed Tommy scramble up the gym ropes seemingly faster than humanly possible, then even faster the next time. I watched the slugfest between Ricky and Stuart, then noticed how they were best buddies the next day. I felt Andy pulling my hair and kicking the backs of my shoes from the desk behind me to get my attention.

And I listened. A lot.

When I write, I fully immerse myself into the mindset of my main character with help from every boy I have ever known or have merely observed.

Then I do what all authors should. I empathize. I feel. And feelings tend to be genderless. It’s the reaction to them, the expression of them that’s different.

Like the writer who can’t time travel to hang out with a silversmith’s apprentice, I can’t inhabit the body of a twelve-year-old boy. But I can write about one believably enough that a fifth grader might come up me and say, “I didn’t know you were a girl.”

Cynsational Notes

Jody Feldman, the award-winning author of The Gollywhopper Games (Greenwillow, 2008) and The Seventh Level, will watch any sport, but her favorite is still football.

She also plays computer and video games, something the boys (and many girls) love to hear during school visits.

She lives in St. Louis, where she’s always working at puzzles or mysteries or twists for her next book.

Literary Director Interview: Clay Smith on The Texas Book Festival

Clay Smith is the literary director of the Texas Book Festival. A former journalist, he works for the Sundance Film Festival when not planning the lineup of writers appearing at the Book Festival.

The Texas Book Festival is scheduled for Oct. 16 and Oct. 17 at the state capitol building in Austin.

What was the spark that first led to the creation of the Texas Book Festival?

Former First Lady Laura Bush, and a group of interested volunteers founded the Festival to highlight some of the most accomplished Texas authors and to raise money for Texas Public Libraries.

What is its mission?

The Texas Book Festival’s mission is to celebrate authors and their contributions to the culture of literacy, ideas and imagination.

How has it grown and changed over the years?

The first Book Festival had about 40 authors and focused primarily on Texas authors.

This year the Book Festival will feature more than 200 renowned Texas and national authors.

The organization has grown significantly in 15 years. Now, there is year-round programming that also includes grants to Texas public libraries, literacy outreach to economically disadvantaged (Title 1) schools in Central and South Texas, a Fiction Writing Contest for children and author events and happenings.

There is a tidal wave of technological changes having a monumental impact on the book publishing industry right now. The Texas Book Festival integrated eBook technology into Festival activities through a Future of Reading panel last year, and TBF is committed to keeping a place in the Festival for the discussion of new technologies and how they are shaping and changing the publishing industry as we know it. TBF will be a resource for both readers and authors as they adjust to these changes.

What programming is especially geared to young readers and/or children’s-YA literature enthusiasts of all ages?

During the Festival weekend, we have numerous readings, discussions, entertainment and activities, local food and live music for children of all ages. There is a special children’s area of the Festival with two full days of author events and a second tent with engaging and interactive entertainment and activities for kids.

Here are some of the children/YA authors who will present at the 2010 Texas Book Festival:

o Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls: Blast from the Past, Book Six by Meg Cabot (Scholastic, 2010);

o Llama Llama Holiday Drama by Anna Dewdney (Penguin, 2010);

o Art and Max by David Wiesner (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010);

o What Can You Do with a Paleta?/ ¿Qué puedes hacer con una paleta? by Carmen Tafolla (Tricycle Press, 2010);

o The Fairy Godmother Academy #3; Zally’s Book by Jan Bozarth (Random House, 2010);

o Zombies vs. Unicorns/White Cat by Holly Black (McElderry, 2010)(Simon & Schuster, 2010);

o Shark vs. Train by Chris Barton (Little, Brown, 2010);

o Smurglets Are Everywhere by Alan Birkelbach (TCU, Press, 2010);

o Vlad Todd: Twelfth Grade Kills by Heather Brewer (Penguin, 2010).

How about young writers?

The Texas Book Festival holds a Fiction Writing Contest with the UIL (University Interscholastic League) for 7-12 grade students. Winners of the contest are rewarded with a trip to Austin to present their works at the Book Festival. The contest encourages development of writing skills.

In what ways does the festival benefit schools and libraries?

The Texas Book Festival, since it started, has contributed $2.5 million dollars in grants to Texas public libraries, reaching over 600 libraries in 400 cities.

Through the Reading Rock Stars program, the Texas Book Festival has reached out to economically disadvantaged schools in Central and South Texas, reaching more than 30,000 children with this literacy outreach program.

What about the festival first attracted you?

I had been on the Festival’s author selection committee when I was the book editor at the Austin Chronicle, and left Austin in 2002 to attend the Cultural Reporting & Criticism program in NYU’s journalism school.

Just as I finished that program, I heard that the Festival’s programming job was open and applied. I thought the job would be an interesting way to be involved in publishing, but not have to live in New York, and it seemed really exciting to me to cook up lots of cool author events (and it has been!). By the way, I didn’t know very much about kid’s books before I started this job, and a lot of people have taught me along the way.

What is the organizational/staff structure?

I am the Literary Director for the Texas Book Festival. In total, The Texas Book Festival has a staff of four, lead by Executive Director, Heidi Marquez Smith. Additionally, on staff is Director of Outreach Blair Newberry and Director of Operations Mary Wilson.

Could you describe the preparation that goes into each festival?

