Guest Post: Author Maha Addasi on Time to Pray

By Maha Addasi

I thought I’d talk today about the challenges of writing a multicultural story in picture book form, and tomorrow Ned Gannon will talk about his own experiences illustrating Time to Pray (Boyds Mills, 2010).

When I wrote Time to Pray, I wanted to capture the essence of a culture in the 32-page format. The challenge wasn’t the word count as much as it was deciding which cultural aspects to include and which to leave out.

Muslims in the Arab and Islamic world hear the call to prayer from their local mosques five times each day. Children in non-Muslim countries don’t hear that.

The idea for the book came from my childhood. I grew up in Kuwait in the area known as the neutral zone, which is between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The mosque in that area was too far from my house. On occasion when the wind blew in a certain direction I could hear a faint call to prayer.

When I visited my grandmother who lived closer to downtown Kuwait, it was fascinating to hear the call to prayer. The mosque was across the street from my grandmother’s house, and the muezzin’s voice rang loud and clear. Each time the athan started, my grandmother would stand up in honor of the mention of God.

I get the same feeling of awe when I pass by a church on a Sunday and the bells are tolling. It’s just a unique feeling that I wanted to capture in a book for young readers.

That’s when the tricky part started. There were too many components to the story: the call to prayer, the names of the prayers, when they occurred during the day, the ritual washing.

Taking the young age group that the book is meant for into consideration, I decided that the names of the prayers were too complicated to pronounce and were totally unnecessary to the story, so I included them in an author’s note.

I also wanted to include a few foreign words that I wanted the young readers to leave with. The words “muezzin” (which is the name of the person who performs the call to prayer) and “athan” (which is the word for the call to prayer itself) fit the bill. These words had to be woven within the fabric of the text in a way that did not take the reader out of the story.

With the story idea crystallized, I still needed a suitable starting point. I decided on the universal theme of the love between a grandmother and her granddaughter, Yasmin.

Time to Pray is the story of so many young children in America whose grandparents live in other countries. I wanted that multi-generational love to span oceans and continents and also to tell a story of this unique moment when Yasmin realizes she needs to practice for what would become a lifelong commitment to praying five times daily.

This is the story of every Muslim child, regardless of origin, and this is why there is no mention of Yasmin’s country of origin.

Cultural accuracy, a universal theme, choosing the information to include or leave out, word count and telling a story with a light hand while steering clear of didactic themes as well as thinking of what would potentially work as illustratable moments all had to come into play for Time to Pray to come to fruition. Now that’s a mouthful.

I was so lucky that the illustrator for Time to Pray was Ned Gannon. Ned captured the essence of the world of the story and highlighted the nuances of the culture beautifully. He brought the characters to life and showed how a typical Muslim grandmother dresses differently while at home from while out in public. I’m hoping readers appreciate the gorgeous oil paintings that brought the book to life.

Cynsational Notes

See an interview with Maha about her first picture book, The White Nights of Ramadan, illustrated by Ned Gannon (Boyds Mills, 2008) from Jama Rattigan from Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup.

From Maha’s site: “If anything is a common language between children of the world…it’s candy! The White Nights of Ramadan is about a candy festival that goes on for three nights in a row in the middle of Ramadan. The festival called Girgian (Pronounced gur-gee-ANN) is celebrated in this book that shows a fun tradition, through children’s eyes.”

Peek: “…what I wanted to show was that Ramadan is not a month of suffering, but a month that holds beautiful meanings of sharing and interacting with family and friends.” Note: includes childhood photos and interior illustrations.

See also a Cynsations interview with Ned on Time To Pray.

New Voice: Jaclyn Dolamore on Magic Under Glass

Jaclyn Dolamore is the first-time author of Magic Under Glass (Bloomsbury, 2009)(blog). From the promotional copy:

Nimira is a music-hall girl used to dancing for pennies. So when wealthy sorcerer Hollin Parry hires her to sing accompaniment to a mysterious piano-playing automaton, Nimira believes it will be the start of a better life.

In Parry’s world, long-buried secrets are about to stir. Unsettling rumors begin to swirl about ghosts, a madwoman roaming the halls, and Parry’s involvement in a group of corrupt sorcerers for whom the rules of the living and dead are meant to be broken for greater power.

When Nimira discovers the spirit of a dashing fairy gentleman is trapped within the automaton, she is determined to break the curse. But even as the two fall into a love that seems hopeless, breaking the curse becomes a perilous race against time. Because it’s not just the future of these star-crossed lovers that’s at stake, but the fate of the entire magical world.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters?

I’d always thought of characterization as one of my writing strengths—I have some characters I’ve been writing about for 15 years, and at point they feel almost like family—but the first version of Magic Under Glass was planned, written, and revised in less than three months. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever written, and sent it out to a number of agents, and got a lot of requests, but no sale. Many of the rejections cited lack of character development as a reason.

“How could this be?” I thought. “Characterization is my strength!”

Well, so, I learned an important lesson that you can’t take your strengths for granted. Just because I had characters that seemed fully fleshed in other stories, that didn’t automatically rub off onto everything I would ever write. Seems obvious now, but at the time it was an embarrassing revelation.

I knew what a good character was supposed to look like. Their world feels real, like you could open their closet and there would actually be stuff in there, not a movie set where it’s all façade. I care about them off-screen. But I didn’t have 15 years to figure it out.

I’m not a professional artist (and would never have the patience to be one), but one of the first ways I develop any character is to draw them. I’d done a few sketches of the main characters, but they didn’t look consistent—maybe a clue that they weren’t consistent in the manuscript either. I started to reconsider the look of the characters—looking through 19th century portrait photography for inspiration—and sketched them in different poses and expression, working out their clothes and moods. This helped give them some bones, but they still needed meat.

I turned to what felt a bit like a quick and dirty trick—filling out some of those Internet surveys that ask things like “do you have any pets?” and “what are you most afraid of?”–answering some questions for all the main characters. Usually when I try this, their answers are all over the place at first, and I’m wracking my brain to figure out what to say, but somewhere along the line I start to get a feel for what the basics of their personality are.

This is not a favorite tactic of mine—in the future, I learned to start thinking of the characters in my next project before I have time to write it so they can develop more organically—but it works in a pinch.

Perhaps most important of all was making sure all the characters played the proper role within the story. I had received comments that Nimira, the protagonist, wasn’t stepping up and taking charge of the scenes and driving events.

