Guest Post: Sundee T. Frazier on Starting and Persevering

By Sundee T. Frazier

A boy at a school visit once asked, “What was the hardest part of writing Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything In It (Delacorte, 2007)?”

“Everything!” I answered without hesitation.

Wanting to give the boy’s sincere question a more thoughtful and specific answer, I told the students about how a trusted advisor had proposed that the competent draft I’d written—and which I was confident would essentially be The Story—wasn’t the story at all. In fact, she suggested, the real story might need to begin where my draft came to an end. And so, I trashed what I’d written and started over.

That’s what I said was the hardest part. But as I drove away from the school, I found myself still pondering my answer. Had throwing out my competent draft really been the hardest part?

After all, I’d known in my heart my mentor was right. And, like smart technology that accumulates information about us each time we make a purchase, the knowledge I’d gained of my characters through writing a story that ended up not being The Story enabled me to write another novel with a strong, clear, first-person voice (the competent draft had been in third-person).

Still feeling challenged to define the hardest part of writing a novel, I’ve finally narrowed it down to two things: starting and persevering. (Basically, “Everything!”)

Starting. While my right brain loves the endless possibilities of first drafts, starting books is incredibly soul-wrenching, mainly because I’m a perfectionist and first drafts, by definition, are never perfect.

I write page after page of characters doing this and that, dialogue, memories, whatever I can think of that might make the stuff of a good story, with very little idea of where it’s all headed.

For The Other Half of My Heart (Delacorte, 2010), I wrote over 700 pages before I even got to a first draft. Soul-wrenching.

Then persevering, because after I have created all this “dirt,” I have to begin panning for gold—sifting for the nuggets that I will somehow string together to make what I hope will become an eye-catching necklace of a story that readers will want to wear for a time and that will set their hearts ablaze.

I am not always steadfast in my belief that I will find the gold—or maybe more accurately, that I will find the string to hold it all together. The nights I spent crying to my husband that we were going to have to send back the advance money for my second book are proof of this.

My faith is growing. I am beginning to learn that if I keep on digging for the truth my heart needs to tell, keep on seeking just the right details that reveal the individuality and heart of each character, and, in the words of Bayles and Orland, keep on following the voice that makes my work distinctive (which requires me to believe that I have one), the story will emerge.

Yes, starting and persevering are hard, but what other choice do we have if we truly want to light people’s hearts on fire?

New Voice: Michele Corriel on Fairview Felines: A Newspaper Mystery

Michele Corriel is the first-time author of Fairview Felines: A Newspaper Mystery (Blooming Tree/Tire Swing, 2010). From the promotional copy:

All the cats in Fairview disappeared and only Thomas Weston, newspaperman extraordinaire (and eighth grader) can find them. All the while Thomas battles the never-ending hysterical headlines that pop up in his head!

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

I’ve always loved a good mystery. I can remember when I was in the fourth grade. I always kept a Nancy Drew book [by Carolyn Keene, 1930-] open inside my desk so when the teacher wasn’t looking I could sneak in a few more paragraphs.

There was something empowering about a young girl figuring out what happened – whether it was a stolen brooch or a missing staircase – and made me look at the world as a big puzzle I could handle rather than a big confusing mess that I couldn’t begin to think about.

In fact, I often imagined myself as a detective (and sometimes as a superhero, but that’s another book!), and when it was my turn to make up games on late summer evenings with other kids in the neighborhood, it almost always involved figuring out something or investigating something (and it usually involved places I wasn’t supposed to go).

Eventually, my love of writing and solving mysteries led me to a career in journalism and investigative reporting. I worked on newspapers in New York City and in Belgrade, Montana, and a few other places in between.

Fairview Felines: A Newspaper Mystery combines both my love of a good mystery and my passion for newspapers. My main character Thomas Weston thinks in headlines, and while I actually hate writing headlines, I love digging into a juicy story and getting a lead from a great source.

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him/her at a conference? Did you read an interview with him/her? Were you impressed by books he/she has edited?

I love this story because it really shows everyone how important it is go to conferences and meet editors, publishers and agents.

I’d been going to conferences, both local and national, for a few years, and while I got a lot of great feedback and some really fabulous critiques on my writing (not to mention lots of beautiful handwritten rejections!), I hadn’t gotten that golden opportunity you always hear people talking about. I wanted to be the one who walked away from a conference with a sold manuscript!

But that isn’t really the way it happens.

A few years ago I was at an SCBWI conference and I happened to be talking to Miriam Hees, publisher of Blooming Tree Press, about a book I’d been working on. I knew it was a good story, but I couldn’t find the right publisher for it.

She asked me what it was about, and I told her I’d had this idea about all the cats disappearing from a small town.

She loved the idea and said–if you can believe it–she’d actually thought about a story just like it herself! Then she asked me to send it to her.

I’d had editors ask for manuscripts before, so while I was excited, I wasn’t pre-selling copies at my local bookstore just yet.

It took a year of waiting, but I finally got the call. Two years later, the vision we both had for this story has become a reality!

But if I’d never gotten up the nerve to talk to her about my story, Fairview Felines: A Newspaper Mystery, would probably still be sitting my drawer and Thomas Weston would never have had to the chance to share his love of newspapers with the world.

P.S. from Michele

“Whenever I get an idea for a character, a place or a plot twist, I jot it down in a small memo notebook and then keep those next to my computer.” Here’s a peek into the author’s mind!