From a programming standpoint, most of the year is spent thinking about the kinds of books that are being published in any given year and which writers we think would be ideal for the Festival. It’s not just me selecting the books – there’s an author-selection committee for the adult program and one for the kid’s program.

The spring and summer are spent inviting the writers and figuring out how to place them in the program, and the months right before the Festival I spend on logistical work – making the Festival happen.

Additionally, there is literally an army of volunteers, around 1,000 people who work to pull the many moving parts of the Festival together.

With 200+ authors participating, and 40,000 visitors, there are hundreds and hundreds of people working together to make the experience an amazing literary celebration.

The Festival has authors and discussions for all ages and areas of interest, cooking demonstrations, children’s activities and entertainment, musical entertainment and some of the best local food.

How long have you been with the festival?

I’ve been in this job since 2005.

What do you love about it?

I love it that we’re presenting the newest, hottest ideas in American thought every year – for free! – to the public. We create one big conversation for Texans about what’s going on in our world, and new ways to think about it, and I think that’s an invaluable event for everyone to be a part of. We connect writers and readers in a really vital way, and connect readers with other readers in a big two-day party.

Could you share with us a couple of festival memories?

It’s nice when someone famous, like then-Senator Obama, comes to the Festival, but I’m really happy when lesser-known writers have a full crowd of people waiting to hear what they have to say, so I always remember the sessions that don’t have “famous” writers but nonetheless are full. In fact, sometimes the sessions are so full the fire marshal gets a little upset.

How can folks get involved with and/or otherwise support the festival?

The Texas Book Festival has a membership program. For a minimum contribution of $50, members are invited to exclusive author events, receive priority seating and get the latest TBF news.

Additionally, folks could become involved with the Festival by volunteering. There are more than 1,000 volunteers needed each year to produce the festival. To join as a member or sign up as a volunteer, go to:

What can we expect from the 2011 Texas Book Festival?

Lots of books about race this year, lots of “manly” books – books about war, manhunts for famous criminals (like Al Capone). Lots of vampire books – the Festival will have a sampling of good books in almost every genre published this year.

What changes will there be from previous years?

You might want to get to the Capitol a little early this year if one of the writers you want to see is appearing in the Capitol – the Capitol installed metal detectors this year, although by all reports, people are getting into the Capitol quickly.

You can also use the East, North, and West doors, since there will probably be smaller lines at those doors even though every entrance to the Capitol has metal detectors.

What is your vision for the future of the festival?

I want the Festival to continue to bring Texas’ and the country’s best writers to Texans for free.

More personally, what are some of your favorite new releases of the past year?

You would have to put some truth serum into me for me to answer that question – all of our writers have gone through a rigorous selection process, so they all have something really interesting to say.

What do you do outside of the world of books?

I read a lot and I do a little bit of freelance journalism. I take care of two kooky dogs and spend time my two kooky nephews.

Cynsational Notes

I’m honored to be among the 2010 Festival Authors scheduled to appear at the 15th annual Texas Book Festival Oct. 16 and Oct. 17 at the State Capitol Building in Austin.

The line-up also includes M.T. Anderson, Laurie Halse Anderson, Ann Angel, T.A. Barron, Chris Barton, Holly Black, Heather Brewer, Marina Budhos, Cinda Williams Chima, Andrea Cremer, Tony DiTerlizzi, Keith Graves, Bethany Hegedus, Varian Johnson, Justine Larbalestier, April Lurie, Deborah Noyes, Sara Pennypacker, Lisa Railsback, Tim Tingle, Scott Westerfeld, Brian Yansky.

Learn more about the Texas Book Festival:

Cynsational News & Giveaways

R.A. Nelson: redesigned site from the author of Teach Me (Razorbill, 2007), Breathe My Name (Razorbill, 2008), Days of Little Texas (Knopf, 2010), and Throat (Knopf, 2011). Read a Cynsations interview with R.A.

New Agent Alert: Jason Pinter of Waxman Literary Agency by Chuck Sambuchino from Guide to Literary Agents. Note: Jason is seeking middle grade and YA fiction. Peek: “I’m a sucker for stories about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations, and normal people who must overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.”

Life on the Road: Tips for Authors on Tour by Richelle Mead from Blue Succubus. Peek: “Because most signings are at 6 or 7 p.m., I often get picked up at 5 or 6 p.m., meaning I don’t get to eat at dinnertime. Get food when you arrive, or you may not eat at all.”

6 1/2 Ways to Impress an Agent by Tina Wexler from Donna Gephart at Wild About Words. Peek: “Demonstrate knowledge of their list. This doesn’t mean you have to read every book they’ve ever sold–I leave that job to my mom–but by showing them you know a bit about who they represent, you’re telling agents you’ve done your research on who to query.”

Guest Post: Agent Michelle Andelman on Dystopian Fiction from The Spectacle. Peek: “I dived in feeling self-important, feeling like my mom trusted my opinion, feeling like I was revisiting a place I’d just left. Cracking the spine, I felt adult for the first time. And, then I fell in love.”

Congratulations to Vermont College of Fine Arts, which is ranked first among low-residency MFA programs, according to Poets and Writers!