At first I didn’t really get it. Nimira wasn’t a sorceress or a kick-butt type, she was an ordinary girl in a bad situation, and I couldn’t imagine her taking charge, but that was what everyone seemed to want. It was only when I began to develop her character that I realized it wasn’t so much that she needed to blow into scenes with a machine gun, but that I needed more moments when she decided to make a hard decision, and I needed her to grow and change as a result of these decisions.

Nimira wasn’t the only one to receive this treatment—I had to go back and reconsider all the roles of the main characters in the story and give them all a growth arc. It took time and thought. There were some frustrated moments where I wondered how I’d managed to write this book at all—I hardly seemed to know these people! And I felt like I never would. But in the end, the work was certainly worth it when I got an agent and she sold the book in quick succession with the final, sweated-over draft.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

I first started querying in 2005 with my first novel manuscript, a contemporary fantasy called “Selkie Rock.” A friend of mine had urged me into querying and provided me with her research list, which was several dozen agents, their addresses, and some notes about what they liked or were looking for she’d dug up through interviews, etc.

Things were pretty different even just five years ago. Fewer agents took e-queries, and information was harder to find.

At first I was super-nervous. My boyfriend practically had to shove me and my envelopes out the door. I worried about things like whether the agent would think I was unhinged if my stamp wasn’t straight.

But within a few days, I got a request for a partial, which led to a very nice personal rejection. (The universe must have been smiling on me with that one—I didn’t get another personal rejection for a while, but at least it was a good way to kick things off.)

I actually came to enjoy querying. I’d been writing all my life, but querying made me think in a new, career-minded way. Once I started querying, I also started writing every day, setting goals, finishing projects, and planning ahead—the skills I would need as a professional.

I made some mistakes with the agent search process. I queried very widely. I did have a few rules—obviously they had to be a legit agent that didn’t charge fees, but they also had to have at least one YA sale. Sometimes I couldn’t find much information on an agent, so I assumed if they offered I’d just ask questions and figure it out then. I also sometimes queried agents even if I’d heard hints of a red flag about them. Some of the agents I heard bad things about also made a lot of sales. I figured they must be working for someone.

That’s probably true, but in hindsight, I should have been more cautious. I hate rejecting people and confronting them, and I was–like most unpublished authors–so hungry for the legitimacy of having an agent and the sale. If I had ended up with an offer from an agent that I wasn’t sure about, I’m afraid I probably would have said yes, and dithered around forever in ending the relationship even if it wasn’t working.

Luckily, I never had to find out. I sent out queries steadily for three years, with three different books—not even including three different versions of Magic Under Glass.

Jennifer Laughran of the Andrea Brown Agency was a new agent that had started taking clients while I was revising Magic Under Glass, and I had her in mind immediately as I was working on it. Her taste in books was really compatible with mine, and although she was new, a lot of my friends were with agents at Andrea Brown and I had heard nothing but good.

I thought a new agent at an established agency seemed an ideal combination—I knew Jenn had a lot of enthusiasm. Plus, she’d been a bookseller for a long time, and it was plain that she really, really loved children’s books the same way I really, really love children’s books. (Or more!)

So she was actually my top choice when I sent Magic Under Glass back out. When she offered, I was shocked and thrilled, but it also felt…kind of right. She was my top choice not because she had all the hot deals on Publishers Marketplace that year, but based on sound reasons why she was right for me. I did get two other offers, but my gut said Jenn from the start.

So if I had to do it all over again, I would focus on a smaller group of agents, and not query anyone I had reservations about. I didn’t realize until after I had an agent just how important it is to have one that you can trust with a wide range of questions and problems, not just someone who gets your work on an editor’s desk.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Congratulations to Stephanie Perkins on the release of Anna and the French Kiss (Dutton, 2010)! From the promotional copy:

Anna was looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. So she’s less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris—until she meets Étienne St. Clair. Smart, charming, beautiful, Étienne has it all . . . including a serious girlfriend.

But in the City of Light, wishes have a way of coming true. Will a year of romantic near-misses end with their long-awaited French kiss? Stephanie Perkins keeps the romantic tension crackling and the attraction high in a debut guaranteed to make toes tingle and hearts melt.

In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews says, “Perkins’s debut surpasses the usual chick-lit fare with smart dialogue, fresh characters and plenty of tingly interactions… Sarah Dessen fans will welcome another author who gracefully combines love and realism, as Anna’s story is as much about finding and accepting herself as it is about finding love. Trés charmante.”

Note: I dived into this book in part because I studied law in Paris one summer and have since returned to visit for fun. Stephanie does a tremendous job of capturing the study abroad experience in general and The City of Light in particular. If you ever wondered what it would be like to fall in love in Paris, read Anna and the French Kiss!

Goddess Girls New Release & Giveaway

Congratulations to Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams on the release of Artemis the Brave (Aladdin, 2010), the latest book in the Goddess Girls series! Read a Cynsations guest post by Joan and Suzanne on how the series came together.

Enter to win the celebratory giveaway:

* 8 1/2 inch plush Amby–short for Ambrosia–food of the gods! It’s Artemis’s pet dog. (Yomiko)
* Sally nail polishes
* Bangle bracelets (mudd)
* Goddess Girls bookmark
* Autographed copy of Artemis the Brave

See more information.

More News & Giveaways

Teenage Depression in I Will Save You by Matt de la Pena from Teenreads.com. Peek: “I do a lot of school visits these days, and I’m finding that a shocking amount of today’s junior high and high school kids deal with depression.”

How To Guest Blog
by Lia Keyes from The Scribbler. Peek: “You need to be sure your post fits their style and stance. So read as many posts as possible, as much to be sure it’s something you’d like to be associated with as to figure out how to write a post that will integrate seamlessly with their existing content.”

Cynsational Tip: if you’re a featured in an interview or guest post on someone else’s blog, it’s gracious to link to it with your thanks. Don’t copy and publish it (simultaneously or otherwise) without first touching base with the host blogger. If you’d like to retain the copyright, most folks will say “sure!” But first make sure you have a meeting of the minds.

Twitter Tags of Interest for Children’s Literature (from Picture Book to YA) by Greg Pincus from GottaBook. Peek: “Here is an attempt to create a list of the various tags used on Twitter that relate to the field of children’s literature. This will be a ‘living’ document, changing as Twitter changes and as new tags pop up.”