Cynsational Notes

Award-winning journalist, freelance writer and book reviewer, Michele Corriel’s first middle grade novel, Fairview Felines: A Newspaper Mystery (Blooming Tree), debuted this fall. Weird Rocks (Mountain Press, 2010), her non-fiction picture book, is also out this year from Mountain Press. Peek: “Weird Rocks examines the strange and wonderful world of rocks: rocks that float, rocks made from poop (yes, poop!),rocks that cut, rocks that stink and other amazing things that can found on our planet.”

Michele is also the Regional Advisor for SCBWI’s Montana Chapter and conducts writing workshops throughout the year. She is represented by The McVeigh Agency.

New Voice: Sandy Fussell on Samurai Kids: White Crane

Sandy Fussell is the first-time author of Samurai Kids: White Crane (Candlewick, 2010)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

Niya Moto is the only one-legged samurai kid in Japan, famous for falling flat on his face in the dirt. The one school that will accept him is the Cockroach Ryu, led by the legendary sensei Ki-Yaga.

He may be an old man overly fond of naps, but Ki-Yaga is also known for taking in kids that the world has judged harshly: an albino girl with extra fingers and toes, a boy who is blind, a big kid whose past makes him loath to fight.

A warrior in his time, Ki-Yaga demands excellence in everything from sword-fighting to poetry. But can the ragtag Cockroaches make the treacherous journey to the Samurai Trainee Games, never mind take on the all-conquering Dragons?

In a fast-moving, action-filled tale that draws on true details of feudal Japan, Niya finds there’s no fear they can’t face as long as they stick together –for their friendship is more powerful than a samurai sword.

Can a one-legged boy become a great samurai warrior? Meet some unique aspiring champions in this kick-off to an exciting new martial arts series.

How do you psyche yourself up to write, to keep writing, and to do the revision necessary to bring your manuscript to a competitive level? What, for you, are the special challenges in achieving this goal? What techniques have worked best and why?

I write because I love it. There is something inside me that only storytelling can satisfy. I couldn’t do it otherwise because time is always plotting against me. It’s a difficult juggle with a full-time job and a school-age family. My free hours begin at 10 p.m. (if I’m lucky), and I work on writing or related tasks until 1 a.m. every morning.

White Crane, the first book in the Samurai Kids series, is my debut novel. It was published in Australia in 2008 by Walker Books Australia and in the U.S. in August 2010 by Candlewick Press. However, in the intervening two-and-a-half years, I have had seven more books published in Australia. The Samurai Kids series now comprises five titles with a sixth on the way. My treasured writing time is now divided between promoting existing works and developing new stories. While I find this a challenge, it is one I enjoy.

I belong to two writing workshop groups and am involved in online critiquing with both emerging and established authors. I am active in the kid’s literature cyber community. Writing friends and colleagues keep me focused and encourage me to work hard to improve my craft.

I read widely, for pleasure and as a book reviewer, finding great inspiration in a story well written, a beautiful description or a character that comes to life in my head. I learn a lot from the words of others.

My greatest motivation, and writing secret weapon, is my readers. I spend considerable time in schools as a visiting author. I recently established ReadWriteZone, a blog-based project to encourage interaction between the classroom and authors. It’s early stages yet, but the feedback is exciting and I have a lot of fun. Ultimately, I hope to extend the project across a wide range of authors and schools.

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first-character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

For me, it is always concept. I find many paradoxical issues in history, especially the ancient cultures I am drawn to write about. These immediately raise questions in my mind, and from the answers I imagine, stories evolve.

With White Crane, the thought process went like this: A person is born a samurai, but lineage won’t necessarily make someone a good warrior, and the samurai were at the time some of the greatest warriors in the world. What if a boy had a disability, physical or emotional, that made it incredibly difficult for him to claim his birthright? And what if a girl wanted to be a samurai? Then a sentence popped into my head: “My name is Niya Moto, and I am the only one-legged samurai kid in Japan.”

I read widely from primary sources, works written at the time. A constant companion was the legendary samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy (1645). This kept me firmly grounded in 17th century feudal Japan.

When I closed my laptop, it was never 1 a.m., it was the hour of the rat. Very fortuitous as I was born in the Year of the Rat and apparently Rats make good writers.

I also attempt to establish a personal physical connection to history. While writing White Crane, I went to sword fighting classes – I was hopeless, but this too was useful as not all my characters are expert with a sword. I did archery and am currently learning the shakuhachi flute.

Finally, I immersed myself in the Japanese popular culture of my readers – manga, animation, martial arts, cartoons and movies. This gave me a reader perspective to look at history from – to identify similarities and differences.

My various research activities resulted in the teachers resources available on the Samurai Kids website – WebQuests, a classroom play, craft, fact sheets and even interactive quizzes.

One of the challenges was finding the tone of voice for my characters. In the end, the Kids decided for themselves, as they are constantly talking inside my head. The Kids have a modern turn of phrase that makes their dialogue accessible to contemporary young readers, but at the same time, there is nothing they say that literally is not appropriate for feudal Japan. This was a tricky balance to establish – accessible and humorous dialogue without sacrificing any historical credibility.

Another difficulty was ensuring that my story, while having a humorous element, was respectful to the obstacles that disabled children face in everyday life.

In this respect, my inspiration was the children themselves. I was determined Samurai Kids would be a history-based celebration of difference.

A few months ago, I was in a classroom and a blind child approached me. “I’m Taji,” she said. “I’m the Golden Bat, and I can hear things from two rooms away. You don’t need to be able to see to do that.”

I hope her comment means I’m achieving what I set out to do.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Congratulations to Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos on the release of Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science (Clarion, 2010)! From the promotional copy:

When this award-winning husband-and-wife team discovered that they each had sugar in their family history, they were inspired to trace the globe-spanning story of the sweet substance and to seek out the voices of those who led bitter sugar lives.