Pen pals: The characters in a new kids’ book bear a funny resemblance to the friends who dreamed them up: Minneapolis writers Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee. By Laurie Hertzel from the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. Note: Bink and Gollie, illustrated by Tony Fucile, comes out Sept. 14 from Candlewick. Read a Cynsations interview with Kate from Cynsations.

How Many Projects Do You Have to Write Before the Big One? from Jennifer Hubbard. Peek: “I think the typical answer is around four (I vaguely recall someone compiling statistics on this, but it’s also my experience anecdotally, from talking to other writers). I do know writers who have sold the very first book they ever wrote, but they are the exception.”

The Package of Services That Publishers Provide Authors and How This Is Changing by Nathan Bransford – Literary Agent. Peek: “Here are the basic services traditional publishers provide for an author, why these services matter, and how this is (and isn’t) changing….” Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan.

Agent Interview: Mary Kole from Alice Pope’s SCBWI Children’s Market Blog. Peek: “I’m still very much looking for talent, but I feel like I can take my time now and be really picky. I’d say I can sum up my goals in agenting and in life with, ‘Read and learn more and more every day.'” See also Mary on Mature Voice for the YA Market from

Inevitable Envy by Eric from Pimp My Novel. Peek: “If you feel it—or rather, when you feel it—first of all, take comfort that you’re in the very best of company.” Source: Elizabeth Scott.

Tips on Selling “Multicultural” Children’s-YA Books by Mitali Perkins from Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “When doing a display of ‘good summer reads’ or ‘great books about friendship’ or whatever the display is, make sure each display has multicultural titles in it.” Read a Cynsations interview with Mitali.

Curious Georgia: new blog from author Julia DeVillers, newly relocated to Georgia (the former Soviet Republic of…). Peek: “Usually, I live in Ohio. But for a year or so, I’m an expat. This should be interesting…”

Children’s Authors and Their Dogs: Bow Wow Wow Wow Wow! by Jama Rattigan from Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup. A photographic celebration of children’s authors, their dogs, and a few dog-themed books, too.

An Interview with Patricia Riley Giff and ZigZag Kids (Random House) Giveaway by Esther Hershenhorn from Teaching Writers. Teaching Authors are giving away two sets of the first two books in Patricia’s new series: Number One Kid and Big Whopper. One set is for a classroom teacher, the other for a writer, librarian, or parent/grandparent. Deadline: 11 p.m. CST Aug. 30. Read a Cynsations interview with Patricia.

Writing in the Woods: authors Marsha Wilson Chall, Phyllis Root and Jane Resh Thomas are offering a writing workshop from Oct. 9 to Oct. 15 in Spring Valley, Minnesota. Application deadline: Sept. 1. Note: “Two graduate credits will be available through Hamline University.” Peek: “As teachers, readers, and creators of children’s literature, we invite you to live and write with us for a week in the woods. We provide a safe, supportive writing environment and promise to nurture you and treat your art kindly.” Read a Cynsations interview with Phyllis.

The Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College is pleased to announce the addition of a new $1,000 fellowships for children’s-YA writers: the Jacqueline Woodson Fellowship for a Young People’s Writer of African or Caribbean Descent. Read a Cynsations interview with Director Meg Kearney on the Solstice Creative Writing Programs of Pine Manor College.

A Look at School Visits – Successful Presentations from Verla Kay‘s Blog. Peek: “You might make some mistakes during the day. That’s not a tragedy unless you turn it into one. Laugh at any mistakes so your audience can laugh, too.” Read a Cynsations interview with Verla.

Interview: African Library Project founder, Chris Bradshaw by Marjorie from papertigers. Peek: “We completed libraries in all of the South District [of Botswana] and are now covering our third (of twelve) school districts with 199 libraries and counting.”

Congratulations, David Macinnis Gill

Congratulations to David Macinnis Gill on the release of Black Hole Sun (Greenwillow, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Durango will take on any mission—as long as it is dangerous, impossible, and hopeless, and as long as it pays enough for him and his crew to get by.

Fortunately for Durango, he also has Mimi, a symbiotic nano-implant, to keep him on the straight and narrow, as well as a crew of loyal soldiers. Because he’s going to need everything he’s got for his latest mission—defending a rag-tag clan of helpless miners from a ravenous horde of feral cannibals and their enigmatic but brutal leader, who is hellbent on taking out the miners, and Durango along with them.

Read a Cynsations interview with David about his previous book, Soul Enchilada (Greenwillow, 2009)

Cynsational Screening Room

Mocking Jay (Scholastic), the third and final book in the Suzanne CollinsHunger Games trilogy is now available. Check out Editor Spotlight: Jennifer Rees by Sherrie Peterson from Write About Now. Peek: “It wasn’t until she delivered the manuscript for The Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008), however, that we truly realized just how big and wide-reaching a project this was. We literally walked around with goosebumps for days.”

Check out the book trailer for A Place Where Hurricanes Happen by Renee Watson, illustrated by Shandra Strickland (Random House, 2010). From the promotional copy: “…this touching free-verse picture book provides a straightforward account of Hurricane Katrina…”

More Personally

I’m honored to be among the 2010 Festival Authors scheduled to appear at the 15th annual Texas Book Festival Oct. 16 and Oct. 17 at the State Capitol Building in Austin.