When Writers Don’t Read by Parker Peevyhouse from The Spectacle. Peek: “Reading a chapter of someone else’s book is like taking a shot of espresso–it keeps me going. It puts me in the right frame of mind, like the author is sitting there with me waiting for me to jump in with my own story.”

Interview with Barry Deutsch, author of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (Yet Another Troll-Fighting, 11-Year-Old, Orthodox Jewish Girl) by Leah Cypress from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek: “I…wanted to counter the stereotype that being religious means being dour and grim. I hope people reading Hereville will get the impression that for the characters, Shabbos is, yes, a religious occasion with real spiritual meaning, but also an occasion that’s full of joy.” See also Seasons in Fantasy.

Promoting Your Books by Michelle Bayuk of Albert Whitman from Tabitha at Writer Musings.. Peek: “…authors are not expected to sell books. You can go into a bookstore and alert the store manager about the book they have coming out, possibly leave a postcard or something similar behind, but you are not the one who convinces the store to buy X number of copies.”

Online Persona Week Ten: Friends and Followers by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Features tips and suggestions from Lisa Schroeder, Sherrie Peterson, and Becky Levine. Peek from Lisa: “The best blogs are inspirational, educational or funny, or a combination of the three.”

New Agent Alert: Joan Slattery of Pippin Properties by Chuck Sambuchino from Guide to Literary Agents. Peek: “Joan Slattery joined Pippin Properties in November of 2010 as an agent and contracts manager. After nearly twenty years in children’s book publishing, most recently as Senior Executive Editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers.”

Congratulations to Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly on Shades of People (Holiday House, 2010)! From the promotional copy: “People come in lots of shades, even in the same family. This exploration of one of the most noticeable physical traits in humans uses vibrant photographs of children and short text to inspire young readers to look beyond the obvious.” Note: I’ve seen several books on this concept but perhaps none so successfully executed. The approach is child friendly, and the photographs are warm, charming, spot on.

Child’s Letter Writing Campaign Brings Local Bookstore: Books-A-Million to open at mall by Mark Millican from The Daily Citizen in Dalton, Georgia. Peek: “Claude Anderson of Books-A-Million was at Westwood Elementary School on Friday morning to announce a store opening in Walnut Square Mall — perhaps even before Christmas — as a direct result of Charlie’s letter-writing campaign that eventually included 500 students from several schools.”

2010 Winter Blog Blast Tour Schedule by Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray. Note: lots of great insights here; I especially enjoyed L.K. Madigan at Writing and Ruminating. Peek: “If I’m really honest with myself, I think I did know when I first wrote the book that I wasn’t finished with Lena’s world. At the same time, if this book ends up as a stand-alone–after all, I can’t force my editor to publish a sequel–I’m proud of the story. It’s whole and complete, in its own ‘bittersweet’ way.”

Ling and Ting Paper Dolls by Grace Lin from Blue Rose Girls. Peek: “I’ve made a special activity to accompany the book. Here are some Ling & Ting Paper Dolls! These paper dolls are ready for you to color and cut and are completely free. It is my small holiday gift to you!” Note: Grace’s Ling & Ting: Not Exactly The Same (Little, Brown, 2010) is a New York Times Best 2010 Notable Children’s Book.

Congratulations to fellow Texas author and dear pal Varsha Bajaj on signing with Jill Cocoran and Ronnie Ann Herman of the Herman Agency, and congratulations to Jill and Ronnie on signing Varsha! Varsha and I met at one of Kathi Appelt‘s private children’s writing classes nearly ten years ago and have been friends ever since. Varsha’s latest release is T is for Taj Mahal, an Indian alphabet book, illustrated by Robert Crawford (Sleeping Bear, 2010).

Scholastic Experts Issue List of Ten Trends in Children’s Books from 2010 from PR Newswire. Peek: “Given the effects of the recession on families, it is nice to see a rise in the humor category….”

Portland author and artist Allen Say’s books for children unfold in luminous dreams by Jeff Baker from The Oregonian. Peek: “‘I’m not disguising anymore. There’s some nudity and violence in this work, for God’s sake.'”

Esther Hershenhorn on Writing, Teaching, and Coaching by Donna Bowman Bratton from Simply Donna. Peek: “Everything a fictional book does, a non-fictional book must do too. Engage the reader and keep him reading. Offer a narrative arc and story tension that keeps the reader caring, worrying, turning the page. Consider the reader’s needs cognitively, emotionally, chronologically. Comply with the format that best serves the story.”

Team Countdown—An Interview with Author Deborah Wiles and Editor David Levithan by Laurie Beth Sneider from From the Mixed Up Files…of Middle Grade Authors. Peek from Deborah: “I want young readers to think critically about the facts they are fed and to think for themselves about their own assumptions, prejudices, and choices. Story is a marvelous, powerful vehicle for connecting with a reader’s questioning–and questing–heart.” Note: “Countdown has received starred reviews from The Horn Book, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus [Reviews], and was recently named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly.” See Scholastic’s discussion guide (PDF), and hear chapter one from Listening Library.

Writer’s Links: Agents compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Children’s-YA Literature Resources. Note: round-up of the best of the Web on acquiring, working with, hiring and firing an agent.

Giveaway Reminder

Enter to win a illustrator-autographed copy of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Daniel Jennewein (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, 2011)! The book will include a customized drawing–the winner can pick the buffalo’s pose!

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type “Buffalo” 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: Dec. 31. Sponsored by the illustrator; world-wide entries.

Thanks again to all y’all who found me and my new picture book, Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010) through DearReader.com or ShelfAwareness.com via Kids Buzz! The winners of a signed copy of the book are: Beth in Tennesssee, Syndra in New York, Mari in Minnesota, Martine in California, and Susan in New York. Your packages will go out on my next trip to the post office.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Tim Ladwig (Eerdmans, 2010). See also reading and discussion guide and bookmarks, posters and postcards. Note: one of Booklist’s Top Ten Religion Books for Youth.

Check out the book trailer for Crossing the Tracks by Barbara Stuber (McElderry, 2010), which has been named a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award.

Check out this book trailer for Across the Universe by Beth Revis (Razorbill, Jan. 11, 2011). It’s incredibly effective. Read the first chapter (PDF).

More Personally

The Horn Book magazine says of Blessed (Candlewick, Jan. 25, 2011), “Even in undeath, Quincie has a zest for life that shines through as she balances supernatural duties with schoolwork and running her family restaurant, the vampire-themed Sanguini’s. Romance blossoms, too, as she and her beloved werewolf, Kieren, prove their devotion to each other under deadly duress. A hearty meal for the thinking vampire reader.”