The trail ran like a bright band from religious ceremonies in India to Europe’s Middle Ages, then on to Columbus, who brought the first cane cuttings to the Americas.

Sugar was the substance that drove the bloody slave trade and caused the loss of countless lives but it also planted the seeds of revolution that led to freedom in the American colonies, Haiti, and France.

With songs, oral histories, maps, and over 80 archival illustrations, here is the story of how one product allows us to see the grand currents of world history in new ways. Time line, source notes, bibliography, index.

In a starred review, School Library Journal raves, “Meticulously researched, brutally honest, compelling…. An indispensable part of any history collection.”

In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews cheers, “Covering 10,000 years of history and ranging the world, the story is made personal by the authors’ own family stories, their passion for the subject and their conviction that young people are up to the challenge of complex, well-written, narrative history.”

See more reviews & news. Note: named a 2010 Best Book for Teens in Kirkus Reviews and Best Book, Nonfiction, School Library Journal.

More News & Giveaways

Nervous? by Jennifer R. Hubbard from writerjenn. Peek: “People are sometimes surprised at how nervous writers get–about writing first drafts, editing, submitting a book, doing public appearances, reading reviews, and so on.” See also Introverts: Finding Friends and Followers Online by Jennifer from Shrinking Violet Promotions.

Writers and Depression by Nancy Etchemendy from the Horror Writers Association. Peek: “The steady drum of rejection slips is a part of life for every writer, even the most successful. The courage it takes to deal with rejections and keep going may fail us at times. Without courage, we become fair game for depression.” See also An Open Love Note to Debut Authors About Hurtful Online Reviews.

Spotlight on Agent Mary Kole: an interview by Kathy Temean from Writing and Illustrating. Peek: “I read the work of a lot of writers and see the work of a lot of artists who are technically fine…they have solid writing and good technique…but they haven’t risen to the next level yet. And only time and learning and growth can take them there.”

Agents Requesting Work: The Happy Dilemma by Jane Lebak from Peek: “If it appears you should have received a response, assume a technology fail. Send a status query to the agent from a different email address, just in case her reply went into your spam folder (You are checking that periodically, right?)”

How to Survive Tough Times from Verla Kay. Peek: “The trick in tough times is to write (or illustrate) something that editors want. I’ve been struggling now for 20 years to figure out just what that is.”

New Agent Alert: Molly Jaffa of Folio Literary by Chuck Sambuchino from Guide to Literary Agents Editor’s Blog. Note: Molly is seeking fiction and nonfiction for middle grade and YA readers; link offers more specific information on her tastes.

Publishing by Brian Yansky from Brian’s Blog: Writer Talk. Peek: “Learning to write well is a slow process. If you’ve written for a year or two, even if you’ve written some good work, maybe your work isn’t quite ready to be published.” See also Agent Mary Kole on Putting in the Time to Become a Good Writer from Chuck Sambuchino at Guide to Literary Agents Editor’s Blog.

Did You Hear About Nathan [Bransford]? An Interview with Everyone’s Favorite (Former) Agent by Rachel Gardner from Rants & Ramblings on Life as a Literary Agent. Peek: “If ever there were a time to empower young editors and trust their instincts, it’s now.”

Curious City: Where Kids and Books Meet: “a children’s book consulting duo building creative marketing projects and outreach for authors, illustrators, and publishers.”

Secrets of a Library of Congress Cataloger by Elizabeth Bluemle from PW ShelfTalker. Peek: “I can tell you that we try to write ‘in one voice’ — that is, we try not to inject our own personality into the summaries, but sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes I try to have a little fun with them.”

Bid Now in the Bridget Zinn Kicks Cancer Season of Love and Hope Auction. Bidding will take place from Nov. 22 to Dec. 4. Items/services available for bidding include: 25-page MG or YA manuscript critique by author/agent Ammi-Joan Paquette; 25-page manuscript critique and signed book by author Sydney Salter; custom classroom guide for your book by Shannon Morgan; critique by NYT bestselling author April Henry; critique by children’s author Jody Feldman; query with 10 pages of MG or YA critique by agent Jill Cocoran, plus, more critiques, signed books, jewelry, additional accessories, tutoring, tote bags, B&B nights, pottery, and much more! Note: Bridget Zinn is a librarian and YA author who was diagnosed in 2009 with Stage IV colon cancer.

Best Literary Agents on Twitter by Jason Boog from GalleyCat. Note: (a) not all children’s-YA agents; (b) bookmark to check back as list will be updated on an ongoing basis. Source: ACHOCKABLOG.

12 Tips for Writing Action Scenes by Kathy Temean from Writing and Illustrating. Peek: “Find a question that brings into play an issue your hero has that it’s important for him to learn. If he learns it, then he can win the scene, otherwise, he should lose. In this way, the reader can see how the action sequence causes the character to grow and change.”

Interview with Andrea Cremer about Nightshade by anesbet from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek: “I wanted to write a story about a female character who wasn’t being pulled into a magical world – she was already in the middle of it, a leader and a warrior.”

Top Ten Reasons the Editor Doesn’t Love What the Critique Group Loves from editortorent. Peek: “Publishers are only as innovative as their customers. They might be wrong—publishers frequently underestimate the ability of readers to adapt quickly to what might seem experimental—but editors do have to take the attitude of the higher-ups into consideration, and the higher-ups generally think their customers are conservative and change-resistant.”

Austin Bat Cave
: “a nonprofit writing and tutoring center for kids in Austin, Texas; that connects a diverse population of young writers and learners with a vibrant community of adult volunteers.”