The line-up also includes M.T. Anderson, Laurie Halse Anderson, Ann Angel, T.A. Barron, Chris Barton, Holly Black, Heather Brewer, Marina Budhos, Cinda Williams Chima, Andrea Cremer, Tony DiTerlizzi, Keith Graves, Bethany Hegedus, Varian Johnson, Justine Larbalestier, April Lurie, Deborah Noyes, Sara Pennypacker, Lisa Railsback, Tim Tingle, Scott Westerfeld, and Brian Yansky.

My fave amusing links of the week are (a) Erm. This Hope This Doesn’t Ever Become a Fashion Trend by Leila Roy from Bookshelves of Doom, highlighting hats made out of books (check out the photos!); and (b) Inside the Science Fiction Book Contract by Greg R. Fishbone from The Spectacle (I particularly liked the “Cloned Author Clause.”)

And this one is required reading: Letter to Myself: Jo Knowles from Anna Staniszewski.

On the local front, see a wrap-up of the last Austin SCBWI meeting–“Diversity is Everyone’s Story” from E. Kristin Anderson. And thanks to Bethany Hegedus for featuring my Holler Loudly (Dutton, Nov. 11) trailer in Work and Worry: The Writer’s Life from Writer Friendly; Bookshelf Approved.

Highlighting Donna and Carmen

Today I’d like to highlight the blogs of two local children’s writers, Donna Bowman Bratton‘s Simply Donna and Carmen Oliver‘s Following My Dreams…One Word at a Time.

This week Donna considers Nonfiction vs. Creative Fiction vs. Historical Fiction and Carmen asks, Do Humorous Picture Books Need a Takeaway?

What are they doing right? Among other things, they’re reading like writers. They’re asking the hard questions and studying models to find answers.

On a related note, don’t miss Donna’s post on the question of writers who’re not yet (book) published doing school visits. Peek: “To some people, it may seem like I was putting the cart before the horse in 2008, when I gave my first presentation. I didn’t have to go looking for the opportunity. My son’s elementary school teachers….”

Note: The ladies are decked out here as Page 1 and Page 2 at the 2008 Awesome Austin Writer’s Workshop, an informal event at my house. I probably have a more recent picture of them, but the absolute cuteness of this one dictated that I feature it instead.

More Cynsational Giveaways

Surf over to Mundie Moms to read the latest interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, and enter to win bookplate-signed copies of Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) and Eternal (Candlewick, 2009, 2010)! With Blessed (Candlewick, 2011) coming soon; now is a great time to get caught up on the series, if you haven’t already. Or enter to win a book to give to your local high school or public library. All you have to do is fill out a short form. Deadline: Sept. 15; U.S. entries only.

Enter to win Vampire High: Sophomore Year by Douglas Reese (Delacorte, 2010)(author interview). To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type “Vampire High: Sophomore Year” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post). I’ll write you for contact information, if you win. Deadline: Aug. 31. Publisher review copy; U.S. entries only.

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Busing Brewster by Richard Michelson, illustrated by R.G. Roth (Knopf, 2010). To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type “Busing Brewster” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post). I’ll write you for contact information, if you win. Deadline: Aug. 31. Sponsored by the author; U.S. entries only. Read a Cynsations interview with Richard.

More Cynsational Events

Join author Mari Mancusi at 11 a.m. Aug. 28 for a discussion of Boys that Bite (Berkley, 2006) at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas. The Teen Book Club is open to all teens ages 10-17 and meets in the Teen Zone. Teens can come by the library and pick up their free copy of the book in advance. Read a Cynsations guest post by Mari on Kids Don’t Read Like They Used To, and That’s a Good Thing.

The launch party for Brains for Lunch: A Zombie Novel in Haiku?! by K.A. Holt, illustrated by Gahan Wilson (Roaring Brook, 2010) will be at 2 p.m. Sept. 12 at BookPeople in Austin. Read a Cynsations interview with K.A.

Guest Post: Susan Campbell Bartoletti on Writing Nonfiction and They Called Themselves the K.K.K.

By Susan Campbell Bartoletti

I am often asked about my research and writing process. Today, I’ll share that process.

Each time I begin a nonfiction book, I often think about Mrs. Walsh, my 11th-grade English teacher.

I’ll never forget the day Mrs. Walsh took me aside and told me that I could never be an English major because I couldn’t label subordinate clauses. (This was 1974, in the days before students had “self-esteem.”)

I shrugged off Mrs. Walsh’s words. I never intended to be an English major. I intended to major in art.

Mrs. Walsh wore pointy glasses, and because she blew her nose a lot, she carried tissues tucked up her sleeves. She popped lemon drops to keep her blood-sugar level from dropping too low. But despite this, she was a battleship of a woman who navigated our classroom like a man-of-war.

Even though I couldn’t understand the necessity of identifying and labeling subordinate clauses, I learned the Most Valuable Lesson Ever in 11th grade: how to write a research paper.

Today, each time I begin a book, I think about Mrs. Walsh, because the process of writing that 11th-grade research paper and the process of writing a full-blown nonfiction book are remarkably similar. It just takes a lot more reading, a lot more notes, at lot more patience, a lot more rewrites, and a lot more time – for me, at least two years, often longer.

Here, in a nutshell, is my process.

1. Choose a subject interests you, one that you feel passionately about. You can’t fake interest! You can’t fake passion!