Austin YA librarian Jen Bigheart sent in this shot of the Blessed ARC, taken at Alamo Drafthouse Lake Creek in Austin. Jen was there seeing “Due Date” (and apparently, reading, too!).

Gift Guide: Books for All Ages by Nancy Churnin from The Dallas Morning News. Note: what a thrill to see Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott, on this list of recommendations. Peek: “Gott’s drawings of 10-gallon hats lend a Texas twang to Austin author Smith’s tale of a boy who lives up to his name, much to the exasperation of his parents. Happily, he finds a good use for that loud voice and learns the value of quiet time.”

The Lackawanna County Children’s Library in Scranton, Pennsylvania is performing a readers theater of Santa Knows by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, 2010) at 2:30 Dec. 12.

Holler Loudly – Cynthia Leitich Smith and Barry Gott: a review by Steven R. McEvoy from Book Reviews and More. Peek: The story is wonderfully written and illustrated. It will be enjoyed in our house again and again and I am sure in yours also, especially as the children try to copy Holler’s loud outbursts.”

This week’s highlights included welcoming Anne Bustard, Bethany Hegedus, and Amy Rose Capetta (pictured) for a writing day in the dining room. Amy brought homemade chocolate muffins, cranberry scones and whipped cream. Anne brought mixed nuts and dried fruits.

We also did a little seasonal decorating. The themes of my tree are music and literature.

Reminder: I welcome (and respond to) comments at Cynsations at LiveJournal. You can also find me at facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Cynsational Events

Jessica Lee Anderson will speak on seven things she’s learned through her publishing journey…using songs at the Austin SCBWI monthly meeting at 11 a.m. Jan. 15 at BookPeople in Austin. Read an interview with Jessica and P.J. Hoover.

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. Read a guest post by Mari on Kids Don’t Read Like They Used To…And That’s a Good Thing (on connecting books to technology).

New Voice: Elizabeth Fixmer on Saint Training

Elizabeth Fixmer is the first-time author of Saint Training (Zonderkidz, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Mary Clare O’Brian thinks that her bargain with God – to become a saint if He’ll make her family happy – will result in a miracle.

But with a war in Vietnam, race riots in the city, the Catholic Church turning cartwheels, and too much responsibility at home, miracles seem to be in short supply. Even on a good hair day.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I am both a plotter and a plunger. I may begin with a simple idea – a little girl longs to become a saint – and I have to write down everything that comes to me about the idea right away.

If I try to force myself to outline in the beginning, I’m in danger of becoming bored or writing in a stilted style. But if I let the ideas flow on paper, without a lot of editing or planning, I find that the plot, subplots, themes, characters all begin to take shape nicely.

This style requires a willingness to do a lot of revision. After days, weeks, even months of writing, you may discover that you’ve only been writing background or that the story needs to be told from a different point of view or that a character you thought was minor has suddenly taken front stage.

I fall in love with a character, an idea, a potential book title and then spend months uncovering the bones of the story. It’s only then that I begin to outline. The purpose of the outline, at that point, is to make sure that everything fits together well. I look at the story as a whole and decide where I need to show more emotion, to explain, to cut. It’s this stage of the process that can really make a story sing.

As someone with an MFA in Writing for Children (and Young Adults), how did your education help you advance in your craft? What advice do you have for other MFA students/graduates in making the transition between school and publishing as a business?

Graduate school made all the difference for me! I spent one semester at Vermont College and transferred to Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota following that.

Graduate school is a huge commitment in terms of time and expense. But it is worth everything you put into it.

I gained in writing skills and in critical-thinking skills. I read books I never would have chosen to read and grew from them. But what has had the greatest impact on me is the opportunity to be a part of an amazing writing community.

The low-residency programs at both Vermont and Hamline are set up to create an ideal atmosphere for getting intense one-on-one mentoring throughout the semester as well as five 11-to-13 day residencies where you are eat, breath, and sleep your craft.

The business end of writing was not addressed as much in graduate school as I would have liked. I would have loved more information on preparing for school visits and interviews, as well as on marketing and promotion But I met agents, Kendra Marcus and Minju Chang (Bookstop Literary Agency) through school, and they have helped with every question.

I would highly recommend a graduate school program for anyone interested in writing as a career. Joining SCBWI is a great way to get started. And I think participating in a critique group can be a great way to inform your writing.

Cynsational Notes

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said, “Ingenuity, keen observational skills, and compassion grant this feisty protagonist growing insight into the complex choices faced by those she loves, as well as her own character and calling.”

Read an excerpt of Saint Training (PDF).

New Voice: Blythe Woolston on The Freak Observer

Blythe Woolston is the first-time author of The Freak Observer (Carolrhoda Lab, 2010). From the promotional copy:

For eight years, Loa Lindgren’s world ran like one of those mechanical models of the solar system, with her baby sister, Asta, as the sun. Asta suffered from a genetic disorder that left her a permanent infant, and caring for her was Loa’s life.

Everything spun neatly and regularly as the whole family orbited around Asta. But now Asta’s dead, and 16-year-old Loa’s clockwork galaxy has collapsed.

As Loa spins off on her own, her mind ambushes her with vivid nightmares and sadistic flashbacks—a textbook case of PTSD. But there are no textbook fixes for Loa’s short-circuiting brain. She must find her own way to pry her world from the clutches of death.

The Freak Observer is a startling debut about death, life, astrophysics, and finding beauty in chaos.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage in some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

I’m a plunger. I write in modules that arrive in no particular order–it’s like getting a jigsaw puzzle one bit at a time. The corners and edge pieces may not arrive until the very end.

Honestly, this is how I’ve always written. Since I’m older than dirt, I used to write my college papers on a typewriter. I’d stick a piece of paper in, and whenever I’d have an idea, I’d write about it for a few minutes.

Since I was usually working on several papers at one time a single sheet of paper might have stuff on it about Grendel, Old Testament politics, and pineapple cultivation.

Then I’d take scissors and tape and build a paper out of the scraps. The last thing I would do was write my intro, because until that moment I had no notion what my thesis might be.

The really insane thing about this is that I became a writing teacher. I only suggested my personal method to a couple of students over the years. I always said that an outline could be either descriptive or prescriptive, that an outline should bend to follow the curve of the writer’s ideas, and ideas might–should–change.