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Love Drugged by James Klise (Flux, 2010).

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type “Love Drugged” in the subject line. Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just message me with the title in the header or comment on this round-up. I’ll write you for contact information, if you win. Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 30. U.S. entries only; sponsored by the author. See also a Cynsations interview with James about the novel.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for Quackenstein Hatches a Family by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, illustrated by Brian T. Jones (Abrams, 2010). Note: “A $500 donation to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums will be made by the author when this video is viewed 1000 times! Or a donation of $1000 will be made when this video is watched 5000 times!”

Check out the book trailer for Tyger Tyger: A Goblin Wars Book by Kersten Hamilton (Clarion, 2010).

Skye Video Interview with Author Jennifer J. Stewart from azang.

More Personally

The first review of Blessed (Candlewick, Jan. 25, 2011) is in, and it’s glowing! Kirkus Reviews calls the world, “wild and ultimately fascinating” and says of Quincie and Kieren, “…the pages fairly smolder in describing their attraction to one another.” Smolder! I’ve never smoldered before.

Pie-of-the-Month Club: Cynthia Leitich Smith: an author interview from Heather Vogel Frederick. Peek: “I love working visually, and I’m thrilled to have my text partnered with art. I consider a key part of my job to offer a stage for the illustrator to play on and then get out of their way.”

Win an ARC of Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2011) from Steven R. McEvoy from Book Reviews and More. Deadline: Dec. 1. See details. Peek: “This much anticipated book ties the stories from Tantalize and Eternal together in a wonderful new story.”

Check out this reader-created trailer by Midnight Machiko for my novel, Eternal.

Thanks to Cyndi Hughes, Bethany Hegedus, Jan Baumer and everyone at the Writers’ League of Texas for their hospitality at last Thursday’s monthly meeting at BookPeople in Austin. I spoke on a panel, “Give Yourself a Longer Shelf Life: Marketing for the Long-Term,” with Jay Ehret and Dana Lynn Smith. Jay is a book marketing expert, and Dana is a book marketing coach and author of The Savvy Book Marketer Guides.

Werewolf cupcakes! What fun I had at the “Fangs vs. Fur” event on Nov. 19 at the University Hills Branch of the Austin Public Library! It was a treat to see families pour in, many dressed for the occasion. I’m still wowed by the teens’ questions in the Q&A. Huge thanks to YA librarian Michelle Beebower and the entire staff for a remarkable event. Here’s just a peek at the “furry” wolf cupcakes! Note: Special thanks to teen services Sarah Cronin for the photo and to Candlewick Press for sponsoring the book giveaway!

Ahoy there, matey! Thanks to Sherry (above) and everyone at Region 12 Education Service Center in Waco, Texas; for your hospitality at Library Jubilee 2010 on Nov. 16! The theme was “literature (our greatest treasure) along with various technology tools (trinkets).”

Highlights included seeing fellow Austin authors Janice and Tom Shefelman

And fellow Texas author Jill S. Alexander.

Cynsational Events

Save the Date! Joint Launch Party: Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick) and Night School by Mari Mancusi (Berkley) book party and signing at 2 p.m. Jan. 29 at BookPeople in Austin.

New Voice: Jen Cullerton Johnson on Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace

Jen Cullerton Johnson is the first-time author of Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace, illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler (Lee & Low, 2010). From the promotional copy:

As a young girl in Kenya, Wangari was taught to respect nature. She grew up loving the land, plants, and animals that surrounded her—from the giant mugumo trees her people, the Kikuyu, revered to the tiny tadpoles that swam in the river.

Although most Kenyan girls were not educated, Wangari, curious and hardworking, was allowed to go to school. There, her mind sprouted like a seed. She excelled at science and went on to study in the United States.

After returning home, Wangari blazed a trail across Kenya, using her knowledge and compassion to promote the rights of her countrywomen and to help save the land, one tree at a time.

Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace brings to life the empowering story of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman, and environmentalist, to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Engaging narrative and vibrant images paint a robust portrait of this inspiring champion of the land and of women’s rights.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

When I stared the research for Seeds of Change there were only a few academic journals about Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement. I drew heavily on Wangari’s biography, Unbowed (Simon & Schuster, 2006).

What drew me to Wangari was how she spoke to so many different kinds of people from poor women to presidents. Her words inspired me to action.

When I wrote the book, I wanted readers to “hear Wangari.” I decided I would take every opportunity to use Wangari’s own words, so when the book is read, it feels as if Wangari Maathai is the room since the words came from her.

Also Wangari Marathi’s life had many challenges. She was thrown in jail for planting trees. My editor, Jennifer Fox at Lee & Low, never hesitated, never doubted that telling the truth was important to telling all of Wangari’s story.

There is a line in the books that says, “One day while she was out planting a tree, some wealthy businessmen paid corrupt police officers to arrest Wangari.”

This is a tricky line with big implications.

But Lee & Low did not shy away from the truth. Like the life of Wangari Maathai, they stood firm, and I will always be grateful to them for their deep respect for story and truth telling.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Wangari’s life inspires me. She took two issues, poverty and the environment, and came up with a solution to both of them. She taught women to plant trees, and in doing so, the women learned a skill and trees grew green again in Kenya.

When Seeds of Change came out, I wanted to embrace Wangari’s idea of putting ideas into practice. Whenever I go on a school visit, do a reading or presentation, I make sure that after Seeds of Change is read, the students or the audience has a chance to make a change.