For my new nonfiction book, They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group (Houghton Mifflin, 2010), I was grabbed by the stories of ordinary white Americans who feared that they would suffer personal loss if the rights and privileges of citizenship were extended to the newly freed slaves and who feared black Americans would compete for land and for work.

I was also grabbed by the stories of ordinary black Americans such as Anne Evans and her husband and children who slept on their cabin floor to shield themselves from the Klansmen’s bullets; of Hannah Tutson who refused to give up her land to her white neighbors and was brutally whipped by the Klan; of Henry Lipscomb who was determined to vote in the 1868 election, saying “A man can kill me, but he can’t scare me;” of Elias Hill, a crippled preacher who was whipped for preaching the word of God and universal love and writing a letter to his congressman; of Jim Williams, an outspoken black man and former Union soldier who was murdered because he was determined to protect his community; and of William Luke, a white man murdered because of rumors and for teaching black students.

2. Read around. Once I have a subject that I’m interested in, I hurry to the library to check out every book I can. Public libraries are very important for the work I do, but their collections usually offer “popular” history texts.

Because I want to utilize the most current scholarship, I rely on an academic library, preferably a Research Division I library and their All-Important, Password-Protected Databases. (Some universities offer day passes.)

I also cruise student textbook shelves in university bookstores, to see what professors are using in their classes.

As I read these secondary sources, I pay close attention to footnotes, bibliographies, captions, and acknowledgments, because these things lead me to other important sources and collections housed in museums, historical societies, and academic libraries.

As I read, I “qualify” the sources, meaning I evaluate the quality of the scholarship. (This is just as important with print sources as Internet sources.)

Such qualifying was especially important as I researched the KKK, due to long-standing misconceptions and misinformation about Reconstruction.

Histories on the KKK, I found, tended to fall into two broad groups: well-documented texts written by trained historians and, well, the others. These “others” were largely undocumented texts, written with fallacious reasoning, often by authors who were white supremacists and/or had white supremacist tendencies.

(You can read more about my use of sources and how I qualified them in the Bibliography and Source Notes to my book.)

3. Take copious notes. Even though my publisher’s style doesn’t require endnotes or footnotes, I footnote as I write and keep a fully documented final manuscript for my records. A pain, yes, but it will save you time later as you create your back matter.

Remember: Back matter isn’t just to show off all your hard work; it’s also to help the researchers who follow you. (And if you write a book that’s good enough, no one will follow you for years. They won’t want to. )

4. Don’t despair. Research is time-consuming, so time-consuming that some days I wonder if I’ll ever know enough to begin writing. But if I begin to write too soon, before I feel ownership over the material, my writing will fall flat. It will be rendered voiceless, because I haven’t breathed my own life into the story.

Worst of all, if I write too soon, I’ll encounter writer’s block, because, simply, I don’t know enough.

Comfort yourself with the knowledge that as one aspect of writing gets harder, another will get easier. (And, sigh, vice-versa.)

5. Locate primary sources. Real people – the people of the past – breathe history to life.

For me, this is the haunting stage, the stage when the people I’m researching begin to stalk me. As I ferret out the bits and fragments of their lives, and put their lives together, they grow flesh and bone and sinew, and pretty soon, they’re following me around.

I think about them, worry about them, puzzle over them, and argue with them even when I’m not working, even as I’m driving the car or doing dishes or hanging out wash to dry.

(Note: If I’m interviewing people, I have them sign a release form, granting me permission to use their words. This protects me, and it protects them.)

They Called Themselves the K.K.K. is the hardest book I’ve done. (Researching and writing Hitler Youth: Growing Up In Hitler’s Shadow (Scholastic, 2005) actually prepared me to tackle this dark subject in our own history.)

I pored over 2300 Slave Narratives, more than 8,000 pages of Congressional testimony collected during the Ku Klux Klan trials of 1871, as well as contemporaneous newspapers, diaries, and letters. I read till my eyes were blurry. My optometrist can always tell when I’m deep into research.

6. Place butt in chair. I know it’s time to begin writing when I’m no longer learning anything new and the facts are repeating themselves. To guide my writing, I create a very loose outline. Sometimes it’s chronological. Sometimes it’s topical. Sometimes it’s both. The shape is almost always rising-and-falling action.

7. Plan ahead. When I finish the day’s writing, I plan what I’m going to write the next day: I assemble my notes into a working order. I carry a marbled composition notebook around with me. As I go about the rest of my day and new ideas come to me, I jot them down in the notebook. As gaps in research appear, I make a list.

For me, the research and writing process continue, side-by-side. I am constantly double-checking and triple-checking my facts.

8. Write the book through. Remember that your ending always informs your beginning.

9. Outline the finished rough draft, this time thoroughly, beat by beat, scene by scene.

This way, I can see places where I’ve repeated myself or gaps where more information is needed. This outline helps me see – and improve — the story’s shape. (I outline subsequent drafts, too.)

I’ve never counted the drafts, but I do know I buy one carton of paper for each book.

10. Type your manuscript over at least once. New ideas will come to you.

That first research paper? I got a 90, a very high grade from Mrs. Walsh.