As far as plotting advice: Read myth and fairy tales. Actually, remember the myths and fairy tales you know. I’m not suggesting that you should retell them, but the bones of plot are exposed in those stories, easy to see.

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 adolescent? How would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

[Photo depicts Blythe’s workspace.]

I have a huge advantage; I share my home with some very interesting people, my kids and their friends. I enjoy observing and interacting with them, and the single most important thing I’ve learned is this: There is no monolithic “authentic” voice.

“I tried Borscht today. I said it tasted like communism. Good in theory, but the human element is bound to mess it up.”

That’s a recent Facebook status posted by my 17-year-old. He really does talk that way. And if he were a character in a book, he’d still talk that way, because that’s his personality. That’s how he thinks. Sure, he can carry on a complete conversation using only one word (rhymes with “cluck”), but when he does, there are shades of emotion and nuance that couldn’t find an expression elsewhere.

You could transcribe an overheard conversation word for word, and the result could be dull, damp cardboard unless those words belong to a personality, a context, a setting.

I sometimes feel that “voice” is being overly mystified. Trust me, you’ve got it. Everyone has command of many voices.

The voice, the discourse, you use varies with your audience. Listen to yourself. Notice how words morph and meanings develop during conversation. It’s a natural response–all you need to do is open up a new channel and listen.

Cynsational Notes

The Freak Observer has just been named a 2011 finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, given by YALSA. The other finalists are: Hush by Eishes Chayil (Walker, 2010); Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey (Little, Brown, 2010); Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride (Henry Holt, 2010); and Crossing the Tracks by Barbara Stuber (McElderry, 2010).

Guest Post: Lisa Westberg Peters on Volcano Wakes Up!

By Lisa Westberg Peters

On one of my visits to Kilauea Volcano on the island of Hawaii, I drove down to the coast just before sunset. I started to walk across the lumpy, black lava fields toward the spot about two miles away where the volcano’s fresh torrents of lava were spilling into the sea and sending up a huge plume of steam.

Walking across a lava bed is crazy hard. Its rough surface is marked by deep cracks and razor sharp edges, and you tend to keep your eyes on the ground. But when I finally looked up, I saw an enormous orange ball shimmering behind the steam plume.

At first, I thought it was just the glow of lava reflecting off the plume, but it was the full moon providing spectacular backdrop to a volcanic eruption.

That evening the moon seemed like a powerful witness to this astonishing scene in the middle of the ocean. I didn’t doubt that it might have something interesting to say. The moon was the reason I wrote Volcano Wakes Up! illustrated by Steve Jenkins (Henry Holt, 2010), a story for children told in poems.

I need powerful momentum to propel me through the frustration that I know is coming on any given writing project. This manuscript took years to write, and I flailed around with several approaches.

I had kept a journal on the several trips I made to the island. I took geology classes on an extended stay and wandered around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park so much, I could offer wisdom on the park’s attractions to confused tourists.

In a way, my explorations were essential, but they also made it harder. I almost knew too much about Kilauea. I had lost some of that writerly distance.

But time cures a lot. I ultimately decided to tell the story of a day in the life of an imaginary volcano with poems written from the points of view of several “characters” — the volcano, irrepressible ferns, carnivorous crickets, a small black road, and the sun and moon.

In my mind, the characters range from the young and impetuous to the old and wise. They interpret and reveal the volcano in different ways.

I love to write persona poems. They seem automatically fun. I especially like Paul B. Janeczko‘s anthology of persona poems, Dirty Laundry Pile, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (HarperCollins, 2001). Who can resist wanting to know what a washing machine and a vacuum cleaner have to say?

In Volcano Wakes Up!, two lava crickets chat about the prospects for dinner, a young volcano boasts about getting the most attention by throwing the nastiest tantrums, and a nervous road frets about that darned volcano’s red hot paving operation.

I’m a big fan of encouraging children (and their parents!) to see things from different points of view.

But lots of writers want that. I have to aim for something a little higher. I have to try to write a story that no one else can write, and that leads me back to the moon.

I hope the poems in Volcano Wakes Up! convey, at least a little bit, the connection I felt between an erupting volcano and its fascinating surroundings that night on Kilauea.

Illustrator Interview: Daniel Jennewein on Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten?

Daniel Jennewein is the debut illustrator of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? written by Audrey Vernick (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Your buffalo is growing up. He plays with friends. He shares his toys. He’s smart! But is he ready for kindergarten? (And is kindergarten ready for him?)

Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? is a hilarious look at first-day-of-school jitters.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters?

When I was approached by Martha Rago, the Creative Director at Harper Collins, the book in question was about a buffalo who wants to learn how to play drums (which is now the second book, Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums, planned for Spring 2011).

Martha had seen my work at the SCBWI Bologna Symposium & Showcase in 2008 and thought my style would complement the very zany story. I knew that the Buffalo would have to look a lot friendlier than actual buffaloes, and I wanted to give him very exaggerated expressions.

Originally, I imagined him as an Asian buffalo, but the publisher preferred to have him be an American Bison.

When I began the character design, I studied the anatomy of a real buffalo by visiting a wildlife park nearby and doing a ton of sketches of wisents, the smaller European cousin of the American bison. Then, I read the manuscript carefully to gain inspiration for his oversized personality.

The secondary characters include the girl who “owns” the Buffalo as well as her classmates and teacher. I modeled some of them on close friends and family of mine. The Asian girl and red-haired “naughty” boy are based loosely on the looks and personalities of best friends of mine, the boy with glasses resembles my father, and the pig-tailed owner of the buffalo is based on my host sister when I was an exchange student in the U.S. This little girl is a fun and confident character, just like I remember my host sister being.

It was important both to me and the publisher to show the growing diversity of kindergarten classrooms in the U.S. That’s why the children are all different races. It’s part of showing that everyone can feel comfortable in kindergarten, even an enormous Buffalo – who is the only one in the group with horns, a mane and a hump!

As a picture book illustrator, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

Ever since I learned how to pick up a pencil, I’ve been drawing–whatever my imagination comes up with. Illustration is something that cannot be forced. It’s unpredictable. Sometimes, even trying very hard doesn’t lead to good drawings. It just has to happen, which makes it the process rather mysterious and difficult to explain.

Of course, getting a good artistic foundation can really enrich your personal drawing style. That’s why I value my art school background and also try to draw realistic animals, people, houses or landscapes from life as much as I can.

I also draw from my years of experience as a graphic designer for discipline and integrating the feedback of others into my work.