Sometimes we plants trees, other times seeds, but each time there is a connection to reading and doing. People need to dig in the dirt, roll a seed between their fingers, touch the leaves of different plants so that they know that Wangari’s experience of embracing nature and caring for the environment can also be part of their own experience.

As the old saying goes: it is not knowledge that is power but how to apply the knowledge that makes lasting change.

One of our jobs as writers is to inspire readers with our words, but sometimes inspiration fades or is forgotten, therefore, our words must also move readers to action, be it to plant seed or be nicer to their neighbor.

I think environmental books for children are doing just that–inspiring and moving readers to action. I am very grateful Seeds of Change is part of the genre.

I hope new writers push ahead and continue to explore how our natural world and our human place in it is both one of many, and many for the good of all.

Cynsational Notes

Jen Cullerton Johnson is a writer, an educator, and an environmentalist with masters degrees in nonfiction writing and curriculum development. She has taught in countries all over the world and now teaches at an inner-city elementary school in Chicago, where she also conducts writing workshops. She is inspired by Wangari Maathai’s dedication to women and the environment. Johnson can be found online at Seeds of Change is her first picture book.

Biography and the Environment with Jen Cullerton Johnson and Sonia Lynn Sadler Author and illustrator of Seeds of Change from Lee & Low. Peek: “What moves me the most about Wangari’s story is her message of harabee, which means “let’s work together.” We can solve problems if we work together.”

Guest Post: Joseph D’Agnese on Math Phobia

By Joseph D’Agnese

When I meet math teachers at schools or conferences, they assume that I am a lifelong math lover since my picture book is about Leonardo of Pisa, namesake of the Fibonacci Sequence.

I should come clean. Math teachers, here’s what I’ve been ashamed to confess: When I was a kid, there was no subject I feared more than math.

I once watched a first-grade classmate stare intensely at a tall column of numbers our teacher had written on the blackboard, then announce the solution. I was flabbergasted. He added those numbers with his eyeballs!

No way could I do that, not with my eyes, fingers, toes, copious sheets of scratch paper or any number of pencils. My fear of math steered me away from subjects I might have enjoyed, such as science.

I was defiantly resigned to my innumerate, unscientific fate. I told myself that it didn’t matter because I knew in my heart that I would someday be a writer or illustrator. One did not need to know about numbers to toss around words and pictures. And so I struggled to keep numbers at bay throughout high school and college.

But fate is a masterful practical joker, because within a few years of graduating college I was an editor of a children’s math magazine. There I finally grasped that math unlocks nearly everything: botany, art, topology, music, architecture, and hundreds of other disciplines.

Astoundingly, when I left that job, I started writing for science magazines.

I think back to the way I was taught math in the 1970s and wonder if my suffering might have been ameliorated had I been told some stories along the way.

Fibonacci’s tale is particularly rich and engaging. He sailed the Mediterranean, and helped convert the western world from I-II-III to 1-2-3. Some historians argue that without the robust methods of calculation and accounting born out of the Hindu-Arabic numerals he introduced to the west, the Renaissance would not have occurred.

What a profound contribution! Yet you will not find that theory in your kid’s math or history textbooks, even today.

Math education has a changed a lot since I went to school. Today there’s more talk about hands-on math, of cross-curricular tie-ins, of the value of linking math to kidlit.

But the general notion that math can be a zesty, juicy subject has still not penetrated many school districts, despite decades of work by inspired teachers and the prodding of organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

We are still a woefully innumerate society, and far too many of our children are made to pay for the fears of their elders. They will never hear the stories of Fibonacci’s wanderings, of Archimedes’s bathtub, of Eratosthenes measuring the world with a stick and a string—because most math teachers are not given the freedom, the classroom time or the institutional support to explore the history, culture and relevance of math.

Call me crazy, but I’d argue we teach more history in gym and art classes than we do in math class. History pops up in English, science and social studies classrooms of course. But only math class is expected to exist in a sterile realm devoid of role models and human accomplishment in art, music, architecture, nature and more.

So, if you are one of the inspired math teachers who could have once changed my life, thank goodness for you. And if you’re a kidlit writer who dreams of writing a math-themed book, what are you waiting for? Let us have it. Our planet cannot afford to have more kids shunning a subject that has so long enriched and still enriches their world.

Cynsational Notes

Joseph D’Agnese is author of Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci, illustrated by John O’Brien (Henry Holt, 2010). According to IndieBound, he’s also “a writer and journalist who lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Though he writes about the Middle Ages, he considers himself a Renaissance man.” Teachers, parents and librarians should see also the teacher page of his website. Follow him on facebook and on Twitter at @FibonacciJoe.

New Voice: James Klise on Love Drugged

James Klise is the first-time author of Love Drugged (Flux, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Fifteen-year old Jamie Bates has a fail-safe strategy for surviving high school: fit in. Keep a low profile. And, above all, protect his biggest secret—he’s gay.

So when a classmate discovers the truth, a terrified Jamie decides it’s time to change. After accepting flirtatious advances from Celia, the richest and most beautiful girl in school, Jamie steals an experimental new drug that’s supposed to “cure” his attraction to guys.

At first, Jamie thinks he’s finally on track to living a “normal” life. But at what cost?

As the drug’s side effects worsen and his relationship with Celia heats up, Jamie begins to realize that lying and using could shatter the fragile world of deception that he’s created—and hurt the people closest to him.

A star-crossed romance with humor and heart, Love Drugged explores the consequences of a life constructed almost entirely of lies . . . especially the lies we tell ourselves.

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?

Great question, and quite relevant to this book. My cover features all those beautiful pills, which fairly shout, “edgy!” My novel isn’t about recreational drug use—it’s about an experimental prescription drug intended for a very specific therapeutic purpose. But I recognized going in that any story about a teenager stealing and trying an experimental drug ventured into edgy territory.