Cynsational Notes

Despite writing about depressing subjects such as the terror of the Ku Klux Klan in They Called Themselves the K.K.K, the horror of the Third Reich in Hitler Youth, famine in Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) the pain of child labor in Kids on Strike! (Sandpiper, 2003) and Growing Up in Coal Country (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), Susan Campbell Bartoletti insists that she has a good sense of humor, no doubt a defense mechanism developed as a result of teaching eighth grade for eighteen years.

Her work has received dozens of awards and honors, including the ALA Newbery Honor, the ALA Robert F. Sibert Award for Nonfiction, the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Nonfiction, the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the Washington Post/Washington Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award for her body of work.

Don’t miss My Weekend with the K.K.K. part one, two, and three from Susan Campbell Bartoletti: a writer, a teacher, a work in progress. Peek: “I wanted to better understand how today’s group reads against the Reconstruction-era Klan. I wanted to know: In what ways are the two groups alike? How do they differ? What sort of men and women join the KKK today? What are their goals? What compass guides their lives?”

New Voice: Kristina McBride on The Tension of Opposites

Kristina McBride is the first-time author of The Tension of Opposites (Egmont, 2010)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

When Tessa’s best friend Noelle disappears right before the start of eighth grade, Tessa’s life changes completely–she shies away from her other friends and stops eating in the cafeteria.

Now, two years later, Noelle has escaped her captivity and is coming home–in one piece but not exactly intact and definitely different.

Tessa’s life is about to change again as she tries to revive the best friendship the two girls had shared before Noelle–now Elle–was kidnapped; puts up a futile resistance to the charming new guy at school; pursues her passion for photography while trying to build the bravado to show her photos to the public; and tries to balance her desire to protect and shelter Elle with the necessity to live her own life and put herself first.

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach “edgy” behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

The Tension of Opposites opens with a scene where sixteen-year-old Tessa McMullen learns that her best friend, Noelle, who was kidnapped two years ago, has just been found. Alive.

Tessa–who spent the entire two years that Noelle was missing in a state of isolation, avoiding everything life had to offer because of her deep sense of survivor’s guilt–couldn’t be considered “edgy” if she tried. So, in the case of my main character, I didn’t have much to be concerned about. At least, that was my original thought.

Then Tessa meets Max, the new, totally hot guy in her photography class. She likes him, more than she wants to admit, but her main focus is reconnecting with Noelle.

As I wrote further and further into the story, I realized that Tessa is a normal teenager with normal desires. Which led me into some scenes where I wasn’t sure how far to go.

I think the key was staying in Tessa’s head, trying to remain true to her character, and keeping myself from forcing her to act in a way that just wasn’t her style.

Noelle, on the other hand, has always been a little wild. Before the kidnapping, she was obsessed with boys and did what she needed to gain their attention. Tessa assumes that when Noelle returns, she’ll be more subdued. But Tessa realizes very quickly that her assumptions are all wrong.

As a writer, I was concerned about several situations Noelle (who returns insisting she be called “Elle”) gets herself into.

My main struggle came about when I considered the real-life stories of children who were kidnapped and months or years later reunited with their families (think: Elizabeth Smart, Shawn Hornbeck, Jaycee Duggard).

It was very important to me that I tread lightly in regard to Elle’s behavior. I did not want to cheapen the struggles others have actually gone through, or make the public think these kids returned home and started to raise all kinds of trouble.

The children we’ve learned about through the media deserve the utmost respect for the strength and fortitude they posses. It was important to me that I find a way to write this book without disrespecting them in any way. I can only hope that I have achieved my goal in that regard.

That said, I also had to be true to the story I was trying to tell. And that meant writing Elle into some pretty edgy situations. It was hard for me to see her self-destructive behavior, but I couldn’t very well ignore the natural direction her character decided to take.

When I try to manhandle my characters–forcing them to act the way I want them to–they retaliate and it’s never pretty. So I listened and I watched and I wrote. Because, as an author, that’s really all I can do.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

For me, it’s kind of like magic. Usually, when I “meet” my characters, it’s like we’re hanging out in a room together, chatting, and they feel safe telling me all their secrets.

Then they kind of meld into my subconscious. I’m not exactly sure how it happens, so the only thing I can suggest for others as far as tapping into that power in their own writing is to simply set aside some time to think.

If it doesn’t come naturally, some might find it helpful to journal a conversation with a main character.

As a writer, I have all kinds of crazy questions for my characters. Writing them down and waiting for answers can work very well.

But now for the details. Here’s how it worked for me with my debut novel.

The main character in The Tension of Opposites, sixteen-year-old Tessa McMullen, simply started speaking to me one day after I watched an interview Oprah conducted with an extraordinary young man who had just been returned to his family after a four-year abduction.

Tessa spoke to me as if she were a friend (or maybe a former student–I taught high school English for eight years), telling me the story about how her best friend, Noelle, had been kidnapped one day from their neighborhood park.

Even though Tessa wasn’t actually present during the kidnapping, she felt an enormous sense of survivor’s guilt. It didn’t help that she was the one who found Noelle’s abandoned bike on the sidewalk, and became the first person to realize something was very wrong.

Tessa responded to the tragedy by alienating herself from the world, refusing to live a life Noelle could not be a part of. Being with friends, laughing, noticing boys–all of it felt like a betrayal. So she stopped. The only guilty pleasure she allowed herself was her passion for photography, which worked because it was a solitary activity.