I buy a ton of picture books and study the work of artists I really admire, such as Tomi Ungerer, William Steig, and Disney and Pixar animators.

Impressions from my childhood, traveling, and people-watching are a big source of inspiration.

SCBWI has been essential to my development as a picture book illustrator, and I’ve been so grateful to be mentored by fellow illustrators there such as Bridget Strevens-Marzo (interview).


My natural strength is to make people laugh through my drawings. The Buffalo is enormously large and exuberant. He sometimes has a slightly wild expression, but I tried to convey that he is well-intentioned and a good pal. Kids not only find him an endearingly funny character, they also seem to be convinced that he belongs at kindergarten by the end of the book.

One challenge for me is not to get discouraged. There are so many amazing artists around, which can be very intimidating, especially for a new illustrator like me. I feel very lucky for the wonderful opportunities I’ve had so far, and I look forward to growing as an illustrator and meeting new challenges in the years to come.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Banished by Sophie Littlefield (Delacorte, 2010) is now available. From the promotional copy:

Sixteen-year-old Hailey Tarbell can’t wait for the day she’ll leave Gypsum, Missouri, far behind, taking only four-year-old Chub, the developmentally-delayed little boy her cruel drug-dealing grandmother fosters for the state money.

But when a freak accident in gym class leaves a girl in critical condition, Hailey feels drawn to lay her hands on the injured girl and an astonishing healing takes place.

Before Hailey can understand her new powers, a beautiful stranger shows up…just in time to save her and Chub from hired killers. A desperate race begins, with Hailey as the ultimate prize: there are those who will stop at nothing to harness her gifts to create an undefeatable army of the undead.

Now it is up to Hailey and a small but determined family of healers to stand up to the unbelievable and face the unthinkable.

Scroll to read an excerpt.

Book Club’s 31 Days of Giveaways

It’s a bounty of book-and-bling giving from Book Club! Each day this month, visit Book Club’s facebook page and Twitter tweet deck for a clue as to which author’s blog/facebook/Twitter account to check for the question of the day.

Then surf over to answer in the comments section of the corresponding daily prize post at Crissi’s Blog, which will include an image of the prize.

Notes: (a) due to the number of authors who contributed, some days feature more than one author, (b) winners fwill be randomly selected from the correct answers and awarded within 24 hours of the respective day, (c) Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Grand Prize Giveaway will be Dec. 17!

More News & Giveaways

Dana Reinhardt‘s The Things a Brother Knows (Wendy Lamb, 2010) has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, and School Library Journal. It also has been named one of Kirkus Reviews 2010 Best Book for Teens. From Dana’s site: “Unfortunately, the first print run of the book is missing three pages: 41, 168, and 222. New copies are being printed now. If you have already ordered yours, or if you have a copy with the missing pages, you may read the missing pages by clicking here.” Read a Cynsations interview with Dana.

Agent Spotlight: Ann Behar by Casey McCormick from Literary Rambles. Ann is looking for picture books through YA. Note: if you’re in the market, you may want to peruse all of the Casey’s spotlight posts (conveniently linked in sidebar of her blog).

Four Ways to Deal with Fictional Parents by Anna Staniszewski. Peek: “I have two new projects in which there’s at least one parent in the picture — wow do I spend a lot of time figuring out how my characters can do certain things without their parents finding out.”

What Do Editors Do at Conferences? by Alvina Ling from Blue Rose Girls. Peek: “My main duty while at conferences is author care. I’ll usher authors from place to place so that they don’t have to worry about anything logistically-speaking, and generally make sure they’re happy.”

Congratulations to fellow Texas author Dotti Enderle on the release of Crosswire (Calkins Creek, 2010)! From the promotional copy: “A teenage boy experiences the danger and struggle of the taming of the Texas plains when his family’s ranch is threatened by violent gangs who cut fences, kill livestock, and threaten ranchers in a war to keep the plains open. In a time and place where the law doesn’t really exist, it is a man, his gun, and the courage to use it that stands between life and death, but is Jesse really ready to stand up and be that man?” Kirkus Reviews says,”Enderle writes with restraint, her research neatly woven into the story, her characters carefully drawn. A small gem of a story.” Read a Cynsations interview with Dotti.

Crafting Powerful Sentences by Tabitha from Writer Musings. Peek: “An added preposition is just padding, and your prose won’t be as sharp or clean. Avoid adding a preposition when it’s not needed, such as ‘at about,’ or ‘order up.'” Note: good advice, but keep in mind voice.

Marketing Intern Wanted by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: “The internship is part-time, with a weekly commitment of about five hours. It is also unpaid, but I will sign for university credit, if applicable. The ideal candidate for this internship is a current student or recent graduate who is a Communications or English major and wants to go into marketing, PR or publishing. Recent graduates of publishing programs, MA programs or MFA programs could also be a great fit, as long as they enjoy the practical and business aspects of the industry.” Read a Cynsations interview with Mary.

Cynsational Marketing Tip: emphasize what is special and exciting about your book in promotional materials. Avoid minimizing competing titles or latching onto like-reads for comparative purposes (it blurs the focus and may inadvertently serve to alienate your targets).

Congratulations to Mary Amato on the release of Edgar Allan’s Official Crime Investigation Notebook (Holiday House, 2010)! “In this humorous and touching mystery, fifth grader Edgar Allan tries to catch a thief who leaves poetry instead of fingerprints at the crime scenes.” See discussion questions, vocabulary list, and poetry writing activities.

10 Checkpoints for a Scene by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Read a Cynsations guest post by Darcy on Creating Book Trailers.

Historical Fiction Is A-Changing AKA How An Author Researches by Kimberley Griffiths Little from Librarian By Day. Peek: “I only stop obsessively researching when I get to the point that the material has become repetitive. I get to the point where I start thinking, I could have written this book! I stop when the details have become ingrained in my own brain and psyche that when I start drafting I almost never have to stop and look something up.” Read a Cynsations interview with Kimberley.

Time To Pray by Maha Addasi, illustrated by Ned Gannon (Boyds Mills, 2010) Picture Book Giveaway from Jama Rattigan at Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup. Peek: “The bond between Yasmin and her grandmother makes for a warm, satisfying story that’s not in the least bit didactic, and it resonates on a universal level.” Deadline: midnight EST Dec. 12. Note: Maha and Ned will be featured on Cynsations in mid December.