Also, the narrator of Love Drugged is a gay teenager. Some readers will consider that fact alone edgy; others will consider the fact that he is afraid of being gay edgy. To be honest, these factors were a large part of the appeal of writing it.

As we all know, it’s exciting to write and read about characters who engage in questionable, dangerous, or self-destructive behaviors, things that make us cup hands over our mouths and say, “No, no—don’t do that!”

For me, the “edgiest” part of writing the book had to do with handling the narrator’s thoughts regarding sex and desire. I think we can agree that any novel that honestly captured a typical teenage boy’s thoughts would border on, well, pornography. But writing a pornographic novel for teenagers is not at the top of my “to do” list.

So I decided to let my characters simply talk about sex a lot. Talking about sex is a way to approach the issue with something of a filter. The fact that I can give Love Drugged to my students and to my family without blushing tells me that I accomplished my goals.

One YA novel, by the way, that addresses the subject of boys and sex really well (and in such a funny way) is Doing It by Melvin Burgess (Henry Holt, 2002).

It tackles the subject so well, in fact, that our library copies are stolen every year. Seriously, I need to replace them every fall! Let me tell you, theft is very strong indicator that your novel speaks some truth to readers.

As a librarian-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a librarian has been a blessing to your writing?

I might not be writing for teenagers if they didn’t surround me all day long. Prior to becoming a high school librarian, I wrote and published short stories about the troubles of grown-ups, and I was happy doing so for more than a decade.

That said, now that I’m writing for teens, I am addicted to it.

Writing for young people allows me to express a character’s motives very directly—it requires more “telling” along with the “showing.”

Also, there is a real sense of urgency in writing for teens, a feeling of: Kid, if this particular insight or idea doesn’t reach you at this particular stage of your life, how and when will it ever reach you?

Also, my writing benefits from the daily conversations I have with teens about books. I see check-out trends in the library, and it’s always interesting to see what prompts a student to take out a book, and why they may reject it after reading—or scanning—only a page or two.

They are passionate, demanding readers, impatient for story, and they always remind me what matters: vivid characters and compelling, well-paced plotting.

Two of our favorites in the teen book club this year were Acceleration by Graham McNamee (Wendy Lamb Books, 2003) and The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon (Knopf, 2004).

These books grab the reader by the collar in the first chapter with irresistible narrators. And they both tell stories that you can’t put down.

The other thing is, my work in the library surely gave me an advantage when it came to selling the manuscript. I am physically surrounded by young adult literature all day long, stacks of great books waiting to be shelved. And most of those books include very useful acknowledgements pages!

Before I wrote my first query for Love Drugged, I had my list of “dream editors” whose work I admired, whose projects reflected a certain aesthetic that matched mine.

I didn’t use an agent for the first book, and it sold fairly easily. I think the reason I was able to do that is because I knew so much about the market through my day job. I felt like the universe was telling me, “Pssst, look—this is the kind of thing you are supposed to write next.”

Finally, I listened. I’m so glad I did!

Cynsational Notes

Klise is a high school librarian in Chicago, where he advises the student literary journal, book club, and the gay-straight alliance. His short stories have appeared in many journals, including StoryQuarterly, New Orleans Review, Ascent, and Southern Humanities Review.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Sequels by Michelle Knudsen from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “When my editor expressed interest in a sequel, I was thrilled — and terrified. For the first time I had to really think about how to continue to the story, and figure out how to approach writing a new book that depended so much on something already written and out in the world.” Don’t miss part two, featuring insights from Ellen Jensen Abbott, Cinda Williams Chima, Janni Lee Simner, Jill Santopolo.

Plot Points and Vanishing Points by Danyelle Leafty from Peek: “Imagine the specific things that are happening in the story. These are the plot points. Plot points can be either external or internal to the character. Or even better–both. Those points would be the trees spaced out in the picture.”

Online Persona Workshop Week 6 by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: “While there are advantages to blogging daily (the more often your content is updated, the higher up on the search engine returns you are placed) in terms of building and connecting with an audience, consistency is probably more important than volume. Blog every Monday or every Tuesday & Thursday, or whatever works for your schedule. But be consistent.”

Whitney Awards: “an awards program for novels by LDS authors.” Note: “honor novels in the following categories: General Fiction, Romance, Suspense/Mystery, Speculative Fiction, Youth Fiction, Historical, Best Novel of the Year, and Best Novel by a New Author. Novels can be nominated by any reader (via this website or by mail), and nominees are voted on by an academy of industry professionals, including authors, publishers, bookstore owners, distributors, critics, and others.” Source & for more information: Stacy Whitman.

Why Backstory is the Bomb from Denise Jaden. Peek: “Just because we don’t want that backstory up front, doesn’t mean we don’t need it at all. It doesn’t mean that we can vaguely imagine a few scenarios of what could have been the history of our characters. We have to know. And for that, in most cases, we have to write it.”

Top 10 Religion Books for Youth from Booklist. Peek: “Religion and spirituality, sometimes bright, sometimes with a darker edge, get memorable treatments in these books reviewed over the course of the last year in Booklist.” Source: Lee & Low.

Bethany Hegedus, Featured Author from ReaderKidZ. Peek: “I revise and revise and revise. I both love it and hate it. What I love about revision is I can shape and play and try, try, again. With writing, what you first put down on the page isn’t supposed to be perfect. I like that.”