Then Tessa told me that, after two years, Noelle had been found alive, and was coming home. Tessa was nervous to meet her friend after so much time had passed, and scared to think about how much Noelle might have changed. She wondered about what the kidnapper had done to Noelle and worried that, when they were reunited, she would say all the wrong things. Tessa was overwhelmingly nervous to see her friend after everything that had happened, but excited too, to regain her lost friendship.

All of this came to me in a huge wave. It nearly knocked me off my feet, and my hands couldn’t keep up as I brainstormed Tessa’s side of the story. But there was a problem. I was only learning Tessa’s story.

I waited and waited for Noelle’s voice to speak up. And then I started to force her. Which, I might add, is never a good idea.

As an author, my struggle came when I tried to push Tessa–this very vocal and emotional character–away. I figured I should try to write this book from the perspective of the kidnapped-and-returned girl, Noelle. It was, after all, her story, right?

A few times, I attempted to write the novel from Noelle’s perspective, but it was like sitting in a dark room. She had nothing to say. No matter what I tried, she remained silent.

Turns out I was wrong to ignore Tessa. Very wrong.

The Tension of Opposites is all about Tessa’s conflicts – how she pushed people away the entire two years her friend was missing, how she tries to reconnect with the distant and self-destructive girl that returns home, how she attempts to open up to the new guy in her photography class (who–no matter how much she tries to ignore the simple fact–is totally hot!), and, ultimately, how she struggles with the knowledge that, though Noelle has returned, Tessa may never really reconnect with her best friend.

I’m so glad Tessa didn’t get angry with me and storm away when I first ignored her. Because without her, The Tension of Opposites would most certainly be an incomplete file in my computer’s hard drive.

Cynsational Notes

Kristina McBride is a debut author who lives with her family in Centerville, Ohio. A high school English teacher and yearbook advisor, Kristina wrote The Tension of Opposites in response to the abduction and safe return of eleven-year-old Shawn Hornbeck, who in 2002, was kidnapped while riding his bike to a friend’s house.

Writing Across Formats: Joseph Bruchac

Learn about Joseph Bruchac

What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?

Writing across forms seems to be something that comes naturally to me.

I started off as a poet, but when I had children of my own that led me into storytelling and then telling them stories. Which led to my first children’s books that were collections of my retellings of traditional tales. Then that gradually led into writing picture books.

However, stepping back a bit in time to my college days again, when I was awarded a writing fellowship at Syracuse to pursue my MA, I was given it for both poetry and fiction. I studied poetry with Phil Booth and fiction with Grace Paley.

Slipping forward again in time, I have to admit the advent of the personal computer and word processing programs also made it possible for me to write prose and do as much revising as I was doing for poetry. I revise everything many times. So technology inspired me, too.

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

I would say that poetry taught me to choose words carefully and to have a deep awareness of imagery, which has helped me in writing novels. The structure of fiction, even such devices as foreshadowing and character development, helped me be a better writer of nonfiction.

Poetry also taught me about voice, finding my own voice and finding the voices of the characters who have come to inhabit my fiction.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

I think this sort of pressure is not healthy. It can lead to writers repeating themselves, literally imitating themselves in the hopes of holding on to an audience.

I’d rather think of the demands of the story itself, the form itself, rather than the imagined or expected audience you would be trying to please.

No author should be expected to always write the same sort of book or focus on the same subject each time.

The danger of this is especially great when a writer’s early work finds a wide and eager audience that expects more of the same. The curse of the successful first book.

Writers need to have space to hear their own stories, their own poems, while they are writing them. I know that I often feel in the midst of a story as if I am not creating but listening, not crafting a tale, but taking dictation.

Cynsational Notes

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.

New Voice: Jennifer R. Hubbard on The Secret Year

Jennifer R. Hubbard is the first-time author of The Secret Year (Viking, 2010)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Take “Romeo and Juliet.” Add The Outsiders. Mix thoroughly.

Colt and Julia were secretly together for an entire year, and no one–not even Julia’s boyfriend– knew.

They had nothing in common, with Julia in her country club world on Black Mountain and Colt from down on the flats, but it never mattered. Until Julia dies in a car accident, and Colt learns the price of secrecy. He can’t mourn Julia openly, and he’s tormented that he might have played a part in her death.

When Julia’s journal ends up in his hands, Colt relives their year together at the same time that he’s desperately trying to forget her. But how do you get over someone who was never yours in the first place?

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

I read widely, but my favorite stories were contemporary realistic novels, and that’s what I like to write now. I couldn’t deal with my real-life problems by flying, or casting spells, or reading people’s minds, and so I wasn’t as interested in books where the characters could do those things. I wanted books where kids were dealing with the kinds of situations that I faced—bullies, sibling rivalry, crushes, and so on. Such books reassured me that I wasn’t alone.

I also didn’t like pat endings, where everything wrapped up too neatly. Life just wasn’t like that, and I needed to know that people can be okay even if they don’t get everything they want, even when life is unfair. I really wanted books that went there, that showed people surviving and even flourishing in the face of imperfection.

In The Secret Year, I wanted to explore the emotional consequences of a serious relationship, to acknowledge that such relationships can affect us on a deep level. I wanted to look at secrecy and self-deception, and whether there is such a thing as “no strings attached.” I wanted to plumb the depths of loss, of what we go through when people are suddenly wrenched from us. I wanted to talk about the dividing lines between people, and how sometimes we step over them as if they don’t matter, and other times we make them matter a great deal.