Putting Out Feelers Before Leaving Your Agent by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: “If you make the decision to break with your spouse or your representation, you do have to get it over with, and only then can you go out into the uncertain world and hope to get someone else lined up.” Read a Cynsations interview with Mary.

Coffee Break Tuesday with Author Kathryn Erskine: an interview by Debbi Michiko Florence from One Writer’s Journey. Peek: “Fortunately, my new (very smart and wonderful) editor, Tamra Tuller, told me the day before that I’d better come up with some remarks in case I won, so I did. And fortunately, I remembered them when my name was called! Wow!”

Q & A with Anita Silvey on the Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac from Leda Schubert: Writer and Teacher. Peek: “When I go to sleep at night, I know at least I have done something to help one author or illustrator, one book, one editor, and one publishing house.” Read a Cynsations interview with Anita.

For YA Publishers (Or Librarian’s Have It Covered) by Deena Lipomi from Author2Author. Discusses cover qualities that do and don’t resonate with librarians. Peek: “Because as much as places like B&N and Borders can have ‘control’ over the cover decisions and are probably often correct in their assessment about what will or will not sell, publishers should not underestimate the power of librarians to spread book love that teens will spread from there.”

Cheers to the finalists for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults: Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel (Amulet/Abrams, 2010); They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010); Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement by Rick Bowers (National Geographic Society, 2010); The Dark Game: True Spy Stories by Paul Janeczko (Candlewick Press, 2010); and Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw (Charlesbridge, 2010). Read Cynsations guest posts about their respective books by Ann and Susan.

Congratulations to Helene Boudreau on the release of Real Mermaids Don’t Wear Toe Rings (Sourcebooks, 2010). From the promotional copy: “‘Freak of nature takes on a whole new meaning…’ If she hadn’t been so clueless, she might have seen it coming. But really, who expects to get into a relaxing bathtub after a stressful day of shopping for tankinis and come out with scales and a tail? Most. Embarrassing. Moment. Ever. Jade soon discovers she inherited her mermaid tendencies from her mom. But if Mom was a mermaid, how did she drown? Jade is determined to find out. So how does a plus-size, aqua-phobic mer-girl go about doing that exactly? And how will Jade ever be able to explain her secret to her best friend, Cori, and to her crush, Luke? This summer is about to get a lot more interesting…” Read an interview with Helene from E. Kristin Anderson at The Hate-Mongering Tart.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a illustrator autographed copy of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? by Audrey Vernick, Illustrated by Daniel Jennewein (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, 2011)!

The book will include a customized drawing–the winner can pick the buffalo’s pose!

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type “Buffalo” 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: Dec. 31. Sponsored by the illustrator; world-wide entries.

In other news, the winner of Love Drugged by James Klise (Flux, 2010)(author interview), is Vivien in Kansas! Congratulations, Vivien! Thanks again to Jim for hosting the giveaway!

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes (Annick Press, 2010). Source: Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature.

Check out the book trailer for Nightshade City by Hilary Wagner (Holiday House, 2010). Download and print Nightshade City bookmarks for your library or bookstore.

Because of Mr. Terupt (Delacorte, 2010), a video conversation with bestselling author John Irving and debut author Rob Buyea. See also teachers guide.

More Personally

On Nailing the Kid-Friendly: Author Cynthia Leitich Smith — With Lots of Art from Barry Gott from Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Note: includes interior illustrations and even sketches (!) from Barry. Peek: “I was stymied. But that summer I attended a ‘special day’ on the picture book at VCFA. Editor Melanie Kroupa spoke about various manuscripts that she’d acquired of late and focused for a while on the tall-tale tradition. I can’t tell you what it was exactly that Melanie said, but I was already scribbling my revision before she finished talking.”

BCCB says of Holler Loudly, “This original tall tale is a readaloud dream, full of big, brazen shouts and playful homey dialect. There’s hilarity in the chaos Holler’s volume causes, and the ending, wherein Holler learns the value of quiet and the townsfolk learn the value of loudness, is satisfyingly even-handed and logical.”

An Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Stacey O’Neale from The Young Adult Fantasy Guide. Peek: “…I’d definitely have a hug waiting for Quinice, Kieren, and Zachary. Miranda. I’m not so sure. It would depend on when I met her. I’d rather not become dinner to the vampire princess.”

The first reader-created trailer for Blessed (Candlewick, Jan. 25, 2011) is up. Tom Cruise as Bradley Sanguini? Why not? Thank you, novelinspection!

Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith: a review from Steven R. McEvoy from Book Reviews and More. Peek: “She has created a world and stories that are compelling and real, and yet she manages to humbly nod her hat to the original [AKA Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897), which largely inspired the series].” Note: some spoilers.

Thanks to Annette Simon for this shelf shot of paperback copies of Eternal (Candlewick, 2010) and Tantalize (Candlewick, 2008)! The photo is from Books Plus, an independent bookstore in Fernandina Beach, Florida.

Thanks to Tammi Sauer for this shelf shot of her Mostly Monsterly, illustrated by Scott Magoon (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2010) and my Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010) at Best of Books in Edmond, Oklahoma! Read a guest post by Tammi on Word Choice in Picture Books.


Thanks to Lisa Firke at Hit Those Keys for my gorgeous new YA cover art gallery! Read a Cynsations interview with Lisa. See also “Just the Pretty Bits,” Lisa’s very reasonably priced option for folks just looking for a design punch-up on their site/blog. Peek: “You can commission a splendid treatment of your name or business as a digital graphic, perhaps with other masthead decoration, along with a personalized color palette and detailed suggestions for how to incorporate these elements into your existing blog or web site.”

Even More Personally

What a treat to learn about Austin SCBWI RA Debbie Gonzales‘s holiday tradition in The Austin American-Statesman–Mother and Daughter to Celebrate 25 Years of Nutcracking by John Kelso. Read a Cynsations interview with Debbie. Don’t miss Debbie’s Simple Saturday: “dedicated to…weekend crafts, activities, games and zany family fun!”

My link of the week is Libba Bray on World AIDS Day. Read a Cynsations interview with Libba.

Finally, congratulations to my fellow Austin authors on our bounty of 2010 children’s-YA book releases! Note: list, including covers, compiled by Greg Leitich Smith from GregLSBlog.

Cynsational Events

Jessica Lee Anderson will speak on seven things she’s learned through her publishing journey…using songs at the Austin SCBWI monthly meeting at 11 a.m. Jan. 15 at BookPeople in Austin. Read an interview with Jessica and P.J. Hoover.