Get to a Bookstore by Julie Berry from The MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, Massachusetts. Peek: “Your local independent bookstore employs those rare and priceless gems – salespeople who eagerly steer you around the store to find the perfect gift for everyone on your list. From infants to octogenarians, they can find you the exact titles to suit your people.”

Happy 40th Anniversary to BookPeople in Austin, Texas! Here’s to 40 more!

Novels — Sagging-Middle Fixes by Kathy Temean from Writing and Illustrating, reporting on a workshop by Anita Nolan. A list of strategies.

2011 Debut YA/Middle Grade Authors of Color compiled by MissAttitude from Reading In Color. Peek: “I decided to publish this list earlier to put the books on people’s radars and hopefully you can add on to my list!”

Deepening Your Novel with Imagery, Symbolism, and Figurative Language by Martina from Adventures in Children’s Publishing. Peek: “For me, it’s a combination of the above, but it’s also that indefinable magic that suddenly makes symbols and images appear in the writing without my knowledge, the overarching, structural metaphors and symbols that bring disparate elements together and illuminate what the story is about.”

Just Stay Comma by Jan Fields from the Institute of Children’s Literature. Peek: “Now before you enter the terrifying world of the comma, you must remember one thing: the basic purpose of all punctuation is to help make text easier to read.”

Interview with Laura Purdie Salas – Writing for the Educational Market by Donna Bowman Bratton from Simply Donna. Peek: “Educational publishers today are aiming to not just provide accurate information but to also engage and entertain kids.”

Should You Include Illustration Notes in Your Picture Book Manuscript? by Mary Kole from Peek: “The point of an illustration note is to convey something to the manuscript reader that is not obvious from the text.”

Historical Fiction Month: a celebration by Melissa Rabey from Librarian By Day. Peek: ““Every weekday in November, there will be discussion of young adult historical fiction. Whether it’s a book review, an essay from a guest contributor, or a post from me, readers will learn new things about historical fiction.” Source: Liz B at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy. Note: learn more about Historical Fiction for Teens: A Genre Guide by Melissa Rabey (Libraries Unlimited, Dec. 30, 2010).

Congratulations to Kathryn Erskine, author of Mockingbird (Philomel, 2010)! Cheers also to the finalists: Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker (Little, Brown); Laura McNeal, Dark Water (Knopf); Walter Dean Myers, Lockdown (Amistad/HarperCollins); Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer (Amistad/HarperCollins). Note: links lead to full NBA information and author interviews related to each of the honored books. See also Sara Zarr’s thoughts on the NBA judging process.

Random House to Shutter Tricycle Press by Judith Rosen from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “As of January 31st Random House Children’s Books is discontinuing the frontlist publishing program of Berkeley-based Tricycle Press, the 18-year-old children’s book imprint.” Notes: (a) bad news, I know, but it’s best that writers aren’t awaiting answers on manuscripts at this imprint; (b) thank you to the authors, illustrators, editors, and publishing professionals at Tricycle for all of the wonderful books you’ve created over the past almost 20 years. Tricycle is already missed.

The Apocalypsies: Children’s and Young Adult Authors Debuting in 2012. Note: fellow 2012 debut authors are invited to contact the group for information about joining. official site of the debut author of What Can’t Wait (Carolrhoda Lab, 2011)(excerpt). Peek: “When I’m not reading, writing, studying, or teaching, I am very busy hanging out with our little boy, Liam Miguel. He keeps me very, very busy. In the scraps of time that remain, I also like to run (I did the Houston Marathon in 2007 and the Chicago Marathon in 2009), bake (but let’s don’t revive the ‘Cookie Girl’ nickname, please), watch movies, work in my garden, and destroy my mother in long-distance games of Scrabble.”

Do Book Reports Make Boys Want to Scream? by Margie Gelbwasser from Scholastic Instructor. Peek: “Here are eight surefire ideas that will send them running—to the library.”

The 2011 Kerlan Award has been awarded to children’s author Jane Kurtz. The Kerlan Award is given by the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota in recognition of singular attainments in the creation of children’s literature. The award ceremony will be held next April.

SCBWI National States Position Regarding Self-Publishing from Austin SCBWI. Note: five points.

Happy Birthday Author: Where Reading and Birthdays Come Together. Peek: “The goal of this blog is to encourage families to read a variety of books together. The format of celebrating authors on their birthdays provides families an opportunity to have fun while developing their reading interests. I started celebrating the birthdays of children’s authors when I was a teacher. Luckily, I am able to continue the celebrations as I am stay at home dad for my three children.”

How to subscribe to KidsBuzz to “‘Meet’ the Authors”

Great news! In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be joining the ranks for authors featured at KidsBuzz! Here’s how to jump in. See also Publicist Interview: Deborah Sloan of Deborah Sloan and Company.

  • Subscribe to Shelf Awareness: Daily Enlightenment for the Book Trade (KidsBuzz runs in this book trade e-newsletter every other Monday and Wednesday).
  • Subscribe to enewsletter (via your local library); be sure to select the “KidsBuzz” e-newsletter (though there are lots of other subjects that might interest you, too).
  • To learn about new books for book clubs/book groups (grades 2 – 12), see Kidsbookclubbing.
  • Follow @KidsAuthorBuzz on Twitter for news of new authors, why they wrote their books and want is it about these books that makes them just-right for kids and teens (plus freebie offers too).
  • Subscribe to The Picnic Basket blog for notes about new KidsBuzz authors and books.
  • Follow KidsBuzz on Facebook.

Cynsational Screening Room

Maya Soetoro-Ng talks about Ladder to the Moon, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Candlewick, 2010).

Yuyi Morales talks about Ladder to the Moon written by Maya Soetoro-Ng (Candlewick, 2010).