I read The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton (1967) when I was growing up, and people have mentioned that book in connection with the The Secret Year.

The Secret Year is not a retelling of that story, but I had a sort of conversation with it as I wrote my book. For example, I have a scene where the kids from the “wrong” and “right” sides of the tracks confront one another, and I was thinking of the big rumble at the end of The Outsiders as I wrote it.

But I was thinking in terms of contrast—of how differently my main character, Colt, viewed his conflict.

In The Outsiders, the confrontation between the Greasers and the Socs means a lot to the participants; they’re very invested in it.

In The Secret Year, Colt is much more detached and skeptical. He’s still drawn to the violence, but deep down, he’s cynical. There are other differences, too, but I don’t want to get into spoilers!

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

Most of what I know about voice comes from listening to people talk.

Colt’s voice was there from the beginning. I usually start a writing project because a line comes to me, or maybe a paragraph, in a distinctive voice. I write it as if I’m taking dictation, wondering who this character is and where he’s going next. I never considered writing The Secret Year from anyone else’s point of view, because Colt’s voice was so strong.

We do get to see things from Julia’s point of view, through her diary. Julia’s voice is complicated because of her self-consciousness; her writing is a combination of her true thoughts and of attitudes that she’s trying on.

There’s a moment where Colt acknowledges that Julia could always see through him, that she was not fooled by whatever self-protective poses he might assume for the rest of the world. But Colt saw through Julia as well—which made her comfortable sometimes, but uncomfortable at other times because it lessened her sense of control.

I usually have a first-person narrator, so I use character sketches to get in touch with all the other characters. The important secondary characters include Michael (Julia’s brother), Austin (Julia’s boyfriend), and Kirby (who acts as a sort of bridge between all the characters). My computer folder for The Secret Year contains files called, “AustinBackstory,” “Michael and Kirby,” “Julia-Kirby dynamic,” and “Michael Vernon profile.”

Michael is a catalyst; he sets important events in motion at three points in the story. I really wanted to understand him, because at times he helps Colt and at other times he’s an antagonist. And so I wrote an autobiography for him, and I did sketches where I wrote some of the book’s scenes through his eyes.

I also wrote the account of Julia’s death from Austin’s point of view. I can tell you exactly how he spent that week, how he dealt with the news. There’s an important scene near the end of the book, involving the school’s student magazine, and I’ve written that scene from Austin’s point of view.

Almost none of the material in these character sketches appears explicitly in the book, but I hope it seeps into the story, and allows the reader to sense what’s underneath. I’ve always believed that secondary characters should do more than serve the main character’s interests; they have their own interests, their own lives.

Cynsational Notes

Jennifer R. Hubbard lives and writes in Wyncote, Pennsylvania.

Guest Post: Alma Alexander on Revising a Novel She Wrote at Age 14 (Now With Teen Advisors’ Input)

By Alma Alexander

More than thirty years ago, I wrote my first original novel.

In longhand. In pencil. In three hard-cover notebooks.

Approximately 200,000 words of it.

I was fourteen years old.

It was not the first novel I had written, but it was the first one which wasn’t a “practice” one, derivative of the authors whom I loved at the time.

It proved to me several things – that I was capable of writing something of this length that was purely my own, that I was capable of keeping a large plot arc in the back of my head while I juggled subplots, that I was capable of writing characters who live and change as the circumstances dictate.

To be sure, looking at the actual writing, after more than three decades of living and ten years as a professional author, it shows, sometimes painfully, how very young I was when I wrote this thing. But the story is still good. The story still stands. The characters still live.

So I launched a new project. I would post this novel online, chapter by raw and terrifying chapter, and then – with the commentary and suggestions of a panel of teen advisors who will weigh in on the original chapter and all of its flaws as they see them – I will edit and rewrite this novel with all the experience of my years as a professional, and see that story re-born in a new and glittering guise.

I have four Teen Advisors, ranging in age from 14 to 19, scattered across the length and breadth of the United States (and one from Australia!), and they and I will lick this thing into shape – and then I will be posting a new and shiny chapter, rewritten and repurposed. We will continue doing this, chapter by chapter, until the novel is done.

My young friends and I think this will be quite an experience. For all of us. And I’m hoping that lots of young writers interested in process and craft will join us for the ride.

The first chapter is now live, and awaiting commentary. We are here.

Cynsational Notes

Alma Alexander is the author of 10 books, including the internationally acclaimed The Secrets of Jin-shei (HarperOne, 2004)(published in 14 languages) and the HarperCollins young adult series, Worldweavers.

Bellingham teen to advise on rewrite of early novel by Alma Alexander by Dean Kahn from The Bellingham Herald. Peek: “Steiger did wonder if she was up to the task of advising an author she admires – “I feel like I don’t have a right to do that,” she said – but decided working more with Alexander was worth the challenge.”

West Richland teen helping fantasy author rewrite novel by Sara Schilling from the Tricity Herald. Peek: “The author said the project will benefit both her and her young collaborators. She’ll get insight into what teen readers want in books, and they’ll get a window into the writing world and experience they can tout as they apply to college or pursue careers.”