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. Read a guest post by Mari on Kids Don’t Read Like They Used To…And That’s a Good Thing (on connecting books to technology).

New Voice: Christine Johnson on Claire de Lune

Christine Johnson is the first-time author of Claire de Lune (Simon Pulse, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Claire is having the perfect sixteenth birthday. Her pool party is a big success, and her crush keeps chatting and flirting with her as if she’s the only girl there. But that night, she discovers something that takes away all sense of normalcy: She’s a werewolf.

As Claire is initiated into the pack of female werewolves, she finds her lupine loyalty at odds with her human heart. Burdened with a dark secret and pushing the boundaries of forbidden love, she will be forced to make a choice that will change her life forever….

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

As a young reader, I was voracious. The first book I remember reading all by myself, up in the little book loft in my kindergarten classroom was Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1970.) There might have been others I read before that, but that’s the first memory I have of picking up a mysterious rectangle-shaped thing, opening the cover, and being transported.

I was hooked. I read everything and anything I could get my hands on, including books that were well within my reading ability but way too mature for me. I read Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel (Crown 1980,) in secret when I was nine. It was, um, educational.

Every night I went to sleep with the light on, and it had nothing to do with being scared of the dark. I simply read every single night until I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to put the book on the bedside table or turn off the lamp.

I particularly loved books that made my very active imagination race to keep up. Things like Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s books, and stories by Roald Dahl.

I am quite sure that if Harry Potter [by J.K. Rowling (1997) had come a few years earlier, I would have devoured the series and then petitioned my parents heavily for an owl.

The biggest thing that always appealed to me about paranormal novels was the way they make something look real enough to touch and magical enough to be impossible at the same time.

Add in the fact that I think that the teen years are not only a fascinating time but that – growing up – there was so little that was appropriate for me to read in that age range (when I should have been grabbing YA fiction instead of, oh, say, Stephen King), and it was only natural that something like Claire de Lune was the sort of book I would write.

I wanted to add something to the shelves that would capture the strangeness and wonder and magic of being a teen, but on a grander scale – and something like a girl who discovers she’s a werewolf had all of those ingredients and then some!

As a fantasy writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

I didn’t sit down to write Claire de Lune with a list of statements I wanted to make about the world we live in or the books we read.

When I started Claire de Lune, it was really just a story I wanted to tell about a girl who was having a very specific set of problems. As I started to build the world around those problems, I found that I had begun, unwittingly, to make some social and literary commentary.

In Claire’s world, all werewolves are women – it’s a female-only species. That came about because I wanted Claire to date and fall in love with a human guy, and it initially didn’t make sense to me that she would do that. I mean, why go to the trouble when she could date another werewolf? I toyed with the whole idea of “they’re just meant for each other,” but then I thought of a more practical – and to me, interesting – solution.

If there were no male werewolves, Claire would have to date a human if she wanted to date at all. And with that, I suddenly had a very strongly woman-centric – and maybe even feminist – world in the making.

That one decision led to others. It didn’t seem logical to me that an all female species would worship a male god, so I gave them a goddess, which began some religious commentary I hadn’t originally intended for the book to make.

Once I saw those things, though, I liked them. They gave the story strength and structure and purpose – a skeleton to wrap the flesh of my plot around.

Though the idea for the story came well before the thought of any social commentary, once they were both present, they fed off of each other, cutting away bits of the book that didn’t fit and giving bulk to things that made each of them better. It was a very organic process that happened in the course of drafting and revising.

Guest Post: Jane Sutton on Revisiting a Theme

By Jane Sutton

My friend Fay called after reading my latest picture book. I basked in her praise of its humor and charm until she observed: “All your books have the same message: be yourself.”

I thought, Thanks a lot. You called to tell me I’m repeating myself like a please-continue-to-hold message? Are you trying to cause my self-esteem to nosedive, like the Dow when someone hit the wrong computer key?

Then I considered my oeuvre, mainly to see if my so-called friend had a point but partly because I like the word “oeuvre” for its pretentiousness and the fact that it’s French.

In my newest book, Don’t Call Me Sidney, illustrated by Renata Gallio (Dial, 2010), a pig named Sidney writes a birthday poem for his friend and decides his destiny is to become a poet. When he realizes that the only rhyme for his own name is “kidney,” he changes it to the more rhyme-able “Joe.” His friends dislike the change, and his horrified mother reminds him he was named after his great-great-great grandfather, who invented the mop.

At the end of a sleepless night, earnest Sidney comes up with a compromise: he will be known by his rhyme-able, shortened given name—Sid.

Sorry, Fay, misguided friend, this book’s messages are: rhyming is fun, compromise is cool, and it’s important to honor one’s artistic drive and the wishes of loved ones. Then I reread the line, “When Sidney looked in the mirror, the person looking back at him was Sidney.”

Oh. I guess my new book is about being yourself.

But what about my book, What Should a Hippo Wear? illustrated by Lynn Munsinger (Houghton Mifflin, 1979)?

Before the jungle dance, Bertha paints herself with polka dots, rubs red berries on her cheeks, and pastes on grass eyelashes with mud. When her date doesn’t recognize her, Bertha dives in the river, washing off the make-up and dress and…oh…is “happy to be feeling like herself again.”

All right, two points for Fay. But I have seven published books. They can’t all say the same thing!

My middle grade novel Me and the Weirdos (Bantam, 1983), although out of print, still brings me fan mail and shout-outs that boost my ego, unlike a comment from a certain friend of mine whose names starts with F. (I wrote a Weirdos sequel that I’m trying to sell.)

Anyway, in the original book, Cindy Krinkle considers herself the only normal person in her embarrassing family. Her father, for example, rides to work on a bike with a built-in umbrella, while singing opera off-key. Cindy’s dictionary-memorizing sister packs her school lunches in the “Use in Case of Air Sickness” bags Mr. Krinkle brings home from his airplane-cleaning job. Cindy’s attempts to unweird her family all backfire, and she eventually realizes her family is pretty great. She accepts them for who they are, and I suppose, by extension…herself.

I had to admit it: Fay was right. My other titles, ranging from picture books to a YA, with characters from a koala bear to humans, have similar messages.

But maybe it’s not so bad that I continually revisit the theme of being true to yourself. With all the forces conspiring against kids being able to do that—peers, TV shows, movies, even their own parents—I think it’s a really important message.

Then I remembered the heartening end of my good friend Fay’s comment: “…and no one plays that song better than you.”