In the video below, Scholastic interviews Siobhan Vivian, Cecil Castellucci, and Natalie Standiford.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Love Drugged by James Klise (Flux, 2010).

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type “Love Drugged” in the subject line. Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just message me with the title in the header or comment on this round-up. I’ll write you for contact information, if you win. Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 30. U.S. entries only; sponsored by the author.

Win an ARC of Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2011) from Jama Rattigan from Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup. Deadline: Nov. 21. See details. Peek: “Sounds tantalizing, no? If you’re seriously salivating over the prospect of more amped-up vamps, generous servings of diabolically delicious suspense, romance, wit and gothic gore presented in a contemporary setting, enter this giveaway post haste!”

More Personally

Inside the Writer’s Studio with Cynthia Leitich Smith: an interview by Bethany Hegedus from Writer Friendly; Bookshelf Approved. Peek: “The challenge is time. Over the ten years I’ve been actively publishing, the marketing/business expectations that fall on authors have multiplied tenfold while we’re expected to produce books—of the same, if not higher, caliber—on a quicker and more predictable schedule.”

Holler Loudly by Cynthia Leitich Smith and Barry Gott: a recommendation from Uma Krishnaswami. Peek: “How can you not fall in love with a book in which Mama and Daddy Loudly name their baby Holler because he cries so loud?”

Soup of the Day: Holler Loudly by Cynthia Leitich Smith and Barry Gott by Jama Rattigan from Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup. Peek: “Better tie yourself down, lest you end up flyin’, blowin’, and catapultin’ through this uproarious, outlandish taller than tall tale.” Note: the love, energy and creativity that Jama puts into her blog is simply jaw-dropping. Check out what she did with that soup bowl! Note: also features some interior spreads.

We Hollered Loudly about Alien Invasion and Truth with a Capital T: a report by Donna Bowman Bratton from Simply Donna on Sunday’s launch event at BookPeople. Peek: “Besides the delicious books just waiting to be snatched up by adoring fans, all in attendance enjoyed chili, cake, and the yummiest sugar cookies prepared by author Anne Bustard.”

Even more personally, my mother sent celebratory flowers!

Cynsational Events

“Fangs vs. Fur” event will include Cynthia Leitich Smith 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Nov. 19 at the University Hills Branch (4721 Loyola Ln.) of the Austin Public Library. From the promotional copy:

In a literary battle between vampires and werewolves, who will be victorious? You be the judge!

Play Family Feud: Vampires vs. Werewolves. Sink your fangs or teeth into the sumptuous Blood Bar. Compete for prizes in the Costume Contest or go for the gusto in the Howling Contest, if you dare. Enjoy Twilight sock-puppet theater, vampire and werewolf anime films, a Vampire Knight and Hellsing manga and anime discussion, and so much more.

For more information, call 512.974.9940.

Save the Date! Joint Launch Party: Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick) and Night School by Mari Mancusi (Berkley) book party and signing at 2 p.m. Jan. 29 at BookPeople in Austin.

Guest Post: Patrice Barton on the Difference Between Illustrating Picture Books and Chapter Books

By Patrice Barton

A picture is worth a thousand words. No pressure for an illustrator, right?

Luckily, in chapter books, the author has already supplied the words. So my approach here is to create illustrations that play a supporting role. My pictures must say just enough but no more.

When I was a kid deciding whether or not to read a chapter book, I would fan through it. If the illustrations captured my attention, I would read it.

Okay, fine, truth be told…I still do this. It comes naturally for me as an illustrator to look for an event in each chapter that will make an engaging illustration–one that leaves the viewer with more questions than answers so they will be enticed to read the story.

For example, in one illustration from my chapter book Layla, Queen of Hearts, written by Glenda Millard (FSG, 2010), we see the character Layla. We recognize her because of her long black hair. But oh my, what is she doing in a graveyard? Who is she with? Who are they talking to?

Another illustration from the Layla book has a more subtle example of engaging the reader. We see the family seated around a huge table enjoying a breakfast feast. One empty chair is invitingly pulled out from the table, coaxing the viewer to join them. However, the viewer must read the chapter to discover why the hard-boiled eggs are wearing tiny knit beanies. My pictures must say just enough, but no more.

On the other hand, the illustrations in picture books speak volumes. They must convey the heart of the matter, honoring the author’s perspective.

With picture books, the words are fewer, the audience younger, so the images play a major role fusing seamlessly with the text.

For me, this begins in the sketching phase. I read the text over and over again. As the story seeps in, I begin to sketch–keeping it fluid. Don’t think, feel.

I let the characters and scenes evolve…new layers to the story unfold.

In the picture book Sweet Moon Baby, written by Karen Henry Clark (Knopf, 2010), the author magically brings the story full circle, having it begin and end on a warm summer night. The illustrations needed to reflect this. I wanted them to come full circle too. So I swaddled the baby in a red blanket to begin her journey, and at the story’s end, the red blanket has now become her bedspread.

Just like illustrations in chapter books, picture book illustrations need to engage the reader. But instead of playing a supporting role, picture book illustrations take center stage. They must move the story forward and compel the reader to turn that page and the next and the next.

Again, in Sweet Moon Baby, the baby, tucked in a basket, is being carried away by the river’s strong currant. I drew her literally being swept off the page. To find out where she’s going, the reader has to turn the page.

In closing, I’m reminded of when my son played T-ball.

After a game, his team would gather around and do a big cheer for the other team, for without them, they wouldn’t get to play.

So, cheers to authors! Thank you for sharing your stories, for without you, we illustrators wouldn’t get to play!